Defense IT

U.S.-Japan pact bolsters ties in cyber, space and ISR

While the United States and Japan have enjoyed a strong post-World War II relationship, the two nations deepened their ties this week, signing on to both a military agreement and a similar diplomatic agreement that, among other economic and defensive parameters, call for greater cooperation in space, cyber and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

The comes as the United States and its allies are looking for ways to deal with China’s military modernization and its aggressive recent behavior in the South and East China seas.


It seems fitting to enter into a new cybersecurity partnership following the Defense Department’s recently released cyber security strategy, which includes better collaboration with allies among its goals. The guidelines for U.S.-Japan defense cooperation call for “timely and routine” information sharing on matters of cyber threats and vulnerabilities, as appropriate. The agreement extends to the private sector as well, since information sharing is seen as one of the key aspects of ensuring greater situational awareness in cyberspace to respond to threats.

Two bills are currently in front of the U.S. Congress that call for greater information sharing between the private and public sectors, something Adm. Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, has said he wants most from Congress.

The White House fact sheet outlining the diplomatic elements of cooperation went into more specifics, naming “state-sponsored cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets, or other confidential business information intended to provide competitive advantages to a state’s companies or commercial sector” as areas the two nations would cooperate and share information pertaining to cybersecurity.

Both DOD and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces agreed upon five key points in terms of a cooperative cyber operations:

  • Maintain a posture to monitor their respective networks and systems.
  • Share expertise and conduct educational exchanges in cybersecurity.
  • Ensure resiliency of their respective networks and systems to achieve mission assurance.
  • Contribute to whole-of-government efforts to improve cybersecurity.
  • Conduct bilateral exercises to ensure effective cooperation for cybersecurity in all situations from peacetime to contingencies.

The White House fact sheet also makes an interesting distinction, walking a fine line between advocating for a defensive cyber posture and ambiguously denouncing offensive cyber actions; “[T]he United States and Japan share the view that states should not conduct or knowingly support online activity that intentionally damages critical infrastructure or otherwise impairs the use of critical infrastructure to provide services to the public. The United States and Japan commit to continued discussions to identify specific peacetime cyber norms, noting that wide affirmation among states would contribute to international stability in cyberspace.”


Both nations agreed to cooperate in space situational awareness and to “establish and improve capabilities and share information about actions and events that might affect the safety and stability of the space domain and impede its use.” The two nations also will share information pertaining to emerging threats in space. The efforts they’ve agreed to are:

  • Early-warning ISR.
  • Positioning, navigation and timing.
  • Space situational awareness.
  • Meteorological observation.
  • Command, control and communications.
  • Ensuring the resiliency of relevant space systems that are critical for mission assurance.

Additionally, “[i]n cases where their space system are threated, the United States Armed Forces and the Self-Defense Forces will cooperate, as appropriate, in mitigating risk and preventing damage.”


Intelligence sharing in traditional battle spaces was also discussed and outlined in the framework. Both nations stated they will conduct ISR missions using their available assets in “a mutually supportive manner to ensure persistent coverage of developments that could affect Japan’s peace and security.” 

Given Japan’s geographic posture, maritime security is essential to its national defense, so intelligence and ISR asset sharing in the maritime domain will be bolstered, according to the agreement. 

The White House said the partnership would “[f]oster respect for international law, including the freedom of navigation and overflight, as well as peaceful settlement of maritime disputes” and “[c]oordinate capacity building assistance for maritime safety and security in the Asia-Pacific region.”    

Given the strong relations that already existed between the United States and Japan, the new cooperation arrangements were viewed as within the scope of the Obama administration’s recent “pivot to Asia” or more aptly termed “Asia rebalance.”

U.S. officials have tried to downplay the recent spates of Chinese aggression against the United States and Japan in the cyber, space, and maritime domains. But the administration has taken a hard line against malicious cyber actors recently and last year went so far as to indict five Chinese military officials for hacking U.S. companies.

The space domain has also heated up recently. Chinese rockets that have been test-fired into space and are suspected of being anti-satellite weaponry are a big concern for defense officials who rely on satellites as a critical piece of infrastructure for geo-location and intelligence. “It's a competition that I wish wasn't occurring, but it is. And if we're threatened in space, we have the right of self-defense, and we'll make sure we can execute that right,” Gen. John Hyten, Commander of Air Force Space Command, told 60 Minutes recently.  “I think they'll [the Chinese] be able to threaten every orbital regime that we operate in,” Hyten said. “Now we have to figure out how to defend those satellites, and we're going to.”

Space situational awareness also is important to protecting satellites from debris caused either by test launches, other satellites or orbiting space junk. “[T]here's a debris problem up there,” Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command said at a Pentagon press briefing discussing the situation in space.  “But just seeing the nature of these types of activities show how committed they [the Chinese] are to a counter-space campaign. So we have to be ready for any campaign that extends its way into space.”   

In the maritime domain, China has demonstrated an aggressive posture in the South China Sea toward Japan. Greater ISR resources and assets, while posed in general terms in the recently announced cooperation, are sure to assist regional partners and Japan in the event of escalation.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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