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Japan's first space force commander on his squadron's role, and Gundam: Interview

Lt. Col. Toshihide Ajiki, right, the first commander of the Space Operations Squadron, is seen accepting the flag of his new post from Defense Minister Taro Kono, in this pool photo taken in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on May 18, 2020.

TOKYO -- The Japan Self-Defense Forces' (SDF) first specialized space force, the Space Operations Squadron, was established by the Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) on May 18. Its primary duties involve monitoring space debris and other countries' satellites to ensure they don't collide with Japanese satellites.

    The squadron's first commander, 41-year-old Lt. Col. Toshihide Ajiki, was fascinated by the popular space anime "Gundam" series when he was a young boy. Speaking through a mix of telephone calls and written exchanges, he granted the Mainichi Shimbun his first interview since taking up his post.

    Mainichi: It's been two months now since the squadron was established. What do the 20 or so members do day-to-day at your center of operations at Fuchu Air Base (located in the Tokyo suburban city of Fuchu)?

    Toshihide Ajiki: As part of our training for space surveillance work, we use simulations recreating conditions for space surveillance and take part in multinational tabletop exercises hosted by the U.S. to improve our abilities. We're also adjusting our working practices with our partners, including the U.S. and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

    M: What sort of work have you, the commander, been involved in up until now?

    TA: I majored in telecommunications engineering at the National Defense Academy, and in 2001 I joined the ASDF. There I was put in charge of aircraft maintenance, and after that I went on to study electromagnetic wave engineering at the academy's graduate school. From there I was made a technical commander and was involved in duties including testing and evaluating electronic equipment used in aircraft.

    Lt. Col. Toshihide Ajiki is seen in this image provided by the Air Self-Defense Forces.

    M: Could you tell us what it was that caused you to get involved in space-related work?

    TA: I was involved in the evaluation of what kind of abilities the SDF should have to monitor situations in space and was given the opportunity to attend a tabletop exercise on space hosted by the U.S. military when I was in the Air Staff Office and Joint Staff Office. From that experience, I became more aware of the possibilities of space-related work. When I was appointed commander of the Space Operations Squadron, I felt motivated to work hard.

    When I was a child, like other kids, I would watch science fiction anime and movies, like "Mobile Suit Gundam" and "Star Wars," so I had a vague fascination with astronauts and space technology development. My favorite mobile suit in Gundam was the Hyaku Shiki.

    M: What kind of previous experience do members of the squadron have?

    TA: It's varied, but we have many personnel with experience in looking at radar and ascertaining which aircraft needs to be scrambled, and who have experience instructing aircraft that are deployed to those kinds of situations. Many of our personnel have with the formation of the new squadron been given the title of space specialists.

    M: What are space specialists?

    TA: Each member of the SDF has their own field of expertise. Pilots have expertise in operating aircraft, while troops who handle interceptor missile systems have skills in antiaircraft artillery operations. We also have weather and language specialists, among others. Up until now, I've specialized in aircraft maintenance and in technology, but now with the establishment of the new squadron my expertise is space.

    M: How does someone become a member of the Space Operations Squadron?

    TA: First you should join the ASDF. You will receive specialized education after you join the squadron, so there's no need to study some kind of specified knowledge set ahead of time. We want to welcome members of the force with the passion and hunger to excel in new positions. What we need are people who are flexible and have novel ideas.

    We work with other countries' militaries, specialized institutions and private companies, so it would be best to study English. I wasn't too good at it so I struggled.

    M: If someone were to join the Space Operations Squadron, might they get to go to space?

    TA: We have no plans to send personnel into space as of now, but the SDF has produced astronauts Kimiya Yui and Norishige Kanai. In the future, there may be a chance for people who join the Space Operations Squadron to go to space as astronauts. If the opportunity arose, I would also like to see space with my own eyes.

    M: If the SDF's space activities continue to expand, could we see the deployment of robots like the ones that appear in Gundam or Star Wars in the future?

    TA: At the present time, the Space Operations Squadron has no plans to retain equipment such as robots. But, robot arms on the Japanese science module Kibo onboard the International Space Station and other devices manipulate items in space. Development of robots that can work both in and outside of the station in place of humans is also proceeding. It may not be via SDF operations, but the day when robots are deployed in space may come.

    (Interview by Yusuke Tanabe, Political News Department)

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