By Tim Kelly and Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan is finalizing a budget for a new command centre for cutting-edge research modeled after the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to try to tap a broad swathe of civilian technologies with potential military uses.
The planned research program is another symbol of hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push to bolster Japan's military as he seeks to make it less bound by the limits of the pacifist post-war constitution.
Besides raising defense spending modestly after years of declines, Abe is seeking to ease Japan's self-imposed ban on weapons exports and revise an interpretation of the constitution that prohibits the country from militarily aiding an ally under attack.
Funding is not yet decided, but it will likely pale in comparison to the annual $2.8 billion for DARPA, an agency best known for helping create the Internet. DARPA aims to "prevent strategic surprise" by American's enemies and "create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries."
Japan's Cabinet Office, which will oversee the program, is negotiating with the Finance Ministry on the scale of the funding, government officials familiar with the process told Reuters. It will be included in a draft budget for the fiscal year from April, which will be approved by Abe's cabinet in late December.
"We have DARPA of the United States in mind, but it does not mean we are creating another DARPA," said Science and Technology Minister Ichita Yamamoto.
The project will include security but it is not solely to be meant to create military technology, Yamamoto told a news conference last week.
Unlike DARPA, which is within the Pentagon, the Japanese program - already dubbed "JARPA" by some - is to be overseen by the Cabinet Office.
"The starting point is not to develop military applications, but civilian projects that may have eventually have military uses," said Satoshi Tsuzukibashi of the defense-production committee at business lobby Keidanren.
"It's not pure military," he said. But "the concept is high risk, high impact, like DARPA."
Research into weapons systems has for the past six decades been the responsibility of the Defense Ministry's Technical Research and Development Institute (TRDI), whose latest big project is to build a prototype stealth jet fighter than may fly as soon as next year. TRDI's budget for this fiscal year climbed 55 percent to 166 billion yen ($1.67 billion).
DARPA funds a wider range of research, including space technology. It developed an early version of the Internet known as ARPANET and has also worked on controversial projects such as Total Information Awareness, a surveillance technology capable of gathering huge amounts of data on citizens.
Defense experts said Japan's planned program could help tap technologies developed by companies such as consumer electronics firm Sharp Corp or ceramic component maker Kyocera Corp which, unlike traditional defense contractors such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd, have tended to shy away from military research.
Japanese universities have also mostly shunned research for military technology.
"This might be a strategy to demilitarize TRDI and gain access to 'pacifist' corporations that don't want to be 'merchants of death'," said an expert in U.S.-Japan security ties.
The program could also give Japan a bigger bang for its research buck, a welcome outcome given the country's huge public debt.
"The problem in this country is that the distinction between military and non-military is so strict that these (research) activities have not been coordinated," said Narushige Michishita, a security expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
"But now they will be working together and economies of scale and efficiency hopefully will be boosted. It will never be DARPA, but we will do a better job with given resources."
(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg, Tetsushi Kajimoto and Yoshifumi Takemoto; Writing by Linda Sieg, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)