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The Australian defence strategic review and space

By Dr Malcolm Davis, Senior Analyst, Australian Strategic Policy Institute

The Albanese Government’s Defence Strategic Review (DSR), set to be formally released in March 2023, needs to fully consider how the space domain can be more fully exploited by the Australian Defence Force in the coming decade. The space domain is now an operational domain, and likely, will quickly become a warfighting domain prior to, or at the outset of the next major war in our region. Its no longer simply an enabling adjunct to traditional air, sea and land domains, and the DSR is the perfect opportunity to clarify this nation’s direction in space for defence and national security.

Our dependency on space to undertake joint and integrated military operations within the ADF, and to facilitate our participation within integrated deterrence with allies such as the United States is becoming ever clearer. We cannot undertake modern military operations without assured access to space.

Yet our access to space can no longer be taken for granted, given emerging counterspace threats, and the reality that the space domain is increasingly contested by peer adversaries, whilst ever more congested through a growing amount of space debris. Space is also more competitive as the growth of commercial space democratises access, and ever more complex as new types of space capabilities and missions are transforming how we access and use space. In the past, Australia has been content to depend on others to provide critical space support for Australia would generate greater risks in coming years. Thankfully, Australia is moving beyond this traditional posture of passive dependency on foreign provided space capabilities, and is now establishing much greater sovereign capability, including for sovereign space launch. As a rising space power, we are well placed to take full advantage of space capabilities that can be locally developed to allow the ADF to punch well above its weight, and to burden share in orbit. In that sense, the DSR needs to consider where the ADF must go in space.

The establishment of Defence Space Command in March 2022 and the release of the Defence Space Strategy and Spacepower ‘eManual’ at the same time was a first important step in taking a more sophisticated approach to using space for military purposes by explaining conceptual thinking behind the ADF’s approach to space operations and capabilities. The signing of the AUKUS agreement in September 2021, although not addressing the space domain specifically, creates the opportunity for a more ambitious approach to space collaboration with the United States and the United Kingdom. Even going back to the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan, there is clear acceptance that space is now far more central to how the

ADF operates, and greater investment is required for the space domain. The policy steps have been put in place, and DSR needs to build on these.

As a starting point, the DSR’s comments on space, should align with not only the existing Defence Space Strategy, but also ideally, the National Space Policy (formerly ‘Space Strategic Update’) now being written by the Australian Space Agency. As part of this approach, it’s important to fully bring Australia’s commercial space actors, including the huge potential offered by rapidly growing small to medium enterprises in the national space sector, to complement and compete with large overseas primes for major space projects. Large projects such as JP9102 for satellite communications, and DEF-799 Phase 2, for sovereign controlled space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, are ideal for ensuring opportunities are created to enable local commercial space companies to play an increasing role. This may be through development of complementary small satellite capabilities to support large satellites, and to exploit different orbital regimes to build resilience. Put simply, a few large satellites in GEO may be insufficient to meet Australia’s eventual requirements for assured access to space support in a contested space domain.

It’s vital to ensure capability assurance and important to reinforce self-reliance in a crisis. This starts with sovereign launch. Australian satellites must be able to be launched on Australian launch vehicles from Australian launch sites, in a rapid and responsive manner, without relying on overseas launch providers where queues can stretch for years. In the next war, assured access and space resilience demand a greater ability to rapidly augment and reconstitute space capabilities in the face of adversary counterspace systems. So, the solution begins at home – not overseas.

The DSR should therefore be willing to recommend that Australia’s traditional approach to space capability acquisition, epitomised by dependency on a few large satellites, sourced from overseas primes, and launched by foreign launch providers, be complemented by a ‘newSpace’ approach built locally that taps into sovereign commercial capability that can be more rapidly developed and deployed. This should be hard-baked into Australian space policy and whilst this is not an argument for space autarky, its vital to reduce dependency on foreign space capabilities – including for launch – as much as is practicable.

Reinforcing local commercial capability as a key provider for defence space requirements opens all sorts of new possibilities for the future. Firstly, in considering how Defence’s use of space capability should proceed, speed is of the essence. Future space projects cannot be multi-decadal in terms of acquisition timelines. The DSR should recommend a three-to-five-year requirement for new, locally developed space capabilities – from conceptual beginning to sitting on the launch pad at Whaler’s Way, or Nhulunbuy, or Bowen. The recent announcement of a contract for Virgin Orbit to fly missions out of Wellcamp Airport in Toowoomba, QLD, adds to Australia’s ability to rapidly deploy space capabilities on demand. Investment in commercial space, including with a focus on small satellite technologies, combined with locally developed launch capabilities, such as that now being developed by Gilmour Space Technologies, opens the possibility of exploiting rapid innovation cycles rather than continued decade long waits for space capabilities based around large satellites in GEO. This is not to dismiss the importance of major projects such ass JP-9102, which will be the essential backbone of ADF satellite communications. It is, however, to challenge the notion that a ‘few large birds in GEO’ is all Australia needs in space.

The DSR will be a missed opportunity if it ignores, or pays lip service to the space domain, perhaps in the form of a few short sentences in the final report. Space is rapidly emerging as the most crucial operational domain for multi-domain operations and a vital area of collaboration between Australia and its allies.

Experimentation complements and drives rapid innovation and should be aligned to the establishment of an Australian equivalent to the US DARPA, which must sit outside Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) if it is to be effective. Such an Australian DARPA could promote commercial development of new types of space capabilities beyond that considered for the major projects such as JP-9102 and DEF-799 Phase 2, as well as JP-9360. These projects should be seen a starting point, but not an end-state for ADF space capabilities. The DSR could identify new types of space roles for Defence Space Command and the AUSSpOC such as sovereign missile early warning and tracking to complement US provided SBIRS and Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infra-Red (OPIR). Already, companies such as Leidos are developing sensors which could be deployed on JP-9102 satellites, but also open the potential for a dedicated ADF missile early warning constellation based around small satellites that are locally made.

Space is and will be increasingly contested, and whilst official government policy refers to space as an ‘operational domain’, the risks are increasing that it will become a warfighting domain in the next war. Determined efforts at the diplomatic, legal and regulatory levels are being made to establish new norms of responsible behaviour in space, to better manage the risks posed by counterspace threats. In considering future force structure and force posture in the DSR, the space domain must be seen as one of fragile stability. The success of these efforts hinges not only on establishing new rules and declaring unilateral bans on testing of anti-satellite weapons, but also on credible enforcement mechanisms with real teeth, and ensuring a political will to use such measures if an adversary employs counterspace capabilities or behaves in an irresponsible manner. Attribution of such activities is a vital first step, with JP-9360 to build on existing ground-based space domain awareness capabilities such as the hosted US C-Band Radar and electro-optical surveillance telescope at Exmouth, Western Australia. Commercial companies such as HEO Robotics, and Electro-Optical Systems Australia are already playing a key role in space situational awareness, and the DSR could consider how these, and other companies could further contribute to enhancing space domain awareness as a key means for attribution and to deny an actor – be it state or commercial – anonymity that they might seek to undertake grey zone actions in orbit.

The DSR will be a missed opportunity if it ignores, or pays lip service to the space domain, perhaps in the form of a few short sentences in the final report. Space is rapidly emerging as the most crucial operational domain for multi-domain operations and a vital area of collaboration between Australia and its allies. The DSR has an opportunity to build on AUKUS and the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan, to further develop Australian defence space policy, by more directly and deeply integrating Australia’s rapidly growing commercial space sector with the ADF’s more sophisticated approach towards space. It also is the golden opportunity to strengthen Australia’s space force posture and force structure with the view towards deeper burden sharing in orbit. Bringing space in AUKUS, enhancing it in the Quad and strengthening bilateral space collaboration should be obvious steps. The DSR mustn’t forget the space domain – it’s a part of Australia’s strategic geography and indeed our future astrostrategic perspective. Its time to move determinedly to think big in space.