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Defence to examine plans for space domain

By Malcolm Davis

Space is a contested war-fighting domain. The Australian Defence Force confronts a growing challenge posed by a range of adversary counterspace capabilities that can threaten its future satellite systems.

It is therefore entirely appropriate that the 2020 Force Structure Plan highlighted the importance of assuring access to space “through the development of options to enhance ADF space control through capabilities to counter emerging space threats to Australia’s free use of the space domain”.

Space control first implies understanding activities occurring in the space domain.

Australia hosts US facilities at Exmouth in Western Australia, including a C-band radar that is part of the US global space surveillance network and that monitors space activities and tracks space debris within low-earth orbit.

It also has established an optical space surveillance telescope that achieved “first light” — the first capture of images — last year.

Under project JP9360, Defence is pursuing an expanded space domain awareness capability facilitated via commercial space surveillance systems that are both ground and space based.

Australia’s location in the southern hemisphere makes it ideal for monitoring China’s space activities, including its launch operations.

But space domain awareness is only the first step in ensuring space control. How Australia should respond in the event of an adversary undertaking hostile activities in space is the next step that must be considered.

Defence is engaged in a review of its strategy and operational concept for the space domain that is likely to be finalised by the end of this year. A key issue the review should consider is what is Defence’s understanding of space control and how that translates into future capability development.

A recent report, Defence against the Dark Arts in Space, by US-based think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, highlighted the challenges of defending key space capabilities from attack via anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons.

Defence needs to get to grips with how it can ensure its satellites, such as those to be acquired under phase two of DEF 799 for space based geo-intelligence and JP9102B for satellite communications, will be defended in orbit.

How Australia should respond in the event of an adversary undertaking hostile activities in space is the next step that must be considered

Simply looking on via space domain awareness sensors as an adversary undertakes a “Pearl Harbor in space” isn’t space control. There will need to be more innovative thinking on the architecture of future satellite constel­lations as a starting point.

Defence would be wise to engage with Australia’s commercial space sector — not just the major prime contractors — for solutions to this challenge.

Greater use of highly distributed networks of small satellites will make it more difficult for an adversary to employ ASATs or co-ordinate the use of ground-based “soft kill” counterspace systems such as jamming and dazzling lasers, than if Australia invests in only a small number of large, complex and expensive satellites.

Defence also should fully support the development of sovereign rapid space launch capabilities, such as those being developed by Queensland-based Gilmour Space Technologies, to allow rapid augmentation or reconstitution of space capabilities.

The need for resilient space capability suggested above will only grow in importance, particularly if the ADF begins to take on new missions.

The 2020 Force Structure Plan places great importance on long-range strike capability for the ADF.

There’s now a plan to manufacture missiles locally that would add to the ADF’s strike and deterrence capability, particularly for prolonged, high-intensity interstate war.

Government has alluded to acquisition of a maritime land-attack missile capability with a range of about 1500km, suggesting the Block V Tomahawk cruise missile will be considered. Satellite-enabled datalinks with the missiles in flight would allow positive control of strike capabilities, including reprogramming of targets mid mission.

This would make Australia’s future strike capability much more flexible, and an Australian satellite-based targeting capability could also support key allies’ operational requirements.

Yet that will increase the incentive of an adversary to disable those satellites, potentially through cyber attack or jamming critical datalinks rather than trying to shoot down individual missiles. In this sense, the ADF needs to recognise that space control will demand space resilience. That is likely to require defensive measures to protect vital satellites in orbit.

Space control is a task that will become more vital for the ADF.

Originally published by: The Australian on 22 May 2021