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Keeping watch on space

By Malcolm Davis

The Australian Defence Force is embarking on a new mission in space, where major power competition in orbit is growing, and the risk of military conflict is rising.

This new mission is focused on monitoring the space activities of major power opponents through developing space domain awareness capability, both on the ground and from orbit.

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update, and its accompanying Force Structure Plan, recognises the importance of the space domain as an operational environment in its own right. Both emphasise the requirement for assured access to space, and an ability to ensure space control through developing resilient space capability.

The ADF is heavily dependent on satellites to provide essential intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications as well as positioning, navigation and timing support to air, sea and land forces, and in particular, to ensure those forces can gain and sustain a “knowledge edge” against an opponent.

The update makes clear that a vital task for the ADF is to be aware of activities occuring in orbit. Australia’s unique geographical location allows it to contribute directly to Space Domain Awareness through tracking of space objects and identification of potential threats. This includes responding to the growing threat of space debris to predict and avoid collisions.

The challenge posed by space debris is very real. The European Space Agency estimates that as of February 2020, there are about 34,000 objects greater than 10cm, 900,000 objects ranging from 1cm to 10cm in size, and 128 million objects up to 1cm in size. Even tiny fragments, travelling at orbital velocity can destroy a spacecraft, and the amount of space debris continues to grow.

The prospect of a major collision is real, and one was narrowly averted on October 16 when a defunct Soviet satellite missed a spent Chinese rocket stage by only 25m. Had the two collided, it would have created thousands of bits of space debris that would have stayed in space for years, and potentially threatened other satellites. If unchecked, space debris could generate a “Kessler Syndrome” effect where space near Earth is choked with debris from collisions, and closed off to use indefinitely.

The establishment of a major joint space surveillance defence facility at Exmouth, Western Australia, is leading Australia’s contri-bution within Five Eyes under the Combined Space Operations (CSpO) initiative that was signed in 2014, and which now also includes Germany and France. The Exmouth facility includes a C-Band radar system to track targets in low Earth orbit (LEO), and an optical space surveillance telescope to study objects in detail. Australian-US co-operation at Exmouth is co-ordinated through the RAAF’s No. 1 Radar Surveillance Unit (1RSU) at RAAF Edinburgh.

However, this challenging task is now accentuated as a result of the growing threat posed by adversary major powers that are developing a range of counter-space capabilities designed to threaten and attack our essential satellite networks in ­wartime. Anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons are not new, with the ­Soviet Union and the US developing crude capabilities during the Cold War.

However, China’s test of an ASAT in January 2007, was the beginning of a new phase of development of these highly destabilising weapons. Both China and Russia are developing a full suite of counterspace technologies, including direct-ascent ASATs to destroy US and allied satellites in LEO and potentially further out to geosynchronous orbit (GEO) at 36,000km, where most communications satellites are located. There is also a growing challenge from co-orbital ASATs designed for “soft kill” — to disable or damage, rather than destroy satellites through close in attacks — and from ground-based technologies such as jamming, spoofing (deception), as well as blinding satellites with lasers and undertaking cyber-attack on satellites and ground stations. Of great concern is that the development of co-orbital ASATs means China and Russia can exploit a “grey zone” in orbit, masking such a weapon as a non-military platform. That raises the prospect that an adversary could manoeuvre co-orbital ASATs deceptively to allow the prospect of a sudden, decisive attack – a “Pearl Harbour in space”.

For Australian efforts in space domain awareness, the task therefore must be to ensure we cannot only track increasing amounts of space debris, but also provide the ADF and our allies a higher degree of early warning of threats that could emerge suddenly. We need to deny the adversary the advantage of surprise and anonymity if they choose to initiate hostile acts against US and allied satellites, even in the “grey zone” through use of alleged non-military systems.

The Exmouth space surveillance facility is the starting point. Defence Project JP9360 is seeking to acquire sovereign space domain awareness capabilities including space surveillance sensors and associated mission systems that further enhance ADF space control capability. Australia’s commercial space sector is well placed to contribute to this effort.

Companies such as EOS Australia are providing world technology-leading solutions for ground-based space surveillance, using laser-optical systems to track and characterise objects from LEO to GEO. Inovor Technologies in South Australia are developing Project Hyperion, which is a constellation of small satellites to undertake space surveillance in medium Earth orbit (MEO) and GEO. Western Sydney University’s International Centre for Neuromorphic Systems has developed a mobile space surveillance system that employs unique technologies to track satellites even in daylight.

A high degree of space surveillance capability is essential if we are to achieve the task set in the 2020 Force Structure Plan of the ADF contributing to “space control”. The plan makes clear that we need to counter the adversary counterspace threats and assure continued access to space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. We can’t do that if we are blind to activities in Earth’s orbit. Investing further in ground and space-based space domain awareness should be a priority for the ADF, in partnership with our allies and Australia’s vibrant and growing commercial space sector.

Originally published by: The Australian on 31 Oct 2020