07 Oct 2020
New urgency to get to space fast
Australia’s space sector is working towards a sovereign launch capability — the ability to launch locally developed satellites on Australian rockets from our own launch sites. That would mark a big step forward for Australia’s rapidly evolving commercial space sector and open up new possibilities for Defence as it begins to consider its next steps in the use of space capability.
That process has been given new urgency by China’s test flight of a spaceplane.
Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update elevated the profile of space as an operational domain, in comparison to the few paragraphs in the 2016 white paper that essentially reiterated past guidance. The update, and the accompanying Force Structure Plan, set out key steps forward.
First, rather than merely being seen as an accompanying adjunct to air, sea and land domains, space was clearly identified as a domain in its own right. Second, there was a strong emphasis on acquiring “sovereign-controlled” space capabilities for communications and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability. Third, the issue of “space control” was given much greater prominence, given that space is a contested domain. The update noted that Defence would need to “counter emerging space threats to Australia’s free use of the space domain”.
The ability of an adversary to rapidly project force into space would increase the risks of contested space for Australia. Rapid and responsive force deployment into orbit makes the use of counterspace capabilities, including co-orbital anti-satellite weapons to deny the US and its allies, including Australia, assured space support at the outset of a conflict, much easier.
China’s recent test flight of a spaceplane brings a new dimension to this challenge.
Launched from Jiuquan on September 4, on a Long March 2F rocket, China’s spaceplane spent two days in orbit. Before re-entry and landing on September 6, it released a small payload into orbit. The spaceplane appears to be remarkably similar in design and concept to the US X-37B vehicle, which is also launched via a rocket, and has been flying since 2010. The US vehicle is in orbit on its sixth mission.
China is following the US lead, and its successful spaceplane test demonstrates a new Chinese military space capability.
The key issue in terms of the counterspace risk is how China will use its spaceplane, and how it might evolve the craft in the future.
Comments out of China’s space sector, along with observations by some China space watchers in the West, point to the possibility that last month’s test could have been a precursor for a two-stage to orbit system. The spaceplane would be the second stage of that system — the first being a winged, reusable booster that could be crewed and that would transport the spaceplane to a high altitude where it would fly into space.
Analysis on Chinese space activities suggests that the Tengyun Project may in fact be the second stage of development for China’s spaceplane efforts, which could emerge in the middle of this decade.
Such a system would be more effective in terms of a rapid and responsive space launch than a rocket-based system such as that used for the X-37B, and there would be no reason China couldn’t develop several of such vehicles.
For those thinking about a contested space domain and the risk of war in space, speed of response and an ability to rapidly project power and presence into orbit is important. Rather than waiting days or weeks for a rocket launch, the ability to respond within hours using a two-stage to orbit system is a game changer.
For Australia’s policy debate on space and defence, the possibility of a Chinese two-stage to orbit spaceplane capability would transform the broader debate over how to manage the prospect of space as a warfighting domain.
It is likely to force the US down a similar path to match the Chinese capability and would place added pressure on US allies, such as Australia, to think in terms of having the ability to launch satellites more rapidly. Doing this would reinforce our ability to support space resilience and deterrence in space through denial, rather than see our use of space capabilities denied from the outset of a conflict.
That raises several questions for the Australian commercial space sector.
How can the sector rapidly manufacture satellites through digital design and development and “fourth industrial revolution” technologies to enable a small satellite mass production capability?
How can our nascent space launch sector get payloads into orbit faster using new technologies, including reusable launch?
What implications does that have for emerging space launch sites such as the Australian sites at Whalers Way, Nhulunbuy and potentially Bowen?
For government, how can Defence and the Australian Space Agency better prepare for a future where the speed of getting into space is crucial to ensuring space control?