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Space as a Military Centre of Gravity

Credit: US Navy

The USS Lake Erie launched a Standard Missile-3 at a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite as it travelled in space at more than 27,000 km/h over the Pacific Ocean on 20 February 2008. Credit: US Navy

By Malcolm Davis

There is a common misconception that space is a pristine global commons that sits above terrestrial geopolitical rivalries. Nothing could be further from the emerging reality.

With the establishment of Australia’s Space Agency in July, Australia is taking its first steps towards being a more serious participant in a rapidly growing global space sector. This is an exciting time for Australia’s space community, with the space agency seeking to establish civil space policy and strategy, coordinate domestic space activities, develop and grow a space industry, and more proactively engage in developing international partnerships as well as inspiring the next generation of space entrepreneurs.

The growth of a vibrant space industry is particularly important. The Australian space agency is not meant to be a “mini-NASA Down Under” that does everything from building rockets and satellites to directing missions in orbit. As I’ve argued previously (AS, May/June 2018, p.39), instead of embracing the Space 1.0 mindset, Australia’s best path forward is Space 2.0, with the commercial sector taking the lead and an emphasis on deregulation rather than the dead weight of government control smothering innovation and slowing progress.

In March, the Review of Australia's Space Industry Capability (https://goo.gl/rWLVV3) “set an ambitious goal for Australia to triple the size of its space industry by 2030 to AU$10–$12 billion” per year, and “provide an additional 10,000 to 20,000 high-level jobs across Australia, while creating a sustainable and important capability for the nation” in a global sector that is worth $350 billion and expanding rapidly.

While much attention is focused on civil space, we should not ignore the defence and national security aspects of the space environment. There is a common misconception that space is a pristine global commons that sits above terrestrial geopolitical rivalries – a sanctuary from military conflict. Nothing could be further from the emerging reality.

Space as a Contested Commons

Far from being an uncontested commons, space – like other military operational domains such as air, sea, land and cyberspace – is contested, congested and competitive. It is now an operational war-fighting domain in its own right, with space militarisation evolving into space weaponisation.

The reasons for development are very clear. Space is a vital centre of gravity for modern armed forces that depend on space-based command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, precision navigation and timing. As such it is becoming an important area of military operations, and space systems are now a key target for adversaries.

Our way of war is based on gaining and sustaining a military technology advantage through an assured knowledge edge over any opponent. Take that knowledge edge away and our military capabilities quickly atrophy and we are less able to fight war in the manner of our choosing. That means we can no longer exploit the use of an information advantage to ensure speed and precision in the use of force, to minimise cost in terms of military losses, and avoid needless risks to civilian populations. War becomes messier, longer and more costly as our advantages disappear, and our opponents can more readily inflict the risk of military defeat. To paraphrase Viscount Bernard Montgomery of Alamein: “If we lose control of space, we lose the war and we lose it quickly”.

Modern military forces depend heavily on the space domain, and the Australian Defence Force is no exception. The ADF depends on satellite communications to enable expeditionary joint operations, either independently or as part of a multi­national coalition, including operations that are distant from Australia. They are heavily dependent on space-based precision navigation and timing for navigation, to support data-links that enable modern command and control, to running logistics support, and ultimately for direct targeting of precision weapons. Imaging and covert intelligence-gathering satellites provide vital eyes in the sky for essential intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks that are vital to understand the battlespace, including the actions of opposing forces, mission planning and operational analysis as military operations unfold.

The importance of space as a centre of gravity means that it is not a surprise that adversaries are developing a suite of hard-kill and soft-kill “counter-space” capabilities designed to threaten US and allied space capabilities prior to, or at the outset of, a future military conflict. During the Cold War both the United States and the Soviet Union experimented with anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, but never seriously deployed such capabilities. However, counter-space technology has moved on from these crude Cold War systems.

Two key reports released in April by the Secure World Foundation (https://goo.gl/1dZhpr) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (https://goo.gl/UZLzgP) provide a comprehensive overview of emerging counter-space and ASAT technology. The key message from both reports is that peer adversaries such as China and Russia are developing a sophisticated range of counter-space capabilities focusing on US and allied satellites operating from low Earth orbit to geostationary orbit. These include both direct-ascent and co-orbital systems, and cover hard-kill (physical destruction) and soft-kill (disable, damage, jam, spoof and hack) capabilities. Soft-kill approaches are most important given the need to avoid the chain reaction of space debris that could accumulate from space warfare.

During the Obama Administration the emphasis was on dissuading the deployment and use of such capabilities by assuring space situational awareness (monitoring and tracking orbiting space-based objects, such as satellites and debris, using ground-based radar and optical stations). This would enable early warning and attribution of any moves towards an attack, and prevent a surprise Pearl Harbour attack emerging in space. There were also attempts to use legal mechanisms that prevent deliberate interference against another state’s space capabilities. In these efforts, effective space surveillance was vital to ensure that an adversary could not deny their actions.

The Obama Administration’s 2010 space policy didn’t advocate the development of specific offensive and defensive space control capabilities such as ASATs. It did authorise the US Department of Defense to “develop capabilities, plans, and options to deter, defend against, and if necessary, defeat efforts to interfere with or attack US or allied space systems”.

Even so, this approach hasn’t stopped Chinese and Russian counter-space development and testing. On 11 January 2007, China destroyed one of its own satellites with a direct-ascent hard-kill ASAT. This event fundamentally changed the perception of space as a sanctuary from warfare, and subsequent Chinese development of a range of ASAT capabilities since then reinforces the perception that space is now contested.

Space Law and Space Weaponisation

Given this growing challenge, there are increasing efforts to prevent a slide towards space weaponisation. While legal approaches are at the front of these efforts, they are falling short.

A common misunderstanding is that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) bans space weapons. In fact, the OST does not. Article IV of the OST declares: “States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station weapons in outer space in any other manner”.

It goes on to then state that “the moon and other celestial bodies shall be used… exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies shall be forbidden.”

The OST does not ban space weapons per se, including non-nuclear ASATs of the type now being developed by China and Russia. Other efforts to introduce international legal mechanisms towards a space weapons ban have consistently failed due to inadequate verification and monitoring measures or perceptions that such measures would not require some states to roll-back existing counter-space capabilities.

A real challenge is defining exactly what a space weapon is. Any satellite can be used as an ASAT if it can be manoeuvred to collide with another satellite, and what constitutes a counter-space attack becomes incredibly difficult. Earth-based soft-kill systems such as cyberattack could create scalable, reversible effects, and offer deniability to the aggressor. Is a satellite failure a sign of a cyberattack, or simply a fault within the satellite? If that cyberattack simply monitors information – or changes information relayed by a satellite to provide false data – can that be defined as an attack?

Cyber-attack on satellites may be one of the most insidious and challenging types of soft-kill counter-space threats likely to emerge in coming years.

Australia’s Role in Space Security

Given the absence of strong legal mechanisms to prevent space weaponisation, the US military is now moving quickly to respond to this challenge. It is not yet developing its own ASATs, but is seeking to strengthen deterrence in space.

A key report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies examines how deterrence in orbit might work (https://goo.gl/kbrhEB). This includes identifying threats early, and communicating likely responses to an adversary in a manner that dissuades any aggressive action, or where necessary taking defensive measures to mitigate the impact of an ASAT threat.

This means there is growing importance of space situational awareness. Greater emphasis on defending satellites, space augmentation and rapid reconstitution are also emerging as the basis of US space deterrence.

Australia already plays an important role in space situational awareness. Australia directly supports the US by operating a C-band radar and Space Surveillance Telescope at Exmouth, WA, and will provide support for the US Air Force’s Space Fence radar.

Australia’s geographic location in the Southern Hemisphere makes it ideally suited to tracking critical orbits, including staring into geostationary orbit to monitor the activities of other states’ satellites. Alongside space situational awareness, Australia operates the Australian Space Operations Centre under the Combined Space Operations Initiative with its Five Eyes partners (US, UK, Canada and New Zealand).

Australia’s new focus on developing a space industry may also enable it to go beyond ground facilities for space situational awareness and look to develop a space segment capability that can directly strengthen US space deterrence.

A key concept being examined is space augmentation, in which the US and its allies move away from their reliance on small numbers of very complex and expensive large satellites that are inherently vulnerable to ASAT attacks, and whose loss would generate rapid and catastrophic degradation of space support to terrestrial forces. Instead, these high-end space systems would be augmented by large numbers of smaller, lower-cost, less technologically complex satellites and networked constellations of cubesats. It is much more difficult for an adversary to target and attack large numbers of small satellites and cubesat swarms than a small number of high-end exquisite satellite systems. Augmentation boosts US and allied space support, and makes it more survivable in the face of counter-space threats.

Alongside augmentation, reconstitution is another way to strengthen space deterrence. The ability to rapidly deploy constellations of small satellites and cubesat swarms to plug gaps after a counter-space attack reinforces the challenges for any adversary considering such an attack, boosting dissuasion and deterrence. The adversary therefore has to launch a larger attack that is less likely to have a lasting effect and is much more attributable, so political consequences are far greater. Counter-space weapons therefore become less “usable” because we practice “deterrence by denial”.

What’s Next for Australia’s Space Industry?

Australia’s investment in a space industry opens up the prospect for the nation to support augmentation and reconstitution missions alongside the US and other key regional allies. Australia is well-placed to develop small satellite and cubesat manufacturing and development as part of this space industry; indeed commercial companies are already developing commercial cubesats, including some for defence applications.

The establishment of a sovereign launch capability would be the next step. Indeed a survey of Australia’s emerging space industry suggests that there is already activity in this area. In a reconstitution scenario, Australia would maintain a ready reserve of satellites that could be launched quickly using a sovereign responsive launch capability from an Australian launch site.

Australian participation in space augmentation and reconstitution represents a step beyond support for the space situational awareness mission, and would represent an important contribution to the US–Australia strategic alliance. It is a timely policy choice to make by the Australian government, given emerging challenges in a contested space domain and a growing need for Australia to do more alongside the US and other key allies in a more uncertain strategic environment on Earth.

It is a step that the Australian Space Agency could oversee through coordination with Department of Defence, as well as through engagement with Australia’s space industry, recognising that establishing satellite manufacturing and development, as well as a sovereign space launch capacity, benefits not just a national security mission but also offers a significant step forward for Australia as a space power in the 21st century. With the growth of a global space sector, more participants and cheaper access to space, it’s becoming more competitive and more congested.

Australia is getting into space at a challenging time, and there are real opportunities to seize – but also increasing risks.


Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.