Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Military Motive for the Space Agency

By Guy Nolch

National security, not economic opportunity, may have motivated the government’s new interest in a sovereign space capability.

In November 1967 Australia became the third nation, behind the USA and Russia, to build and launch a satellite on its own soil. Fifty years after the launch of the Weapons Research Establishment Satellite (WRESAT), the Australian government announced that it would provide $41 million over 4 years to establish the Australian Space Agency. At the time, Australia and Iceland were the only two OECD nations without a space agency.

In the intervening years there had been proposals for a Cape York Spaceport, but the economics didn’t stack up. Nor was there the political will to support a domestic space industry. Nevertheless, a 2016 review by Asia Pacific Aerospace Consultants estimated that Australia’s space industry was worth around $4 billion and employs more than 10,000 people whose niche expertise contributes to international space projects. The government hopes the Australian Space Agency will help this industry triple by 2030.

The space industry is evolving away from “Big Space” projects such as rocket launches and space exploration to a new paradigm referred to as Space 2.0, which emphasises the “small, many and cheap” rather than the “large, expensive and few” (AS, May/June 2018, p.39). Led by the private sector, this approach to space is less onerous for a government to support, but Malcolm Davis (pp.18–21) argues there’s an emerging impetus for government action on a sovereign space capability – national security. “Modern military forces depend heavily on the space domain,” he explains before warning: “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”.

It’s not difficult to imagine that national security, and not economic opportunity, has motivated the government’s new interest in a sovereign space capability. Australian security concerns being raised publicly include China’s expansion and militarisation of the South China Sea, Chinese funding to develop the ports of South Pacific island nations, and fears that Chinese-owned telecommunications companies tendering for the development of Australia’s 5G network could expose the nation’s IT to spying.

Furthermore, Australia can no longer assume that the USA will have its back. Not only has the current US Administration been disparaging about its allies’ contribution to global security, it has also announced plans for a “Space Force” by 2020 to counter the emerging capabilities of China and Russia, which the Pentagon says are “explicitly pursuing space war-fighting capabilities to neutralise US space capabilities in a time of conflict”.

Anti-satellite weapons have already been tested, raising the prospect of a chain reaction of debris that could shred global satellite communications systems. Alternatively, “soft-kill” counter-space activities could “disable, damage, jam, spoof and hack” foreign satellites, offering plausible deniability that a cyberattack was instead due to a satellite’s failure.

In this climate it’s timely that Australia has reached for the stars – or at least geostationary orbit. The barriers to entry are now much lower than they once were, but the payoff in the nimble but militarised Space 2.0 era seems incalculable.

The government’s initial contribution of $41 million in a global industry worth $500 billion therefore seems miscalculated – a drop in the ocean or, in this case, a speck of space dust in the vast cosmos.

Guy Nolch is the Editor and Publisher of Australasian Science.