How should Australia respond to space militarization?

There is growing concern about the militarization of space. Oftentimes, discussions about this topic focus on the larger space powers – the United States, Russia, and China, particularly. But what role do smaller countries have to play with regard to militarization of space? We spoke to Malcolm Davis, a Senior Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who specializes in space security matters. He shares his thoughts on the role Australia plays with regards to space militarization.

What is the status of the militarization of space?

Space has been used for military purposes really since the dawn of the Space Age. At that time, the two superpowers began deploying both communications satellites and spy satellites to support military forces on Earth. In those early days, the primary role of space capabilities was to support global nuclear command and control. More recently, military forces have deepened their dependence on space capabilities to wage “information-based warfare” and to gain and maintain a “knowledge edge” over an opponent. This has been very clear in past military campaigns, notably in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in the 2003 Iraq War, and in operations in Afghanistan. In these arenas, space capabilities have played a crucial part in enabling military forces to exploit a knowledge edge and deliver precision effect. 

The dependency on space capabilities for modern military forces is proliferating as more states are able to better access and use space systems to support military roles. It’s no longer just the sole purview of major powers like the United States. Small and middle powers are not only using space systems for military purposes, but they are developing and deploying their own. Space is becoming more competitive as more actors – both state and non-state – develop their presence off-planet. Space is becoming more congested as more satellites and more space debris builds up.

The vital role of space for generating an information edge has meant that adversaries are now developing the means to deny the US and its allies access to space systems. They do this by developing and deploying “counter-space” capabilities. This includes “anti-satellite” (ASAT) weapons, which can be “direct-ascent” (launched from Earth) and “co-orbital” (operating in space). Such weapons can be used for both kinetic kills and “soft kills” – the latter disables rather than destroys a target satellite. The ASAT threat also includes ground-based soft kill systems that can jam satellite uplinks and downlinks and spoof satellites to disrupt their operations. There are furthermore a variety of electronic-warfare and directed-energy weapons. Cyber-attacks on satellites are also being developed.

In particular, China and Russia have active developmental programs for a full suite of counter-space capabilities. This is driving the militarization and weaponization of space. Space is certainly contested. It has never been a peaceful sanctuary that sits serene and untouched by terrestrial geopolitical rivalry. In the 21st century, it is becoming more of an operational warfighting domain in its own right.

What should Australia do to respond to militarization of space?

Australia is proceeding down a dual-track approach: it seeks to strengthen the resilience of space capabilities in the face of adversary counter-space threats; and it seeks to build a credible “space deterrence” capability. This approach exists alongside efforts to strengthen legal and regulatory frameworks that can boost opportunities for diplomatic engagement as a means to manage the challenge posed by counterspace capability.

In terms of resilience, we’ve done a great deal in the past in supporting the US and other Five Eyes partners by providing essential and vital space situational awareness (SSA) and space surveillance operations. This is being increased with new facilities emerging at Exmouth, in Western Australia, for radar and optical space surveillance. These facilities will support Australia’s role in the Combined Space Operations Initiative (CSpO), which began in 2014 and facilitates closer space security cooperation with Five Eyes partners. SSA is a key task for monitoring space activities, identifying potential threats, and denying anonymity to an adversary’s activities that could threaten US and allied space access and space security.

Beyond these SSA and space surveillance tasks, Australia is well placed to do more to “burden share in orbit” to strengthen credible space deterrence. This means reducing the ability of an adversary to threaten space capabilities. At the moment, the US and its allies within the Five Eyes community depend on small numbers of large, complex, vulnerable, and expensive satellites. Satellite technology is evolving towards smaller and more compact designs and “form factors” with greater capability. This means smallsats and even fractionated constellations of networked cubesats can disaggregate essential space services. This would allow distributing military space architecture in a manner that makes it more difficult for an adversary to use counterspace capability in a decisive attack (often referred to as a “Pearl Harbor in space” scenario).

Australia’s growing space sector can directly support the development of small satellites towards the disaggregation task. It can also augment existing larger satellites in the leadup to a crisis, or it can reconstitute lost capability in the event that space deterrence fails. The local space industry can support satellite development and manufacture, and local companies are developing both space launch capability and space launch sites. This all means that Australia can directly support space deterrence in a manner that allows it to burden share in orbit. This is more substantial than pursuing a purely ground-based SSA and space surveillance approach.

As mentioned before, it is also very important for Australia to play a key and visible role in shaping the emerging space law and space regulatory framework. Space law needs to be updated to meet the rapidly evolving operational and commercial environment. In this respect, Australia’s active leadership role in the Woomera Manual Project, with UNOOSA, and in supporting space arms control is important. It provides a diplomatic and legal foundation that complements the dual-track approach that focuses on space resilience and space deterrence.

What opportunities exist for people from Australia and elsewhere to combine their interests in space and militarization?

Space is no longer seen as merely an enabling adjunct to terrestrial military activities. It’s an operational domain in its own right – just as important as traditional air, sea, land, or the new cyber domains. The role of the space domain is of critical importance to military operations in both peace and war across all other domains. Modern military systems don’t work effectively without access to essential space capabilities. At the same time, space is more contested because of adversary counter-space developments. As such, more emphasis needs to be placed on deterring and mitigating risk from those capabilities. We also need to reduce the challenge posed by space becoming more congested.

For a country like Australia, there are real opportunities to play a more ambitious and useful role in space than previously was the case. Government is now much more supportive of growing the Australian commercial space sector. This can in turn provide new space capabilities for defense and national security purposes. The Australian Space Agency, whilst a civilian organization, does liaise with Defence on matters related to defense and national security in space. The Australian Department of Defence is taking a more ambitious approach to space capability and policy. This approach is deemphasizing simple dependency on the US and others to provide Australian space capability.

There is a strong foundation for sovereign space capability, including the ability to launch Australian satellites on Australian launch vehicles from Australian launch sites. In short, in recent years, Australia has moved on from only having a ground-based space program. It is now fully recognizing and developing a space segment that serves both civil and defense needs. 

For the next generation of space leaders, these are exciting times. New opportunities are opening up in the commercial sector, with Defence, and with the Australian Space Agency to pursue careers in space – without having to seek those careers overseas. Defense and national security issues related to space are only going to grow in importance in the next decade. There will be increasing demand for policy specialists, space law advocates, as well as space engineering and space science experts.