Australia the ‘pot of gold at the end of the rainbow’ in new space race
2 Dec 2022|

One of America’s top space officials says Australia is ‘prime country’ as the strategic competition for space heats up.

In Australia for a range of talks, including a dialogue held by ASPI, US Space Force director of staff Lieutenant-General Nina Armagno said that Australia’s strategic geography was a great asset when it comes to the sites needed for global space domain awareness and that northern Australia’s proximity to the equator could also allow for efficient launches into orbit.

‘Australia is sitting on a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for our common national security interests,’ she told a briefing to media alongside US Space Command’s Lieutenant-General John E. Shaw.

‘This is prime country for space domain awareness,’ she said, referring to the logging and tracking of objects orbiting the earth, ranging from small pieces of potentially dangerous debris to vital satellites.

Shaw added that space domain awareness was the biggest immediate challenge facing the US and its allies in space—and one where Australia’s contribution is vital.

‘That, frankly, is our number one challenge at US Space Command … You have to understand what’s happening in the domain first, then you can take actions to protect and defend and optimise capabilities,’ Shaw said.

Key to achieving that awareness is having as broad a network of sensors as possible around the globe, which is where Australia comes in.

‘[Space] doesn’t really play favourites between the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere, so if you want to understand what’s going on in space, you want to have sensors in as diverse locations as possible on the planet.’

Two major parts of a shared US–Australia space capability centred on surveillance and tracking of objects in space are now up and running near Exmouth in Western Australia. One is a C-band radar that was based in Antigua and has been relocated to WA, and the other is the Space Surveillance Telescope, originally developed by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The telescope is run as a joint facility and recently achieved its initial operating capability.

Both Armagno and Shaw emphasised that while Australia and the US have been working together on space since the Apollo program of the 1960s and more recent projects have roots going back years, there’s enormous scope for expanding the relationship to new areas.

‘Military to military is the partnership has been going on for decades. I think there’s tons of opportunity to partner commercially as well … The environment is ripe for investment in the space economy,’ Armagno said.

The space force general expanded on her comments in a podcast interview with ASPI’s Bec Shrimpton, saying Australia is a ‘burgeoning spacefaring nation, and there is tons of talent here and capability … There’s almost no limit to what we can do.’

The ramping up of Australian, US and other allied space capabilities is motivated by the need to create resilient, defendable space systems that can stand up to possible attack.

As society’s dependence on space has grown for everything from navigation to communications, so has that of our militaries.

‘It’s just how modern warfare in the 21st century works; it relies on space. Our potential adversaries have noticed this and it should not surprise us that there are now threats against those space capabilities,’ Shaw said.

‘So the question is, how do we approach that? And I think we do it the way we’ve always been successful as allies: we work it together and we’re stronger together. And the more that we can cooperate, not only operationally, but also in the development of capabilities, development of policies, the development of norms of behaviour collectively, it’s very clear to me that that’s how we address these threats and deter those threats from ever being realised.’

Conflict in space could range from the use of reversible effects like jamming or dazzling of satellite communications to cyberattacks on the ground-based architecture that supports space operations and even the direct destruction of space assets.

Australia recently joined a multilateral moratorium on destructive anti-satellite missile testing announced in the wake of a test last year by Russia that created a dangerous cloud of space debris that’s now being tracked. China and India have tested purpose-built anti-satellite weapons, while the US used a modified surface-to-air missile to destroy a satellite in 2008 (partly in response to China’s 2007 test). On the non-kinetic end of the spectrum, the war in Ukraine has already seen a major attack on US satellite communications firm Viasat.

‘So we are seeing examples of the kinds of threats that we know exist. They’re being employed by Russia,’ Armagno said.

Shaw added that China had ‘very swiftly’ advanced its space capabilities from just a few satellites 20 years ago to a fleet now numbering in the hundreds.

‘If you were to look at a number of different metrics, they’ve advanced very, very quickly,’ he said.

There has been a broader recognition that the old ways of building expensive, large and vulnerable platforms in space has to change in response to the increasing range of threats.

Armagno said that also involves disaggregating and diversifying space assets in ways that complicate an adversary’s plans to disrupt those capabilities. That could mean using smaller, cheaper satellites whose technology can be refreshed more quickly.

Part of an expansion of Australia’s own space capabilities could be focused on launches of smaller satellites on shorter timeframes than traditional, big-budget rocket missions.

‘In our collective ally discussion, we realise there’s a need for responsive launch—for launch to be more responsive than it historically has been, so there may be opportunities for partnering there as well,’ Shaw said.

As with space surveillance, Australia’s geography could be an advantage in this effort too.

‘It’s always most energy efficient to launch near the equator,’ Armagno said.

Australia’s growing space industry will almost certainly welcome any moves to expand US–Australia launch collaboration, especially after a NASA rocket blasted off from the Northern Territory in June.