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Australian, US, UK and French commanders on why ‘space is hard’

Posted By on February 1, 2023 @ 06:00

Space is both an old and a new operational domain. It has been militarised since the earliest days of the space age in the 1960s as the major powers employed satellites for communications, intelligence gathering and early warning against missile attack. Since the end of the Cold War, use of space has evolved from being a supporting adjunct to terrestrial military operations to becoming an operational domain in its own right.

Late last year, Australia’s defence community heard the perspectives of four key thinkers in a panel discussion on the importance of the space domain for defence and national security. These included the head of Australia’s Defence Space Command [1], Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts [2], the deputy commander of US Space Command [3], Lieutenant General John E. Shaw [4], the chief of UK Space Command [5], the Royal Air Force’s Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey [6], and Major General Philippe Adam, the head of French Space Command.

The discussion began with a focus on why the transition from perceiving space as an adjunct to an operational domain has been a significant step for each of the four defence forces. Shaw noted that the move required the US military to think about operations in space and ensuring that a mutual support approach was established that led to broader joint and combined warfare operations. He raised the challenge that ‘now that space is an operational domain, how do you actually conduct operations in the domain, and how do other commands in terrestrial domains support space operations?’ This was echoed by the other speakers. Godfrey highlighted the rapid process of UK Space Command since its establishment in 2019.

The counterspace threat and the realisation that access to space is likely to be contested has been a key driver in reshaping the perception of space. Adam highlighted that French Space Command has also only existed from 2019, and was driven by the recognition that space is congested and competitive.  ‘We want to make sure that the strategic assets we have in space will still be there when we need them,’ he said. For Australia, Roberts noted that space was recognised as an operational domain in 2019 and in the 2020 defence strategic update and force structure plan which led to the creation of Defence Space Command. Highlighting the challenge posed by counterspace capability, Roberts noted that Australia had signed up to a voluntary ban on testing of direct-ascent, kinetic-kill anti-satellite weapons which produce space debris.

Standing up an entirely new military organisation to manage a vast operational domain like space has generated some key challenges. Shaw suggested that the main one was integrating space as an operational domain into a broader approach to joint and combined warfighting. He noted that another challenge is understanding the space environment, with ‘space domain awareness probably being our largest challenge’. He highlighted the importance of teamwork with allies and partners, via groups such as the Combined Space Operations, or CSpO, initiative, but also ‘partnering with commercial and civil organisations, and bringing transparency to the domain so that all actors can operate in it safely and in a responsible manner’.

Godfrey pointed to workforce challenges like retaining people with expertise, particularly when space must compete with other commands in a joint organisation. He highlighted procurement as an issue, saying that it was vital to have a procurement system ‘agile enough to stay at the leading edge of technology to be able to counter threats when you look at China as the pacing threat’.

Both Adam and Roberts identified similar challenges. The traditional maxim that ‘space is hard’ applies very well to earth-bound organisations trying to establish a space capability for defence and national security requirements. Roberts said ‘the biggest challenging has been about resourcing—people, money and looking after our people when we bring them in’ and then ‘thinking about how we’re going to fight [while] incorporating innovation at speed’. Adam noted that establishing French Space Command required the ability to ‘fit something new in a structure that was never designed for it’, acting ‘at a pace which is really, really quick’ and then ‘bringing it all together to make sure it is understood by military operations everywhere’.

A key discussion was how the four organisations will leverage the rapidly growing commercial space sector. Roberts said there was a need to ‘crack’ the rapid acquisition model that epitomised commercial space, which implied a ‘completely different way of thinking’ about procurement. ‘We’ve done some very small investments—we call them capability accelerators. These inform how we are going to do our operations moving forward.’ Godfrey indicated that input from venture capitalists was helpful and argued that ‘we need to understand in that horizon sense, what companies are out there–not just the big primes, but also a number of small to medium enterprises that may well have that silver bullet you’re looking for’.

Shaw made clear that he didn’t feel that there was another domain where commercial activities and technologies and capabilities were as synergistic with security than the space domain. Adam highlighted the need to understand commercial space as a market and recognised that it’s increasingly difficult to draw a line between civilian, commercial and military capabilities. Roberts reflected on the complexity of space missions: ‘You need to conduct your space missions with other operational domains, with people who are in different regions around the world and across different orbits. You’ve got to work through partners and allies, you also have to integrate commercial elements, and that’s a new challenge.’

Questions from the audience covered rules of behaviour and international cooperation, taking experiences in other domains and the challenges of managing relations with competitors. Of key importance for Australia was the role of space domain awareness, with Australia’s participation in space surveillance a key mission for Defence Space Command under CSpO. A key point from Shaw was about space being ‘supra-global’ in that it ‘touches every other [area of responsibility] and is something that every nation can play a role in’. This was a fascinating perspective to conceptualise a vast operational domain that will be of crucial importance to Australian and allied military operations in the future.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australian-us-uk-and-french-commanders-on-why-space-is-hard/

URLs in this post:

[1] Defence Space Command: https://www.airforce.gov.au/about-us/defence-space-command

[2] Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts: https://www.airforce.gov.au/about-us/leadership/defence-space-commander

[3] US Space Command: https://www.spacecom.mil/

[4] Lieutenant General John E. Shaw: https://www.spacecom.mil/Leaders/Bio/Article/2433977/lt-gen-john-e-shaw/

[5] UK Space Command: https://www.raf.mod.uk/what-we-do/uk-space-command/

[6] Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey: https://www.raf.mod.uk/news/articles/air-commodore-paul-godfrey-announced-as-commander-united-kingdom-space-command/

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