Australia’s future in space

This is the 18th and final article in our series ‘Australia in Space’ leading up to ASPI’s Building Australia’s Strategy for Space conference, which begins today.

When I was the deputy secretary for strategy in the Defence Department, one of the things on my to-do list which never quite got done was to produce a public defence policy for space. Even back in palaeolithic 2009 it was slightly embarrassing that such a policy statement, classified and unclassified, didn’t exist. So many ADF capabilities relied on communications, IT, sensors and emitters that drew on systems operating in or through space. Indeed, wherever Defence links into Australia’s national infrastructure for logistic support, or engages with government decision-makers, or works with friends and allies, our complete reliance on the enabling effects of space systems is matched only by our utter vulnerability to those systems being damaged.

Why was I unable to produce such a policy statement? Looking back, four factors come to mind. One was the sheer number of players across the Defence tribes who felt they had a dog in the space fight. The department’s largest meeting rooms could be packed out with space stakeholders, typically at middle-level ranks, often individuals with very deep passions about the issues. In space, no one can hear you droning on relentlessly. While there were groups with interests big enough to block forward policy movement, the second problem was that no one section of Defence had enough control of space policy to champion change and spur faster policy development.

Third, notwithstanding the ‘critical enabler’ label that was attached to space, Defence’s senior leaders weren’t really galvanised by the issue. Not in the way they could be galvanised about the really big issues like platform acquisition or occupying floor space in the Russell headquarters. Space was ‘niche’—just like cyber used to be. And that was just inside Defence. Beyond the department was, well let’s call it Dimension X: an uncharted world of departments and agencies whose staff didn’t have security clearances (gasp!), bureaucratic decision-makers who were focused on economics (shock!) and politicians who didn’t think space was important (beam me up!). Policy phasers were set to stunned-mullet and had been locked like that for the better part of a generation.

Reading the excellent contributions to this series on Australia and space policy, one is entitled to hope that, in 2018, there are solid grounds to say things have changed for the better. By mid-year we’ll have an Australian Space Agency, which should aim to be the convening point for a national discussion on space policy, as well as a national champion and reasoned advocate for investment in and focus on space. There’s an emerging private-sector space industry and a range of affordable and scalable technology options that lower barriers to entering into space-related business.

Our contributors point to a confluence of technology developments, wrapping together the internet of things, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and robotics into a slightly scary but very promising field. The good news for Australian entrepreneurs is that it’s smarts rather than scale which can get you into this business. Finally, there are one or two green shoots of hope that our major political parties are seeing the promise of more investment in space. There’s bipartisan support for the new space agency and for sustaining a meaningful defence industry base which will clearly be a central player in space technologies and systems.

A number of contributors, most prominently ASPI’s own Malcolm Davis, point to the reality that space is increasingly contested. In any substantial future conflict between major powers, it’s clear that space and cyber will be two of the earliest theatres of skirmishing as opponents look to disable each other’s military and national decision-making capabilities. In fact, cyber battles will probably occur over access to space and will use space-based communication systems themselves.

So a new factor driving national approaches to space is that all countries are faced with an increasingly stark choice to ‘use or lose’ their interests in space. Australia is acquiring at immense cost a fifth-generation–enabled defence force which, if we’re ever to fight with it, must have assured access to systems that rely on space. The US alliance provides fantastic access to key space systems; however, it could benefit from increased resilience from allied systems designed with it in mind. So a defence policy for space must set out how we’ll ensure that our forces have access to key systems inside our alliance with the United States and alone if necessary. (To give Defence credit, it produced a space policy in 2016—that’s one small step for planning.)

It could all still go wrong, though. First, the industry in Australia is incredibly small. Around 11,000 people are working in space-related businesses. To give you a sense of scale, the Department of Jobs and Small Business reports that 11,300 people worked as service station attendants in December 2017. Slightly more ominously, the same report recorded 11,900 motor vehicle parts and accessory fitters. By analogy it may be the case that our space industry sector is so far below critical mass that it might go the same way as motor vehicle assembly unless a transformative business development can break the industry out of a decaying orbit. Speculation that the Australian space industry will grow by three times its current size by 2030 to be worth $12 billion is just guesswork, although this growth rate doesn’t assume hyper-velocity expansion anytime soon.

I’m also not sure that Defence really has gotten over its tribalism or complacency about space, although I’d be happy to be corrected on this point. It’s one thing to talk the talk about a fifth-generation ADF, but quite another to galvanise delivering the enabling systems that are so space dependent. We’re still too focused on platforms, which anyone can see when discussions turn to the number of Joint Strike Fighters or submarines Australia will acquire.

Critically, while many advocates of Australia acquiring space capabilities exist, along with advocates of an Australian space industry, there are very few who are suggesting that they might trade off other spending plans they have to actually acquire real systems with real money in real budgets.

More broadly, Australians have grown used to living in a just-in-time world for energy supply, logistics, power, heating and cooling to the point that it’s only when the lights go out in Tasmania or South Australia that people realise there’s a complex but imminently vulnerable interconnected system of supply and distribution that sets the rhythm of our lives. And so much of this depends on access to and control of space. While our military forces think about the implications of operating in a ‘day without space’, our politicians should ponder what a day or two without space would do for the quality of social harmony in Australia. If satellites go down and there are no others that can provide redundancy and resilience, how long would it take to turn our urban centres into end-of-days theme parks?

But let’s end on a positive note. The arrival of the Australian Space Agency is a very welcome development. Business is buzzing with the potential for expanding space-related work. Defence has never been better equipped with space-enabled platforms and technology. A gaggle of new technologies—from swarming drones to artificially intelligent autonomous systems to dairy herds linked to the internet of things—all push Australia closer to a new and different type of space age. The cost of entry to space has never been lower. More than ever there is promise and excitement in the space business and every opportunity for smart Australians to shape this future.