Australia’s space future: where to next on the final frontier?
9 Nov 2018|

With the establishment of the Australian Space Agency on 1 July this year and the growth of Australia’s space industry, the future has arrived for many Australian space advocates. A critical mass of participants, initiatives and developments are riding a wave of government enthusiasm and private-sector support. It’s a good time to be involved in space in this country.

It’s also a good time to look forward, and consider where we might head over the next decade in space.

The starting point has to be with the Australian Space Agency, which released its charter setting out its purpose, values, roles, responsibilities, approach to governance, and reporting arrangements at the end of October. The agency’s purpose is to ‘transform and grow a globally respected Australian space industry that lifts the broader economy, inspires and improves the lives of Australians—underpinned by strong international and national engagement’.

That’s a very positive mission statement because it will improve Australia’s ability to compete in a rapidly expanding global space sector. Reports suggest that the global space economy, currently worth around US$350 billion, could increase to between US$1 trillion and US$2.7 trillion in the 2040s. Most of that growth will come from the private sector, including companies focusing on commercial space travel and industries that can use new satellites to support innovative terrestrial services.

Australia needs to be bold and fully embrace the space market by developing our space industry sector. We need to move on from the purely ground-based space efforts of the past. Our future in space over the next decade must include developing and building our own satellites and launching them on Australian launch vehicles from Australian launch sites. That will pave the way for terrestrial space activities that benefit our economy and our society and strengthen our national security.

The Australian Space Agency also needs to be ambitious in leading international civil space engagement, both with its international counterparts and with the global commercial sector. When it’s not talking to NASA, ESA or JAXA, the agency should be talking to SpaceX, Blue Origin and Stratolaunch. As a new space actor, Australia can play a growing role in international collaboration on scientific research, space science, and commercial activities.

As the agency’s charter indicates, Australia must meet its international obligations in space, including strengthening legal mechanisms and arms control. We already contribute a great deal to strengthening norms against the weaponisation of space by promoting legal instruments and dialogues that limit the development of such a capability.

Annie Handmer recently wrote a thought-provoking article in The Strategist about the need for strategic space diplomacy. One of her central arguments is that discussion about space as a warfighting domain reinforces the policy acceptance of that outcome. She suggests refocusing the dialogue towards international acceptance of legal norms of non-weaponisation.

I agree with her that closer scientific collaboration with international partners might strengthen established norms against space weaponisation.

The challenge, though, is that this particular horse has already bolted, as Chinese and Russian development of anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) demonstrate. The weapons are real and have already been deployed. China’s army has a Strategic Support Force that leads the formulation of thinking on space war. The US is responding to this challenge by considering ways to boost its security in space. The proposed US Space Force is just one component of that response.

So Australia needs to manage its space activities in an environment that is already contested, congested and competitive. The defence and national security aspects of space can’t be ignored, and that means we have to think about space deterrence.

The best path for Australia to achieve space deterrence is to strengthen resilience in space by augmenting existing space capability and finding ways to reconstitute lost capability. Augmentation can be done by deploying large numbers of small satellites rather than relying on small numbers of more vulnerable, complex and costly large satellites. We can contribute to reconstitution by rapidly deploying small satellites to fill gaps if an adversary does use ASATs. Both approaches make it more difficult for an adversary to launch a decisive attack on vital US and allied satellites prior to, or at the outset of, a conflict. Making it so that such an attack is less likely to be effective will reinforce credible space deterrence by denial.

In both cases, investing in a sovereign space industry makes sense. If we build and launch the satellites needed to augment and reconstitute our capability, we won’t need to wait on a US provider, or accept dependency on the US to provide essential space support. Australia can grow its space industry to ensure sovereign space support for the ADF, burden-share in orbit with the US, and work with regional partners under multilateral space consortiums that make it politically untenable for an adversary to use ASATs.

Rather than contribute to space weaponisation and reinforce the idea of the high frontier as a warfighting domain, deterrence through more resilient space capabilities makes it more likely that our opponents will, in self-interest, sit down and talk about arms control. Restrictions on weapons in space could be introduced by strengthening the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which is showing its age.

Space deterrence must be seen as a logical partner to the type of strategic space diplomacy Handmer advocates. Through political, legal, defence and economic means, the goal must be to make space war so unattractive to all sides that it becomes low-hanging fruit for successful arms control. The reality is that space is already a warfighting domain—but that doesn’t mean we have to accept that war in space is inevitable.