Defence strategic review must go boldly into space

In the government’s defence strategic review it’s vital that any analysis of the Australia’s force posture and force structure isn’t confined only to the traditional domains of air, land and sea. The review, which is due for release in March, must consider Australia’s defence requirements in the context of a multi-domain operational perspective that includes capabilities in the space domain, alongside cyber and electromagnetic operations.

Space is a critical operational domain in its own right. Investment in new capabilities will be wasted if the Australian Defence Force doesn’t have assured access to space capabilities. The risks are clear—space is highly contested, and potential adversaries are developing a full suite of hard-kill and soft-kill counterspace capabilities. It would be naive to think that states such as China and Russia wouldn’t use those capabilities in a future war. Defence should plan capability based on an assumption that space is likely to become a warfighting domain before or at the outset of a military conflict.

In its first proposed ‘line of effort’, the 2022 defence space strategy, released in March, recognises this challenge and seeks to ensure that Defence ‘develops a space architecture that is focused on capabilities that are resilient, [and] can be reconstituted if compromised and defended if under attack’. The strategy makes clear the benefits of an approach that relies on large numbers of relatively low-cost small satellites to allow for regular refreshes and faster technological innovation. This approach strikes an appropriate balance between investing in large small-satellite constellations and exquisite large satellites and takes into account the requirement for reconstitution of lost capability by investing in sovereign launch capabilities.

A key emphasis of the review is likely to be an enhanced and expanded strike capability for the ADF. This shouldn’t be simply a reiteration of the 2020 force structure plan’s decisions regarding acquisition of long-range missile systems such as LRASM, JASSM-ER or TLAM. It needs to be far more ambitious and should include acquiring very long-range precision conventional weapons capabilities that can rapidly project decisive effect from northern Australia.

Targeting those weapons capabilities—whether they’re ground-launched from mobile launch vehicles or fixed sites or from air or naval platforms—demands persistent surveillance of an operational theatre. It also relies on a targeting ability, particularly to relay target location information as part of a ‘sensor to shooter’ kill chain, via resilient satellite communications, and an ability to conduct an effective assessment of post-attack battle damage. Space-based targeting of prompt-strike capabilities opens up possibilities for going well beyond the limited-reach weapons proposed in the 2020 plan.

Two Defence projects—JP9102 for satellite communications systems and DEF799 Phase 2 for sovereign-controlled space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities—are vital enablers towards such a long-range strike capability. Defence needs to think carefully about the resilience of these projects in the face of adversary counterspace threats. The language of the 2022 space strategy needs to be applied with respect to both of these projects to ensure the ADF isn’t totally dependent on small numbers of large, expensive satellites that are produced overseas and can’t be quickly augmented or reconstituted if attacked or destroyed.

In thinking about the posture for ADF space forces, a good start for the review would be to recommend that the ADF carefully balance acquisition of a small number of large satellites in geosynchronous orbit, such as that envisaged for the first phase of JP9102, with larger numbers of small to medium satellites in low-earth orbit and medium-earth orbit. These small and medium satellites should be built locally and launched using a sovereign launch capability from an Australian spaceport, such as Whalers Way in South Australia, Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory and Bowen in Queensland. This posture would directly complement the ‘resilient multi-mission space’ approach of Defence Science and Technology Group’s Starshot program, but it can’t be a slow process lasting a decade or more.

In a recent article, former ASPI executive director Peter Jennings correctly suggests that the a timeframe of three to five years for acquisition of capability under the review, and that standard needs to be applied to space too. Australia simply can’t afford the luxury of a slow approach to acquiring critical defence and national security capabilities in orbit, and investing in small satellites opens up the opportunities for fast innovation that large satellites simply don’t and won’t offer.

With this in mind, the consideration of space in the review must be seen as an opportunity to deepen collaboration between Australia’s rapidly growing commercial space sector and Defence, to ensure that the ADF can benefit from rapid acquisition that allows fast innovation cycles.

Such an approach elevates the importance of small and medium-sized commercial space enterprises in Australia and reinforces the ‘NewSpace’ business model that complements traditional defence acquisition through large overseas primes. It also suggests the need for rapid development of sovereign launch capability and a ‘space coast’ approach that co-locates space industry close to launch sites. Speed is of the essence in responding to Australia’s deteriorating strategic environment, and this is true for space as it is for other operational environments.

The review must, at a minimum, recommend fast acquisition of space capability with an emphasis on locally developed and manufactured small and medium satellites to support long-range responsive strike and other missions. It must also support developing and expanding our sovereign launch capabilities to enable greater self-reliance. Australia should have the means to launch its own satellites on its own launch vehicles from its own launch sites when it urgently needs to have greater space capability, rather than waiting on overseas launch services.

Even though speed is of the essence, the review’s 10-year focus gives Defence a golden opportunity to go further and think boldly about the ADF’s future in space. Success in projects such as JP9102, DEF799 and JP9360 (space domain awareness) must be treated as a starting point, not an end state. Next-generation space capabilities need to be examined to determine how quickly Defence Space Command’s suite of space missions can be added to, and that will demand that Defence be prepared to be bold and embrace a more ambitious vision for Australia’s defence space capability.

This could involve considering whether an expanding role for Defence Space Command might eventually suggest a requirement for a more independent organisation, to follow the lead of the US, with some sort of space force, and how that might shape ADF space capabilities. New launch technologies are already a reality—reusable rockets are radically reshaping the launch industry and spaceplane technology is a potential opportunity for even more rapid access to orbit in the 2030s.

How does the ADF respond to innovative new approaches to space manufacturing, space resource utilisation and a fourth industrial revolution? Is an old model of Space 1.0 simply becoming irrelevant? Are there new space missions that Defence should be considering?

Defence and the ADF need to move quickly, not only to address looming security challenges, but to be best placed to exploit the potential transformational changes on the horizon.