Hypersonics and Australia’s future in space
11 Feb 2014|

Luminosity picture of the University of Queensland's first net thrust producing scramjetChina’s recent test of a Wu-14 hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) on 9 January, potentially has very serious strategic and military technological implications for stability and security in the Asia-Pacific region as noted in recent posts by Ben Schreer and Andrew Davies. The Chinese test has served to reinforce the growing challenge of future anti-ship and land-strike capabilities, and is generating debate on the Internet over the implications of hypersonic technology for warfare in general.

The Chinese test should be seen in perspective. It’s an unpowered glide vehicle, rather than a ‘scramjet’ propelled cruise vehicle, and in this sense, the United States retains a lead with their X-51 ‘waverider’ test platform. Yet the applications of hypersonic systems go beyond missiles. Hypersonic ‘scramjet’ based reusable space launch vehicles offer the next logical step beyond traditional rocket systems for launching payloads into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Certainly such technological capabilities are some years away, but it seems likely that if perfected, the continued reliance on old-fashioned multi-stage rockets for launching payloads into LEO will end because future hypersonic systems will likely be cheaper, more responsive and most likely partly or totally reusable. Given the time it takes to perfect such a technology, policy choices need to be made soon on whether to support Australia continuing to play a role in this area.

It’s likely that early scramjet-based hypersonic launch systems will be ideal for small payloads such as small satellites. The benefits for the ADF of using smaller, low-cost satellites are important to consider. The current approach of the ADF to the use of space is to depend on a small number of large and very expensive military satellites provided by the US to enable modern joint operations for the self-reliant defence of Australia, or for supporting expeditionary operations. Yet these satellites are becoming increasingly vulnerable to emerging adversary counter-space capabilities; for example (see here, and here), China is pursuing a sophisticated counter-space capability that could attack American satellites in LEO and also higher orbits.

The loss of access to space would leave the information-dependent ADF effectively deaf, dumb and blind, and its combat effectiveness vastly reduced. And being completely reliant on other states for the provision of such capabilities is at odds with the self-reliant Defence of Australia. This isn’t meant to imply that the ADF should cease using existing space systems provided by foreign partners, such as the Wideband Global Satellite Communications system. But Australia could take a bold and innovative step by also investing in the development of its own low-cost space-launch capabilities to launch locally developed small satellites as a complement to, or backup of, large US satellites for military satellite communications and provision of ISR, and to reduce the effectiveness of an adversary counter-space campaign. Such a capability could also be applied to civilian areas, as well as for the provision of space-launch and small satellite capabilities to our security partners in the region, in a manner which reinforces our role as a regional middle power.

Current Australian Space policy states (PDF) that ‘…the Australian Government does not see an Australian satellite manufacturing or launch capability as an essential element of its approach to assured access to critical space-enabled services’. This is a remarkably shortsighted perspective which sets the stage for Australia to once again look on passively from the sidelines as other states take the lead in pursuing what could be the second generation of space launch capabilities, and implies we’re clearly content to rely on other states to launch satellites that we don’t build.

Instead, the current government could review existing space policy, with the aim being to adopting a much more active approach. Specifically, Australian space policy should look forward to the future, and embrace new concepts and technologies, with hypersonic research and development a leading element. Australia has its own hypersonic research underway at the Centre for Hypersonics at the University of Queensland. Their research continues in spite of an unsuccessful test of the Mach 8 ‘Scramspace’ vehicle on 18 September 2013 due to a fault in the booster rocket. This internationally recognised research is being funded in part by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) in collaboration with the US Air Force, Boeing and BAE Systems. Given Australia’s research efforts in this area, it’s well placed to play a significant role in contributing to the necessary breakthroughs in order to make hypersonic flight, including lower-cost access to space, a reality in coming years.

Clearly hypersonic propulsion, scramjets and low-cost responsive space access is an area of scientific and technological strength for Australia’s academic research community. The Chinese Wu-14 HGV test reinforces the argument that hypersonics could be an essential capability for 21st century armed forces in terms of strike warfare. But even if that isn’t the case, one application which could be pursued is an innovative approach to low-cost space access—something that Australia is well positioned to exploit.

Malcolm Davis is assistant professor in International Relations and post-doctoral research fellow in China-Western Relations at Bond University. Image credit to the University of Queensland Centre for Hypersonics.