Launching Australia’s role in assuring access to space

Australia holds key advantages in contributing to allied interests in space security, says Lieutenant-General Nina Armagno, the director of staff at the US Space Force, who was in Australia last week for ASPI’s space and national security masterclass and dialogue.

Armagno noted that Australia is a prime location for space domain awareness and has sites close to the equator that are ideal for space launches, particularly in northern Australia. This assessment is consistent with the Defence Department’s 2022 space strategy, which reinforces the importance of assuring access to space and maintaining a resilient space capability.

On space domain awareness, Australia plays a crucial role in countering threats from anti-satellite weapons, which are being developed by countries such as China and Russia. A C-band radar and optical space surveillance telescope are being established at Exmouth in Western Australia as part of Defence’s Joint Project 9360. This is the first step in strengthening US–Australia space surveillance capabilities under Operation Dyurra, while ensuring Australia is well placed to support intelligence sharing under the 2014 Combined Space Operations initiative. Phase 2 of JP9360 will add additional ground-based space surveillance capability. At the same time, commercial space surveillance companies such as LEOLabs and HEO Robotics will contribute both ground-based and space-based situational awareness of activities in the region between low-earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit.

As important as space domain awareness is, it’s vital that Australia be able to do more than just monitor space activity from the ground.

Australia is ideally suited for sovereign space launch, giving it a key role in augmenting and, if necessary, reconstituting space support in a crisis. There are three launch sites: Nhulunbuy near Gove in the Northern Territory, operated by Equatorial Launch Australia; Whaler’s Way near Port Lincoln in South Australia, operated by Southern Launch; and Abbott Point near Bowen in Queensland, which is being established. With Australian companies such as Gilmour Space Technology building its Eris expendable booster and Hypersonix Launch Systems developing a fully reusable hypersonic spaceplane called Delta-Velos, as well as the recent agreement for Virgin Orbit to launch satellites from Toowoomba Wellcamp airport, Australia is now well positioned to surge ahead with sovereign launch.

A launch capability is a key component of integrated deterrence in the space domain, in particular through deterrence by resilience, which complements space deterrence by denial. It’s important to have some understanding of these concepts to see how sovereign launch fits in with assured access.

The aim of space deterrence by denial is to reduce the effectiveness of any counterspace capability to the point where an attack fails to achieve its goals while the costs outweigh the benefit of such an action. Space domain awareness is required to detect, track and, if necessary, take defensive measures to avoid a threat posed by an adversary’s counterspace capabilities. That could include manoeuvring key satellites if an adversary is engaging in threatening, irresponsible or hostile behaviour. Also, attribution of an imminent threat through diplomatic warnings can be supported by political, economic and even military measures, which can raise the potential cost for the adversary.

However, space is a complex operational domain, and an adversary can conceal its intentions by exploiting grey-zone actions in orbit in a crisis or during peacetime, potentially involving dual-role capabilities. If the intentions of an adversary are unclear, deterrence by denial could fail to prevent its use of counterspace systems. That demands an investment in space resilience, which is where sovereign launch becomes crucial.

Space deterrence through resilience seeks to ensure our ability to recover from a successful counterspace attack, further instilling uncertainty in the mind of the adversary about the chances for success of any offensive counterspace campaign. This approach would first see space architectures move to disaggregated large constellations of small satellites that make it more difficult for an adversary to use its counterspace capabilities to launch a decisive and coordinated attack that results in a catastrophic collapse of US and allied space capabilities.

Greater investment in sovereign launch allows augmentation of existing satellites and rapid reconstitution of satellite constellations in the event that deterrence by denial fails. Australia is well placed to provide this capability from its three launch sites, and investment in rapid production of small satellites would allow Australia to directly support this task. But it’s vital that we use Australian launch sites rather than rely on overseas ones and risk being stuck in long queues. Defence must prioritise the establishment of a sovereign responsive launch capability as a next step for burden-sharing in orbit.

It’s vital that Australia’s sovereign launch efforts keep pace with technological developments such as reusability and, in the future, the potential offered by hypersonic spaceplanes. Future reusable launch vehicles, epitomised by SpaceX’s Starship – Super Heavy, will carry large payloads and thus will be able to deploy large numbers of small satellites quickly, at low cost, and at a high launch cadence. Launching many small satellites at once, and being able to do so potentially on a weekly basis, will dramatically enhance deterrence through resilience and reduce the ability of an adversary to effectively undertake space denial.

Sovereign launch will take defence and national security in space for Australia to a new level of activity. Australia’s approach to space shouldn’t be just about acquiring a small number of large satellites for communications or geospatial intelligence over a long project timeline. Instead, Australia must become a sovereign space power that can directly support US and allied space deterrence operations in orbit. We must have an active presence in space, led by Defence Space Command. This would have broader implications nationally for the commercial space sector as it continues to grow. The opportunity for the commercial sector to directly support Defence’s space deterrence mission, including through sovereign responsive launch, is a vital next step for Australia’s future in space.