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National Defence Strategy: a missed opportunity for space

Posted By on April 23, 2024 @ 19:50

Last week’s release of the National Defence Strategy [1] (NDS) and its accompanying Integrated Investment Program (IIP) gave only passing mention to one of the most important operational domains for the Australian Defence Force—space. 

Altogether, they express a continuity of policy—and regrettably fail to promote development of a national space-launch capability or even to flag opportunities for exploiting the country’s commercial space sector. 

The NDS initially recognises the space domain predominantly as a ‘critical enabler of military operations, supporting communications, targeting and situational awareness.’ It also recognises a ‘space domain’ as part of five operational domains in multi-domain approach to a strategy of denial. It furthermore acknowledges that the space domain allows an adversary to challenge Australia’s security in ways not bound by geography alone. 

The IIP once again reiterates the ‘enabling function’ of the space domain, stating that ‘space capabilities underpin the ADF’s warfighting effectiveness by providing critical services, including communications, weather, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and positioning, navigation and timing information.’ The IIP lifts spending on space in comparison with the previous Coalition policy laid out in the 2020 Force Structure Plan, from the then planned $7 billion to the 2024 IIP’s proposed spending of between $9 billion and $12 billion through to 2034. But only $590 million of this is approved between now and 2034 to cover ‘enhanced space capabilities’, including satellite communications, space sensors and space control. 

Satellite communications will be focusing on Defence project JP9102 to provide Australia’s ‘first sovereign-controlled satellite communications system’ to enhance ADF communications in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, with Lockheed Martin the preferred tenderer. JP9102 will put two, three or four large military communications satellites into geosynchronous orbit (GEO) at 36,500km, where a satellite’s orbital velocity matches the Earth’s rotational velocity and so appears fixed in one point in the sky. The IIP also supports growing the ADF’s ability to undertake [2] space domain awareness missions, and specifically mentions the agreement signed last year to host the Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability as a collaborative project with the US and Britain that gives an ability for space situational awareness out to GEO. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the IIP and NDS continue to recognise the importance of Australia developing a space control capability. The IIP states that government investment will include:

…measures to enhance Defence’s space control capability to deny attempts to interfere with, or attack, Australia’s use of the space domain. These will help ensure that the ADF is able to continue using the space capabilities it needs to support its operations.

This continues an ambition that appeared in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update [3] and Force Structure Plan [4], recognizing the growing challenge posed by adversary counterspace capabilities, which continue to proliferate [5] and grow in sophistication in the military capabilities of adversaries such as China and Russia. 

In essence, the 2024 NDS and IIP suggest more continuity than change in how Defence approaches space. As noted in the 2023 Defence Strategic Review [6], the current government sees space in the context of ‘capability assurance and communications provision.’ Hopefully, more money will be spent on space capabilities for satellite communications and space domain awareness, and it is good to see this government take the counterspace threat seriously, by continuing to recognise the importance of developing a space control capability for the ADF.  

But they could have done so much more.  

Australia is blessed with very favorable geography for sovereign space launch. Emerging launch sites in northern Australia are close to the equator, allowing lower cost per kilogram into equatorial orbits that can support defence missions in Australia’s air and maritime approaches. Prospective launch sites in the south are good for reaching polar and sunsynchronous orbits, which are ideal for such defence and national security tasks as intelligence and surveillance missions. Australian commercial launch providers are building space launchers as well as the launch sites, while Australian commercial space companies are developing sophisticated small satellite capabilities.  

The NDS and IIP completely ignore the civil-military nexus in space. Whilst investment in projects such as JP9102 may see some work going to Australian commercial space small and medium enterprises, the NDS and IIP suggest a complete unwillingness to bring that commercial advantage into directly supporting ADF missions.  Its almost as if Australia doesn’t have a vibrant commercial space sector at all.  

One of the key requirements for any state serious about operating in the space domain is assured access. This is not just about satellite constellations owned and operated by Australia, such as that envisaged under JP9102, but about an ability to launch Australian satellites rapidly and responsively on Australian launch vehicles from Australian launch sites. That capability should also be available to allies and key partners. That then builds resilience for ADF and allied space capabilities, allowing the augmentation of satellite networks, particularly in low and medium earth orbit (LEO and MEO) using locally produced small satellites for proliferated LEO (pLEO) mega-constellations for satellite communications, intelligence and reconnaissance and other militarily relevant roles. Likewise, that assured access approach offers an ability to rapidly reconstitute lost capability in the event of adversary use of counterspace capabilities such as anti-satellite weapons. 

This ability to make full use of Australia’s commercial space sector to support defence and national security missions in space is completely missing from both the NDS and IIP. Even an extra paragraph noting the defence role of the commercial space would have been a huge boost to the sector, stimulating confidence and growth, expanding jobs and building hightech industrial capability.  

The 2024 NDS and IIP thus miss an opportunity to do something new with space. The documents have an overly cautious and conservative perspective that is out of sync with the rapid innovation inherent in global commercial space activity and seem oblivious to the benefits of a commercial-defence space nexus. Perhaps, had Australia had a national space strategy, this might have been more clearly elucidated, but the government has put development of one on hold. As it stands, the NDS and IIP are more continuity than change on spaceand that is such a missed opportunity.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/national-defence-strategy-a-missed-opportunity-for-space/

URLs in this post:

[1] National Defence Strategy: https://www.defence.gov.au/about/strategic-planning/2024-national-defence-strategy-2024-integrated-investment-program

[2] undertake: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/seeing-through-the-darc-deep-into-space/

[3] Defence Strategic Update: https://www.defence.gov.au/about/strategic-planning/2020-defence-strategic-update

[4] Force Structure Plan: https://www.defence.gov.au/about/strategic-planning/2020-force-structure-plan

[5] proliferate: https://swfound.org/counterspace/

[6] Defence Strategic Review: https://www.defence.gov.au/about/reviews-inquiries/defence-strategic-review

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