Russia and China give Australia’s space commander the need for speed
23 Mar 2022|

The head of the Australian Defence Force’s new space command says she wants to focus on speed and doing things differently to meet the challenge of ensuring Australia can maintain access to space in uncertain times.

Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts said Chinese and Russian activities in space were her biggest concern and that Australia needs to quickly develop the ability to protect both its civilian and military space infrastructure, something it currently lacks.

‘I think the activities by China and Russia, which have been fairly well documented in the public domain, scare me … We need to accelerate the capabilities so we can deal with the threats,’ she told a media briefing at the Royal Australian Air Force’s air and space power conference in Canberra on Tuesday.

Roberts used the example of China’s Shijian-21, which recently towed a defunct Chinese satellite out of its position in geosynchronous earth orbit to dispose of it, saying that Australia has no way to counter such a capability if it’s used against Australian assets in GEO, which include an Optus telecommunications satellite and the satellite responsible for the NBN’s Sky Muster internet service.

She said that the establishment of a space command in Defence, which although small at little more than 100 people, will aim to move quickly to stand up both defensive and offensive Australian space capabilities.

Roberts says space command is already investigating both reversible and irreversible methods to disable adversary space assets, including jamming from ground stations or using lasers to blind orbital satellites.

Australia will not, Roberts says, use methods that create space debris as Russia did with its test of an anti-satellite missile last year that created an estimated 1,500 pieces of trackable and potentially dangerous debris.

Another area of priority is ensuring satellite communications are resilient and cannot be easily disrupted or taken offline in a conflict.

Part of that effort is Defence’s Joint Project 9102, which aims to provide Australia with its first sovereign military communications satellites.

The current timeline for delivery of the $4-billion project is the mid- to late 2020s, though it’s clear that it’s a priority for the new command. Asked if under her leadership the new satellites would still be several years away, Roberts responded, ‘Not if I have anything to do with it.’

A sovereign Australian launch capability is also on the cards, with plans to launch a 100-kilogram satellite as soon as next year. It’s something that Roberts wants to work closely with both local and international companies to achieve.

‘There will be a launch capability in Australia, but it needs to be commercially viable. Defence won’t have enough launches by ourselves, but there are a lot of customers out there,’ she says.

Officials are frank in admitting that Australia has a lot of catching up to do since its time as a space industry leader in the 1960s.

‘From the late 1970s we just stopped looking at space … and so did Defence, probably because of the same reason—everyone was just like, “Oh, someone else will look after it”,’ Roberts says.

‘Did we take our eye off the ball? It’s arguable. You’ve got priorities, [but] for us as Australia and the Australian Defence Force to turn around and say we’re going to assure Australia’s access to space, that’s pretty bold,’ adds Air Commodore Nicholas Hogan, the new command’s director general of space capability.

Space command is a joint command that takes in members of all three services and while it’s now small, RAAF chief Mel Hupfeld told the conference that the air force will likely soon shift its investment focus to space.

Whether that means the command will eventually morph into its own service similar to the US Space Force is not certain, though the possibility has already been flagged by Defence Minister Peter Dutton.

Senior US commanders echoed concerns about Russian and Chinese activities in space, as well as the need for the rapid development and acquisition of new capabilities to keep pace.

General John Dickinson, the head of US Space Command, said China has growing capabilities that the US is monitoring, though he wouldn’t be drawn on whether the US has its own satellites that could replicate what Beijing had done with Shijian-21.

‘China is our pacing threat and we’re watching it very closely,’ he noted, adding that the US has a specific focus on dual-use technologies that can be employed for both civil and military purposes.

He said Russia’s anti-satellite test was ‘irresponsible’ and added significantly to the burden of the almost 44,000 pieces of space debris his command is tracking.

Speaking on Wednesday, the head of the US Space Force, General William Raymond, said that his service wanted to rapidly accelerate the traditional methods of acquiring new technologies.

Raymond noted that after a meeting with SpaceX founder Elon Musk in a largely empty warehouse, satellites made in that building were launched into orbit barely four months later. ‘We want to be able to leverage that.’

Instead of giving companies a set-in-stone requirement for a particular capability, Raymond wants to bring industry players in earlier in the process—going to them with a problem and asking, ‘How would you build that?’

Raymond noted that simply looking at acquisition wouldn’t necessarily solve problems that begin with decisions on how to structure a force. One based around small numbers of exquisite platforms is going to look very different to one that is focused on using capabilities that can be easily, cheaply and quickly replaced.

Both Australian and US commanders are also thinking about how to manage personnel in less traditional ways as their requirements for people grow.

The US Space Force is looking at how to implement an approach similar to Defence’s total workforce system to allow its people to more easily transition between services and in and out of defence industry.

‘There are things you’re doing in the Australian air force that we would like to be doing in our service,’ Raymond said.

For its part, Defence’s space command is confident its workforce model will provide the people it needs despite the fact that prospective recruits can’t sign up to join a Royal Australian Space Force—yet.