Securing an independent space capability for Australia
1 Jul 2019|

In the lead-up to 2019 federal election, Anthony Albanese, now leader of the Labor Party, announced a plan to build a strategic fleet of Australian-flagged merchant vessels that would be subject to requisitioning laws. The idea was to ensure that the Australian government could, if it needed to, take charge of the vessels and their Australian crews in the national interest.

Though Labor lost the election, and the Morrison government is unlikely to pursue a similar policy due to the high cost of using Australian-flagged ships for merchant shipping, the proposal put the issue of requisitioning on the table. With only 14 vessels on the Australian register, there’s not much to be gained from requisitioning our current merchant fleet for national needs. Yet the centrality of new technologies to Australia’s security should prompt us to take a much broader look at requisitioning laws and where they could be effectively employed in times of national need.

Ninety per cent of the capability outlined in the Defence Department’s 2016 integrated investment program is dependent on space technologies. Right now, this capability is sourced mainly from the United States and depends heavily on access to US satellite systems and jointly operated ground stations. Large US satellites are vulnerable to attack, and any reduction in their capacity would pose an enormous challenge for the Australian Defence Force. While we undoubtedly need to further develop our domestic capabilities and invest in capacity building in conjunction with the commercial sector, we should also be looking to build a safety net to offset the effects of such an attack. Requisitioning could provide this short-term solution.

Unlike its American counterpart, NASA, which is a major player across the complete breadth of space research, technology and operations, the Australian Space Agency is focused on supporting the growth of the civil space sector. The Australian space industry’s approach to space technology is vastly different from the traditional large-scale, state-funded programs developed in the US and Russia. With a focus on Space 2.0 technologies as a small-but-many approach to satellite development, the civil space industry isn’t dependent on government funding or defence contracts. Instead, it’s being propelled by commercial and research interests.

The industry is growing very quickly. Two spaceports are being built in the Northern Territory and South Australia, so we’ll soon have the capacity to develop, manufacture and launch microsatellites and nanosatellites into low-earth orbit, geosynchronous orbit and eventually deep space. With a launch site close to the equator, Australian launch operators will be able to ensure near continuous surveillance of the approaches to Australia. The satellites will be able to monitor anything from climate to telecommunications and will make global positioning systems increasingly more accurate.

Requisitioning laws have been tried and tested in the past, most notably when the UK requisitioned vessels for transport and supply during the 1982 Falklands War. With a fleet of 1,157, UK requisitioning laws allow the government to rapidly build transport and supply lines in times of need. With a mere 14 Australian-flagged ships, we can’t access effective tonnages of merchant shipping without significant investment in building a strategic fleet. While this is a matter of national interest and warrants further discussion, effective requisitioning laws governing space technologies would not require heavy investment and could have a more pointed impact.

As technology continues to advance and play a more significant role in the ADF through the development of unmanned aerial vehicles, artificial intelligence and cyberwar capabilities, space technologies will be increasingly central to them all. Australia needs to ensure that our strategic interests are secured and our defensive capabilities don’t continue to rely on access to a single source for information, navigation and communication.

With a fledgling space agency and indistinct regulation of the space industry, now is an ideal time to look at implementing requisitioning laws. Agreement between the government and industry could be reached though engagement and discussion on the situations that may necessitate requisition and the remuneration that would need to be paid to the organisation and its personnel in return for this service. It would remove the need for individual agreements between the Australian government and businesses and implement an overarching policy agreed to by both parties.

An overarching agreement would ensure that the ADF has access to these capabilities and the staff to operate them at short notice, without the need to broker individual agreements with organisations across the industry. Negotiating agreements at that level could be a lengthy process and involve extensive research into the specific capabilities required from a rapidly advancing industry. The agreements would have to be reviewed regularly to ensure that they continue to provide the necessary resources to support defence operations.

Delaying such agreements could also shift the balance of power in favour of business. By instituting an agreement now, government and business would have equal stakes in the negotiations. If it’s relegated to a responsive action by government, the private sector could leverage its advantage, and the government’s capacity to negotiate would be limited. By prioritising this now, requisitioning laws should have little impact on the growth of the sector. The promise of an agreed level of remuneration and a set structure across the industry should ensure that businesses operating in the space industry can develop an understanding of what may be required of them and establish protocols in line with that.

To ensure a constant flow of information and sufficient adaptability, requisitioning laws should encompass the whole of the aerospace industry. That includes satellite manufacturing, spaceports, ground stations and all other associated infrastructure as well as the personnel to operate them. These systems are continually building new capability that will play an evolving role in ADF operations in Australia and our region.

With the Australian aerospace industry booming, the time is right for Australia to increase its self-reliance and ensure that the full capacity of the ADF is available at all times. The centrality of space technology to our defence capability requires more attention to be paid to its development and the possible future needs of an increasingly tech-based force. Requisitioning with agreed levels of remuneration would remove this barrier and ensure that in times of national need the ADF can still operate at full capacity.