Shooting the moon: DWP 2016 takes the ADF to the final frontier
4 Mar 2016|

The 2016 Defence White Paper, in considering the ADF’s approach to the use of outer space for military purposes, highlights a significant potential path for the ADF, and more broadly, for Australian space policy in the 21st century. So why is space important for the ADF, and what does the 2016 DWP say about the issue?

In World War Two, Bernard Law Montgomery claimed, ‘If we lose the war in the air, we lose the war and we lose it quickly’. This famous axiom translates well to space today, where an inability to access military space capabilities completely undermines the ability of modern information-led military forces to function—forcing them back to a cruder, industrial level of conflict. That type of warfare is characterised not by multidimensional manoeuvre, precision attack and a ‘knowledge edge’, but by mass, attrition, the ‘fog of war’ and the less discriminate use of firepower leading to high casualties, both military and civilian. Think of battles such as the Somme or Stalingrad—or even Syria today.

Ensuring continuing access to space capabilities is vital for our military to function effectively and for us to be able to use military power in a manner that’s consistent both with the Just War theory that emphasises proportionality and discrimination in the use of force, and the current values upon which our society is based, particularly in wars of choice. New air, naval and land forces highlighted in the 2016 DWP are enabled by space capabilities, from our reliance on global communications and the use of precision navigation to support joint expeditionary operations, to ensuring an effective understanding of the battlespace through space-based ISR. This dependence on space will only grow over time as the ADF becomes more network-centric. Further, if we seek true interoperability with coalition partners we must be able to plug and play with their space systems. Simply put, our ability to use space is vital to our entire approach to defence, and that’s not going to change.

The 2016 DWP recognises this and is laying the basis for an expanding ADF military space capability. It begins by highlighting that Defence will enjoy ‘…greater access to allied and commercial space-based imagery capabilities, and this will lay the basis to potentially develop new space-based sensor capabilities.’ (4.14) The White Paper also reiterates the importance of space surveillance and situational awareness through ‘…the establishment of the space-surveillance C-band radar…and the relocation of a US optical Space surveillance telescope’ to the Harold E. Holt Naval Communications station near Exmouth in Western Australia (4.16). Finally it reinforces the prospect of investment in ‘…ADF space capability, including space-based and ground based intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance systems.’ (4.16)

Two significant messages on space need to be highlighted. The first is a recognition of the importance of sharing space capabilities with allies, such as the US, but also potentially other important allies that have growing space capabilities. Earlier analyses by Andrew Davies, Rod Lyon and myself have already suggested Japan as a possible candidate amongst others as a new partner in space with a coalition approach adding to dissuasion that strengthens resilience in the face of adversary counter-space capabilities. Second, the 2016 DWP recognises the importance of commercial space-based sensor capabilities as an alternative to a government-run ‘mil-spec’ project, for Australia investing in new space-based sensor capabilities.

More fundamentally, the DWP lays the policy basis for Australia to embark on a more ambitious approach to space capabilities in the future than it has previously, when Australia was content to be a passive consumer of Space services provided by other states. DWP 2016 hints that Australia may instead be a producer of space capabilities, and is congruent with accelerating efforts within Australian private space companies and universities to develop commercial space capabilities and undertake R&D aimed at establishing an Australian space capability to ensure that Australia’s more than a passive observer on the sidelines as other states dominate the space sector. That approach is based around the use of commercial small satellites and ‘CubeSats’. In terms of launching those payloads into Space, the key technology to watch is reusable rockets that are now entering service in the US as part of a rapidly expanding commercial space launch sector. By dramatically reducing the cost of space launch through re-using the rockets, the potential for financial risk drops away as well. That opens up the high frontier to a much wider spectrum of users, including would-be Space powers such as Australia.

DWP 2016 establishes the policy foundation upon which much can be built at a highly opportune time of revolutionary shifts in space technology and great interest in the commercial Space sector. Consider also that moves are underway to review and update (and here) the 1998 Space Activities Act, which is no longer relevant. This policy process which brings together government, the private sector and universities can and should incorporate input from the Defence community as a key user of space. The Defence Innovation Hub, announced alongside the DWP as part of the Defence Industry Policy, clearly has a key role in this regard.

Australia’s space policy choices are at an inflection point. New approaches to using space, launching payloads and the design of space capabilities is dramatically changing the way states and non-state actors use space. The impact of disruptive innovation in the commercial sector is increasingly clear, and the timing for the review of the Space Activities Act, along with the policy foundations established by the 2016 Defence White Paper, is fortuitous. It’s often said that ‘fortune favours the bold’. Now is the time for Australia to be bold in space.