The ADF needs to see at long range to strike at long range
24 Jan 2023|

The debate on how best to defend Australia in a worsening strategic environment is likely to be substantially settled with the defence strategic review, due for completion in March. Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles recently emphasised the need for long-range strike capabilities, including by referring to ‘impactful projection’. He reinforced the requirement for Australia to project military effect at long range, saying: ‘We must invest in targeted capabilities that enable us to hold potential adversaries’ forces at risk at a distance and increase the calculated cost of aggression against Australia.’

Marles is being very clear that long-range strike and, by extension, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) are priorities that will be reflected in the strategic review. That ISR capability has to have a targeting component based on multi-domain capabilities, notably including space-based sensors.

Simply put, we need to see far to strike far. The sensor ends of that ‘kill chain’ must be resilient, even in highly contested environments, and have a sustained hemispheric gaze from Australia’s shores. Crewed aircraft such as the P-8A Poseidon or autonomous aerial vehicles such as the MQ-4B Triton are but one part of any future ISR capability for the Australian Defence Force.

The increasing ability of a major-power adversary such as China to project military force, along with uncertainty over our access to forward basing, raises the risks in sustaining these aircraft on station, distant from Australia’s air and maritime approaches. The small number of aircraft Australia operates reinforces these challenges—only six MQ-4B Tritons will be available, for example. Certainly, submarines can also play a role in tactical intelligence gathering, as can surface combatants, but we only have six ageing Collins-class diesel–electric boats, and the nuclear-powered submarines being acquired under AUKUS won’t appear until the late 2030s at best. Naval surface combatants are becoming more vulnerable inside an adversary anti-access/area-denial envelope characterised by ever more sophisticated long-range missiles and long-range surveillance systems.

Reliance on close-in surveillance that only allows us to respond to a threat within Australia’s air and maritime approaches is not sufficient. That surrenders the initiative to the adversary, which could then strike our key northern infrastructure from outside the reach of coastal defences and short-range tactical fighters. We’re recognising that our ‘strategic moat’, traditionally perceived as the sea–air gap to our north, is not so defensible in these days of precision conventional ballistic missiles, hypersonic cruise missiles, and cyber and counter-space capabilities. China has all these already and is continuing to expand and develop them.

Chinese ships can target northern Australia from within the Indonesian archipelago, and Australia is in range of Chinese land-based missiles and long-range bombers in the South China Sea. So, our gaze must penetrate far and deep across the Indo-Pacific region. Space-based ISR that is pervasive and resilient, even in the face of adversary counter-space threats, seems to be the best answer.

Last year on this forum, Daniel Molesworth highlighted the importance of building a dedicated surveillance and target acquisition capability for the Australian Army’s long-range fires, based on tactical uncrewed aerial systems. He suggested that the Defence Department re-establish Project Air 7003 to acquire remotely piloted drones such as the MQ-9B Sky Guardian. That’s a good idea, particularly in relation to the employment of shorter-range guided missiles on the US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) that Australia will be acquiring.

However, space-based capabilities take us the next step to hemispheric surveillance and targeting for very long-range strike. Those capabilities will be essential if Australia acquires much longer-range power projection, such as that implicit in platforms like the B-21 Raider or an evolved version of the MQ-28 Ghost Bat. The nuclear submarines will also require targeting for both land-attack and anti-ship operations.

Defence is already supporting key space projects, such as the recently announced National Space Mission for Earth Observation, a civilian-oriented project led by the Australian Space Agency, CSIRO and Geoscience Australia. The satellite capability it provides will have some utility in tasks such as bushfire response, disaster relief and maritime domain awareness, but it’s not a dedicated defence capability.

Defence needs to acquire its own satellite constellation in low-earth orbit that can provide high-resolution imagery for target detection and precision tracking to support long-range strikes. Such a constellation could complement larger geospatial intelligence-gathering capabilities, such as those to be operated by the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation under Defence Project 799 Phase 2.

Last year, Australia supported two launches for the US National Reconnaissance Office, in cooperation with the Defence Department, under the ‘Antipodean Adventure’ program. Although they are US satellites, Australian involvement gives Defence valuable experience ahead of acquiring sovereign space surveillance capabilities. Also last year, Gilmour Space Technologies announced a partnership with LatConnect 60 to launch eight satellites on Gilmour’s Eris launcher from 2024 to provide commercial earth observation, including for defence applications.

These are good steps forward. But projects such as the earth observation mission and the lack of current information on Project 799 Phase 2 reinforce concerns that the traditional defence-specific requirements for space-based ISR may be subsumed under a broader, softer focus within a civil capability, where the priorities are climate change, urban planning, crop management and national resilience, rather than cueing and targeting of long-range missile systems in wartime.

If Defence were to enhance its space-based ISR capabilities beyond these projects, there would be advantages in embracing the ‘small, cheap and many’ over the ‘large, expensive and few’. A mega-constellation made up of low-cost small satellites is more difficult for an opponent to attack than a few large, complex multibillion-dollar satellites.

There’s also a commercial dimension that’s important to consider. A small-satellite constellation in low-earth orbit that’s dedicated for tactical ISR and targeting would be ideally developed as a sovereign capability by the rapidly growing Australian commercial space sector. Designed, built, launched and operated from Australia, it would be a true sovereign space surveillance system that could directly support the ADF’s ISR and strike requirements, without dependence on foreign actors for access or control, but with the opportunity to work with complementary US or UK systems, perhaps under AUKUS.

It would also create a vital opportunity for Australia’s space sector to demonstrate experience in building such a capability, which could in turn reduce government risk-aversion to expanding the role of Australian small to medium enterprises in providing Defence with vital space capabilities. The greater the ongoing role for Australia’s commercial space sector, the greater the opportunity for the government to invest in Australian companies.

The lower cost of small satellites would also mean that our space-based ISR capabilities could be more regularly refreshed by new locally built satellites incorporating the latest technologies, enabling us to better exploit accelerating innovation cycles rather than wait for overseas providers. That will generate further confidence within Australia’s commercial space sector in its ability to support defence missions.

Australia needs to start thinking about building and operating a sovereign mega-constellation with a sufficient number of small satellites to ensure constant and pervasive surveillance and targeting. The ‘impactful projection’ task suggested by Marles creates a valuable opportunity to develop sovereign space-based ISR systems that enhance our ability to strike far and fast against any threat.