The Australian Defence Force and contested space
15 Aug 2019|

What might warfare in space look like and what should the Australian Defence Force be doing to prepare? That’s the subject of my new ASPI strategy paper, which examines how the ADF uses space, explores emerging counterspace threats, and considers what the ADF’s options are for responding to those threats.

Current ADF joint doctrine notes that space is a critical centre of gravity in information-based operations. Simply put, the ADF can’t use military power quickly, precisely and decisively without it. Space enables our forces to exploit an information edge to constrain the risks of high casualties in a prolonged conflict, while maximising our tactical edge and avoiding operational surprise. It is our ability to access and exploit space capabilities that minimises the likelihood of strategic defeat.

Space gives the ADF global access and perspective for long-range situational awareness and intelligence collection. It also enables precision-delivery of weapons, as well as long-range communications and space-enabled positioning and timing for networked command and control. Space support ensures better force integration across multi-domain operations, both within the ADF and as part of a coalition.

Our heavy dependence on space capability allows us to punch well above our weight, but it’s also a potential weakness. If we lose access to space, our military won’t be able to undertake modern information operations. Our reliance on space could be an Achilles’ heel in a conflict, and our adversaries could try to exploit that vulnerability.

The paper provides a comprehensive analysis of the counterspace capabilities that are emerging in the militaries of potential adversaries like China and Russia. These include both kinetic (‘hard kill’) antisatellite (ASAT) weapons that physically destroy a target satellite, and non-kinetic (‘soft kill’) systems that can generate scalable or even reversible effects to disable, damage or disrupt a satellite’s systems without physically destroying it. The clouds of space debris generated by kinetic ASATs can be self-defeating, denying access to space for all states, potentially for decades. That makes soft-kill methods more attractive for counterspace operations.

China has operationally deployed direct-ascent kinetic ASATs since 2010, and China and Russia are testing some satellite-related technologies that could be applied towards co-orbital ASATs as well. The challenge of dual-role technologies is clear. They can be employed in legitimate commercial roles such as orbital repair and refueling, but could quickly be repurposed as co-orbital ASATs. This raises the risk of a ‘grey zone’ threat in orbit.

Equally as challenging are ground-based non-kinetic counterspace capabilities, including systems for jamming satellite uplinks and downlinks, spoofing satellites to provide false information, laser-dazzling spy satellites in low-earth orbit, and conducting cyberattacks against satellites. Ground-based capabilities may extend the ability of an adversary to interfere with our satellites without being detected. They can also be developed cheaply and relatively quickly and may proliferate more easily from state to non-state actors.

The emergence of ‘Space 2.0’ technologies such as small satellites, CubeSats and reusable rockets adds more complexity to the space operational domain. Space 2.0 not only reduces the cost of accessing space, thus opening it up to new actors, but also offers new ways of developing counterspace capability. As satellite technology gets smaller and cheaper, military space operations could become more sophisticated, including exploiting dual-use commercial systems and the potential of ‘mega-constellations’.

The paper concludes by analysing Australia’s options for responding to a contested high frontier. We already benefit from strong cooperation among the Five Eyes partners on space surveillance and coordination of space operations. Information-sharing also occurs through the Combined Space Operations Initiative, which includes the US, Australia, Canada and the UK. Expanding space surveillance cooperation and exploiting Australia’s advantageous geography should be a priority because understanding activities in orbit is the first step to preventing attacks.

We also need to think about how the Defence organisation should be configured for the space mission. The US is currently debating the merits of establishing an independent US space force after the recent decision to re-establish US Space Command within the air force. The Royal Air Force is formalising and enhancing the role of space as part of its new ‘Strategic Command’. France is establishing its own defensive counterspace capabilities, as is NATO, and Japan is moving towards elevating attention on space security. Australia should follow a clear trend by reorganising Defence’s structure with space in mind. That should involve elevating the importance of space across the organisation and providing a coherent structure staffed by a skilled space cadre.

This would then support establishing a formal space strategy within Defence that—like the Australian Space Agency’s civil space strategy—provides clear guidance on future directions. The document would need to establish goals and objectives for the ADF not only in using space, but also in meeting the evolving counterspace challenge.

The most urgent task must be to strengthen the resilience of ADF and allied space capability in the face of an increasing adversary counterspace threat. Australia is well placed to exploit Space 2.0 and its own rapidly growing commercial space sector to develop an ADF operationally responsive space capability. This would see Australia, for the first time, developing the means to launch its own satellites on Australian launch vehicles from Australian launch sites. Such a capability would allow Australia to burden-share in orbit with the US and other partners, by augmenting, or reconstituting, allied space capability in a way that increases the challenges for any state seeking to launch an attack on our space systems.

Australia also has the option to strengthen such a space deterrence posture with its own ground-based counterspace capability. It could be built around soft-kill techniques such as electronic warfare and laser-dazzling. The purpose of such a capability would be to back up space resilience with the implicit threat of retaliation to strengthen deterrence. That would further add to our ability to burden-share in orbit alongside the US and other key partners.