The increasing dependence and vulnerability of space-based intelligence, surveillance and communications assets, combined with the ever-advancing pace of anti-satellite technology, is opening avenues for Australia to leverage domestic expertise to develop a credible, cost-effective ‘multi-domain’ force multiplying, deterrence capability.
Australia's rapidly modernising military capabilities has typically focused on developing traditional conventional air, land and sea-based capabilities, supported by enhanced Australian industry capability. While platforms like the Army's growing web of integrated, networked platforms like the Boxer CRV, next-generation air and missile defence systems, Navy's Hobart and Hunter Class ships, the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, P-8A Poseidon and the E-7A Wedgetail are individually highly capable platforms – their reliance on integrated, secure and highly capable space-based networks is a key weakness.
This vulnerability is not unique to Australia and its period of modernisation and capability development – rather, every modern military, including those of major powers like the US, Russia, China and India, are all equally dependent upon the uncontested access to their own integrated space-based communications, intelligence and surveillance networks.
Recognising this, each of these powers have begun to heavily invest in both 'hard' and 'soft' kill methods for leveraging these vulnerabilities – in conjunction with advanced space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities – to protect their own vulnerable assets in the face of a simmering global space-arms race. Australia has maintained a long-term interest in SSA capabilities, signing an agreement to co-operate with the US in 2010, which serves as an avenue for Australian industry and Defence organisations to integrate as part of a new US strategic deterrence umbrella.
Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, identified the changing dynamic of this next-generation space arms race, particularly given the advent of increasingly accessible nano-satellites and the growing traditional 'counterspace' capabilities, saying: "The cost of using space for benign or malign purposes is dropping, and there’s an accelerating proliferation of Space 2.0 technologies.
"In 2019, China and Russia are the two key counterspace threats in terms of traditional ASAT technologies. By 2035, the spread of technology that can be applied in an ASAT role, whether in space or from the ground, will mean the number of potential counterspace powers will grow rapidly, and Australia’s space capabilities will come under greater threat."
Dr Davis elaborates, "Space is contested because peer adversaries such as China and Russia are developing a suite of counterspace capabilities, including co-orbital and direct ascent anti-satellite weapons, as well as ‘soft kill’ counterspace capabilities based around electronic warfare, cyber attack and, potentially, directed-energy weapons."
It is important to identify as Dr Davies outlined to Defence Connect, "The best course of action for Australia is to consider a counterspace capability focused on developing a 'soft kill' system that doesn't contribute to additional space debris."
So how does Australia leverage its existing SSA and growing technological capabilities to develop its own counterspace capabilities? Given the nation's expertise in SSA and specific technologies, namely hypersonics, what joint 'hard' and 'soft' kill anti-satellite system options are available to Australia?
Enhancing SSA and 'soft kill' capabilities
Australia's world-leading SSA capabilities combined with renewed government focus on developing an offensive domestic cyber capabilities, domestic development of directed-energy weapons to 'dazzle' or 'blind' competitor space assets, and the nation's growing electronic warfare capabilities provide avenues for Australia to develop a complementary 'soft kill' capability.
Australia's world-leading JORN network and the Harold E Holt base outside of Geraldton in WA, combined with the continuing development of ionosphere scanning technology and the development of space-based tracking and related situational awareness capabilities by local companies, including EOS Space Systems, Sabre Astronautics and their joint participation in the US Space Fence program, additionally supports the nation's push to develop a credible SSA and soft kill capability.
The rapid development of peer and near-competitor anti-satellite and counterspace capabilities, recently exemplified by the successful Indian anti-satellite weapons test and the resulting threat of space debris, requires the development of a robust and considered Australian response – enabling the nation to protect and deter its sovereign space interests while supporting the long-term development of Australia's own sovereign space capabilities.
Last Resort: A joint Force 'hard kill' counterspace/anti-satellite capabilities
The modernisation of the ADF – namely the introduction of next-generation, multi-domain capabilities across each of the ADF's branches – provides interesting avenues for Australia to develop a reliable, survivable and complementary counterspace and anti-satellite capability.
In particular, the Navy's acquisition of advanced surface combatants, in the Aegis-powered Hobart and Hunter Class destroyers and frigates, serves as the basis of the sea-based leg of Australia's own counterspace capability - albeit a final resort option given the dangers posed by space debris.
The power of the Aegis Combat System and continued upgrades in development and in-service with the US Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, in the form of ballistic missile defence (BMD) capability packages added into the Aegis system and advancing SPY radars supporting targeting and tracking by advanced SM-series missiles, provides avenues for Australia to leverage these capabilities in conjunction with the nation's major strategic partner.
Developing and implementing these naval capabilities does require the modernisation of Australia's Aegis fleet to incorporate the BMD capabilities, as well as the introduction of the SM-3 series missiles, provides the nation with a credible anti-satellite deterrent capability. Meanwhile, the nation's recognised leading-edge phased-array radar and SSA capabilities through companies like CEA Technologies and EOS Space Systems provide further avenues for Australia to develop a niche, leading-edge capability to fulfil Australia's unique tactical and strategic requirements.
Additionally, the planned acquisition of the integrated air-and-missile-defence and battle management system as part of AIR 6500 builds on examples of US Air Force from the early-1980s through to the early-2000s, which sought to combine ever increasing computational power from ground and space-based sensors to 'shooter' platforms, namely fighter and bomber aircraft equipped with advanced air-launched anti-satellite weapons systems.
Australia's expertise in developing hypersonics, combined with the development of an integrated fifth-generation force on the back of the F-35, provides additional 'last resort' avenues for the nation to develop leading-edge technologies, approaches and doctrines for leveraging the 'hard kill' vulnerabilities of potential adversaries.