For the US and its key global allies, the increasing dependence upon and vulnerability of space-based intelligence, surveillance and communications assets has emerged as a key tactical and strategic challenge, particularly as peer and near-peer competitors, namely Russia and China continue to expand their own counter-space capabilities – this growing conundrum has prompted the US administration to reinvigorate and re-purpose the US Air Force's Space Command to better meet the challenges.
Recently appointed head of US Space Command, Air Force General Jay Raymond, has as part of the broader reorientation of the capability recognised the growing limitations of America's capacity to act in a isolated manner – reflecting the growing realisations of strategic thinkers around the world, and particularly in Australia, in the face of an increasingly assertive and capable Chinese, Russian and to a lesser extent, Iranian capability.
"Historically, we haven’t needed to have allies in space, [but now as space becomes increasingly important, it is] a big growth area for us. And I think it’s going to provide our country a big advantage. We’re stronger together," GEN Raymond said at a press conference at the Pentagon in late August – highlighting the growing shift in US tactical and strategic thinking.
This growing shift in thinking has prompted a radical shift in engagement with key allies, namely Five Eye partners, including the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, with an expanded focus on other allies, including France, Germany and Japan, building on the conventional training, cross-nation platform operation and high-level political and strategic dialogues that characterise the US-led global order.
GEN Raymond added, "We are working very closely with our partners, specifically our Five Eyes partners, France, Germany and Japan. We exercise together, we train together, we conduct war games together."
For Australia, this shift towards nurturing key relationships with allies supporting increased interoperability and joint tactical and strategic space-based force multipliers provides an opportunity for the nation to leverage areas of competitive advantage within the alliance network and each individual ally's efforts to develop a credible, cost-effective, 'multi-domain' force.
Australia's natural competitive advantage
Space situational awareness (SSA) serves as one key area for Australia to maximise its 'value add' proposition within the US-led alliance framework. In the broadest sense, SSA may be defined as a knowledge of the energy and particle fluxes in near-Earth space, natural and artificial objects passing through or orbiting within this space, including the past, present and future state of these components.
The realm of near-Earth space may be left rather vague at this stage. It is definitely within cis-lunar space, but extends to an Earth-radius of at least 100,000 kilometres to include nearly all man-made objects currently in orbit.
SSA provides Australia with an area of natural competitive advantage compared with other nations. Ben Greene, EOS group chief executive, explained the unique position Australia finds itself in: "As a nation, Australia has a natural advantage in space services, but we have to leave the door open to disruptive technologies being developed to help increase Australian access because in some of these disruptive technologies everyone, including Australia, is starting from the same basic levels."
Dr Greene added, "When it comes to SSA capabilities, Australia is one of the top five major global space powers, however, at a national level the indigenous capability is essentially zero – while Australia hosts foreign sensors, there isn't that uniquely national capability at this point in time."
Australia's world-leading SSA capabilities, combined with renewed government focus on developing 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.
The leading-edge JORN network and the Harold E Holt base outside of Geraldton in Western Australia, 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 world-leading companies like 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 counter-space 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.
Dr Greene added, "The importance part of SSA and the way it feeds into a more interventionist approach toward space is the need to establish and maintain an extensive intelligence database to make sure that any action against space debris doesn't have a negative impact on the broader space environment throughout the various levels of orbit."
Aussie SSA supporting allied capabilities
Combined with Australia's natural advantage in the SSA domain, growing platform commonality driven largely through the joint Australian, US, Japanese and Korean operation of the Aegis combat system; Australian, Korean and UK operation of the E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control platform; and the US-led F-35 Joint Strike Fighter roll out all provide avenues for Australian SSA platforms and capability to integrate within the developing allied 'multi-domain' battlespace force.
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.
"We absolutely are open for new partnerships; we’re eagerly working those partnerships, I mentioned the countries that we’re working very closely with today, but we are looking forward to continuing to expand that. That’s one of the priorities of the command," GEN Raymond expanded.
As space-based challenges continue to evolve and the US continues to push for closer allied collaboration and integration within a joint response to peer and near-peer space-based capabilities, Australia will have an important role to play, enhancing the nation's 'value-add' within the confines of the Five Eyes.