The space spectrum

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Quite rightly, many programs that work across space belong under the joint domain in a Defence context. All services, and indeed Whole of Government, utilise space data. But space has become increasingly militarised in a way that has made the fifth generation battle space more fragile.

“The utilization of space-based capabilities is an established part of modern military operations. The first live test of a Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) system in 2007 forever changed how the world operates in space,” according to Jeffrey Caton, writing in a US Army War College paper on the issue. “In one event, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) created over 2,000 pieces of debris that increased the number of manmade objects in space by 20 per cent, which increased the likelihood of collisions by 37 per cent.”

“During the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained ASAT capabilities that included direct ascent, co-orbital, and directed energy systems; many of these could be reconstituted by Russia. The technologies required for A2/AD of space satellites were proven and some were even operationalized decades ago and it is reasonable to consider that future rivals may utilize such systems,” the paper continues. “In short, space operations are becoming inherently more hazardous and vulnerable to disruption, denial, or destruction.”

“Ninety per cent of the capability outlined in the Defence Department’s 2016 integrated investment program is dependent on space technologies,” according to APSI’s Lauren Hanley in a piece for The Strategist. “Right now, this capability is sourced mainly from the US and depends heavily on access to US satellite systems and jointly operated ground stations. Large US satellites are vulnerable to attack, and any reduction in their capacity would pose an enormous challenge for the ADF.

“While we undoubtedly need to further develop our domestic capabilities and invest in capacity building in conjunction with the commercial sector, we should also be looking to build a safety net to offset the effects of such an attack.”

Satcoms and Defence’s access to space is being addressed under a number of complimentary programs, but the cornerstone of this approach is being explored under JP9102 Australian defence satcom system (ASDSS) – see p40 for more on this program.

“The vision of outer space as a vast and tranquil sea is but an illusion; space is an inherently hostile environment that has become congested, contested, and competitive among the nations – and this trend shows no sign of abatement,” Caton writes. “However, as with the land, sea, and air commons, the peaceful pursuit of economic, diplomatic, and informational ends in space often requires the support of a capable and restrained military space force. The continued pre-eminence of US military space capabilities depends on deliberate efforts to ensure access to and freedom of movement within the space domain.”

When it comes to space services, there is a growing awareness of what working or fighting in a denied or compromised environment would look like. Short answer; it’s not pretty. The fifth generation force that Defence is building relies on a resilient reliable connection to space. So what happens when the networked battlefield stops being networked? And what is Australia doing in the offensive realm in this domain?

The answer to both questions is unclear due to the classified nature of the responses involved.

“The ADF is preparing for operations in a congested, degraded and operationally-limited environment,” according to the AirPower Development Centre. “This includes investigating the use of alternative technologies, such as advanced high- frequency radio systems and terrestrial navigation and timing systems that can provide the ADF with the ability to fight on and win in the event the space architecture does fail. Additionally, the ADF has begun to train to fight in a space-denied or -degraded environment.

“The ADF’s space capabilities are becoming increasingly vulnerable. While protecting the assets is still not guaranteed, the threats have been recognised and measures are being instituted to counter them.”

In essence, we know and we’re doing our best to deal with the issue.

Part of the solution could be small sats in low earth orbit that can be deployed at very short notice, even on the move as the technology matures. It’s worth noting this concept is not new. During the Falklands War a US signals intelligence satellite was launched to support the British Amphibious Task Force – well before it arrived in the conflict zone.

Big and complex or small and simple are not the only answers when it comes to space; both ends of the space spectrum have their role to play in future war.

This article first appeared in the November 2019 edition of ADM. 


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