Australia is one of just two countries with the capabilities to neutralise large numbers of satellites passing over its territory, said Dr Ben Greene, founder of defence company Electro Optic Systems, at the ADM Space Summit in Canberra on 28 November.
Dr Greene, now EOS chief innovations officer, told the forum that a central issue was what Australia could do to deter others from attacking Australian space assets.
“Most people in this room mightn’t know it, and it’s not classified, but Australia is only one of two countries in the world that has the technology and the capability to neutralise satellites in number rapidly,” he said.
“The key thing to do would be to say to them, if you degrade or diminish capability of any of our satellites, we’ll take out 50 of yours. That’s all you have to do.”
Dr Greene didn’t spell out how that would be achieved.
Australia has no anti-satellite missiles, but it does have advanced capabilities for precise tracking of satellites and high-powered lasers for attacking drones, both developed by EOS.
Even though a high energy laser might not obliterate a satellite, it could dazzle or damage its sensors.
Dr Greene told the conference that the essential precursor for any counter-space activity was superior space intelligence, what is now referred to as Space Domain Awareness (SDA).
This refers to the detection, tracking and identification of satellites and other orbiting objects, for which Australia has advanced capabilities.
Dr Greene said Australian SDA covered around one sixth of the sky, delivered by, among others, EOS with its laser tracking facility in Canberra, the RAAF’s space telescope in WA and the new LeoLabs Australia space radar, also in WA.
“There’s not a low orbiting satellite that’s focused on ISR or any activity around the world that doesn’t overfly Australia,” he said.
“We have the ability to conduct intelligence and interdiction operations from Australian territory on any satellite at all that’s of importance going forward into the coming decades.
“We are one of only two countries in the world that could do that. Russia is a little bit too far north but could make a reasonable attempt. The US and Australia are the only two countries in the world that could do that. We could do it independently.”
Dr Greene said he had done the math.
“We could intercept and interdict the satellite operations of any country on earth, if we chose to. That’s a really powerful platform for us,” he said.
“It’s quite feasible now to talk about taking out hundreds of satellites a day if that was necessary.”
While Australia has made good progress in its space journey, the panellists were asked what Australia really needs to advance national space capabilities.
“Policy and strategy. We won’t actually have the correct policy and strategy until we have national leadership that gets what we are all talking about,” said Terry van Haren, president and managing director of LeoLabs Australia.
“We actually need ministerial type leadership to set the policy and strategy to do everything we are talking about and it’s unfortunately not happening yet.”
Bec Shrimpton, director of defence strategy and national security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said the story of space and its importance to Australians’ daily lives was not told well enough or well understood.
“Neither its opportunities or its risks are really being addressed adequately in policy and strategy. That’s not for lack of trying from parts of our space system,” she said.
Ms Shrimpton said there were pockets of genuine excellence with dedicated individuals, parts of government departments that really got this and interested investors who wanted to see the sector take off.
But all these actors seemed to be operating in silos, dispersed and their effect diffused.
“They are less than the sum of their parts. That is because the capstone of getting space right in this country is a national bipartisan commitment and a vision and that is lacking,” she said.
Ms Shrimpton said defence and foreign policy enjoyed general bipartisanship, a joined-up approach, a mature means of interaction between departments and certainty in organisation and funding.
“That that must be the goal for space as well,” she said.
“A strategy can help because it just tells people what it is we are trying to do, which also attracts investment, attracts business and deals to allow exports which in credibly important.”
ASPI senior analyst Dr Malcolm Davis said he would like to see a minister for space, and that moving the Australian Space Agency from the industry department to Prime Minister and Cabinet was a good idea.
“I would like to see Australian astronauts standing on the lunar surface with Australian flags on their spacesuits. That to me would be the most inspiring thing that could imagine for young men and women looking at a future in space,” he said.
“We need a much more ambitious approach to how we think about defence and space. It can’t just be for communications provision. It’s got to be about space control.
“It’s got to be how we respond to a contested space domain when China is rapidly developing counter-space capabilities and fully intends to use them in the next war. Space will quickly become a warfighting environment, not because of our own actions but because of decisions in Beijing.”