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What might the 2013 White Paper say about space?

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8 October 2012 15:20

Brett Biddington is a retired RAAF officer who consults on space and cyberspace matters.

In the past five years, Australian policy makers in and beyond Defence have devoted a lot more attention to Australia's interest in space and to developing appropriate policy settings. Since December 2008, when space was not mentioned at all in the National Security Statement, the government is now finalising a national space policy. What is now needed are space specialists in Defence who can further develop the policy and programs in our universities to support them.

Why did the government turn around? For three reasons, reinforced by a series of well-developed and structured reports.

First, many parts of the Australian economy have considerable dependence on secure and assured access to data from one or more of the workhorse applications of space: global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) such as the global positioning system (GPS), communications satellites and Earth observation satellites. They can be considered 'virtual' components of Australia's critical national infrastructure. Except for Optus's communications satellites, all of the rest on which Australia depends are owned and operated by other nations. Of itself this is not a problem providing that there is clear understanding of the risks that result from these dependencies.

Second, space is a profoundly 'dual use' environment in which military and broader national security interests compete with civilian and commercial activities as a matter of course. Defence approaches to space must take account of the interests and concerns of a broader constituency that have current and vital interests in secure and assured access to space-based services and data.

Third, some parts of the space environment, especially the low Earth orbits (LEO) where many Earth observation satellites are located, are increasingly contested and congested. There is an urgent need to develop a much better understanding of the location of space objects (including working satellites and space debris) to avoid collisions, which only create more debris. The radio spectrum, including frequencies favoured by satellite operators, is under increasing pressure as the world rapidly transitions to one of ubiquitous mobility in which demand for bandwidth is rising exponentially.

The 2009 White Paper, unlike any of its predecessors, placed considerable emphasis on the importance of space to the Australian Defence Force. It proposed:

  • To establish a cadre of space specialists in Defence;
  • To allocate priority to the development of a space situational awareness capability (SSA) in Defence, which is happening through JP3029;
  • To work toward the acquisition of a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) Earth observation satellite at some point in the future; and
  • To keep an eye on developments that could indicate that other nations were developing space weapons.

Since the  2009 White Paper was published, Australia and the US, and Australia and the UK have agreed to work together to strengthen SSA capabilities globally. Defence has also undertaken innovative approaches to the acquisition of satellite communications capability by investing in the US Wideband Global System (WGS) and, more recently, by buying a so-called 'hosted payload' which is to be launched on a commercial communications satellite.

Three parts of Defence have prime carriage for space matters:

  • Strategy Division is the keeper of the Australian-US relationship at the heart of which are jointly operated US-Australian ground stations in Australia;
  • DSTO, helped by the intelligence community, maintains in-country understanding of technology developments in space in order to reduce the possibility of strategic surprise; and
  • RAAF because the Chief of Air Force is the designated capability manager for space in Defence.

The Implications for White Paper 2013

Given this background, what might the 2013 White Paper say about space? The following five points are proposed:

  1. Note developments since 2009 and commit to their continuance with special attention to building stronger links with civil space interests in Australia;
  2. Place the interests and responsibilities that Defence has with respect to space firmly in the context of the forthcoming national space policy, in particular recognising the dual use nature of space of which defence equities are an important but not the only part;
  3. Affirm Australia's commitment to the establishment of internationally agreed confidence building measures, such as a 'space code of conduct', in order to strengthen space as a safe environment for those who seek to launch and operate satellites, noting that non-spacefaring nations are also beneficiaries because of their dependence on systems such as GPS.
  4. Determine to accelerate the development of a cadre of space specialists in Defence with some specific, modest investments including support for capacity building initiatives in Australia's universities and the broader research community;
  5. Continue to maintain a watching brief on technologies and programs that could identify when space weapons are being developed so Australia may counter these developments through diplomacy whilst also assessing their impacts, if they were to be developed and used, on the fighting ability of the ADF.

In summary, the 2009 White Paper recognised space as a domain of warfare about which Australia knew little and needed to know more – quickly. Significant steps have been taken since then, however, there is more to be done and there is a time imperative. This leads to the conclusion that the 2013 White Paper should plan to accelerate the acquisition of space understanding in Defence, primarily through building human capacity in the first instance.

Picture by Flickr user blaster219.

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