Space and national security

| November 23, 2017

In September 2017, at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, the Commonwealth announced that it would establish an Australian space agency.  No details were given. When the agency will be set up, what it will do and how it will be structured remains to be determined.

Advocates have complained about the absence of an Australian space agency but few have asked why successive governments have not committed to an agency until now. There is an over-riding reason: Australia’s space journey, which began in the 1940s, has been and remains fundamentally a national security journey. Much of what was done and still occurs is shrouded in secrecy. In the first decades of the Cold War, Woomera was used by the United Kingdom to develop and test missiles designed to deliver atomic weapons. Since the 1960s, Australia has hosted ground stations that represent the long pole in the tent of the US alliance. Pine Gap is the compelling example.

In the wings, other Commonwealth agencies, notably Geoscience Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO have forged their own relationships with partner organisations, space agencies and other spatial data providers around the world.  They have gained access to satellite-derived data without having to accept the risks and costs associated with launch or with satellite operations.

Times, however, are changing. Smaller satellites are becoming more capable and there are many new entrants seeking to launch and operate satellites for commercial gain – notably in the telecommunications and space-based imagery markets.

Defence remains the heavy hitter in Australian space operations and capability development. This is where the money is – a three to four billion dollar program in space-based remote sensing for example is listed in the current investment program.  The discretions of the new space agency are likely to be strongly influenced by Defence and national security imperatives.  

In space, there is nowhere to hide but in plain sight and, as Defence moves to develop sovereign capabilities, it will need a civil program to provide cover and plausible deniability for at least some of its activities.

The space agency is likely to serve as a development vector for a local space industry and almost certainly some niche technologies will be developed that will ‘fly’ in space. The real potential, in terms of new jobs, however, lies in ground-based applications that use data from numerous sources, including satellites, to enable myriad human activities on Earth to become more efficient and effective.

Space is inherently ‘dual use’ – meaning space technologies have both military and civil/commercial application. The small domestic market will compel Australian space companies to seek export markets, access to which may be constrained by tight export controls.    

Australia needs the space agency, first and foremost, to provide national and international leadership and add an authoritative Australian voice into the increasingly complex and contested world of global space governance.

Secondly, the agency might sensibly coordinate Commonwealth satellite investments, notably in Earth observation and also lead on matters concerning space situational awareness and space traffic management as all satellite operators confront the challenge posed by space debris.  

In this context there is potential for Australia to play a unique and helpful role in global space governance because of our location in the southern hemisphere and our status as a middle-sided, technologically advanced power. Australia is not a strategic competitor to the major space powers. With care, we can promote the transparency and confidence building measures that are so desperately needed to ensure that the space environment remain safe and accessible to all.

The national and global space community will be watching the May 2018 Budget to better understand  the Commonwealth’s ambitions for the Australian space agency.


One Comment

  1. Alan Douglas

    November 24, 2017 at 9:19 am

    A lot of the major advances I technology have been driven by paranoia – the military have most of the money to spend and do so with great abandon. Only one person who walked on the Moon was non military, and he made it because of the sudden illness of another crew member. This is the reason so much scientific information was missed – the crews just did not have the expertise to do the job properly.
    We also pour millions into our military – ships, planes, tanks, etc. and yet are still not able to adequately patrol our own coastline. Tonnage-wise, the Indonesian navy is bigger than ours.
    Sure, space is the next big frontier; but militarily? I sincerely hope not. What a waste that would be. Private operators are now achieving advances NASA could only dream about a few years back – reusable launch systems, the soon to be launched giant rocket to place equipment on Mars and return. Maybe we should be thinking more about helping with the software and analysis of the data which will start coming back from future Moon, Mars and other landings: this is where we have shown our strength lies.