The place for space in the Defence Review

| May 9, 2023

The 2023 Defence Strategic Review (DSR) has moved space further into the mainstream as a key element of a more integrated force. With the prominence given space in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU) reinforced by the DSR, this domain—alongside land, sea, air and cyber—is no longer an afterthought in defence planning.

That’s good news for an ADF seeking to build a focused force to undertake a strategy of denial. Space is essential to the integrated force for multi-domain operations, particularly as part of an anti-access and area denial (A2AD) approach. Space capabilities underpin the ‘impactful projection’ Defence Minister Richard Marles is seeking for the ADF.  It must be able to strike deep, and to see deep, to project power decisively and rapidly.

Space capabilities are central to this. The DSU and its accompanying force structure plan set the path for the ADF to develop space capabilities, leading to the establishment of Defence Space Command (DSpC) in January 2022, and to major defence projects. The DSR builds on these steps in important ways.

The most significant step is moving DSpC from the Royal Australian Air Force to the Joint Capabilities Group (JCG) which shifts space into a joint and integrated context. The DSR says space command needs to be re-postured inside Defence to maximise its effectiveness. ‘It requires a centralised space domain capability development and management function, and a method for building and sustaining a trained Defence Space workforce, including a defined career path for space professionals.’

Space must not revert to being regarded as simply a supporting function for the ADF as critical as that function is. The ability to strike high value targets with certainty and precision at long range is entirely dependent on space capabilities. Most of the priority capabilities and effects that exist today and which are to be developed for the ADF in all domains rely on space-based capabilities.

Space has already been acknowledged as an operational domain in its own right by Defence Space Command. JCG’s primary role is to provide enabling capabilities to support operations in traditional domains. Care must be taken to ensure that within JCG space does not become simply an enabling adjunct. Space Command should quickly assert the importance of space equal to the other domains.

The ADF has depended on the US for high-end and exquisite space-based capabilities—a suitable and efficient choice in a more peaceful and less technologically demanding era. As both the US military and global commercial space have evolved, so too must thinking in the ADF. An update to the 2022 Defence Space Strategy, and the Space Power e-Manual that considers the 2023 DSR would be a good step towards the 2024 National Defence Strategy.

The DSR constantly refers to multi-domain operations that cannot be conducted without space capabilites, and JCG’s second role is ‘progressing leading edge capabilities, such as cyber, data link and satellite communications’.

In this sense, a move of DSpC into JCG allows it to not only better engage with the other services as part of an integrated ADF but also to take on a leading role in ensuring space capabilities are front and centre in project development.

The ADF does not need to own and operate entire space systems, but it does need to carefully consider Australia’s advantages strategically, operationally and industrially for an enhanced role in space, and how to leverage those for national requirements and alliance contributions.

The DSR includes the judgement that ‘…at this stage, there is no need to generate a separate Space Force’. That was not expected in this review. Australia is just starting to develop sovereign space capabilities for the ADF and moving beyond dependency on external providers, primarily the US and other 5 Eyes countries.

There’s some way to go before Australia should be ready to establish a ‘Royal Australian Space Force’. However, the idea should not be taken off the table entirely and many nations besides the US are developing defence space organisations in a manner that could facilitate independent space forces in the future.

Australia should be open to a similar path, particularly as technologies such as rapid reusable launch, space mobility and logistics, and small satellite mega-constellations take shape. The concept of a space force for Australia should be open for debate and consideration in the future. There’s danger in conceptual thinking lagging behind technological change and innovation.

It’s welcome that where the DSR recommends that space command falls within JCG, it says it’s essential that JCG be given a dedicated funding line, with appropriate authorities to manage it.

This will ensure that DSpC continues to maintain a leading role in shaping ADF space policy. However, two of the DSR’s three recommendations in relation to space are only ‘agreed in principle’.

They are to establish a ‘centralised space domain capability development and management function’, and ‘building and sustaining a trained defence space workforce, including a defined career path for space professionals’.

If DSpC is to be fully effective in its role, and if Defence is to establish a true ‘space-savvy’ workforce, it’s important that these recommendations be fully supported by Government and Defence. The DSR’s recommendation that the ADF workforce be centralised into a ‘single, integrated system incorporating the five domains’ has been agreed. This will help DSpC build a stable workforce.

The DSR recognises the importance of rapid innovation in space. It would be a mistake for Defence to embrace ‘old space’ mindsets. A total focus on large, expensive satellites whose high cost means they can only be acquired in small numbers and launched overseas, would be a step backwards to the days of passive dependency.

The recent contract for advanced military satellite communications will see two to four large satellites operational in geosynchronous orbit with initial operational capability from 2027. It’s a big advance for ADF satellite communications capabilities, but it should not be the end of the story.

The DSR says Space Command also requires additional investment for smaller, rapid acquisition projects. ‘Given the speed of technological developments in space, the current capability life cycle is too slow,’ it says. ‘Defence must adopt an approach that emphasises speed of capability acquisition including off the shelf commercial and military capabilities.’

Defence must fully engage with Australia’s vibrant commercial space sector, including small to medium enterprises, to provide sovereign capabilities. It must take full advantage of Australia’s nascent sovereign space launch capability to reinforce resilience in a contested domain. Defence can also help the commercial sector embed itself in the global space economy which is expected to reach well over US$1.5 trillion by 2040.

Missing from the publicly-released version of the DSR is discussion about the rapidly growing challenge posed by adversary space and counterspace threats, and by congestion in space. It talks of ‘space assurance’ but not how that will be achieved. The force structure plan and defence space strategy both talked about the importance of space domain awareness as a basis for space control, resilience and assured access, more broadly contributing to the establishment of space deterrence.

The DSR needed to at least note the importance of these tasks for DSpC. It comes back to the reality that space is an operational domain, and not simply an enabling adjunct. A new mindset is needed. There’s more to space than provision of satellite communications. This is a key information domain and the ADF’s modern way of warfare cannot exist without it.

It’s time to get much more serious about space.

This article was published by The Strategist.