When the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) celebrated 100 years yesterday with a spectacular and well-attended flyby over Canberra, many eyes were raised to the skies. But RAAF’s ambitions go even higher, as its motto “through adversity, to the stars” suggests. The Chief of the Air Force, Air Marshall Mel Hupfeld, announced the intention to create a new “space command”.
Having a dedicated space command will bring Australia in line with Canada, India, France and Japan, all of which recently created similar organizations within their armed forces. Unlike the US Space Force, which is a separate branch of the military in addition to the army, navy, and air force, Australia’s space command will oversee space activities throughout the Australian Defense Force.
Creating a space command is a smart move, but we must be careful to ensure that it does not add fuel to a military escalation cycle in space that has already begun.
Space technology is vital but vulnerable
We rely on satellites for communications, navigation, banking and commerce, weather and climate tracking, search and rescue, wildfire tracking, and more. A conflict in space would be catastrophic for all of us.
There is a risk of a “space war” because these technologies are also an integral part of military operations, both in peacetime and during conflict. If you want to get your enemy’s eyes and ears out, aim for their satellites, but not guns, bombs, or lasers.
There are many ways in which so-called “counterspace technologies” could threaten these satellites. This could include cyberattacks, dazzling a satellite with low-power lasers so it cannot observe Earth, or blocking a signal so that a satellite cannot send data to Earth.
Operating in space
The creation of the US Space Force under the Trump administration in 2019 raised many eyebrows and even led to a parody sitcom on Netflix. But while the comedy series had soldiers waging war with China on the Moon using keys, the US Space Force has a serious mandate, including work that had been carried out for decades by its predecessor, the US Space Command. USA
Much of that work involves tracking satellites and the 128 million pieces of debris that orbit Earth, to help avoid collisions that could be fatal to any number of services we depend on. It also involves protecting American and allied space systems from counterspace threats.
The announcement that Australia will have its own space command is welcome in this regard. Our three armed forces depend on space technologies, and centralized coordination is sensible.
We also intend to increase our sovereign space capabilities, as outlined in the 2020 Strategic Defense Update, with A $ 7 billion dedicated to new space systems, primarily communications satellites. We need to be able to defend those satellites, and Defense needs to have centralized command and control of all government space operations. Australia also needs to be able to coordinate the use, access and protection of space with our allies.
We should be extremely cautious about designating space as a “domain of war.” The United States is the only country that has adopted this nomenclature. Send a deliberate signal to rivals that any conflict point can now also be taken into space, or even started in space.
The US Department of Defense claims that it is only responding to the actions of China and Russia, which have “armed space and turned it into a domain of war.” For China and Russia, of course, this declaration and the creation of the US Space Force justify the intensification of their own military space programs. A growing cycle with the potential for conflict in space is underway.
If Australia were to take the position that space is a domain of war, the most important country we would send a signal to would be China. We are far from having enough space capacity to choose or win a fight with China in space. Taking such a position could also be seen as a violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which states that space will be used for “exclusively peaceful purposes.”
Competition is counterproductive
Following the example of our other allies offers a better path. The NATO countries refused to describe space as a domain of war when they debated it at their space summit in 2019. Instead, they chose to designate space as an “operational domain.”
The US Space Force is based on a doctrine of “space superiority”, which is not something Australia can or should aspire to. In fact, a study commissioned by the US Department of Defense itself concludes that dominance in space is not crucial to the defense of the US or its allies.
This aligns with the arguments put forward by a number of world experts in a recent post I co-edited, War and Peace in Outer Space. Trying to dominate the space militarily will likely lead to an escalating cycle of counterproductive competition. If we want to protect our space assets and those of our allies, we must reduce the risk of an arms race, rather than incite it.
Australia should focus on its ability to become an effective diplomatic space power. A new centralized space command may be at the center of this effort.
ANU Institute for Space
Military Space News at SpaceWar.com
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