A new space division inside the Air Force is not about “the militarisation of space”, its chief says, but that hasn’t quietened concerns that Australia is contributing to the “weaponisation” of the cosmos.
The Australian Defence Force joined nations like the United States, China and Russia on Tuesday in forming a ‘space division’. Unlike Donald Trump’s ‘Space Force’, created as a totally separate branch of military, Australia’s version will sit inside the Royal Australian Air Force from 2022.
Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld said military used space capabilities for navigation, communication and planning – just as civilians use GPS, satellite TV and phones.
The federal government is investing billions in space capability, both for military and a burgeoning commercial space industry.
Air Marshal Hupfeld stressed space operations would be “consistent with international and domestic legal obligations”.
“Defence will need capabilities that directly contribute to outcomes in space as a contested domain, however this does not mean that Defence encourages the militarisation of space,” he said.
But Senator Jordon Steele-John, Greens’ spokesperson on defence, claimed that point “completely contradicts itself”.
“Why set up a space division if you have no intention of contributing to the militarisation of space?” he told The New Daily.
He joked that Defence was “basically spending $7 billion so that [defence minister] Peter Dutton can play Darth Vader, minus the redemption arc.”
‘Weaponisation’ a concern
“Space has been militarised since the dawn of the space age,” Dr Malcolm Davis said, senior analyst and space policy expert at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“So ‘militarisation’ is actually the wrong term. In my opinion, Air Marshal Hupfeld should have said they weren’t going to ‘weaponise’ space. It’s fundamentally different.”
ASPI is an independent think tank that receives funding from the Australian and US departments of Defence, and defence companies.
Dr Davis said “we’re all concerned about preventing” weaponisation of space.
“But the reality is we’re seeing adversaries like China and Russia developing capabilities designed to attack satellites in space,” he told TND.
“We are going into an environment in space where it is contested, where we have to be able to be prepared for an adversary to use those sorts of capabilities against us.”
Dr Davis said Australia’s capabilities should be geared toward “space control” and defence, not “space weapons”. He said the ADF usually piggybacked off systems owned by allies like the US, but cited concerns in our Indo-Pacific region as reasons for having our own capabilities.
“When we talk about sci-fi space warfare, it’s not quite Star Wars, it’s not quite Star Trek, but we are moving into an era where space weapons and warfare is reality,” he said.
But as multiple other experts told TND, the RAAF announcement means more than laser guns and spaceships.
Space ‘crucial for humanity’
International law expert Steven Freeland is Emeritus Professor at Western Sydney University, professorial fellow at Bond University. He’s also part of the Australian delegation to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
He said regular people “use space 30 times a day” for basic tasks like communication or GPS, and hoped increasing military encroachment wouldn’t threaten the use of space for peaceful purposes.
“Despite obvious ‘terrestrial’ tensions and geopolitical differences, the major space nations generally have very significant common interests in maintaining a stable space environment. None of them stand to gain if certain ‘red lines’ of behaviour are crossed,” he told TND.
“Whilst this is easily stated, it is much harder for some elements within those countries to publicly accept. We have heard from some quarters that space is simply to be regarded as the ‘wild wild west’. The carefully calibrated regulatory and behavioural frameworks that have served us well in space for 60 years clearly debunk such claims.”
Professor Freeland said numerous pieces of international law, treaties and agreements set out that all people has the right to access space cooperatively and peacefully.
“Space has become increasingly dual-use, meaning that the historical divide in the regulation of peaceful – as opposed to non-peaceful – uses of space is no longer a reflection of reality,” he said.
“In the end, we need to engage with each one of the multiple facets of space and not just reflect on what might be the loudest voices in the room. There are many voices to be heard.”
Professor Anna Moore is director of the Australian National University’s Institute for Space. She said the RAAF division was an important sign to show the world Australia takes space seriously.
“The use of space has changed. It’s now available to individuals, not just companies. Access has dropped so much, it’s revolutionised what’s happening commercially and non-commercially,” she told TND.
“It’s changing so quickly, if you wait around and do nothing, it’s a concern for security and defence. This is putting a statement out there, that we are addressing this rapidly changing domain and getting access to it.”
Professor Moore also spoke of the need for “defensive” capabilities to ward off threats.
“I don’t think we’re getting Buck Rogers having fights in space, but you can stop a country for a day by removing certain functionalities in space. We rely on space assets for everything, they’re incorporated into businesses you’d never think about,” she said.