Australia’s capability gap against threats posed by China in the frontier of space has been labelled concerning by the head of the country’s new space defence outfit.
Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts, who will head the new command, says Australia is able to rely on strong allies like the United States to combat China’s growing capabilities but will need to expand its own capacity.
“The lack of capability at the moment against those threats (from China and Russia) is concerning,” the air vice-marshal told reporters at an air and space conference on Tuesday.
“We’re really tight with the US, we’re really tight with their (combined space operations) partners. So we can rely on them to an extent but we need to accelerate the capability so that we can deal with the threats.”
Russia’s shooting down of one of its defunct satellites generating more than 1500 pieces of debris, and China’s towing of a dead satellite into a “graveyard orbit”, have raised concerns about potential future conflicts.
An attack against a satellite or its connection to the ground could wipe out communications and navigation systems, as well as intelligence and surveillance capabilities, banking and the internet.
“Ukraine is a good example of where space becomes very contested, and people are very reliant on if they want to do those military operations,” Air Vice-Marshal Roberts said.
But with “red lines” yet to be defined, the catalyst for conflict in space remains an unknown.
“What is the line that takes you from competition to conflict? And if they did take one of our satellites out of geostationary orbit, is that a conflict?” Air Vice-Marshal Roberts questioned.
“That’s not happened in space yet so we have to work through those red lines.”
Australia, through its new defence space command, will focus on upholding the free use of space.
Director-General of the air force’s space domain review Air Commodore Nick Hogan says the most important thing in the realm of space remains being able to see what’s happening and monitor the 44,000 pieces of debris.
This ensures Australia doesn’t lose access to space and the crucial telecommunication systems it hosts due to collisions with the debris.
“If I use an example of an air traffic control, there’s no space traffic control. So no one really regulates what’s going on there,” he said.
“Our intent is to make sure that anything that we put up from a civil or a military or government perspective, we can protect it. And to protect it, we need to know what is coming toward it.”
But as space expands the grey zone area of operations, which mark it harder to pin down and attribute actions to states or governments, further defence mechanisms are needed, Air Commodore Hogan says.
“After that, when you talk about a fix, one might be just moving out of the way. Our aircraft have electronic self protection when they go into a conflict zone (so) we may end up doing the same thing for our satellites.”
Ground infrastructure also needs to be protected, which includes hardening cyber defence systems which link to satellites as it becomes cheaper for nefarious actors to operate in the cyber and space realms.
“We’re always getting cyber attacks and they come from a variety of sources. That hasn’t gone to space yet in terms of that amount of access,” Air Commodore Hogan said.
“But it’s getting a lot cheaper to get access to space. So it’s just a matter of time until you see separatist groups or violent extremist groups that want to exploit space.”
Defence Minister Peter Dutton says Australian space power will be used to deter aggression, rather than generate a new realm for conflict.
Coercion and belligerence from countries such as Russia and China have reinforced the need for hard power to both defend against, and deter, such aggression, he said.