US Space Capability and the Indo-Pacific Era in Space

16 Oct 2018
US Space Capability and the Indo-Pacific Era in Space
On 26 September 2018 the Perth USAsia Centre hosted a private roundtable luncheon with the Hon. Madelyn Creedon, former Principal Deputy Administrator of the US National Nuclear Security Administration. The discussion focused on space capability, nuclear security and “the Zone Above” - increasingly contested space domain. Madelyn Creedon was in Perth as part of the joint United States Studies Centre-US Embassy Canberra-Perth USAsia Centre Alliance 21 Fellowship program. Alliance 21 Fellows undertake exchange programs in the United States and Australia, conducting policy-orientated research on the Australia-US relationship in the Indo Pacific. The following is a breakdown of the key issues discussed at the roundtable, conducted under Chatham House Rule.
 
Madelyn Creedon’s visit occurred in advance of the Perth USAsia Centre’s 8 October 2018 In the Zone Conference, The Zone Above: The Indo-Pacific Era in Space. As the investment centre of gravity related to space shifts towards the leading economies of the Indo-Pacific, In the Zone 2018 drove a dialogue about shared opportunities, challenges and risks around the space environment.



Satellites and the Space Theatre
 
In the 1960s, US missile-detection satellites began to replace previously used ground-based radar systems. The first of these satellites was launched in 1970 to a geostationary orbit (36,000 km). The first of the current American missile detection and warning satellites, the ‘Space-Based Infrared System’ (SBIRS), was first launched in 2011. It will gradually replace the former ‘Defence Support Program’ (DSP) after DSP’s four decades in operation.
 
SBIRS is operated by the US Air Force and represents US predominance in space. SBIRS consists of four geostationary orbit satellites and three ‘highly elliptical orbit’ (polar orbit) sensors. These provide the US, its allies and partners with real time missile monitoring, missile defence and space characterisation capabilities. SBIRS GEO Flight 5 and 6 are due to launch in coming years.
 
Challenges in the Space Environment
 
As in all theatres (land, air, sea, cyber), the space environment is becoming increasingly contested. Increasing competition and rising major power space investment is working to narrow US predominance in space. It is becoming increasingly probable that space will be a warfighting domain, with the ‘weaponisation of space’ a real threat. Space environmental challenges also pose risks to stability in space, as well as the unhindered use of space technology for commercial and civilian purposes. For example, the successful Chinese testing of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007 not only resulted in thousands of pieces of orbiting space debris, but revitalised Cold War-era concerns about anti-satellite weaponry. The efficacy of international law in effectively governing the space environment is an ongoing concern.
 
US Space Policy, Procurements and Partnerships
 
As the preeminent space-faring nation the United States puts significant effort into understanding what is happening in space, but needs the help of other allies in this effort.  The US seeks to hold this favourable balance of power in space, but here again this can only be accomplished in partnership with allies and partners. Countries like Australia play a significant role in working with the US. For example, in 2012 Australia and the US agreed to enhance joint space situational awareness capabilities through the relocation of advanced space surveillance assets to the Australian mainland, and being co-owners of communications satellites.

Madelyn Creedon: The Current State of Nuclear Security 
 

Authors

Hugo Seymour
Hugo Seymour
Research Officer
Hugo Seymour is the Research Officer at the Perth USAsia Centre. He develops content and publishes on Western Australia and Australia's engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.
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