Space: Australia’s final geopolitical frontier

By Ching Wei Sooi, Research Intern

Space has played a part in Australia’s 60,000 year history with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ deep knowledge of the sky providing a foundation for connection to the land. First Peoples hold critical knowledge of how to use food sources sustainably (like the Emu in the Sky indicating that eggs are available), identify weather patterns, and navigate long journeys. Today, as geopolitical competition extends towards space, enhanced engagement in space will be critical to maintaining Australia’s contemporary prosperity and security. 

In recent years, new institutions and spending commitments reflect the priority placed on space by the Australian government. The Australia Space Agency (ASA) was established in 2018 and Australia Defence Space Command (DSpC) in 2020, contributing to approximately $4.8 billion revenue generated by the space sector in 2018-19. The growth of space firm revenue over the period was estimated at 17 per cent per annum, 3.5 times faster than Australia’s overall economy. 

Most activity involved applications such as satellite communications, which are crucial for both military and civilian purposes. Australia plans to invest around $7 billion this decade into improving satellite surveillance, situational awareness and related capabilities.

However, Australia faces three broad categories of strategic risk in space that may limit its ability to further develop space engagement. 

The first is environmental. Severe space weather events such as major solar flares can temporarily or permanently disable space-based services such as GPS navigation and satellite-based communications. This affects a wide range of sectors from finance to transport and the military. Between the ASA and DSpC, a dedicated monitoring team and research into satellite resilience could alleviate such risks.

The second risk is space objects and debris. More satellites are being launched than ever before. Unless they are purposely de-orbited or moved into a ‘junkyard orbit’, satellites turn into pieces of fast-moving debris at the end of their lives. Over time, this debris collides and bursts into more fragments, and the cycle continues. In 2022, the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office reported that upwards of 30,000 pieces of debris larger than 10cm are being recorded and tracked. Smaller pieces that are not tracked are estimated to number about a million

The third risk is adversarial counterspace capabilities. As space has become critically important for modern militaries—including for technologies such as American GPS-guided HIMARS missiles, which have been instrumental in the defence of Ukraine—more countries are looking into counterspace technologies to deny space-based assets. These technologies range from anti-satellite kinetic-missiles (such as Russia’s 2021 test which destroyed one of its inactive satellites), directed-energy weapons, such as lasers, to cyberattacks and electromagnetic interference. Attempts to reduce space threats through the United Nations have been ongoing for decades, but haven’t made much progress.

The geopolitics of space

Australia faces these risks alongside partners and allies, including the US which launched its Space Force in 2019. Although then-President Donald Trump was broadly mocked for this endeavour, it has gained the Biden’s administration’s full support. Washington’s partners and allies soon rallied behind the rare policy consensus. Australia joins a growing list of countries—including France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom—with freshly minted military space commands. 

Broadly, these new commands identify China and Russia as their principal space adversaries. Former Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton and DSpC Commander Catherine Roberts shared concerns that operations from these countries could threaten Australian satellites, and thus national security. A 2022 UK Space Command strategic document highlighted Chinese and Russian anti-satellite tests as international threats. US Congress has also organised hearings into China and Russia space challenges. 

In response, China has warned the West is provoking an arms race in space and Russia has given mixed signals for and against continuing cooperation onboard the International Space Station (ISS) after 2024. Events surrounding the ISS—which already faced decommissioning after 2030—are a particularly strong indicator of rising contestation. The US and Russia control different, equally critical, halves of the facility. Cooperation began in 1998 and exemplified the principles of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which positioned space as the province of all humankind rather than another superpower battleground.

Increasingly, space missions involve either Sino-Russo cooperation or American-led operations. Both sides have sights set on the moon. China and Russia plan to establish an International Lunar Research Station, America leads the Artemis Program, and both sides are courting partner countries. Such bifurcation is unfortunate. International cooperation facilitates the exchange of scientific data and information. Perhaps more importantly, it mints the scarce currency of trust. 

Against this backdrop, middle powers such as Australia have important roles to play in preventing, delaying, or at the very least, not exacerbating what Dr Cassandra Steer, a space lawyer at the Australian National University, called a destabilising space arms race. Australia should counter these risks and ensure that space continues to serve national prosperity and security.

Policy recommendations

There are policy recommendations that Australia could implement to handle these challenges. First, Australia should join the US, Germany, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and South Korea in committing to banning anti-satellite missile tests. As Australia does not possess such capacity, there will only be upsides to doing so. Second, it should avoid provocative statements that stoke tensions, including suggestions it may acquire its own US-style Space Force or deploy kinetic counterspace weapons. Third, Australia should establish a dedicated space ambassador. Finally, Australian policymakers should better familiarise themselves with the “three C’s” that characterise the 21st century space domain: congested, contested, and competitive.

As more countries turn their gaze upward, Australia must position itself as a responsible space power. The 21st century space race need not turn hostile, and Australia can play a crucial role in preserving the peace that has reigned in space for over 60,000 years. If not, pity for the Emu in the sky.

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