Additional reporting by Max Blenkin:
Defence Minister Peter Dutton has formally launched the Australian Defence Force’s Defence Space Command.
Speaking at the 2022 Air and Space Conference in Canberra on 22 March, Minister Dutton signalled the commencement of operations for the new Defence Space Command after it was announced in 2021, and AVM Cath Roberts was appointed to lead it in January 2022. The new command will draw personnel from the three armed services, from Defence public servants and industry contractors, and the Australian Space Agency (ASA).
Whilst he acknowledged it as “modest” compared to similar commands being established in the US and other countries, he described it as a “necessary endeavour with a view to protecting our national interests and our need for a Space Force in the future”.
“Together with like-minded partners and the United Nations, Australia has long championed the responsible and peaceful use of outer space in accordance with international norms,” he said. “But space is becoming more congested and is already contested – particularly as the boundaries between competition and conflict become increasingly blurred through grey-zone activities.
“While space is primarily a civil domain — to support navigation, communication networks, financial systems, scientific enterprises, weather forecasting, and disaster response — it will undoubtedly become a domain which takes on greater military significance in the 21st century,” he added. “A domain which is now an operational theatre which provides space-based communication, intelligence, and navigation to the joint force.
“Importantly, Defence Space Command is Australia’s contribution towards a larger, collective effort among like-minded countries to ensure a safe, stable, and secure space domain. By developing our sovereign space capabilities, we will not only become more self-reliant, but also be a better ally and partner through the combined effects of our capabilities.
“Australia’s aim will be to invest in new military space capabilities to counter threats…To assure our continued access to space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and to uphold the free use of space.”
Minister Dutton also launched Australia’s Defence Space Strategy which he says will guide the efforts and priorities of Defence Space Command.
“Importantly, Australia and the United States are strengthening our Alliance to support our mutual objectives in the space domain,” he said. “The Australian Department of Defence and the US National Reconnaissance Office have committed to a broad range of cooperative satellite activities which will expand Australia’s space knowledge and capabilities.
“Our partnership will also contribute to the US National Reconnaissance Office’s pursuit of a more capable, integrated, and resilient space architecture to support global coverage in a wide range of intelligence mission requirements.
On the sidelines of the Air and Space Conference, AVM Roberts told media that her organisation initially comprises 105 personnel, and would be located at Fairbairn in Canberra with smaller presences at Air Command near Sydney, Hobart, and co-located with the ASA in Adelaide.
“Our mission is to assure Australia’s access to space,” she said. “We really need to make sure that Australia’s reliance on services from space are protected, not just the military elements.”
AVM Roberts said they needed to be able to deliver and contribute space capability much faster than was planned in the Defence Integrated Investment Plan.
“I am doing a complete architecture review. It has been under way for a short time,” she said. “That work is really really important and I expect you will see modifications. We are going to do things really quickly. I have some really good ideas about how we can deliver capability far more quickly than we have in the past.”
AVM Roberts said she had tasked her officers to get some capability within the next four months. “We have a bunch of space domain awareness (SDA) companies in Australia who can provide us with data as a service,” she said. “We are going to do a bunch of minor projects to actually be able to feed information into the SDA picture and we will be able to share that information not only with our allies in the US but also with any country in the region.”
“We are also testing a mission system to pull that data together,” she added. “It is really important that we start contributing. We have a couple of little satellites up there but SDA is where we can start and we need to operationalise it because we are so far behind.”
Asked if there was a prospect the Joint Project 9102 sovereign defence satellite communications could deliver capability sooner than planned, she said, “If I have something to do with it yes. 9102 followed the traditional approach and the tenders will be evaluated. That will result in a capability being fielded a long time away.
“We need those satellites in geostationary orbit,” she added. “There is no doubt about that. How quickly can we do it? That is something we will talk about with the companies once we have selected a tenderer. I would like it always to be quicker.”