Geo-political Competition And The New Space Race: What The Establishment Of The US Space Force Means For Australia

04 July 2021
Caption: Service Attachés and Advisor’s Group (SAAG) Engagement Program members at the Australian Space Discovery Centre, Adelaide. Photographer: LAC Sam Price. © Department of Defence.

Key Points:

  • Space is now considered a strategic theatre of warfare and space superiority is now arguably more important than air superiority.
  • Space is an increasingly contested domain as adversary powers look to challenge and displace the western alliance’s longstanding dominance.
  • The establishment of the US Space Force is a historically pivotal development that has galvanised the western alliance’s focus and resources towards maintaining dominance in space.
  • The foundation of an Australian Defence Space Division in the RAAF is a major step forward in developing Australia’s Space domain interests and in strengthening Australia’s national security.

The 20th of December 2019 was arguably the most important day so far in the strategic space calendar, which  was the date of the establishment of the United States Space Force. Whilst commentators may dismiss this event as an aberration of populist politics in the era of President Trump, the formation of the US Space Force can be seen as an inflexion point for space security – including that of US allies such as Australia. An understanding of the underlying reasons that led to the formation of the US Space Force is important for US allies and partners that seek to contribute their own national power to space security and access to space. 

Evolution of Space Contestation

There is a long history of contest and competition in Earth’s orbits that stretches back to the Cold War. The US and the former Soviet Union had developed a suite of counter space capabilities in the 1970s and 80s but were reserved in their full development due to the threat of nuclear war and mutual destruction – hence the early space treaties. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent end of the Cold War, the US went on to concentrate on the development of precision space services such as the global positioning system, universal timing, global communications and earth imaging. US competitors however closely studied the American use of space in modern warfare and sought to develop means of countering US primacy in space.

The Centre for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) has produced an online ‘Counterspace Timeline, 1962 – 2020’; which demonstrates the continued actions of Russian research and more recently the development of Chinese counter space capabilities. Since the first successful Chinese direct Ascent Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile test in 2007, the pace of developments by all US competitors (Russia, China, North Korea and Iran) has increased in both activity and sophistication. 

The broad suite of counterspace capabilities that have been developed by US strategic competitors is summarised in ‘Competing in Space’, released by the National Air and Space Intelligence Centre (NASIC) in 2019. The spectrum of counterspace capabilities is broad and is continuing in development. They range from reversible non-kinetic effects all the way to debris causing kinetic effects that will impact humanity for decades to come if they were ever used in conflict. Of great concern is China’s arsenal of counter space capabilities, both non kinetic and kinetic, and its doctrine to ‘blockade space’ in the region if ever contested in its regional ambitions. The impacts of such Chinese space denial in the Asian region would have devastating impacts on the Australian economy and security, as we are highly reliant on space services in the Indo-Pacific region.

There were two catalysts for the change of policy and strategy in the US Government. The first was the US National Defense Strategy (NDS) published by former US Secretary of Defence  James Mattis in February 2018. The 2018 NDS clearly stated that the US was now in a period of strategic competition with near peer rivals Russia, and China; and was increasingly concerned about rogue states North Korea and Iran. China however being the pacing threat. The NDS called for prioritised investments in “resilience, reconstitution, and operations to assure our space capabilities”, whilst clearly articulating that space was now a “warfighting domain”. 

The second catalyst for change was the lack of response from the Department of Defense, and specifically the USAF. The USAF spoke to the importance of space, but with a weathered air force in terms of aging aircraft, it could be criticised for not making bold changes to their internal space commands at that time. Talking to USAF Generals after the fact, the consensus is that the US Air Force missed its opportunity to lift space to peer status within the force and become a true Air and Space Force. 

In the remainder of 2018, there was growing bipartisan concern within the US Congress that an independent space force of some description was needed to meet the impending strategic challenge. Former US President Donald Trump, tapped into this sentiment and promoted an idea of a space force in early 2018. Receiving a groundswell of support, President Trump subsequently announced his intent to direct the formation of a space force in June 2018, and finally issuing Space Policy Directive No 4 on 19 February 2019.  

Following the issuing of Space Directive 4, the Secretary of the USAF moved with pace to support the organisational changes required to stand up an independent Space Force. As an interim step, the USAF Space Command was re-established as a major command, preparing it to gain its independence. The US Space Command, a unified combat command, was subsequently re-established in August 2019, with an emphasis on space as a warfighting domain. This is the reincarnation of the command which previously stood for nearly 17 years between 1985 – 2002. 

An important delineation in US global command structures is that a unified combat command can be authorised to be the lead supported command in specific phases of conflict. This is a reflection of the understanding that the first actions in conflict against peer rivals is to establish and maintain space superiority. As the previous Vice Chief of Staff of the USAF Stephen W Wilson was quoted as saying, “If you lose space, you lose the joint fight”. For the USAF, the reality was now that space superiority was now arguably more important than air superiority – something that is hard to admit for a force led by fighter aircrew and controllers. 

The final act was the formal establishment of the US Space Force as the sixth branch of the US Department of Defense, and the appointment of General John W Raymond as the 1st Chief of Space Operations (CSO) on 20 December 2019.  The first most visible change was the addition of the CSO to the Joint Chiefs – recognising Space as a strategic theatre of war.  The second and more widespread effect was the swearing in of Space professionals as members of the US Space Force – identifying them as unique and important to the country’s national security.  With leadership elevated and all individuals recognised as now ‘guardians’ of space – the US Space Force is an equal amongst peers. The pervasive effects of the rebranding and recognition of all individuals has taken hold, and this has given the force the confidence to transform its culture to meet the challenge of securing space. 

Underpinning this transformation is the organisational changes of the US Space Force, which has rallied around reformed elements of the USAF and Army. There is now a service Head Quarters in the Pentagon – HQ US Space Force – with the CSO in residence with access to the Joint Chiefs. There are three field commands: Space Operations Command (SpOC); Space Systems Command (SSC); and Space Training and Readiness Command (STARCOM). The USSF HQ now holds a strategic role in organising, training and equipping a force, which is projected to be in the order of 15,000 personnel by around 2024 – a lean force by US standards – and equivalent to the size of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

Lessons for Australia

In recent weeks, the Australian Department of Defence has announced two outcomes from the Space Domain Organisational Review. That is the appointment of a National Space Commander, a two-star Air Force Officer, and the formation from within the ADF of a Defence Space Division

When considering the strategic challenges presented in Space, these announcements are important steps in the right direction behind the lead of the United States, but more measured. They are more in line with the United Kingdom which has similarly announced a National Space Command with restructuring within the existing joint force. The French went one step further and announced the restructuring of an Air and Space Force with a National Space Command back in July 2019 – preceding the US Space Force’s formation.  

But as we congratulate ourselves, it could be argued that they are just a catch up to our strategic competitors such as Russia, who have had a Russian Space Force as part of their Aerospace Force since 1992, reformed again in 2011. They even have a song

There is a lot of work to do to bridge the strategic gap in Space security. But lessons must be drawn from the experience of the US journey to a Space Force. The first is that the RAAF needs to give Space an equal priority within its organisation – especially in educating, training and equipping functions – a significant challenge when one domain dominates the other. It could well start at the grass roots level with the recognition of space professionals as important and special in the security of Australia. Guardians perhaps – at least honorary – whilst they are part of the Space Division?  

The challenge is the need to create an identity for Australian space professionals that empowers them to meet the challenges in Space. It is questionable that the terms ‘aviators’, ‘soldiers’ and ‘sailors’ will be suitable. Arguably, a more suitable term for both air and space professionals is ‘guardians’ as they both protect and defend domains in which we only have transient use. However, this will be a challenge for the new Space Commander, along with training these personnel in space operations, space systems and adversary tactics. Add to this the much needed catch up in space intelligence – a specialist area of high technical expertise. We have relied so much on the US for so long, that our underpinning professional knowledge is lacking in the deep technical appreciation of the threats in space. 

Future Considerations 

Australia has a number of strategic strengths that can be combined to elevate our country as a significant space power. We are not a novice in Space technology, and since the formation of the Australian Space Agency in 2019, there has been a renaissance in research and innovation fuelled by government grants and a regulatory pathway to civil and commercial space. We have unrivalled access to earth’s orbits from Australian territories, which is important for space surveillance, terrestrial up and downlinks, and potentially launch into both equatorial and high inclination or polar orbits. 

In fact, it does not get any better in terms of terrestrial access to space, and we would be the envy of our strategic rivals. We also need to recognise our special location in relation to areas of potentially contested space. Perth is located directly below Beijing and WA shares the same longitudes as the South China Sea. If conflict does occur in earth’s orbits, centred on this contested area, the impacts of such conflict will be hardest felt in Australia. 

With a new Space Commander and a Space Division we need to revise our strategy to combine our strengths and opportunities to generate national space power. First and foremost is to generate a heightened state of Space Domain Awareness (SDA). Only with real time and persistent SDA can we become a major player in space security. We will also need to build and coordinate our space infrastructure with both an eye on the lucrative space economy, whilst we ensure we have robust and resilient systems for the strategic challenges in Space. 

Like air power, we need to think about both safety and security of all our ventures and concentrate on dual use technologies so we can flex our technologies to these challenges. We should also generate national ‘end to end solutions for space’; including launch systems, a variety of satellite types and orbital systems, and the ability to defend our assets in Space if required. When we are at a mature level of Space Control, we might then wish to join the US and our allies with systems that would be able to contribute to space superiority if required, which are arguably the only systems that can deter an adversary in Space.  

Australia is at the start of a long journey to protect and defend Australia’s national interests in Space. The next decade will be crucial in establishing Australia’s space footprint and maintaining Australia’s national security. If we ‘futurise’ this journey, we can expect many challenges in both organisational and strategic priorities.  Whilst our National Space Command and Space Division are the first steps, it is likely that Australia will face similar organisational constraints that will limit our full potential. If the ADF fails to embrace Space as a peer domain in national security, it will be inevitable that the growing importance of space will rise the need for an independent space force.