Australia's new unit is investigating ways to disable adversary space assets, including jamming from ground stations or using lasers to blind orbital satellites. Photo: 7News

This month Australia established a new Defense Space Command to develop its military space capabilities to protect intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets such as satellites against perceived adversaries such as China and Russia.

Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said that the new unit will expand Australia’s space capabilities and contribute to “a larger, collective effort among like-minded countries to ensure a safe, stable and secure space domain.”

Underscoring the importance of outer space in contemporary military operations, Australian Chief of the Defense Force General Angus Campbell stated that Australia “must be able to generate space power across the defense portfolio, supporting the joint force, whole of government, allies and international partners” and that the new Space Command must “also protect billions of dollars worth of commercial and military assets against space debris, collisions, and destructive acts.”

Defense Space Commander Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts said “space is the ultimate high ground” and that what Australia sees in space gives it an “unsurpassed advantage in surveillance and intelligence.” She also added that space will be central to future warfighting operations that use advanced hypersonic weapons, precision strike missiles and guided weapons.

Roberts mentioned that while Australia is “really tight” with the US and can rely on it to some extent, the nation needs to accelerate the development of its own space capabilities to deal with space threats.

This mirrors America’s establishment of its US Space Force under the previous Donald Trump administration. But unlike the US, which established a separate branch of service, Australia’s Defense Space Command combines space units of the Australian Army, Navy, Air Force, and private contractors.

While numbering over 100 people, the new unit is already investigating both reversible and irreversible methods to disable adversary space assets, including jamming from ground stations or using lasers to blind orbital satellites. However, Australia will not develop methods that produce destructive space debris such as anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles.

Another responsibility of the new command will be to ensure Australia’s satellite communications are resilient and cannot be easily disrupted or taken offline in a conflict. In that direction, Australia aims to build its own military communications satellites in a US$2.6 billion project, representing its first sovereign satellite program.

Perceived threats are on the horizon. China and Russia have fielded hypersonic weapons and ASAT capabilities that may potentially be used in a wider Pacific conflict that threatens Australia.

A test launch of Russia’s Tsirkon hypersonic missile. Image: Twitter

Hypersonic weapons fly at Mach 5 speeds and higher to evade current and future missile defenses. They also rely on extensive “kill chains”, which are the necessary things, people and processes involved in launching missiles and guiding them to their targets.

That said, Australia’s Defense Space Command can target the satellites that are critical links in these kill chains.

China has been developing ASAT weapons including missiles, kinetic kill vehicles, lasers, space early warning and target discrimination components since the 1960s under Project 640. In 1986, under Project 863, China may have developed lasers that can blind the optical equipment of reconnaissance satellites and laid the groundwork for laser-based ASAT weapons that can physically destroy military satellites.

In 2006, China reportedly illuminated a US satellite with a laser in an apparent ground-based ASAT weapons test. This test was followed in 2007 when China destroyed one of its inactive weather satellites with a ballistic missile.

Since then, China has developed multiple ASAT weapons, such as kinetic-kill missiles, ground-based lasers, orbiting space robots, space surveillance, satellite jammers, cyber capabilities and directed-energy weapons.

Russia’s ASAT weapons program began in the 1950s, with the proposal to use Moscow’s nuclear-tipped interceptor missiles against satellites. However, this was recognized as a poor option as the nuclear blast would also destroy all nearby friendly satellites.

In the 1960s, Russia tested a co-orbital ASAT weapon that was launched into the same orbit as the target satellite and moved close enough to destroy it with fragmentation. To date, this system remains Russia’s only dedicated ASAT weapon. Russia also explored other ASAT weapon concepts in the 1970s and 1980s, such as autocannon-armed space stations and aircraft-mounted lasers.

This year, Russia reportedly fielded its S-550 mobile ASAT system, which can hit spacecraft, ballistic missile re-entry vehicles and hypersonic targets. This mobile system exploits Russia’s huge territory to make ASAT launch locations more unpredictable.

These developments underscore the need for Australia to develop its own sovereign space capabilities, yet at the same time exercise strategic restraint so as not to accelerate a space arms race.