Monday, August 31, 2015

US-Australian Strategic Alliance in Space

Greetings from the Australian National University in  Canberra, where Adjunct Associate Professor James Brown is speaking on "Constellation Coalition: Australia and the US in space".  He described Australia, UK , Canada and USA as the "constellation coalition".

Professor Brown pointed to Planet Labs "agile aerospace" which has an Australian co-founder, launching "doves" (small disposable satellites). Also "OneWeb" who aim to launch 640 satellites, each 150 kg, for LEO broadband. The third was NZ company "Rocket Labs" which has developed a 3D printed rocket engine and carbon composite rocket, plaining to launch from southern NZ.

Professor Brown pointed to a Chinese anti-satellite weapons test which caused considerable space debris, but noted the USA and other countries have been quietly working on anti-satellite weapons. He also pointed out that cyber-attack was a method of disabling satellites without a kinetic weapon (even better if you can take over and use the enemy's satellite).

Professor Brown suggests the USA's goal is to have real time video surveillance satellites. I suggest this is not necessarily a good idea, as more raw data can impede military decision making. A military commander should not be looking at a megabits per second of real time video feed, they should have analysts (or software) doing that and displaying it as a few hundred bytes of information displayed a s a symbol on a map.

The US Congress banned contact between US and Chinese military and civilian space programs. Professor Brown pointed out this differed to naval personnel, where US and Chinese have met their opposite numbers (which is useful when there is tension).

Professor Brown pointed out that Australia's military plans depend largely on access to satellite communications, but spending on space is about the same as Iceland. Australia's space industry is much smaller than comparable countries, such as Canada. But Professor Brown undermined his argument by pointing out Canada put a man in space (which I suggest is little more than an expensive publicity stunt).

Australia's defense space policy, I suggest, can be best illustrated by the arrangement where Australia paid for a satellite, in return for use of the US defense satellite network. Apart from this Professor Brown pointed out Australia uses dual use civilian satellites.

It would be interesting to see if NBN's new, and very capable, satellites are to be used for defence purposes. While these satellites are limited to Australia (and nearby), there will be large amounts of bandwidth and equipment available, which could be pressed into service for military use, if needed.

One interesting aspect is that Professor Brown pointed out Australian common interests with Japan on space policy. One worry is that Japan has been assisted by France (which have interests which do not necessarily align with Australia or the USA).

Professor Brown showed images from the US Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) and discussed a joint US/Australian exercise about a fictional attack on assets in Australia's region. It might seem that Australia could not contribute much to such an operation. ANU may have the most credible Australian space capabilities, with its tracking facilities at Mt Stromlo Observatory (they can also manufacture and test satellites at Mt Stromlo's Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre). Australia also have credible capabilities for developing computer processing capabilities as a by-product of developing the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Professor Brown suggested moving space policy to PM&C. One reason suggested was because that is where Cyber-security policy is. Unfortunately PM&C have not demonstrated an ability to effectively administer cyber-security policy and it might be better to move it and space policy to an agency with the required skills.

Professor Brown suggested the 2017 International Astronautical Congress should have senior ministerial representation (perhaps even the PM). The conference is to be in Adelaide and the Australian Government is keen to show support for defense related industry in South Australia. However, 2017 may be beyond the government's planning horizon.

One point is that while there is this discussion of space systems, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) should maintain a usable ground based long range radio network. The ADF Modernized High Frequency Communications System (MHFCS) provides low bandwidth unglamorous but reliable communications and such systems should be retained. These HF networks can only transmit hundreds, or thousands of bits per second, not millions. However, even so this can be used for text messages, still images and limited voice traffic.

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