Australia Pursues Enhanced Space Sovereignty

By Robbin Laird

Sovereignty is a tricky term, notably when it comes to global economies and to allied based national defense. The COVD-19 crisis and the conflict with the 21st century authoritarian powers, notably China, have reminded the liberal democracies of how vulnerable they are.

And when American allies talk sovereignty what they are talking about are two interrelated dynamics: the first that they have as much independence in decision making from Washington as feasible and retain necessary alliance links; and the second is to ensure that they have as much capability to act decisively against authoritarian adversaries to ensure that escalation control is possible to defend that nation’s interests.

I have a lifetime of dealing with the French, who are the U.S. allies who talk the most about sovereignty and their freedom of action vis a vis the Americans. But what is sovereignty for a state like France when embedded in the European Union, dependent on a U.S. led Alliance for their ultimate security, and embedded in the global supply chain?

I dealt with this question of what sovereignty in the current period is even for a large power like the United Sates in my edited book 2020: A Pivotal Year. Several of the essay’s deal with this question or theme. Essentially what we are talking about is shaping decision making capabilities for the nation to make choices within the shared sovereignty of modern defense and economic relationships facing the major liberal democratic nations. It is about getting allies and adversaries alike to go down paths favorable to a particular nations policies or identities.

But how did the speakers at the space conference define what sovereignty meant to them regarding Australia and its way ahead in the space domain?

The core point was relatively straightforward. And that point was made by Malcolm Davis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute: “For the first time in a major policy document, the 2020 strategic update emphasized the importance for Australia to have our own capabilities in the operational space domain. That update made clear there is a requirement for space control that is not only about space domain awareness from the ground, but also about an ability actually to assure access to space and counter threats to our space systems and boosted the funding to do so.”

One member of the key panel was very aware of how important the sovereignty focus is regarding how to focus what Australia does in the space domain and this is how he put it: “Exactly how do we define sovereign? Sovereign means different things to different people. We need to decide what degree of sovereignty we need to do the job. That might not be total ownership from start to end. It might be sovereignty of decision making. It might be sovereignty of the networks. It might be sovereignty of the data. I think there’s no one size fits all approach to sovereignty, and it really just depends on what is required actually to do the job in an assured way.”

It is an interesting exercise to go through the presentations and to carefully look at how the speakers defined or used the word sovereignty to shape what course of action they then advocated. It is interesting above all because how one defines the focus of sovereignty indicates what a realistic course of action for Australia might be, given the high cost of space, the relatively limited skill sets in Australia in this industry, the tradeoffs between working in a globalized commercial space sector, or a targeted Australian funded effort tailored for the ADF.

The moderator for the day highlighted the importance of sovereignty as referring to Australian-based firms, but whether these are outposts of foreign primes or Australian-generated firms is an interesting question. This is how Darin Lovett put it: “The impact of COVID has fundamentally reenergized the discussion around sovereignty and resilience, especially as it pertains to space. Do we divest and, again, rely on a foreign provider or do we invest and build sovereignty? We have an opportunity to leapfrog the old operating system, which we’ve relied on and gain traction against emerging issues, but we need holistic capability development in Australia to bed in the seeds that we’ll provide for the future.”

AIRCDRE Nicholas Hogan, Director General of the Space Domain Review, identified various concrete manifestations of new capabilities which Australia needs to achieve to have sovereignty. The first is clearly on the launch side of space. The second is to build out a sovereign space industry, but again one of the challenges here is that companies in the commercial sector and the defense sector do not operate in the same manner and there is the key challenge of foreign primes and local companies in terms of what they build for the global market or for the ADF.

This impacts directly on the question of the workforce and the skill sets to be developed to build out an Australian based space industry. There is clearly growing overlap between the commercial and military space sectors, but it is more of Venn diagram than single workforce, notably because of the requirement for security clearances in the national defense arena.

Terry van Herren, the former Air Attaché in the United States, focused on the challenge of building an effective sovereign space industry. Here he cited the experience of Australia in building indigenous fighter aircraft from 1921 to 1939 which resulted in not very good fighters, but it did generate the infrastructure which then allowed Australia to license build Spitfires and Hurricanes.

He pointedly used this example to underscore that sovereignty is not about “designing, developing and building everything but it is about doing what you can do well and take advantages of working with partners and allies around the world to work on what you’re not so good at doing.”

He then cited a concrete example, namely of a company doing very innovative work in space domain awareness. LeoLabs is building a network of ground-based, phased array radars that provide a unique capability, and have approached space domain awareness from a perspective different from partners and allies.[1]

CDRE Matthew Doornbos, RAN Director General for Navy Intelligence and Warfare. Made a very similar point to that of van Herren. “In our endeavors to set the conditions for long term success in the space domain, we must remain cognizant of maximizing efficient use of our resources, because the reality here in Australia, unsurprisingly, is we only have a limited number of resources. If we are to achieve our goals and ambitions, we’d have to really understand what our sovereign capability should be. But more importantly, we have to work efficiently. We have to work collaboratively, across defense, industry and academia. It’s our relationships through all aspects of our capability development, that will enable us to achieve our goals.”

But the most comprehensive examination of the relationship between a realistic definition of sovereignty with how Australia should proceed was by AVM Chris Deeble, now CEO Northrop Grumman Australia, but when serving with the RAAF had extensive experience with working with advanced programs, such as the F-35. His experience clearly guided his judgements on how to achieve both enhanced sovereignty but to do so with a regard to a practical way ahead.

“What is sovereignty? The pursuit of sovereignty shouldn’t be an excuse for wanting to do everything. Sovereignty and resilience go hand in glove from my perspective and how we build that strategy. When we think about space, we often think about the things that make for great photo opportunities. A launch, a satellite, those great pictures of a satellite orbiting around. They make the great photo opportunities. These are going to be important that supply chains that underpin that, will remain important for us. But we must prioritize our effort and investments.

“We must ensure that from the get-go, we create that viable, scalable, innovative, and sustainable space ecosystem. And it must be underpinned by business cases that can goes to the viability and sustain sustainability at the end of the day

“This will be a significant challenge for us as we move forward. Defining things in requirements terms is going to be difficult. We will have to be thinking about that in outcomes terms. As a space nation, we must have a clear strategy that articulates our sovereign security and resilient space capability outcomes. We must develop a cohesive and aligned national strategy that meets both the civil and defense needs now and into the future.

“We must ensure that we prioritize and align our investments. We cannot lose sight of the underlying business cases. We can’t do it all. We have to create a sustainable viable outcome for us as we’re moving forward. The lexicon is changing, it’s a great first start.

“But if we want to be a space nation, if we want to create space ecosystems for the nation, if we want to have a viable, enduring, sustainable, scalable industry, from now and into the future, we have to turn that rhetoric into reality.”

BRIG Langford brought up a really key point about the impact of having sovereign space or bits of sovereignty within an overall allied space enterprise: “Does a hostile act against a space-based asset, or indeed a cyber intrusion against national infrastructure constitute an act of war under international law? And noting that blood has not been spilled, which is the traditional sort of convention around a hostile act, hostile action, hostile intent, is that now in international law, is it an act, a license, indeed a mandate to prosecute war on the physical domain. To some, it seems obvious, but like most things in life, it’s not that simple.

“What is the policy framework, when an Australian owned commercial or military space-based space asset is potentially interfered or destroyed as it relates to an attack on Australian sovereignty, and what we might do about it, in terms of our obligations to assert the security versions of ourselves in that sort of environment.”


A video released by the Australian Defence Science and Technology Group highlighted how the Department was proceeding to execute space sovereignty:

According to the narrator of that video, the heart of the effort is to shape a small satellite network that can deliver various data to ADF warfighters operating worldwide.

The focus is to leverage the innovations in LEO systems to be able to do so. Communications, imagery, position, navigation, and timing capabilities are envisaged for the ADF user. To do this, a focus is upon developing and testing new technologies and capabilities with SmartSat CR and to work small satellite integration.