Australian military looks to build crucial space capabilities that will support Aukus nuclear subs

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: CSIRO</span>
Photograph: CSIRO

Defence is looking for a mesh of military space satellites that can talk to each other as well as to the ground, and is “scalable, rapidly deployable and re-constitutable”.

The system, in other words, would need to be able to be made bigger, to be quickly put into action, and to be repaired in case of attack or accident.

The military network could include the ability to track high-velocity projectiles and the use of infrared, would need to be “resilient to cyber and electronic warfare attacks”, and would need to transmit and receive data from assets “at any global position”.

Related: Australia’s $3bn Aukus bill to boost US and UK industry may go even higher

The defence department has issued a request for information, saying it is looking for “progressive and innovative ideas” for a space-based data transport and relay network (DTRN).

“The DTRN is envisioned to be a flexible and configurable global converged network in space, drawing on multiple security domains to disseminate defence data,” the request said.

“It should be resilient, enabling secure and rapid transmission and reception of multiple digital data types through an open systems architecture of satellite and ground assets using commercial military frequencies.

“The DTRN would be operated for military purpose and should be scalable, rapidly deployable and re-constitutable.”

The Aukus submarines have been dominating defence-related conversations recently, because of the enormous $368bn price tag and concerns that the first Australia-made nuclear submarine will not be ready until the 2040s.

Meanwhile, Guardian Australia has spoken to people in the space industry who feel the other parts of Aukus – the so-called “pillar two” – are being overlooked. Pillar two includes artificial intelligence, drones, cyber capabilities and other technologies, all of which use space-based assets and many of which are likely to be realities years before the submarines.

Satellites, and therefore space, are critical for surveillance, navigation, weapons guidance and communication already, and will become more so in the future.

Defence projects already under way include Def799 for space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and JP9102 for satellite communications systems.

A senior defence strategy and capability analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Malcolm Davis, said while space was critical for Aukus’s pillar two, it would also be crucial for pillar one, in terms of communicating with submarines.

“If you go down the laser optical route [instead of low frequency radio] you get voice, internet, the works. Satellites and space are going to be important for comms,” he said.

“They also open up avenues for anti-submarine warfare, using light detecting and ranging (Lidar).

“In pillar two, in terms of countering hypersonic threats, in terms of autonomous systems, space is crucial to all of that.”

The Space Industry Association of Australia has argued that Aukus should be used to bolster space capabilities through technology and infrastructure sharing.

Related: Former SAS soldier arrested and charged in NSW for alleged war crime over killing of Afghan civilian

The partners should build new constellations of satellites to reduce their dependency on existing technology, thereby minimising the impact of military attacks on satellites, the association’s then director of operations, Philip Citowicki, wrote in a 2022 piece for the Australian National University’s National Security College.

He argued that a loss of access to space, or the destruction of space-based assets, would have “catastrophic effects”, but the Aukus partners could work together to reduce the risks.

Guardian Australia has asked the defence minister, Richard Marles, if Australia needs to do more on space defence.

Davis warned that China, particularly, has offensive space capabilities. He paraphrased a quote from British army commander Bernard Montgomery, who said “if we lose the war in the air, we lose the war and we lose it quickly”.

“The same might be said of space, we lose the war and we lose it quickly,” Davis said.