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A Need for an Australian Space Force

In his first piece for the Central Blue, Dr. Graham Wild explores Australia’s future and outlines the need for our own Space Force. Space as a domain excites the imagination, with concepts such as space trade still feeling like fiction. Yet Dr. Wild articulates the necessity of long-term thinking in assessing the value of an Australian Space Force to the continued evolution of national development. With space becoming increasingly congested, Dr. Wild highlights why Australia cannot afford to leave space to the science fiction authors.

The Royal Australian Space Force

The nature of the US Space Force and its direct evolution from the USAF is very logical (Dawson, 2021); space is simply higher, crossing the Karman line (100 km high). However, the late great Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, popularised the relationship between spaceships and naval ships, which is true across much of science fiction. This analogy is important when considering the role of, and hence the need for, a future Royal Australian Space Force (RASF).

Following Roddenberry’s logic if we paraphrase from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN, 2021), the role of the RASF could involve:

  • Provision of space-based patrol and response, interdiction and strategic strike, protection of shipping and off-earth territories and resources, space-based intelligence collection and evaluation, and escort duties.

  • Peacetime activities may include space-based surveillance and response within Australia's off-earth space zones, space-situational awareness, electromagnetic storm forecasting/reporting, and astronomy support operations, humanitarian and disaster relief, and space-based search and rescue.

The great maritime strategist A. T. Mahan spent his entire career educating the American public about the importance of navies (Sumida, 1999); however, the Australian public can have a “border force” impression of RAN (Forbes, 2002). The actual role of navies is vital; duties like escort and protection of shipping/resources should not be understated. The scale of the British Empire was facilitated by maritime trade and travel, made possible through commercial shipping supported by the Royal Navy (Hamilton, 1978). The same will be true for a Space Force; it will facilitate “free” space trade and travel.

If the proposed roles of the future RASF do not invoke images of potential future scenarios (even potential conflict), let us paint a more vivid picture. Neil deGrasse Tyson said that the first trillionaire will come from space mining (Kramer, 2015). The value of minable space bodies is astronomical (pun intended), with the asteroid 16 Psyche estimated by Professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton to be worth $10 quintillion (Scotti, 2017), that is $10,000,000,000,000,000,000. Consider a non-descript trillion-dollar hydrated asteroid, which could be acquired by an Australian commercial space operation. Future technology could facilitate the capability to autonomously bring this asset into an orbital “parking spot” for mining. This is illustrated in Figure 1, with a hypothetical self-fuelled retrieval system. These parking spots are called Lagrange points (Howell, 2017), and are illustrated in Figure 2; for reference, the L2 point of the earth-sun system is the home to the James Webb Space Telescope (Clampin, 2008).

In this hypothetical future, Lagrange points would likely be shared, with companies bidding for their use based on guidelines as determined by a future “International Civil Space Organisation” (the space equivalent of the International Civil Aviation Organisation). Such a major asset would likely be viewed as worthy of interception by space pirates. These malign actors could be state sponsored, corporate sponsored, or as the name suggests, be independent actors seeking to collect wealth (and maybe bury). There is a need to ensure this asset gets to the Lagrange point as scheduled, given this activity would be time limited. Even the activity to mine the asteroid would require protection. While it is true that private security would need to be employed to protect against private threats, national defence would be the relevant response against state sponsored malign actors. These are space privateers. The history of maritime privateers as pirates is well known (Craze, 2016), and hence it would be very reasonable to assume, especially considering current grey-zone tactics (Bachmann, Dowse, & Gunneriusson, 2019), that state sponsored space pirates would be very likely; these would be equivalent to “little green men” (Giegerich, 2016), who were supposedly Russian sponsored operatives with advanced training, equipment, and resources in the Ukrainian Crisis of 2014. These space privateers would then analogously be “little grey men” in the space domain.

 self-contained autonomous system to capture a hydrated (water rich) asteroid

Figure 1: A self-contained autonomous system to capture a hydrated (water rich) asteroid is illustrated, where the water from the asteroid would be used to produce fuel, facilitating the transportation to an alternative location such as a Lagrange point of the earth-moon system.

Figure 2: As seen from “above” (viewing the north poles), the earth-moon systems, highlighting the five Lagrange points. The lines have been included to illustrate the lines of equal gravitational potential energy, with L4 and L5 at the “highest points”.

The destructive potential of space mining waste materials also highlights the need for a Space Force. While these space rocks are as inert as their terrestrial equivalents, they possess significantly more potential and kinetic energy. A trillion-dollar asset such as 1996 FG3 has an effective diameter of 1.7 km, and a total mass of 3.5 billion tonnes (Wolters et al, 2011); a small fragment of this, only 140 metres across, could be used to destroy an entire city. This utilises the mass driver concept popularised in the book and then movie Starship Troopers, where a meteor was used to destroy Buenos Aires. NASA stated that a 140-metre diameter impactor would be equivalent to a 60-megaton blast (Poole, 2020). While this potential impactor is just less than 10% the diameter of 1996 FG3, it is only 0.06% the volume and mass. That is, a tiny fraction of a mining asset that could be weaponised to destroy an entire city. The risk here, and the convoluted nature of malign actors, means that both the patrol and situational awareness capabilities of a future RASF would be essential.

At present, there are many that do not see a need of a Space Force, labelling it as a waste of money, administratively difficult, and even too special a place for warfare (Dolman, 2019). However, we must consider both the importance of space as a domain and the fact that any future adversary is not going to share an altruistic view of space. The commercial reality of space is upon us already, propelled by the 20-fold cost reduction from the space shuttle to SpaceX (Jones, 2018). Space is destined to become more contested, and space needs specialised knowledge and expertise to ensure adequate defence.

Dr Graham Wild is a Senior Lecturer of Aviation Technology with The University of New South Wales at The Australian Defence Force Academy. He is a technologist and scientist with an educational background in physics and mathematics, specialising in photonics and acoustics. Dr Wild’s research includes multiple facets of STEM applied across aviation and aerospace with a focus on future operations and technologies; his research focuses on applications involving machine learning, mixed realities, data analytics, systems thinking, and sustainability, with further application in education, training, and safety. To date, he has authored over 150 scientific articles.

Cover image credit: SpaceX (via Unsplash)


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