Tactical Satellite Launch: Enabling Autonomous Futures & Expeditionary Ambitions

‘However beautiful the strategy, one should occasionally look at the results’[1]

Great power competition and not the fight against terrorism is now the focus of US national security. So in reaction to an evolving global security environment, a complete redesign of allied space security architectures is underway. This upheaval includes ideas for a US Space Corps as the space domain is considered as another warfighting domain, just as air, land and maritime domains are. However, the complexity and scale of the effort to protect exposed space assets could take years to complete. These circumstances are not inconsequential, given Australian military astro-strategy is underpinned by ready access to allied space systems.

So what does a postulated Space Pearl Harbour event mean for the Australian Army – what are the military strategic consequences if space threats are realised during war?

Firstly, in context of an increasingly contested space domain, it’s a reminder our reliance on other nations space platforms to support joint land combat is not without enterprise level risk.  Secondly, it illuminates the fact that Australia is yet to develop the full-spectrum of independent space enablers to support military operations and future digital transformation. Finally, it may now be prudent to create a ‘fairdinkum’ Australian Space Capability System that enables responsive, resilient and self-reliant space operations to optimise joint warfighting in the digital age.

Army remains largely reliant on other nation’s space systems, which could potentially be susceptible to disruption.[2] This risk represents a priori hypothesis due to the intersection of Army’s space domain dependence and the proposition that allied space-systems are vulnerable.

Since my first blog advocating for an ‘Aussie’ small satellite and small launch vehicle capability there has been meaningful progress and Australia continues to work with strategic partners on developing space support. Exciting announcements were made about establishing an Australian Space Agency with a range of new initiatives and Joint Project 799 Enhanced Satellite ISR Capability (JP799). A ‘home grown’ space agency is anticipated to bring focus, coordination and funding to a burgeoning space sector, thereby reducing acquisition and sustainment risk to future space investment plans. Likewise, JP799 is of value, particularly the two-year study into space capability under Phase 2 of the project.

The JP977 study is an opportunity to ‘look at the results’ of space strategy and emerging technologies, which may set conditions to realise space operations self-reliance in Australia.

However, JP799 Phase 1 will contract commercial space sensor operators to provide space surveillance support, which like extant allied space hardware, may also be at risk of interdiction or cyber exploitation. Civilian space-based assets could be at greater risk than military space resources, as some space companies openly market imagery products and risk revealing their satellites orbit parameters.[3] So whilst civilian space sensors will be high value during peace-time or low-intensity conflict, it’s plausible they might be among the first satellites to be disrupted or corrupted during a high-intensity war.[4] Therefore, robust physical security, system redundancy and cyber-attack vector mitigation should be critical filters when assessing commercial space sensor offerings.

Another important space initiative saw the Buccaneer Cube Satellite launched into orbit following collaboration between the University of New South Wales[5] and the Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG).[6][7] However, while the Buccaneer project is welcome, it seems to be limited to small satellite technologies, as the project scope omits functions necessary for a complete space capability – in the authors view, a broader space apparatus will eventually be required for global expeditionary operations. So what should a Space Capability System look like? Ideally it should be designed to leverage Space 2.0 industry participation and support affordable small satellites[8]. Building on DSTGs work will be useful, as their research may be instrumental in understanding transformative effects of space systems.[9] Particularly as small satellite capabilities continue to evolve and could be leveraged to support joint land combat with strategic command networks and spatial awareness.

Space surveillance plans are in progress, but for holistic space capability, the system should comprise of three functional elements: ground segment, launch segment and space segment.[10]

The ground segment provides secure mission control functions, specialist workforce, dedicated facilities and radars, including fixed and deployable communications equipment.[11][12] The launch segment includes Australian-based launch vehicle infrastructure and commercial orbital-class rockets required to rapidly deploy military small satellites into uncompromised orbits.[13][14] Whereas the space segment consists of satellite systems that deliver multipath communications links, remote sensing and navigation signals necessary to enable sophisticated military operations.[15]

This catalogue of space system technologies will lead to leaps in capability and may become core enterprise enablers when the conjecture of autonomous modernisation becomes a reality.

An expected proliferation of autonomous robotic systems and drones may require dynamic bandwidth scaling and ubiquitous low-latency data exchange to operate at strategic distances. This proposition is based on autonomous vehicles and strategic drones already being reliant on satellite coverage to function safely. Moreover, when military platforms are inevitably merged with artificial intelligence and quantum supercomputing, it is envisaged that nimble space support and global connectivity will lay foundations for capability growth. This growth is likely to be exponential and not linear, due to the nascent hyper-connected paradigm that Army must now navigate. So developing only the space segment leaves Army wedded to other nation’s rocket launch schedules or space priorities and obliged to contribute personnel to allied ground control roles.[16]

A constraint with contemporary astro-strategy is the absence of tactical flexibility to launch satellites into selected orbit profiles for short notice military contingencies, or to compensate for sudden allied space disruption.[17] All three segments are needed for enduring space proficiency and enabling rapid space support[18] to joint operations. Remaining dependent on foreign rocket launch manifests is a rising enterprise risk and represents a myopic view of what can be achieved in Australia. Consequently, tactical satellite launch stands as a convincing means to mitigate swiftly evolving space hazards.

Only an alchemy of the three functional segments, tuned as a space ecosystem[19] can transmute current strategy of ‘asking friends for help’ to an optimal state of national space independence.

Moreover, satellites that have been operating in long-term orbits either cannot be relied on in war or their data outputs should routinely be corroborated, as adversaries will have had opportunity to identify them and prepare contingency anti-satellite options. Whilst this is worst-case scenario thinking, the evidence is already in the public domain that satellites can be successfully targeted and destroyed or subject to malicious cyber security breaches. It follows that formulating inventive space resilience tactics and bespoke cyber defences for space systems should probably be a national security priority.

In context of a militarised space domain, longstanding satellite orbits are akin to waving a flag from a key weapon systems position, then waiting in place for an inevitable artillery barrage.

Generating space freedom-of-action with Australian rockets, radars and spacecraft would be a joint responsibility, but a dedicated space line-of-modernisation could be developed to support land power applications and autonomous modernisation plans. Ideally, an astro-strategic space narrative, including a joint operating concept for tactical satellite launch (TACSAT Ops) could be used to guide Space Capability System requirements. But whilst full-spectrum space capabilities are not Defence policy, current efforts to enhance space-based enablers (outlined in the 2016 Defence White Paper) are a major step forward. However, launching space systems into orbits at a time of our choosing to observe, communicate and navigate may underwrite autonomous futures and expeditionary ambitions.

About the author

Lieutenant Colonel Greg Rowlands is an infantry officer with 27 years of Army service. He is a graduate of Australian Command & Staff College and the Capability & Technology Management College. Greg has also completed an undergraduate degree and three master’s degrees from the University of New England, University of Canberra and University of New South Wales.


[1]Sir Winston Churchill quote undated.

[2]Whilst Australia funded the Wideband Global Satellite (WGS-6) satellite communications spacecraft, it is only one of nine satellites in the constellation and its orbit dynamics are controlled via US ground station facilities.

[3]A commercial satellite operator’s imagery of North Korean and Syrian locations was included in this online article. This example highlights enough information to triangulate the likely altitude and low-Earth orbit trajectory of their space sensor satellite.  This relatively low security approach makes it elementary for a space-capable adversary to target the civilian satellite for physical disruption or cyber-attack.

[4]This is a worst case scenario involving high-intensity conflict with space-capable nation-state(s).

[5]UNSW has also launched three QB50 CubeSats as part of its own space engineering program.

[6]This includes the Biarri GPS satellite receiver space environment trial.

[7]Future small satellite trials should include designs with propulsion subsystems capable of generating delta-v for minor inclination changes or collinear and coplanar orbit manoeuvres. Generating linear velocity vectors enhances orbital decay profiles and provides options for mission alterations or space debris collision avoidance.

[8]Small satellites and commercial small launch vehicles have a lower cost envelope and are expected to be a realistic capability for Australia to achieve and sustain in a reasonable timeframe (circa 5+ years). Small spacecraft are also less vulnerable to disruption than larger satellites that have prominent electromagnetic and thermal signatures. Going ‘small tech’ in space is also an approach being explored by Australia’s major ally.

[9]The commercial-government space cooperation model has been successfully demonstrated in the US, particularly for the launch segment.

[10]A sustainment segment would also be necessary. Space logistics, supply chain and mission systems could primarily be provided by the space industry in partnership with the Australian Defence Force. However, it is envisaged that space segment hardware would need to be controlled by specialist military personnel in secure ground station facilities.

[11]Orbital mechanics planning ensures space platforms are optimised for their ground track, orbit trajectory, period of coverage and collision avoidance. Sydney based space company Saber Astronautics is developing user-friendly machine learning software applications in this discipline, among other space technology innovations.

[12]Adelaide-based Fleet Spaceis an exemplar for space and ground segments as they are developing a constellation of nano-satellites for Internet-of-Things (IoT) applications and recently announced plans to build a ground control station. Myriota Global is also an exemplar as they are producing innovative IoT enabling technologies, including solar power satellite link devices and signals management software for persistent global platform tracking.

[13]Queensland-based Gilmour Space Technologies is an exemplar launch segment advancing innovative hybrid fuel multi-stage small rocket applications. A 3D printed solid-state and liquid fuel combination permits its launch vehicles to throttle and achieve precision orbit manoeuvres. They have plans to test a sub-orbital class rocket in 2018 and an orbital class rocket in 2020. GSC will be a regional competitor to Rocket Lab and global competition to other small launch operators.

[14]Small launch vehicles were proven workable for deployment of small satellites into low-Earth orbit by Rocket Lab.

[15]Joint Project 2008 Phase 6 is scoping future space capabilities. Therefore JP2008 Phase 6 and JP799 could become part of a wider Space Capability System Project that encompasses all three functional segments. This effort could be tailored to support joint expeditionary operations and autonomous modernisation.

[16]The Australian Army contributes soldiers to the US Army 1stSpace Brigade where they assist in managing satellite communications services via the Wideband Global Satellite (WGS) constellation.

[17]Opportunity presents here noting there are plans by Equatorial Launch Services to construct a space rocket launch facility in the Northern Territory near Gove. This location capitalises on ‘equatorial proximity’ geographic advantages for optimal rocket launches and would be an exemplar launch segment facility. However, for a mature launch segment, alternate launch site(s) would be required, preferably outside monsoon season inclement weather zones. Rocket launch site (Spaceport) options include south of Adelaide, the Kimberly (Near RAAF Base Curtin) or Central East Coast of Queensland.

[18]My earlier post on tactical launch to support joint warfighting contextualises how Tactical Satellite Launch could work:

[19]Melbourne-based Moonshot Space Company is a space startup focussed on developing an embryonic space industry ecosystem in Australia via its Gemini accelerator program.