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ADF Space Operations Self-Reliance: An Alternative Universe and the Primacy of Vision

ADF Space Operations Self-Reliance: An Alternative Universe and the Primacy of Vision

The year is 2022, and regional actors have initiated hostilities near a familiar peninsula, several thousand nautical miles north of Australia.  Anticipating large-scale combat operations, Australia’s allies have dispatched Carrier Battle Groups (CVBG), while Australia has committed an Amphibious Task Group (ATG). The ATG will secure an island located along the allies’ eastern flank, permitting allied forces to mass effects against the decisive operation. The ATG objective possesses strategic significance, due to its sealed runway and deep port, which may set the conditions to establish a joint logistic support hub.

State-of-the art capabilities, derived from years of design work and billions of taxpayer dollars are invested in the ATG.  Centred on a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD), there are two ANZAC Frigates, an Air Warfare Destroyer (AWD), and a Collins Class Submarine.  Air coverage is provided by a Squadron of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF), supported by a KC-30 refueller and an E-7A Wedgetail for airborne battlespace management. The embarked LHD land forces are based on a Battalion Group, equipped with the latest LAND 400 Combat Reconnaissance Vehicles, upgraded LAND 907B M1A1 tanks, AIR 9000 helicopters, LAND 19 air defence systems, LAND 17 artillery and LAND 121 protected vehicles.  All major systems are neatly digitised and networked, at great expense to Government, via LAND 75 Battle Management Systems.

All seems to be proceeding well, as the ATG tracks towards the conflict zone.  Suddenly, satellite communication is lost. Soldiers, sailors and aircrews scramble to restore position, navigation and timing (PNT) functions that simultaneously go haywire.  As this frenzy of activity ensues, the senior commander stares at a blank screen – where their space-based sensors once provided real-time conflict zone imagery, there is now nothing. It’s 1942 all over again.

Little do the ATG personnel en route know, that a series of explosions has occurred in geosynchronous orbit, where military and commercial communications satellites are located that have conflict zone coverage.  High velocity space debris generated in this arc of geosynchronous orbit destroys or damages most of the satellites involved.  Several GPS satellites in mid-Earth-orbit are struck by enemy anti-satellite missiles, which disrupts the entire PNT constellation.  Meanwhile, sensor satellites in low-Earth-orbit are ‘captured’ by hunter-killer satellites of unknown origin, then deliberately deorbited, incinerating themselves in Earth’s atmosphere.

Some limited satellite communication services are eventually restored by coalition allies, but with reduced bandwidth. A feeling of dread falls upon each command post, as staffs unpractised in developing shared understanding without perfect digital communication enter a state of crisis; their old paradigm no longer satisfactorily addresses the situation at hand. The ATG, as a supporting effort, has insufficient bandwidth to communicate effectively with its higher headquarters, subordinate units, or neighbouring units. Based on the last, best picture attained prior to the enemy’s successful space domain disruption, the ATG churns onward to its objective partially blinded.

Dread turns to alarm, as missile warning systems identify incoming anti-ship missiles, vectoring from multiple directions and altitudes.  Most missiles are destroyed by counter-measures, but it only takes a few to make it past, and the LHD and AWD are both hit in the surprise attack.  The AWD primary phased array radar and secondary radar system are both damaged, rendering it combat ineffective. The LHD hull is breached, resulting in damage to most of the land combat systems aboard, and a major fire on the heavy tank deck. Damage is so severe that the order is given for the ATG to return to port in Australia. Our allies are forced to redirect CVBG elements to secure the ATG island objective. Mission failure.

The preceding dystopian narrative is a possible outcome, based on our armed forces present trajectory. Fortunately, an alternative universe exists - one featuring the establishment of a joint space project five years earlier. The project team introduced small satellites (smallsat) and small launch vehicles (SLV) to the ADF capability set.  Following tests at Woomera, an equator proximal space launch facility was established on the Gove Peninsula in the NT, along with an alternate spaceport south of Encounter Bay in SA.  Australian satellite manufacturing rapidly matured during the space project so prior to the conflict, smallsats designed for communications, PNT and imagery were prepared for launch via commercial SLV.  Therefore in our previous scenario, when the enemy disrupted allied space capabilities, ADF smallsats were rapidly launched into an uncompromised low-Earth-orbit trajectory to directly support the ATG.[1]

It’s worth noting this concept is not new, as during the Falklands War a US signals intelligence satellite was launched to support the British Amphibious Task Force – well before it arrived in the conflict zone.[2]  So this space coverage was a vital risk mitigator for British military planners. Therefore, in an alternative universe, the strategic foresight in developing space operations self-reliance manifests as a primacy of vision. As a result of this innovative space capability, adversary forces were identified by ADF smallsats well before they engaged. CVBG were then warned via smallsat downlinks, and the threat was neutralised by a JSF maritime strike mission coordinated via PNT smallsats, thus averting a major catastrophe and loss of life. Subsequently, the ATG secured the island objective unopposed.  Mission success.

[1] - Constellations of smallsats can provide greater capability in aggregate and are harder to attack than large satellites that have prominent radar cross sections and electromagnetic signatures.

[2] – Deployment of this ‘spy’ satellite allowed the British Task Force to track movements of threat forces, which provided them with a winning edge.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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