Australia urged to be a cool head in space

·2-min read

Australia should use its status as a "middle space power" to encourage responsible behaviour as the heavens become increasingly congested, contested and competitive, a leading academic says.

As the world's major powers engage in a destabilising space arms race, Australia needs to be careful not to accelerate a "global strategic race to the bottom," according to Australian National University space law expert Cassandra Steer.

"One of the greatest risks is the move by major powers over the last decade towards an explicit ambition to dominate space militarily," Dr Steer said in a policy options paper from the National Security College.

"Language in military doctrine and space policies in the US and China shows a concerning rejection of the shared historical position that keeping space stable was in one's own national interest, even if one's adversaries were also active in space.

"The expression that space is a 'warfighting domain' or a 'battlespace' has begun to enter informal military parlance and public messaging.

"Undoubtedly, space is now part of multi-domain operations. However, it is not, and should not become a battlefield."

Dr Steer said a classic security dilemma is emerging with China, India, Russia and the US all testing anti-satellite weapon capabilities.

Many nations were now developing forms of interference, and counter technologies that threaten the stability and security of all space-based systems.

She said in standing up Space Force in 2019, the US made a powerful statement, while China already had an equivalent, and Russia continues to ramp up its space military program.

Canada, India, France, Japan and the UK have created centralised space commands within their militaries, and Australia's Department of Defence has announced it will have its own Space Division in 2022, which Dr Steer said was a prudent move.

"However, Australia needs to be careful that, as it develops sovereign space capabilities, it does not accelerate a global strategic race to the bottom," she said.

"Rather, Australia should focus on its ability to become an effective diplomatic space power, building on our history as a strong contributor to space technologies and arms control norms."

In a series of policy recommendations, Dr Steer called on the federal government to appoint a space ambassador and invest in space literacy.

She also called for more personnel to support the space diplomacy missions of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Space Agency.