On a wing and prayer? Not on defence minister Dutton’s watch

By Melissa Coade

March 23, 2022

Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, AO, DSC, with Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts (centre), AO, CSC, Defence Space Commander, and Commander of United States Space Command, General James Dickinson (right), at the Air & Space Power Conference 2022
Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, AO, DSC, with Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts (centre), AO, CSC, Defence Space Commander, and Commander of United States Space Command, General James Dickinson (right), at the Air & Space Power Conference 2022. (Defence)

Peter Dutton’s defence vision leaves nothing to chance as he underscores the importance of hard power in air and space domains and launches Australian Defence Space Command.

Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts has been appointed to lead the new command, which Peter Dutton said would start out as a ‘modest’ agency compared to comparable functions of other nations but would receive further investment moving into the future. 

“Make no mistake, we are forward-looking,” Dutton said of the Defence Space Command.

“It’s a necessary endeavour, with a view to protecting our national interests and our need for a Space Force in the future.”

The new command will include ADF personnel from each of the three services, public servants from the defence department, and industry contractors. Its establishment was a necessary endeavour, Dutton said, to protect Australia’s national interests and plan for a future space force.

Roberts has previously served as head of RAAF capability and, prior to that, was posted to the Airworthiness Coordination and Policy Agency (ACPA) in 2021. In her ACPA role, she received a Conspicuous Service Cross for her work in ADF airworthiness oversight of introduction of major aviation capabilities, establishing ADF operational airworthiness regulations, and developing new airworthiness frameworks for charter and unmanned aircraft.

Speaking at an air and space power conference hosted by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) on Tuesday, Dutton said the geopolitical climate meant hard power was the obvious solution for national defence and deterrence challenges. 

More investment in hard power technologies, combined with the cooperation of ‘like-minded nations’ were essential to push humanity forward and preserve peace and stability, he added. 

“Australia’s aim will be to invest in new military space capabilities to counter threats, to assure our continued access to space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and to uphold the free use of space,” Dutton said, also releasing a defence space strategy that will guide the priorities of the new command group. 

Outer space was becoming a more ‘congested and contested’ domain, Dutton said, noting grey zone activities that blurred the difference between competition and conflict activities. 

“Tellingly, more than 7,500 satellites orbit the Earth, with thousands more being launched every year.

“While space is primarily a civil domain – to support navigation, communication networks, financial systems, scientific enterprises, weather forecasting, and disaster response – it will undoubtedly become a domain which takes on greater military significance in this century,” he said. 

The minister characterised outer space as an operational theatre for joint forces providing space-based communication, intelligence, and navigation capabilities. And he warned of efforts by state actors ‘to threaten or degrade space networks, to target satellites, and to destroy space systems’. 

These other nations regarded space as a territory for taking, rather than one to be shared, he said. Allowing space to become a new ‘realm of aggression’ rather than a domain used to ‘deter aggression’ would have significant civil and military costs. 

“Defence Space Command is Australia’s contribution towards a larger, collective effort among like-minded countries to ensure a safe, stable and secure space domain. By developing our sovereign space capabilities, we will not only become more self-reliant, but also be a better ally and partner through the combined effects of our capabilities,” Dutton said.

Australia and the US will also work together on mutual space domain objectives, with the department of defence the US National Reconnaissance Office agreeing to cooperative satellite activities that will expand local space knowledge and capabilities.

Our partnership will also contribute to the US National Reconnaissance Office’s pursuit of a more capable, integrated, and resilient space architecture to support global coverage in a wide range of intelligence mission requirements,” Dutton said. 

In his talk, Dutton referenced the ongoing conflict being waged by Russian military forces in Ukraine and equated Russian president Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions to the local threat of China’s military presence in the Indo-Pacific.

“All of us are watching the terrible conflict unfolding in Ukraine at the hands of a despot hell-bent on reinstating Russia’s imperial reach and spheres of influence.

“Here, in the Indo-Pacific, many nations have been subjected to different forms of Chinese Government coercion over a sustained period,” the defence minister said.

“And we are witnessing China’s rapid militarisation – the largest of its kind in peacetime and modern times – a build-up unaccompanied by transparency or strategic reassurance for concerned nations in the region and beyond.”

The character of warfare had also changed, Dutton said, pointing to the growing importance of hypersonics and spaced-based satellite communications, as well as the use of remotely piloted and uncrewed platforms.

“Both Russia and China are already developing hypersonic missiles which can travel at more than 6,000 kilometres per hour,” he said.

The minister also gave an update on new P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft, 12 of which the RAAF has already taken delivery. He said a new SA based ‘deep maintenance facility adjacent to RAAF Base Edinburgh would ensure the aircraft could be adequately cared for locally. 

“We envisage this facility developing into a regional hub to service not just P-8A Poseidons, but also other aircraft like the E-7A Wedgetail Early Warning and Control Aircraft,” Dutton said.

“The deep maintenance facility we will develop at Edinburgh is an example of how Australia is developing its sovereign capabilities which will help us step-up our contributions to such regional maritime activities.”

The RAAF’s aircraft capabilities also include the E-8A Wedgetail, EA-18G Growler and F/A-18F Super Hornet.


ADF space command is the right next step for Australian space power

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