20 Dec 2023

Space race puts pressure on New Zealand Defence Force

6:49 am on 20 December 2023
a space shuttle is flying over the earth, space station over the horizon, view from space

New Zealand is linked in politically as a partner in the US Wideband Global Satellite (WGS) programme, and commercially through Rocket Lab's contracts with the Pentagon. Photo: 123rf

The weapons race in space is heating up - and the bills are shooting up too.

New Zealand is in a group of allies the US has asked to stump up more money for military satellites.

What does that mean for a cash-strapped Defence Force that cannot even afford to float all its boats?

A multi-billion-dollar space race pitting the US against China and Russia is gathering pace for satellite communications, jamming, tracking and surveillance to help troops on the battlefield, subs and ships, and even nuclear forces.

Hypersonic missile development - the US alone has 70 hypersonic test programmes - is only fuelling the push for more advanced satellite warning systems.

New Zealand is linked in politically as a partner in the US Wideband Global Satellite (WGS) programme, and commercially through Rocket Lab's multiplying contracts with the Pentagon and major military contractors such as Lockheed Martin.

But the military satellites New Zealand relies on are past their best-by, and the US wants help with a $1.6 billion project to launch two new, much more powerful ones, according to US media reports.

New Zealand is putting $15 million towards launching one of those two, but Defence Minister Judith Collins in a statement on Tuesday did not mention the second one.

The new WGS satellite, WGS-11+, New Zealand is helping launch next year, will carry prototype counter-jamming tech, that the US is pouring $5b into, "to automatically counter jamming efforts to keep warfighters connected in contested battlespace".

This is after New Zealand bought access to the now-ageing web of 10 WGS satellites in 2012 for $83m, alongside Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Norway. Australia spent over $700m in a separate deal for access.

New Zealand puts in a meagre $1.2m a year towards running the "constellation".

"Space systems are fundamental to the success of modern military operations," Collins said.

The US has been talking up the rising threats in space from China and Russia, and negotiating for months with the WGS satellite partners to do more.

"All currently signed partners have committed to providing additional funding to the WGS programme, subject to the successful conclusion of an international agreement," the US Space Force said in 2022.

Boeing, which is building the two new WGS satellites, said recently: "It's critical that we keep that production line going, and we integrate the allies' requirements for protected communications."

Each country gets as much access to the US-owned satellites as they stump up.

Australia instead wants to set up its sovereign satellites, which might cost it $3b by 2029, so it does not have to ask the US for permission to use WGS any longer. Recently it named US weapons giant Lockheed Martin as the preferred bidder.

In Sydney on Wednesday, defence and security are top of the agenda for the Australian and New Zealand prime ministers in their first talks.

The New Zealand Defence Force says it too wants to add future space systems that "reduce reliance on others", but ventures nothing about how to do that.

National was bullish pre-election on raising defence spending but is more reticent now, with both PM Christopher Luxon and Collins saying it all depended on the fiscal position.

The coalition agreements say nothing about defence, and the government faces tough choices amid growing high-tech demands such as the space race.

The NZDF faces many much more basic problems, having lost so many personnel it has recently had to park up the HMNZS Canterbury during tropical cyclone season, would struggle to respond in a major storm due to "large holes" in army units, and had to retire Orion planes early though that degraded search and rescue functions.

"Hollowness is apparent in all ranks and trades as well as the civilian workforce," its annual report said.

Defence is working on a new capability plan - a shopping list - due out next year. A five-page document on space security, under the heading 'What space assets do the NZDF currently have?', lists only the WGS satellites.

It then states, "In order to provide dependable security, certainty, and timely use of space systems, future capability development will likely be required to improve national resilience and reduce reliance on others to support New Zealand's interests."

The satellite industry is, not surprisingly, crowing about the potential for small countries to buy into "sovereign space infrastructure".

The Pentagon is involved in selling its own much larger space dreams, recently letting NBC tour a rocket factory in Alabama, and the New York Times hang around with the Space Force in California.

It is seeking billions to counter threats such as what it describes as a "robot arm" China has already tested that can sidle up and pull a satellite out of its orbit.

"We know when we're threatened," a military rocket launch alliance told NBC.

In a bid to produce smaller, cheaper satellites to, for instance, "flood the zone" and protect sensitive satellites, the Pentagon is turning to aerospace companies.

The result for New Zealand is multiple contracts for local firm Rocket Lab and its US offshoot, including putting hypersonic testers into space for the US government and giant contractor Leidos.

Rocket Lab is also helping equip classified satellites being developed by the world's largest weapons maker, Lockheed Martin, to identify and track hypersonic weapons and advanced missiles.

The commercial and WGS efforts increase New Zealand's alignment with the Pentagon and Five Eyes' interests, and with big contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed. New Zealand ran an anti-jamming study of WGS ground terminals for the Five Eyes intelligence grouping two years ago.

Space Force has invested in a new Rocket Lab Neutron rocket, for use on the "highest priority national defense and security missions", and on hypersonic rockets to transport cargo anywhere in the world quickly.

Rocket Lab also works with BlackSky, which does from space mostly for military intelligence.

The big spend-up on space comes at a time when weapons sales generally are surging. "Israel's conflict with Hamas, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the rise of China have brought a boom for weapons makers and a chance for Washington to build closer military ties to other countries," the New York Times reported.

By contrast, on the civilian side, Australia recently scrapped plans for four satellites for weather forecasting and disaster work, for cost reasons.

Rocket Lab declined to comment.