23 May 2024

War in space: US assesses NZ's ability to quickly launch satellites

1:44 pm on 23 May 2024
No caption

New Zealand launches more rockets than any other US ally in the Five Eyes intelligence group. File photo. Photo: AFP PHOTO /ROCKET LAB/KIERNAN FANNING AND SIMON MOFFATT

The United States has been assessing New Zealand's capability to help with rapid rocket and satellite launches if war breaks out in space.

US Space Command has also asked New Zealand to join an international operation to deter space-enabled attack, focused on China and Russia.

The US is spending billions on a shift from a focus on peacetime operations to develop full "warfighting capabilities" in space by 2027, American generals say.

They say it must catch up with China, whose space arsenal had grown rapidly to encompass anti-satellite missiles, satellites with arms to grapple with enemy satellites in orbit, laser weapons and jammers.

"The United States has not kept pace," they told US lawmakers last month.

US Space Force Commander General Stephen Whiting told the New York Times that China had a "kill web over the Pacific Ocean to find, fix, track and, yes, target United States and allied military capabilities".

"We will shape military spacepower for the future fight," Whiting said in his vision launch in February.

New Zealand Defence Minister Judith Collins met General Whiting in Colorado Springs on a visit to the US last month.

Ahead of that meeting, Collins got an internal briefing that said: "The NZDF relies heavily on space capabilities for just about every one of its functions."

However, MFAT told RNZ on Wednesday "there has not been engagement" with the US over its spaceports assessment report.

US Space Command emblems

US Space Command emblems Photo: Supplied

Congressional records showed the US Congress ordered the Secretaries of Defence and State last year to produce "an assessment of the benefits of leveraging allied and partner spaceports for responsive launch".

New Zealand launches more rockets than any other US ally in the Five Eyes intelligence group. It is in an elite group of five regular successful rocket launch countries, along with the US, China, Russia and India.

The US Embassy told RNZ on Wednesday it did not have a copy of the report to Congress, but did not address the question of whether New Zealand was consulted about its capabilities.

The report was "a look at the space capabilities of NATO countries and Five Eyes countries... similar to how a New Zealand select committee might ask a NZ government to research and report back", the embassy said.

A "responsive" launch - as referred to by Congress - was a rapid one "during a conflict or a crisis", according to Rocket Lab.

To test this, the NZ-US company is due to put up a satellite next year that will chase another company's satellite, under a $50m Pentagon contract to "showcase the ability to maneuver from a real-time threat".

While New Zealand had no military launch capability, the NZDF had just set up a ground-based Pacific "cell" at the US's invitation, to monitor civilian and military satellite activity. Documents say this was partly to guard against a surprise space-enabled attack on US assets.

The new space strategy

The US gave its space doctrine a far-reaching overhaul last year, laying out the aim to conduct "offensive and defensive space operations" during conflict.

Its new four-page space strategy talks about keeping space "safe, secure and sustainable", but also defeating "adversaries" to deter the "real threats" required engaging with allies.

"We will maximise our combat readiness by 2027," said Whiting, laying out his new strategic vision in February.

"We have a moral responsibility to ensure delivery of space capabilities to the Joint Force, the nation, and our allies and to achieve space superiority in order to protect and defend our assets."

A Joint Commercial Operations course carried out by the New Zealand Defence Force's Space Program.

A Joint Commercial Operations course carried out by the New Zealand Defence Force's Space Program. Photo: Supplied

The Pentagon was poised "to sign agreements with commercial space companies that go far beyond the usual contractor relationships" to embed private sector equipment into military units, a US space website reported this week.

The 2023 report to Congress was also aimed to assess US plans to engage with allies over such things as repairing or augmenting satellites, and an assessment of what shared costs and technology "could be considered for allied spaceports".

The US Embassy did not address those "shared costs", nor did it address the invite to New Zealand to join the US-led international Operation Olympic Defender.

France and Germany have also been asked to join, with the US Space Command aiming to jointly strengthen defences and deter a space-enabled attack.

Officials here said "the NZDF is considering the invitation".

Collins also met Chief of Space Operations General Chance Saltzman on her US trip in April. A week later, General Saltzman told lawmakers: "The Space Force is in the early stages of a major transformation, from a force focused only on peacetime capabilities to a force that also includes the full range of warfighting capabilities."

She also met the Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, described as an "unapologetic China hawk", who in 2021 sent military analysts scrambling when he claimed China was working on being able to launch "global strikes from space" against US targets, and who has pushed for the US to deploy leap-ahead technologies that "scare China".

The Embassy said US-NZ bilateral space cooperation was an "exciting dimension of our relationship"; it listed NASA and science projects, but did not mention military operations at all.

RNZ has approached Rocket Lab for comment.