23 May 2024

War in space: US Space Force looks to tie in allies, including New Zealand

11:42 pm on 23 May 2024
US Space Command emblems

US Space Command emblems. Photo: Supplied

Analysis - A headline on a Fox News op-ed recently read: The First Space War Is Coming. Here Are Three Things the US Must Do to Win.

You will have to read it if you want to find out.

Another, this week on Vox: How worried should we be about Russia putting a nuke in space?

The answer: Concerned.

Space is going off, and New Zealand is involved.

A briefing note to Defence and Space Minister Judith Collins, ahead of meeting the US AUKUS ambassador in March, said: "The US is looking to advance its priorities through 'integrated deterrence': Using all levers of national power seamlessly with allies and partners across the spectrum of conflict and warfighting domains into all theatres."

A month later, Collins met in Colorado Springs with US commanders of the farthest-flung of those theatres - space.

General Stephen Whiting, commander of US Space Command, was one of them. He had told the New York Times China had a "kill web" of satellites over the Pacific, and the US needed to catch up.

A record of what Whiting and Collins talked about would be interesting; RNZ has only the pre-meeting briefing of Collins.

The briefing stressed that space was vital across all areas of the NZ Defence Force already, and that "partnering with others" was key. It does not mention China, at least, not in the bits that are not blanked out.

A Long March-2F carrier rocket, carrying the Shenzhou-18 spacecraft and a crew of three astronauts, lifts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert in northwest China on 25 April, 2024.

A Long March-2F carrier rocket, carrying the Shenzhou-18 spacecraft and a crew of three astronauts, lifts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert in northwest China on 25 April, 2024 (file photo) Photo: GREG BAKER

China 'moving at breathtaking speed in space'

Just a few days after meeting Collins, Whiting was in Hawaii, on his first international trip in a command team, around what the US calls the Indo-Pacific, the most hotly contested region in the world, where he told Space Force staff:

"The People's Republic of China is moving at breathtaking speed in space, and they are rapidly developing a range of counter-space weapons to hold at risk our space capabilities, but they're also using space to make their terrestrial forces more precise, more lethal, and more far-ranging.

"As we have seen with the events in the European and Central Command theatre of operations, the value of space is just foundational to all that we do in the military arena, and so we must protect and defend our space capabilities."

Whiting was referring to Ukraine. There, Elon Musk's web of low-earth-orbit Starlink satellites that talk to drones above battlefields, has been vital to Kiev countering Russia.

But the Pentagon's first focus is closer: "The most comprehensive and serious challenge to US national security is the PRC's [China's] coercive and increasingly aggressive endeavour to refashion the Indo-Pacific region and the international system to suit its interests and authoritarian preferences," says the 2022 US National Defence Strategy.

Whiting's Space Force, that Collins visited in April, has grown from nothing in 2019, to have a $47 billion budget, nine times what the entire NZ Defence Force gets.

Its budget is way bigger, and its new vision and strategy way more aggressive, than before.

Space Force is moving on two fronts that involve New Zealand: Going looking for commercial launch partners to build America's own satellite "web" - think Rocket Lab, which won a $840m contract last December with the Space Force's Space Development Agency, an SEC filing shows - and looking to tie in allies more.

This includes:

  • An assessment by the Defence Secretary of how to leverage allied spaceports for rapid launches in a crisis or conflict, covering New Zealand among the Five Eyes partners. The Collins US briefing says New Zealand's "agile" space regulatory framework has been proven to support "responsive" launches from within New Zealand. These are rapid launches in response to a crisis or conflict.
  • Inviting New Zealand to join Operation Olympic Defender that aims to strengthen US-allied space operations. Australia, the UK and Canada are already on board. France, invited too, is seeking to ensure it retains operational sovereignty; RNZ has asked Minister Collins if that matters to New Zealand.
  • Training NZDF people in satellite threat simulations at Colorado Springs.
  • Setting up a team in Auckland, the Joint Commercial Operations (JCO), for unclassified monitoring of civilian and military satellites, and coordinating the whole Pacific region's work on this, and training others. This is what the US calls "space domain awareness", vital, their generals say, when space is becoming "more important and more dangerous".

Already, a Technology Safeguards Agreement with the US had helped Rocket Lab by enabling sensitive technology transfer, said a briefing to incoming Space Minister Collins in November. It also meant the whole country, had "avoided the need to build complex regulatory systems of our own from scratch".

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

NZ's investment in space remains small

Space can sound exciting, when it does not sound threatening. The new director of the NZDF's space programme in 2021 on Linkedin wrote: "And now I turn my attention turns to possibly the best new role I could think of and one I never dreamed possible when I first set out on my Air Force career… A dedicated space role!"

However, the country's investment in space remained small, the Briefing to Incoming Minister (BIM) to Collins said.

At Defence, for instance, the cost of the new JCO satellite monitoring is just $250,000 over two years, coming out of existing budgets. Defence had pulled back from developing the country's own "sovereign capability" with twice the staff, that would have cost $15-16m a year, documents show.

"Although the New Zealand Defence Force is heavily reliant on space-based capabilities, New Zealand does not have any space assets on orbit, instead relying entirely on partners' or commercial assets," the BIM said.

The US moves could help change that.

The NZDF was now looking at "ground-based space infrastructure" and "enhanced access to space effects", said the US briefing to Collins in April, obtained via an Official Information Act request.

The American desire for space allies looks like a fit with New Zealand's enthusiasm for more partnering.

A new defence capability plan for the decades ahead, due to go to the Cabinet soon, would put wheels on that: "A major element of our updated policy approach is working with our international security partners to meet collective security challenges," said Collins' US briefing, in discussing the new plan.

Operationally, it said: "It is expected that over the next 15 years, NZDF will need to deploy more often and in a greater variety of situations."

Just where is blanked out.

In space?