Australia has a new opportunity to contribute to countering Chinese long-range missile threats by establishing a sovereign space-based early warning and tracking capability. A first step would be to invest in new types of sensors that can be deployed on Australian satellites. Ultimately, we should deploy additional satellites dedicated to the surveillance mission. This would enhance Australia’s ability to detect and respond to long-range missile threats under Defence’s AIR 6500 program and expand our regional role through the Quad and AUKUS to burden-share with and support key allies.
There’s a strong case for Australia to undertake this role now. The Chinese missile threat is growing rapidly, as their strategic and regional nuclear forces expand. The US Department of Defense’s recently released report on China’s military power notes: ‘The accelerating pace of the PRC’s nuclear expansion may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027. The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020.’
These warheads are to be delivered through an increasingly sophisticated triad comprising an expanded intercontinental ballistic missile force, a modernised submarine-based ballistic missile force, and a bomber component employing air-launched ballistic missiles. A report by the US–China Economic and Security Review Commission suggests that China’s nuclear build-up ‘could also be intended to support a new strategy of limited nuclear first use … [which] would enable Chinese leaders to leverage their nuclear forces to accomplish Chinese political objectives beyond survival, such as coercing another state or deterring US intervention in a war over Taiwan’.
To this growing nuclear challenge must be added the threat posed by advanced long-range conventional missiles and the looming threat of submarine-launched hypersonic missiles.
The emerging threat posed by China’s hypersonic weapons capabilities—notably, the DF-17 and the recently tested ‘FOBS–HGV’ (fractional orbital bombardment system – hypersonic glide vehicle)—will add to the challenge of defending Australia against missile threats. China has deployed the DF-17 and is testing a hypersonic glide vehicle for the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile. It has also successfully tested Xing Kong-2, a nuclear-capable hypersonic vehicle prototype.
In July and August, China reportedly tested a nuclear-capable FOBS–HGV over the South Pole, releasing what might have been a submunition over the South China Sea at speeds above Mach 5. These tests have placed China well ahead of the US in developing and deploying hypersonic weapons, demanding greater investment in space-based missile early warning.
Space-based missile early warning is not new. The US initially employed Missile Defense Alarm System, or MIDAS, satellites in the mid-1960s and now employs the space-based infrared system (SBIRS), which it’s set to replace in a program known as ‘Next Gen OPIR’ (overhead persistent infrared), with the first of five satellites due for launch in 2025.
The US is also pursuing more advanced solutions for countering hypersonic threats. The DoD’s Space Development Agency is pursuing a wide-field-of-view solution which, if placed in geostationary earth orbit (GEO), will provide the persistence needed to handle the hypersonic threat.
Australia currently relies on SBIRS, and one option would be to continue that dependency with the Next Gen OPIR satellites. But the recent signing of the AUKUS agreement, and Australia’s rapidly growing space sector, open up an opportunity for Australian to build a sovereign early warning and tracking capability. A new sovereign capability could provide the true persistence needed to handle the emerging manoeuvrable, short time-of-flight threats being developed and deployed by China.
Developing such a capability should be a basis for the AIR 6500 project. Australia needs to be able to detect, track and ultimately intercept long-range ballistic and cruise missile systems, as well as hypersonic glide vehicles.
The quickest and cheapest path to achieving that goal involves developing persistent overhead imaging sensors to be deployed on satellites. Solutions are already available; Leidos (which recently briefed the author) has proposed a low-cost wide-field-of-view sensor that could be hosted on future satellites, such as the four to be deployed in GEO for Joint Project 9102B. Costing around $300 million for four sensors, plus the associated ground segment, the proposed ‘commercially hosted infra-red payload’ would provide enable the Australian Defence Force to rapidly detect, assess and track a target and would complement the tracking provided by SBIRS.
Speed is of the essence in successful missile early warning, and a sovereign capability that has a persistent wide field of view would maximise coverage of likely missile threat arcs from the north as well as along Australia’s east and west coasts. Whether it’s Leidos’s proposed capability or one from an alternative bidder, the case for Defence supporting the acquisition of sovereign missile early warning is strong, given the looming threat and the importance of countering growing adversary missile capabilities.
Deploying a sovereign capability aboard JP 9102B satellites would mean it’s available when the first of these satellites is delivered from 2027. That capability could later be complemented by additional satellites deployed in low earth orbit (LEO) or medium earth orbit (MEO).
A LEO- or MEO-based constellation, operating alongside GEO-based sensors, should be centred around locally developed small satellites, which could be launched from Australia. Orbital dynamics mean that a LEO layer have more satellites than the four GEO-based sensors. However, going to LEO or MEO for a future phase would open up new opportunities for Australia to directly participate in the Next Gen OPIR program and more fully develop the technology being used on GEO-based sensors.
The key rationale for going to a distributed and disaggregated missile early warning capability is that it makes it more difficult for an adversary to use counterspace capabilities against it. This approach may also offer advantages in detecting hypersonic weapons. Developing sovereign missile defence would enable Australia to play an even more vital role in ensuring credible nuclear deterrence and enhancing regional defence and security against a rising challenge from China.
Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst at ASPI. He is on Twitter at @Dr_M_Davis.
This article first appeared at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.