14 May 2015
New Zealand and the Fifth Domain of Warfare: Space
by Duncan Steel
A submission to the public consultation for the
New Zealand Defence White Paper 2015
A PDF version of this submission (523 kB) is available from here.
Geography, in terms of the supposed remoteness of New Zealand, is often cited as a reason why this country does not need a strong Defence Force. However, as I indicate in this brief submission, it is in fact geography that must surely lead to NZ playing a major role as humankind’s activities in outer space grow to include warfare, as already happens to be the fact.
The core geographical reason is this. The majority of satellites orbit the Earth in the prograde direction, from west to east. The nations that presently have orbital or sub-orbital (i.e. ICBM) launch capabilities, or are expected to do so soon, and which might be anticipated to be possible adversaries of NZ and its allies, are essentially all in Asia; for example, China, North Korea, Russia, Pakistan, Iran. Prograde orbits mean eastward launches. Simple physics dictates that rockets launched eastwards from Asia will turn southwards, cross the equator, and on first pass will cross the southern Pacific. In fact, if one draws a line from NZ’s sub-Antarctic islands to the northernmost part of the Realm of New Zealand (i.e. the north of the Cook Islands, and Tokelau) then it is almost inevitable that satellites launched by Asian nations will cross that line on first pass, this being the time (about 30 minutes post-launch) that NZ’s allies in North America and Europe would need to have such objects detected and tracked if they are to be informed in advance of the approach of potentially-hostile spacecraft.
I give simple examples in the map below. I have shown orbital tracks (at altitude 500 km) for two launches each from the Chinese launch site at Jiuquan, and the Indian site at Sriharikota. For each launch site I have shown one satellite launched due east, which then has an orbital inclination (tilt to the equator) equal to the latitude of the site: 41 degrees for Jiuquan (path in red) and 14 degrees for Sriharikota (path in orange). I have also shown a more highly-inclined satellite launched from each site: inclination 52 degrees (in yellow) from Jiuquan, and 55 degrees (in green) from Sriharikota. I have additionally drawn three rings (actually circles of radius near 3,000 km, but distorted in this 2D mapping) to indicate potential coverage of suitable radar systems located at Invercargill, Auckland and Avarua (Cook Islands): these would, between them, be capable of tracking all four satellites.
Also shown in this diagram are Kwajalein (Marshall Islands), where the US DoD is to build its new Space Fence radar mark II (cost US$2 billion and growing); and Hawaii, where the USAF maintains an optical tracking facility on Maui. Such US assets would not be able to track the two of these satellites that travel furthest south.
Finally I note that the US and Australia have recently entered into a Space Situational Awareness (SSA) agreement involving various assets being installed and operated in Australia, but tracking of such satellites by these assets will not be feasible on first-pass. It is only NZ-sited sensors that could guarantee coverage of potentially hostile rockets and satellites crossing the southern Pacific.
It should be obvious, however, that a fifth domain has already entered the fray, whether we like it or not. This domain is outer space. Modern armed forces depend to a large extent on satellite-borne communications for various aspects of their C4ISR. The race to the Moon in the 1960s was clearly not about science and exploration alone, and now a new space race is beginning. A quest for military domination of outer space seems unavoidable.
That this 21st century space race involves more than simply national prestige is obvious. As Sun Tsu wrote more than two millennia ago, “All armies prefer high ground to low, and sunny places to dark.” Space is the ultimate high (and indeed sunny) ground. In modern times (2007) the Chinese have already executed a hostile action in space, an anti-satellite demonstration that has left the densely-populated altitudes between 800 and 900 km – an especially important height bracket due to its utility for sun-synchronous orbits – badly polluted with debris from the meteorological satellite that they destroyed using a ground-launched missile.
The tracking of such debris, and all orbiting objects, is conducted by the US DoD through a variety of optical and radar sensors, and the information database is maintained by the Joint Space Operation Center (JSpOC). Sensors include various optical systems such as the GEODSS cameras spread around the globe, and also the former Space Fence radar array that had transmitter and receiver sites located in various US states. Canada has also been a close, long-term collaborator with the US in NORAD (the predecessor to USSPACECOM and now USSTRATCOM) due to the perceived likelihood of ICBM attacks on the US being routed over Canadian territory, in the context of the Cold War.
Affairs in space and national defence have now moved on, and other potential aggressors occupy the attention of the US Government, and its allies. The US is currently building a new Space Fence radar, in Kwajalein (Marshall Islands). The choice of that remote location, rather than within the US itself, is not accidental: there is a need on the part of the US to detect and track orbiting or at least space-transiting objects coming from the west and crossing the Pacific towards the US mainland. Similarly the US wishes to locate early-warning radars in Romania and Poland because ICBMs launched by Iran (for instance) would travel over eastern Europe before passing over the Arctic en route to the USA via geodesic paths.
Since the beginning of the Space Age almost 60 years ago two of the Five Eyes nations, the UK and Canada, have worked closely with the US in military space projects, in particular Space Situational Awareness (SSA). Over the past five years Australia and the US have concluded agreements on SSA in the annual AUSMIN meetings. Specific actions now underway include: (a) The shifting of the prototype Space Surveillance Telescope (SST, the largest camera ever built, at a cost of around $200 million) to the northwest cape of Australia (i.e. Learmonth); (b) The installation of a C-Band radar near Darwin for the detection and tracking of satellites and debris in orbit; and (c) Planning for an additional Space Fence radar to be located in Western Australia.
This means that NZ is the only one of the Five Eyes nations not directly involved to any significant extent in space tracking activities. However, as I show below, the geographical location of New Zealand and its Realm – east of Asia and south of Kwajalein and Hawaii – results in a realisation that this is a vital range of locations for the operation of suitable sensors, tracking orbiting objects in general and satellites on first pass post-launch in particular.
Despite the well-known vagaries of cloud cover in the Southern Alps, and indeed NZ as a whole, Mount John would be an excellent candidate location for suitable telescope systems similar to those the USAF maintains and operates at the AMOS (Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing observatory) site on Maui. In terms of the needs of modern astronomy, Mount John is not a competitive site; but neither is anywhere in Australia (and yet the SST is to be installed at one of the poorest ‘astronomical’ sites in that country), and in any case we are not talking about abstract astronomy here. The tracking of Earth-orbiting objects is a different game. What Mount John has in its favour is its latitude, and longitude.
The history of the USNO operating a small telescope at Black Birch (near Blenheim) is well-known.
Finally under the heading of ‘optical sensors’ I note that the Australian DoD has been supporting for some years the use of LIDAR (laser radar) systems for the tracking of orbiting objects, through the activities of the Canberra-based company Electro-Optic Systems.
In the map included in my summary section above I showed orbital tracks (at altitude 500 km) for two launches each from the Chinese launch site at Jiuquan, and the Indian site at Sriharikota. For each launch site I employed one satellite launched due east, which then has an orbital inclination (tilt to the equator) equal to the latitude of the site: 41 degrees for Jiuquan (path in red) and 14 degrees for Sriharikota (path in orange). I also showed a more highly-inclined satellite launched from each site: inclination 52 degrees (in yellow) from Jiuquan, and 55 degrees (in green) from Sriharikota. These were not chosen randomly: it happens that such inclinations lead to ground tracks which, as the spacecraft ascends to attain orbit and drops its upper stages, do not pass over the territory of other nations: look carefully at those yellow and green tracks.
Additionally I drew three rings (actually circles of radius near 3,000 km, but distorted in these 2D maps) to indicate potential coverage of space radars located at Invercargill, Auckland and Avarua (Cook Islands): these would be capable, between them, of tracking all four satellites. The positions shown for the satellites in that first map are all about 30 minutes post-launch, on their first pass over the Pacific.
Also shown in these diagrams are Kwajalein (Marshall Islands), where the US DoD is to build its new Space Fence radar mark II; and Hawaii, where the USAF maintains a major optical tracking facility on Maui (AMOS). Such US assets would not be able to detect and track all of these putative satellite launches on first pass.
In the map below I have stepped forward 60 minutes. The tracks show how two of these spacecraft/rockets, if they had a hostile intent, might have attacked the east coast of the US, or Europe.
Stepping forward another 40 minutes (i.e. a little more than two hours post-launch) the satellites have passed again through the putative radar coverage available from Invercargill, Auckland and Avarua, as shown in the map that follows. One (the green track) is heading fairly centrally for the US and yet has not been within the range of the US Space Fence on Kwajalein, nor AMOS. It should be apparent from this that there is a need for suitable radar coverage in the southern Pacific, not just the north.
It would be appropriate here to indicate the type of radar system that is being mooted. The first thing to make clear is that the radar systems involved here are entirely different from the Australian OTHR JORN system, which operates on completely different principles, uses much lower frequencies (MF/HF), and has entirely different intended targets (slow-moving ships and aircraft).
The original Space Fence, spread across the Continental USA, operated in the top end of the VHF band, at frequencies near 217 MHz, corresponding to a wavelength near 1.4 metres. Due to the scattering properties of small objects, this was relatively insensitive to the weak echoes from objects much smaller than that, whereas most space debris fragments are of 10 cm sizes and smaller. Consequently the new Space Fence will be operated in the S-band (circa 3 GHz; decimetre wavelengths). This is quite a different technology to the previous Space Fence, and hugely expensive.
From the perspective of NZ’s possible role, it is the early identification of intact (therefore large) satellites that is important, and so a VHF radar operating between 200-300 MHz would seem appropriate. The detection and tracking of smaller debris items, as the US will be accomplishing from Kwajalein, is a different task that speaks to spacecraft safety. Of concern to NZ should be potentially-hostile or dangerous satellites passing above the nation, and its realm, and posing a threat to its allies.
In the three-dimensional graphic that follows I show the form of the radar coverage that could be delivered by radars located as in the preceding maps. Each radar I have modelled as having an upward-directed broad cone of coverage, which I have cut off at altitude 2,000 km simply because that is the conventional height limit of satellites classified as being low-Earth orbiting (LEO). The opening angle of each cone is 150 degrees (i.e. each radar delivers coverage for all elevations more than 15 degrees above the local horizon). This produces a ‘base’ to the cone (i.e. at the ‘space’ end) that is about 3,000 kilometres in radius (6,000 km wide).
In the graphic below I have shown the four model satellite paths described earlier, as they emerge from the coverage from these three radar sites. The satellites with inclination 14 degrees and 41 degrees would have been detectable only from Avarua; those with inclinations 52 and 55 degrees would have been detectable from both Auckland and Invercargill. In all cases the satellites remain within the coverage of at least one radar for a minute or two, enabling orbit determination on this first pass, and therefore prediction of their paths over the next few hours.
The three radar locations as modelled above would be adequate to cover satellite passes over the whole Realm of New Zealand. However, additional coverage/additional sensors are always a good idea. In the graphic below I show the coverage for five model radars (the two added being located in Niue and Tokelau), but in a different way. Now I have shown the radar coverage limits as circular ‘fences’, the bases of the fences being each located 1,500 km from its radar site, and extending over an altitude range from 200 km (no satellites stay for long below that height, due to atmospheric drag) to 2,000 km (the top of the LEO altitudes). With suitable radar equipment any satellite passing through any one of those fences would be detected, and tracking would continue during the two or three minutes the satellite was within that fence, enabling orbit determination and hand-over to other sensors in a Five Eyes network.
Arguments in favour of such a Defence capability
1. National Security
It seems that no-one in New Zealand (apart from myself) had any definitive knowledge or understanding of what was going on, with the local media simply copying what they were told by overseas sources. I see no evidence of the NZ Government having any capability to assess such threats. New Zealand has no space data sharing agreement with the US, unlike Australia (plus Japan, South Korea, Canada, France, Italy, the UK, and ESA), so that quick access to vital information (generally through Defence rather than civilian channels) cannot be obtained.
This is a startling situation, inappropriate for any developed nation. The Space Age is more than half a century old. Space is a burgeoning sphere of military activity. New Zealand is at most 45 minutes from any launch site on Earth. Thousands of orbiting objects pass over NZ every day at distances less than that between Auckland and Christchurch. This is the reality of the modern world. The requirements of National Security demand that NZ has at least some awareness of what is going on in our skies.
2. Contribution to Global Security
What contribution might NZ be able to make that does not involve marked domestic opposition? The answer lies with benign activities where a special case can be made for New Zealand’s involvement. As I have indicated above, NZ’s geographical location provides such a special case; and monitoring of space surely represents a benign activity in itself. The US radar system used to patrol the high frontier is called the Space Fence; as the saying goes, good fences make good neighbours.
3. NZDF and radar
4. Involvement of the Realm of NZ nations
Such a network of radar systems, including sites in NZ itself, lends itself to many benefits, including international collaboration on both the military and civilian fronts, economic stimulus, upskilling of local populations (e.g. local staff being sent to NZ to obtain university education and training), and so on.
5. Involvement of the friendly neighbouring nations
6. Inspiration and motivation for NZ students to
study STEM subjects
It is well known that there is a shortage of students entering New Zealand universities to study the STEM subjects, starving local industry of the technical talents that are needed, whereas there is a huge surplus of students taking courses for which there is no direct career path. How to motivate students to study the ‘hard’ sciences and numerate subjects has been a long-term problem for many Western countries, whereas in Asian nations the industries and militaries are well-supplied with suitable graduates, providing major economic and technical advantages.
In New Zealand there have been few career paths for STEM graduates, and many of them depart overseas, never to return. This project would assist in reversing that trend, with widespread benefits.
7. Stimulus for NZ industry and universities
8. Overlap into other scientific and commercial
9. History of NZ research in radar
10. High-profile status of space-related activity
11. Space-based internet
The reality is that within five or six years everyone worldwide should have broadband through satellite-based WiFi. The following graphic shows my visualisation of a satellite constellation as originally proposed by Google in 2014.
That constellation consists of only 180 satellites; SpaceX is proposing to build and launch a constellation of over 4,000 satellites to provide WiFi broadband globally. (For further information and links, see my post here.)
Such connectivity must revolutionize communications in the same way as the internet itself and smartphones have in recent years. Very soon the connected population of the world will double, as more than three billion people in developing countries get broadband access. Once that connectivity is achieved, the world will be a different place in many ways. It would seem incongruous were this to occur and New Zealand not even have a domestic capability to monitor what is flying through our skies.
Space is the Fifth Domain of Warfare. That is inevitable, and it’s already begun. The militaries of the world largely depend on space segments for communications, for ISR, for weather forecasts, and so on. Whilst the militarisation of space is largely forbidden by UN agreements, the reality is that aggressive acts have already occurred in space; ICBMs would transit space during flight; and attacks on the ground by orbiting assets, and satellite-against-satellite attacks, may well be inevitable.
As I have shown above, New Zealand’s geographical location happens to place it under the flight path of newly-launched spacecraft from Asian nations, which will be a major concern for NZ’s allies, especially as these countries boost their space activities. The fact of this is apparent from the new arrangements between the US and Australia for space-related collaboration from a military rather than civilian perspective. North Korea and Iran have both put satellites into orbit, which is proof-positive of their long-range missile capability. Other potentially-hostile nations will surely follow.
My submission, in essence, says simply that New Zealand should
recognize this fact of the next several decades, and take
appropriate steps to develop a domestic Space Situational
Awareness capability which would contribute in a vital way to the
major facilities now being brought on-line by this nation’s core