Absolutely critical’ to get DARC space situational system to Australia: Space Forces Indo-Pacific head

Engineers from Johns Hopkins APL and government partners stand in front of the Deep Space Advanced Radar Concept (DARC) in White Sands Missile Range, in August 2021. DARC will become the largest space tracking radar system. (Johns Hopkins APL/Craig Weiman)

By Colin Clark,
Published by Breaking Defense, 7 April 2023

“So, what worries me most is China’s use of space to complete the kill chain necessary to generate long-range precision strikes against the maritime and air components scheme of maneuver. That’s what concerns me the most,” Brig. Gen. Anthony Mastalir, commander of Space Forces Indo-Pacific, said.

SYDNEY — The vast landmass of Australia, possessed of clear skies free of city lights or pollution, is the perfect spot to place the most acute space situational awareness systems. Which is why Brig. Gen. Anthony Mastalir, the head of Space Forces Indo-Pacific says it’s “absolutely critical” to get a new radar system there as quickly as can be.

“When you look at a place like Australia as a landmass, you have a lot of opportunity to contribute to that space picture,” Mastalir told Breaking Defense during an interview during the Sydney Dialogue, put on by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “The Australians, the defense Space Command folks and the acquisition arms, they absolutely understand that, so they’re moving aggressively to embrace some of these opportunities and bring systems like DARC — deep space radar capability — here on the continent.”

DARC, officially the Deep-Space Advanced Radar Capability, was designed by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory to provide global monitoring of geosynchronous orbits in all kinds of weather and during daylight. According to the APL, it relies heavily on commercial technology. The Space Force received DARC technology from APL last year, with demonstrations taking place at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Ultimately, the operational DARC program calls for three transmit/receive sites, spaced at mid-latitudes around the world, to detect and track satellites. Northrop Grumman won a $341 million contract from US Space Force’s Space Systems Command last February to begin building the global system, with the first location in Australia targeted for calendar year 2025. That will be followed by one in Europe and a third in the US, with those locations yet to be announced.

FY24 budget justification documents show $174M requested for DARC in the next fiscal year. It further states that “The total cost of the DARC Rapid Prototype Middle Tier of Acquisition (MTA) effort is 844.6M. DARC Site 1 is not fully funded across the Future Years Defense Program.” $40 million is set aside for early work on sites 2 and 3.

“The DARC program will field a resilient ground-based radar providing our nation with significantly enhanced space domain awareness for geostationary orbit,” Pablo Pezzimenti, vice president for integrated national systems at Northrop Grumman said in a statement announcing the first contract award. “While current ground-based systems operate at night and can be impacted by weather conditions, DARC will provide an all-weather, 24/7 capability to monitor the highly dynamic and rapidly evolving geosynchronous orbital environment critical to national and global security.”

Discussions are underway about where to locate the system in Australia once it’s ready. Before anything can be released officially, negotiations must conclude on a treaty level document known as the Technology Safeguards Agreement. Negotiations began in mid-2021. Mastalir declined to discuss the talks, noting they are led by the Department of Commerce.

Russia And China Remain Top Concerns

During the panel Mastalir appeared on at the Sydney Dialogue, the general said that Russia had clearly possessed space superiority at the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine but had lost it. After the panel, Breaking Defense asked him to explain his remarks.

“Russia clearly is a dominant space power, relative to Ukraine. So they entered that conflict in that position,” he said. “Now you see no less than seven or eight different commercial entities, everything from GPS jammer detection, communications to tactical ISR that are bringing products to bear to support the Ukrainians. And has Russia been able to deny the adversary, in this case, Ukraine, from benefiting from space? And the answer, I think, is no — not really.”

His assessment is that the two countries have reached perhaps the most dangerous state for two militaries slugging it out on the battlefield: parity.

“Now parity, parity is dangerous, right? Because when you have parity — and I think this is what we’re kind of seeing play out — you have these prolonged conflicts, and a lot of destruction and death. And that’s not a situation that we ever want to be in as the United States.”

Asked if there are lessons for the United States military and intelligence community in light of what he called  “a potential paradigm shift.” the general said it raises many difficult policy and operational questions.

That includes the question of how commercial operators are protected, or not, by the government if they are being used for military operations.

“Number one, who’s going to defend those assets? Is there a responsibility for the United States to protect and defend commercial on-orbit capability that’s assisting the US military?” The related issue is, “to what extent should we integrate commercial across all of our space capabilities?”

Given these complexities, what keeps the general up at night in this region?

“So, what worries me most is China’s use of space to complete the kill chain necessary to generate long-range precision strikes against the maritime and air components scheme of maneuver. That’s what concerns me the most,” Mastalir said. “I have to have the ability to deny China in this situation, as a potential adversary, the ability to do that. And so those are the kinds of things that that you know, worry me the most now.”

He stressed that the simple possession of such capabilities “doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But if you look at our efforts to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific, you quickly run into a situation where our ends, and what we see in terms of behavior coming from China, their ends don’t necessarily align.”

Theresa Hitchens in Washington contributed to this report. 

See: Original Article