Navigation systems, weather forecasts, precision-guided weapons – in the modern age of rapid communication, it is space-based satellite communication that allow for most daily life conveniences. Those same systems also provide mission essential intelligence for warfighters every day.
While amassed orbiting technology and space debris have led to a congested space domain, international threats to that technology have also turned the final frontier into a contested space for warfare dominance.
To strengthen a coalition focused on maintaining peace and security on Earth’s surface and beyond, members assigned to the U.S. Department of the Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force are working together at Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt, near Exmouth, Australia, to advance the U.S. Space Surveillance Network with a C-Band space surveillance radar system and a space surveillance telescope.
U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein addressed the U.S.’s interest in strengthening a partnered surveillance of the ultimate high ground during a visit to Australia in August 2019.
“It’s not enough for us to just be there,” Goldfein said. “We have to be able to dominate at the time and place of our choosing. Our investments here in Australia are part of the architecture that all comes together to ensure we have a better understanding of what is in space and who’s operating in space, so that we can protect it for everyone.
“Gen. Jay Raymond, (U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations), and I are committed to building his new service on a foundation of trust and confidence. Together we own the high ground of air and space.”
Directly supporting the joint mission for a greater understanding of space is U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jennifer Beisel, 21st Operations Group space liaison officer. While serving in Australia, she provides expertise knowledge of U.S. space operations to her RAAF counterparts. Together they monitor the operation and progress of ground-based space surveillance technology throughout the nation.
“In Western Australia, we’re remote from basically the rest of the world,” said Beisel. “Australia has this capability to monitor orbits from lower earth orbit all the way out to the geosynchronous equatorial orbit in this very unique part of the world.”
Beisel works with members of the RAAF No. 1 Remote Sensor Unit, a surveillance unit that remotely operates the C-Band radar. Strategically located to cover both the southern and eastern hemisphere, the radar system provides tracking and identification of space assets and debris.
Working alongside Beisel is RAAF Flight Lt. James Pak, No. 1 RSU, who describes the alliance as the key to operating U.S. assets in Australia.
“The joint partnership between the U.S. and Australia is really integral to how we do our business,” Pak said. “We recognize that the U.S. has a lot more experience and technology in this endeavor. That’s something that Australia can really leverage off. In return, what we can provide is resources, personnel, other assets, but more importantly, unique geography.”
The other U.S. Air Force asset nearby is a space surveillance telescope, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was relocated from White Sands Missile Range, N.M., to the west coast of Australia to improve the network with a unique surveillance of the Southern Celestial Hemisphere.
“There’re no lights, there’re hardly any people and there’re hardly any gas stations. It’s really quite remarkable,” Beisel said.
Minimal light pollution will allow the telescope to provide a clearer picture that lends to its wide field of view. With an estimated time of full operational capability in 2021, it will also be able to detect, track, and discern small, obscure objects in deep space.
“It’s the most exquisite situational awareness telescope,” Beisel said. “When the telescope operates, it’s going to scan the geo belt multiple times over the course of the night, and it should be able to scan an area the size of the United States or Australia in just a matter of seconds.”
With a surveillance of objects that extends beyond low-earth and medium-earth orbit, the SST will provide the ability to warn satellite operators around the world of possible collisions between space objects, thereby reducing the danger of the congested space domain.
RAAF Wing Commander Steve Henry, Surveillance of Space deputy director at RAAF Headquarters in Canberra, Australia, explained how improved predictions and positional accuracy will enhance the warfighting readiness of allied nations.
“Joint and combined warfighters use space every single day for all aspects of their work, whether it’s communications, GPS and monitoring positioning, or navigation and timing,” Henry said. “A big part of our role is to assure those warfighters have access to those services, because we really have come to rely on them. It behooves us to keep an eye on what’s going on up there, track all of the objects, and ensure that the assets in orbit are safe.”
As regional contenders boast counter space capabilities as a means to threaten U.S. and allied military effectiveness, U.S. and Australian forces keep their eyes on the sky and continue to work toward space superiority.
“I’m one that believes that no one wins if a war starts or extends into space,” Goldfein said. “The way that you ensure that doesn’t happen is to first establish common rules of behavior for space as a warfighting domain, which is still a rather new area for dialogue. Secondly, we’ve got to be about collaboration, not coercion. With our allies, we are learning how to collaborate on the military elements of space to keep it available for everyone.”