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Just as the sun set (temporarily) on Woomera in 1980, the current era of Australia’s space endeavours is coming to close. Australian Science Media Centre

Security and space: Australia’s free ride is coming to an end

At some point in the next few months, Australia will get its first national space policy. This document will help mark a new era in Australia’s contribution to space-related endeavours, not least how we approach issues of defence and security.

For many decades Australia has played a role in international space-based security, assisting various nations with their operations – without exercising any real control or influence.

But the introduction of a national space policy could well be a catalyst for change.

Spurred by security

Since humans worked out how to launch vehicles into space, security has been a dominant driver for investment and a spur to technical progress.

The V2 rockets launched by Nazi Germany against Britain in the latter stages of the second world war carried warheads in ballistic trajectories across continental distances.

No sooner had the second world war ended than the US and the Soviet Union found themselves locked in a Cold War at the heart of which was the development of nuclear weapons which could be delivered by intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The underlying logic of the Cold War evolved quickly to a doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) by which either side could guarantee the destruction of the other, irrespective of which side launched its nuclear weapons first, thereby deterring either side from nuclear engagement.


Australia was involved in the development of nuclear weapons and missile development programs from the earliest days of the Cold War by providing the land – such as the Woomera Test Range – and by granting permission to the UK to develop both its weapons and delivery mechanisms.

The academic Peter Morton has written the definitive account of the so-called Anglo-Australian Joint Project at Woomera in his book Fire Across the Desert.

Clear from Morton’s account are several important and not-well-understood facts:

  • there was not much technology transfer from the UK to Australia.

  • the legacy of Woomera is largely institutional. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was formed in response to high-level leaks from Canberra to Moscow. This caused the US to cut off the flow of classified information to the UK and Australia that was essential to the Woomera programs in the late 1940s.

The information flow was restored only after Australia could show it was taking security seriously, which was achieved through the creation of ASIO.

The point here is that Woomera was not, as some space enthusiasts believe, a “golden age” for Australia’s commitment to the space enterprise. Australia’s contribution was largely confined to making available vast areas of sovereign territory to allow others to conduct their experiments and to refine their technologies.

Decades of decline

In the 1960s, the UK started facing up to the fact it was no longer a great power and that it simply could not afford an independent nuclear weapons and missile program.

Also in the 1960s, France determined it needed an independent space launch capability as a component of its strategic deterrent. These realisations led to activity at Woomera rapidly winding down, leading to several decades of benign neglect.

The Australian Army conducted explosives and demolition courses at the facility until the 1980s when the heritage value of the massive launch pads was realised and the Army was directed to train elsewhere.

Enter the USA

In the early 1960s, as we all know, the US was committed to space. The public face was through the crewed space programs Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, which captivated the world and led, eventually, to Neil Armstrong stepping on to the moon in 1969.

In the background, the US was also developing several satellite-based reconnaissance programs which were designed to allow US intelligence analysts and policy-makers to see over the Iron Curtain and gain a better appreciation of Soviet intentions and capabilities.

To support some of these missions the US needed ground stations in friendly countries, including Australia, which led to the establishment of joint defence facilities at Pine Gap near Alice Springs and at Narrungar near Woomera.

Joint defence facilities

From the beginning, both sites were shrouded in secrecy and mystery, which presented successive Australian governments with difficulties as they tried to explain, to a sceptical electorate, the benefits of hosting such installations, which may have been targets in the event of nuclear war between the US and the USSR.

(A third joint facility, at North West Cape, was also subject of controversy. Its mission was to communicate with submarines and was not space-related.)

Not until the 1980s, two decades after Pine Gap and Narrungar had been established, was any official light shed on the missions of both facilities.

In 1988, Bob Hawke, the Prime Minister of the day, announced to the Parliament that the joint facilities supported satellites which performed intelligence-gathering and arms-control treaty-verification functions that were vital to world peace.

Knowledge flows

Australia permitted the joint facilities to be located on Australian soil under a policy construct known as “full knowledge and concurrence”.

The Australian Government insisted on knowing what information was flowing through the joint facilities and also insisted that it must be in a position to concur, or not concur, with policy decisions in Washington which may have flowed directly from information revealed through the joint facilities.

While the second aspect might have been wishful thinking, there is no question Australian policy-makers have been considerably better-informed than many of their counterparts in small- and medium-sized nations as a result of the “full knowledge and concurrence” policy.

Cheap security

The important point here is Australia’s vital security interests in space have been achieved at virtually no cost – through alliance relationships, initially with the UK and later with the US.

Successive governments have simply not had to worry about developing an independent national view about Australia’s place in space – this has been taken care of by our senior alliance partner. Better still, the cost to the Australian taxpayer has been minimal.

Senior politicians – those few who are actually briefed in detail about the roles, functions and utility of the joint facilities – rarely even refer to space in public discourse. Instead, they talk about the “alliance relationship”. The fact support for classified space missions is at the heart of what the joint facilities do is rarely mentioned.

We were active, you just couldn’t tell

There is a corollary to the secrecy and obfuscation that has surrounded the joint facilities for so many years.

Several generations of researchers, industry advocates and others have expressed opinions ranging from outrage to despair that Australia, as a wealthy nation, was not doing more in space than seemed to be the case.

These well-meaning advocates simply had no idea of the impact of the joint facilities on the thinking of senior ministers who saw no need to challenge a great deal – we already had fantastic access to all manner of space-derived data at essentially no cost.

Why fix what isn’t broken?

A new era

Importantly, there are indicators that the Department of Defence, at least, is anticipating Australia’s largely free ride in space will be reduced within the next ten years.

The 2009 Defence White Paper foreshadowed that Australia would work towards the acquisition of an Earth-observation satellite sometime in the coming decade, presumably to increase coverage of areas of particular interest to Australia but of less interest to others.

Defence is also investing in a ground-based space situational awareness system (for tracking objects in orbit, including space junk). The data from this system will then feed into the US Space Surveillance Network.

Some spacefaring nations have also begun to mutter quietly about the unfairness of Australia’s free-ride in space. Not only has Australia managed to weather the global financial crisis but we’ve grown to become the 12th largest economy in the world without needing to pay very much at all for access to data for weather prediction, climate modelling and many other important applications that add to national wealth.

This data, in effect, is paid for by the taxpayers of other nations. The day will come when access to some vital data will only be granted if Australia is seen to be an investor and not simply a taker.

The national space policy, due for release later this year or early next year, is a strong indicator that change is afoot and that officials, at least, are beginning to prepare the ground for a series of important and possibly uncomfortable and costly adjustments.

Our challenge is to persuade our political leaders that assured and secure access to space-based services has a direct impact on jobs in many sectors and on the lives of ordinary people. Most of us take for granted the access we have to applications enabled by GPS, accurate and timely weather predictions and other services that we deem essential to modern life.

The time has come for a broader conversation about Australia’s future role in space and the dependence our nation is prepared to accept on systems over which it has no control and little influence.

This is the second of three articles by Brett Biddington about the past, present and future of Australia’s efforts in space.

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