Australia from Space at Night

Australia’s Sovereign Satellite Capability: Launching New Standards

In perhaps the most ambiguous space project of its kind, Australia’s Joint Project 9102 (JP9102) represents one large step towards greater strategic autonomy. Encyclopedia Geopolitica analyst John Fee sets out Australia’s strategic thinking as they move to modernise this critical capability.

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In a supplementary investment plan supporting Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper, 2 to 3 billion AUD (~1 to 1.5 billion GBP/~1.5 billion – 2.2 billion USD) was allocated by the Department of Defence to upgrade Australia’s satellite and terrestrial communications capabilities for the next-generation. Emerging from this significant investment was JP9102; a bold initiative to deliver a sovereign satellite communications (SATCOM) capability that ensures Australia can respond independently to the geopolitical challenges that lie ahead across the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. JP9102 seeks to establish a sovereign constellation of geostationary communications satellites that will primarily cover Australia, Southeast and East Asia by 2029.

To date, Australia’s SATCOM capability has been enabled by Defence transponders fitted onboard the Optus C1 satellite and the USAF’s 10-strong wideband global satellite network (WGS). However, with much of the orbital and ground infrastructure of this SATCOM capability coming to the end of its service life, JP9102 looks to deliver a SATCOM capability for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) that goes above and beyond the capabilities of the previous generation.

From Dependence to Sovereignty

A sovereign SATCOM capability constitutes the most notable ambition of JP9102. The 2020 Force Structure Plan outlined the Government’s plan to ensure that new communications satellites and ground control stations will fall under sovereign Australian control. This vision seeks to rid the potential for delay, denial, and uncertainty that exists under the present Australian SATCOM capability, on account of the requirement to ask the U.S. for permission to access WGS.

When bushfires were devastating Australia between 2019 and 2020, the ADF was called upon by the Government to support state and territory authorities in their time of need – through what was known as Operation Bushfire Assist. To coordinate crisis response operations and the mobilisation of several thousand personnel participating in the bushfire fight, a satellite access request (SAR) was submitted to the U.S. Army in early 2020 to prioritise WGS resources towards the mission. Heeding the call, the U.S. was able to facilitate multiple Australian requests within a 24 hour or less turnaround time. This swift response undoubtedly stands as an alliance success story, but in its next-generation SATCOM system, Australia no longer wishes to ask for permission.

A sovereign SATCOM capability not only provides full control over one’s communications but it also extends to the sovereignty over the decision-making process – ensuring that the system can be brought to task to meet one’s operational needs in minutes if necessary. Australia fundamentally recognises that there are going to be circumstances in which priority access will not be granted by the Americans – as the primacy of national self-help during the COVID-19 crisis has perhaps illuminated all too well. To suspect that the U.S. would prioritise its own national interest if the situation warranted it, is a prudent risk assessment. Recognising this operational vulnerability, and facing China’s increasingly assertive policies in the region, Australia acknowledges the pressing need to ensure it can take independent freedom of action at a moment’s notice, without the constraints of dependence getting in the way.

Flexibility and Resilience

The JP9102 project seeks to ensure a holistic capability that is capable of timely and flexible reconfiguration in response to emerging geopolitical and operational developments over the course of the system’s life cycle. One such means to facilitate this requirement is adopting open system architecture (OSA). An open system approach employs a modular design that allows vital components of the SATCOM system to be incrementally refreshed across interlocking projects – enabling the implementation of new technologies and technical upgrades as they become available over the system’s lifespan. Moreover, the concept extends to the system’s use of public, non-proprietary, consensus-based standards that are developed by competing vendors – reducing the cost of ownership and maximising best-of-class solutions in the process. OSA allows for much quicker system upgrades at less cost. Such an approach stands in great contrast with traditional sovereign satellite solutions where projects would be locked into a sole contract with a single commercial vendor operating the same obsolete configuration throughout the system’s life cycle.

2021 has seen a number of major industry actors lining up for the opportunity to secure JP9102’s coveted tender. Airbus is one such actor, who stands to unite British and European technical expertise with Australia’s research and industry sectors. No stranger to sovereign satellite systems, Airbus has operated the UK’s Skynet SATCOM system on behalf of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) since 2003 and will be seeking to promote greater interoperability between the UK and its fellow Commonwealth member in the development of Australia’s fledgling space industry. In opposition to this bid stands a formidable collaboration formed by Boeing. The U.S.’s largest manufacturing exporter has now brought together a cadre of talented businesses comprising ClearBox, Saber, Leidos Australia, Viasat and the Indigenous Defence and Infrastructure Consortium (IDIC) to deliver a highly resilient and responsive sovereign solution to the Department of Defence (DoD). Second Pass approval, that is, the Australian Government agreeing to fund a specific bid from hopeful industry bidders is scheduled for late-2023, with initial operational capability aiming for 2027.

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John Fee is a former signaller of the British Army with expertise in executive protection operations and risk analysis. A recent graduate of Malmö University, having studied Peace and Conflict and International Relations. John’s analytical focus concerns European security challenges—notably political warfare, information operations and the increasing prevalence of transnational actors.

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Cover Image: Why is Western Australia So Bright?, Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC