With an Eye on China, U.S., Australia Take ‘Major Leap Forward’ on Space Surveillance

By Patrick Goodenough | November 15, 2012 | 5:10 AM EST

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith exchange documents during annual Ausmin talks in Perth, Australia on Nov. 14, 2012. (Photo: Department of Defense/Erin A. Kirk-Cuom)

(CNSNews.com) – Australia has agreed to host key U.S. space surveillance equipment, including a telescope so sophisticated it can search an area in space the size of the United States in seconds, and detect a small object on the Empire State Building from as far away as Miami, Florida.

Envisaged targets include space debris and Chinese space launches, a U.S. defense official told reporters after the announcement was made in Perth, Western Australia on Wednesday.

The Pentagon has expressed concern in recent years over advances in China’s space and counter-space capabilities, particularly after Beijing in 2007 launched a ground-based ballistic missile to destroy a Chinese weather satellite in orbit, some 500 miles above the Earth.

The successful test of an anti-satellite weapon made China just the third country, after the U.S. and Soviet Union, ever to have shot down an object in space.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his Australian counterpart, Stephen Smith, agreed during Australia-United States ministerial (Ausmin) talks in Perth to relocate a space surveillance telescope from New Mexico, and a U.S. Air Force C-band space surveillance radar from Antigua in the Caribbean.

This map shows the expected future location in Australia'€™s far northwest, marked A, of a powerful U.S. radar and telescope that will track objects in space and monitor Chinese space launches. (Google Maps)

Both are expected to be based in remote northwestern Australia, at a communications station that was used by the U.S. Navy during the Cold War.

Panetta said the decision, along with the possible establishment of a combined communications gateway in Western Australia, represented “a major leap forward in bilateral space cooperation and an important new frontier in the United States’ rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.”

“We recognized the need to address the rising threat presented by increasing congestion in space from over 50 years of space activities and a significant rise in space debris,” an Ausmin communique stated. “In particular, we need to ensure our continued access to space assets for services critical to the functioning of modern economies, as well as for national security purposes.”

The C-band radar will track space assets and debris in low-earth orbit and increase the coverage of space objects in the southern hemisphere.

The space surveillance telescope (SST) will provide enhanced capability detecting and tracking of objects in what are known as “geosynchronous orbits” – some 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface – according to its manufacturer, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The agency said in a statement the 180,000 pound telescope will “track and catalogue space debris and objects unique to the space above that region of the world that could threaten DoD satellites.”

“Able to search an area in space the size of the United States in seconds, SST uses the first large curved charge coupled device focal array,” it said.

“The system is capable of detecting a small laser pointer on top of New York City’s Empire State Building from a distance equal to Miami, Florida,” DARPA said. “These features combine to provide orders of magnitude improvements in field of view and scanning for deep space surveillance.”

The data captured by the telescope will be fed into a worldwide U.S. Air Force network that observes and catalogues space objects and warns on possible collisions between them. Data on small asteroid detection will also be provided to NASA and the scientific community.

‘The Pacific is big enough for all of us’

This year’s annual Ausmin consultations brought together Panetta, Smith, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr.

“Part of our new defense strategy, we’ve made clear that one of our key focuses is to rebalance to the Pacific,” Panetta told a joint press briefing. “We simply would not be able to do that effectively without allies like Australia.”

In line with an agreement reached between the two countries last year, from the middle of this year Australia’s Northern Territory began hosting 250 U.S. Marines for six-month rotations, for training and as a base for humanitarian and military operations in the region. The number will gradually build up to 2,500 by 2016.

Smith said during the press briefing the two sides have also begun discussions on further U.S. access to Northern Territory airfields, and possible U.S. naval access to Australia’s Indian Ocean naval port, near Perth.

Carr and Clinton dispelled any concerns China may have about the moves.

“We want to continue to build positive, cooperative, comprehensive relations with China, and that means through strong economic engagement and encouraging progress on human rights,” Carr said. “There was no language of containment in this, but we both welcome China’s role as a responsible member of the international community.”

Clinton said the U.S. and Australia “both recognize that increased cooperation from China is mutually beneficial. So this is not a zero-sum competition.”

“As I’ve said many times, we welcome a strong and prosperous China that plays a constructive and greater role in world affairs,” she said. “But we also want to see China act in fair and transparent ways that respect international norms and standards, follows international law, protects the fundamental freedoms and human rights of its people and all people. And the Pacific is big enough for all of us.”

The Pentagon has warned that China’s expanding space program over the past decade includes capabilities with potentially hostile military applications.

In a May 2012 report to Congress on Chinese military power the DoD reported that “China is expanding its spacebased surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation, meteorological, and communications satellite constellations.”

As China continues to develop its space launch payload capabilities, the report said, it is also “developing a multidimensional program to limit or deny the use of space-based assets by adversaries during times of crisis or conflict.”

“In addition to the direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon tested in 2007, these counterspace capabilities also include jamming, laser, microwave, and cyber weapons. Over the past two years, China has also conducted increasingly complex close proximity operations between satellites while offering little in the way of transparency or explanation.”

The Chinese Communist Party-affiliated Global Times on Thursday cited Chinese experts as saying the stepped up U.S.-Australia cooperation would “pose no actual threat to China considering the country’s modernized national defense forces.”

“Distracted by the crises in the Middle East and domestic budget pressures, the U.S. is seeking allies’ help to jointly contain China,” said Gu Guoliang, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of American Studies.

Xu Guangyu, a senior researcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told the newspaper that China is able to “take countermeasures if the monitoring interferes with our space activities.”

Even if the radar and telescope deployment enables the U.S. to monitor the orbit and speed of Chinese rockets and missiles, Xu said, confidential information relating to guidance systems will remain concealed.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow