Space and Security: Dependence and Vulnerability


By Brett Biddington, AM

Opportunities to talk about Australia’s approach to outer space and the role that satellites play in our daily lives do not happen too often. As a nation we are largely oblivious to how our high technology infrastructure works. We simply accept that it does.

For the most part, this is a perfectly reasonable position to adopt. Consumers simply want their devices to work, as advertised, cheaply and reliably. A proviso is that there is a sufficiently large number of skilled people who do understand how the system works, who can appreciate dependencies and associated vulnerabilities and who know what to do to mitigate the effects of failures, if and when, they occur. There are in the order of 1,000 operational satellites in orbit around Earth today. Most perform one of three functions – 1) communications 2) Earth observation (EO)and 3) position, navigation and timing (PNT). Data from these systems when fused, in a timely manner, with data from other sources provide planners and decision-makers with unparalleled insight into the domains for which they have responsibility. That said, satellites are not a panacea. They have limitations and, for EO satellites especially, one size does not fit all. Some are optimised to provide environmental data, others to report the locations of cooperative targets, such asc ommercial ships and aircraft. Others gather intelligence about competitors or adversaries because they can look into their backyards with impunity. Unlike aircraft, which need clearance to overfly foreign territory, the laws of physics and orbital mechanics mean that satellites overfly any and all territories that are below them.

In the 1980s, I was the Director of Policing and Security in the RAAF and later moved in Capability Development Division in Defence with broad responsibilities for command and control projects as well as those relating to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). In these positions I worried about the protective security of air bases and I recall speaking about the need to link data from satellites to the noses of dogs. This suggestion raised eyebrows and seemed crazy in the 1990s but is now basically taken for granted. Phrases such as ‘situational awareness’ and ‘multisource data fusion’ are now common terms in the lexicon of all with protective security responsibilities. Fancy labels aside, people whose job it is to protect installations or the community more broadly now have access to information about static and dynamic features of their environment that was inconceivable even a decade ago. Much of this basic data comes from satellites. Read More