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What New Zealand can do about the militarisation of space

A North Korean intermediate-range strategic ballistic rocket lifts off near Pyongyang in 2017. Photo/Getty Images

We may decry the notion, but the hostile use of space is creeping into the plans of various countries.

Many people are excited about New Zealand joining the space age. And when it comes to space operations, our geography gives us various advantages.

Look at a global map. The empty southern Pacific is clearly a boon for Rocket Lab: after a launch from the Mahia Peninsula to the east or south, the exhausted first stage can drop into open ocean without threatening people below, a luxury not afforded many places in the world. Cape Canaveral, on Florida’s Atlantic coast, was chosen as Nasa’s main spaceport for good reasons.

Another important space-related factor depends on New Zealand’s location, though. It’s rather more insidious, yet few seem to recognise it.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Before finalising the Defence White Paper 2016, the Ministry of Defence held a public consultation. I made a submission entitled New Zealand and the Fifth Domain of Warfare: Space”.

Fifth domain? The first was land, in antiquity, followed by the sea as warring states built navies. The third was the air, initially for reconnaissance but then for bombing and aerial combat. The fourth, still developing, is cyberwarfare.

The fifth, inevitably, will be space. All modern militaries rely on orbiting satellites to varying extents: for communications, navigation (the GPS constellation used by your car and smartphone are operated by the US Air Force) and surveillance. Nasa is not the US Government division that’s spending the most on space. The Department of Defense and the various intelligence agencies (such as the National Reconnaissance Office) have larger space budgets. Third World armies employ satellites, even if they are limited to off-the-shelf GPS receivers.

We might decry the notion, but the hostile use of space is creeping into the plans of various countries. UN treaties prohibit putting weapons into orbit, but already anti-satellite (ASAT) demonstrations have been staged by the US (1985 and 2008), China (2007) and India (earlier this year). Much orbiting debris was produced by each test. Russian ASAT weapon development has now restarted, after it was stopped by the crumbling of the Soviet Union.

We cannot, therefore, be complacent about the militarisation of space. No nation is beyond the reach of such hostilities. In my submission, I explained that our geographical position, coupled with the extent of the entity known as the Realm of New Zealand (which stretches from the South Pole almost to the equator, via the Ross Dependency, the subantarctic islands, New Zealand itself, the Kermadecs, Niue, the Cook Islands and Tokelau), represents a vital chain from the perspective of monitoring transits by rockets and payloads newly launched from potentially hostile nations in Asia.

The trajectory of rocket launches from China and North Korea in relation to New Zealand. Most would pass 20-30 minutes later through regions of space that could be monitored by radars as shown.

How does it work? Apparently benign satellite launches from, say, North Korea that reach Europe 60-70 minutes after take-off will pass over us 20-30 minutes after launch. Western nations that are our allies will need to have systems in place for early warning of potential attacks.

The vital location of New Zealand in this regard seems to have been ignored or missed until now. Suitable radar systems situated across the Realm of New Zealand – say, near Invercargill, Auckland and in Niue, Tokelau or the Cook Islands – would enable rapid detection and orbital determination for such launches.

Orbital paths for rockets are east or south-east from Sohae in North Korea or Jiuquan in China. Most of these satellites would pass 20-30 minutes later through regions of space that could be monitored by radars (as shown in the graphic below). At 60-70 minutes after take-off, the payloads would be passing over Europe or heading for sensitive regions of the Near and Middle East.

The US Department of Defense is already building a space radar on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands and has other sensors in Hawaii.

For decades, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a joint US-Canadian organisation, deployed a chain of radars patrolling for missiles coming over the Arctic from the Soviet Union. The perceived adversaries have since changed.

Sub-orbital missiles or rockets reaching orbital speeds being dispatched from Asia would cross the northern Pacific if directed towards North America. The US has sensors in Alaska and Hawaii, and is building a US$1.6 billion radar array in Kwajalein. It is also installing a large optical instrument in north-west Australia (the Space Surveillance Telescope), and has co-located a space radar there. A space-fence “twin” of the Kwajalein radar may be built in central Australia.

Those systems, however, are in the wrong country if early warning of orbital launches from Asia directed to strike Europe (and other conceivable targets) is to be feasible. The trajectories for those mostly pass over the Realm of New Zealand shortly after launch.

For the future of global peace as the era of space warfare begins, New Zealand might be of pivotal significance simply as a result of our geographical location.

Duncan Steel works at the Xerra Earth Observation Institute, which uses satellite-derived imagery for the benefit of New Zealand industry and government. He has been involved in space research for 40 years.

This article was first published in the July 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.