International relations, National security, Science and technology | Australia, Southeast Asia

18 July 2022

Indonesia should develop and maintain a space security program to safeguard the country’s interests and to match the capabilities of its neighbours in the region, Taufik Rachmat Nugraha and Ridha Aditya Nugraha write.

On 22 March 2022, former Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton officially declared the establishment of Australia’s Defence Space Command to safeguard Australia’s interests and access to space, saying Australia needed to counteract ‘some countries’, which he said “are developing capabilities to threaten or degrade space networks” and even targeting satellites.

Australia’s strategic space defence will invest $7 billion over the next decade to enhance the country’s satellite protection capabilities. This strategic budget will coincide with the launch of Australia’s first sovereign military communication satellite, JP 9102, which will cost $2.86 billion in total. This program will cover a ground station and launching and life cycle costs.

But are Australia’s fear of falling behind justifiable?

Consider the ongoing development of space activities by China and Russia over recent decades.

In 2007, China successfully managed to shoot down its own ageing Fengyun C-1 satellite in an Anti-Satellite Weapon test. In 2019, India did the same test, followed by Russia in 2020 and 2021.

Most significantly, in 2021 Russia’s test on its own satellite Cosmos-1408 threatened the International Space Station and other satellites in the Low Earth Orbit by generating more than 1,500 fragments of space debris.

In China’s case, space military operations are carried out by the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), and one of the PLASSF’s missions is to undertake space and counter-space operations to safeguard the country’s domestic interests and military infrastructure.

More on this: Asia in space: cooperation or conflict?

Additionally, China has acquired the technology to manoeuvre satellites between orbits via ‘satellite tugging’ as demonstrated by SJ-21’s towing of the Compass G2 navigation satellite. This capability has sparked concerns that China may interfere with the satellites of other states in the course of conducting military operations. It’s certainly capable of this, and Australia should not be the only country concerned.

Recent events have provided compelling evidence of the growing threat of activity in space, and Indonesia too should be concerned. Space is critical for Indonesia’s integrated communications network in particular, as it is made up of over 17,000 islands and is the world’s largest archipelagic nation.

It must monitor its waters constantly for any threat to national security, and satellite technology assists in accomplishing those goals effectively and efficiently.

Given Indonesia’s strategic location in the Indo-Pacific region, the country’s space security is especially critical. Indonesia should develop and maintain a space security program to safeguard the country’s space interests, as Australia has.

Specifically, Indonesia could create a satellite for defence purposes – both for communication and surveillance – similar to Australia’s hybrid commercial and military satellite, the Optus C1.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 forbade only the deployment of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons in space, as well as the building of military bases on the moon and other celestial bodies, but these laws have numerous loopholes.

As such, China, the United States, Russia, Australia, and Japan, among others, have established space defence policies and even entire dedicated space forces. Legally blurry or not, the development of earth-based space forces or other forms of devoted power in space are becoming an inescapable part of a national defence framework.

Indonesia must get on board too, or risk falling behind in what is to be a highly contested region in coming decades.

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