The US and Australia are boosting security co-operation in space and the cyber domain as the Indo-Pacific allies strengthen efforts to counter China, which is investing heavily in space and weapons such as hypersonic missiles.
Admiral John “Lung” Aquilino, head of US Indo-Pacific Command, said the nations wanted to accelerate what the Pentagon called “integrated deterrence”, combining all the elements of the military power of the US and its allies.
“We’ve come a long way in a short time to be able to integrate the space and cyber domains,” said Aquilino, adding that Australia had capabilities that made it an “extremely high-end partner”.
“We’re going to continue to work that and move the ball even further to synchronise those domains with our allies and partners,” the former Navy “Top Gun” fighter pilot told the Financial Times in an interview.
Aquilino was joined by General James Dickinson, head of US Space Command, and Lieutenant General Charles “Tuna” Moore, an Air Force fighter pilot who serves as deputy head of US Cyber Command.
The three flag officers were speaking ahead of meetings with Australian military and intelligence officials at Pine Gap, a top-secret joint US-Australia intelligence facility near Alice Springs that is instrumental in operating American reconnaissance satellites.
Dickinson said Australia, which has just launched its own Space Command, was a critical partner in efforts to improve “space domain awareness” and monitor Chinese space operations. He said Australia helped allies overcome what the military calls the “tyranny of distance”.
“It’s really location, location, location. This is a perfect location for a lot of the things we need to do,” he said. “If they can look up and help us characterise what’s happening in space, particularly with some of the things we’ve seen with the Chinese . . . over the last couple of years, it’s important.”
Aquilino said enhanced visibility in space would help counter Chinese hypersonic weapons. The FT reported last year that China flew a hypersonic weapon around the earth using a system that made it more difficult to track because of the position of US sensors and radars. The hypersonic weapon could also manoeuvre in flight at more than five times the speed of sound.
“The ability to identify and track, and defend against those hypersonics is really the key,” said Aquilino, adding that Indo-Pacom relied on SpaceCom and CyberCom to improve “battlespace awareness” when it came to such weapons.
Asked whether the US had sufficient capabilities to track hypersonic weapons, Dickinson said: “[As] with anything we could get better . . . We can do that today, but we need to do better tomorrow.”
Moore said increased digital convergence with Australia and other allies was critical to enabling secure communications between US commanders and their allies across space. He said the US and Australia were expanding training and exchanges in the cyber domain.
“Digital convergence is necessary from a defence standpoint, but it also gives us the potential to perform offensive operations, trying to stop capabilities like hypersonic weapons,” said Moore, adding that co-operation with allies created an “asymmetric advantage” over China, which lacks similar partnerships.
While the enhanced US-Australia collaboration was pitched as protecting a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, much of the activity was aimed at China.
Dickinson said China had made “amazing” strides in space, with 500 satellites in orbit compared with 100 just five years ago. Beijing also revealed a new capability in January when a Shijian-21 satellite moved away from its regular orbit and dragged a broken communications satellite to what is known as a “graveyard” orbit. Dickinson said the SJ-21 had dual-use military-civilian capabilities, with the potential to remove adversaries’ satellites from orbit.
The augmented US-Australia military relationship followed the Aukus security pact last year, which will enable Australia to get nuclear-powered submarines.
In addition, the allies want to boost co-operation on matters such as securing weapons supply chains. Canberra will also allow more US military aircraft in Australia on a rotational basis, another initiative to help overcome the “tyranny of distance”, and the allies want to create maintenance and logistic hubs to enhance military training and operations in the Indo-Pacific region.
Aquilino said the US was developing a programme called “Mission Partner Environment” to create secure IT networks to enable allies and partners to better share information, train and co-ordinate operations.
Indo-Pacom is also developing an initiative called the Pacific Multi-Domain Training and Experimentation Capability that will create a linked network of training ranges from Nevada, Hawaii and other US locations to South Korea, Japan and Australia.
In one example of how the programmes would enable training, US and Japanese fighter jets could simulate an operation against a Chinese warplane over the virtual network in a way that would make it harder for China to detect and learn from the exercise. Aquilino said the ability to train together virtually across the globe was “pretty powerful”.
“That’s how it would come together with the allies and partners,” Aquilino said on the final leg of a six-day visit to Australia. “So just like Tuna said, it’s about training and rehearsing to be able to train like we fight.”
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