If Space is to be claimed as a domain for the modern warfighter, then should not the concept of Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2AD) congruent with our Air, Land, and Sea domains also be applied? This is a two-part series, with the first discussion focusing on Anti-Access in terms of the Space domain, and the second focusing on Area Denial effects delivered from the Space domain.  

The definitions of Anti Access and Area Denial, as defined by The Cove, are:

  • Anti-Access is where the enemy actions inhibit military movement into an area, and  
  • Area Denial are activities that seek to deny freedom of action within an area under the enemy’s control (The Cove, 2021).

The first thing that needs to be articulated is that the Space domain is a domain like any other; it is an area where assets can be deployed and effects delivered into or from. Like other warfighting domains, there is a need for specialist knowledge and understanding on how best to operate and utilise Space. Due to the nature of Space, the concept of inhibiting movement needs to be perceived through the lens of orbital dynamics. This should really refocus 'inhibit military movement into an area' to be seen as inhibiting military access to an orbit, which would be a Space domain equivalence as the orbit is representative of the specific movement within the domain.

The dual-use nature and reduced cost of technology combined with rapidly increasing access has opened up Space to non-State actors, many with a commercial focus. The size of the Space industry in 2019 for non-government satellites was USD$271B (Bryce Tech, 2020), which included fixed and mobile satellite services, radio, television, satellite manufacturing and launch services. This non-government segment is forecasted to grow, with the reduced cost of satellites and access to Space being significant drivers. Which means access to specific orbits will become more competitive through the increasing number of commercial organisations as well as governments. The growing commercial demand for access to capabilities on satellites and orbital slots means that the requirements for orbits and launches that meet the Australian Defence needs, also meet many commercial needs. As a result, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) will have to fiercely compete with a faster evolving commercial environment for a scarce resource - access to an orbit.

Anti-Access in terms of the Space domain is an effect that can be achieved both on Earth and in orbit. This is based on the need to transit from the ground, through the airspace, and eventually into Space. Anti-Access could be applied to the manufacture of the satellite, the launch of the satellite, and finally the access to the required orbit. It can also be applied to the ability to enter an orbit, especially as some orbital slots are congested or very tightly controlled. This highlights that anti-access in the Space domain is something that occurs prior to and during a conflict, and is an on-going challenge to manage.

Anti-Access through denial of Earth based capabilities can be easily achieved through restricting the ability to launch or disrupting the manufacture of the satellite. The disruption of the satellite manufacture could be through denial of access to facilities and capability to manufacture, or disruption of the supply chain. Another means is to remove access to the ability to launch a satellite by disrupting launch services.

A simple disruption of operations at a launch site can be through perceived or real disruption to infrastructure or airspace. While the US claims multiple launch sites across the country (Bryce Tech, 2019), many of these are limited in their ability to deliver the required capability into the required orbit. These limitations are driven by multiple factors including:

  • launch vehicle design,
  • the latitude of the launch site,
  • the infrastructure available at the launch site,
  • and the satellites themselves.

Each of these points is a topic itself but suffice to say there are enough technical hurdles such that there are only two or three real options for launch from the continental US.

Anti-access is significantly compounded by the amount of space debris currently residing in orbit, consisting of over 3,000 discarded satellites (O'Callaghan, n.d.), discarded rocket fairings and boosters, and literal junk, some of it resulting from the series of anti-satellite weapon tests that have been conducted. It is estimated that there are more than 23,000 debris objects larger than 10 cm and approximately 500,000 objects between 1cm – 10cm (NASA, 2021). The Indian anti-satellite weapons test initially struck fear that they had made an orbital slot unusable because the threat of kinetic effects delivered from Earth or orbit can deny access to an orbital slot by making it too dangerous for the satellite to use.

The topic of anti-access in orbit however is more focused on congestion and this is different for different orbits. The Geostationary Orbits (GEO) are highly sought after by commercial and non-defence organisations. One of the challenges is that this orbital slot is highly regulated and highly sought after; which means that each orbital slot is tightly controlled and managed in a first-come first-served basis (de Gouyon Matignon, 2019). If a GEO satellite’s life is estimated to be approximately 15 years and the occupying operator can refill that slot at that time with a replacement satellite then that orbital slot is essentially held indefinitely. The only chance for change to occur is during the period of replacement where an operator has a limited opportunity to refill an orbital slot before it is allocated to another party.

Polar orbits, another orbital type that is highly congested, are popular for remote sensing satellites, and a candidate for future ADF programs like DEF-799. A special polar orbit that is often used for remote sensing is a Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO). In simple terms, a polar orbit is a north-south orbit that goes over both poles and the SSO orbit repeats its coverage of the same spot at the same time of day. The benefits provided with polar orbits mean that it is extremely attractive to other States as well as commercial operators who sell remote sensing imagery. The real problem arises though, not at the equator where the satellites are spread out, but towards the poles where a lot of these satellites start to converge, which in turn increases the probability of conjunction.

There have been some early discussions raised in Washington 2019 by companies advocating for the SSO orbit to be regulated (Marshall, 20109). The possibility of restricting access either by satellite type or operator in a regimented manner could see a waitlist for a polar orbit slot that has significance to the ADF and other government agencies, let alone the commercial value to Australian industry.

Other equatorial orbits have seen calls for regulation due to the emergence of the mega-constellation. The introduction of mega-constellations such as SpaceX’s StarLink have raised concerns about management of the constellation not only to avoid on-orbit collisions but also to ensure dead satellites are de-orbited. StarLink’s potential 12,000 satellites (Mann, 2020) will be larger than all other constellations, both operational and non-operational, in orbit.

While the benefits of regulating a constellation of such size are potentially significant, this issue emphasises the importance of managing such a constellation. The reduced cost of satellite and launch technology together with the introduction of a larger number of smaller satellites is not only enabling better capability to be delivered, but also increasing the feasibility of larger constellations. Each large or mega-constellation not only poses risk of clutter and conjunction but, by volume and ability to occupy a large quantity of orbit slots, they deny access to other agencies. This access will be constantly challenged while there is a business case to be made for organisations to occupy that slot.

Anti-access to the space domain is not a trivial matter and is an on-going concern that requires critical and constant attention to manage for both near- and longer-term needs. This management is most easily achieved through denial of launch on Earth; and if not managed correctly, the mere congestion of critical orbital slots will have a detrimental impact to the Australian warfighter, amongst other defence forces, on a global scale.