Critics slam Australia ‘brutal blow’ to whack $1.2B on space spending


SYDNEY — Less than two years after Australia created its own Space Command to great fanfare, the government has announced plans to slash its space spending by $1.2 billion dollars, prompting an outcry from industry and close observers.

The cut will primarily affect the NSMEO program, which was to have four satellites launched between 2028 and 2033 to give Australia a new stream of information from space. While the goal was primarily for civil use, maritime situational awareness data — crucial for keeping an eye on Australia’s sovereign waters — was also part of the project. Also, the weather and earth observation capabilities would have had clear military applications.

Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic said the decision was driven by the need to practice “budget repair” but still “values the role our space sector plays,” according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

He said space companies would be able to access funding through other government programs, such as the $15 billion AUD National Reconstruction Fund. However, the fund, created by Anthony Albanese’s Labor Government, lists seven priorities it is targeting — and space is not one of them. Husic also pointed to a $392 million program pot of money known as the Industry Growth Program, which once again does not list space as a priority.

The decision drew sharp responses from advocates of space investment for the Lucky Country.

In an analysis, Bec Shrimpton, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s defense, strategy and national security program, called the decision a brutal blow to Australia’s space sector, future economy, industrial base, and international reputation.”

While this budget cut is not from the defense budget, the nature of space infrastructure and uses means it is likely to affect defense capabilities, Shrimpton wrote.

“From a defense perspective, emerging space technologies are producing new capabilities that are small, cheap, unsophisticated and leverage mass. The nation that most effectively couples these options with the more expensive, exquisite, fewer but high-end capabilities is likely to achieve both strategic and tactical advantage,” Shrimpton argued. “It’s not a matter of one over the other. We must think carefully about human–machine teaming to preserve life, win battlefield superiority and codify where possible the responsible and ethical use of technology.”

The Space Industry Association of Australia said in a statement that it “is intensely disappointed at the decision announced to abolish Australia’s first national space mission and to cut $1.2bn from the nation’s program for critical space infrastructure development. Space infrastructure provides 60% of data measurements critical to assessing climate change, can detect and monitor natural disasters, provides signals and timing fundamental to transport and agriculture, and is critical to providing defence surveillance of the waters around Australia.”

The Defence Strategic Review called for a “whole-of-government and whole-of-nation approach to guide the development of the space domain”. But, the association said in its statement, “leadership is missing on Australia’s national space priorities and ambitions.”

NSMEO “would have provided sovereign Australian satellites to provide this data precisely when needed by government agencies and departments, including the Bureau of Meteorology, Geoscience Australia, and Defence,” the association said.

“The mission would have shown international partners that Australia is serious about contributing to international efforts to measure and mitigate the effects of climate change which severely threaten our immediate region. Our members, Australia’s Space Industry, need the Albanese government to fast-track space policy development and realize it can leverage the momentum and capability of Australia’s burgeoning space sector.”

The industry group argued that Australia, which only created the Australian Space Agency in 2018, has shown “timidity, and even ambivalence” about its role in space. “After a burst of activity with the agency’s creation, progress has notably slowed. Its budget for 2023 provides $34.2 million AUD to support core functions and focus on regulation, compared to the 2023 budget of the Canadian Space Agency at C$2.5 billion and NASA’s budget allocation in 2023 of US$25.4 billion. Ours is stunningly insufficient.”

The rules-based international order is at stake, broadly speaking. “As with collective defense on earth, Australia’s own democratic values oblige it to develop and sustain capabilities that ensure the stability of the rules-based system against its competitors and potential adversaries in space. And those competitors,” the association argued, “are developing capabilities in space rapidly.”