AUKUS membership and New Zealand space capabilities

Marçal Sanmartí, Researcher, New Zealand Institute of International Affairs




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Recently the New Zealand Minister for Space (also Minister of Defence) Judith Collins commented on how the New Zealand space Industry could contribute to the AUKUS security partnership

Some people might be surprised, but it makes sense. The trilateral security agreement made by Australia, the UK and the USA made waves in 2021 in part by the US and UK helping Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, however it goes well beyond submarines when it comes to technological transfers. AUKUS also includes computer and cyber-technology, hyper-sonic and counter-hypersonic defence systems and radar capabilities, among others. A couple of years ago Australian space agency chief Enrico Palermo said the AUKUS agreement will boost collaboration between the United States and Australia in space technology as well. 

The militarisation of outer space is increasing 

The United Nations created the Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) back in 1959. Unfortunately, the five UN-led space treaties in existence are several decades old and no longer fit for purpose, not least because they do not contemplate private commercial activity in space. And even though the activity is in private hands they can become defacto national security assets. Starlink satellites providing vital Internet connectivity to Ukraine can be an example. That is why world powers have been testing new and very power powerful anti-satellite weapons. As in many other fields, economic opportunities and security challenges come hand in hand in space.  

Acknowledging this, last year New Zealand Government agencies released several documents related to space security, acknowledging that space is a domain of intense international competition and potential conflict. Notably, the New Zealand Space Agency (part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) published the National Space Policy and the Ministry of Defence published the Overview of Defence Interests and Engagements in Space. 

International partnerships in Space  

Collaboration between the New Zealand and United States Governments on space matters is not new. In 2020 New Zealand representatives attended the US Combined Forces Space Command together with the other Five Eyes Governments (UK, Canada and Australia). A New Zealand Defence Force spokesperson declared there was no intention to create a separate Space Command, but rather it would seek further space training opportunities with Five Eyes partners, other selected nations, commercial space companies and academic institutions. 

New Zealand has a more than a billion-dollar space industry to protect and signed NASA’s Artemis accords to expand space exploration back in 2021. Also, New Zealand is a member of the Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC) a US–led multinational organisation providing command and control of space forces, even though New Zealand does not have any Space Command inside its Defence Forces. A couple of years ago, the organisation released its Combined Space Operational Vision 2031 Statement. This was signed by all of the CSpOC member countries, comprising Five Eyes nations plus France and Germany.  The aim was to share information about space operations and activities, coordinate efforts and set out common principles and objectives in relation to space security. More recently, the NZDF has joined the Joint Task Force-Space Defense Commercial Operations Cell (JCO). JCO aims to provide space defense stakeholders with accurate identification, analysis, and warning of potential counterspace activity. 

We can expect New Zealand space security partnerships, and responsibilities, to keep growing both in quantity and importance in future. AUKUS may be the next one coming. 

New Zealand space capabilities  

When it comes to New Zealand and space, many Kiwis think of Rocket Lab, the US-New Zealand rocket launching company, and its launching pad in the Mahia Peninsula, Hawke’s Bay. Indeed, the United States has been building its defence capabilities through this infrastructure. In 2021, Rocket Lab launched an experimental CubeSat called Gunsmoke-J to test technologies that support new capabilities for the US Army. In the same year, it successfully launched an Electron Rocket with a demonstration satellite called Monolith for the US Space Force. 

That came with political backlash. Afterwards, the Green Party’s Security and Intelligence spokesperson Teanau Tuiono MP launched a Bill at the ‘Stop the Militarisation of Space’ protest outside Rocket Lab’s offices in Tāmaki Makaurau. This sought to amend the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act 2017 by prohibiting the launch of military hardware into space from New Zealand. The statement at the Bill launch suggested that Rocket Lab has launched at least 13 payloads for the US Military or intelligence agencies from Mahia. 

Recently, Radio New Zealand (RNZ) reported that New Zealand is politically linked ito the US Wideband Global Satellite (WGS) programme, and commercially through Rocket Lab's multiplying contracts with the Pentagon and major military contractors including Lockheed Martin. The US wants help with a $1.6 billion project to launch two new, much more powerful satellites. According to RNZ, New Zealand is putting $15 million towards launching the new WGS satellite carrying prototype counter-jamming tech to keep warfighters connected in contested battlespaces. 

Even though New Zealand’s rocket launching capabilities are unique among nations of its size, they are not the only asset regarding space defence capabilities. The Defence Technology Agency (DTA) is a unit of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) providing applied research, exploratory development and advice about military technology. One of its programs is dedicated to research on surveillance of space activities and space domain interoperability of NZDF navigation and timing services. A few years ago, DTA announced the creation of a small optical space awareness observatory to monitor satellites, with the aim of detecting any deviation from the predicted orbit or unusual behaviour. 

Such capability offers international cooperation opportunities. New Zealand’s unique geographic location in the South Pacific offers the capability to monitor satellite passes that cannot be observed from other locations. 

And there is a demand for this. Hypersonic missile development is fuelling the push for more advanced satellite warning systems. Building this capability could potentially become another interesting space asset for New Zealand to bring to the AUKUS table. 

Policy and political challenges 

In its Overview of Defence Interests and Engagements in Space, the New Zealand Defence Force announced intentions to have its own space systems, reducing reliance on other countries. However, the document does not specify how.  

The National Party campaigned on raising defence spending but is more reticent in office. The coalition agreements say nothing about space, and the Government faces tough choices amid growing high-tech demands. The National Party was also ambitious in campaining for a $10 billion space industry by 2030, but the Minister for Space  has been warned of several challenges to this. This includes the lack of official expertise to run safety assessments for space launches, limiting future growth.  

The minister was also briefed about New Zealand Government spending on space being low in comparison to other countries. The Government is not an anchor customer for space companies operating out of New Zealand. This means that companies in New Zealand not only miss out on the direct benefits of having a big customer, but they also miss the benefits of having Government contracts providing confidence to investors, customers, and other governments looking for partnerships.  

The briefing also states that, although the NZDF is heavily reliant on space-based capabilities, New Zealand does not have any space assets of its own in orbit, instead relying entirely on international partners or commercial operators. This contrasts with many overseas militaries with large space-specific budgets. According to the briefing, the absence of dedicated national space science and exploration programmes, sovereign space missions, and not having the NZDF as a customer for domestic space companies are great challenges to the growth of the space sector in New Zealand.  

This being the case, the flight path to engaging with AUKUS through space might end up being quite bumpy.  


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