Warfare is undergoing another period of dramatic technical change.
This is nowhere more evident than in space.
Once again, the war of the future won't be like the war of the past, as this article in today's Canberra Times suggests . . .
The briefings were thorough; very professional. They were normally conducted by smart, ex-military men (with short haircuts and wearing crisp business suits) and that seemed to make sense. After all, Lockheed Martin hadn’t become one of the world’s largest space companies by adopting a casual, laid-back attitude. It was all crisp efficiency in the sprawling Silicon Valley headquarters of the Space Division, close beside the gigantic hangar and enormous runway that had once housed the world's first ever spy-plane.
The briefings were only relieved by a visit to a satellite assembly line and a telescope, designed to orbit the earth. That’s where I wandered – only slightly, I thought – over a red line. Politely, quickly and firmly, I was guided away. The company wasn’t going to risk anyone contaminating the solar cells before they’d been shot off into space.
A huge space-telescope was even more securely protected from dust. A visit required suiting up before venturing into a special, over-pressurised storage facility. It was difficult not to become giddy when peering into the brilliant shine of the reflecting mirrors. It seemed as close as you can get to staring into infinity.
Finally, a tall, young(ish) PhD heading the Special Projects division slouched in. Unusually for Lockheed, his hair looked as if it needed a comb and, although quite properly attired, his clothes didn’t quite match. Jim Mulroy had obviously been employed for his mind, rather than sartorial sense. His division was tucked off to one side on the organisational chart; it actually looked a little insignificant.
“About what percentage of the business do you look after”, I asked?
“Oh,” Mulroy paused for a second and thought. “I guess it’s about 85 percent”, he responded. Suddenly everything began slipping into context.
This is warfare's new frontier. The next battles aren’t going to be decided by US Marines with crew-cuts and M-16A4 assault rifles. Long before the first shot is fired the new conflict will be determined by engagements occurring hundreds of miles above our heads. These will be just as decisive, if not more so, than the activities of soldiers on the ground.
Forget about space being some kind of nirvana where countries co-operate with one another to battle the environment. Sure that's happening, but only while it’s all peace on earth and goodwill to one another down here. The moment conflict begins space will become a massive, destructive battleground.
Pictures of astronauts spacewalking make it look as if everything’s moving slowly, with massive distances between different objects. That's not necessarily true. Orbiting junk is already crowding space; careful planning’s needed to ensure satellites don’t smash into one another at enormous speeds, resulting in disaster. The vulnerability is obvious.
To understand this, watch the movie “Gravity”. One slight miscalculation and a collision shatters a satellite into meaningless junk. This will then shoot off like a missile, destroying anything else that lurches into its orbit. Forget about Global Positioning Systems and mobile phones if this happens; we’ll be back to maps and carrier pigeons.
Not quite, perhaps, but think of how much we take our use of space-based systems. This is arguably one of the reasons that Kevin Rudd – someone concerned about the possibilities of future conflict – was originally attracted to the NBN. This ensures (relatively) secure means of keeping in touch, particularly when it's contrasted to the obvious dangers of routing our communications through space. If the satellites are down, so are mobile phones (without relay stations) and televisions. Everything changes. No one knows exactly how our society will cope in such a situation.
Australia's got a very limited capacity to engage in this arena. The only way we can begin to do so is by working with an ally and that means the US. The costs of involvement are so enormous that it's pointless to begin. This doesn't mean, of course, that Australia shouldn't attempt to develop niche high-end capabilities or work with others. The problem is, rather, ensuring that our defences are up to scratch.
The idea behind blitzkrieg was to destroy the enemies ‘brain’ – their command structure. The role of the airforce was to create panic in the enemy homeland. These were just different ways of forcing the enemy government to surrender without having to suffer lengthy, drawn-out attritional battles like those in the trenches.
It wouldn't be the same if a war were to occur today. Destruction would quickly wreak havoc. Missiles would target critical infrastructure, destroying it with swift precision. Nuclear attacks are no longer necessary – the precision of satellite guided munitions means conventional weaponry can destroy key targets with lethal accuracy. This is why the early engagements of the next war, the ones fought in space, will be critical.
At the factory in California, the satellites look just the way they do in the movies: delicate and vulnerable. We increasingly rely on these; yet while the dangers are proliferating our responses to these new threats are in their infancy. We haven’t engaged with this new world. Our response is looking as ignorant as that of a Polish lancer in 1939 – cavalry charging tanks.