Vassal’s privilege: Exmouth and Australia’s role in US space imperialism

Dec 6, 2023
US Australia and Great Britain flags paint over on chess king. AUKUS defence pact.

The AUKUS arrangements between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia envisage the transfer of nuclear-propulsion technology and nuclear-powered submarines to the Royal Australian Navy – what policy wonks call the First Pillar. This does little to advance Canberra’s security but does much to confirm that Washington is keen to keep other powers in the Indo-Pacific in check and under chokehold, the most obvious candidate being the PRC.

Submarines, however, only remain one aspect of an agreement that, in subordinating Australian sovereignty, gives both the US and UK access rights to Australian facilities and national security real estate, with little to no consultation with electors and their local representatives.

The dubbed second “pillar” of the partnership envisages the developing and provision of “joint advanced military capabilities to promote security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.” Lauren Kahn of the Council on Foreign Relations, that consistently reliable body of US strategic thought, describes it as collaboration between the parties “on advanced capabilities that will involve broad technology and information sharing, in order to keep up with increasing geopolitical competition, particularly with the People’s Republic of China.”

The technology involved will be, as a matter of priority, focused on interoperability, a euphemistic way of suggesting total, unquestioned steering by Washington and its military wing, leaving Australian personnel to operate the drinks trolley. It will consist of “robotic and autonomous underwater vehicles, quantum technology, artificial intelligence (AI), advanced cyber capabilities, hypersonics, and electronic warfare.”

The inexorable accretion of US power in the Australian north is evidenced by the construction of a terrestrial radar facility site near Exmouth on the remote north-west coast of Western Australia. As the ABC reports on the as yet uncompleted facility, “it covers a vast area of land and will be an important capability alongside a suite of other existing international sensors, including from the commercial sector.”

The radar facility is part of the US Deep Space Radar Capability (DARC) program. The program, begun in 2017, was designed by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory to furnish the US with a global monitoring capability of geosynchronous orbits irrespective of weather and during daylight.

In February 2022, Pablo Pezzimenti, vice-president of integrated national systems at the partnering arms company Northrop Grumman, described the program as one that would “field a resilient ground-based radar providing our nation with significantly enhanced space domain awareness for geostationary orbit.” The company, which promotes itself as an outfit “focused on global security and human discovery” (the sheer hoot of it all) is hopeful that “DARC will augment the military’s space surveillance network as an additional sensor with increased capacity and capability to monitor deep space objects and eventually provide full global coverage.” The same company is also receiving US$341 million for the privilege from US Space Force’s Space Systems Command.

It did not take long for Australia to feature prominently in the strategic thinking of the Pentagon as an ideal site for Washington’s tilt at imperial space supremacy. “When you look at a place like Australia as a landmass, you have a lot of opportunity to contribute to that space picture,” Brig. Gen. Anthony Mastalir, head of US Space Forces Indo-Pacific, told Breaking Defense in April this year. “The Australians, the defense Space Command folks and the acquisition arms, they absolutely understand that, so they’re moving aggressively to embrace some of these opportunities and bring systems like DARC […] here on the continent.”

Mastalir is earnestly refreshing in a way no Australian military official or politician ever is on why they are loaning tracts of land to the US war machine. For one thing, he is clear who Washington’s targets are, and why Australia’s surrogacy is indispensable to focusing on them. He considers Russia “a dominant space power” which lost its edge during the Ukraine War. But it is “China’s use of space to complete the kill chain necessary to generate long-range precision strikes against the maritime and air components scheme of manoeuvre. That’s what concerns me the most.” The US had to “have the ability to deny China in this situation, as a potential adversary”.

As a vassal’s privilege of hosting the site, the Australian Commonwealth will be paying the US government some A$2 billion over 20 years to operate and sustain it. Irrelevantly, almost comically so, Australia’s own Defence Minister, Richard Marles could actually call this effort one of “trilateral collaboration” regarding the DARC program. But no figures have been offered on the Exmouth radar site, be it in terms of Australian personnel, size or cost.

Scandalously – at least for Australia’s hoodwinked citizens – the revelation that Canberra was involved in this US imperial stab at space dominance only arose in a US Congressional hearing. In May, Frank Calvelli, Assistant Secretary of the US Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration, told the Senate Subcommittee on Strategic Forces that three new radar sites with a DARC capability would be built in the US, Australia and the United Kingdom.

Australian news outlets have shown little to no inclination in reporting these efforts, leaving it to such fora as Inside Defense and Global Security to reveal that DARC sites will feature a prominent Australian role. At least the ABC was alert enough to pick up on remarks made by the USSF General John W. “Jay” Raymond on his visit to Exmouth in May 2022 on the site’s potential in “space cooperation”. “The United States continues to be impressed by Western Australia’s space capabilities, including our multiplate partnerships at Exmouth where Americans work side by side to benefit our people and our region.”

In broader discussions about Australia’s footnoted, spectral sovereignty, it is worth considering how such pro-Washington mouthpieces as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute are becoming increasingly frank on the matter. More pieces are enthusiastically wishing away any pretence of equal cooperation or collaboration between satellite states and the US imperium.

In a piece authored by Nishank Motwani of the Harvard Kennedy School and published by APSI’s The Strategist in October, we receive a sharp, candid assessment: “Because of the power imbalance between the US and Australia, some American analysts view Australia’s sovereignty as ‘relative and negotiable’ when it comes to safeguarding American strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific.” Certainly relative, and already negotiated away in a manner verging on treason.

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