Launching into trouble?

On May 5 the NZ-US joint venture company Rocket Lab successfully completed a night-time launch of its Electron booster carrying three US Air Force small satellites (smallsats) named Harbinger, SPARC-1 and Falcon ODE. The STP-27RD mission is part of the DoD Space test program run by the US Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Systems Center in collaboration with the Defence Innovation Unit as part of its Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI). Funding for the launch came from Department of Defence (DoD) Other Transaction authority to award service contracts to non-traditional commercial small launch companies. The latter is interesting because it is not a line item category in the DoD budget but instead falls into the discretionary funds allocations category usually associated with the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

In its second commercial launch from Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula, the booster safely deposited its 180 kilogram payload into an orbit 500 kilometres (310 miles) above earth at an inclination of 40 degrees to the equator. It is also the second launch with a military payload. Harbinger is a US Army sponsored commercial smallsat developed by York Space Systems that will perform tasks that demonstrate its ability to meet US Army Space capability requirements (however vague they may be defined in public, but which are technically specific in nature). The Falcon Orbital Debris Experiment (Falcon ODE), sponsored by the US Air Force Academy, evaluates ground based tracking of space objects. The Space Plug and Play Architecture Research CubeSat-1 (SPARC-1) is a joint Swedish-US experiment testing avionics miniaturisation, software defined radio systems and space situational awareness.

Rocket Lab is a commercial pioneer in Small Lift (SL)/Low Earth Orbit (LEO) booster technologies. Small lift refers to payloads under 500 kilograms and low earth orbit refers to orbits below 1,200 miles. Rocket Lab specialises in boosting payloads of less than 250 kilograms into orbits of 150-300 miles from earth. Smallsats are now broken down into mini-, micro-, nano-, pico- and femto-categories, increasingly in cubesat configurations (with the latter being 4x4x4.5 inch cube units that weigh less than 3 lbs. There are currently more than 900 cubesats deployed in LEOs). The majority of these satellites are used for telecommunications and geospatial mapping. The average cost for a Rocket Lab Electron booster launch is USD$5.7 million, which is very cheap by any comparison, and the company sees future cost reductions when monthly launch schedules give way to biweekly launches from Launch Complex 1 and dedicated facilities operated by NASA in Virginia.

Rocket Lab is touted as a NZ entrepreneurial success story. Indeed it is, although it is now a US based company headquartered in Huntington Beach, USA, with a NZ subsidiary based in Auckland and on the Mahia Peninsula. Most of the capital invested in Rocket Lab now comes from US based funds and companies. The Electron engines are built in Huntington Beach and the launch vehicle assembled in Auckland.

There can be no doubt that Rocket Lab is revolutionising the space industry. But the launch of foreign military satellites by a NZ based company from a launch site on sovereign NZ soil raises some important political, practical and legal questions.

With regard to legal matters, it is worth asking what legal framework is in place governing the use of NZ assets and soil for foreign military satellite launches. Foreign military deployments in NZ are governed by formal agreements, as are NZDF deployments on foreign lands in support of bi-lateral or multilateral missions. Exports of sensitive, dedicated or potential “dual use” (civilian and military) technologies by NZ companies require special export licenses and in some case prohibitions apply to said exports to specific countries. But what is the framework governing foreign military use of NZ-based launchers? As far as I know neither the NZDF or any other government agency have been part of a foreign military satellite launch in NZ, so there is no legal precedent for specifying the terms and conditions governing that activity, much less launches conducted by a NZ-based private firm on behalf of a foreign military partner.

That matters because launches of foreign military non-weaponised payloads, even if they involve signals and technical intelligence gathering technologies, are largely non-controversial and can be covered under the rubric of “scientific research” in any event. But without specific clauses in NZ law prohibiting the launch of foreign military weapons platforms from NZ soil and/or by NZ companies, the field is open for that to happen. With space weapons platforms undergoing the miniaturisation mania that has impacted all aspects of combat from drones to autonomous infantry fighting machines, it is only a matter of when, not if they will be deployed (if they have not been already. India and China have both recently tested satellite killing probes against LEO targets and Russia and USA have long had larger sized offensive hunter-killer satellites tracking each other’s military communications space platforms, even if these are little more than “dumb” bombs that are guided into the target in order to destroy it). So the scene is set for the eventual deployment of space weaponry from NZ territory.

The question is whether there is a legal basis to permit or prohibit foreign military satellites, especially weaponised satellites, being launched from NZ soil with NZ technologies. I am unsure if that is the case one way or another and have heard of no parliamentary or ministerial discussion of the matter. Amid all of the applause for Rocket Lab there has been no pause given to consider the implications of its partnership with a foreign military, albeit a friendly one. If readers know more than I do on the legal governance structure surrounding Rocket Lab’s partnership ventures with the US Defence Department or any other foreign military, please feel free to illuminate me in the comments.

At a political level, it must be asked whether the current government or its predecessor had much input into the decision to accept US military “sponsorship” of smallsat launches using Rocket Lab technologies and facilities in NZ. Was there NZDF and MoD input? Did DPMC and/or cabinet consider the longer-term geopolitical implications of the association, or was the discussion limited to the commercial opportunities presented by it? For a country that works hard to show a commitment to peace and independence in its foreign policy, would not linking US military interests and a NZ-founded company in a dual use venture that uses NZ territory for US power projection in space raise as many concerns as accolades?

There are practical implications to consider. Is Rocket Lab prepared to contract for payload launches with foreign military “sponsors” other than the US? Or have contractual impediments already been put in place to preclude that possibility, or at least preclude the likes of the Chinese, Russians, Iranians, North Koreans and/or others from participating in the opportunity? Is there anything in Rocket Lab’s contracts with the US or other foreign military partners that specifically prohibits weapons platform launches, no matter how small they may be? Absent a law covering that eventuality, it is left to the company to draw the line on who gets to fill the booster nose cones and what gets put in them. Is it fair to ask if Rocket Lab has put any type of restrictions on who it contracts with and what gets loaded onto its military-sponsored payload delivery systems?

If the contract to deliver military payloads is solely and exclusively with the US, then Rocket Lab has painted a target on Launch Complex 1 in the event that the US becomes embroiled in a large-scale conflict with a major power. Even if it allows nations other than the US to launch military payloads on Electron boosters, Rocket Lab has made the Mahia Peninsula a target whether or not weapons satellites are launched from there. After all, the main use of smallsats is for surveillance, tracking, mapping and telecommunications, all of which are essential for the successful prosecution of contemporary wars. So even if smallsats launched from the Mahia Peninsula do not carry weapons on them, the site becomes a potential target.

Put another way: Smallsats are difficult to target once deployed, so space warfare planners in countries that have the ability to do so and are antagonistic to Rocket Lab’s foreign military client/”sponsors” will aim to prevent their deployment from the Mahia Peninsula. That means that they have likely added Launch Complex 1 to their potential target “packages” in the event that great power hostilities break out on Earth or in space. As it turns out, the low cost and quick launch capabilities offered by the Electron booster also make it a great choice for rapidly replacing military satellites of all kinds when lost to hostile action, so prudent military planners will ensure that Rocket Lab’s vehicles do not get off the ground should push come to shove. And given that NZ air space and launch sites are less defended than similar territory in larger countries, the relative ease of launching pre-emptive or follow up strikes on Launch Complex 1 encourages its targeting by adversaries of Rocket Lab’s foreign military partners.

That means, of course, that NZ could be drawn into a land/space war in which it is not a principle but where its soil and facilities is used by one or another party to the hostilities. So the bottom line is this: does NZ have any control over or even say in who and what Rocket Labs gets to work with? Is there any contingency plan in place for the possibility that association with a foreign military in commercial space ventures could lead to the uninvited and untoward intervention of another foreign military power on NZ soil?

16 thoughts on “Launching into trouble?

  1. It is always a pleasure to read a post by somebody with such in depth technical knowledge. So little of that about these days… such posts shouldn’t be the exception, but sadly they are.

    And of course it is criminal that the NZ government, unlike every other self-respecting democracy, does not have laws to prevent private companies from participating in the military forces of other states. This would literally not happen anywhere else in the world.

    It will be hard indeed for the government of the day (sadly both parties complicit) to explain why this seemed a good idea when Chinese missiles rain down on Hawkes Bay in the not-too-distant future.

  2. Hi Pablo

    I speculate here.

    Does Australia have a similar space / military program?
    If yes, could the stake holders in the NZ venture have gained entry into NZ because of the CER agreement ??

    Either way NZ has become a potential military target by association

    Not good. Another example of our small mindedness
    “ It won’t happen to us “

  3. Very prescient post.

    I’ve been wondering about this as well. Rocket lab is a great nz success story but sadly NZs insufficient pool of capital has resulted in them ceding control to the americans.

    For me it’s fairly simple, Military payloads need to be declared to the NZ government otherwise our sovereignty is impacted and NZ citizens need to be confident that this is happening.

  4. From what I have heard there is legislation in place that supposedly governs what gets launched from NZ territory, but the final decision as to whether to approve the military payload or not apparently rests with the Defence Minister. I have been told to go do OIAs on the matter but unfortunately do not have the time to do so given the press of other concerns. This really should be a matter for the Greens and/or public interests groups to pick up.

    With regard to Edward’s question about OZ. I think that Rocket Lab is the first and only Southern Hemisphere small lift booster manufacturer and launcher, so the Australians do not have a comparable capability. But were Rocket Lab to expand into OZ or spawn competitors there, then truly the race will be on. I doubt that the Ozzies will be as concerned about foreign military payloads as I am, so attempts to restrict foreign military payload launching from NZ soil could well see them launched elsewhere once other countries develop a similar indigenous boost industry, be it private or public in nature.

  5. “attempts to restrict foreign military payload launching from NZ soil could well see them launched elsewhere once other countries develop a similar indigenous boost industry”

    The thing is, when the US-China war comes, Australia is going to be a target no matter what happens. They are too heavily entangled with the USA, with US military assets permanently on their soil. And even if they wanted to get disentangled, the USA would not allow it – the Darwin logistics base is too valuable to the USA to close it.

    New Zealand is currently less entangled, so still has a chance at neutrality if the will is there (debatable) and the war doesn’t come too soon (next year is probably too late to remove American assets from our soil, but by 2022 it is probably doable – again, if the will is there). And the US facilities in New Zealand are not as valuable to the USA so it is conceivable (not definite, but conceivable) that they might be prepared to walk away from them without more than token protest. Fingers crossed.

    But yes, if we are to disentangle, after Waihopai, Rocket Lab’s American payloads would have to go, no doubt about it. We would have to prove to the Chinese that there are no US military or even pseudo-military assets in NZ territory, and Rocket Lab makes that impossible.

  6. I prefer a ban on military payloads launched from NZ soil, if nothing else so as to protect NZ from being targeted in the event of major war (I shall leave debate about the moral-ethical issues such launches pose for a small state like NZ to others). Rocket Lab is free to open bases elsewhere from which to launch military payloads and it can always use the NZ facilities for civilian commercial and scientific payloads. As it is, although the company is hyped as a NZ firm, it is now majority owned by US investors and its profit stream, once it materialises, will in the majority go to them. It will continue to be a source of employment in NZ so long as the Auckland assembly plant and Mahia Peninsula launch facility remain, but the big money has already been earmarked for the big players who had a say in moving the HQ to Huntington Beach as part of their venture capital buy-in the company.

  7. A ban on military payloads would be good but I would go further – a ban on all military activity on NZ soil (obviously diplomats are not subject to NZ law, so military attaches could continue to serve). Unfortunately this is probably too radical even for the Greens or Mana, but I think it would be very popular and more importantly would ensure NZ’s security.

    The issue of foreign companies holding controlling shares in NZ companies is another issue – I would love to see a law saying no NZ company can have more than 40% foreign ownership (with sufficient safeguards and audits to prevent nominee director situations like we see in Singapore or the UAE) – but again, too radical for any party currently in parliament or with a chance of getting into parliament.

  8. As through most of the Cold War, NZ prays that things never get hot enough that we become a target for nukes. It does seem like a safer bet now that Russia’s ambitions are reduced, and China has a few hundred warheads rather than thousands.

    It’d be nice to have a government which considers ethics in such things but National was never that and the current Labour govt isn’t either. The Greens don’t seem to want to rock the boat on their first outing in government. Winston certainly isn’t going to make noises about ethics, of all things.

  9. AVR:

    No need to nuke the Mahia Peninsula. Just a “dumb” conventional bomb or two in order to make the launch site inoperative. In fact, I would imagine that long before such a strike was considered a number of non-kinetic options would be exercised by US military rivals concerned about its use of the NZ site for military launch purposes. And since at least one of those rivals has huge economic leverage on NZ, such pressure would likely work.

  10. In the 1980s the KGB had a detailed plan as part of their RYAN contingency to initiate a general European war with pre-inserted special forces assets, assisted by the general intelligence network, against critical NATO installations and human/electronic C&C capabilities nodes throughout the European theatre even as far from the frontline as Belgium, the UK and Portugal.

    Although the Soviets and Chinese were not good friends it is an open secret that the Chinese regime is pragmatic enough to copy Soviet best practice when it is useful (just as they are keen to avoid Soviet malpractice when they see a risk; it is an open secret that the policies of the Gorbachev regime and the failure of perestroika is required reading at the highest echelons of the Chinese communist party. But I digress).

    We know that China has the capacity to perform fairly complex intelligence operations within NZ albeit against soft targets. Then again, the launch complex in Mahia is not exactly a hard target itself – on site security is geared towards keeping away snoopers, not dedicated intelligence operatives.

    We know that China has special forces assets trained to a high standard and although there is no evidence they have ever been deployed to NZ (the operations staged here to date have not required such a high level of expertise), given the sorry state of NZ domestic intelligence and the widespread incompetence in what passes for a “security establishment” in New Zealand, there is nothing to really prevent their deployment should the Chinese leadership decide it is needed.

    We know that it is trivially easy to acquire military-grade firearms in New Zealand with only a moderate amount of ground-laying; something that Cinese low-ranking intelligence agent of the sort we know are present is more than capable of. Weapons can also be (and have been) moved via the diplomatic bag.

    So given we know that the Chinese have a support intelligence network in place + the ability to deploy special forces for kinetic operations + the ability to equip them, I would say that a special forces raid against Mahia is just as likely as a missile strike. (I agree with Pablo that nuclear weapon strikes are very unlikely, China has plenty of nuclear weapons, but in a conflict with the USA, it would need to be more economical – it doesn’t have so many nuclear weapons it can expend them on second-tier targets like American logistics/intelligence facilities, it needs them to target American first-strike/counter-strike facilities, which are almost always hardened and thus require over-strikes to give a sufficient level of strategic comfort during a global kinet scenario.

    So I would say just as likely as a Chinese missile strike on Mahia, is a Chinese special forces operation to achieve a similar result.

    From a NZ security perspective the special forces raid would ironically be ideal, as there is less risk of collateral damage to civilians than a missile strike, even in a low-population area like Mahia.

    But these are just the ruminations of a strategic amateur.

    What do you think, Pablo? From the perspective of a strategic professional, is a Chinese special forces attack on Mahia a possibility?

  11. In response to your last questions I would say possible but unlikely. Depending on how good its electronic warfare capabilities are, the PRC could use one of its tracking/eavesdropping ships to spoof the telemetry and other communications in and around the launch complex and between launch control and the rocket, leaving it stranded on the ground. Mere demonstration of that capability could well ground Rocket Lab, which has to think of its future viability as a profit-oriented firm if it continues to attract the untoward interest of military rivals to those whose payloads it launches. If the PRC is incapable of spoofing the launch complex, then a cruise missile and/or SLBM or two launched from a PRC sub just off the Mahia Peninsula will do the trick. No need for ICBM or IRBM strikes that take longer to hit the target and which can potentially be tracked and killed in flight when you can have the ordinance delivered by stealthy fast courier. Even if the US deploys attack subs to track and kill the PRC boats, the PRC has enough of them to use a “swarm” attack formation that will outnumber the US counter (the US will have to allocate its submarine assets with a focus on the main combat theaters in which they have to defend carrier strike groups as well as perform offensive missions. The North Island East Coast will not be one of them). PRC use of special forces, while feasible, exposes them to greater risk of failure since human assets on land are easier to detect and counter than a stand-off weapon off-shore. Given that and the cost/benefit calculations that accompany Chinese military contingency planning, I think that they will prefer the stand-off over the hands-on option.

    Incidentally, the Spinoff has another article out today (May 17) from the author that I cited in the post about the Rocket Lab/US military connection. It seems that although many safeguards have been proposed and even written into legislation, NZ really does not have a say it what gets launched.

  12. I hadn’t thought of the spoofing angle, this is my bad – this is the age of electronic warfare.

    But on the other hand – I’m not aware – what is the range of these spoofings? I think the PLAN won’t be able to guarantee surface naval superiority outside of the Second Island Chain, so it would probably be reluctant to commit a valuable electronic warfare ship without a surface escort which raises the cost significantly. While it is hard to be sure, I am not sure Mahia is a high enough priority target to consider deploying such an asset. China only has 10 ELINT ships and I don’t think Mahia is going to be in their top 10 targets, at least, not at the outset of a conflict.

    Human assets on land are easier, but given that the NZ security apparatus has basically zero ability to detect them, it doesn’t really matter. A truck is louder than a car, but neither will be detected if the person listening for them is deaf – even worse if they are a deaf person who insists on behaving as they can hear, which is in my opinion a picture perfect analogy for the collection of low IQ bludgers who pass for a “security service” in New Zealand. I am sure China is aware of this, which is why I believe special forces is likely.

    The question about the profits of the shareholders are interesting – but if we are talking about an open shooting war, which we clearly are, their calculation of their potential future profits will have been radically transformed the moment combat ensues, even without Chinese ELINT appearing off the coast of the North Island.

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  14. Please. The “USSR” has not existed since 1991. The country you apparently are referring to is Russia, or the Russian Federation. Please correct.

  15. Geoffrey:

    Thank you for the incredibly brilliant insight. I went back through my notes as a graduate student and even my course notes for when I taught undergrad level university international relations courses (the grad students apparently knew about the phenomenon that you have so exquisitley pointed out, so we moved on to things like counter-strike options and top down versus bottom up regime change) and lo and behold the USSR did collapse in the late 1980s-early 1990s. WOW!!!

    Heck there was even something called the Berlin Wall coming down, although how that relates to the Soviets I would not know but I am sure that you will tell me. There was some character called Gorbachev involved. Apparently he was a political alchemist who preached perestroika and glasnost to the Russian masses and international community, but I am not sure which audience got which treatment. A guy called Lech Waleka caught the fever in Polish shipyards, and assorted flower themed revolutions sprung like spring throughout the dreary Stalinist landscape of Eastern Europe. Alas, Russia slipped Yeltsin’ into decay, only to be resurrected by a quiet putschter called Putin, who we have have to this day.

    So yes, my esteemed proof reader, you are absolutely correct and I bow before your supreme pedantry. I have substituted the word “Russia” instead of “USSR” in your honour.

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