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?