No Minister

The undergraduate NRO

A couple of decades ago I read a SF story that had – as basically a throwaway commentary – a section on the future of private-sector Earth Observation satellites and national military security.

The concept was that in this future the planet was surrounded by so many such satellites generating vast quantities of imagery, that millions of people had taken up the hobby of scanning through the stuff looking for things that interested them, and that this included large numbers of people who simply loved looking to see what national militaries were up to around the globe.

The upshot was that in this future, national military forces found themselves more hemmed in than they had been in the days of military spying by the likes of the National Reconnaissance Office and their famous series of “KeyHole” spy satellites (plus whatever they have today).

That future is here now.

News recently broke that the Chinese were building new ICBM launch sites, adding to their nuclear arsenal for the first time in decades. While that was important news I just assumed that it had been discovered via the usual means of spy satellites and other intelligence gathering.

Not exactly:

The silos were spotted by Decker Eveleth, an undergrad at Reed College. He spent weeks poking around on satellite imagery until he happened upon the silos’ distinctive inflatable dome coverings. (Which, in turn, has led some people to describe them as “bouncy houses of death.”)

The reason he had something to “poke around” in was exactly as that old SF story described:

Planet Labs, however, created a new kind of small, low-cost imaging satellite and put up so many of them that it can take multiple pictures of every spot on Earth, every day. In this case, Planet had years’ worth of pictures of the area in question, and Eveleth was ready, willing and able to scour them pixel-by-pixel.

Moroever, once he had spotted this, he was able to get more detail:

Eveleth contacted Planet to see if they could use a larger breed of their satellites to take even higher-resolution pictures of the area with the domes. Planet could.

Lewis and Eveleth were able to log in to Planet’s service and see not just the domes but also trenches, for communications cables, leading out from underground facilities where the military likely has its launch operations. 

Naturally the Chinese denied the story, claiming it was a wind farm, until further evidence from Lewis and others shut down that propaganda. The US State Department said such a development was “concerning”. That comment made me wonder if they, the NRO and the US military and government already knew about this – given their spying capabilities and general interest in monitoring China’s military, you’d think they would – but had chosen to say nothing?

There’s more detail at the link, including a reference to New Zealand’s very own Rocket Lab company and the micro-satellite launches it has been doing. That last, in turn, brought me to this article; Rocket Lab launches secret payload from New Zealand:

After waiting out high winds, Rocket Lab’s low-cost Electron rocket launched a top-secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office from New Zealand, halfway around the world from the U.S. spy satellite agency’s headquarters.

That is just the latest of several such launches, which probably makes the Mahia peninsula a military target, as Paul Buchanan pointed out a couple of years ago in very interesting article on that subject, Launching Into Trouble?:

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.

In fact he questioned whether this was even legal under the Space Laws written up to allow RocketLabs to operate in the first place (New Zealand had no such laws because…. well, we’re NZ).

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.

Written by Tom Hunter

July 20, 2021 at 12:52 pm

11 Responses

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  1. I think the idea that Mahia becomes a target is fanciful hyperbole. How would it become a target? It would take an ICBM with a 12,000 mile range to reach it. Is China (or anyone else) going to really target an ICBM on Mahia? Alternatively a submarine launched missile could do it. Basically deploy a nuclear submarine deep into the South Pacific to launch a cruise missile.

    It is worth recollecting what Mahia does. It launches a rocket that can literally fit on to the back of a truck. The USAF can launch such rockets from literally thousands of places, if it had to. Of course it doesn’t routinely do so. Fixed launch facilities guarantees better accuracy and cheaper launches because of the fixed support systems.

    The idea that the US DOD is actually dependent on Mahia is complete nonsense. Yes, it does give contracts to Rocket Lab for experimental satellites. It helps keep innovation flowing. But the size of the satellites clearly shows they don’t have real military utility. They are way too small to carry any decent imaging equipment, necessary for reconnaissance or targeting. Yes, they could provide radio communications relay, provided there were hundreds in low earth orbit. However, the DOD has many such systems already. In future they may use Musk’s Starlink which has much more capability.

    Wayne

    July 21, 2021 at 11:46 am

    • Wayne. Here I am, entirely agreeing with you .

      adolffinkensen

      July 21, 2021 at 12:05 pm

    • I find myself in the unusual position of defending hard-line Lefty, Buchanan, even though (like you) I don’t agree with his assessment.

      My defence of him is that I don’t think you really addressed his argument. He did not say that the DOD is dependent on Mahia and he did not specifically say it would be the target of an ICBM or SLBM, merely that it might be a target for some sort of military strike.

      Similarly your comment that “the size of the satellites clearly shows they don’t have real military utility”, while it might be true, merely contradicts this comment from Buchanan without explaining the detail of what makes you assert that. As Buchanan says:

      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.

      Tom Hunter

      July 21, 2021 at 1:07 pm

  2. Tom,

    What sort of military strike could it be other than a ICBM or SLBM? I suppose a Special Forces sabotage team. They are not as easy to insert during wartime in a place as remote as New Zealand as people imagine. In the Mahia case it would require a submarine to travel to New Zealand. Again is it likely? Though I have to concede a French nuclear submarine did pick up the Rainbow Warrior sabotage team from their yacht in mid Tasman which they then scuttled (the yacht, not the submarine!).

    As for the small sat issue, well I know enough of the capabilities in this area to say that small satellites such as launched by RocketLab do not have surveillance, tracking and mapping capability that would be useful to the military. I did concede the point about communications, but this is an area where the DOD already has heaps of real time capability.

    Wayne

    July 21, 2021 at 2:26 pm

    • I can’t help thinking that you should also take those arguments over to his blog, even if that post is two years old. Would be interesting to see the discussion between you two and I think you’ve commented on his blog before.

      I may also invite him to comment here in response.

      Tom Hunter

      July 21, 2021 at 2:28 pm

  3. Thanks Tom, for the link and the defence against the criticism (in spite of your ideological proclivities). The fact is that military planners and targeters in the PRC will have added the Mahia Peninsula launch site to their target set for several reasons, and do not have to launch a nuclear-tipped ICBM to do so (the very notion is absurd). A submarine launched cruise or conventional GPS-guided missile with a conventional, say 500-1000 lb., warhead aimed at the pad and/or launch control building will do the trick, especially if launched from just outside (or inside) NZ’s territorial limits. The flight time from launch to impact will be short and the result will close the facility down. Although improbable, it is possible that a second strike on the Electron booster manufacturing plant in Auckland could be launched, but that would be a major escalation and unnecessary if the first strike on the launch facility is successful.

    Unless a US attack sub is close enough to pre-empt the PLAN strike, that is the most likely scenario in the event that hostilities between the PRC and US break out into the open and escalate outside of a particularly small regional or localised theatre. Given that the PLAN sub fleet is the largest in the world and has ten+ subs more than the US fleet, it will be hard for the US to put a sub on the tail of a PLAN vessel parked off NZ’s shore in the event of major conflict. After all, NZ is not Guam, Pearl Harbor, Okinawa or even Changi in Singapore. Nor is the ability of the RNZAF or RNZN to detect, locate and neutralise a PLAN sub in the event of hostilities anywhere close to certain.

    The reason RL is being used as a nanosat booster launch provider is precisely because the US is shortchanged in that regard. The US has only recently shifted attention from ICBM and IRBM development and has increasingly relied on commercial providers to place non-lethal intelligence and military satellites into space. Very small satellites are the wave of the future because their low orbits, low weight (1-10 kilos for nanosats, 10-100 kilos for microsats) and redundancy (smallsat “constellations” range up to 100 sats per payload), make them cheaper and more effective for a variety of purposes. Add quick turn-around times for reusable boosters like Electron, and the utility is obvious. That is why killing the booster launch site is so important.

    The US military has plenty of launch sites, true, but these are configured for ICBM and IRBM launches and as test sites, not for launching operational smallsat, light payload boosters like RL’s Electron. RL is going to develop larger payload boosters that will launch heavier satellites constellations from a base in Virginia, but in the immediate future it only has Elon Musk’s SpaceX/Falcon 9 booster program to compete with when it comes to smallsats ( and SpaceX launches minisats which at 100-500 kg are larger than the nanosats that RL throws). Although he has military clients (that he will not talk about), Musk defrays much of the development costs himself while RL depends on its security clients to help develop the economies of scale that will bring the Electron booster program down to the US$5 million/launch break even level. If I understand it correctly, the RL business plan envisions using the military/intelligence launch program (which includes NZDF and Australian nanosat launches) to help bring the costs per launch to that break even level, then transfer the military payload launches to Virginia while keeping the Mahia site for commercial launches. It sounds like a perfectly reasonable plan from a business perspective, but was bound to attract the ire of NZ peaceniks and pacifists on the one hand, and the PRC and other US adversaries on the other.

    RL has already launched military geospatial mapping, thermal imagery and communications satellites for the US. It recently launched the US Army Gunsmoke-J tactical targeting nanosat constellation that provides field commanders with real-time targeting coordinates in rugged/mountainous/jungle terrain where air cover is poor and ground level targeting is difficult. This follows the launch of communications payloads that allow those same field commanders better real-time communications the ground-to-ground and air-to-ground platforms are able to provide. These are steps up the “kill chain” towards the pointy part of the spear and US adversaries know that.

    I am agnostic on the venture. I would have preferred more transparency and debate on the nature of the payloads being launched from NZ soil. It is now been revealed that RL was less than forthright (perhaps reasonably so) about what was in the nosecones of the Electron boosters and government authorities have cast a blind eye on what is in them. Recently, Minister for Space Stuart Nash said that he only found out about the Gunsmoke-J launch after the payload was in place, but that he authorised its launch because it did not violate NZ law on space launches from NZ soil because it did not contain nukes, chemical or other weapons of mass destruction. If so, it seems that NZ space legislation is locked in a time warp.

    In any event, I cannot recall the other points I made in the original post, so my apologies for the incomplete reply. What I do know is that military adversaries of the US that can do so would be negligent if they did not incorporate the Mahia launch site into their target sets and should not take RL’s or the NZ government’s word when it comes to what goes into those nosecones.

    Nor can we.

    Paul G. Buchanan

    July 21, 2021 at 3:43 pm

    • Thanks in turn for that commentary, Paul. Very interesting, as was your original 2019 post.

      Tom Hunter

      July 21, 2021 at 4:34 pm

  4. Living proof that you don’t have to be left wing to be a sucker for utter crap

    The silos were spotted by Decker Eveleth, an undergrad at Reed College. He spent weeks poking around on satellite imagery until he happened upon the silos’ distinctive inflatable dome coverings. (Which, in turn, has led some people to describe them as “bouncy houses of death.

    Followed by an image of unknown provenance with little circles with dots at their centers drawn upon an aerial photo of desert scape.

    We need a vaccination against gullibility

    Andrei

    July 21, 2021 at 8:22 pm

    • I have been trying to figure the scale of that photo of that purported silo farm in NW China. For heavy ICBMs like the DF-41s that are thought to be housed there, the distance between silos would have to be some miles apart (I am not sure of exactly how many) so as to avoid cross-blast electromagnetic-radioactive contamination and collateral structural damage assuming a ground or shaped charge penetrating burst (after all, why would anyone group silos together so that several can be taken out by one strike?). The same goes for the electronic cabling and underground missile transport systems connecting silos–they will likely be compromised more effectively if the distance between silos is too closely spaced. That is true whether the silos are part of a missile shell game involving mobile launchers or fixed, autonomously-crewed and individually launched missiles (since all need links to C4I trees). I am happy for a weapons scientist or other expert to illuminate me on this if my summation is incorrect.

      In any event the silo grouping in the photo seems too closely spaced at first glance, but again, I do not know the scale of the photo and cannot see the actual silo “lids” in order to make a non-expert call on its authenticity.

      Paul G. Buchanan

      July 21, 2021 at 9:59 pm

    • Seems like a lot of other experts have concurred with the undergraduate.

      Just picking one at random:

      The 119 nearly identical construction sites contain features that mirror those seen at existing launch facilities for China’s arsenal of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

      Plenty of far more detailed photos too if one cares to look. The reports first emerged from the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies, based in Monterey, California. Not exactly a pro-US-military and anti-Chinese group.

      Also….

      Tom Hunter

      July 21, 2021 at 10:30 pm

    • It doesn’t take too much effort to locate this place for yourself on Google Earth

      You too could take your very own screen shot of it and annotate it with ⊙s or even ☭s should that rock your boat .

      Have fun

      Andrei

      July 22, 2021 at 5:55 am


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