The next Rocket Lab mission will include a military satellite designed to improve targeting capabilities for US warfighters, reports Ollie Neas.
This morning, Rocket Lab, the US-owned but NZ-based space company, announced details of its next mission which will lift-off from its Mahia Peninsula launch site in March.
The mission will carry satellites for a range of customers – including the US military agency, Space and Missile Defence Command (SMDC). The SMDC leads the US Army’s space and missile defence efforts, and develops laser and hypersonic weapons.
Rocket Lab’s press release for the mission describes the SMDC’s Gunsmoke-J payload as “an experimental” satellite that will “test technologies that support development of new capabilities for the US Army.”
Those “capabilities” appear to include improving US military targeting capabilities.
The US Army is exploring various ways to improve how it uses small satellites to collect and deliver data from space to target weapons systems on the battlefield. US government documents indicate that the Gunsmoke-J is aimed at improving the information collection side of that process.
“Gunsmoke-J uses emerging advanced electronics to allow the use of dedicated intelligence assets to provide tactically actionable targeting data to warfighters on a responsive and persistent timeline,” a 2019 US Department of Defense budget document says. “This significantly improved reaction times and provided greatly enhanced targeting information for warfighters.”
A US Army fact sheet describes it as demonstrating “advanced information collection in direct support of the Army combat operations”.
The company contracted to integrate the payload with Rocket Lab, TriSept, says it will “have a huge impact on mile stone developments in war fighter capabilities on the battlefield and beyond”.
Payload yet to receive official sign-off
Rocket Lab head of communications Morgan Bailey says the Gunsmoke-J “is an experimental 3U technology demonstration CubeSat, not an operational spacecraft. This payload, like all payloads launched from New Zealand, is required to undergo a robust permitting process with the New Zealand Space Agency.”
But at the time of yesterday’s announcement, the minister responsible, Stuart Nash, had not received an application for the Gunsmoke-J satellite – even though officials have been considering the payload for at least three months.
“I have not received a permit application for the payload referenced in Rocket Lab’s announcement today. Once I receive the application I will make a judgement on whether to grant or deny the permit, based on advice from officials.”
The NZ Space Agency declined an Official Information Act request from The Spinoff for material related to the Gunsmoke-J in November last year on the basis that an application was under “active review”. In January, the agency again advised that the payload was “still under active review by officials and ministers”.
The Space Agency assesses payloads against various criteria under the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act, including whether the payload is consistent with NZ’s international obligations and is in NZ’s “national interest”.
National interest guidelines released in 2019 rule out payloads that “contribute to nuclear weapons programmes or capabilities” or that have intended end uses that support or enable “specific defence, security or intelligence operations that are contrary to government policy”. But it remains unclear which “specific defence, security or intelligence operations” are contrary to government policy and which are not.
Green Party condemns US military launches from NZ
In light of the announcement, the Green Party is calling for an end to US military and intelligence satellite launches from NZ.
“We should not be a launching pad for satellites for America’s military and intelligence agencies,” says Teanau Tuiono, the Green Party security and intelligence spokesman.
“The way Rocket Lab was seamlessly integrated into US spy imperatives is alarming and counter to us being an independent and principled voice in the world. This is another reason why we should withdraw from the Five Eyes spy network.”
The Gunsmoke-J is the latest in a series of launches of US military satellites from New Zealand.
Since 2018, Rocket Lab has launched military or intelligence payloads on seven different missions for agencies ranging from US Special Operations Command – which conducts covert operations around the world – to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), a major US spy agency. The NRO mission last year was the first NRO mission ever to launch from outside the US. The satellite’s purpose and capabilities remain secret.
Rocket Lab has worked for US military agencies since its early days – even designing a protective material approved for use on Patriot missile systems – and its investors include Lockheed Martin and the CIA’s venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel.
But there was little public discussion of these military connections when Parliament passed a law to allow for launches in 2017, even though the government was aware of the demand from US security agencies for Rocket Lab’s services. NZ officials have since described launches as a “tangible contribution to the broader Five Eyes intelligence network”.
The Gunsmoke-J is one of six payloads on the next Rocket Lab mission. The other satellites include a university technology demonstration, two internet-of-things satellites, and a Rocket Lab built satellite designed to prepare for its NASA-backed mission to the moon, which is scheduled for later this year.
Another customer is US private intelligence company BlackSky, whose activities The Spinoff reported on in 2019. BlackSky’s satellites collect imagery of the Earth, which it then combines with other data before being provided to its customers – which include two US intelligence agencies, the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, as well as civilian users.
The announcement comes after One News reported that Air New Zealand has been secretly helping the Saudi Arabian military, which is involved in the war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. This has raised questions about NZ companies’ support for foreign militaries, leading to an apology from Air New Zealand.