The government has deliberately limited public understanding of Rocket Lab’s US military connections in order to support American security interests, documents show.
Before the first rocket took off from Mahia Peninsula on the East Coast two years ago, MPs considered whether they should clarify that New Zealand’s new space industry would be strictly for peaceful purposes.
Politicians from across the spectrum championed the proposed law enabling rocket launches, and welcomed the new era of high-tech business and scientific research that was about to begin.
But some MPs noticed a problem. Much of the technology central to space launches – from the rockets themselves to the payloads they carried – could be used to support military activities as easily as they could socially useful purposes, such as researching climate change or combating illegal fishing in the Pacific.
One solution they considered was to include the words “non-military” in the law’s purposes provision. Another was to specify that launches must be for “peaceful purposes”. But MPs decided that such wording could rule out obviously useful technology like GPS, which is run by the US Air Force.
Instead, a compromise was reached. “Peaceful purposes” would be replaced with a reference to New Zealand’s international obligations that it not put nuclear weapons in orbit or test weapons on celestial bodies. Although close observers might have spotted that this left a gap through which all kinds of military activities might slip, for many of the MPs who took to their feet in the house the fundamental objective of the legislation was clear.
“The intention is with this legislation that it be non-military,” said Labour MP David Parker, who a year later would become the minister responsible for New Zealand’s space regime.
Two years on New Zealand has emerged as an established launch site for US military clients, with the majority of launches so far carrying payloads for the US Department of Defense.
Documents obtained by The Spinoff reveal that as MPs reassured themselves of the law’s peaceful intent, the government was already considering requests for launches in potential contravention of that.
Ministerial briefings show that since at least May 2017 the government – first National, and then the new Labour coalition – has been planning for launches on behalf of US military and security agencies. The launches are welcomed as deepening New Zealand’s security collaboration with the Trump administration. Meanwhile, officials have warned of the likely pushback if the public learned of the true nature of these activities.
Because of this risk officials advised the government to develop a joint communications strategy with Rocket Lab around US government payloads, highlighting the benefits to New Zealand and limiting public disclosure of the details.
These launches are set to continue and may even include launches for the National Reconnaissance Office, one of the US’s most important intelligence agencies.
While Rocket Lab and government officials continue to emphasise the civilian benefits of its rockets, experts warn that New Zealand may be adopting a dangerous ‘she’ll be right’ attitude to its new space industry.
Launches will “broaden and deepen” security collaboration with US
In June 2017 the newly appointed US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson received a frosty welcome when he arrived in Wellington for the first high-level diplomatic engagement with the Trump regime on New Zealand soil.
Although publicly the meeting was focused on trade and terrorism, Tillerson and prime minister Bill English also appear to have discussed US government customers for launches from New Zealand. Official talking points prepared for English suggest he emphasise that New Zealand is “very pleased that this new industry will further cement the very strong strategic partnership between our two governments”.
Space cooperation was also on the agenda when US Vice President Joe Biden visited Wellington in June 2016.
Details of these conversations have not been made public. However a heavily redacted May 2017 briefing to Simon Bridges, then Minister for Economic Development, advises of “growing interest in launches from New Zealand for a range of US government agencies”.
“The new US administration is actively seeking greater contributions from its security partners,” the briefing states.
Two months earlier the New Zealand Space Agency had counselled the minister that the words “non-military” in the bill might rule out the “potentially valuable client base” of launches for “foreign militaries”.
By this time it appeared that the US would be one such client.
In 2016 New Zealand signed the Technology Safeguards Agreement, a treaty allowing for the transfer of sensitive rocket technology from the US to New Zealand. Although described by officials as a means of assuring the Americans that New Zealand would take care of potentially dangerous technology, it also affirmed New Zealand’s intention to launch US spacecraft, including government payloads, provided the launches were consistent with New Zealand’s laws and policies.
In the May 2017 briefing to Bridges, the Space Agency suggested the government should convey to the US that it was pleased the new space industry “will enable us to broaden and deepen our security collaboration”.
Bridges was also advised that one of the risks was the reaction of the New Zealand public.
“Certain groups are opposed to New Zealand’s security relationship with the US, and it is possible that such groups would be motivated to disrupt launches if they were aware that US Government security payloads were being launched from New Zealand,” the briefing says.
A year later, with a new government in the Beehive, officials’ concerns about the public acceptability of US government space launches intensified. In a briefing to David Parker, who had replaced Bridges as Economic Development Minister, the Space Agency advised that it expected to receive increased requests from the US government for defence and security payloads, and noted that “social licence issues” needed to be considered.
To manage this risk, it recommended adopting a joint communications strategy with Rocket Lab that emphasised the benefits to New Zealand and limited the details made public.
Exactly what agencies and payloads were in discussion at this point is not clear from the briefing, although one almost entirely redacted paragraph states simply that “early USG payloads will be of an R&D nature”, leaving open the possibility of future operational payloads.
The groundwork for Trump’s Space Force
A year on, four out of five commercial launches from New Zealand have or will include payloads for US military agencies.
Two launches have carried payloads for the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the Pentagon agency that conducts cutting-edge research for the US military. A third was for the US Air Force and US Army Space and Missile Defense Command.
A recently announced fifth launch will carry a payload for US Special Operations Command, a wing of the US Department of Defense that undertakes covert missions around the world.
Terry Johanson, a lecturer in Defence and Security Studies at Massey University and a retired major in the New Zealand Defence Force, says that these cargoes appear to be laying the groundwork for the proposed US Space Force, which Donald Trump announced last year.
“The payloads they’re sending up there, to track ballistic missiles from China and Russia, to create a communication web in space and to track debris and objects in orbit, are setting up the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance side of their Space Force,” he says.
The first of the DARPA payloads seeks to improve the performance of a kind of radar that can detect missiles and stealth aircraft, while the second DARPA mission is aimed at testing an antenna intended for missile defence, among other uses.
The US Air Force launch includes a payload that will capture imagery allowing the US Army to test synthetic aperture radar, a surveillance and reconnaissance tool that enables images to be captured in the dark and through cloud. This technology has also been tied to space-based missile defence systems.
The recently announced ‘Prometheus’ payload for US Special Operations Command is a reconnaissance satellite to support special operations missions.
Future similar launches seem likely. In September the head of the Space Agency, Peter Crabtree, met with officials from the National Reconnaissance Office in Virginia to discuss the New Zealand regulatory process, according to itineraries obtained by The Spinoff. The NRO is one of the five major US intelligence agencies.
Rocket Lab did not respond to questions for this article. Elsewhere the company has emphasised the research and development focus of its military launches, telling the NZ Herald that the US Air Force launch carried “non-operational payloads, they’re R&D research payloads”.
Massey’s Johanson says he is not opposed to all launches for US military clients, but greater care is needed.
“We still want to be a good international citizen. But what do these capabilities then lead into that may be weaponized?
“There is a double edge to the New Zealand ‘she’ll be right’ mentality. She’ll be right until she isn’t. It’s all well and good until we are suddenly caught in this trap where we’re seen as the soft target for the American space programme or as enabling the weaponization of space. Then we’re caught up in something that’s not consistent with New Zealand’s values as a nation.”
Risking nuclear free status
One national value that may be at risk is New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance, says Professor Kevin Clements of the University of Otago.
An expert in conflict resolution and disarmament, Clements is the founding director of Otago University’s New Zealand National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.
“These launches are clearly aimed at consolidating extended deterrence and reliance on nuclear weapons for national and global security,” he says.
“People assume that the Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Act was just about nuclear weapons on naval ships visiting New Zealand. It was also aimed at a wider concern about the role of nuclear weapons in New Zealand’s security arrangements.
“Insofar as these launches are oriented towards increasing satellite surveillance of military and civilian activities, then we’re becoming complicit in targeting programmes, which seems to me to be certainly in tension with, if not in contravention of, the spirit of the Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Act.
“We have commercial interests trumping the expectation of most New Zealanders that we keep some distance from the US around nuclear deterrence and nuclear strategy.”
Economic development minister David Parker says New Zealand is committed to the safe, responsible and peaceful use of space.
“No application, regardless of the applicant, would be approved that contravenes New Zealand law,” he says. “The Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act 2017 provides clear legal requirements on what is acceptable activity, which is tested throughout the payload assessment process.”
Under this law the minister may only approve a launch or payload if it’s consistent with New Zealand’s international obligations, including regarding the use of nuclear weapons.
The minister may veto a payload if it is in the national interest to do so – a power also guaranteed under the Technology Safeguards Agreement.
Parker declined to confirm whether he still understands the Act to be intended for non-military purposes, as he stated in Parliament in 2017.
According to the ministerial briefings obtained by The Spinoff, purely research and development military payloads are not likely to trigger national interest concerns but operational ones might, “depending on their mission, purpose or capability”. A payload that “directly relates to the US nuclear weapons capability” would probably cross a red line.
But this all rests on New Zealand knowing what it’s launching, Clements says.
“My problem with all of this is that it’s really a space ‘neither confirm nor deny’,” he says, referring to the US policy that led David Lange’s government to ban US warships from New Zealand waters.
“A message could come from the Pentagon or from NASA saying that ‘this is dual capable but we assure you it’s just for civilian purposes’. And in fact, it could be for highly secret military purposes and we would never know.”
Under the Technology Safeguards Agreement, the US has to provide New Zealand “with sufficient information” about US spacecraft to enable it to assess whether it meets local laws, regulations and policies.
But the New Zealand Space Agency’s own briefings identify the challenge in making such assessments. Given the dual-use nature of most payloads, decisions must be “based on assessments of the actors involved, in addition to assessments of the payload capabilities”.
“Under the current regime I don’t think we should have confidence that the US has got our interests at heart,” Clements says. “As Rocket Lab puts up payloads that are useful for surveillance or radar or communications for the military, we’re becoming a small cog in a big machine over which we have very little control.”
Although broader benefits are promised, to date New Zealand’s space regime has primarily benefited one company: Rocket Lab.
US military agencies have been part of the Rocket Lab story since the early days. The company is now largely US-owned with investors that include the world’s largest weapons manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, and at least previously included the CIA through its venture capital firm In-Q-Tel. Valued at over US$2 billion, Rocket Lab is widely considered to be the global market leader in small satellite launches for the US defence industry.
For its part, Rocket Lab has said that it will never launch weapons, a commitment which sets it apart from other space companies like SpaceX which says it would launch weapons to defend the US.
But in space the distinction between weapon and non-weapon is increasingly blurred.
“Influence activity or information operations do not cause any physical damage, but they are weapons,” Johanson says. “Any sort of sensor can be linked into a weapon system to confirm targets or guide weapons.”
There is a big PR campaign underpinning New Zealand’s fledgling space programme, Clements says.
“It’s been sold to us as an indication that we are a highly advanced technological nation, and as an employment generator and significant source of income,” he says. “But I don’t think we’ve looked at whether or not we want to be this closely aligned with US military interests.”
Parker says he’s comfortable with the degree of disclosure around US government launches, and that the Space Agency is developing a process for the proactive release of payload information.
The Space Agency’s own advice indicates this is a fragile peace.
“Even a single protestor could have a disproportionate effect on space launch activities from New Zealand”, one briefing says.
“This risk can be managed, but only to an extent.”