A Schriever Air Force base graphic from 2011 'depicting satellites and their orbits [which] demonstrates how the space around Earth is contested and congested'

Revealed: New Zealand’s role in the new American war-fighting frontier – space

The NZ Defence Force has become an active participant in US military-space war games, together with other Five Eyes partners. As the extent of involvement continues to grow, questions arise around the trade-offs, and the absence of any public debate. Ollie Neas reports.


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Every year US military officials gather at an Air Force base in Alabama to fight a war in the future.

The event, known as the Schriever Wargame, centres on a hypothetical scenario set in a decade’s time in what US military planners now consider a “war-fighting domain”: space.

Space war does not mean astronauts with lasers or X-wings in orbit. Space-based infrastructure has become vital to a vast range of military activities on the ground, from targeting missiles to communicating with troops to intelligence and surveillance. Dominance in space means military dominance on Earth. Which also means that military infrastructure in space increasingly becomes a target in conflict.

The details of each war game scenario at Schriever are highly classified but each follows a similar premise. The space systems of the US or an ally come under attack from a “near peer adversary” in Europe or Asia (read: Russia or China). Matters escalate and soon the US is braced for full scale confrontation. The point of the exercise is to figure out what happens next.

Increasingly central to those plans are a group of US allies who now regularly wargame with the US at Schriever. They include New Zealand.

While the New Zealand Defence Force had little involvement in the space domain a decade ago, it is now an active participant in US military-space initiatives. The extent of this involvement has not been previously reported.

At the heart of these efforts is an initiative called the Combined Space Operations, which aims to integrate coalition space forces into US military operations, including through a Combined Space Operations Centre.

New Zealand is yet to station personnel at this centre, but the NZDF says that it intends to do so and is training personnel in space capabilities to develop a space cadre of its own.

Last month New Zealand passed a new milestone in integration with US military space activities, with representatives attending the weekly operational forum of the US Combined Forces Space Command, where coalition space strategy is synchronised.

The government says that involvement in military space activity is primarily about protecting its interests in the Pacific and ensuring New Zealand’s continued access to space based infrastructure, which is crucial for a wide range of both military and civilian activities.

But The Spinoff’s investigation – which has included reviewing dozens of documents obtained under the Official Information Act – shows that this is only part of the story.

Official briefings show that the NZDF’s involvement in space is also about ensuring interoperability with the US military and its allies. The government also sees the launch of US military and security payloads as “a tangible contribution” to the Five Eyes intelligence network.

From Afghanistan to orbit 

New Zealand’s involvement in US military plans for space was formalised in October 2015 at a meeting in Wellington of senior officials from the so-called Five Eyes – the name given to the intelligence sharing arrangement between the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The purpose of the meeting was for New Zealand to join the Combined Space Operations, or CSpO, an initiative which – according to a 2013 briefing to the defence minister – sought to “improve defence space coordination of efforts and to enhance individual and collective space capabilities, thereby expanding overall military effectiveness across all domains”.

The text of the memorandum of understanding signed that day remains secret, with the ombudsman upholding the Ministry of Defence’s decision not to release it to The Spinoff.

The defence minister Gerry Brownlee (right) meets with representatives of the Annual Combined Space Operations (CSpO) meeting in Wellington in October 2015 at the Beehive in Wellington. Photo: Stratcom

Dr Brian Weeden, a military-space expert from the Secure World Foundation think-tank and a former officer in the US Air Force and US Strategic Command, said the origin of the initiative can be found in Afghanistan.

“This all came out of Afghanistan, where you had a coalition of countries working together in a military operation that was increasingly involving space,” Weeden said.

“There was a realisation that all future US and allied military operations were going to involve space, so there was a need to do a better job bringing in the allies.”

But with space activity one of the most secretive parts of US military operations, it took a major shift in US national security space policy in 2010 to make meaningful sharing of space capabilities possible. That year at the Schriever Wargame the US, Britain, Australia and Canada for the first time war-gamed a Combined Space Operations Centre, described by a US Air Force Commander as “a means to direct the full range of coalition space capabilities at the operational level of war”.

New Zealand’s involvement was far from inevitable, despite its membership in Five Eyes. The NZDF had little expertise in space matters, even though around 90% of its capabilities rely on space-based infrastructure according to NZDF estimates. Until 2012, it relied on commercial communications satellites, which it bought access to at spot prices.

Tensions also lingered in New Zealand’s military relationship with the US after its exit from the ANZUS treaty in the 1980s over the nuclear ships issue.

But with the so-called Wellington and Washington Declarations of 2010 and 2012 the NZ-US military relationship began to thaw, resulting in deepening cooperation and increased intelligence sharing – including through the supply of satellite imagery to the NZDF from a US intelligence agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, as Nicky Hager reported in his 2011 book Other People’s Wars.

In that context, New Zealand was invited to join CSpO, with defence representatives participating informally from 2012 and helping to draft the memorandum that New Zealand would eventually sign in 2015, briefings show.

“The [Combined Space Operations] Memorandum is just one part of wider collaboration amongst the five nations. New Zealand is in most cases a net beneficiary of these arrangements,” a June 2015 briefing to the defence minister stated.

“For New Zealand, it is as much a symbol of our ongoing commitment to strengthening the Five Eyes relationship, given we have modest resources to allocate to this area, albeit one where we can start to build knowledge, understanding and skills over time.”

But the advice sounded a word of warning about public perception, advising that involvement might “erroneously” be seen as “an extension of the Five Eyes intelligence gathering network”.

Coalition space activity deepens 

Three years later, in July 2018, the Combined Space Operations Center, or CSpOC, was launched, replacing the prior Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Its purpose – according to a recent statement from US Space Command – is to execute “the operational command and control of space forces to achieve theater and global objectives”.

The centre “operates 24-hours a day, seven days a week, continuously coordinating, planning, integrating, synchronizing and executing space operations; providing tailored space effects on demand to support combatant commanders; and accomplishing national security objectives”.

The Joint Space Operations Center in California. Photo: Stratcom

Central to CSpOC is coalition integration, with allies stationing exchange officers at the centre, coordinating activity with space operations centres in their home nations. Those centres send information obtained from coalition partners’ own space sensors and receive information from CSpOC to support their own military’s operations.

This arrangement is less fully integrated than the form of cooperation first dreamed up at Schriever in 2010, but the fundamental purpose remains the same.

“Its primary function is to integrate space into theatre of operations,” Weeden said.

“So [for example] I’m in Afghanistan and I need to call somebody about satellite imagery to support a mission I’m planning or to see if I can get an optimisation of the GPS constellation permission I’m planning. I pick up the phone and call the CSpOC. And because that is an Allied operation, I’ve got to have allies in the CSpOC.”

The centre is also involved in maintaining a catalogue of objects in orbit to help avoid collisions among other things.

The extent of allied integration is increasing. France, Germany and Japan are also now collaborating with CSpOC, and the Five Eyes are establishing a command and control Combined Technical Operations Cell, which will expand “classified operations and planning efforts” for “Special Access” programmes. The coalition is also considering designating a single multinational space commander to direct coalition operations in the event of threats against their space assets.

As a senior US Air Force Space Command official told the Senate Armed Services Committee, CSpOC’s establishment formalises the “ongoing, decade-long effort to integrate Allied and partner nation personnel and capabilities into our space enterprise”.

But unlike the other Five Eyes countries, New Zealand is yet to station any personnel at CSpOC and lacks a space operations centre of its own. At least for now. The NZDF has confirmed to The Spinoff that it intends to contribute staff to support its partners’ capabilities, although this may take some time given its relatively small size.

“Space is a new capability and in the medium term personnel to support it must be found from within existing resources whilst maintaining all other aspects of NZDF endeavour,” an NZDF spokesperson said.

“Utilising partner nations’ training systems will be the most effective means by which the NZDF can develop a space cadre. It will take a number of years to appropriately train and qualify space operators before the NZDF could usefully place them inside other nation’s space system.”

In a letter to the head of US Strategic Command, the NZDF signalled interest in continuing to explore a “federated system” of coalition space operations in which “all nations have the flexibility to play coordinated and mutually supporting roles within their own national guidelines”.

In the meantime, New Zealand’s involvement in US military space initiatives is steadily increasing. The NZDF has participated regularly in the Schriever Wargame and associated table top exercises since 2015, and in 2019 chaired the CSpO Policy and Legal Working Group. Last year the US also opened its “operational level” space training courses to New Zealand personnel for the first time.

Last month New Zealand passed a new milestone in US space integration, with US Space Command announcing that New Zealand space operations representatives had attended “the weekly Products Brief” of the Combined Force Space Component Command – the part of US Space Command in which CSpOC sits.

The announcement described this brief as “the operational forum where Coalition space strategy is synchronized, and CFSCC’s Master Space Plan and Combined Space Tasking Order are communicated and approved.”

A ‘mini-me’ to US Special Operations 

Dr Paul Buchanan, an independent security expert and former US defence and intelligence policy analyst, said New Zealand’s involvement in US military space initiatives is aimed in part at improving the ability of the NZDF to operate alongside US forces.

“NZDF’s partner countries are all headed into space. We have to understand that it’s inevitable that the NZDF, which is so wrapped up in US led military security alliances – if not by name, certainly by fact – joins its partners in trying to do the same,” he said.

“The NZDF wants to be completely interoperable with the US. We’re not encumbered by – how could I put it nicely – the political oversight of the military in the way that the other Anglophone nations are. The military pretty much decides where it’s going to go over the next 10 to 20 years. It’s clearly decided that it wants to be a mini-me to the US Special Operations Command, at least in terms of the SAS, and the Americans are happy to accommodate them.”

The defence minister, Ron Mark, acknowledged that interoperability is a focus for the NZDF, but said that the NZDF’s involvement in US military space initiatives is primarily about improving its understanding of the space domain.

“Interoperability is not just about the platforms themselves. It’s about the understanding of how things are utilised and what the rules are around information gathering and information sharing,” he told The Spinoff.

“Right now – in the areas that I can talk about – it’s about a better understanding of protocols. It’s recognising where we have to collaborate and work together and create and enhance interoperability.

“Of course in those areas where we have to deploy a combat element, my job is to make sure that those women and men who deploy into those situations – be it another East Timor, be it Iraq or Afghanistan in a combat role – have the best technology and information available to them so that they can make decisions that actually enable them to survive whatever comes at them.”

Ron Mark (Photo: RNZ)

But the main benefit of improved space understanding, said Mark, is how it can contribute to the NZDF’s work in the South Pacific.

“When you look at the size and scale of our responsibility, it becomes very apparent that with our limited resources we have to start looking more innovatively at how we can provide situational awareness to the government, to the 21 agencies we support,” he said.

In that vein, the NZDF last year announced plans to invest in its own maritime surveillance satellites to help monitor NZ’s area of responsibility in the South Pacific, which makes up 11% of the world’s surface.

But while the government may see benefits to its mission in the Pacific, another question is what New Zealand is expected to contribute in return.

The defence minister said the expectation from the US was minimal.

“Right now I don’t see anything. I think most people are asking the question, ‘how can we help you?’ because they realise we’re so far behind in some ways.”

Ground stations for the Five Eyes

Regardless of the current expectations of New Zealand from the US space coalition, the NZDF is developing its space capabilities for integration with coalition partners.

In 2015 the NZDF’s research and development wing the Defence Technology Agency began developing an experimental ground station as part of a “command and control network” with other countries in partnership with the US Naval Postgraduate School, according to documents provided by the NZDF. The station, located on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula north of Auckland, was tested in 2016 with two cube satellites launched as part of a mission sponsored by the US National Reconnaissance Office.

The defence minister said that the ground station is only connected to partners that have a formal research and development arrangement with the NZDF, and specific mission plans must be formally agreed to by the NZDF and must comply with New Zealand law.

“At this stage we are still shaping our thoughts on the nature of our future satellite infrastructure so it is difficult to say how it may or may not be integrated into partner or commercial systems,” he said.

Although the ground station is experimental, hosting ground stations to plug into partners’ satellite networks appears to be a broader plank of the NZDF’s space strategy. An NZDF presentation to a summit of Air Force leaders from 12 US allies in April last year identified “secure ground segments for FVEY [Five Eyes] and like-minded nations” as one of NZ’s “national space interests”.

New Zealand also has ground stations in Auckland and Ohakea to support the NZDF’s use of the Wideband Global Satellite system – a US military communications network to which New Zealand purchased access in 2012.

The NZDF is also researching capabilities in space situational awareness – the term used to refer to detecting and tracking objects in space – with a small ground-based capability for alerting “when a requested space object deviates from predicted orbit, or changes configuration or orientation”, according to an April 2018 briefing to the defence minister.

“Our South Pacific measurements add a unique viewing angle and thus information value when integrated with those of our partners,” the briefing said.

Space situational awareness is the backbone for military space operations, helping to detect missiles and identify other hostile actions in space, and is essential for civilian and commercial space users by helping to avoid satellite collisions in orbit.

On this basis the NZDF signed a space situational awareness information sharing agreement with US Strategic Command in 2018, enabling it to share more information with the New Zealand Space Agency, which regulates the domestic space regime.

The NZ Space Agency is also partnering with US company LeoLabs to develop a platform for monitoring objects launched from New Zealand using a newly built space radar in Central Otago. Data obtained from this radar will also be sold by LeoLabs to its other customers, which include the US Air Force as well as regulators and insurers.

The Mahia connection: Rocket Lab

A more significant contribution to the coalition could come from New Zealand’s new domestic launch regime, which centres on the celebrated start-up, Rocket Lab. Though often characterised as a New Zealand company, Rocket Lab is a US domiciled military contractor whose investors include Lockheed Martin and the CIA’s venture capital firm.

Since Rocket Lab began commercial launches from Gisborne’s Mahia Peninsula in 2018, five launches have carried payloads for US military agencies – for US Space Command, US Special Operations Command, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the US Air Force. So far, all have been non-operational payloads for research purposes, according to the NZ Space Agency.

Four out of five of Rocket Lab’s launches from the Mahia Peninsula involve military payloads. (Photo: Rocket Lab.)

By the time of Rocket Lab’s first test launch in May 2017 a strong partnership had developed between the company and the NZDF, with the Air Force conducting flights to collect atmospheric data and conduct sweeps of a restricted area ahead of that launch.

“The [Air Force] has a close working relationship with Rocket Lab and we have a few staff revolving through their projects, particularly in the avionics area,” the Chief of the Air Force, Air Vice-Marshal Tony Davies, told Line of Defence magazine in 2018. “We offer Rocket Lab access to our facilities and I see some really exciting possibilities here.”

The flow of personnel referred to included three Air Force engineers seconded to Rocket Lab for “on-the-job training” in 2017 and 2018, and 12 avionics technicians and one aircraft technician who worked short stints at Rocket Lab while on leave from the NZDF, according to information provided by the NZDF.

The NZDF and Rocket Lab also explored a collaborative project to develop small satellite capabilities but this did not proceed “because of commercial, technical and operational considerations”, the NZDF said.

But beyond this mutual support, the NZDF appears to consider the launch of payloads for its coalition partners to be part of its contribution to the coalition.

An NZDF presentation prepared ahead of the 2017 Schriever Wargame states that New Zealand will launch “coalition payloads” from New Zealand if consistent with its laws. Similarly, an NZDF presentation to the 12-nation Air Force leaders summit in April last year stated that the NZDF seeks to “establish detailed relationships with USG agencies proposing to launch from NZ”. An April 2018 briefing to the defence minister noted that New Zealand’s “international partners look to us, the NZDF, to guide how they can responsively launch small satellites from NZ.”

The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that it has been involved in two visits to New Zealand by US officials in relation to space matters since 2015, but has withheld all details of the visits on international relations grounds.

As The Spinoff has previously reported, the National government took care not to rule out military launches when developing the domestic space regime and welcomed launches of US defence payloads as deepening security ties with the US. But another document obtained since describes launches as a “tangible contribution” to the Five Eyes intelligence network.

The heavily redacted briefing from April 2018 – provided to the foreign affairs minister, Winston Peters, ahead of a meeting with the prime minister’s chief of staff, the minister of defence and the minister responsible for the GCSB and NZSIS – describes launches of US defence and security payloads as forming “another aspect to our already close security and defence relationship with the US”.

It continued: “New Zealand government endorsement of these payloads represents a tangible contribution to the broader Five-Eyes intelligence network, a network from which we are primarily a recipient.”

Buchanan said he expects there to be some connection between the launch of US military payloads from New Zealand and involvement in the US military space coalition.

“[The government] may not want to recognise explicitly that there’s a quid pro quo, but certainly our facilitating of these launches is bound, if nothing else, to generate some goodwill between the participants.”

“With the Five Eyes, we do a lot for the other partners. We have our listening posts here. We send to them pretty much 95% of what we capture, but they in turn provide us with some very privileged information about ourselves among other things.”

“With the satellites it’s the same deal. The satellites are going to be used for an infinite array of things by the Americans [that] they’re not going to share. But they will share with us some very sensitive technologies, particularly if we have people in the field who are working with the Americans.”

“It seems to me that most of those technologies are for and by the Americans, but given the closeness that we have on certain levels between our military and theirs, we’re going to get to be privy or at least get access to the information that is coming off of these new technologies.”

An NZDF spokesperson said that it “does not have a role in sponsoring or supporting any international partner to launch from New Zealand”. Defence Minister Mark said he is kept appraised in a general sense of US activities and defence officials are part of a cross-agency group that considers sign-off on the launch of US payloads, but “as a technical regulatory process, this is ultimately a decision for Minister Twyford [the Economic Development Minister] and his team”.

The government last month announced new guidelines for assessing when a payload is in the national interest, which rule out payloads “with the intended end use of supporting or enabling specific defence, security or intelligence operations that are contrary to government policy”.

But while these guidelines clarify the boundaries for launches approved through the commercial space regime, they go far from ruling out military launches. They may also be irrelevant in the case of the launch of operational military assets, as both the NZDF and friendly foreign militaries are exempt from NZ’s launch approval regime, allowing Space Agency approval to be bypassed in some cases.

Jacinda Ardern greets Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck during the opening of the new Rocket Lab factory last month in Auckland. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

“The Defence Act allows a foreign force to undertake operational activities in New Zealand, where permission has been granted and activities comply with domestic law and our international obligations,” a March 2017 briefing to the Economic Development Minister noted.

“Therefore, a foreign military in New Zealand to launch an Earth observation satellite and use the imagery to contribute to joint counter-proliferation efforts could be exempt, provided permission has been granted.”

Need for a public discussion 

Involvement in CSpO is just one part of New Zealand’s contribution to the broader Five Eyes arrangement. And the true extent of this is likely to be greater than what is publicly known.

Documents reviewed by The Spinoff as part of this investigation suggest that another meeting was held among the Five Eyes partners the same week that New Zealand joined CSpO in 2015 – however all details of the meeting have been redacted.

But publicly available travel expense records of the attending Canadian representative make clear that in the same week he participated in the Wellington CSpO meeting he also attended a meeting for the Defence Cyber Contact Group – a Five Eyes group focused on cyber operations. A 2017 statement by the British minister for defence procurement confirms NZ’s involvement in the group. Yet this has not been reported in the New Zealand media and The Ministry of Defence has refused The Spinoff’s requests to provide any information about the group on security grounds.

Buchanan says a lack of public debate is the main problem with NZ’s integration into US military space activities.

“Once again, on a matter of national security of some importance, the public is basically left in the dark,” he said.

“In fact, the politicians by and large are left in the dark. We’re having no debate about this in parliament. We’re allied for all intents and purposes with our Five Eyes partners across a range of intelligence gathering and war related things. Where do we want to go with this?

“Do we use our participation in space activity as a substitute for participation in ground deployments by our troops? Is that a trade off that we could actually negotiate? Or are we now involved in space but we’re still going to be doing the bidding of the United States and the Australians when it comes to foreign conflicts?”




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