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5 mins read 31 May 2021

Defence announces new Space Division

Defence will establish a new Space Division within the Royal Australian Air Force in early 2022 with Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts selected as the inaugural Head of Defence Space Division.

Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts, AM, CSC, Head of Air Force Capability will take up the position of Head of Defence Space division in early 2022. Credit: CPL Veronica O’Hara, RAAF.

Defence announced on 19 May 2021 that a new Space Division will be established within the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in early 2022.  Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts, AM, CSC, will lead the division as Head of Defence Space, moving from her current position as Head of Air Force Capability.

Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld announced the new division and said assured access to space was critical to enabling Defence’s multi-domain operations.

“We use space daily for understanding the weather, navigating, access to geospatial information and sharing information across Australia or across the world,” Air Marshal Hupfeld said.

“Defence is delivering capabilities including space domain awareness, sovereign controlled satellite communications and Space-based Earth observation, and navigation. 

“I congratulate Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts selected as the inaugural Head of Defence Space Division – there is no person better suited for the job,” Air Marshal Hupfeld said.

“The Government has committed to significantly increasing investment in Defence’s space capabilities by investing around $7 billion this decade to ensure our access to space, space services and geospatial information.

“Defence will need capabilities that directly contribute to outcomes in space as a contested domain, however this does not mean that Defence encourages the militarisation of space.”

When Air Marshal Hupfeld initially announced the intention to establish the division during the RAAF’s 100th anniversary celebration back in March, he told the ABC, "I think we're probably about three or four years behind where I would rather be at the moment, but we're catching up quickly." 

Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts

Head of Air Force Capability Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts AM, CSC with a model of the M2 CubeSat at the University of New South Wales Canberra. Credit: SGT Oliver Carter, Defence.

As a self-professed science fiction buff, Air Vice-Marshal Roberts said the position of Head of Defence Space division was a dream come true.

“To reach for the stars and actually get there is a phenomenal feeling,” said Air Vice-Marshal Roberts. “As an aero-space engineer, I have always been fascinated by space – the ultimate high-ground. 

"As we depend on space infrastructure for resource management, secure communications and data collection during extreme weather events and bushfires, building our sovereign space capabilities are critical for Australia’s security."

Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts has had a long and outstanding career within the RAAF, joining in 1983 as a specialist in aerospace engineering at the Aircraft Research and Development Unit. She holds a Master’s Degree in Management of Defence Studies from the University of Canberra and a Bachelor of Aerospace Engineering from RMIT. Currently the Head of Air Force Capability, Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts is responsible for imagining, shaping, and designing the current and future needs of air and space power across the Australian Defence Force (ADF). 

Air Vic-Marshal Cath Roberts received a Member of the Order of Australia for her exceptional service in the fields of aerospace acquisition and sustainment, and she received a Conspicuous Service Cross (CSC) for her work in the ADF airworthiness oversight for the introduction of major aviation capabilities, establishing ADF operational airworthiness regulations and developing new airworthiness frameworks for charter and unmanned aircraft.

She has held more than 20 roles throughout her Air Force career including Logistics Command (F/A-18/Macchi/Winjeel Engineering), No 77SQN (Flight Line Maintenance), No 481SQN (Senior Engineering Officer), and Lead-In Fighter Project (UK Resident Team).

Speaking about Role Models and Leadership at the Women in Leadership Digital Summit, Air Vice-Marshal Roberts said “As a three-year-old I watched on in awe as Lieutenant Armstrong descended the ladder of the lunar lander and uttered the first words ever spoken on the moon. It was an incredible moment for humanity and millions of aspiring engineers. 

"When I was older and had time to reflect, I realised that actually, my most important role model was probably my mother. She expressly encouraged me to push boundaries which I did by becoming one of the first female aerospace engineers in Australia.”

The Space domain

An artists impression of the two CubeSats flying in formation. The M2 CubeSat mission is a collaboration between Air Force, UNSW Canberra SpaceCredit - UNSW Canberra and private industry.

The Department of Defence Annual Report 2019-2020 acknowledged the increasing use of space as an important environment ‘both an essential enabler of military operations and a warfighting domain in its own right.’ The RAAF has been designated as the Domain Lead and coordinator of Defences’ space activities. 

The report states that the $7 billion spend over the next ten years, referred to by Air Marshal Hupfeld, will be across all aspects of space capabilities including “assured position, navigation and timing information in a contested environment; upgrades and support to existing and future satellite communications systems, including communications satellites and ground control stations that will be under sovereign Australian control; space Domain Awareness capabilities that will enable better tracking and identification of space objects and threats; and capabilities to assure Australian access to critical space missions.”

UK Space Command

The formation of the Australian Space Division follows closely behind the UK who officially formed the UK Space Command from last month (1 April 2021). It is staffed by personnel across the Royal Navy, British Army, Royal Air Force, the Civil Service as well as members from the commercial sector and is placed within the Royal Air Force existing RAF structure. This is the same model that will be used by the Australian Space Division. 

When fully operationally capable, UK Space Command will provide command and control of all of UK Defence’s space capabilities, including UK Space Operations Centre (SpOC), SKYNET Satellite Communications, RAF Fylingdales, and other enabling capabilities.