A call to action for strategic space competition with China

A call to action for strategic space competition with China
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To compete with China’s space power, the United States needs ambitious visions, not business as usual. China aims to be a dominant space power by 2045, raising concerns that it seeks to establish itself as a space hegemon. The meteoric rise of China’s space program and its lofty ambitions could result in China outpacing the United States in space. China understands that a vibrant space industry is critical infrastructure for economic development, would achieve potent soft-power effects, and provide vital capabilities to Chinese national security and economic development

China sent its first astronaut into orbit in 2003, yet in 2018 conducted more space-oriented operations than any other nation. Last December, China landed on the moon, planted its flag, collected moon rock samples, returned to Earth, and plans to install a permanent lunar space station by 2031. Months after China reached Mars’ orbit, its Zhurong rover landed on the red planet surface in May. China has begun talks with Russia to secure partnership for a lunar base project. Between 2036-2045, China plans to have a long-term human presence at the Lunar South Pole. These are amazing accomplishments and an ambitious vision for a nation that launched its first satellite only recently, in 1970.

China’s space diplomacy and science efforts are biased toward exploring and exploiting natural resources in near-Earth objects and on the moon. China’s behavior in space may mirror its patterns of resource nationalism on Earth — that is to say, spending incredible political and economic capital to secure exclusive access to strategic resources. As Earth-based resources become scarce and technology makes space-mining feasible, space will become a frontier for strategic competition, especially resource nationalism. Mining even a single asteroid could disrupt global iron, nickel, platinum group metals (PGM) and precious metal-based economies, markets and industry supply chains, especially if controlled by a single state and used for in situ manufacturing and re-supply. Establishing a presence in cislunar space, as China clearly intends, provides capabilities and capacity for space mining, positioning, navigation and timing (PNT), and first-mover locational advantages for space settlement. 

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This emerging competition differs from the Cold War-era race for symbolic space milestones that sought to prove the superiority of the U.S. market-based economic system for the benefit of unaligned nations. Today’s space race is about the actual economics of space-derived capabilities, access to space resources, and the technologies for acquiring and controlling them. The United States is at a crossroads: It can either prepare itself for this new paradigm, or be relegated to second-class status and look back on what could have been. Efficient and advantageous strategic investment now is better than doubling down later with a patchwork of expensive, rushed space programs. 

In a recent report, Bruce Cahan and Mir Sadat advocate for a National Space Vision that utilizes a “whole-of-nation” effort characterized by unity-of-effort and synchronization across the U.S. government aimed at competition with China. The vision’s foundation is organizational reform and critical financial commitment. The United States must retain a national-level interagency guidance for all space matters; renew confidence in the U.S. space supply chain by stepping up counterintelligence and counterespionage efforts; subsidize, diversify and promote STEM education; apply diplomacy to level the playing field and create legal certainty for competitive practices in space; declare a critical infrastructure; and establish a space commodities exchange to create the fundamental financial tools necessary to facilitate industry growth and meet strategic objectives. Cahan and Sadat’s urging for a 2060 Northstar is the tip of the iceberg of required U.S. policy analysis, much of which is submerged in government business practices built for a bygone industrial age that cannot serve with efficacy and efficiency in the current digital age. 

In this era, a new generation of U.S. Space Force thinkers has arisen to ponder the nascent service’s role. They assert that future space commerce and exploration efforts are futile without the military capabilities and political will to protect their critical elements. They understand the service’s role in the military, technological and economic competition with China and Russia. In the inaugural issue of the Space Force Journal, three out of nine featured articles pondered this expanding role, calling for the U.S. military to secure national interests beyond geostationary orbit, to win the orbital grey zone now, and expand the military’s role in space commerce and exploration. There are calls to realize the urgency of long-term commitments that are necessary to assure strategic leadership in space. 

However, these thinkers need guidance and encouragement from national leaders. While Vice President Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisKamala Harris and our shameless politics Pelosi: House Democrats 'ready to work with' Biden on eviction ban Meghan McCain predicts DeSantis would put Harris 'in the ground' in 2024 matchup MORE, chair of the National Space Council, may promote the United States’s commercial space sector and renew emphasis on space exploration, she and President BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries FDA aims to give full approval to Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day: report Overnight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response MORE need serious policies directing the defense of vital space lines of communication and operations to protect U.S. interests, not only in near Earth orbit but also beyond. The next war may take place in space. As such, the administration must prepare to win that conflict, while defeating any military aggression below the threshold of conflict. This will necessitate a whole-of-government approach.

Space plays a critical role in many of the administration’s top priorities — health, climate, diversity, economic recovery, infrastructure development — showing that the new space race is a high-stakes strategic competition. The Biden administration must muster the political will to prevent Chinese domination of the space domain not just in near Earth orbit but also in geosynchronous orbit and beyond. 

Capt. Chris Fabian, U.S. Space Force, is a crew commander in the 3rd Space Operations Squadron supporting the Delta 9 mission. The views presented here are his alone and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of the U.S. Space Force or any U.S. government department or agency.