One of the most important aspects of the strategic competition between the United States and China manifests in the next space race. The U.S. Artemis Accords, led by NASA, brings together a dozen like-minded nations to collaborate in pursuit of lunar exploration and commercial space endeavors. In signing the Artemis Accords and participating in the Artemis Program, each partner nation affirms to operate in a manner that is collaborative, responsible and peaceful in the pursuit of mutual prosperity. The future of space is through multinational cooperation.
China understands this fact. In partnering with Russia to jointly build the International Lunar Research Station near the lunar south pole, China hopes to attract its own set of international partners. This authoritarian alliance seeks to establish an alternative to a U.S.-led internationally abided order, not only on Earth but also in space. These ambitions extend out toward the moon and around it, a region referred to as cislunar space, and beyond.
Although strategic competition in space need not result in war, the United States nevertheless should anticipate aggression below the threshold for conventional armed conflict. Both China and Russia actively employ gray-zone tactics to achieve their national objectives on Earth. It cannot be ruled out that they would not engage in similar acts of aggression to secure strategic resources or territory in cislunar space. These actions could deny the United States and its allies access to the moon and its valuable material and energy resources. Such a scenario would jeopardize the U.S.-led efforts to create a trillion-dollar space economy by 2040.
U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM) was established in August 2019 to employ space forces to deter conflict and defeat aggression in space. In December that same year, the U.S. Space Force (USSF) was established to organize, train and equip space forces on behalf of USSPACECOM and other combatant commands. Since their creation, USSPACECOM and the USSF have cultivated partnerships with the militaries of other nations to collaborate in space. However, these strategic partnerships are generally terrestrially focused. Now, the U.S. military must look beyond Earth’s orbit by developing cislunar space forces and working with Artemis partners and other like-minded nations to form a cislunar coalition to defend scientific and commercial activities on and around the moon.
The United States must pursue government-to-government multilateral agreements with foreign allies to establish strategic cislunar space partnerships in the interest of securing future cislunar space commerce. As demonstrated by existing international partnerships for military satellite communications, these agreements would increase nation-to-nation cooperation, improve systems integration, foster rapid innovation, mutually strengthen industrial bases, and distribute costs among partner nations. Cislunar space is vast, and motion through cislunar space is complex. This makes cislunar space a much more challenging operating environment than the orbital regions closer to Earth. Success in cislunar space will depend upon the co-development of new capabilities, to include space nuclear power and propulsion technologies, technology miniaturization, artificial intelligence and machine-learning techniques, and enhanced cybersecurity.
Other important areas of collaboration include agreements for super heavy-lift and rideshare services, hosted payloads, and streamlined data-sharing and analysis. Achieving these advancements depends critically on resolute U.S. leadership in space.
The United States must establish policies directing the USSF to create a cislunar space mission delta under Space Operations Command (SpOC) that would organize, train and equip U.S. cislunar space forces. These space forces would follow experimental cislunar missions currently in development by Air Force Research Labs and would operate in conjunction with coalition forces to secure and support civil and commercial efforts on the moon. It also will be beneficial for the USSF to develop advanced training and exercise programs geared toward instructing service members from coalition nations. This would build an international team of leaders and tactical cislunar space experts and would foster deeper relationships between the militaries of each global partner.
The United States also must establish policies directing USSPACECOM to establish cislunar cells within its subordinate units. This would allow the Combined Force Space Component Command to coordinate peacetime and warfighting cislunar missions with coalition partners and the Combined Space Operations Center to execute command and control of cislunar space forces to achieve objectives in the cislunar theater. These new tactical units and operations centers would provide opportunities for USSPACECOM and the USSF to incorporate cislunar coalition exchange officers and technical experts into day-to-day operations. The cislunar coalition would then need to develop tactics, techniques and procedures and wargame them against gray-zone tactics or other forms of aggression to assure cislunar security in future uncertain times.
With these recommendations in place, the United States and its cislunar coalition partners will be prepared to address the many strategic challenges potentially posed by China’s and Russia’s space ambitions. To do so, U.S. policymakers and decision-makers must consider moving beyond the orbital comforts of the littoral near-Earth shores.
Capt. Tyler D. Bates, U.S. Space Force, is a planner at Space Operations Command, a field command of the Space Force. The views expressed 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.