How the US can lead in the ‘Space Century’
There is debate as to whether the current century will be another American Century or a Pacific Century. As the tragic events in Ukraine focus our attention on the urgent security crisis in Europe, many caution not to lose sight of the reality that America’s future economic prosperity and security will largely be determined by our engagement in Asia. However true, this view is incomplete. A strong case can be made that we are in a Space Century.
During a panel discussion at the recent Space Symposium, military branch rivalry was evident in the banter among leaders of research labs. Dr. Bruce Danly of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory reminded the audience that 70 percent of the earth is covered by oceans, implying greater importance of the Navy and Marines over the Army; Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle of the Air Force Research Laboratory countered that 100 percent of the world was covered by air. This escalated to panelists observing that space’s coverage is to “infinity and beyond.”
In making the case for the next generation air dominance fighter, Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mark Kelly observed that “the joint force requires the Air Force to win the air superiority fight.” One only needs to watch how Ukraine’s ability to prevent Russia from gaining air superiority has contributed to their ability to stymie Russia’s assault. Yet in many ways, the ability to gain air superiority depends on space assets. Just as gaining control of the air is vital to the effectiveness of terrestrial forces, so too is controlling space — both by retaining the effectiveness of our own space capabilities while degrading or denying them to opposing forces. Doing so is critical to the operational capabilities of both air and terrestrial forces.
Further highlighting the centrality of space dominance, during a panel of the component commands of Space Command at the Space Symposium, Rear Adm. Will Pennington highlighted the Navy’s priority to counter intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance targeting by rival powers. With the Ukraine conflict revealing the ability of satellites to see anything, anywhere, at any time, and China’s advance in space and with missile technology, including so called carrier-killer missiles, it is little wonder why gaining space superiority is so vital.
Both Air Force Secretray Frank Kendall and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond spoke at the Symposium to the centrality of space capabilities. The recent report on Challenges to Security in Space by the Defense Intelligence Agency highlights just how much space is contested.
As America positions itself for leadership in the Space Century, it is important to realize that even as Asia rises in importance, our traditional European partners remain highly relevant to retaining an edge in space. Civil exploration of space, as America and China race to the moon and beyond, will be increasingly important in the broader race for tech supremacy and in determining who captures leadership in the burgeoning space economy. The European Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Canadian Space Agency, and others have been essential partners to the combined success with the International Space Station and other exploration efforts. Importantly, a growing list of nations is joining NASA’s Artemis Accords committing to responsible activities in space.
Global alliances will be equally as important in the security realm. Space Force is embracing international partnerships to fill strategic gaps and increase resiliency. As with the Artemis Accords, the Defense Department committed to tenets of responsible behavior in space, and Space Force recently joined with key allies on Combined Space Operations Vision 2031, which commits to guidelines for responsible conduct.
Civil and security leaders also recognize the importance of commercial partners to success in the Space Century. NASA’s embrace of public-private partnership is reflected in its contracting with companies to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, deliver science to the lunar surface and develop new space stations. Similarly, Space Force is exploring how to best leverage the capabilities of commercial partners.
Both NASA and Space Force are embracing academic partnerships to foster the talent and discovery essential to sustaining leadership in space.
We are in the Space Century. For America to continue to lead, it must prioritize funding support for NASA and Space Force as they continue to nurture international, commercial and academic partnerships. For the words of John F. Kennedy ring true today — “Now is the time… for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth.”
NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct a typo in the name of Dr. Bruce Danly and to use the official title of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
Mark R. Kennedy is a global fellow at the Wilson Center for International Scholars, a U.S. Air and Space Forces Civic Leader, president emeritus of the University of Colorado, and former U.S. Representative (2001-07) from Minnesota.
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