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America Is Losing the Second Space Race to China
The private sector can give the United States a much-needed rocket boost.
The current U.S. space defense strategy is inadequate and on a path to failure. President Donald Trump’s vision for a Space Force is big enough. As he said on June 18, “It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space.” But the Air Force is not matching this vision. Instead, the leadership is currently focused on incremental improvements to existing equipment and organizational structures. Dominating the vast and dynamic environment of space will require revolutionary capabilities and resources far deeper than traditional Department of Defense thinking can fund, manage, or even conceive of. Success depends on a much more active partnership with the commercial space industry— and its disruptive capabilities.
U.S. military space planners are preparing to repeat a conflict they imagined back in the 1980s, which never actually occurred, against a vanished Soviet empire. Meanwhile, China is executing a winning strategy in the world of today. It is burning hard toward domination of the future space markets that will define the next century. They are planning infrastructure in space that will control 21st-century telecommunications, energy, transportation, and manufacturing. In doing so, they will acquire trillion-dollar revenues as well as the deep capabilities that come from continuous operational experience in space. This will deliver space dominance and global hegemony to China’s authoritarian rulers.
Despite the fact that many in the policy and intelligence communities understand exactly what China is doing and have been trying to alert leadership, Air Force leadership has convinced the White House to fund only a slightly better satellite command with the same leadership, while sticking a new label onto their outmoded thinking. A U.S. Space Force or Corps with a satellite command will never fulfill Trump’s call to dominate space. Air Force leadership is demonstrating the same hubris that Gen. George Custer used in convincing Congress, over President Ulysses S. Grant’s better experience intuition, that he could overtake the Black Hills with repeating rifles and artillery. That strategy of technological overconfidence inflamed conflict rather than subduing it, and the 7th Cavalry were wiped out at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The West was actually won by the settlers, ranchers, miners, and railroad barons who were able to convert the wealth of the territory itself into the means of holding it. They laid the groundwork that made the 20th century the American Century and delivered freedom to millions of people in Europe and Asia. Of course, they also trampled the indigenous people of the American West in their wake—but empty space comes with no such bloody cost. The very emptiness and wealth of this new, if not quite final, frontier, however, means that competition for resources and strategic locations in cislunar space (between the Earth and moon) will be intense over the next two decades. The outcome of this competition will determine the fate of humanity in the next century.
China’s impending dominance will neutralize U.S. geopolitical power by allowing Beijing to control global information flows from the high ground of space. Imagine a school in Bolivia or a farmer in Kenya choosing between paying for a U.S. satellite internet or image provider or receiving those services for free as a “gift of the Chinese people.” It will be of little concern to global consumers that the news they receive is slanted or that searches for “free speech” link to articles about corruption in Western democracies. Nor will they care if concentration camps in Tibet and the Uighur areas of western China are obscured, or if U.S. military action is presented as tyranny and Chinese expansion is described as peacekeeping or liberation.
China’s aggressive investment in space solar power will allow it to provide cheap, clean power to the world, displacing U.S. energy firms while placing a second yoke around the developing world. Significantly, such orbital power stations have dual use potential and, if properly designed, could serve as powerful offensive weapons platforms.
China’s first step in this process is to conquer the growing small space launch market. Beijing is providing nominally commercial firms with government-manufactured, mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles they can use to dump launch services on the market below cost. These start-ups are already undercutting U.S. pricing by 80 percent. Based on its previous success in using dumping to take out U.S. developed industries such as solar power modules and drones, China will quickly move upstream to attack the leading U.S. launch providers and secure a global commercial monopoly. Owning the launch market will give them an unsurmountable advantage against U.S. competitors in satellite internet, imaging, and power.
The United States can still build a strategy to win. At this moment, it holds the competitive advantage in every critical space technology and has the finest set of commercial space firms in the world. It has pockets of innovative military thinkers within groups like the Defense Innovation Unit, under Mike Griffin, the Pentagon’s top research and development official. If the United States simply protects the intellectual property its creative minds unleash and defend its truly free markets from strategic mercantilist attack, it will not lose this new space race. The United States has done this before. It beat Germany to the nuclear bomb, it beat the Soviet Union to the nuclear triad, and it won the first space race.
None of those victories was achieved by embracing the existing bureaucracy. Each of them depended on the president of the day following the only proven path to victory in a technological domain: establish a small team with a positively disruptive mindset and empower that team to investigate a wide range of new concepts, work with emerging technologies, and test innovative strategies. Today that means giving a dedicated Space Force the freedom to easily partner with commercial firms and leverage the private capital in building sustainable infrastructure that actually reduces the likelihood of conflict while securing a better economic future for the nation and the world.
Greg Autry is the director of the Southern California Commercial Spaceflight Initiative at the University of Southern California. He served on the Trump transition team at NASA and is the co-author of Death by China (with Peter Navarro).