The New Space Race: Trump versus China and Russia

Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. national space policy has seen a renaissance and an elevation in importance.  Voices who once doubted the continued existence of the Space Launch System (SLS), NASA's in development spiritual successor to the Saturn V rockets that carried Americans to the Moon, because of a budget-cutting Republican administration have been so far proven wrong.  What accounts for this rejuvenation of high-level attention to American space capabilities and policy is their inclusion in the administration's 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS), where leadership in space is deemed a critical component of the great power competition the document lists as a major strategic threat.  To buttress American primacy against Russia and China, the strategy document lays down three priorities: to "advance space as a priority domain," "promote space commerce," and "maintain leadership in exploration."

The language on space is notably more muscular and confrontational than that of the previous administration.  It is well timed.  Both Russia and China, albeit in different ways, are positioning themselves for a struggle in space – specifically in low Earth orbit (LEO) – while maintaining grander ambitions of deeper space exploration.  And while the lauded American private-sector space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin continue to draw media attention and notch successes, it is a mistake to think a prosperous domestic industry can shoulder the burden of ensuring multifaceted American space primacy alone.  Against the challenges of foreign competition in LEO and in deeper space exploration, the SLS program should be continue to be maintained in tandem with U.S. private industry platforms.

Multiple Threats

While it is true that the ailing Russian space agency (Roskosmos) is being shouldered out of the $5.5-bil global launch industry by SpaceX – an admission of Roskosmos overseer Dmitry Rogozin himself – recent Russian space policy suggests that the agency is only gearing up for intensified great power competition to stave off irrelevancy.  It could be argued that one of the more obscure casualties of Russia's Crimean annexation in March 2014 was the positive relationship its space industry had with the West.  In 2013, Russia controlled half of the launch market and had deep links with Western space agencies.  Today, Russia controls only 10% of the launch market, and the supposedly evergreen relationship between NASA and Roskosmos is souring due to the inevitable phase-out of the International Space Station around 2025 and the outstretched hand of cooperation with China's space agency

While U.S. sanctions against Russia have made exceptions for space cooperation and the importation of crucial Russian rocket engines like the RD-180 that powers U.S. Atlas V rockets, acrimony in both countries is beginning to target this trade relationship as a source of leverage, with the several aforementioned U.S. firms developing their own domestic engines.  With the rocket engine trade largely phasing itself out, there will be less reason for the Russians to cooperate with the United States in space.  Already Russia is known to be developing two anti-satellite systems and drew a rebuke from the U.S. State Department when it launched a supposedly benign maneuverable inspection satellite – one the U.S. intelligence community suspects could be used to disable critical U.S. satellite infrastructure in a conflict.  More recently, shortly after the successful test of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, President Putin signed an order directing the creation of a Russian heavy lift rocket by 2028, with capabilities approaching but not surpassing those of the SLS.  Although nascent, this Russian strategic direction combined with the new planned rocket, dubbed the "Supertyazh" or "really big rocket," indicates a Russian space program that will try to counter U.S. satellites in LEO and compete with the U.S. in deep space exploration without the rosier cooperation of the past decades.

On the other hand, China is quickly emerging to surpass Russia as the larger threat to U.S. interests in space.  Beyond China's internationally condemned test in 2007 that saw it successfully down one of its own weather satellites in LEO with a missile, China is also working on strong countermeasures to U.S. national security satellites.  Unlike Russia which is retreating from the launch market, China will begin to heavily pressure U.S. firms with the debut of the "Long March 8" in late 2018.  According to the head of rocket development at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, the new platform will fill a crucial gap in China's commercial launch prospects and will be able to carry light and medium-sized satellite payloads.

Chinese challenges to American space primacy do not end with a larger share of the launch industry and an increased ability to destroy or temporarily disable U.S. satellites.  The Chinese National Space Agency is rolling ahead with ambitious plans to begin building a space station by 2020 with the aid of international partners while keeping an eye on a Moon mission around a decade later.  China is building its own competing system to SLS, known as "Long March 9," to develop its own heavy launch capability by 2030.  Loren Thompson of the defense-focused think-tank the Lexington Institute makes an interesting argument that the purpose of the rocket extends beyond deep space exploration.  Referencing the fact that Chinese satellite technology is not as advanced or compact as U.S. models, the larger diameter of the Long March 9 and increased payload would be able to lift larger, more advanced Chinese satellites to a geosynchronous orbit.  While there, a new, more powerful constellation of Chinese spy satellites would be able to more easily track elusive targets like U.S. carrier fleets in the Pacific for surveillance and China's anti-ship missiles.  Unlike NASA, the China National Space Administration is not a civilian agency and is directly under the control of the People's Liberation Army, which would assume closer collaboration in this type of strategic planning.

U.S. Responses

Given the rising challenges posed to U.S. primacy by Russia and China, the United States will need to be able to field diverse and capable launch systems for maintaining satellite constellations in LEO and preparing for deeper space exploration.  The maintenance and fruition of the SLS program will not hinder the development of private-sector alternatives for launching LEO satellites; it will only broaden the possibilities.  As described above, the larger carrying space of an SLS-style rocket gives military planners more room to work with in designing new tools and satellites.  It additionally will allow the U.S. to effectively compete against China and Russia in the coming race to establishing a lunar outpost and then a Mars mission.  As argued in quite some detail here by former Apollo astronaut Jack Schmitt, the increased carrying capacity and ability to bring equipment to space in larger pieces and in fewer launches – gives the SLS the edge over competing private platforms.  The advantage is further enhanced, especially regarding deep space exploration, when it is noted that the Orion crew capsule that it carries is already designed and rated for taking a human crew to space – something potential private-sector rivals are not rated for. 

Ultimately and unfortunately, in the event that U.S. national security satellites are targeted by a foreign power, there are not many countermeasures to prevent their destruction, as was admitted by General John Hyten of Strategic Command.  What will ultimately buttress U.S. interests, however, is its highly developed launch capability thanks to a myriad of established and emerging private domestic launch options.  Already, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy has received a classified Air Force contract to begin putting cargo into space.  In the event of a prolonged conflict, the United States would be able to retaliate on attacks on its own satellites by knocking out the satellites of the aggressor, or responding at a place and time of the administration's choosing according to the 2017 NSS.  More importantly, the U.S. is currently better equipped than China and Russia to relaunch and restore satellites, returning a decisive edge to our national security apparatus.  In order to avoid such a catastrophic scenario, U.S. policy should maintain its forceful and clear-eyed attitude toward space, to ensure that potential adversaries understand the risks of attempting to disable U.S. systems.  With a sort of peace-through-strength policy established in LEO, the U.S. can turn to more powerful launch systems like the SLS to outcompete and outrace the Russians and the Chinese to the Moon, and then on to Mars.