The Real Stakes in the New Space Race
“Let’s unleash the space professionals so they can grow and become the equivalent of the Air Force after separating from the Army.”
– Acting Secretary of the Air Force Matt Donovan
I am among those who sees the future of humanity in space. It’s not about reaching for the stars for its own sake nor is it simply about national pride. It’s about determining which values will dominate the future world order. If things continue on their current trajectory, however, the values that determine the future will be those of the Chinese Communist Party rather than democratic ideals of the United States.
Why is space so critical to the future? Space is powerful precisely because it benefits from the attributes and principles of a network. A network can deliver power, information, and goods from one node, or all nodes, at a fraction of the increase in cost per customer compared to a linear system. The post office is an example of a linear model. If you send a letter to 100 different people, you have to pay for 100 stamps. The Internet is an example of a networked model. If you want to send an email to 100 people you can send it at a fraction of the cost. Most of our terrestrial economies are modeled on linear design, driving up cost for every delivery to a new customer. A networked space infrastructure will always win the cost war against a linear terrestrial infrastructure. Consequently, the first civilization to build a robust networked space infrastructure will dominate the global economy of the 21st century.
Space will be a multi-trillion-dollar market that will disproportionately benefit the first great power that builds a vibrant infrastructure there. Finishing second in this race means accepting defeat. Why is this the case? Whoever moves into a new marketplace first defines and sets the terms of that market. If America is first to build the infrastructure of space, its rule of law and values, including every human’s inherent right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, will underpin the marketplace. If China is first, its values will dominate. China continues to demonstrate a lack of regard for fair economic practices, the rule of law, human dignity, or liberty.
From transportation, to energy, to information, to manufacturing goods and services, China’s strategy is to dominate the key engines of economic growth that have historically changed world power and it views space as the place to seize and grow that advantage. It’s well-accepted that technological advantage drives economic prosperity, and economic prosperity is essential to sustainable national security. Today, China is applying this principle with new technologies and a superior strategy in space. America, on the other hand, is so underinvested, it is relying on the Russians to launch its astronauts into space. Fortunately, there is a way out, but only if we wake up now.
Most Americans are completely unaware that China has a plan to build manned labs both on the moon and on Mars. Nor are they aware that China has publicly announced its plans to build a nuclear powered space shuttle or its plan to begin mining asteroids by 2040. This isn’t science fiction. China is investing billions and has achieved some notable firsts including putting the first quantum satellite in orbit, operating a rover on the far side of the moon, and its simulated Mars habitat in the Gobi Desert.
If China stays on its current path, it will deploy a power station in space that could begin generating energy before 2040. China will claim that such stations are for peaceful means only — beaming clean energy via lasers or microwaves to anyone on earth — but they could also be weapons. The same beams could be directed at nodes of the U.S. power grid or a military base with destructive effect. America has grown accustomed to holding its adversaries at risk anywhere in the world in hours. China is developing the capability to have a more sophisticated capability that can reach virtually any target in seconds.
America has become complacent and mistakes its rapidly dissipating economic and military advantages as rights. The United States is making the same mistake that other fallen great powers have made. Namely, it is doubling down on the approach that made America successful in previous generations and discounting rising powers taking new approaches. While the U.S. government nibbles around the edges of game-changing technologies, the Chinese party-state is making huge investments in key areas to include: hypersonics, 5G, supercomputing, artificial intelligence, 3D-printing, quantum computing , and robotics. China is employing these and other leading-edge technologies in wholistic and new strategic ways that could render America a second-rate power.
Most Americans, and many in Congress, have not had that broader picture painted. Congress is at a crossroads, but some of its members may not even know it. It is time to make a deliberate decision to compete with China or to surrender by default. While American companies are working on these new technologies (albeit in separate silos), real power lies in harnessing these technologies together from space in intentional and innovative ways to achieve a dominant competitive advantage. China is actively pursuing a plan to use space as the ultimate “high ground” to dominate the global economy and transform economic, military, and political power in its image. While the United States has used terrestrial based strategies to contain its adversaries in the past, China is positioning itself to surround the entire globe from space.
The good news is that there is still a way to win. The United States can build on key competitive advantages: namely, superior cultures of creativity and innovation, rooted in an open society and a free market. The U.S. government should start with a vision that is both bigger than China’s and meaningful to America’s society and values. From there, it can write and implement a strategy that can secure the American way of life in this century and ensure the goods and promises offered by space are not dominated by a country disinterested in human freedom.
The benefits of such a course of action would appeal to most Americans, and indeed most people, to include clean energy, ubiquitous and secure communications, protection from space objects like the “city killing” meteor that hit Russia, deterrence capabilities that will render nuclear weapons obsolete, ensure the survival of humanity through expansion, and even modifying the Earth’s weather using satellites to slow the effects of climate change.
Does this sound like science fiction? Technologies exist today to build this future if we have the vision and the will. Status quo organizations will tell you this vision is 100 years from now, and unaffordable. But recall that in 1903, the New York Times opined that America’s best scientists and engineers had concluded it would take millions of years to build a working airplane. Less than three months after that authoritative proclamation, Orville and Wilbur Wright flew at Kitty Hawk. The same newspaper expressed similar opinions about the possibility of space flight in 1920. If you doubt the possibilities I describe, talk to the engineers of countless private companies outside the military-industrial complex. They will show you proof that America can achieve this vision, and soon. For those who say it’s unaffordable, look to the automobile industry, the aerospace industry, and the computer industry. All of that capability was built from profits by markets that valued their usefulness.
The same will hold true with the marketplace of space. Recognizing this, China has shifted to a revolutionary footing. Unless America does the same, the consequences will be dire. Three presidents in history — Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower — intervened at critical moments to drive revolutionary shifts in America’s national defense to defend our economy and country: Teddy Roosevelt with the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt with the bomber aircraft, and Eisenhower with the Cold War nuclear triad. It is now time for bold leaders to accelerate new capabilities in space to compete with a revolutionary threat to America’s interests and values.
Unless Congress and the President act now, we will remain on the road to inferiority and submission to China’s power. America is only dipping its toe into the pool of the future, while China is already swimming furiously away. Losing this race means certain economic subordination, and the surrender of our liberty and our values. If we tap into the full power of our American spirit, however, we can save our future.
What should be done? I humbly offer four recommendations: First, the Congress should write language into the National Defense Authorization Act that charges the Space Force to defend all American interests to include commerce in space. Second, the same law should provide complete independence from the Air Force to ensure space has the attention and focus required. Third, President Donald Trump should issue an executive order protecting America’s space industry from China’s predatory practices. Fourth and finally, the president should empower the Space Development Agency and direct it to follow the Fast Space Report blueprint to partner with private industry to rapidly develop new space capabilities. It is time for the United States to act with bold and visionary leadership. Half measures and incrementalism will leave the next generation in a world dominated by those who value neither American ideals nor its way of life.
Steve Kwast is a lieutenant general in the U.S. Air Force with extensive combat and command experience at every level, from squadron to major command. He has a degree in astronautical engineering from the U.S. Air Force Academy and is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in Public Policy.
Image: Chinese Ministry of Defense