Since September 11, 2001, Washington has been preoccupied with dismantling terrorist networks, fighting insurgencies and stabilizing broken nation-states—and understandably so. But China and Russia have not been standing still during America’s 15-year war on terror. Instead, they have invested their resources into new weapons and new theaters of operation—namely space. Space is the ultimate high ground, and being prepared to defend America’s space-based assets—and deploy to and through space—is essential to America’s security. Yet most Americans are fixated on their laptops, iPhones and supersized TVs. We “explore” cyberspace, rather than outer space. We have quite literally turned inward, shifting our gaze from the heavens to our hand-helds. The rest of the world is not following suit.
The Pentagon describes China’s space program as “the most rapidly maturing space program in the world.”
“If you control space,” Xu Qiliang, commander of China’s air force, explains, “you can also control the land and the sea.”
Beijing seems eager to prove Xu’s hypothesis. “China has accorded space a high priority for investment,” a Pentagon report on Chinese military power concluded in 2007. Nine years later, the payoffs of that investment are sobering.
China has tested anti-satellite missiles (ASAT); launched a missile 18,600 miles into space, dangerously close to where U.S. geosynchronous satellites operate; test-fired satellite jammers and satellite-killing lasers; deployed a constellation of satellites to support its armed forces; and begun developing “aerospace strike systems” that use space as the avenue for hitting ground-based targets within minutes of launch.
According to the DoD, China is developing “a variety of capabilities designed to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during a crisis or conflict.” Chinese military “writings emphasize the necessity of ‘destroying, damaging and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance/observation and communications satellites.’”
In other words, the United States had better develop redundancies and resiliencies in its space-based assets—or be ready to fight blind and deaf.
Russia tested a new ASAT last November. In 2013 and 2014, the Russian military deployed a number of satellites capable of “rendezvous and proximity operations”—military parlance for maneuvering toward other satellites in order to disrupt or disable them. In fact, Russia recently deployed 37 satellites in a single rocket launch. And to remove any doubt about how Russia intends to use its space assets, Moscow announced last August that Russia’s “air forces, anti-air and anti-missile defenses and space forces will now be under a unified command structure” known as the Aerospace Forces. (U.S. military thinkers have been advocating this for the U.S. Air Force at least since 2000.)
Russia conducted 29 orbital launches in 2015, the United States 20, China 19. Beijing bested America’s launch total in 2012 and 2011. And both China and Russia are able to do something America cannot do: deploy humans into space on their own rockets. With the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, U.S. astronauts are forced to rely on Russian rockets to travel into space.
All of this is consequence of inadequate attention to (and funding for) America’s space program in recent years.
President George W. Bush developed a plan to phase out the Space Shuttle and divert resources to the Constellation program, which would use the best of the Shuttle and Apollo programs to carry Americans beyond low-earth orbit and deeper into space. As Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan explained in 2010, the Constellation program “was endorsed by two presidents of different parties and approved by both Democratic and Republican congresses.”
Yet President Barack Obama canceled Constellation and flat-lined NASA spending. “To be without carriage to low-earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future,” as the astronaut trio concluded, “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.”
NASA’s budget was $17.2 billion in 2009 and just $19.2 billion in 2016. Controlling the growth of government spending is commendable. But the Obama administration’s willingness to make tough decisions on NASA spending stands in stark contrast with its eagerness to pour unprecedented sums into virtually every other government program.
Instead of investing in America’s space program, Obama used NASA’s resources to encourage the development of commercial rockets and to purchase room on Russian rockets.
To its credit, the Falcon 9 rocket, which was developed by NASA’s private-sector partner SpaceX, has carried cargo to the International Space Station. However, the Falcon 9’s hauling capacity is around 22,000 pounds. By contrast, the Space Shuttle could deliver a 65,000-pound payload into orbit. The Falcon 9 Heavy, designed to launch bigger payloads into orbit, is still in the design phase.
Russia began carrying American crews and cargo to the International Space Station as a short-term stop gap after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. Thirteen years later, the United States is forking over $75 million per seat to hitch a ride to the International Space Station on Russian rockets. That number will jump $82 million by 2018.
The problem extends well beyond investment, however. “Fifty years ago,” then-NASA Administrator Michael Griffin observed in 2008, “almost twice as many bachelor’s degrees in physics were awarded in the United States.” Equally concerning, some 38 percent of technology PhDs are conferred on foreign-born students, “most of whom return to their home countries,” according to Griffin. This was not the case at the beginning of the Space Age. William Pickering came to America from New Zealand to study at Cal Tech; he then led the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during its most critical and consequential decades. Washington plucked an army of rocket scientists from Germany after World War II. Chief among them, of course, was Wernher Von Braun, father of the Jupiter and Saturn V rockets.
In short, we have regressed from in-sourcing space operations to outsourcing them.
However, not all the news is bad up on the ultimate high ground. Some military officials are sounding the alarm.
“To maintain our military dominance we must consider all space assets, both classified and unclassified, as part of a single constellation,” Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work declares. “And if an adversary tries to deny us the capability, we must be able to respond in an integrated, coordinated fashion.”
Work recognizes that U.S. space-based assets—civilian and military—are essential to the U.S. military’s earth-based operations: Missile-defense ships prowling the Pacific and Mediterranean, Army units defending Eastern Europe and stabilizing Afghanistan, Special Operations commandos hunting down ISIS and al Qaeda operatives, UCAVs circling over Pakistan and Yemen, JDAMs strapped to loitering bombers over Iraq and Syria, sensors monitoring nuclear activity in Russia and China and North Korea, the infrastructure and superstructure of the entire military—all of these rely on space assets.
“There is no soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, anywhere in the world that is not critically depending on what we provide in space,” explains Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command.
In the not-too-distant future, space will become more than just a means to support military operations. It will become a theater of military operations. But don’t take my word for it. “We must prepare for the potentiality of conflict that might extend from earth one day into space,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James warns.
Toward that end, the Air Force stood up a new “Space Mission Force” in February. The 352-personnel unit, the first of several to be deployed, is charged with monitoring and maintaining America’s fleet military satellites.
The Air Force, which has an estimated $10-billion line item for space operations in 2016, continues to deploy the super-secret X-37. This unmanned spaceplane enters orbit courtesy of an Atlas V rocket, can loiter in space for years at a time (one X-37 mission lasted 674 days) and can fly 500 nautical miles above the earth. X-37s have been conducting highly classified missions since 2010. A Washington Times report quoted anonymous Pentagon sources as saying the X-37 would likely be used to attack and disable enemy satellites in the event of a conflict involving other spacefaring powers.
Plus, as Jane’s Defense details, DARPA is developing a smaller, faster spaceplane—the XS-1— that will offer “aircraft-like access to space” and have the ability to deploy 10 times in a 10-day period.
It would be wrong to conclude that the military is steering us toward space. To the contrary, the military is following U.S. interests into space. At its core, the U.S. military’s job is to protect U.S. interests, wherever they are. And today they are increasingly found beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Some 234,000 Americans work in the space sector. Of the 1,300 functioning satellites currently orbiting earth, 568 are American. America’s fleet of satellites connects and feeds billions of mobile devices; improves the use of farmland; guides ships, planes and trucks to their destinations; monitors weather; synchronizes financial networks; supports police and fire departments; and arms the U.S. military with arguably the most important weapon in modern war: real-time, on-demand information. Yet most Americans are oblivious to the fact that we are so dependent on space.
George Washington counseled that “There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.” That truism applies wherever nation-states come into contact with one another—whether on land or on the high seas, in the skies or in space.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.