7 March 2016

The End of U.S. Space Supremacy

Space may be infinite, but it’s starting to get crowded around Earth. As more nations have gained the ability to send assets into orbit, a new space race has started to emerge. But rather than focus on merely reaching space, the goal now is to leverage dominance in space into a material advantage on the ground – in terms of both commerce and military force.
There is a growing commercial space industry, and the number of satellites launched into orbit is increasing. The world economy is dependent, at least in part, upon the telecommunications and navigation capabilities that these satellites provide. Although there has been a distinct military component to space since the Cold War, space is now similar to the sea during the age of exploration – it is critical for commerce, but it is also being militarized very rapidly.
For the United States, space assets have become an essential aspect of projecting force abroad. Since the First Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. has focused heavily on developing and expanding its ability to utilize precision-guided munitions (PGM), which require GPS to work. By using satellites to guide munitions to their targets, the U.S. has managed to create a way of waging war that is extremely precise and minimizes both collateral damage and civilian deaths. Satellite based communications have allowed the U.S. to create very nuanced command and control capabilities. And, as The Cipher Brief has reported, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency has made great use of space assets to contribute to intelligence collection efforts.

However, the dominance that the U.S. has enjoyed in space since the end of the Cold War appears to be ending. James Lewis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies says adversaries “are investing tens of millions of dollars in a range of technologies intended to degrade or destroy satellites and space capabilities.”

China in particular has become very active in this area. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Chinese satellite launches increased dramatically between 2003 and 2012. These new satellites have served a number of different purposes, from enhancing communications to the creation of China’s own regional GPS constellation.

The most worrying aspect of the Chinese space program has been their anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons demonstrations. The first of these occurred in 2007, when China shot down one of its own satellites. There have been reports of other ASAT tests in 2010 and2013, although the Chinese government disputes these reports. Bruce MacDonald, a former Special Advisor of the Nonproliferation and Arms Control Project with the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, expects these trends to continue. He says that China wants to pursue capabilities that include “its own complete GPS-like satellite constellation, more satellites for both military and civilian long distance communications, more advanced intelligence satellites, and more advanced ASAT systems.”

The competition between the two countries for supremacy in space could be complicated by the fact that, while China has been expanding its space program, the U.S. has allowed some of its capabilities to fall by the wayside. In 2011, NASA was forced to end its Space Shuttle program, which allowed the U.S. to send manned missions into space, due to growing budgetary pressures. Currently, American astronauts need to go through the Russian Federation Space Agency in order to get to space. Given the degree to which relations between the U.S. and Russia are deteriorating, this could eventually pose a problem for NASA. China is under no such constraint and has been able to send manned missions into space since 2003. However, private companies in the U.S. – such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic – have demonstrated that they may be able to reliably send manned missions into space sometime in the near future.

The United States has made it clear to the world at large that dominance in space translates into an advantage on the ground, and so its rivals are now seeking to catch up. The final outcome of this contest is difficult to determine, with options ranging from the current state of peaceful expansion to outright space war – although the later is highly unlikely.

The space race during the Cold War resulted in a great deal of technological innovation that is still yielding benefits today. There is also room for cooperation between the rising space powers. Cleaning up the large amount of debris currently in orbit is one task that would benefit enormously from a multinational approach. Regardless of the final outcome of the race, one thing is certain – the U.S. can no longer count on having supremacy in space. 

Luke Penn-Hall is the Cyber and Technology Producer at The Cipher Brief.

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