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by Patrick Cheetham

An aggressive and rapidly developing China challenges US dominance in space and will continue to do so without renewed American leadership and investment.

Mainstream narrative largely misses the significant dependence of the US on space for economic health and national security. Indeed, GPS, communications, broadband, financial transactions, and remote sensing and imaging all use space assets as indispensable sensors and relays. US intelligence and defense capabilities (such as C4ISR) are a cornerstone of national security today but are vulnerable because satellite positions are known, they are expensive to launch into orbit, and attribution of attacks are difficult. Americans also don’t know the fragile state of US technology leadership in space. As the front-runner in the cosmos for decades the emerging space power challenging America’s reign is China.

China has invested massively in R&D, space, and defense and has made great strides in these sectors. China has developed production of advanced rockets, survivable communications, satellites, manned missions, autonomous spacecraft, and persistent surveillance. Leadership in Beijing view space technologies as a crucial element of national power to include prestige of advanced S&T and economic benefits of these investments. The intent behind China’s space program, like many of its large S&T programs, is not so transparent. Chinese civil and military organizations for space are integrated. For instance, China’s navigation system, Beidou, can be used for civil purposes or for expanded operational capability needed in long-range strike. In a report to the US China Commission by Mark Stokes and Dean Chung it was highlighted that “R&D investments include foreign satellite communications monitoring systems, electronic countermeasure systems to disrupt an opponent’s use of space based systems, and developing the capability for physical destruction of satellites in orbit.” Electronic intelligence satellites and dual use synthetic aperture radar are also maturing, according to the report.

China has greatly progressed in ballistic missile technology that threatens assured access to space and has the potential to be used offensively. A much-cited 2007 test of a Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) missile took place in 2007 and created thousands of pieces of debris. China’s missile tests in 2010 and 2013 are still debated by experts but in May 2013 strong evidence points to another successful ASAT test took place from a road-mobile ballistic missile. More recently, the US State Department accused China of conducting an ASAT test on July 23, 2014, calling “on China to refrain from destabilizing actions – such as the continued development and testing of destructive anti-satellite systems – that threaten the long term security and sustainability of the outer space environment, on which all nations depend.” China’s ASAT capabilities clearly pose a direct threat to US satellites, however, US policy and leadership remains complacent in light of these developments.

Other nations are ramping up investment with the goal of leveraging its unique strategic and tactical advantage. DNI James Clapper testified to the SSCI earlier this year, saying “Chinese and Russian military leaders understand the unique information advantages afforded by space systems and are developing capabilities to disrupt US use of space in a conflict. Chinese military writings highlight the need to interfere with, damage, and destroy reconnaissance, navigation, and communication satellites.” The US does not need a major military or surprise event to catalyze government change in favor of US space leadership. The ubiquity of space technologies, powerful new capabilities, and the potential for mal-intent should drive us to do better.

Greater leadership and investment can solve the issues presented by unknown intent and capabilities of aggressive and developing countries such as China. Leadership can inspire a generation of the brightest minds to pursue STEM careers, tackle challenging national security issues in space, and participate in cutting edge science and research. By leading in this field of S&T, the US can make important long term decisions in areas like exploration and commercialization of space. More investment in civil and military space programs – with a renewed mission and focus – can maintain and progress US leadership in this domain. Programs that invigorate the national mindset and those that keep Americans safe should be some of the highest priorities in every President’s R&D agenda. Understanding the importance of space and acting upon it should deeply motivate US citizens and policymakers to maintain superiority and freedom of action in the future.