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U.S.-China Battle for Space Supremacy Heats Up

Commercial space technologies will define US-China race for military innovation.
A Long March 5B rocket lifts off from the Wenchang launch site on China’s southern Hainan island on May 5, 2020. Another variant of the Long March rocket was used to get China’s hypersonic missile into orbit in July. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
A Long March 5B rocket lifts off from the Wenchang launch site on China’s southern Hainan island on May 5, 2020. Another variant of the Long March rocket was used to get China’s hypersonic missile into orbit in July. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

In the ever-expanding arms race between communist China and the United States, few domains of competition are as high stakes as that of space.

Satellite architecture is required for everything from GPS to bank transactions to missile defense systems. As such, it is no surprise that both nations are investing heavily in their militaries’ space and counterspace capabilities.

What is often overlooked in this race, however, is just how each nation intends to win.

Indeed, over the past decade, China and the United States’ visions for the future of space have increasingly veered apart, and the means through which each nation seeks to leverage its native space industry has evolved with those visions.

In China, there is a growing statist architecture, designed to organize and direct space industry as one part of the whole of society, in unison with the communist whole. The United States, meanwhile, is betting big on American corporations to innovate a new answer to secure peace in the final frontier.

What is certain is that the relationship between these two states and their respective space industries will determine the character of their militaries, and of war, for decades to come.

To understand that, however, it is necessary to first understand just what the competition is about, and how it got here.

The State of US-China Space Competition

Commercial and military competition between China and the United States has been accelerating for years as relations between the two nations have plummeted. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the space domain, which is critical to military and civilian technologies the world over.

The Pentagon is currently seeking to reduce uncertainty in space operations even as China is developing weapons to use against U.S. space assets. Defense experts have warned that China is building a comprehensive arsenal of space weapons, a stance apparently vindicated by recent comments from the Space Force’s Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein and Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.

Guetlein said that the United States must act to develop capacities to defend itself in space, while Kendall said more specifically that the United States needed to develop new, offensive space weapons to defend itself.

Likewise, a 2020 report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) (pdf) found that China’s ruling communist regime was implementing a long-term plan to systematically steal U.S. technologies in order to accelerate its own space-bound military programs.

“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is executing a long-term strategy to exploit U.S. technology, talent, and capital to build up its military space and counterspace programs and advance its strategic interests at the expense of the United States,” the report stated.

“China’s zero-sum pursuit of space superiority harms U.S. economic competitiveness, weakens U.S. military advantages, and undermines strategic stability. In short, it represents a threat to U.S. national security.”

Much of the current Sino-American space rivalry stemmed from the fact that the United States and China do not collaborate on space development nor on space exploration. Since Congress passed the Wolf Amendment in 2011, NASA has been explicitly barred from cooperating with China on space issues.

Defense and security experts have said that China’s space program is a direct military threat to the United States. The Wolf Amendment was part of a larger effort to ban the unwanted transfer of technologies from the United States to China.

The intention of the amendment was ostensibly to cut the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) off from U.S. technology in order to limit its rapid technological ascent. That plan didn’t work, however, and the CCP was able to forge ahead anyway by creating its own rival space systems in secret, which the United States doesn’t know enough about to adequately deter. Last year’s hypersonic weapons test, for instance.

All of this has created an imminent demand for next-generation space technologies in both China and the United States. Whether those technologies are rockets, image processing, weather data collection, broadband communications, or something else entirely, the militaries of each nation are in a rush to acquire and field them before the other can.

To be sure, the CCP is currently behind in this race. The United States has about 2,700 satellites in orbit, while China currently has fewer than 500. Much of that satellite infrastructure is dated, however, and terribly prone to attacks that could cause cascading failures across a plethora of systems.

“When a single U.S. communications satellite broke down in 1998, it was not only television and messaging systems that failed,” wrote James Black, a senior analyst for the Rand Europe think tank. “Credit card systems stopped processing payments, weather radars went blind, and frustrated drivers found themselves unable to fuel their vehicles as automatic petrol station pumps seized up.”

As such, the number one driving factor in assessing the weakness or strength of space-based systems is currently its resiliency as measured by the size of its satellite clusters. To this end, China and the United States are looking to the growing commercial space industry for scalable, affordable answers as to how they might get as many satellites up and running as quickly as possible.

SpaceX, for example, operates about 2,000 satellites, four times as many as the CCP. Moreover, its signature Starlink satellite constellation has already demonstrated itself capable of withstanding foreign military attacks in the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Likewise, a state-owned Chinese telecommunications company has announced plans to put 10,000 microsatellites on orbit by 2030.

What these companies are creating, then, and how governments can leverage it, is the central issue at the heart of the new space race, and will determine the success or failure of national and military strategies in the decades to come.

The methods that China and the United States are developing to leverage such technologies, however, are very, very different.

The New Statism: China’s Answer to Leapfrog Development

The Chinese space industry is managed by a complex array of military and civil organizations. The vast majority of China’s own space program, however, is either directly organized or indirectly guided by the CCP’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and specifically its Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), headquartered in Xi’an in western China.

In addition to space, the PLASSF oversees the integration of the CCP’s cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare capabilities, and has consistently sought to leverage all of these domains together in pursuit of China’s strategic goal of space dominance.

The PLA’s two primary entities for developing the space program are the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), which used to be a single entity but were split up to promote competition.

CASC carries out most of the CCP’s research and overseas launches for the PLA, while CASIC develops all of China’s missiles.

Meanwhile, there are a growing number of private space companies in China, which are driving much of the CCP’s space innovation.

Those companies, however, largely receive their directives in what to develop from the PLA and its associated entities like CASC and CASIC, which funnel monies and milestone goals to companies in order to meet the Party’s strategic objectives.

In this manner, according to one report (pdf) by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, China’s state-owned enterprises are simultaneously separated from the innovation of private industry while also directing it. This is because the PLA, as the primary end-user of space technology, manages the research and development programs for weapons and space systems while coordinating with the civilian defense community.

A separate report by the USCC (pdf) noted that “Beijing consistently invests high levels of funding and political will to its space program, which has driven its steady progress in achieving important milestones.“

“In this role, Beijing aspires to lead international space-related innovation and exploration and establish an advanced system of infrastructure to serve its space sector.”

In this way, the CCP’s model for space development is a form of statism not unsurprising to a communist nation, in which the innovation of private companies are commanded which direction to go and their labor is subsumed for the state good.

For the United States, a New Commercialism

To many, the CCP’s model for space development might appear as merely a heavy-handed version of the U.S. military’s traditional acquisition process, in which the defense bureaucracy lethargically invests increasingly large sums into a few dedicated defense corporations for custom technologies.

The United States is moving away from that model, however, and pursuing instead a commercial-first approach to tech development for its space-based assets.

While the United States has traditionally favored long and costly contracts for bespoke projects, it is now shifting its strategy, and opting to buy commercial-first technologies including satellites for analytics, broadband, imaging, and data collection.

Indeed, it is the hope of the U.S. Space Force to co-opt readily available, and cost friendly, commercial space technologies for all its endeavors except so-called “no fail” missions such as missile defense.

Thus, even as the CCP appears to be taking a page from the United States’ old playbook in leveraging the state to purchase from a directed commercial sector, the United States is prioritizing the purchase of dual-use technologies that already serve a commercial market and are not entirely dependent on government funding.

According to the U.S. Space Strategy (pdf), the Defense Department (DoD) “will leverage and bolster a thriving domestic civil and commercial space industry” to combat the Chinese challenges to “freedom of operation in space.”

U.S. Space Command considers this acquisition-through-collaboration approach to be necessary in an age of ever-evolving and ever-expanding space technologies which, if the government had to fund from scratch, would be out of date by the time they became operable.

“Commercial space activities have expanded significantly in both volume and diversity, resulting in new forms of commercial capabilities and services that leverage commoditized, off-the-shelf technologies and lower barriers for market entry,” the strategy said.

“These developments are contributing to a burgeoning space industry driven by entrepreneurial innovation and investment, advanced technology, decreased costs, and increased demand for space-based services. The DoD has an opportunity to leverage innovation and cost-effective investments driven by the private sector, presenting opportunities for collaboration to develop game-changing capabilities with a more streamlined and responsive acquisition process.”

As such, the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces agreed on June 8 that commercial off-the-shelf technologies would be central to the DoD’s space strategy, and that the military would play the role of setting standards for Western satellite and launch vehicle interfaces in order to ensure that the military could use technology from any company it purchased from.

A ‘Gold Rush’ for Space Manufacturing

This strategic need for commercial innovation may make the DoD much more dependent on the genius behind individual businesses, but it has also led to something of a manufacturing boom among up-and-coming space companies in the United States, which are now seeking to have their products picked up for use by the U.S. military.

Peter Beck, CEO of aerospace manufacturing company Rocket Lab, said that there was a veritable “gold rush” among space companies to get assets on orbit to rake in lucrative government sales and contracts.

“Government[s] are getting to feed off all of that private industry, investment, and advances, and creating much more capability for nations,” Beck said.

“I grew up and it was only NASA that did amazing things. Now commercial companies are doing amazing things and it’s not a rarified event.”

During a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Beck said that the push to put commercial technologies at the forefront of government initiatives was democratizing space by allowing publicly-traded companies to lead the innovation that would improve and protect the nation.

What’s more is that the initiative is already bearing some fruit.

While government agencies like NASA struggled time and again to compete with China in a new race to the moon, and even failed to create space suits on budget, private industry in the United States has soared to new heights.

Rocket Lab alone, for example, is planning unmanned missions to the moon, Mars, and Venus. And the industry is expected to reach $1.4 trillion in value by 2030.

To be sure, Beck said, those strides would not be possible without coordination and funding from the government, and particularly from the Defense Intelligence Agency and NASA. But in choosing to nurture industrial talent rather than develop from scratch, the United States has improved capacity.

Space in the Age of Technospheres

The heated efforts to accelerate and secure military and civil technologies, both in space and otherwise, are driving the United States and China to develop distinct and mutually unintelligible technologies, according to a new report (pdf) by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a security-focused think tank.

The decoupling of digital innovation, systems, and data flows between Western nations and China, the increased statism of the CCP and standardized corporate leadership of the United States, are compounding the trends that have been in place since the Wolf Amendment in 2011, and creating two very different and rival technospheres.

“The overall geopolitical rivalry between China and the West makes it unlikely that technology decoupling will decrease,” the report stated. “Both see technology as a method to promote their respective worldviews while seeing each other’s efforts as focused on national security competition.”

What is left to be seen is how a centrally-planned and authoritarian space architecture and an open and freely created one differ, and how they compete.

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