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American Space Strategy: Choose to Steer, Not Drift

America can advance its national interests more effectively by taking an integrated approach to its space capabilities and international cooperation.

By Scott Pace for

Space activities today play critical roles in United States national security, economic growth, and scientific achievements.  The Global Positioning System is an integral part of several critical infrastructures and enables functions ranging from survey and construction, to farming, finance, and air traffic management – not to mention supporting U.S. military forces worldwide.  The International Space Station represents a unique, collaborative partnership between the United States, Europe, Canada, Japan, and Russia.  At the same time, new threats to U.S. space activities have emerged, threats that are different from those of the Cold War.  In some cases, threats come from a known nation state while in others it is impossible to attribute responsibility.

In 2007, China tested a high altitude anti-satellite weapon against one of its old weather satellites, creating tens of thousands of pieces of orbital debris and increasing the risk of collision and damage to many satellites, and the International Space Station, operating in low Earth orbit.  Just recently, on January 22, a piece of debris from that test appears to have damaged a Russian scientific satellite.  In 2009, there was an accidental collision over the Arctic between a defunct Russian communications satellite and an active commercial communications satellite that added even more orbital debris to low Earth orbit.  North Korea has defied numerous UN Security Council sanctions in developing ballistic missile capabilities, which it portrays as peaceful space launches.  Similarly, the Islamic Republic of Iran has continued to jam commercial satellites that broadcast foreign news services into the country as a means of preventing these reports from reaching the Iranian people.

The global space community is a dynamic one with new capabilities and new entrants, particularly in Asia.  China has flown several astronauts, becoming only the third country with independent human access to space.  China is constructing a space laboratory and has demonstrated unmanned rendezvous and docking operations in preparation for a fully manned space station in 2020 – about the time the International Space Station may be ending its operations.  Japan has announced plans to sell radar satellites to Vietnam while South Korea is seeking to sell an optical imaging satellite to the United Arab Emirates.  Brazil and China are continuing many years of space cooperation in remote sensing while India and South Africa are close to concluding their own space cooperation agreement.  All of these countries recognize that space capabilities are important for both practical and symbolic reasons and that these capabilities are intrinsically “dual-use” in that civil, security, and commercial applications are based on similar technologies.

A Flaw in U.S. National Space Policy

The current U.S. space policy is outlined in the July 2010 U.S. National Space Policy that addresses the full range of U.S. interests in space. The policy continues many long-standing principles, such as the right of all nations to engage in the peaceful uses of outer space, recognition of the inherent right of self-defense, and that purposeful interference with space systems is an infringement of a nation’s rights.  The policy also states that the United States “recognizes the need for stability in the space environment” and that it will pursue “bilateral and multilateral transparency and confidence building measures to encourage responsible actions in space.”

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In testimony to Congress last December, to the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics in December of last year, I observed that the civil space exploration section of the 2010 National Space Policy did not match the coherence found on the national security and foreign policy side.  The NASA Administrator is directed to “set far-reaching exploration milestones.  By 2025, begin crewed missions beyond the moon, including sending humans to an asteroid.”  There seems to have been little interagency debate about these goals.  Rather, they seem to have been taken intact from an April 15, 2010 speech President Obama gave at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Subsequent analysis by NASA and the scientific community has unfortunately shown that there are few to no scientifically attractive, technically feasible asteroids that can be reached by humans on this schedule.

Making matters worse, over the previous six years, the international space community has been shifting its attention to the Moon in anticipation of that being the next U.S. focus of exploration beyond low Earth orbit.  Countries in Asia, such as Japan, India, China and South Korea, saw the Moon as a challenging but feasible destination for robotic exploration and a practical focus for human space exploration.  The redirection for human space flight in the 2010 National Space Policy was a great surprise to current and prospective international partners.  The asteroid mission was, perhaps unintentionally, taken as a sign that the United States was not interested in broad international cooperation but would focus on partnerships with the most capable countries, such as Russia and perhaps Europe.  Similarly, human missions to Mars were seen as a desirable goal but too difficult and expensive as the next step beyond the International Space Station.

The perception that the next steps in human space exploration would be too difficult to allow meaningful participation by most spacefaring countries undercut international support for human space exploration more generally.  The lack of U.S. support for a program to return to the Moon made it difficult for advocates of human space exploration in Europe, Japan, India, and elsewhere to gain funding for any efforts beyond the International Space Station (ISS).  The ISS is itself under budget pressure to justify its construction and on-going operations costs, a task that has been more difficult by the lack of a clear direction for human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit. 

The lack of international leadership by the United States provides an opportunity for rising spacefaring countries such as China to play a greater role in the future.  If China is able to offer pragmatic opportunities for space cooperation on its own space station or as part of efforts to send humans to the Moon, other countries will likely see it attractive to forge closer relationships with China.  A shift in international space influence away from the United States and toward China would have the potential to impact a wide range of U.S. national security and foreign policy interests in space.

A sense of drift in space cooperation carries risks.  China and Russia have for many years advocated an international treaty barring space weapons as well as the use or the threat of the use of force against space objects.  They have introduced a draft treaty at the UN Conference on Disarmament as part of deliberations on the “prevention of an arms race in outer space.”  The United States has consistently opposed such a treaty as unnecessary, unverifiable, and not in the interests of the United States and its allies.  A major flaw in the draft treaty is the difficulty in defining just what a space weapon is; even if defined, the Chinese-Russian text leaves out ground-based systems such as interceptors and lasers.  Consideration of a verifiable agreement, based on behavior, to ban the intentional creation of long-lived orbital debris has not gained much traction due to the impasse over the Chinese-Russian proposal and a lack of interest by other spacefaring countries in possible alternatives.

If the United States hopes to move beyond the current stalemate in international space security and reclaim a stronger leadership position, it needs to address the international role of human space exploration.  Historically, the most common strategic approach to human space flight has been one driven by geopolitical interests and objectives.  The United States undertook the Apollo program in the 1960s to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon as part of a global competition for Cold War prestige.  The Apollo- Soyuz program symbolized a brief period of détente in the 1970s.  The Space Station program was established in the 1980s, in part, to bring the developing space capabilities of Europe and Japan closer to the United States and to strengthen anti-Soviet alliances.  Russia was invited to join a restructured International Space Station in the 1990s to symbolize a new post-Cold War, post-Soviet relationship with Russia.  What might be the geopolitical rationale for the next steps in human space exploration?

Integrating National Interests in Space

It is well recognized that many of today’s most important geopolitical challenges and opportunities lie in Asia.  States under UN sanction, such as Iran and North Korea, are developing ICBM capabilities under the guise of space launch programs. China, India, and South Korea have acquired sophisticated space capabilities that have both civilian and military applications, including satellite communications, environmental monitoring, space-based navigation, and scientific space research.  In contrast to the situation in Europe, Asia has no established frameworks for peaceful space cooperation.  In fact, as James Clay Moltz has observed, the region has numerous “hostile dyads” such as India-China, Japan-China, North Korea-South Korea, and China and its neighbors in the South China Sea.  The United States has better relations with almost all of these countries than many of them have with each other. 

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Countries lacking a stake in stable, peaceful space environment are unlikely to be supportive of U.S. and allied space security concerns.  It is not that those countries will be opposed to security concerns, but that they will not see the relevance to their own needs and interests.  For example, international interest in mitigating orbital debris has grown as more countries have realized the threat such debris can pose to space systems they rely on and to their citizens working in space.

It is generally assumed that human space exploration beyond Earth orbit will not be done by individual nations (save perhaps China) so it makes sense to ask potential international partners what they are capable of and interested in doing.  In this regard, human missions to asteroids or Mars are beyond the practical capabilities of almost all potential partners but can still serve as long-term goals.  If there is to be a serious effort at engaging international partners, a lunar-based architecture is most likely to emerge as the next focus of human space exploration.

Asian space agencies have shown a common interest in lunar missions as the logical next step beyond low Earth orbit.  Such missions are seen as ambitious but achievable and thus more practical than missions to Mars and more distant locations.  They offer an opportunity for emerging and established spacefaring countries to advance their capabilities without taking on the political risks of a competitive race with each other.  A multinational program to explore the Moon, as a first step, would be a symbolic and practical means of creating a broader international framework for space cooperation.  At the same time, the geopolitical benefits of improving intra-Asian relations and U.S. engagement could support more ambitious space exploration efforts than science alone might justify. 

Human space exploration is at a crucial transition point with the end of the Space Shuttle program and the lack of clear objectives beyond the International Space Station.  China’s ambitious for human space flight are aimed at creating its own space station, open to international participation, robotic missions to the Moon, and eventually their own human missions to the Moon.  Russia has proposed an international lunar program with the United States and publicly supported this position at international conferences. 

At the same time, new space actors are present who lack the operational experience of major space projects with the United States.  However, these actors have the potential to affect the sustainability, safety, and security of the space environment and thus impact U.S. interests in space. The United States can best advance its national interests through a more integrated strategic approach to its national security and civil space interests.  International civil space cooperation, space commerce, and international space security discussions could be used to reinforce each other in ways that would advance U.S. interests in the sustainability and security of all space activities.

Advancing U.S. Geopolitical Interests in Asia via Space

A primary strategic task for the United States should be to develop and implement a national security space strategy for the Asia-Pacific region.  In particular, to build on existing alliance relationship such as with Japan, Australia, and South Korea to include dual-use space technologies.  There is already extensive cooperation in the use of GPS, satellite-derived weather data, and satellite communications for military purposes.  This cooperation needs to be extended to other space functions as well.  Data from space systems are needed to improve space situational awareness (e.g., knowledge of where objects are in space), missile warning, ballistic missile defenses, and maritime domain awareness (e.g., monitoring of ships of all types).

The global information infrastructure and the world economy depend on the uninterrupted functions of space systems of all types.  This is particularly true for developing countries that cannot afford the installation of expensive terrestrial fiber optic networks or have sufficient stability to protect large numbers of fixed towers for communications.  They depend on space communications and satellite-based navigation.  As such, there are potential areas of common interest between developed and emerging economies in protecting and ensuring the sustainability of the space environments.  This would be an opening for expanding adoption of norms of behavior as well as transparency and confidence building measures that would make space a more explicit part of a secure international system.  The United States needs to create a stronger network of space-based informational sharing and utilization with and among our friends and allies in the region.  The United States will remain the indispensible nation, but as the central “node” in a strong network across the Asia-Pacific region.

Choosing to Steer, Not Drift

Even in a tight fiscal environment, the United States can advance is national interests more effectively by taking an integrated approach to its space capabilities and international cooperation.  It can and should avoid unrealistic and dangerous hopes that other nations will naturally align their interests with ours in space.  The current situation is one in which other nations are drifting away due to failures in leadership. It will take active leadership to repair the damage. In a geopolitical and strategic approach to space, political leadership is needed to project a positive vision of the future and not merely one of managing decline gracefully.  The most challenging and promising area for expanding international space cooperation to serve the full range of U.S. interests is in the Asia-Pacific region, beginning but not limited to our traditional friends and allies such as Japan and Australia.

Positive, inclusive leadership in space will attract others to us and benefit the United States and its allies in terms of increased security, commerce, and global influence.  Without attractive and inclusive space leadership, we will not be able to shape the international environment for the space activities that our economy and security depend on.  If we cannot ensure our international security and grow our economy, in the end we will not be able to sustain the social welfare benefits we have now. In shaping the international environment for space activities, hard and soft power can be used to complement each other and build a more secure, stable, and prosperous, world in which taking our interests beyond the Earth can help secure them at home.

Scott Pace is the Director of the Space Policy Institute at the Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C. He was previously the NASA Associate Administrator for Program Analysis and Evaluation and the Assistant Director for Space and Aeronautics in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.