In the age of hypersonic-weapons, 5G communication, AI (artificial intelligence) competition and weapons programs that produce weapon strikes in under an hour (such as the US military’s Prompt Global Strike, or PGS, which can deliver accurate weapons to any place on earth within 60 minutes), space only seems to be the next frontier. Competition in space was a dominant feature of the Cold War. After the USSR’s (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’) breakup, the United States single-handedly led global efforts for the development of space technologies. However, now, after a long hiatus, China and Russia have emerged as potential usurpers to overthrow US dominance. In many ways, this new space race will determine global military and economic leadership status. It has two components: military and civilian. Both of these components are interdependent of each other and will have global economic, military and political implications. The following discussion will delve into the dynamics of this relationship as well as the implications of the efforts of various players.
Civilian revolution in space
The civilian space race revolves around expeditions to the Moon and Mars. As far as civilian efforts are concerned, China and Russia can be considered to be a single entity. The two nations have had a marriage of convenience for civilian space missions. This is because both countries see potential cost reductions in this program. In 2017, China and Russia agreed to cooperate on lunar missions and further deep-space exploration efforts. The agreement covers six sectors including the development of spacecraft, remote-sensing data (Earth), debris monitoring (space), lunar space and deep space.
China was an early player in the space race, starting as far back as 1958. However, until recently, China was still playing catch-up in a series of efforts that included developing the multi-crew launch vehicle and sending man into space. It was its lunar program that led to significant increases in mankind’s knowledge.
China’s lunar missions have been dubbed “Chang’e” missions. China launched the Chang’e 4 probe on January 3, 2019. This mission was special because it was the first time that a human being had been able to land on the lunar south pole. Accessing the south pole is difficult because the Moon blocks signals. The Chinese solved this problem by launching a relay satellite called Queqiao in May 2018. The following image demonstrates the idea behind the satellite.
Accessing the far side of the Moon is only the first of many achievements planned under the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). The CLEP aims to construct a lunar base that will be used to achieve a number of feats, including lunar mining, construction of a base station for deep-space exploration and mining helium-3 for nuclear-power generation, as well as many other missions. The CLEP’s determination is betrayed by its efforts. In May 2018, China completed the Lunar Palace 1 mission, which a Beijing-based facility, Beijing University for Aeronautics and Astronautics (BUAA), designed to test the longevity of astronauts for prolonged periods inside space-like conditions. The bio-regenerative life-support systems experiments conducted under such a program could lay the foundations of building a lunar base.
On the other hand, Americans have made two major contributions to the field of space exploration. First, they have privatized space exploration. Privatization of space exploration not only increases competition in the industry but also frees up government coffers to support other aspects of space exploration. Second, American companies have pioneered reusable space vehicles and the ability to deliver 100 tons of payload to Mars.
It is positive news that both countries have specialized in different technology paths of space exploration. Such an effort increases the odds of collaboration due to the inherent interdependence of the two countries. Furthermore, China has also made serious progress towards establishing a quantum internet. Quantum internet will lead to the creation of an unhackable internet. This will provide much more supportive infrastructure to a world in which more and more financial transactions are being done via the internet. Before discussing the implications of these endeavors on the global economy, it is also important to discuss the advances in military efforts to conquer space.
The military competition between the United States, China and Russia in space is much more convergent and destructive in nature. The most pronounced component of space warfare is the threat of damaging or disabling satellites. Both military and civilian satellites can be targeted with missiles or lasers. Russia has also made progress on compromising satellites for information.
Furthermore, the nature of hybrid warfare is also penetrating space. This can be seen by the efforts of the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). In order to avoid having their military satellites taken out by hostile forces, the DARPA is launching a program to relay military use signals through a variety of civilian and military satellites in varying orbits. In addition, the DARPA’s Blackjack project also aims to launch cheap, expendable satellites into orbit.
All of these developments bring forward the question of weaponization of space. This is not a new question. As a matter of fact, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits a number of offensive maneuvers in space. These include not installing weapons of mass destruction in space and not building fortifications either in space or on any celestial bodies. However, what is worrying is the actual behavior of states.
According to Todd Harrison, the head of aerospace security at the think tank CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies), countries are resorting to “grey-zone aggression”. Through this grey-zone aggression, “countries are pushing the limits of acceptable behavior and challenging norms. They’re staying below the threshold of conflict”. Such behavior could lead to increased global tensions in the short-term. In the long-run, it could lead to disagreement on similar treaties that would stop countries from engaging in such risky behavior.
Implications of civilian and military conflict
Both military and civilian competition would have positive and negative implications for the global economy. The world needs to maximize the positive actions and control the potential negatives of the said competition. The positive benefits come from increased global knowledge as a result of these activities. Space and military pursuits have long been indirect sources of many of the world’s breakthrough innovations—including Wi-Fi and the internet, among many others, and this race is also expected to provide similar results.
The channel of delivery is expected to be faster this time around as compared to past inventions. This is because this time, the technology in the US is being developed by private firms. Furthermore, the Chinese are expected to share these technologies with state-supported technology firms, such as Huawei and ZTE. Over time, these technologies might lead to something groundbreaking, such as commercially available quantum internet.
Directly, space exploration can speed up efforts to mine asteroids and establish colonies on other planets. Both of these ventures would be sources of global economic growth for many centuries. It is also important to note that both the US and China have decided to specialize in different technology paths. This increases the probability of a country from Earth successfully reaching asteroids as well as other planets.
However, among all of this optimism are some reservations that need to be dealt with. First, there is the danger of satellite destruction leading to irreversible changes. Satellites are intended to provide many new services to individuals all over the world. However, they cannot do that if there is a Kessler syndrome in outer space. According to the creator of the Kessler theory, one satellite’s destruction may create a chain reaction whereby all of the satellites in a constellation collide into each other to create an orbiting debris field that denies access to outer space. Although NASA’s (National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s)project Ares does hope to prevent such a scenario, these efforts will ultimately need the cooperation of militarily competing forces. The hope lies in the international community ensuring that no rogue nation can initiate such a chain reaction.
Furthermore, there are also military implications of such a situation. In most cases, militaries will need to be reorganized around space. The United States has had its own space commands within its Air Force, Navy and other branches of its military as far back as 1982. However, now the US wants to set up a separate space command as an independent fighting force. Luckily, the reason for establishing such a force is to avoid a conflict by maintaining parity with Russian and Chinese weapons programs. The space program would help speed up the development of space weapons. Of course, such a move resembles the Russian move to integrate the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces and Russian Air Force into the Russian Aerospace Forces in 2015. During the same year, the Chinese also created the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF, 战略支援部队). This force used the unique approach of integrating cyber and electronic warfare with space capabilities into one entity.
Such a reorganization of the important role of space in military ventures may lead to prohibitions on collaboration among business partners, where the technology may be dual-use(military and civilian). Therefore, countries need to ensure that national-security-led, collaboration-inhibiting policies don’t block potentially rewarding collaborations among different countries.
Space is seeing renewed interest, with both military and civilian projects pushing the frontiers of capabilities. The civilian side of space exploration focuses on access to celestial bodies, while the military side focuses on defending assets and denying capabilities to hostile armies. Such a push is expected to have many positive implications for global economies, with expected potential breakthroughs. However, nations all over the world must ensure that military conflicts don’t bleed into potentially profitable business deals. This can be done by avoiding the destruction of satellites and promoting cross-border collaborations between different businesses.