US Space Capabilities: Maintaining the High Ground

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In China, the US faces its first real competitor in space-borne capabilities since the Soviet Union.

Since the middle of the 20th century and continuing into the first decades of the 21st, the United States has possessed an unparalleled command of outer space. That command, in turn, has brought with it immeasurable national security benefits. Capabilities the US has come to take for granted such as rapid transport, modern and clear communications across vast distances, and unparalleled surveillance facilities all depend, in whole or in part, on space-borne assets.

In addition, the US way of war, which has become heavily dependent on precision weaponry, information dominance and an unquestioned command of strategic commons, would not be possible without the sophisticated array of satellites and other capabilities America has put into orbit over the past decades. In both the civilian and military realms, and at strategic and tactical levels, US dominance in space is and will continue to be a vital element of the nation’s overall strategic position. However, ongoing cost trends and declining competitiveness threaten to put those capabilities in jeopardy, and will impose an increasing strain on America’s ability to maintain its accustomed advantage in space. This degradation in US capability could not come at a worse time, as the country faces a rising space-faring challenger in China.

Systemic Problems

According to Arati Prabhakar, the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), launching military assets into space is becoming unsustainably expensive. Each launch currently costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and takes years to plan for. And that cost is rising. This astronomical price tag is driven by a number of factors that are hard to change in the short-term, including limited launch facilities and infrastructural bottlenecks.

However, the biggest contributor is, without a doubt, the current configuration of the military space launch system. The same two defense contractors — Boeing and Lockheed Martin — have been the main providers of launch services for decades, allowing the system to ossify, removing most pressure to keep costs low. In 2006, the two companies formed the United Launch Alliance (ULA) consortium, eliminating any vestige of competition from the system. The US military space program, as currently constituted, is oligopolistic and works to inflate per-launch costs, and unfortunately shows no sign of change from within.

This challenge could not have come at a worse time, since the US is now facing in China the first real competitor in space-borne capabilities since the Soviet Union. While US space efforts have slowed under massive cost pressures and bureaucratic inefficiency, 2013 was a remarkably active year for the Chinese space program. 

Further complicating matters, the evolution of the US space program over the past years has left all government launches completely dependent on foreign assistance — specifically, from Russia. Most launches conducted by the ULA use the Atlas rocket, which currently requires a Russian-made engine, the RD-180, to fly. Recently, the future supply of these engines was threatened by tensions between Washington and Moscow over events in Ukraine, with the owner of the engine manufacturer, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin, going so far as to threaten to cut off supplies. Although pragmatism and commercial motivations have for the moment kept that threat from being carried out, the episode did expose an unacceptable weakness in an area vital to US national security. In a hypothetical future crisis with Russia, rash moves and short tempers could completely cut off the supply of the engines, leaving future US satellites and other space assets stuck on the ground. While such an eventuality is far from certain, the threat to the American space program is real.

As the US moves further into the 21st century, the need for high-end space-based capabilities, during peacetime and war, is only going to grow. In recent decades, the American way of war has depended on information dominance and domain awareness — capabilities that, in turn, depend on space-based technology for their continued existence and predictability in a contested theater of operations. At the same time, the US economy is ever more information-driven, depending in part on government space-borne assets such as the Global Positioning System.

Given that these underlying trends are not likely to change any time soon, the US will continue to depend on secure and affordable access to space, even as the current launch infrastructure becomes increasingly unpredictable, expensive and time-consuming to field and maintain. This kind of prohibitive cost — in both time and money — will, in time, put severe limitations on American flexibility and capability in space.

The Chinese Challenge

This challenge could not have come at a worse time, since the US is now facing in China the first real competitor in space-borne capabilities since the Soviet Union. While US space efforts have slowed under massive cost pressures and bureaucratic inefficiency, 2013 was a remarkably active year for the Chinese space program. Among other developments, the period saw the second crewed mission to space lab Tiangong-1; the beginning of plans for a successor lab and, eventually, a full-scale Chinese space station; and the landing of a robotic rover on the moon — and this is only what was publicly acknowledged.

On the clandestine side of things, in fall 2013, American observers detected a Chinese satellite, designated SY-7, behaving rather oddly. The craft changed its orbit several times and was able to make close-in rendezvous with other satellites, something a typical communications station would have no reason to do. Independent analysts concluded the maneuvering could be a test for a space-borne anti-satellite weapon, indicating a covert military dimension to Beijing’s space program. When compared with the US launch schedule, China’s is a hive of activity — and cheaper too. While the China’s presence in space is still far behind America technologically, it has already surpassed the US in pace and affordability.

The resulting environment will offer more choice and cost savings to the government, and will give the American space launch industry just the spark it needs to compete with China in the decades to come. Over time, these initiatives will almost certainly bear fruit, giving US dominance in space a new lease on life.

Assuming costs continue to spiral, launch timetables remain stuck in the mud, and the supply of Russian engines are threatened from political difficulties, the US will be at a sharp disadvantage in space-borne capabilities vis-à-vis China in the years and decades to come. If Washington hopes to maintain even a portion of the edge it has now, drastic steps must be taken to change the trajectory of the American space program. Fortunately, options to do so are at hand.

First and foremost, the Pentagon should allow the private company SpaceX to begin competing against the ULA for launch contracts immediately. SpaceX’s impressive record since its founding in 2002 shows that such a move will bring immediate savings. In virtually every possible dimension of rocketry, SpaceX offers advantages. Both of its current mainline rockets — the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy — offer a competitive alternative to the ULA’s Atlas rocket, with large payloads and lower per-launch costs.

Moreover, the prospect of an independent and entrepreneurial company competing to reach a lower bottom line could yield step changes in American rocket and other space-related technology, while continuing to achieve lower costs. Most promising, SpaceX is currently experimenting with a reusable rocket that can return to earth after delivering its payload. Integrating such a spacecraft into US military launches would not only be vastly cheaper than the current regime, but it would also have important national security benefits in snapping America’s dependence on a steady stream of Russian-made engines.

To be sure, SpaceX does not, and should not, hold a monopoly over future American launches. The ULA has decades of valuable expertise, an understanding of government needs, and could still make a valuable contribution to the US space program. However, the current structure is too bureaucratically inefficient to provide the good, quick and cost-effective service the country needs. To save the best of the existing US military launch system, the Pentagon should require that Boeing and Lockheed Martin dissolve the ULA consortium and compete against SpaceX for contracts separately.

The resulting environment will offer more choice and cost savings to the government, and will give the American space launch industry just the spark it needs to compete with China in the decades to come. Over time, these initiatives will almost certainly bear fruit, giving US dominance in space a new lease on life.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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