A Strategic Pivot to Outer Space

July 20, 2020
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In an era of increasingly sharp great power competition, Russia, China, and others are moving aggressively, pivoting to secure new strategic locations in the hopes of carving out exclusive spheres of influence. In this expanded competitive space, Russia is prioritizing military, economic, and strategic development into the Arctic and increasing its presence in the Middle East and Africa via its adventures in Libya. China is moving ahead with its One Belt, One Road project, seeking to connect to South and Central Asia and beyond while continuing its inexorable push to secure the South China Sea. Here, a massive, militarized island-building campaign is solidifying its de facto control of energy reserves and establishing fortified bases from which to defend and control transit routes for oil and gas and project power deep into Southeast Asia to intimidate other claimants.

In response, U.S. military strategy asserts that it, more than any other nation, can expand the competitive space, seizing the initiative to challenge competitors where it has advantages and where adversaries lack strength. For the United States, expanding the competitive space should focus on changing the game by leveraging national strengths and, more importantly, expanding the possibilities available to the world in the same manner that DARPA’s development of the internet set the foundation for the modern global information economy.

However, this call to strategic thinking has mostly gone unheeded, with the U.S. focusing on defeating competitors where they are strong and seeking to project military and strategic power into the teeth of prepared adversary defenses. In a zero-sum view of the world, committing the U.S. to squalid contests over control of certain geography and ever-more-depleted reserves of fossil fuels, U.S. relative decline is not a risk to be managed, but an inevitable consequence of a cramped and static world view.  To effectively expand the competitive space, the United States needs its own strategic pivot, but not to defend or seize any particular terrestrial geography.

The new Defense Space Strategy is a good start, setting conditions for U.S. military advantages in space and shaping strategic competition there. However, the impact of space will be far wider. As such, the U.S. should incorporate space development in a comprehensive way, emphasizing industrial presence in outer space for broader economic and strategic purposes. It should initiate and accelerate a decades-long process of relocating heavy industry and energy production off-planet and feeding that industry with resources gathered from deep space. After years of tinkering with information technologies, the U.S. should get back into the business of heavy industry, building an ever-larger off-world economy capable of supporting growing wealth and prosperity on Earth.

Such a pivot would allow the U.S. to counter the small-scale terrestrial land and maritime grabs of China, Russia, and Iran, and disrupt scarcity-based geopolitical competition on Earth. Perhaps most importantly, this pivot may serve to expand humanity’s strategic horizons, making terrestrial spheres of influence seem small, if not entirely obsolete, by adding massive new, untapped, and environmentally friendly resources into the global economy rather than becoming locked into a fixed, zero-sum, Earth-based resource extraction.

Calls to accelerate space exploration have a long and distinguished history. However, access has remained costly, depending on single-use, disposable rockets. Until recently, getting to orbit has been the functional equivalent of abandoning a Boeing 747 after a single cross-country flight.

In 2020, however, private space companies operate powerful and increasingly cheap rockets designed to launch payloads into space, return to Earth, and be reused many times. These flight-proven rockets are upending the economics of reaching orbit and disrupting the space launch industry. By contrast, Russia’s Roscosmos is protesting SpaceX’s low pricing, while NASA’s Space Launch System is wildly over budget and behind schedule. Both are struggling to keep disposable rocket concepts economically—and even technically—viable.

Crossing the sixty miles from the Earth’s surface to orbit is extremely difficult. In fact, most of the cost associated with operating comes from accelerating payloads the short distance out of the Earth’s deep gravity well—a shorter distance than from New York City to Philadelphia. The potentially radical reductions in the cost to reach orbit will encourage many new commercial projects and promise to put humanity—both people and machines—into space and keep them there over the long term.

Plummeting launch costs have already encouraged an array of novel commercial and military space applications, most prominently constellations of small, cheap, and mutually connected satellites to provide high-speed communications anywhere on Earth. In the span of a single year, one company, Starlink, has become the largest single satellite operator with another 10,000 satellites or more on the way.

SpaceX'sfirst Starship prototype (left) stands next to one of the Falcon 1 rocket first stages at the company's South Texas site in September 2019. (SpaceX)

Even the current market leaders—SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy—will soon be surpassed by far larger and even more capable rockets. These super heavy reusable rockets are an entirely new class of vehicle. In 2021, Blue Origin’s massive reusable New Glenn rocket will launch for the first time, capable of lifting 45 metric tons to low Earth orbit (LEO), only to be surpassed yet again in 2025 by SpaceX’s Starship, which is expected to deliver 100 metric tons to low Earth orbit, each flying several times per day. Super heavy multi-use rockets will bring aviation-like operations to space, entirely resetting understandings about what is possible in space over the next two decades.

As with any rapidly advancing technology, strategists will tend to overestimate what is possible in the short term with reusable rockets, while dramatically underestimating the realm of the possible in the long run. SpaceX alone describes building a thousand or more Starships. These are ludicrous numbers in the context of today’s space launch providers, but they would not be out of place in today’s wide-body aircraft manufacturing industry. Even building one-tenth this number would provide game-changing capacity to access space, comparable to the impact that converting from steam to diesel power had on the maritime shipping industry.

The U.S. should consider the infrastructure and national policy needed to make the most of this burgeoning national advantage and open space to ever-more expansive commercial ventures. The U.S. should shift most of the $3.5 billion it spends on space lift toward deep space exploration and development of space-based infrastructure such as service and maintenance of satellites in orbit and off-world mining technologies.

The pivot to space might begin by developing and deploying the infrastructure to refuel satellites in orbit. Although great strides have been made in electric and ion propulsion, on-orbit stocks would increase the resilience and flexibility of U.S. constellations and create a market for commercial services. Orbital refueling would dramatically expand the ability of satellites to maneuver, increasing their mission performance and allowing individual satellites to avoid attack by Russian or Chinese anti-satellite weapons. Every day a satellite can increase its endurance is a day that a new and expensive replacement does not have to be brought up from Earth.

A pivot to space should also encourage the development of dedicated deep space rockets and even nuclear-powered engines that would allow companies to bring back resources from deep space. Mining in space opens up the prospect of unlocking stored water and other volatiles for life support and for industries that break apart water for hydrogen and oxygen to be used for fuel. The development of deep space mining technologies and associated robotic, life support, and communications and sensing technologies will provide the foundation for off-world industry, allowing humans to live and work in space.

It will be critically important to choose the right target, and, in space, the energy requirement to reach a target in space—known as Delta-V—is king. Many near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) require relatively low Delta V making them easier to reach and perhaps more lucrative near-term economic targets than the Moon and Mars.

Artist's concept of the asteroid 16 Psyche, which is thought to be a stripped planetary core. (Maxar/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In 2022 a NASA mission to the metallic asteroid Psyche will provide an up-close look at the composition and structure of this class of space object. Mined metals from these asteroids could be brought back to Earth; even better, they could be used to jump-start a self-sustaining space-based manufacturing economy. Materials from near-Earth metallic asteroids could be transported to orbital factories with 3D printing capabilities to construct satellites and very large structures in space. Complex, high-value, low weight components could be reserved for the more expensive missions up from the Earth’s surface. Over the longer term, space-based manufacturing could build large-scale solar arrays to transmit clean solar power anywhere on Earth (or even the moon), and perhaps transmit energy to aircraft, ships, and other vehicles.

In an environment opened up by heavy, reusable rocket technology, space is much more than an abstract idea. Current U.S. security strategy lumps space together with cyberspace, the electromagnetic spectrum, and the information domain as an afterthought, separating outer space from the various regions of the world—the Indo-Pacific, Americas, Europe, and the Middle East. In the future, space should be added as a distinct region, with its own geography and distinct national objectives alongside the terrestrial regions. Moreover, a pivot to space should broaden national objectives far beyond its current focus on military and security issues.

The U.S. is beginning to move in the right direction, with a new executive order to encourage international support for private efforts to recover and use resources in outer space. The newly-established U.S. Space Force will also be an important component, perhaps evolving into a force giving the U.S. the means to monitor activities and engage in a wide range of operations to protect commerce, preserve space as a global commons, and conduct offensive and defensive operations in space when needed.

NASA can strongly contribute to the pivot to space by focusing research and development efforts on deep space exploration and advanced technologies related to operations and resource development in orbit.  It can accelerate these initiatives by taking full advantage of reusable rocket technology, leaving the launch business to the private sector, and directing these resources to the deep space technologies that will allow the United States to industrialize and commercialize the space domain.

A strategic pivot to space should have a significant international component and reflect the same open and inclusive use of the domain as the U.S. currently encourages in maritime and cyber environments. For example, Japan—with its own very capable space program, a new space domain mission unit, and an intense need to counter Chinese missile-armed coercion in the Western Pacific—would be a natural partner. Later this year, a Japanese astronaut will be among the four-person crew of the first operational manned mission to the International Space Station from U.S. soil since the end of the shuttle program nearly a decade ago. The pivot should include Japan, perhaps beginning with the development and fielding of vast constellations of space-based sensors and interceptors for ballistic and hypersonic missile defense, maintained from and eventually constructed in space.

Others could have a significant role, such as the Five-Eyes (FVEYS) intelligence-sharing alliance, which could develop common standards and operating principles in space—including space situational awareness initiatives and joint economic development among this close set of partners. Even NATO recognizes the importance of space to the collective security of its members, and it could have a role in protecting member state’s space and other interests from Russian threats in and from space, developing allied concepts and tactics, techniques, and procedures for military operations in space.

When technical capabilities change so radically, new modes of national competitive strategies can emerge. For the foreseeable future, reusable rockets are likely to be in American hands, and this technology is one of only a few in which its relative advantage may be increasing. The U.S. can begin a national effort to exploit this competitive advantage to expand the competitive space—to outer space, as it were—and push great power competition with China and Russia in a new and favorable direction. Both China and Russia are expanding their military space capabilities to counter the U.S. military; however, the rapid emergence of active U.S. commercial space companies with a presence in space threatens to dwarf competing efforts by these nations.

A Chinese Shenzhou 9 spacecraft Long March rocket launches on 16 Jun 2012. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

A rapidly advancing fleet of very large, reusable launch systems will enable the U.S. to build a massive space-based industrial infrastructure that dwarfs adversary geographic claims on Earth and opens potentially vast new sources of wealth and strategic advantage for the United States and its allies and partners.  Encouraging this industry today will mean the U.S. will be the nation with the most experience operating in space, compounding its considerable advantages in reusable space launch technology.  Over a decade or more, the U.S. will have in place the foundations of a potentially multi-trillion dollar space-based economy and vast commercial, scientific, and military experience in orbit upon which to draw.

Space, already near, will be much more accessible—in a sense closer—as large reusable rockets become commonplace. Increasing access to space means that low Earth orbit will soon be America’s front door. Proliferating adversary satellites—many capable of kinetic and non-kinetic actions—will prowl less than 100 miles away from U.S. cities, much as Russian submarines patrol the U.S. coast today. The U.S. should be there first, and in force, ensuring that China and Russia will struggle to keep pace in light of overwhelming U.S. economic, military, and strategic advantages in orbit.

Jeffrey Becker is a joint concepts consultant to the U.S. Joint Staff J7, Joint Force Development. The author would like to thank Daniel Suarez and Mike Winstead for providing the spark of inspiration. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the Joint Staff, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

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