The New Space Race
Photo Credit: ESA
By Tai Wei Lim

The New Space Race

Jul. 20, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Since US President Donald Trump announced the formation of a Space Force in June 2018, the space race has been re-ignited. Trump specifically cited Russia and China in prompting this initiative. The Trump administration did not want Russia and China leading the US in this field. Therefore, a new military arm will be created to take care of existing outer space weapons systems and the development of new systems.


There have been space races in the past but, this time round, Trump’s initiative is not solely reliant on state funding. The Trump administration wants to reach out to wealthy Americans with a penchant for space exploration, for example Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Trump’s greatest challenge is getting this initiative approved by the Congress. Members of Congress may question the extra resources needed for this initiative and would want to know the deficiencies of existing agencies in handling space matters.


The other less challenging issue is to convince the Air Force which has purview over space in the current US military structure. Despite some resistance, the Trump administration and its supporters are keen to push through the initiative. Trump has ordered the Pentagon to make it happen.


On June 18, Trump signed the executive order to establish a space force after a meeting with the National Space Council. With his signature, Trump initiated the process to develop the 6th branch of the US military — Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and now the Space Force. He subsequently promoted the space force initiative in his tour of the US, addressing the Marine Corps and his rally in Minnesota in late June. In that rally, Trump supporters chanted “Space Force!” in unison.


Historically, the first space race in the world took place between the Kennedy Administration — during which the US space program took off in 1961 — and the Soviet Union. In the first space race, the early movers were the Soviets, who launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957. The Soviets also sent Yuri Gagarin to be the first man into space to orbit the Earth. By the end of the 1960s, not only had the Americans caught up, they even had three Apollo 11 astronauts (Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin) land on the moon.


The second space race also took place between the Americans and the Soviet Union during the era of the Reagan administration in the 1980s. The US announced its space-based weapons system, officially known as the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI, otherwise known as the Star Wars program, named after the iconic Hollywood movie). There was a defensive orientation to this system, embedding the capability to bring down ballistic missiles, especially the fearsome intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). At that point of time, only three countries in the world had possession of ICBMs — the US, Soviet Union, and China. But interceptors were not only the weapon systems conceived in the Star Wars program. Both land- and sea-based laser systems were also to be deployed under the plan. In those weapons system, laser beams were designed to obliterate Soviet missiles.


This forced the Soviets to play catch up. The expenses associated with this catch-up and a protracted war in Afghanistan bankrupted the Soviet Union’s budget, partially leading to its eventual defeat in the Cold War. However, ironically, the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union made the Star Wars system irrelevant. The peace dividend arising from the end of the Cold War was symbolized by President George H. W. Bush’s initiative for a new world order.


Many potential advanced technologies are dependent on the success of the US space program and the integrity of its network of satellites.

Fast forward to the 21st century, a new space race has begun and, this time, it is perceived to be between the US and China. While the Americans are setting up a Space Force, the Chinese space program was already conceived and operated by China’s People’s Liberation Army. Their medium-term goals are to build a space station and carry out moon landings.


The Chinese are constructing the Long March 9 heavy duty rockets that can carry big payloads into the space, especially to low orbits where television transmission and weather satellites are located. When implemented, these rockets can carry heavier loads than their US counterparts. China has also launched satellites that can capture different views of the moon (including its dark side) and are currently building rovers that can explore the moon’s surface.


Both China and the US wants to put humans on the moon. For the Americans, it is a return to the moon since they first landed in the first space race. The US wants to establish its presence on the moon and then use the moon as a base for further exploration to Mars. Not far from the strategic value of a possible moon base, there is also the potential of mining minerals on the moon. Currently, the US has a technological advantage in this area. Not only has the US tested moon samples, the US has a lead in Mars exploration as well. They succeeded in reaching and orbiting Mars and they have also successfully landed a Mars Rover robotic probe that can evaluate soil samples on Mars. The Europeans, Japanese, and even Indians have tried to achieve or replicate these feats and they have not succeeded thus far.


Trump is an unconventional president. He has done many things contrary to the conventional wisdom of the US establishment. In the case of the White House, Trump brushed aside former President Barack Obama’s worries about the militarization of space. Opponents of space militarization are keen to preserve legal norms preventing the introduction of weapons into space.


Objectively, the militarization of space is nothing new. The intelligence arms of advanced states and their militaries are already connected with their satellites orbiting the Earth. Satellites form the backbone of the Global Positioning System (GPS) which can guide cruise missiles to their targets. Any attempts to disrupt the GPS can bring down the US’ communications system. China, Russia and the EU all have plans for their own alternatives to the GPS.


Many potential advanced technologies are dependent on the success of the US space program and the integrity of its network of satellites. The future of Internet of Things (IoT) for example is reliant on the proper functioning of communications satellites. Communications satellites are also vital for security. Satellites serve as the eyes and ears of the military. If those systems are disrupted or compromised, it can affect the military capabilities of the US air, land, marines and naval forces.


In addition, many weapons systems today depend on three- or four-dimensional warfare. For example, lightly armed aircraft carriers are escorted and protected by the destroyers and frigates in its naval fleet, submarines guard the fleet underwater, fighter jets fly overhead to strike enemy fighters beyond the horizon and all of their weapons systems and intelligence gathering are linked to the satellites in space. The US is therefore keen to ensure that their satellites remain safe from assault or attacks by other rivals or disruptions to land-based systems or infrastructure from space.


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