A Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft (foreground) and Progress 37 resupply vehicle docked to the Pirs Docking Compartment on the International Space Station. Photo by NASA.
In the 2015 near-future novel Ghost Fleet, Russo-Chinese forces annihilate the U.S. constellation of satellites from orbit in a sudden surprise attack, leaving the superpower suddenly massively exposed in its own prized sphere of “information dominance.” Without access to the GPS, intelligence sharing, and force coordination systems so critical to 21st century warfare, US forces suddenly find themselves outmaneuvered and outgunned, forced to rely on the aging, non-networked hulls of the mothballed “ghost fleet” to respond to Chinese incursions across the Pacific. It’s a chilling portrait of future warfare that has taken the Washington defense establishment by storm, and which illustrates the degree to which the United States must focus on its space systems as a critical pillar of national security.
Experts have feared a Russia-China union since the Cold War days, but such dark predictions have never quite materialized, leading many policy experts to dismiss the relationship as doomed to never truly move past one of convenience. Just because the relationship doesn’t extend past convenience, however, doesn’t mean it can’t pose a direct threat to the West. Economically, Russia’s attractiveness as a mass market for Chinese goods cannot be dismissed for its impact in lessening China’s dependence on Western markets. Militarily, Russia and China continue to cooperate on the development of weapons systems, which directly challenge US military superiority.
The recent announcement that Russia and China would cooperate on developing engines and launch vehicles for delivering payloads into orbit is even more troubling news. Spaceflight has gone out of fashion in the United States, seen as the flashy McLaren supercar of the modern nation-state – a fun toy while you have it, but not strictly necessary or tasteful. After enjoying more than two decades of unchallenged access to GPS systems, global communications networks, and high-definition satellite imagery coverage, the United States has begun to consider its superiority in space a given. Russia and China, however, have most certainly taken note of the outsize impact such systems have on the American military and economy. And also unlike the US, Russia and China appreciate the incredibly fragile nature of these technologies upon which we place so much importance, and the rapidly approaching day when space is no longer a peaceful domain of the commons.
Russia and China have been focused on space cooperation at least since 2014, when they signed a mutual space exploration agreement. General statements of mutual understanding about the exploration of the cosmos are one thing – the recent engine agreement is another altogether. For one thing, the agreement indicates that the Russia-China space relationship is far more serious than a casual relationship of convenience might imply. For another, it represents a physical commitment to a first step in integrating anti-Western space launch capabilities for the 21st century.
While the Russians and Chinese plan their future zero-gee wedding, American launch capabilities progress at a markedly slower rate. At present, the United States depends exclusively on Russian rockets and Soyuz capsules to get its astronauts to and from the International Space Station – imagine the bind Putin could put America in if he decided to refuse our man in space a ride home. Besides the embarrassment of having to climb into bed (or, in this case, a Soyuz crash couch) with your erstwhile global nemesis, the United States has lagged behind in domestic launch capabilities since the shuttering of its space shuttle program five years ago. Since that time, private companies have stepped forward to take up the slack – SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and United Launch Alliance, in particular, play a huge role in maintaining national security launch capacity.
Still, relying on the private sector to accomplish such a critical national security task is foolhardy, at best. Private sector companies rely on foreign-made parts – including computer chips made in China – to ensure that critical systems work properly during launch (granted, most high-end US military systems rely on these same chips, but that is another problem for another day). Private companies are free to do business with whomever they like, prompting fears about the proliferation of space access. Furthermore, it is unclear if the private sector alone could sustain the launch tempo necessary to replenish significant losses in critical satellite systems should a virus or kinetic strike weapon be deployed against them in combat. The lag time required to generate a sufficient GPS constellation, for example, could stretch to months, resulting in significant reductions in US combat effectiveness and even lives lost. NASA is hard at work testing the launch stages for their new Space Launch System (SLS), but that device is being designed primarily for manned space exploration projects, not for national security missions.
Both Russia and China have demonstrated a tendency to ignore Western institutions and customs, and they are already well on their way to doing so in space as well. It is critical that the US have a robust military capability ready to meet them. Western observers should keep a close eye on the developing relationship between Russia and China and ensure that we are encouraging the development of sufficient capacity to keep pace with – or outperform – the space efforts of our adversaries.
Colin Reed is a recent graduate of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He received his undergraduate degrees in History and International Studies from North Carolina State University, where he was a junior fellow in the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and presented thesis research on the effectiveness of UCAV operations in Pakistan. He specializes in NATO-Russian relations, naval strategy, and intelligence methods. He is currently employed as an operations analyst in the private sector.