Senior policymakers have had much to say lately about the overall health of the United States’ space industry, especially about those highly innovative and competitive mavericks helping to lead the way during the pandemic. Their latest efforts involve endless requests for information that in the end only amount to piles of paper. While this mindless cycle of drawing board strategy continues to keep the lights on in many Washington consultancies, it unfortunately falls short to improve U.S. space capability, promote American entrepreneurial innovation, or accelerate government timelines. Meanwhile China, our near-peer rival, advances and is now breathing down our neck in the race for space. Our feeble, lukewarm effort to “try” with information collation and analysis paralysis might maintain the status quo, but it almost certainly guarantees we fumble the opportunity our nascent commercial space industry has laid at our feet.
“Do or do not, there is no try.” We must prioritize “doing” over just “trying,” which has become the 21st century policy cop-out to appease a bipartisan base. Doing – be it rapidly producing, fielding, or launching real space systems – is what matters. While we have been “trying,” China has completely retooled to capitalize on space technology advances, and its leaders understand that the best way to win is by being proactive. While much of Washington has spent its precious time in tiresome semantic debates over naming conventions, street addresses, and iconography, China has been working to advance technologically, economically, and militarily.
In 2017, China amended its national intelligence law, which made information data produced or collected by any space entity – “private” or government – considered national intelligence and therefore property of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Such autocratic methods and restrictions on free enterprise, individual liberty, and justice represent an ideological adversary to America and the liberal international order installed post-WWII.
And a technologically competitive adversary at that, especially when one considers that China, despite its rigidity, still chases scientific and technological development with vigor. Deng Xiaoping’s Theory of Three Represents is a cultural staple in Chinese society and the basis for China’s scientific outlook on development. Relevant to the space industry, China’s “private” launch company has raised the funds necessary to complete their next generation smallsat launch system. Besides the investments being made, many in our community see China’s reusable space programs and its unusually similar nature to our own as evidence that outright intellectual property theft is on the table as well.
Unsurprisingly, China also continues to place great emphasis on its economic strength, powering through this global pandemic to come out ahead. Within the space industry in particular, China is ingratiating itself into space industries around the world through its seemingly benevolent HEAD Aerospace Group (HEAD). A member of the IAF since 2012, HEAD is working hard to partner with (and eventually edge out) leading Western aerospace firms.
China is equally as ambitious within the United States. The Defense Department’s most recent report indicates that eleven Chinese companies are openly operating within American borders (though this number could be higher, considering what the DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) has found). Frighteningly, the DoD concludes that “China participated in ~16% of all venture deals in 2015 up from 6% average participation rate during 2010-2015. China is investing in critical future technologies that will be foundational for future innovations both for commercial and military applications.” The report explicitly mentions areas of robotics, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, gene editing, and financial technology – each one essential to a 21st century industrial superpower.
The Defense Secretary also reports that China’s military, which was uneven and antiquated in 2000, is now far ahead, outpacing that of even the U.S. in critical technical industries like ballistic and cruise missiles, shipbuilding, and air defense. Spelling further trouble in America’s future space industry, China is also underwriting the export of that technology to anyone with money, political capital, or both.
In light of China’s technological, economic, and military advances, Washington must reacquaint itself with what the US does best – actually doing, not just trying. For America to win the new space race, it must reward industry for producing and deploying systems rather than more stacks of paper. When building and fielding is rewarded, even more of America’s new innovators will join the space industry, far more inspired by this than by their social media feeds.
The best way to ensure that America’s newest space companies don’t lose to the Chinese is to buy what’s useful from those who have goods or service to sell, and not try to remold the military according to the whims of venture firms. The United States has leveraged commercial platforms with military application in the past and can do it again to save billions of dollars, promote American commercial enterprise, and win wars. A prime example of this is the Air Force leveraging hundreds of Boeing’s commercial 707 aircraft to carry out the lion’s share of the less glamorous Air Force missions for over 50 years. Some leaders today might question the effectiveness of using commercial systems for military application, but the 707 and many other commercial platforms were key to our strategy during the Cold War.
I am routinely asked what our government can do to help our new industry win against a Chinese government determined to snuff ours out. The answer is painfully simple: to do. To continuously and openly compete for award fixed-price contracts to deliver actual products and services the Space Force can use today at a lower price than they are currently paying. Fortunately, the U.S. commercial and entrepreneurial space industry is mature and now able to deliver highly capable space systems and services, much like the launches SpaceX began delivering to NASA several years ago.
This isn’t about one nation besting another for dominance in innocuous consumer goods like mobile phones or video games. The space domain is the new and unlimited frontier; and the competition centers around which values will govern it. China has decided to engage in this fight by employing a total war mentality to win it technologically, economically, and militarily. With it breathing down our neck, America should be mindful of a Chinese idiom, one that embodies the essence of China’s space program, “The fish has evolved into a dragon.” We must defeat the dragon to secure the new domain. Not just with a reworked Cold War containment strategy, but with a game plan that allows a liberal economic order to win against an autocratic one. The only question left is “Will we do it?”