Op-ed | The importance of thinking internationally on space collaborations

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In October 2017, the National Space Council started off its first meeting since re-establishment setting an important tone – that international partners bring value to the U.S. space program. There, Vice President Mike Pence lauded the moon as a “venue to strengthen our commercial and international partnerships,” and both council members and industry representatives focused on the International Space Station as evidence of arguably the most successful international collaboration ever in orbit.

Beyond civil space partnerships, allied defense relationships in space also deliver benefit for the United States. Benefits include the capabilities, resources, and technologies that allies and partners bring, such as the Canadian Sapphire satellite which serves as a contributing sensor to the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. Such burden sharing in turn creates a stronger and more resilient space enterprise for deterring or defending against adversary threats. Allies and partners also provide the U.S. geographic advantages, for example providing a much-needed Southern Hemisphere location for tracking space objects, as provided by Australia. Allies and partners also share information with the U.S. and contribute to the legitimacy of U.S. security activities in space by, for example, providing independent attribution of nefarious activities in orbit.

Furthermore, these benefits contribute to the four lines of effort described in the implementation plan for the National Space Strategy, as spelled out by Assistant Secretary of Defense Kenneth Rapuano in his testimony to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces in March 2018. Per Rapuano, the four lines of effort are:

  1. Mission assurance
  2. Deterrence and warfighting
  3. Organizational support
  4. Creating conducive domestic and international environments for U.S. space objectives

It is fair to say each of these lines of effort are strengthened with the involvement of allies and partners.

Nevertheless, partnerships in the space domain rarely operate perfectly, even when all partners are acting in good faith. No one ally of the United States can match the level of personnel or spending compared to U.S. national security space programs. There may be gaps in defense policy and law that limits participation for specific missions. Cultural barriers may impede on the effectiveness of partnering, and technological barriers may inhibit interoperability. Even after years of experience in sharing information in a coalition construct, space data and information sharing amongst allies continues to be a significant hurdle.

The National Space Council’s appreciation for the contributions allies and partners can make toward implementation of the National Space Strategy through the four lines of effort, along with the council’s appreciation for the roadblocks to fully realizing the benefits of international partnerships, will be key to the success of the United States and its allies and friends in space. Indeed, experience has shown that strong leadership that champions alliances and partnerships is key to overcoming the roadblocks. All Council members are stakeholders in ensuring the United States gains the most from these partnerships, and the council’s leadership is essential to ensuring that the United States reaps the greatest rewards from collaboration. Truly, “America first does not mean America alone” is a meaningful phrase for the future of space collaboration in the United States.


Charity Weeden is Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and President of Lquinox Consulting LLC. She served for 23 years as an officer and air operator in the Royal Canadian Air Force, supporting both national defence and civil space programs.

Dr. Michael Gleason is National Security Senior Project Engineer in The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy. He served 29 years in the Air Force and is an accomplished national security space expert with extensive experience in space policy, strategy, satellite operations, and international affairs, including five years at the Pentagon and two years at the Department of State.

Dr. Gleason and Ms. Weeden are co-authors of an Aerospace Corporation Center for Space Policy and Strategy paper entitled, “Alliance Rationales and Roadblocks: A U.S.-Canada Space Study.”

Download the paper here: http://www.aerospace.org/publications/policy-papers/alliance-rationales-roadblocks-a-u-s-canada-space-study/