Op-ed | Space race with China is not just a military competition
Military space isn’t the only domain where China is catching up, if not passing us by. While we are having discussions about the future of the International Space Station, China launched, deployed and presently inhabits the Tiangong space station in near Earth orbit.
Beijing also has designs on the moon, planning to launch three missions over the course of the next several years as part of the country’s lunar exploration program, which aims for crewed landings by the 2030s. This program includes new launch vehicles, a next-generation spacecraft, and a lunar lander. Oh, and by the way, the planned lunar missions include a joint base on the surface of the moon with Russia—truly strategic competition in space.
Beijing is moving with confidence and alacrity to ensure its position in near Earth orbit and beyond. The Chinese Communist Party has its eyes on cislunar and lunar space, and wants to ensure that Beijing and not Washington defines the new rules of the road for outer space, and those rules will not be in the interest of the West.
Washington is taking steps to ensure that the West isn’t pushed out of space entirely. The establishment of the Space Force and the re-establishment of Space Command are two signs that we’re beginning to take the China challenge seriously and prepare for space as a war-fighting domain. These two actions are examples of excellent bipartisan efforts in Congress.
We need that same bipartisanship when it comes to scientific and exploratory space.
The Senate recognized this by including space in the China competitiveness legislation known as the America COMPETES Act. Unfortunately the House version has failed to do so. The legislation does not contain guidance or direction on our civic and scientific space priorities. If we are to compete with China in space then Congress must be unified and bipartisan in giving direction, guidance and support. This is a significant oversight by the House of Representatives and should be addressed. China is not going to wait for us to get this right.
Guidance regarding investment in military and scientific space sends a signal to the Chinese Communist Party that we are serious about competing on orbit. It also reassures our allies that we want to maintain our leadership and our values in space as here on earth.
Strategic competition, whether military or scientific in nature, needs bipartisanship. This cannot be a partisan issue or one that gets subsumed by party politics or narrow interests. We can and we know how to compete in space. In the opening stages of the Cold War, the Soviet Union set nearly every milestone from the first satellite to the first person in orbit. We were caught on the backfoot, but surged ahead, captured the country’s spirit and imagination, and planted the American flag on the moon.
We’re right back where we were in 1957. This isn’t a Sputnik moment (a truly overused cliché) but it is a spirit of Sputnik. China is racing ahead in space and we’re unfortunately resting on our accomplishments, impressive though they are. Congress has the opportunity to help set the stage for America’s future in and leadership of space. We must define the future, or it will be defined for us.
The leaps and bounds that China is making on orbit should give all of us cause for concern. In 2019, Beijing landed a probe on the far side of the moon, the first-time humanity has ever done so. Perhaps more impressively than that, they placed a relay satellite in a stationary orbit (the so-called L2 point) to pass signals from earth to that probe. This is a position beyond geo-stationary orbit and from which Beijing could, in theory, keep tabs on our most sensitive intelligence satellites.
Just last year, Beijing demonstrated its increasing capabilities yet again, testing a hypersonic glide vehicle that appears to have deployed a payload in-flight. While some will dismiss this as a capability that both the United States and Russia tried and discarded, that misses the point. The point is this is further demonstration at just how fast China is moving in military space—that five- or ten-year technology gap between our two countries likely can be measured in days, if at all.
Beijing is competing in every arena and every domain, and this includes space, and we need to stay ahead if we are to ensure America’s leadership in space. This needs bipartisan guidance and direction from Congress, today.
Mike Rogers is a former member of Congress from Michigan and served as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He is the co-chair of the National Security Space Program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and the founder of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs.