Russia’s military action in space should again remind us of the intersectional nature of the space domain and the significant role that the National Space Council (NSC) plays. The NSC is now an indispensable institution, once created to address the complex policy issues at the nexus where national security and space economy meet. This recent Russian provocation, after a decade of increasingly hostile and unwarned space actions by China, India, and North Korea, demands urgent NSC action.
The minor mention at the council’s first meeting this week doesn’t seem to appreciate the full magnitude of what is at stake here. This is likely the last dot before a Pearl Harbor event of some kind and the NSC has no option but to spearhead a very public, American-led international coalition to codify an international policy response against an imminent threat to the open use of space.
If it does not and anti-satellite weapons demonstrations continue unabated, Western democratic values will erode even further, and the space domain will slip into the hands of nascent autocratic rulers who don’t believe in anything of the sort.
For a rapidly growing, multi-trillion-dollar economic sector over the next 20 years, the impact would be equally perilous.
Private investors throughout the world are the economic fuel behind new entrants in the space economy. The growth generated from investments will be left unrealized, however, if the government falls short in protecting the space domain. An unsafe domain would make space a far riskier investment, and the nascent economy that is projected to grow trillions in new market value in the coming decades will grind to a halt. Even worse, virtually every other economic sector will severely degrade because of its inability to leverage the productivity gains from space data. The absence of GPS alone would be catastrophic to transportation, banking, farming, and all forms of government services — from stop lights to emergency response.
As many in Congress have already noted, we should be concerned with the national security implications of not only Russia’s recent action, but also that it is hot on the heels of similar antagonistic moves by other nations. The United States has been essential to preserving Western values against the many forms of authoritarianism that have tried to take root over the last 80 years. Today, it remains the world’s best hope to lead through institutional frameworks.
Our highest priority must be to secure a framework to discourage such recent threatening behavior. With every dot drawing this line to space autocracy, we are one step closer to its being irreversible.
All other space policy matters must come second to addressing this pressing matter, regardless of whether it continues to make headlines weeks from today or not. It still keeps investors and entrepreneurs in the new space economy awake at night because so much is at stake. The NSC must place the highest priority on this issue and not let it languish in the seemingly endless interagency process where important policy issues go to die.
Since December 1941, U.S. historians and military leaders alike have referred to a “Pearl Harbor event” as shorthand for an unwarned attack that changes the course of American history. The looming threat of such an event is what keeps the best of our military’s leadership up at night, worried that they might miss the warning signs and hoping that they are better prepared for what’s to come than their predecessors were throughout history.
Anticipating such things, or “connecting the dots” as it has come to be called, is never easy. In fact, institutions have been created throughout history after catastrophe has struck for the very purpose of never letting it happen again. In other words, to transfer the knowledge and experience for the benefit of future generations.
As the dust settled following the second World War, then President Truman created the United Nations and NATO for the very same reason – to prevent the world from devolving into autocratic rule. Neither he nor his institutions were perfect, but they have cemented American leadership and values on the world stage and preserved them for the following 75 years.
We can start to connect the dots now as they relate to the space domain, which points a straight line towards a worrying future. An autocratic Russia, which demonstrated its nesting satellite capability, recently shot down a satellite without warning. As the weeks tick by, the expanding minefield of thousands of pieces of debris left from the explosion now complicates every nation and company’s peaceful ambitions in space.
Feigned surprise aside, no serious policymakers questioned whether Russia could execute such a thing, especially given its full rate production on hypersonic space weapons. But what is a mystery is why? This leaves more than a few of us wondering if it was intended to be an orbital ransom note to the West, holding our GPS and other satellites hostage while conducting aggressive action elsewhere. Could this be a not too subtle reminder of what will happen to our satellites if we decide to mettle in Russia’s affairs?
Much like how the Truman administration set the table for democracy to prevail decades ago, the current administration has the unique opportunity to lay the foundation to ensure a century of freedom in space, and the world’s governance of this century’s space domain will be charted by American leadership. Ultimately, however, it will be up to the NSC to decide whether it will be a zero-sum, autocratic wasteland or a debris-free orbital oasis governed by the consent of the free nations.
Charles Beames is chairman of the SmallSat Alliance, an industry association.