Commentary | U.S. Strategy 2020: Facing a Multipolar Future

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As the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama launches its space policy — both civil and military — the space context within which the policy will be affected is changing rapidly. By 2020, several nations will have new capabilities in space, along with civil capabilities, rivaling today’s sensing and communications capabilities possessed by the U.S. military. And with the barriers to entry for space operations going down, multipolar space — or several global players shaping core space capabilities — will be a fundamental reality by 2020.

No matter what the United States does, multipolar space will create new policy realities. There will be alternatives to working with the United States for human and robotic space explorations. There will be alternative constellations to U.S. global positioning systems. And Europe, India, China and Japan will all have significant space assets, which can operate as magnets attracting the iron filings of space activities. Space will become a multiple Venn diagram of activity.

Yet the U.S. space debate is caught on dead center and seems to assume hegemony or a U.S.-centric “multinationalism.” The reality by 2020 will leave such assumptions in the dustbin of history.

The United States needs to craft a space policy now that takes into account the strategic realities coming into view. Without significant investments and redirection of efforts to embrace an engagement policy on the international domain, one that accepts the legitimacy of the leadership of others, the United States will neither dominate nor lead in space by 2020.

Although the Obama administration has decided not to return to the Moon via a new human space exploration program, other key players in U.S. space policy — in Congress and the space industrial community — do not agree, and see this much like former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin sees it: as a rallying effort to shape new capabilities.

Another challenge facing the United States is the strategic inertia driven by the intelligence community construct still largely shaping U.S. national security space. This construct drives the technology toward larger satellites, ever-greater resolution for satellites and a continued lockhold on exchange of data from those satellites.

The alternatives being proposed under the rubric of operational responsive space — new launcher and satellite options — are where commercial and other national players are often starting their efforts to generate space capabilities. The historical legacy of success for the United States is turning into a conceptual chokehold on executable innovation and a further barrier to collaborating in the emerging multipolar space era.

The long list of capabilities that are likely to be operational by 2020 includes:

  • Chinese twin capabilities for GPS and missiles for the global marketplace that draw upon their GPS system.
  • Commercial sensor and communications satellites that deliver capabilities now considered strategic in character.
  • Small satellites launched and available for coordination into constellations for the use of various clusters of states, including Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Europe and Asia.
  • Europe playing a key role in driving the evolution of applications for GPS.
  • Significant global capabilities for reconnaissance for intelligence and support of operations with separate and coordinated European capabilities, in India with dual-use systems, and by the Chinese.
  • Global telecommunications services for military and security operations outside of U.S. control (Europe).
  • Responsive access to space (with, for instance, an air-launched project in France not yet decided but technologically feasible).
  • Responsive small satellites (in Europe).
  • Hypersonic demonstrators (Russia, India and Japan).
  • Space situational awareness (Europe and China).
  • Anti-ballistic exoatmospheric missiles with anti-satellite capabilities (Europe, China and India).
  • Human access to space (Russia, China and India).
  • Docking in space and an alternative to the international space station (China).
  • Robotic Moon missions (Europe, Japan, China and India).
  • Robotic Mars missions (Europe, Russia and India).

Such capabilities allow for alternative poles for leadership in space:

India already is launching programs with European and American equipment on board; it could easily become a multinational powerhouse.

China wishes to be a multinational leader, but its nationalistic ambitions may get in the way; its approach may be more to use space for asserting national technological power rather than crafting an effective multinational approach. But it will create exportable opportunities, notably for its missile business.

Russia will be back and more assertive in terms of core launchers and satellite capabilities.

Japan remains an uncertain player, but core capabilities exist if the national will is there to operate in various domains of launch and satellite capabilities.

New players such as Brazil are likely to arise as the cost to entry is reduced either by a glut of launcher capacity driving down prices or by the emergence of globally responsive space options.

As satellite constellations become assembled from either the top down or the bottom up, services will be globally available for communications or situational awareness.

And as states such as Iran add access to or engagement in multipolar space capabilities, one gets the sense of how the world will be different a decade out.

Although the technology and capabilities advance, policy thinking remains stuck in neutral. The core question facing the Obama administration and its successor is simple: How will the United States operate in the world of multipolar space powers? What will it contribute and how will it remain a global space leader in the decades ahead?

Robbin F. Laird is head of ICSA LLC, a consulting firm based in the United States and France, and co-founder of the Web site Second Line of Defense (www.SLDinfo.com), which deals with evolving global military capabilities. Alain Dupas is a European space expert and the author of many books on science, technology and space issues.