Watch Out for Falling Shrapnel
Joshua Carlson’s Spacepower Ascendant lays out the risks America faces in the evolving contest to use space to national advantage.
by Joshua P. Carlson (independently published, 257 pp., $19.99)
It’s become clear: The United States and China are locked in a new space race. China’s mission, to contest America’s relative hegemony on the ultimate high ground is gaining momentum fast. Joshua Carlson, a civilian U.S. Air Force employee, helps us understand what’s at stake in his Spacepower Ascendant: Space Development Theory and a New Space Strategy. The book provides an incisive new framework for organizing the way we should think about space—and makes clear what might happen if we don’t think about it.
In June China announced good news: Three Chinese taikonauts—roughly, “space sailors”—were launched from the Gobi Desert to China’s new space station, where they are slated to live and work for three months. But this achievement came on the heels of something more troubling: In May China’s Long March 5B rocket, carrying materials for the space station, collapsed upon re-entry. As it burned, it spun and broke apart unpredictably; China did little to alert people on the ground or protect them from the falling debris. For a few days there was a hysteria unrivaled in the popular discussion of space for at least a decade, until the materials finally landed in the Indian Ocean.
As former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told me at the time of the May collapse, “This wasn’t a unique event with the Long March 5B. We have very little—almost no—diplomatic interactions with China” involving space “because of these types of events.” Since 2011 a congressional amendment has prevented American cooperation with China in space because of what was seen as repeated irresponsible Chinese behavior, some of which raised national security concerns. The Chinese, unlike astronauts from a raft of countries including South Africa and Kazakhstan, have not been allowed to visit the International Space Station.
But “what concerns me most,” said Bridenstine, “is not a rocket body that everybody knew about and was watching and paying attention to.” More ominous, “what are the things that we can’t see, that we don’t know about?” The question is not academic: China has regularly used the domain of space to advance its own national interests, often to the strategic detriment of the United States. It is what we don’t know in this area that Carlson’s book reveals.
Recent Chinese actions in the space arena are in line with what Carlson sees as China’s ultimate strategic aim: to make space the “future lynchpin of [its] global empire.” When the country celebrates the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in 2049, it aims to be a leading “space great power.” As Carlson shows, China has charted a methodical course toward that end.
In China, unlike the United States, the distinctions among civilian, commercial, and military space efforts are often blurry, deliberately so. The various elements of national power—economic strength, technological development, military capacity—work together in pursuit of the larger Chinese space strategy. In the coming decades, for example, Carlson sees a satellite and natural resource economy springing up in space; it will be billions of dollars in size. Chinese military-related capabilities will allow Beijing to deny its competitors access to that economy. Similarly, Chinese scientific developments could provide benefits to the Chinese economy and the ability of the Chinese military to project force in space.
Here Carlson points out an irony of intellectual history: China’s thought about the space domain has American origins. Chinese theorists appear to have used the naval thinker Alfred Thayer Mahan, the source of President Theodore Roosevelt’s views about projecting American sea power, as a model for the projection of space power. The rapid development of economic resources from the so-called terrestrial “littorals” to one day projecting Chinese power in deep space, all protected by Chinese hard power, could allow Beijing to expand its reach into space uncontested and ultimately surpass the American military and industrial engines.
If the Cold War’s primary theaters were the terrestrial sites of proxy wars, Carlson says, America’s future showdown with China will occur mostly in space. Others agree: former Air Force Lieutenant General Steven Kwast warns that the defining domain to secure our values in a competition with China is space, and war games prove it out. Analysis provided to Congress from the Project 2049 Institute makes the case Chinese military intelligence satellites would prove vital for collecting information for logistics and planning in an invasion of Taiwan. Counterspace weapons could ostensibly blind the most important U.S. assets monitoring the Taiwan Strait, making a potent riposte from American forces slower. Considering China may move on Taiwan in the next six years—as the former chief of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command told lawmakers in March—there is little time to lose to avert such space-based security threats.
As implausible as this thesis might sound, Beijing already appears on its way to pursuing it. Chinese lunar program chief Ye Peijian has implied China is looking beyond straightforward military uses of near-space. He has compared the moon to contested islands in the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and Mars to an island claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea, two places where terrestrial conflict between China and the United States is often predicted to begin. Memoranda between China and Russia outline plans to develop a joint moon base by the 2030s. Meanwhile closer to earth, China has been developing weapons with space capabilities: It delivered a shot across the bow with a deadly anti-satellite weapons test in 2007. War games over the future of Taiwan often simulate Chinese attacks on American satellites. Looming ahead is a generation of Chinese children raised on space techno-nationalism that is dedicated to beating the United States. Space power might be a part of the future, but it’s also already here.
“National survival is rooted among the stars,” Carlson writes. So, how will we survive? The author makes a compelling case for thinking about the future of American space power through what he terms Space Development Theory. Built on the study of how technology and new domains interact on earth, this theory uses a three-stage model of the way the contest over space may evolve. The three stages are exploration, exploitation, and exclusion.
Exploration is exactly what it sounds like: the earliest stages of travel and discovery. After that comes exploitation, with the extraction of resources and institutionalization of gains from exploration. Regional nodes begin to appear, and more permanent settlements are built. Finally, exclusion occurs when a power amasses enough strength to block other powers forcibly from their own exploitation of an arena.
The three-stage process generally occurs in linear fashion. But whenever there is an imbalance in hard power, exclusion can begin earlier.
Carlson thinks that great powers are currently in a transition from exploration, which began in earnest during the 1950s, to exploitation. The country that seizes the reins of this transition will likely set the pace for our new space race. The initiative will require a whole-of-government effort, including continued manned space flight to the moon, as well as more permanent installations in useful locations between the moon and Earth. A consistent presence in near-space could provide not just a jumping-off point for more ambitious voyages, but also an incredibly lucrative base for resource extraction industries. For example, the moon itself houses caches of helium-3, which Carlson and others think could be the key to unlocking a new era of clean energy on Earth.
The opportunity cost of ignoring the potential of near-space could be enormous. If America fails to capitalize on the area’s resources, Carlson says, China is not likely to fail in the same way. In one bracing passage, Carlson describes a Chinese space scenario that would all but guarantee American decline. His view is unconventional but by no means implausible.
Washington’s record on preparing for the new space race is, to put it charitably, mixed. Nearly a decade after China and Russia developed space-focused military services, the Trump Administration finally cut through bureaucratic red tape to roll out the United States Space Force and reinstitute the National Space Council as a clearing house and locus of command for all of the government’s space-facing elements. Brandon Weichert’s 2020 book, Winning Space, gives a comprehensive account of the administration’s efforts to push America into a second golden age of space.
Recent years have also seen a renaissance in the private space industry, once dominated by just a few contractors. The energy of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have leveled the industry and driven down launch costs for the military. SpaceX now regularly launches Space Force and National Reconnaissance Office rockets, symbolic of the power of private industry to advance national interests. The practice has been successful enough that China has begun imitating the American space industry with its own nominally private space companies.
To some extent, the Biden Administration has continued these initiatives. The Biden White House will keep the National Space Council. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has repeatedly referred to the threat from China in space. Questions remain, however, about how much additional monetary support the new service can expect in an environment in which the Pentagon must tighten its belt.
Budgets aside, the Space Force itself deserves a close look. Its doctrine and culture have yet to be developed. There is also a strategic question: Most of its current mission involves supporting terrestrial forces by protecting satellites vital to U.S. military communications and surveillance. A May memo written by Space Force officers, however, advocates extending the role of the Space Force deeper into space, in ways that Carlson sees as vital to the coming competition with China.
A final question, beyond the scope of Carlson’s book, is the issue of the role of space travel in cultural politics and prospects for domestic unity. Because of its universalist mission and staying power in American cultural memory, galvanizing the public around the China challenge in space, along with the traditional mission of advancing science, could form the basis of a coalition of advocates that would cut across party lines and ideologies.
This is not a novel idea. Frances FitzGerald’s 2000 book, Way Out There in the Blue, offers an often critical but illuminating account of the Reagan Administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as “Star Wars.” Though publicly available information was scant at the time, the magisterial rhetoric associated with Star Wars and its reminder of the military threat from the Soviets invigorated the public and struck fear into Soviet defense planners.
Much like the Long March rocket, the future space competition with China is hurtling toward us at breakneck speed. Carlson’s book provides a provocative and useful way of thinking about that competition and the tools needed to win it.
Jack Beyrer reports on foreign policy and national security matters for the Washington Free Beacon.
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