The New Space Race With China Has Major National Security Implications

china space race
NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I was eager to see the launch of Artemis I this month, like many fellow Americans who have been eager for news with more inspirational flair than the usual doom and gloom du jour. Unfortunately, however, various technical difficulties have delayed the launch meant to bring American feet back to the moon’s surface.

But it’s not just to reignite our imagination with space exploration that our country feels the need to look up towards the night sky again—our ever-present near-peer adversary China also has us racing for the skies.

To say we are entering a new Space Race of the likes during the Kennedy administration would not accurately convey the urgency of this new venture.

China’s eagerness to stake its claim as a superior space-faring nation is more dimensional than just a competitive race – it has serious national security implications.

Ready, Set, Go!

China is actively working on taking the lead on space exploration with what they’d like to convince us is benign. Like us, they want to land on the moon and also build a robotic research station on the moon.

They’ve been very busy building up their capabilities in space, including aligning with the enemy of their enemy; Russia. In addition, they’ve done quite a bit of work with rovers, including one on Mars and being the first country to land one on the far side of the moon.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson showed a picture of Mars taken by the Chinese rover to members of Congress, stating:

“The Chinese government…they’re going to be landing humans on the moon. That should tell us something about our need to get off our duff.”

But like I said earlier, this drive to get into space isn’t just borne of friendly competition. Defense officials have warned that China is building capabilities to take out the U.S. satellite systems.

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Our Planetary Nervous System

Our planetary orbit is filled with tens of thousands of our satellites that guide GPS, process credit card purchases, keep our televisions, radios, and cell phones operational, and even help us predict the weather… albeit poorly most times, it seems. But perhaps our satellites’ most critical capability is to allow our military and intelligence community to keep track of perceived threats worldwide.

Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe recently rightly said at a congressional hearing:

“Everything our military does relies on space.”

At the same hearing, Lieutenant General Bradley Saltzman told lawmakers regarding China’s capabilities in space:

“They have invested heavily in the ability to destroy – not just disrupt and degrade – but destroy our space capabilities.”

Suppose China continues unabated on its space path and can take out our satellites strategically. In that case, it could begin a new kind of World War. Our prospects of success with a war on Earth with China are bleak enough, let alone taking it to the outer limits.

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Running Behind

We seem to keep losing ground in the great race against China. Whether in space, economics, academics, or military prowess, we may soon find ourselves no longer the superpower we once were, let alone even in the same arena as China.

The Pentagon said last month that:

“China appears to be on track to surpass the U.S. as the dominant space power by 2045.”

Our Intelligence Community put out in their threat assessment that:

“Beijing is working to match or exceed U.S. capabilities in space to gain the military, economic, and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership.”

This should worry all of us, given that China is a worthy competitor militarily in the land of gravity. Recent war games have not been optimistic, with the U.S. feeling heavy losses. 

And with this year’s index of U.S. military strength by The Heritage Foundation putting the military at an overall “marginal” grade, we should be feeling very nervous about our chances in space against China. 

Time for Action

General Saltzman pleaded with lawmakers, stating:

“We need to change to a more defendable architecture to account for the fact that space has shifted from a benign environment to a more contested warfighting domain.”

Will lawmakers listen? Hard to say. During the war games conducted earlier this year, the U.S. was projected to lose over half its Air Force and Naval aircraft if it entered a war with China. 

Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, Integration, and Requirements Lieutenant General S. Clinton Hinote explained:

“We are used to dominating. But China has invested in modern aircraft and weapons to fight us.”

With our continued supply chain issues and military procurement troubles, finding a clear path to catch up to China is getting more challenging. 

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Misplaced Focus

For all their faults, you have to give it to China; they certainly are good at multitasking. They are actively putting pressure on us in space, militarily and economically, and they are also applying pressure on our own soil. Literally.

China has been gobbling up farmland in the U.S. near, you guessed it, military installations. From Grand Forks Air Force Base, known for its Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance capabilities, to Laughlin Air Force Base, known for its proximity to our porous border, China has its eyes everywhere. 

What are we doing? We are focusing on ensuring a woman and a person of color are on the next crewed mission to the moon because diversity is what wins wars.

We must realize that space is the new frontier, the new wild west, if you will. Professor of International Affairs Aaron Bateman explains:

“Space is going to be an arena of competition on the prestige front, demonstrating advanced technical expertise and know-how, and then also on the military front as well.”

Just as in the wild west, there will be amazing discoveries… and epic conflict. While I enjoy a good western like the next guy, I’m not so excited about living through a space age OK Corral between us and China. 

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USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts... More about Kathleen J. Anderson

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