Superior Space Launch Security Required to Stand Up to China

Very large and unprecedented protests have recently occurred within the Hong Kong International Airport, the world’s eighth busiest flight destination. Hong Kong protesters have canceled hundreds of international flights to raise awareness about the creeping state of China’s authority over the region. The protests were initiated following the proposal of a Beijing-backed extradition law that would have continued to consolidate China’s jurisdiction over Hong Kong.

While the protests have resulted in hundreds of arrests and injuries, Hong Kong residents largely remain firm in their opposition to China’s legislative encroachment. Indeed, China’s recent crackdown against the protesters reveals China’s intentions to control the region and illustrates the potential threat they pose to international sovereignty. 

Now, more than ever, the United States must get realistic that China is a potential threat and adapt our national security needs accordingly. So far, however, that has not been a unifying position. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which would make deep cuts to America’s national defense programs. Additionally, the House version of the NDAA also made changes that restructure the National Security Space Launch program, an Air Force initiative specifically designed to establish America’s space-faring superiority. 

Given the recent news regarding China and Hong Kong, the successful completion of the NSSL program must become an absolute priority.

During one of our Mitchell Institute seminars, Richard Fisher illustrated why this is the case: Ultimately, China plans to extend its sovereignty far beyond merely Hong Kong in its quest to become a dominant geopolitical force. China has gained significant additional territory in the South China Sea, building island outposts on coral reefs and other rock outcroppings. From these locations, military forces number in the thousands can be deployed, including long-range aircraft and ballistic missiles.

From such deployments, China can coerce maritime traffic. It can cut off or give preferential access to both commercial freighters and oil tankers passing through the Straits of Malacca and the sea. That ability provides China with enormous leverage, as the passageway facilitates a projected $17 trillion in commerce. 

But the oceans are not the sole commons area of concern. Space is the next frontier for all nations. However, China’s development of offensive space assets, including hypersonic speed technologies, puts that celestial commons at risk as well. U.S. satellites are critical to our security and prosperity. And yet, they can only be placed in space with U.S. rocket launches, unless we want once again to be highly dependent on Russia and China. An intelligent space policy doesn’t rely on our adversaries to grant us access to the space commons when these very enemies are seeking its control.

Unfortunately, following the end of the Cold War, the United States went on what former USAF General Harencak called a “holiday from history.” We put aside a host of national security requirements, thinking it was indeed the “end of history” and consequential threats to U.S. security were something of the past. In the defense area, we particularly neglected our nuclear deterrent and our space requirements, especially the ability to launch critical defense satellites.

Now, we are trying to catch up. And a key proposal to do that — backed by the administration and supported by the U.S. Senate is the NSSL program. The initiative is essential to having a top-flight launch capability, reducing our dependence on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine.

As noted, we are however playing catch-up, and speed is of the essence — what former Secretary of Defense Mattis described as “the speed of relevance.” The NSSL seeks to meet a 2022 congressional deadline to end the use of Russian engines. Yet, the House of Representatives has attempted to significantly cut the program’s funding — a move that would prevent the USAF from achieving its objectives.   

Currently, four companies United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman — are seeking to be the two candidates for the program from 2022-2026 to provide the USAF with up to 34 launches. 

The House majority wants more commercial industry players in the mix a worthy goal to be sure. At the same time, however, they believe that the Air Force’s decision to narrow the initial launch field is premature. As such, one provision in the NDAA is to open up the competition for at least five later launches. 

According to the House bill, the Air Force “shall ensure that each such contract for any launch after the 29th launch is awarded using competitive procedures among all National Security Space Launch providers.” To help these new launch firms, the House also put aside $500 million “certification and infrastructure fund,” which Col. Robert Bongiovi, the director of the Launch Systems Enterprise Directorate at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, argues is highly problematic. 

According to Space News, Bongiovi was insistent that the Air Force only wants to work with two launch providers over the five-year period of Phase 2, and will reintroduce competition in Phase 3, starting in 2025. But the House bill mandates that the Air Force reopen competition for launch contracts after the 29thmission, a move that would have to be reconciled with the Air Force launch schedule, increasing the potential for greater costs and the risk of delays. The changes also include a $500 million earmark specifically tailored to give certain companies a leg up over the competition, perhaps offsetting the program’s competitive landscape. 

Getting the best competition is also a worthy goal, but there it is our adversaries that are setting the pace of the threat, not us. Thus, speed is highly relevant. And since a robust space launch capability is critical to our economic competitiveness and our military superiority, slowing down our spacefaring capacity unnecessarily strengthens China and diminishes the United States. 

Peter Huessy is president of GeoStrategic Analysis, a national security defense analysis firm in Potomac, Md. 

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