Should the US Cede Space to China?

AOL Defense recently interviewed Naval War College professor Andrew Erickson, who outlined steps towards a “competitive coexistence” between China and the US.

AOL Defense: Cultural bias can result in serious misunderstandings between nations and armies. How does this play into Americans’ perception of China’s military rise, and China’s own perception of its place in world security? In other words, are the U.S. and China “talking past each other” in a military sense?

Erickson: Yes. Never before has the world witnessed the simultaneous presence of a powerful United States and a powerful China, let alone their interaction. Nearly as exceptional is the phenomenon of two great powers in the international system with two very different cultures, political systems, geographic regions and sets of national interests poised to avoid a great power war ….

The fears and aspirations of the United States and China draw on powerful currents of national identity and experience. Consequently, they are easy to reinforce and difficult to moderate. In coming years, driving factors, such as their constant development of new high-end military capabilities, are likely to become more significant.

Lack of strategic transparency and understanding remains a major problem between the U.S. and China. Beijing has traditionally disclosed far less information about the most critical aspects of its military capabilities than has the U.S.; its strategists believe that as the weaker party it must use ambiguity to compensate for technological inferiority.

A section of the interview which gained wider attention focused on practical problems with space-based military assets:

Space … is expensive to enter, hard to sustain assets in, contains no defensive ground, and – barring energy-intensive maneuvering – forces assets into predictable orbits. Moreover, some of the most debilitating asymmetric tactics could be employed against space and cyberspace targets.

David Axe—Erickson’s interviewer at AOL Defense—interpreted this as a recommendation that the US cede space to China altogether, rather than allowing itself to be drawn into competition there. From Wired’s Danger Room national security blog:

No one disputes that China is gaining “ground” in space. “The [People’s Liberation Army] is acquiring a range of technologies to improve China’s space and counter-space capabilities,” warned the 2011 edition of Congress’ annual report on the Chinese military (.pdf). But the Pentagon’s official response is to dig in deeper in orbit, with newer and better spacecraft costing at least $10 billion a year, in total. Erickson is virtually alone in fundamentally questioning the Pentagon’s space presence — and recommending an orbital retreat ….

In Erickson’s perfect world, U.S. forces probably wouldn’t rely on space at all. With no one to beat, China wouldn’t lose the new space race. But it wouldn’t win, either.

Erickson, however, rejected this interpretation on his blog:

Space-based platforms should not constitute a disproportionately-increased share of newly-developed assets. For the foreseeable future, however, space will remain indispensable for a variety of reasons. There are many military functions that are best performed from space, particularly to support C4ISR and long-distance power projection. Moreover, space assets can be made more reliable by deployment in smaller packages and dispersed networks as small- and micro-satellites, an effort that the U.S. is already working on and China is pursuing intensively. These types of satellites have lower unit costs, and hence the loss of a given platform could be far less devastating than that of a “Greyhound bus-sized” large satellite. This, coupled with rapid replenishment, could greatly enhance survivability and reduce incentives for attack. The United States, and particularly the U.S. military, should thus NOT remove assets from space or otherwise decrease its presence there—it should rather seek both improved space approaches and supplementary approaches in other domains, and not try to increase space-basing uncritically at the expense of other alternatives ….

China’s military capabilities are improving across the board, with space being a particular “pocket of excellence.” But the United States maintains formidable capabilities here and elsewhere. Despite its current difficulties, it has bright days ahead. There is no need to adopt an “alarmist attitude” that all-out conflict with China is inevitable, or to adopt a “defeatist” attitude that the U.S. has no choice but to abandon its core interests, values, allies, or friends. The U.S. can “win without fighting” in space, by continuing to use it to support military operations, and not accepting limitations on its non-weaponized uses of space to do so. Space is not a sanctuary—U.S. assets there can be attacked by a capable military such as China’s—but China increasingly faces its own vulnerabilities and thus is developing incentives not to attack first in space. Space is thus not a desirable arena of conflict for either great power, and its preservation as a safe environment is in fact in their mutual interest.

Other observers are more interested in cooperation than competition. Asian-American astronaut Leroy Chiao suggests that, with the Shuttle retired, and Russian rockets grounded following a failed launch late last month, China should be invited aboard the International Space Station. From CNN:

What can we do? Are there any other options? Yes: Bring China into the International Space Station program. China is the only other entity besides the U.S. and Russia with a human spaceflight capability. In fact China is, at the moment, the only entity that can launch astronauts into low earth orbit.

Here’s how it might work. NASA would follow the model used to begin work with the Russians in the early 1990s. Technical exchanges of specialists and astronauts would pave the way for developing plans, processes and procedures to allow modification of the Shenzhou spacecraft to rendezvous and dock with the ISS, with joint Chinese, U.S. and Russian crews. The United States would lead these efforts.

There are those who argue against any space cooperation with China, on grounds that the Chinese would obtain technological secrets and capabilities from the U.S. The fact is, nothing of military value would be transferred in either direction, just as such knowledge has not been transferred to or from Russia as a result of the positive and successful collaboration in our civil space programs. China would only learn from us about how to operate with a civil space station.

For now, however, a sense of competitiveness remains as America’s space program stalls and China’s continues to gather momentum. This shone through in one recent report on two Tsinghua physicists’ proposal to capture and mine a near-Earth asteroid:

The Chinese … seem fairly optimistic that they could tweak the orbit of a near-Earth asteroid by just enough (a change in velocity of only about 1,300 feet-per-second or so) to get it to temporarily enter Earth orbit at about twice the distance as the Moon. The orbit would be unstable, and eventually (after a few years) the asteroid would head back out into space from whence it came, but it would stick there long enough for us to poke around on it.

Then what? Well, there’s science to be done of course, but they estimate that a two-kilometer-wide metallic asteroid (about 1.2 miles across) could be worth something like 25 trillion dollars, which would handily pay down the entire U.S. national debt with barely enough left over to restart the space shuttle program. Sweet! Except, sweet for China. Not us. Oh well.

Sources:

China’s ‘Ripples of Capability’ – AOL Defense
China Analyst: U.S. Can’t Win in Space, So Why Bother Racing? – Danger Room – Wired.com
The U.S. Must Continue to Use Space and Can “Win without Fighting” There—It’s Just Not a Panacea, a Sanctuary, or a Desirable Battlefield – Andrew S. Erickson
Make China our new partner in space – CNN.com
Chinese want to capture an asteroid into Earth’s orbit – DVICE

September 5, 2011 11:26 PM
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