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#SpaceWatchGL Column: Is It Time To Stop Talking About Space Policy?

New Zealand as seen from low-earth orbit. Photograph courtesy of NASA.

By Dr. Bleddyn Bowen

SpaceWatch.Global is delighted to welcome Bleddyn Bowen as its latest columnist. Bleddyn will be contributing his column every quarter.

2018 saw a watershed in the general awareness and profile of space policy in mass media, policymaking arenas, and public awareness, and 2019 shows little sign yet of being any different. Yet with an intense limelight on the space activities of states comes mass media interpretations of ‘space programmes’ and ‘space policy’, usually coupled with the metaphor and historical analogy of a ‘space race’.

Spacepower’s diversity and uneven input into military and economic capabilities is lost by using sweeping terms such as ‘space programme’, ‘space race’, and ‘space policy’. Many claims are made about whether a state’s total capabilities in space – its spacepower – is rising or waning based on single achievements that steal the headlines for a day. The fact that singular achievements in space science may have little direct bearing on international power politics on Earth is rarely countenanced.

Geographically-based terms imply a top-level decision-maker prioritisation, focus, or coherence about space that is not there, despite the emergence of top-level generic ‘space policy’ documents for the first time in several states in recent years. Space policy, and most importantly space-related spending, is dispersed and disaggregated across departments and agencies, and is reflected in the generally strategically vacuous nature of overarching ‘space policy’ documents compared to space security strategies, civil space strategies, commercial tenders for research and development and deployment, university space science funding calls, and military doctrine documents. In practice, policymakers and civil servants are in their sectoral and departmental silos and rarely treat with all of spacepower’s contributions to comprehensive state power.

Spacepower is a state’s sum total of capabilities and influence it enjoys in outer space, and the space systems it draws from outer space to support its objectives on Earth. It has several dimensions, such as military, political, economic, intelligence, scientific, industrial, technological and diplomatic. It is similar to how a state can use seapower’s many uses and benefits for its objectives. Space, like the sea, is a geostrategic environment where states, or private actors registered within those states, conduct all manner of activities ranging from the benign scientific surveys to dispensing death and destruction through warfare.

A symptom of a narrow view of spacepower is how notions of a ‘space race’ between China and the United States in recent months have characterised much reporting or opinion pieces on Chinese space science and exploration achievements. The notion of a ‘space race’ is not a useful one to understand contemporary space activities because it lumps together what are diverse space activities across military and civilian realms, and implies that there is either a crash effort or a clear endpoint in view. Linking Chinese robotic achievements on the Moon to military and political considerations in the United States is like implying that the US military should be concerned that a Chinese marine scientist has found a new species in the ocean depths.

Different activities in space have different levels of significance for security and military considerations. Sending tin cans and potatoes to distant celestial destinations does not transform terrestrial geopolitics; yet a heavy-lift rocket capability coupled with nuclear warheads and a nuclear early-warning satellite infrastructure can transform the risks of nuclear annihilation. Though robotic space missions are always a difficult challenge, and it is natural and right to celebrate any such achievement, such missions should not be given such geopolitical significance so as to alarm military planners or security considerations.

As an academic expert in space policy, I was once asked by a journalist what the Chang’e-4 landing meant for the military balance in the South China Sea; yet I have received few questions regarding the construction of the Qu Dian command and control system that China has developed to integrate its forces with a now-comprehensive Chinese military and intelligence space-based infrastructure. The latter is chipping away at America’s capability to enforce its will in disputed areas in Southeast Asia, whilst the former is part of a long-term and continuously evolving science programme, with no clear endpoint in sight, and remains mostly harmless. Using the metaphor of a ‘space race’ risks contaminating more benign areas of space activity, where cooperation could be sought, with genuine security concerns from military space projects.

Spacepower is sought and used for war, development, and prestige. The USSR-USA ‘space race’ of placing a human on the moon by the end of the 1960s was very much about national pride, prestige, and technology stimulation. Yet the military satellite applications being developed at the same time are rarely thought of when most people are given the term ‘space programme’, with images or memories of crewed spaceflight and robotic exploration of deep space coming to mind. Indeed, such is the implication of President Trump’s words, when he claimed to be ‘re-opening’ NASA.

As the ‘space race’ progressed in the 1960s, space technology was becoming essential for military planning and making war in the Cold War, whilst India was pioneering the use of satellites for socioeconomic development and spacepower became an early triumph of western European industrial integration. By the 1980s spacepower became integral for war, development, and prestige across many states according to their own needs. New satellite capabilities were rolled out on an incremental and programmatic process, not a crash course effort in constant comparison with other states.

The notion of a race in space today between America and China begins to fall apart when we accept that space is a geostrategic environment like any other, which can provide resources and services for a plethora of users. States can see it as a military realm, a site for economic exploitation, or a venue for scientific investigation. The reality is that those space efforts must compete for funds for other government initiatives, and must satisfy pressing domestic and foreign policy goals, which are not always best achieved in space.

There is no race in space once it is accepted that states are going at their own pace to meet their own unique needs, as Harding and Hunter argue. There is little evidence of a rush or a crash programme in any sector of space activity. This includes the military realm where concerns over the proliferation of space technology is most acute. The increasingly capable space-based systems and anti-satellite weapons of China are the fruits of a long-term high technology development programme that first began in 1986, and not a crash effort.

A race also implies that two competitors are conducting broadly comparable activities. Yet the civil and scientific space programmes of China and America are different. China’s accomplishments with robots on the moon do not take away from America’s successful and multiple rovers on Mars; India’s Mars-orbiting satellite does not detract from Japan’s asteroid sample return mission. Though China’s space programme is broad and varied, it does not take away from other states’ space programmes which may not be doing the same kind of missions, and it does even less to take away from other states’ terrestrial military and economic capabilities.

The term ‘space programme’ is also something of a misnomer. No state has a single ‘space programme’. Rather, states have a variety of projects across several government departments, universities, and the private sector which develop space technologies, deploy them, and manage them. It is difficult to ascertain how much any state spends on space in total as funds are diverted across agencies and departments. There is never a single space-centric point of administration or finance for all space activities. Making geographic linkages to activities by equating the entirety of a state’s spacepower with a particularly civilian or scientific interpretation of a singular ‘space programme’ oversimplifies a diverse geostrategic environment. One would not base assessments of naval power on the activities of marine scientists, therefore one should not do the equivalent for outer space.

States do not have a ‘sea policy’ or ‘air policy’ but have multiple policies and strategies relevant and tailored to whichever arm of the state or society engages with that geographic realm. Conjuring images of space exploration for some whilst also invoking the military uses of space may, through a single overarching term of ‘space policy’ and ‘space programme’, remain a challenge to those who wish to a avoid giving more geopolitical weight than is necessary for space science. Is it time to abandon the notion of ‘space policy’ too?

At the very least, when discussing space policy and space programmes, as space experts we should be clear on which aspects of spacepower we are addressing. If we are set on using space like we use the land, seas, and air in ways that are normal, everyday, and unremarkable to most people, our concepts and language must reflect that and continue to normalise the entire panoply of activities in space.

Photograph courtesy of some Welsh bloke.

Dr. Bleddyn Bowen is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Leicester, specialises in space warfare and classical military philosophy, and teaches astropolitics, Cold War history, and modern warfare. He has published in several academic journals and provides advice and insight to practitioners on UK space policy, military doctrine, and European space policy, including to the UK House of Commons Exiting the EU Select Committee. Currently Bleddyn is completing his book manuscript provisionally entitled War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, and Geopolitics, forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press, and convenes the informal research network The Astropolitics Collective.

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