The West is falling behind China in the next space race

7 November 2021

2:30 AM

7 November 2021

2:30 AM

It is the first duty of governments to keep their citizens safe, protecting them from harm. This means constantly being vigilant. We have to keep a close eye on our adversaries and competitors and their capabilities, whether they are states, organisations or individuals. But vigilance is not enough on its own – imagination is also vital.

Twenty years ago, after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the 9/11 Commission concluded that ‘the most important failure was one of imagination’. The security threat from jihadists was seen but not properly understood, even by leading experts. They had all the available facts. They just hadn’t used their imagination to join the dots and see the gravity of the threat.

Is there a similar blind spot, two decades later, on space policy? It seems like it. On an almost weekly basis, we hear of a remarkable technological breakthrough by China – a rival and potential adversary in the era of great power competition – often taking us by surprise.

The last two breakthroughs have been especially alarming. China has tested a hypersonic missile that was faster and far more accurate than western analysts expected. The Chinese also launched a satellite, the Shijian 21, to test new ‘technologies to neutralise space debris’. The Head of US Space Command, General James Dickinson, thinks China’s goal is more sinister. He has warned the US Congress that the technology could in fact be used for ‘grappling other satellites’ – in other words, to attack American and other western assets in space.

China, more than any other nation, has recognised that a new space race is on – and that space is a strategic sector, vital to security and questions of geopolitical balance. The Chinese government is investing aggressively and rushing to achieve space dominance. Yet in the West, including in the UK, we have in the last decade tended towards complacency and sluggishness.

There are two reasons for this. First, we won the original space race, with American astronauts beating the Soviets to the moon – even if there were some worrying surprises along the way, such as the surprise launch of Russia’s Sputnik satellite. The space race is over, goes the thinking. We live in an age of cooperation and joint international efforts such as the International Space Station. Second, and more obviously, space for decades has been the domain of science fiction – a platform for far-fetched fantasy and blockbuster movies. We have been entertained by space, but often failed to take it seriously enough.

The reality is that we are ten years or more into the new space race. Technology is rapidly advancing. Private sector companies are able to play an ever-increasing role, with billionaires such as Elon Musk, who sent the first all-civilian crew to space in September, and Jeff Bezos, who has travelled to space himself, investing in the latest technology and even inventing it.

There is also, as a new Policy Exchange paper by Dr John Sheldon sets out today, a massive realignment starting to happen in the global space industry. Western space companies and their supply chains are undergoing a great decoupling from Chinese commercial partners, as they become more alert to long-term conflicts of interest. There is a significant amount of market volatility and consolidation.

As this happens, the UK government should consider the next steps in its space strategy, which it outlined in September for the first time. Is there, for instance, an opportunity for AUKUS – the recent defence agreement between Australia, the UK and the United States – to be expanded to include strategic space technology cooperation? There is a persuasive case for working together here in everything from next-generation reconnaissance and communication technology to space exploration. There are also opportunities for cooperation with other like-minded allies in the Indo-Pacific region.

Establishing new space alliances, and allowing companies to work across borders within them, could help to prevent the repeat of a Huawei-style problem in space technology – where, further down the line, we discover that there are no viable western alternatives to China’s aggressive build-up in key technology and space sectors. We need more inward investment in the UK space sector, which is growing thanks to the high quality of British research and development. But we cannot act alone or give in to protectionism.

Above all, the UK and its allies need leadership that takes space seriously. More than a century ago Winston Churchill, as his biographer Andrew Roberts notes, was ‘constantly looking out for technological breakthroughs in the military sphere.’ This included wondering, as early as 1909, whether there might be a military application of air power. Only a few years after the first powered flight, Churchill was arguing for urgent communication with the Wright brothers.

Another of his biographers and successors, Boris Johnson, understands how important technological breakthroughs – including those in space – will be in the next hundred years. It was no coincidence that in his first ever speech as Prime Minister, he mentioned the importance of earth observation systems and ‘UK assets orbiting in space with all the long-term strategic and commercial benefits for this country.’ A new space dimension to the AUKUS defence agreement would have innumerable such benefits, including enhancing our collective defence. If we don’t take space seriously, or fail to cooperate in the space domain with our allies, we leave ourselves at risk of attack or threats from those who wish us harm.

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