SPACE

JUST IN: U.S. Must Win Cislunar Space Race Over China, New Report Says

1/17/2024
By Josh Luckenbaugh

iStock photo

Nearly 55 years since Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the Moon, the United States is locked in a new space race with China, and America must take the necessary steps to ensure freedom of operations in the cislunar region, according to a new policy paper.

The cislunar region — defined as the region of space where an object’s path is affected by the gravity of both the Earth and Moon — offers a number of potential scientific, economic and national security benefits, and has thus become a “critical facet of the enduring great power competition between the United States and China,” stated the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies policy paper “Securing Cislunar Space and the First Island Off the Coast of Earth,” released Jan. 17.

Analysis of People’s Liberation Army programs and doctrine has revealed China’s intent to become the preeminent global power in space, and “the head of China’s lunar exploration program’s direct comparison of the Moon to … disputed islands in the Western Pacific heralds a confrontational intent,” the paper said.

Charles Galbreath, senior resident fellow for space studies at the Mitchell Institute and author of the report, said during the paper’s rollout event that China has “expanded territorial claims” and utilized “covert militarization, coercive diplomacy and aggressive behavior” in the Western Pacific, and “we can't see that type of behavior extend to the lunar environment.”

China’s approach contrasts greatly with the U.S. Artemis Accords, a voluntary agreement currently signed by 33 countries to “establish norms of cooperation and peaceful collaboration in space,” the paper said. “In order to establish and protect a more transparent, collaborative and peaceful cislunar regime, the United States and its partners must ‘win the race’” to the region.

The paper offered six recommendations to win the race, starting with the Defense Department developing a broad strategy of how it can support scientific and economic expansion into the cislunar region. This strategy will define “what we’ll do and how we’ll do it,” identifying military objectives and how the department can support civil and commercial activities in cislunar space, Galbreath said.

“By having the military involved, it will send a strong signal of the nation's commitment and will help deter irresponsible or reckless behavior,” he said. “As the military has done numerous times before, it can make initial investments to accelerate subsequent civil and commercial activity. … These steps will enable civil and commercial organizations to focus on other challenges that must be overcome in order to succeed on the Moon and will enable them to take advantage of a foundational architecture.”

Thomas Lockhart Jr., the director of capability and resource integration at U.S. Space Command, said commercial entities are investing hundreds of billions of dollars in space capabilities, “and so we've got to figure out how to … bring the commercial guys back to open standards.”

“I'm a believer in open standards, model-based system engineering, the ability to kind of share amongst the different communities, understanding our competitors — and they're not always thinking the same way,” Lockhart said. The government needs to “understand where the money is being invested, and if we can get … the groups together to agree on and put those standards out there” for everyone to use.

In terms of the government’s own investment, the paper’s second recommendation called for Congress to fund additive growth of about $250 million per year to the Space Force budget and increase its end strength by 200 personnel in the next five years for the service to handle the “new responsibilities associated with emerging national interests on the Moon.”

Galbreath said senior Space Force officials he’s talked to agree the service has a responsibility to secure the cislunar region, “but they also view this as a problem for tomorrow and lack the resources to pursue it now. Instead, they must focus their limited resources on preparing for the fight tonight, and I can't argue with that — they actually have to marshal their resources where they can best provide an impact.

“However, smart additive growth for the cislunar mission now is required,” he continued. “Making smart, strategic investments now will maintain an advantage and reduce the need for large emergency catch-up funding later.”

Increasing the Space Force’s end strength will allow the service to fulfill the paper’s third recommendation of developing a cadre of cislunar experts in the Space Force to lead development and operations activities.

The cislunar region poses a number of unique challenges, most notable of which is its vast scale. Dr. Joel Mozer, former Space Force director of science, technology and research, noted that cislunar orbit is 10 times the radius of the Earth.

“That's a lot of space. That's a lot of area to have domain awareness … and oh, by the way, the orbital dynamics are different” because of the Moon’s gravitational pull, Mozer said. “So, very difficult to see, very difficult to predict where things are going. Those are big challenges.”

Galbreath said the Space Force will require “a set of Guardians trained and ideally focused on the cislunar activities” to solve these complex challenges.

With the necessary expertise, the Space Force and U.S. Space Command can then tackle the paper’s final three recommendations: establish doctrine, a concept of operations and requirements to foster the race to the Moon; invest in cislunar research and development efforts; and rapidly transition research and development activities into operational capabilities.

Investment in developing technology now will ensure those systems “become the cornerstone of future cislunar infrastructure,” Galbreath said. Technology areas key to cislunar activity include domain awareness; high-speed communications; position, navigation and timing; propulsion and maneuverability; power generation and distribution; and lunar surface launch and landing, the paper stated.

Former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine noted these capabilities are “not combative in nature — they're things that increase transparency [and] enable us to go to the Moon with commercial partners, with international partners. … I think that is the right approach.”

Mozer said these technologies could be “inherently international, and we could cooperate to develop those things.” Just as the United States collaborates with NATO allies on missions such as surveillance, “to have domain awareness we could develop the same sorts of things in cislunar space, where we develop the radars, the telescopes, the other sensors that detect and track things in cislunar space together. So, there's plenty of opportunity” for partnership.

And “once these technologies are mature, we must rapidly transition to operations,” which means the Space Force must make “architectural decisions as early as possible,” Galbreath said. “This will ensure the right resources and personnel are aligned to support and sustain ongoing operations for the foreseeable future. Without these architecture decisions, we risk losing momentum and jeopardizing the success that we had already gained.”

The time to secure cislunar space and tackle its numerous challenges is now, he said.

“This will all require new thinking and growth for the Space Force,” Galbreath said. “The potential implication of China establishing the practices they have demonstrated in the South China Sea to the Moon is not in the interest of the United States” and its Artemis Accords partners, and “does not bode well for the future exploration of space as we go further.

“Action is required today to help us move the capabilities forward that we need to not only secure the cislunar domain but that first island off the coast of Earth, the Moon,” he said.

 

Topics: Space

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