China, Russia Make Inroads in Space Race

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December 17, 2020

China and Russia achieved major progress in their respective space programs this week.

Beijing's first lunar surface probe—and the world's first lunar surface probe in more than 40 years—safely returned to Earth on Thursday after a mission in which it collected samples from the Moon. Chinese experts will analyze the lunar surface samples in the coming weeks.

And on Wednesday, Pentagon officials announced Moscow successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon capable of destroying American low-orbit installations.

Chinese president Xi Jinping called his country's mission a "great step forward" for the Chinese space industry. The successful mission, alongside a buildup in Chinese satellites, investment in space startups, and plans to build an independent Chinese space station, adds to China's larger strategic goal of becoming a "space great power."

China's technological developments could have real security implications for the United States. With U.S. officials recognizing that billions of dollars in American industry are tethered to the success of space-based communication networks, some in Washington fear China's rise in space could threaten the U.S economy and crisis response time worldwide.

U.S. officials also said Russia's weapons development hopes to target the U.S. reliance on satellites. 

"Russia publicly claims it is working to prevent the transformation of outer space into a battlefield, yet at the same time Moscow continues to weaponize space by developing and fielding on-orbit and ground-based capabilities that seek to exploit U.S. reliance on space-based systems," U.S. Space Command's lead officer, General James Dickinson, said. "Russia's persistent testing of these systems demonstrates threats to U.S. and allied space systems are rapidly advancing."

To help confront the threat posed by China and Russia, the White House authorized two new executive guidelines to further develop the United States' long-term strategy in space. The National Space Policy, released last week, promotes a new vision of American leadership in space propelled by private industry. Washington issued another directive following the landmark policy on Wednesday, with an emphasis on harnessing nuclear power to push forward the American space effort.

"The United States seeks a secure, stable, and accessible space domain, which has become a warfighting domain as a result of competitors seeking to challenge United States and allied interests in space," the National Space Policy document reads. "It is imperative that the United States adapt its national security organizations, policies, strategies, doctrine, security classification frameworks, and capabilities to deter hostilities, demonstrate responsible behaviors, and, if necessary, defeat aggression and protect United States interests in space."