Trump Admin Claims Victory in New Space Race

Space Force will be key to countering Chinese and Russian ambitions

The Space Force flag / Getty Images
October 21, 2020

The Trump administration is upending decades of American retreat in the final frontier to pull ahead of Russia and China in a 21st-century space race, according to a top Trump administration official.

Justin Johnson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, outlined the "historic" steps taken by the White House to reverse decades of decline in the modern-day space race. The establishment of the Space Force, which is approaching its first anniversary, and other measures taken to project American power beyond earth's boundaries have bolstered national security.

"There was growing concern that Russia and China were moving faster than we were in space, that their threats were growing faster than we were able to respond," Johnson said in an exclusive interview with the Washington Free Beacon. "That drove us to a point where we had to make a fundamental shift and try to go at this problem in a different way. The conclusion was that we need a Space Force and a Space Command. That's what we've done, that's what we've stood up."

The frenetic pace of progress in space policy is not just limited to the creation of the Space Force. In 2017, the Trump administration resuscitated the long-defunct National Space Council as an umbrella organization for interagency dialogue about key space issues and also re-created the United States Space Command, which was put on ice during the George W. Bush years, to support the overall space defense effort. These policies have enhanced the potential for adding secure 5G networks from space to the American defense portfolio in addition to improving existing American space capabilities, such as surveillance, weather forecasting for military operations, and critical navigation systems.

Johnson pointed to the integral ways in which space anchors American industry and the "American way of war," noting that most Americans are not fully aware of how frequently things like telecommunications, GPS, financial transactions, and other technologies flow through space.

"We would have billions, if not trillions of dollars in economic consequences if we lost our space capabilities," Johnson told the Free Beacon, noting that space is a key engine of the $20 trillion American economy. "[China and Russia] recognized something that we were dependent on in the U.S. and in our military, and they've developed ways to take our space capabilities away."

Moscow and Beijing—sometimes in tandem—have developed a suite of weaponry to challenge American supremacy in space. Anti-satellite weapons, including lasers and missiles, satellites able to shoot projectiles, and earth-based weapons systems, all contribute to a larger challenge to the free and safe use of space.

China now has the most launch sites of any country in the world, along with a massive budget to fund its space program, in a larger effort to transform itself into a "space great power," a fellow senior Pentagon official told the Free Beacon in September. Russia, meanwhile, has shown itself as an overt challenger to American interests in space. In February, Moscow trailed its own satellite behind an American spy satellite in a show of force toward AmericaBoth countries have also used their space capabilities to wage regional wars.

A June Pentagon document showed that Russia's incursions into Arctic territory stand to benefit its space program, while China's rapidly expanding satellite constellation could serve as support for a potential invasion of Taiwan. Heritage Foundation space security expert Dean Cheng warned a Biden administration could upend the campaign to combat authoritarianism in space, as impending budget cuts could make even the most extreme move—defunding the Space Force—within the realm of possibility if Democrats capture the White House and Senate.

"The Biden folks seem to say that they will probably limit defense spending," Cheng said. "You could rescind the Space Force if you control both houses [of Congress]."

Cheng said that if the notoriously China-friendly Obama administration is a blueprint for Biden foreign policy, then expectations should remain low for Biden confronting space-based challenges.

"If you aren't willing to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, are you willing to challenge China in space? Maybe not," he said.

The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump's emphasis on regaining American power in outer space has paid tangible dividends already, according to Johnson. Washington has recalibrated a space policy to preserve a military and technological edge over adversaries in China and Russia, in addition to promoting a key advantage in space competition: American private enterprise. The White House has cut costs dramatically by employing companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin for satellite launches. 

"The way that we as a country stay ahead is primarily through commercial innovation," Johnson said. "That really opens up all sorts of new potential opportunities for the actual warfighters on the ground."

Cheng said that committing to space will help protect American interests here on earth.

"I think it's safe to say that this administration has paid more attention to space than any previous administration dating back at least throughout the Cold War," Cheng said. "Unlike other parts of government, there seems to have been a fairly coherent, cohesive effort across different parts of the government with people in key areas to really move space off of dead center."

American allies have taken notice of China and Russia's threatening activity in space, Johnson said. In the last eight weeks, Johnson said he had high-level dialogues with allies and partners such as Norway, Australia, and the United Kingdom. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has also piloted the Combined Space Operations initiative, which brings Washington together with six of its most important allies to cooperate on space-defense issues.

"We have a lot of allies and partners who are really worried about the threat and are eager to move fast with us," Johnson said. "We're continuing to figure this stuff out, and figure out how we can work better together."