China has overcome its last significant hurdle to spaceflight. The Chinese have successfully launched their much-anticipated Long March V heavy-lift rocket. China can now place the modules to construct the Tianhe-1 space station (meant to rival the International Space Station) in orbit and, more importantly, Beijing can attempt its first interplanetary mission to Mars in late 2020.
Beijing can also conduct the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission next year. This mission is meant to determine whether there are enough mineable resources on the lunar surface. China plans to strip-mine the moon eventually.
The naysayers in the United States government and scientific circles who mocked and underestimated China’s technical prowess—the “experts” who assured us there were some things the Chinese just could not do—have been proved wrong once again. Since 2003, when China’s space program placed its first astronaut (called “taikonauts”) in space, the Chinese have met every one of the technical benchmarks they set for themselves.
Every time China made an announcement about what technological feat it would accomplish next, Western leaders and experts scoffed. And, when China proved those supposed experts wrong, the experts shrugged and reassured themselves that it did not matter.
After all, hadn’t America and Russia achieved these things decades ago? The Chinese smiled and kept pushing forward while the United States and Russia floated passively in orbit.
In my forthcoming book, Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower, due out in 2020, I maintain there are two groups driving America’s space and national security policies. The first is “the utopians,“ who want to prevent space from becoming a zone of strategic competition. Their views fly in the face of human nature (which is to compete with other humans for dominance over territory and resources). The second group is “the naysayers,” who are technical experts blinded by extreme skepticism—so much so that American rivals end up besting us in spite of their assurances to the contrary.
That Time We Missed 9/11
On September 11, 2001, the United States government and its coterie of court Mandarins ignored the threat that terrorism posed to the country. The few people who did try to alert U.S. leaders about the threat of terrorism—specifically al-Qaeda—were lampooned by those well-connected hacks.
Oddly, after the towers fell and America suddenly found itself in a “global war on terror,” many of these same hacks who ignored or downplayed the al-Qaeda threat to the United States reinvented themselves and became self-styled “experts” on terrorism. Instead of suffering their deserved fate for being so obviously wrong, their careers took off.
The 9/11 Commission told us that the government was caught by surprise because our leaders failed “to imagine” that such an attack could occur. Nonsense. Osama Bin Laden had been explicit in his desire to murder and maim as many Americans as possible. He had proudly taken credit for the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993, the bombings in Kenya, and the bombing of the USS Cole near Yemen. Meanwhile, as Lawrence Wright has documented in The Looming Tower there were those in the FBI and CIA who were desperately warning the Clinton and Bush administrations about the al-Qaeda threat.
In fact, Sandy Berger, the Clinton Administration’s national security adviser, has claimed he briefed Condoleezza Rice and the George W. Bush Administration team about al-Qaeda’s threat—which the new administration promptly ignored (in much the same way Bill Clinton ignored the threat for most of his presidency). It was not a failure to “imagine.” No imagination was necessary. Al-Qaeda told us their goals. It was the ignorance—and arrogance—of America’s “experts” who refused to listen to al-Qaeda and take note of their actions.
Similarly, China’s leaders talk openly and freely about their “China Dream” and their “Space Dream.” Chinese leaders routinely announce plans for achieving dominance over the United States to achieve their great goal of being the world’s greatest power by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist Party.
Over the past decade, China has looked to space not only as a place for economic advancement but also as a strategic domain to defeat the United States militarily.
Repeating History: Ignoring the Chinese Tech Threat
The same people in Washington who completely missed 9/11 and have spent years downplaying China’s threat are now supposedly manning the ramparts to better defend us against China. But it is important to realize that the Chinese threat is not, primarily, a military one.
China’s leaders live by Sun Tzu’s axiom of desiring to defeat their foe without having to fight him. The threat China poses to the United States is primarily in the economic and technological domain—where American leaders simply assume the United States is untouchable.
Most Washington think-tankers and political hacks look at China’s technological successes and talk themselves into believing there is nothing to see there. This is exactly what they did about al-Qaeda’s unconventional terrorism threat. The Long March V rocket launch proves that China now possesses the same capabilities in space that the Americans do. In fact, the Long March V will be able to place Chinese taikonauts on the moon. Currently, NASA is struggling to reclaim the heavy-lift ability we allowed to wither away after the end of the successful Apollo missions to the moon.
Over the past decade, China has looked to space not only as a place for economic advancement but also as a strategic domain to defeat the United States militarily. Further, Beijing rightly views space as a place to garner immense national prestige.
Meanwhile, the United States pats itself on the back that it has finally created a space force and Washington continues celebrating its plans to return astronauts (an all-female crew, no less) to the moon by 2024—and eventually to place astronauts on Mars.
To be clear, the creation of the Space Force is an unequivocal good, but it remains the case that both China and Russia reorganized their militaries to accommodate space warfare as early as 2013. We are not taking the lead in this. These powers have had six years to prepare their forces to attack and destroy America’s vital yet vulnerable satellite constellations (the loss of which would throw the U.S. military back to a pre-1970s era of warfare). With China’s successful launch of its Long March V rocket, Beijing can now also compete not only with U.S. military space dominance but also with America’s economic development of space as well as NASA’s exploration of space.
China, in particular, has developed a doctrine of space dominance to ensure that the United States is no longer the greatest power in space. Plus, Space Force will not be ready for “showtime” for another 18 months, according to the U.S. Air Force. And, NASA continues to languish under its own bureaucratic inertia.
Thankfully, the actions of the Trump Administration have ensured that the United States is now competing in the second space race. Even so, we are nowhere near winning it. Losing this competition will spell the end of America’s superpower status, something we simply cannot allow.
More dangerously, the same experts who have missed some of the greatest threats in recent history are now charged with anticipating and defeating China’s threat. Yet these groups keep downplaying the many successes that China has enjoyed in the technology realm. One cannot defeat an adversary if one does not acknowledge their ingenuity and capacities. The next decade of space and technology development will determine America’s future status as a superpower.
The successful launch of China’s Long March V heavy-lift rocket should be far more disconcerting to American leaders than it has been. Those American leaders who are not taking this development seriously are part of the reason why the United States has allowed its advantages in space to evaporate.