WASHINGTON: A new Air Force Space Command (AFSPC)-sponsored study lays out eight possible far-futures for human endeavors in space, and concludes that the US requires a sweeping new strategy in space that encompasses protection of commercial activities such as resource extraction and US citizens living off-world.
The study asserts that in order to remain a preeminent world power, the “U.S. must recognize that in 2060, space will be a major engine of national political, economic, and military power for whichever nations best organize and operate to exploit that potential.”
To that end, it further recommends that AFSPC and the newly established Space Command develop a strategy that “must address how the national security establishment will defend the full range of
expanded national interests in space (i.e., civil and commercial space capabilities and citizens in
space) – not just the services that directly support national security.”
Such a strategy must take a whole of government approach, the study says, and include a plan for increased investment and an improved regulatory system to empower US commercial firms — something the Trump Administration is already championing. In addition, the study says, the new strategy must place a new government emphasis on supporting science and technology.
The Sept. 5 study, called “The Future of Space 2060 and Implications for U.S. Strategy,” was based on the outcome of an AFSPC “futures” workshop in March that included representatives of DoD, NASA, NATO, academia and nongovernmental groups. It is expected to be made public on AFSPC’s website as early as today.
One Air Force insider not involved with the effort characterized the study as “interesting” because it is unusual for an AFSPC-sponsored study to “look beyond just military space issues and highlight that a Space Force may not be the optimal way to pursue commercial and space leadership objectives.”
However, another independent Air Force watcher cautioned that the study is, at its heart, a “futures study” — meaning it was designed to spit-ball possibilities rather than to make strategic recommendations. Further, this expert told me, it “does not represent mainstream Air Force thinking” — or even the preponderance of opinion at AFSPC — which is concentrated on how to field better capabilities to “protect and defend” current national security assets.
Indeed, at an Aug. 29 media roundtable, AFSPC and Space Command leader Gen. John Raymond said that the new command is primarily seeking to hone a “sharper mission focus on protecting and defending our critical space assets.”
Indeed, many of the participants in the study are well-known supporters of what Aerospace Corporation has dubbed the “Galactic Battle Fleet” school of thought. These futurists have been touting a broad new concept of US space power that encourages human activity extending to the Moon, Mars and beyond — underpinned by a military space juggernaut.
The study developed a matrix of possible futures based on today’s trends, but all based on the assumption of a deep strategic rivalry between the United States and China. The study does not seek to predict which vision of the future is more likely.
The scenarios are judged as positive or negative based on three boundary conditions:
- “Human Presence: How broadly and in what numbers do humans live and work in space?
- Commercial Potential: What is the economic level of new, persistent revenue from space activities?
- Leadership: To what degree does the U.S. coalition lead in the creation of the civil, commercial, and
military space capabilities and in establishing the norms, standards, and international regulations in
space? (e.g., based on free world concepts of a liberal international order?)”
With regard to the first two boundary conditions, the obvious bias in the study is that ‘more is better’ — i.e. that more humans in space, and more monetary investment empowering an “expansive” future for space activities is to be desired. (Aficionados of sci-fi series of “The Expanse” will rejoice.)
Three possible futures, with suitably visionary names, are deemed positive, where “the U.S. coalition retain[s] space leadership across the civil, commercial, and military realms.” They vary, however, in the extent envisioned for the ‘expansiveness of the expanse’, if you will, of humans and commerce to cislunar space and beyond.
Star Trek: Most Optimistic and Expansive
“The U.S. coalition retains leadership over the space domain and has introduced free-world laws and processes that have led to significant global civil, commercial, and military expansion in space and resulted in large revenue streams. Thousands of humans live or work in space at a variety of habitats across cislunar space, the Moon, and Mars.”
Garden Earth: Optimistic and Expansive
“The U.S. coalition retains leadership over the space domain and has introduced free-world laws and processes that have led to significant global civil, commercial, and military expansion in space and resulted in large revenue streams. However, human presence is limited and most processes are controlled remotely or robotically.”
Elysium: Optimistic and Expansive
“The U.S. coalition retains leadership over the space domain and has introduced free-world laws and processes that have led to significant global civil, commercial, and military expansion in space. Thousands of humans live or work in space at a variety of habitats across cislunar space, the Moon, and Mars. However, large revenue streams have yet to materialize. Commercial activity is focused in [Low Earth Orbit and Geosynchronous Orbit] for “terrestrial communications, information, [positioning, navigation and timing], and to provide key parts of the civil and commercial infrastructure required for the continued expansion of human presence in space.”
Three “negative” scenarios are proposed, two of which assume that China has wrested the “lead” in space power from the United States:
Zhang He: Expansive but Most Pessimistic (Hint: Zhang He was an ancient Chinese warlord.)
“An alternate nation exercises leadership over the space domain and has introduced laws and processes that promote their interests or limit the actions of rivals. Leveraging their growing technological edge and by using non-competitive practices, they attract a growing, disproportionate share of global space revenue streams. Thousands of humans live in space to maintain lunar and Mars bases to promote national prestige, further
patterns of dependency, and support the technology and infrastructure for commercial and military space leadership.”
Wild Frontier: Expansive but Pessimistic
“No clear space power exercises leadership over the space domain. However, the growth in space capabilities of national and private entities has resulted in global civil, commercial, and military expansion in space and led to large revenue streams. However, human presence is limited, driven primarily by national prestige, exploration, and tourism.”
Xi’s Dream: Expansive but Pessimistic
“An alternate nation is the lead space power, though the importance of space is driven by the increased human presence in space for exploration, tourism, and to support and maintain commercial space capabilities. Large revenue streams have yet to materialize. Commercial activity is focused in LEO to GEO terrestrial communications, information, PNT, and to provide key parts of the civil and commercial infrastructure required for the continued expansion of human presence in space.”
Two more scenarios are presented that focus instead on the state of “military dominance” and involve a lower level of human and commercial activity in space. (Cry boo, all you sci-fi buffs!)
The “positive” vision is called “Space Today” which largely reflects the status quo, but with new and improved US military systems that “are highly resilient, maneuverable, robotically refuelable, self-healing to attack, highly integrated, artificial intelligence driven, highly autonomous, and reconstitution ability is enhanced.” That is, a force structure that fulfills all current Air Force desires.
The “negative” scenario, called “Dark Skies,” is that an ascendant China (and allies) is the primary space power, with all the goodies in its own military space fleet.
While the study urges work on a new strategy as a next step, experts say there is neither a requirement nor a guarantee that anything more will happen than a lot of copies going onto a book shelf at Peterson AFB in Colorado.
“Think ‘Net Assessment” studies,” one analyst said, referencing the legendary Pentagon futures group led for decades by Andy Marshall, whose nickname was Yoda. Marshall’s office traditionally looked at least 20 years ahead. (The current director is James Baker.) While the Office of Net Assessment has sometimes led to major policy changes, a goodly number of its studies were deemed just too futuristic for practical implementation.