China is now “on track” to outpace the United States as the leading space power by 2045, according to the latest version of the space industrial base workshop report spearheaded by the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit.
According to the report, one explanation for this view is a collective “lack of urgency” throughout the U.S. government and industry and a bureaucratic environment “that is constructively impeding U.S. economic success through regulatory burden.”
The report is the fourth in a series that stems from an annual workshop attended by more than 350 industry representatives and government officials, including Pentagon and the Intelligence Community members this year.
The report states that the purpose of the workshop and the report is to promote what participants see as a “North Star” vision for America as the leader of human expansion into space beyond Earth.
This year’s workshop emphasised the rapid evolution of the U.S. space economy to encompass cutting-edge operations that would eventually lead to this vision of an American-dominated solar system.
“The 2022 State of the Space Industrial Base workshop focused primarily on one question, ‘Are we making progress we should be, and if not, why not’? For those who believe we are making progress, the question that follows is, ‘Are we going fast enough?’ The consistent answer was ‘no,’ with most participant respondents saying we were not moving with a sense of urgency. In response to ‘What’s the sense of urgency?’ many experts, including the Atlantic Council, asserted that, if current trends continue, the U.S. may lose space superiority by 2032,” the report explained.
According to the workshop report, one significant evidence of China’s rapid space advances is the revelation in a 2022 study by RAND’s Project Air Force that China has surpassed the United States in the number of military-related patents.
The research acknowledges that the commercial space sector in the United States has experienced “tremendous growth,” with significant venture capital investment in space startups. However, workshop attendees expressed concern that “supply chain concerns, inflation, and workforce depth issues undermine the domestic economic sustainability of space, as well as the capacity to maintain a strong national security space posture.”
According to the paper, the industry is also limited by a lack of clear and consistent funding by the U.S. government and challenges with on-ramping commercial innovation, particularly at DoD. Even though commercial space capabilities “have forever changed the nature of conflict,” this remains the case.
Indeed, the authors identify various policy and process barriers to making those investments throughout the U.S. government, especially inside the DoD.
“The agile engineering ecosystem that has become the hallmark of the modern space era is at risk due to some U.S. policy and procurement practices within the bureaucracy that are not aligned with, or work counter to, national space strategy,” the report states.
“DoD requires a process to rapidly acquire and constitute commercially-sourced capabilities for U.S. and allied warfighters.”
The report then assesses current U.S. capabilities and makes recommendations for accelerating development in key technological arenas deemed critical to the future space economy by workshop participants: launch services, hybrid space communications, in-space transportation and logistics, next-generation power and propulsion (including space-based solar energy), and remote sensing and traffic management.
It also examines U.S. government policies toward the development of space systems, mechanisms for funding space innovation, the state of the space workforce, and STEM education.
“Strategic competition in space remains a paramount concern. Proactive measures are required to sustain our nation’s space leadership across all instruments of national power despite China’s attempt to accelerate closing its technology gap with the U.S.,” said the authors while summarising their report.