It could be argued that Yuri Gagarin’s short flight into space, 60 years ago this week, was more important to the U.S. than to the Soviet Union. The Soviet launch of the first human into the cosmos, following the satellite Sputnik three years earlier, was seen as the impetus for the U.S. space program and everything that later came along with it, from GPS and LED lights to Odor Eaters and, disgustingly in my formative years, Tang.
“This is without a doubt a great event that changed the world,” he said on Monday, while visiting the site where Gagarin parachuted to the ground after his 108-minute single orbit of the Earth. “We will always be proud that it was our country that paved the road to outer space. In the 21st century, Russia must properly maintain its status as one of the leading nuclear and space powers, because the space sector is directly linked to defense.”
It’s a typically sinister Putin comment: For Russia’s virtual dictator, space is a military realm, not one of exploration. But how far has he gone in militarizing it? Is the U.S. keeping pace? What about nations newer to the space race, such as China and India?
For answers, I reached out to Brian Weeden and Victoria Samson, who work out of the Washington office of the Secure World Foundation, headquartered in Broomfield, Colorado.
They recently released the latest edition of the foundation’s annual Global Counterspace Capabilities. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our exchange:
Tobin Harshaw: How important is the Soviet Union’s success in space to post-Soviet Russians today?
Brian Weeden: Russia still looks at its Cold War-era space program with quite a bit of pride, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been some grumbling about Russia’s fall from those heights. And, as a result, Russia has been investing heavily in its space programs since the 2000s to try and revitalize them, but with mixed results.
TH: What did you make of Putin’s rather bellicose comments at the Gagarin landing site?
BW: I’m not that surprised he emphasized the security context because that was the original impetus for the Cold War space programs in both the U.S. and Soviet Union, and space still plays a significant role in national security in both countries today.
Victoria Samson: Russia is really flailing to maintain its leadership in space. The United States no longer needs Russia to get to the International Space Station — the ISS is winding down its mission over the next few years in any case — and space is shifting to a domain that is being primarily dominated by the commercial sector, of which Russia doesn’t have much. So it is primarily through military space that Russia can still be a leader in space capabilities.
TH: Maybe, in a nutshell, you could explain what the Secure World Foundation is, and then why you feel it’s vital to have such a regular, voluminous accounting of the state of the world’s space programs.
BW: We are a privately funded nonprofit that focuses on ensuring the long-term sustainable use of space for benefits on Earth. We started working on our counterspace report because we were concerned about both the proliferation of these capabilities and the lack of good, public information that can help inform the policy debate on what to do about them.
VS: Space capabilities get classified very quickly, making it hard to have an informed discussion of the actual nature of the threat and how U.S. capabilities and programs compare to that of its competitors (and even partners). We felt that having a counterspace document that has a holistic view of what is happening in terms of counterspace capabilities around the world — including the U.S. — would help shape debate and allow for a more informed discussion.
TH: Your report is in part a pretty technical document — the glossary of acronyms alone runs to six pages. But for the lay reader with interest, what’s the biggest takeaway? What was the biggest new trend since your last version?
BW: There are several countries developing counterspace (ASAT) weapons, and the number appears to be growing, albeit slowly. This current trend is in many ways a return to what was happening during the Cold War, when both the U.S and Soviets had several active ASAT programs. That said, we still haven’t seen use of destructive ASAT capabilities against another country’s satellite, only nondestructive (such as jamming).
VS: Another point is that a lot of the debate in the U.S. focuses on what China is and isn’t doing or planning on doing or could be doing. What really struck us was how active Russia’s counterspace programs were over the past year, as compared to the much (comparatively speaking) quieter Chinese developments.
TH: There are various military applications in space, such as directed energy weapons, kinetic weapons, electronic warfare, etc. If you are at the Pentagon, what would you concentrate on, and what concerns you most about rivals’ capabilities?
BW: I think the most pressing challenge is the nondestructive capabilities, like jamming and other types of electronic warfare. Those are the capabilities that we see being used today in military conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and that could have a huge impact in a future conflict with Russia or China.
TH: You make clear that your report is based only on open-source material. What are the U.S., Russia and China likely keeping secret that you’d like to know more about?
VS: I would love to learn more about the U.S. X-37B space plane
, as it is shrouded with secrecy and is used by the Russians and Chinese to argue that the U.S. is not acting in good faith when it comes to space security and stability. (I think they’re wrong about that but it would be nice to know for sure.)
BW: We also don’t know much about offensive cyber capabilities for attacking space systems, which we assume are being developed but no one is really talking about, and there’s basically zero public information.
TH: China and Russia have announced plans for a joint moon base. Do you think anything will really come of it, and of their pledge that it will “facilitate cooperation between all interested countries and international partners, strengthen scientific research exchanges, and promote humanity’s exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes”?
VS: It’s still really early to say what will actually come out of this agreement, as they just signed it and they don’t have a long history of cooperation on space issues to build this on. I do find it interesting as a possible counter to the U.S. Artemis Accords, an international agreement among the U.S. and several of its allies and friends, but which neither Russia nor China have signed or supports. That’s shortsighted on Russia’s and China’s part, since the accords essentially pick up principles and values enshrined in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and tie them specifically to lunar exploration and use.
TH: Contrary to what many people may think, the Outer Space Treaty doesn’t outlaw the “militarization of space”; so what does it ban? Is it still an effective mechanism for today’s world? Could it be updated, or as an alternative is there common will among the space nations to come up with a new set of standards?
VS: It prevents weapons of mass destruction from being used in space or on the moon and precludes military bases or use of weapons on the moon or celestial bodies. It actually is still an effective mechanism as it is the foundation of all space treaties and its bones are still very solid.
The time for new treaties for space is over. The last space treaty that was brought for signature dates back to the mid-1970s. But that does not mean that there can’t be discussions about how best to meet the needs for changes in space governance, as the domain and use thereof has evolved since the treaty’s creation in 1967.
TH: China has put up more satellites than any other nation in the last few years. Do you think it sees space as a way to become a peer-competitor or even a dominant one with the U.S.?
BW: Number of launches is not a good measure of space power. China has conducted more launches than anyone in the last couple of years, but the U.S. has put up far more satellites (mostly commercial). SpaceX itself has 1,378 satellites, more than any government does. And today’s launch rates are far below the historical peaks. The Soviet Union did nearly 100 launches a year through the late 1970s and early 1980s.
China does see space as key to bolstering its national hard and soft power, and in many ways it’s on a path to do many of the things the U.S. did during the Cold War and have many of the capabilities the U.S. does today. That said, China still has a long way to go to get there. They’ve talked about becoming a global space power by 2050, which is 30 years from now.
TH: What other nations are making a serious play in the cosmos?
VS: India is often overlooked when discussing space security and stability. But it has long been active in space and in launching other countries’ satellites (in 2017, the Indians launched 104 satellites at once, which was a record up until recently). It was the fourth country to conduct an ASAT test, in March 2019.
TH: The U.S. Space Force was widely ridiculed when President Donald Trump made it happen. But is it really a joke? My columnist Admiral James Stavridis doesn’t think so.
BW: Trump did not invent the idea of the Space Force; he only publicized it and took credit for it. Within the space community, there had been a debate about whether or not to create a separate military space service for more than two decades.
And much of the rhetoric Trump used about the Space Force was absurd and laughable. For example, it is not going to Mars and has nothing to do with human spaceflight, contrary to what Trump repeatedly claimed and sold campaign gear around.
Moreover, what Trump demanded (a separate Department of the Space Force) is not what was created. What was created was a corps within the Department of the Air Force, which is what Representatives Mike Rogers and Jim Cooper were pushing through Congress in 2017.
TH: A Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa, has invited eight members of the public to join him for a trip around the moon on Elon Musk’s SpaceX flight. He’ll even pay the freight. Are you guys submitting applications?
BW: No, I’m not really interested in going to space myself.
VS: You couldn’t pay me to go to space.
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