WASHINGTON: China fully intends to extend its “territoriality” to the Moon, flouting international law in exactly the same way as it has with regard to the South China Sea, Brig. Gen. John Olson, chief advisor to Space Force head Gen. Jay Raymond on mobilization and space logistics, asserted today.
The United States therefore must rapidly act to take the “first mover advantage” for itself to block Chinese ambitions, he told Breaking Defense in the margins of the National Defense Transportation Association (NDTA) meeting today.
“If you read their language, if you read their products — which I am a vigorous student of — if you look at what they do they telegraph everything that they’re going to do, they believe that the Moon is manifest destiny for them” and part of their “economic … and security equation,” Olson said.
The officer drew a direct line between how Beijing has ignored a World Court ruling on a sovereignty dispute with the Philippines in the South China Sea to how Chinese leaders could act in space, without regard to the prohibitions of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST.)
The OST bans any nation state from claiming sovereignty over the Moon, other celestial bodies and space itself. It also bars military maneuvers, weapons testing or the establishment of national military bases on celestial bodies. China, the United States and Russia are among the 193 signatories of the framework treaty, which sets principles and guidelines for peaceful and equitable international interaction in space.
Thus, Olson asserted, the United States needs to urgently act and establish itself as the lead national power beyond Earth orbit, on the Moon and even on Mars — across the diplomatic, economic and military spheres.
In some ways, Olson’s comments were startlingly blunt. But they appear as part of a broader trend, growing for some time, in how US military space leaders more and more openly paint China as an aggressor in space, with goals of not just world but galactic domination. For another example, look no further than the reactions to the recent revelation that China in August tested a capability to launch a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, which could theoretically be nuclear armed, into orbit and cruise it most of the way around the world.
Olson, an Air Force reservist with a NASA background who served in the Obama White House at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, suggested that Washington cannot wait for multilateral deliberations about future rules for space activities, noting the slow pace of the UN’s “one-country, one-vote” decision-making. Instead, it needs to make the rules for space and set the proper example,” he stressed.
By acting first, “that way we set the standards, we set the doctrine, the governance along the principles that we believe in,” he told an earlier NDTA panel on space logistics. “Much like English is the language of the International Civil Aviation Organization for space, I believe it needs to be English for space transportation and for these broad logistics and transportation elements, not Mandarin.”
Olson further told the panel that enabling the US to lead the expansion of human activity beyond Earth also requires the US Space Force to take on the mission of “protecting and defending” future “space lines of commerce and that includes, certainly in my opinion, the Moon, it absolutely must. And I think our near peer adversaries are full heartedly focused on that.”
Asked after the panel what role Space Force would have if conflict broke out in space over resources, Olson stopped short of directly suggesting that the United States itself abandon the OST and put boots on the Moon. Instead, he explained, the issue of Space Force’s role in such future conflict is “an active national discussion.”
“That’s largely a very interagency high-level, policy-driven discussion, and I think we’re an integral part of those discussions,” he said. “I’m trying to not define policy or define the doctrine.” Instead, he explained, his goal it talk about the issues within the confines of US obligations and values, to allow space to be used for the benefit of Earth “in the best way.”
In the near term, Olson told the panel, this means encouraging industry to push forward the boundaries of space activities to make real the promise of future space utilization. Space Force is in the early stages of working with industry via Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs, which involve no funding) on figuring out how to build the space infrastructure required — such as re-fueling depots along a “space superhighway,” he explained.
His presentation slides showed how commercial space logistics can help the US military to be able to “maneuver and reposition with impunity,” and “dominate” Space Command’s AOR (Area of Responsibility) which has been defined as 100 kilometers above the Earth to infinity. The development of a robust commercial infrastructure also can support “resilient and persistent occupation” of space by the US “at a lower cost.”
And while Space Force and the Combatant Commands do envision future investment in space logistics, it sees itself as a customer — with industry providing services. He compared the model to that of the federal highway system or the electrical grid, where “90-to-95 percent” of the investment came from industry.
For example, Space Force is keen to explore “Rocket Cargo” concepts not just for point-to-point delivery on Earth but also for delivering supplies to future space stations, which both the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) are experimenting with, Olson noted.
Mark Surina, of TRANSCOM’s Office of Research and Technology, explained that TRANSCOM is interested in demonstrating capabilities for cargo delivery through space under the CRADAs it currently has with XArc and SpaceX; whereas AFRL’s high priority Rocket Cargo Vanguard effort is aimed at developing the technologies the military would need allow it to utilize such a commercial service.
He added that TRANSCOM intends to issue new CRADAs and open up the demos as wide as their own capacity will allow.
On that note, Tom Martin, director of national security programs at Blue Origin, said the firm has responded to TRANSCOM’s request for information from interested vendors. “We’re in conversations right now about establishing a CRADA.”