Uncertainty around the US Space Force is gaining traction under the Biden Administration.
Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States of America on January 20, 2021 after President Donald Trump cleared the White House. While the change of power will bring about several expected shifts in America’s positioning – internal and external – the Biden administration has still not given a clear idea of its stance in the newest battle arena: Space.
There are several key issues that the new administration will have to address in the space sector. The Senate confirmed Retired Army General Lloyd Austin as Joe Biden’s Pentagon Chief on January 22, 2021. Austin will be the first African-American to hold the Secretary of Defense portfolio and was the last commanding general of United States Forces in Iran Operation New Dawn. In a statement submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) which held a four-hour hearing to confirm his position, the new Defense Secretary said, “If confirmed, I will ensure the space domain is carefully considered across the range of upcoming strategic reviews.”
Austin has called space as an arena of “great power competition”. Furthermore, Austin highlighted Chinese and Russian space activities as presenting serious threat to US national security interests. He called Russia a “key adversary” and defined China as “the pacing threat”.
Space Emerges as the New Frontier
China, which conducted 32 successful rocket launches in 2019, plans to set up a permanent lunar base by 2036 as soon as it sets foot on the far side on the moon. The country will have matched the US’ 40-year head start in the space race if it is successful in setting up a space station. China is also planning to launch its first solar mission in 2022 while it will have its first probe on Mars this May. Led by Xi Jinping, Beijing has amped its space program in the recent years, becoming a steadily growing concern for the US in terms of security hazard as well as geopolitical influence.
Watch: China and the USA gear up for the probability of Space Warfare
Austin considers commercial activities in space a danger to the nation’s security. Commercial satellites are unavoidable in the coming decade and hence it becomes a national burden to regulate them. The Secretary of Defense states, “in the sense that the government needs to ensure that they do not collide with expensive and exquisitely capable government assets.” It will be Austin’s job to set up good standards and rules for commercial space activity. With the recent close encounter of the International Space Station (ISS) with unidentified piece of debris in September, the urgency of Space Traffic Management (STM) cannot be overstated.
But disagreements over which agency, whether the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), NASA or the Commerce Department is suited to take over civil STM, has prolonged and stymied progress. Speaking on the issue, former NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine had tweeted in 2020, “Time for Congress to provide the Commerce Department with the $15 mil requested by the President for the Office of Space Commerce.”
Biden’s Future Endeavours in Space
Biden’s presidency has much to look forward to when it comes to space. He has to make a decision about the Project Artemis, NASA’s project to land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024. Also, the newly branched division (sixth division) of the armed forces, the US Space Force, which celebrated its first anniversary in the White House last year, happens to be one of the most celebrated initiatives of Trump. Though it has bipartisan support from Congress, it will be interesting to see how it fares in its formative years under a new commander-in-chief with a different worldview.
Biden and Austin’s Pentagon will oversee the transition of the National Security Space Launch program to a new phase where SpaceX will have a more prominent role. Also, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) will also introduce a new launch vehicle, Vulcan, this year. Hence, it befalls on the Biden Administration and the Space Force to help SpaceX and ULA overcome hurdles and prove the US’ bet on domestic private players creating launch vehicles for the delivery of critical security satellites to orbit.
Moreover, Biden will be expected to curb the threat posed by China. The next decade will witness fierce competition in the space both commercially and between super powers. Countries will struggle to keep the commercial forces under check but still keep up in the space race. China will be a major issue in Biden’s agenda for the US Space force as the country plans on overtaking the US in multiple domains, including space. China has grown in its audacity to stand up to the USA in the past and has become fiercer following the soured relationship during the pandemic. Hence, Pentagon and NASA will be keeping a keen eye on China and its space activities.