New Report, Leaders Detail How the US Can Stay Ahead of China in Space Race

Accelerating commercial cooperation and leveraging resources are crucial to competing with China in a new space race, according to Air Force Maj. Gen. John M. Olson, mobilization assistant to the chief of Space Operations at U.S. Space Force.  

Olson’s remarks came during a National Defense Industrial Association discussion Jan. 11 regarding a report on the state of the space industrial base.” The report’s three authors were joined on a panel by Olson, Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Steven Butow, and Air Force Col. Eric Felt, as they discussed components of the strategic vision laid out in the report and how to best leverage relationships among government and industry.

Based on input from more than 250 key government, industry, and academic participants, the report recommends a number of actions. Among these are establishing a “North Star Vision for Space,” a focal point to maintain a competitive advantage with China, and accelerating the licensing process that is hindered by six-decade-old policies. In addition, the report recommends enhancing acquisition of commercially sourced assets for warfighters and strengthening the space industrial base.

“As we look at protecting this planet, it’s clear that we’ve got to get off this planet to do so, and that involves big significant thrust in looking at power production and manufacturing and leveraged use of lunar resources and other resources,” Olson said. “Now we’ve got the technology, now we’ve got the capability, now we’ve got the will, now we’ve got the funding, and I think it’s a matter of an existential race and an existential challenge to drive the significant benefits that come from being a first mover.” 

Butow, director of the space portfolio at the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit and commander of the California Air National Guard, emphasized the ambition and competitiveness that China brings to the space race. He warned that the United States must not disadvantage its own economic system because of outdated policies, especially while China continues to innovate. 

“If we want to have robust capabilities that are really coupled to the state of the art of technology, we really need to make sure that we’re investing properly in the research and development area,” he said, adding that this includes “prototyping activities that we do with commercial companies, new and old, that are doing really interesting things to give us that competitive advantage in space.” 

Felt, director of architecture and integration in the office of the assistant secretary for space acquisition and integration, said his focus has been speed and agility in the acquisition process. Despite bureaucratic hurdles, he said his department looks to maximize efforts in the areas they control.  

“I do think we’re going to reach the point where the acquisition process is not the slow part that is keeping us from beating China,” Felt said. “The acquisition part is going to be lean and nimble, and you’re going to look to other things such as the requirements process, [planning, programming, budgeting, and execution] process, that are going to be the limiting factors in how fast we can go.”  

Felt also noted assistant secretary for space acquisition Frank Calvelli’s emphasis on speed throughout the acquisition process and how to best compete. One component of this, he said, was the acquisition of smaller systems, which allows warfighters to acquire new technologies more quickly.  

“We want to buy those that are useful, and then that sends the right signal to industry as to what our value function is,” Felt said. “And then they can respond much faster than the government can to help fulfill our future needs and make sure we maintain a technology edge against China.” 

Olson also said speed was critical when it comes to funding and how the National Defense Authorization Act can contribute to this expansive effort, which is constantly looking for new industry partners while keeping on top of advances in technology.  

“We’ve adopted a policy of: ‘Exploit what we have; buy what we can; and only build what we must,’” he said. “And I think that simply and effectively implements, leverages that which is within our control, driving creativity, driving that innovation within the operations and the applications.”  

A second panel discussion included industry representatives to add their perspectives on the report and the future of the space race.  

Chris Shank, vice president and general manager of air and space programs at Maxar, said discussion of a unified vision for national security in the space environment is extremely important—and the message must be compelling. 

“I think there’s an element that Space Force will need to articulate, a similar essence, if you will … I hate to say this, but it is a bumper sticker that we can all memorize and keep in our heads, and that is our North Star,” Shank said. “It’s not lengthy in terms of compelling, and then you have to be persistent about it, you have to communicate it.”

Aaron Dann, a vice president of strategic force programs, payload, and ground systems division at Northrop Grumman Space Systems, said taking an international approach to science and technology is key for the U.S. to maintain its technological lead. 

“The research we do crosses borders, and I think [provides the] ability to allow us to better work with our international allies on our defense intelligence programs,” Dann said. “Those are some of the key areas, I think—really leveraging our international partners, alliances, allies, and also looking at our people and how do we grow that talent.” 

Richard Klodnicki, president and CEO of Aereti Inc., added that comparisons to the Chinese must be done with an understanding of how they operate.  

“Their education system is based on rote memorization, whereas the American [system] is based on early memorization and moving to critical thinking, and so they’re going to be stuck in an environment where they can only show what they’ve memorized and what they stole,” Klodnicki said. “So I caution against trying to compete with China on its field, wherever the United States sets the standards that we want to meet.”