The US Needs To Focus On Space Launch Security: Small Threats Loom Large


Robert Bunn Former Senior Law Enforcement Attorney
Font Size:

As the world becomes smaller, more dangerous and increasingly volatile, America must become smarter — and better able to deploy space-based assets with confidence, precision, speed and complete assurance that national security will not be compromised, but predictably protected.

Most people focus on the big threats: North Korea and Iran deploying miniaturized nuclear weapons on intercontinental ballistic missiles, China militarizing the South China Sea, Russia suddenly getting hungry for more European land, a massive inflow of Venezuelan refugees to American shores.  

These threats are real, of course. And they argue persuasively for complete, 24/7-365 situational awareness — an American satellite launch industry able to deliver anything anywhere, to any orbit at any time for any reason, to support our national security awareness, readiness and response.  

But there is more to be concerned about. By reference to history, big perceived threats often end up not materializing, while smaller threats to a nation’s security can prove lethal, or at least debilitating.  

America’s indigenous commercial space launch sector is critical to preventing threats big and small.  Globally, space launch companies are experiencing a renaissance. Embedded in this global launch renaissance, however, are subtler threats. They are growing quietly, and they are not well-understood.  

Data makes the point. In 2017, a third of the world’s satellite launches were from U.S. soil. American companies are proliferating, launching American and international payloads to high and low orbits. Big companies were resupplying the space station for NASA, while smaller ones were offering low-earth orbit satellite drops. All this was good.

On the other hand, China is determined to leapfrog American launches by 25 percent in 2018, aiming for nearly 40 launches — and everyone from Russia and Western Europe to New Zealand is hell-bent on promoting launches from their soil. America needs to be on special guard.

Today, international ambitions — and what they mean for U.S. national security — are worth focus. While big American companies capture new markets, the risk is high that American decision-makers will accidentally contract American national security to companies launching from foreign soil. That would be a major, potentially irreversible mistake.

Look at the trend line. While America’s precious heavy-lift payloads to geosynchronous orbit are launched on American rockets from American soil, a universe of non-geosynchronous satellites stands ready for launch.  

Non-geosynchronous launches are projected to triple between 2018 and 2027, putting up nearly 3000 precious payloads. But here is the kicker: Are we watching with that historic eagle’s eye to be sure these payloads are only launched from U.S. soil, only by U.S. companies, only by those chiefly financed within the United States, and not allowing any U.S. national security assets — civilian or military payloads — to be sent abroad? That is the billion dollar question, and it deserves a clear answer.

At present, what we know is this. The projected need for space launch, including the need for rapid deployment of short-lived and critical space assets by the American national security community, is likely high. The number of American-based companies launching strictly from American soil is limited but growing.  

And the risk is that the delta between need and capacity will force shortcuts, such as using foreign launch or, what is just as bad, risking shipment of American national security payloads overseas for launch from a non-U.S. soil launcher.

All this should bring policymakers back to basics. As the world becomes smaller, more dangerous, and increasingly volatile, America must stay smart about space launch, with policymakers insisting that any and all American national security assets be launched by American companies from American soil.  

Perhaps more to the point, the Pentagon, the White House, Congress and those with the highest equities in space should be part of this conversation, not just those interested in promoting global commerce, using space launch for diplomacy, regulating aviation or those outside the national security circle.  

The right answer is to recognize that seemingly small threats to American national security — like the soil from which critical assets are to be launched into space — can be as important as monster threats, of the sort that grab headlines.

Without complete confidence that we can put small and large payloads into every orbit from American soil at any time and absent foreign involvement, we may one day find that this small threat impairs ability to halt a big one. And that makes this seemingly small threat, by definition, a big one.

Robert Bunnis a  former senior law enforcement attorney in FL and commentator on national issues. He holds multiple degrees from Harvard University and is author of two books, including The Panama Canal Treaty: Its Illegality and Consequential Impacts.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.