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Don’t Gamble on the Next Space Race: Win in the Orbital Gray Zone Now

Illustrations © James Vaughan, and used by permission. More of his work can be found here:

By Jim Malachowski


A new space race is beginning as commercial firms around the world innovate to capitalize on the rich resources in space and the capabilities derived from space. Space is no longer a sanctuary for peaceful exploration. It has grown into a multipolar environment that is far more commercial and less benign. More than eighty nations have now entered the space industry, but few of them are willing to follow the existing norms of conduct. As the cost for space launch continues to plummet, more nations, corporations, and non-state actors compete for limited orbital resources. Within this context, there is a renewed great power competition between the United States, China, and Russia. Historically, great power competition accompanies a period of intensified confrontation, and experts argue that the contested, competitive, and congested domain of space is leaning toward a direct clash. More likely, China and Russia will use coercive statecraft approaches, including non-traditional “little green men,” coercive economics, and lawfare to exploit the “sheriff-less Wild West” of the international legal system. These actions are designed to stay in the gray zone below the threshold of open armed conflict to achieve China’s and Russia’s goals. It is only a matter of time before China and Russia extend these tactics to space. Further, access to vast mineral riches could provide revisionist powers greater ability to upend global financial markets and imperil the existing rules-based international order. However, depending on traditional statecraft to solve gray zone issues and ensure American leadership in space is limited by a history of political inconsistency and fragmented government responsibility for space. Over the past few years, policy decisions have restarted momentum for American space leadership. It is now up to U.S. policymakers to sustain American strategic leadership in space for the long term.


What the gold rush did was to give people permission to take risks,
to gamble on life, in a way that they hadn’t been willing to gamble before.
H. W. Brands in Gold Rush [1]

Strategic leadership and dominance in space is not an American birthright, despite the widespread belief that the orderly march into the future is part and parcel of America’s destiny. Primacy in space has always been contested. America’s space leadership was hard-won. Just two nations, the United States and the Soviet Union, were the exclusive members of the world’s club of spacefaring nations for most of the first four decades of the space age because of the high cost of research, development, and testing.[2] This provided consistent norms of conduct in space and strategic stability. Since 2000, however, the cost of entry has plummeted. Currently, there are more than eighty nations, international organizations, and members of the commercial space industry operating in space.[3] While responsible space actors will operate with openness and predictability to preserve “space for all humanity,”[4] some new entrants to the spacefaring community are ignoring existing norms of space conduct and safety.[5] Experts warn that without updated and enforceable rules, space norms and behaviors will mirror the lawlessness of the “wild, wild west”[6] and the violence and chaos of the Yukon Gold Rush.[7]

Today, the United States is facing unprecedented but predicted challenges to American leadership in space. Lower launch costs, advancements in technology, and government policy changes have shifted access to space from an exclusive club to one almost anyone can join.[8] The World Economic Forum estimates 2,298 satellites were launched in the decade between 2009 and 2018.[9] That number is expected to exceed 9,900 or nearly a thousand new satellites a year between 2019 and 2028.[10] The prediction is that this is the first wave of an extraterrestrial “gold rush” as commercial firms seek wealth and riches from space.[11] So-called great powers, such as China and Russia, are exploiting the gaps in space conduct norms to challenge, if not outright threaten, U.S. national interests through the employment of strategic gradualism and subversion.[12] As the United States adapts to this new era of great power competition, U.S. policymakers must maintain the momentum on space security. Maintaining the momentum requires an understanding of the contested, competitive, and routinely congested nature of space, understanding how gray zone tactics will extend into space, and consideration of two challenges of statecraft, political inconsistency, and fragmented government responsibility, to preserve America’s leadership in space.

Leadership in Space

American leadership in space began with two different ideas. Human spaceflight and research promised space for peaceful purposes, while military space operations focused on defensive space capabilities.[13] Arguably, the idea of American space leadership is based on winning the space race in the late 1960s and early 1970s when momentum was easy with well-funded and government-run civil and military space programs.[14] The reality of federal budget priorities ended much of that momentum. The United States abandoned the Moon and then the Skylab space station in the mid-1970s, leaving the Soviet Union as the only long-term inhabitant in space.[15] After a brief resurgence of government funding following the 1982 National Space Policy and the directive to “maintain United States space leadership,”[16] budgets for civil and military space programs declined precipitously again during the 2000s. With the end of the shuttle program in 2011, America became dependent on Russia for human spaceflight and, until very recently, the nation was considered “a space hitchhiker rather than [space] program leader” by both domestic and foreign audiences.[17] Along with the American public’s waning attention, the perception of absolute U.S. space leadership had declined despite the steady growth in the commercial space industry and several notable space exploration missions.[18]

Leadership in space does not demand absolute control: “the broad spectrum of space activities and the increasing number of spacefaring nations make it virtually impossible for any nation to dominate in this way.”[19] Effective leadership requires that the United States have capabilities that “enable it to act independently and impressively when and where it chooses.” Critically, the country needs to decide its priorities and a clear set of objectives to “restore its leadership status.”[20]

There is no better time to reassert American leadership in space. Space has grown into a multipolar environment that is far more commercial and somewhat less benign. The growth in weather forecasting, communication, sensing and reconnaissance, precision navigation and timing data, and a host of other capabilities are driving growth in today’s new commercial space economy. With global space industry revenues conservatively expected to exceed $1 trillion per year for the next 20 years and then grow at an additional $1 trillion each a decade, both the number of entities operating in space and the level of competition will increase exponentially.[21] Private companies will soon offer affordable space tourism, space-based mining and manufacturing, and on-orbit services that require a safe and stable environment.[22] However, stability in space, which is often erroneously termed as a sanctuary free from violent conflict,[23] results from deterring the willingness to escalate conflict and, for the near future, a simple lack of accessible technology. Any reduction in either variable risks turns and some, either nation-states or state-sponsored entities, will seek to exploit the resulting “wild west” lawlessness will challenge, if not outright threaten, U.S. national interests.[24] Dependence on orbital utilities for daily life and critical parts of national infrastructure is not far away.[25]

Not all spacefaring nations are friendly or allied, and it would be a mistake to assume that rules, regulations, and international cooperation will deter bad actors. General Howell Estes III, U.S. Space Command commander (1996-1998), predicted that the continued commercial development of space would “provide continued strength for our great country in the decades ahead.”[26] In 1999, strategic planners predicted that by 2020 “adversaries will essentially share the high ground of space… [where] those bent on doing us harm will challenge us.”[27] Both predictions may have come true. Adversaries have continued to improve their ability to operate in space and counter U.S. advantages.[28] National leaders have recognized that space is growing more competitive, congested, and increasingly contested as a warfighting domain.[29] Leadership in space provides more than geostrategic influence. The nation that has it will be able to act “independently and impressively when and where it chooses.”[30]

For more than 70 years, Americans have believed in the idea of manifest destiny extending off-world as a natural extension of conquering the west. In 1955, thousands of visitors to Disneyland embraced this destiny in the short walk from the covered wagons and mine trains in Frontierland to take a rocket to the Moon and explore the new frontier of outer space in Tomorrowland.[31] A 2018 Pew Research survey found that 72 percent of Americans want America to be a world leader in space exploration.[32] This result is unsurprising. Pulitzer Prize awardee historian William Goetzmann argued that America has always been a nation of explorers.[33] The National Space Policy goes further by stating that America is a “nation of pioneers . . . the people who crossed the ocean, carved out a foothold on a vast continent, settled a great wilderness, and then set our eyes upon the stars.”[34] Historically, however, this is not a rare quality. Humans are driven to explore. It is a human compulsion and a defining element of human identity that “will never rest at any frontier, whether terrestrial or extra-terrestrial.”[35] The drive to explore new frontiers is supposedly encoded into the human genome. Like all frontiers in human history, the space frontier needs rugged explorers, engineers, and scientists backed by entrepreneurs and a government to protect investments by securing critical lines of commerce.

The 3-C’s—Contested, Competitive, and Congested Space

The history of the space race bears heavily on understanding today’s environment. The United States started the race in second place. Great power competition in space began with the Soviet Union’s stunning launch of Sputnik and Sputnik II in October and November 1957.[36] Many of the people who watched Sputnik pass across the American sky or listened to its short but incessant chirps every ninety-six minutes on shortwave radios almost instinctually connected the Soviet’s capability to put a satellite over their home to the horror of Atomic weapons.[37] This represented the end of America’s post-World War II peace and tranquility.[38]

A month later, Americans and the world witnessed the failure of America’s Vanguard TV-3 when it exploded on the launch pad. [39] This crisis in confidence compounded America’s Sputnik shock. The media frenzy turned the crash into an early symbol of America’s space program and galvanized national will.[40] Senator Lyndon Johnson, then the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on preparedness, used the crisis to chastise Republicans and the Pentagon equally for mismanagement, interservice rivalry, and a myopic focus on bombers that caused the country to fall behind the Soviets.[41] With the nation’s prestige on the line, the launch on January 31, 1958, of Explorer 1 was a success.[42] A year later, Johnson argued for absolute American leadership over the ultimate high ground saying, “control of space means control of the world.”[43] Fueled by domestic politics during the 1960 presidential campaign, the race for space leadership became the public centerpiece of Cold War competition.

Even before the space race had entered the American public’s consciousness, the United States and the Soviet Union had started developing operational concepts and technology to contest space as a warfighting domain. These concepts were intended to produce direct combat effects into and from space. In 1959, the U.S. Air Force demonstrated the feasibility of anti-satellite missiles. Two years later, the U.S. Navy presented Congress with an advanced anti-satellite weapon system called Early Spring.[44] Once it reached the target altitude, the submarine-launched missile could loiter for up to 90-seconds before detonating a warhead containing thousands of steel pellets into a satellite’s path.[45] In 1961, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened to put 100-megaton bombs in space where they could be directed to any place on Earth.[46] That weapon, the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, like the Navy’s Early Spring, was eventually canceled due to technical and funding challenges. However, the understanding that space is, in fact, a contested warfighting domain was well understood during the Cold War. That bilateral competition with Russia has now grown to trilateral competition with the inclusion of China. In addition, seven other states are believed to have or are developing counter-space systems.[47] It is foreseeable that other state and non-state actors are bound to follow.

The history of gold rushes provides examples of how human conflict spikes with sudden increases in competition over resources. The massive Klondike Gold Rush began when three miners discovered gold in 1896 in the inhospitable Yukon Territory. Word of the discovery led to a brutal stampede of some 100,000 prospectors and entrepreneurs looking to get rich quickly. The resulting lawlessness, chaos, and environmental destruction caused both the United States and Canadian governments to send in forces to reestablish control, build infrastructure, and make rapid improvements in transportation and communication technology.[48] As startup costs fell, profitability encouraged business growth in prospecting, exploration, and development.[49]

With startup costs falling, prospectors and entrepreneurs are looking for ways to extract valuable resources from a new frontier once again. The Outer Space Treaty’s non-appropriation principle may constrain nations from claiming sovereignty of space bodies. However, property ownership of extracted resources has legal precedent dating back to the Apollo 11 mission.[50] The U.S. led Artemis Accords extends legal recognition for private ownership of extracted resources.[51] Space mining prospectors will own the resources they extract. The idea of thousands of space prospectors competing against one another to mine asteroids or the lunar surface may seem unlikely today, but the potential of a space “gold rush” was recognized in a recent Executive Order.[52] Conflict between prospectors and mining companies may boil over into state conflict.

Space between War and Peace

There is only a thin and frequently blurry line between war and peace, and it straddles competition over resources. In the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes contended that war, in its most basic form, is inextricably linked to gaining control over resources.[53] Examples, from the American Revolution to the current dispute in the South China Sea, support his linkage between trade and war.[54] To Europeans, the American Revolution was part of a larger war over agricultural resources in the East and West Indies.[55] Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor to secure its access to resources in South Asia.[56] Germany’s invasion of Ukraine and the Caucasus was intended to seize oil and agriculture fields.[57] Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was mainly an attempt to gain control of large oil reserves.[58] China’s irredentist claims in the South China Sea seek control overfishing and oil resources.[59] Economic data suggest, rather unambiguously, that the probability of conflict increases with resource need.[60] Chinese President Xi Jinping noted as much in 2012 arguing of “historical patterns of conflict between rising and fading hegemonic powers.”[61] Human nature is eternal, and, historically, peaceful competition over limited resources must be compelled, or competition devolves into the Wild West and the potential of war.

There have been arguments against superimposing terrestrial law to space and arguments that space provides a tabula rasa, or blank slate, to write a better future for humanity. The concept of space as a global commons and as the common heritage of humankind is espoused in the 1979 “Moon Agreement” called for an international regime to control natural resources exploitation in space.[62] This agreement was ratified by only a few non-spacefaring nations and thus has little weight in international law.[63] However, it is problematic to suggest that international management of resources outside of national jurisdictions give the “interests and needs of developing countries” equal consideration with the nations that solved technological challenges and contributed billions in capital investment.[64] The primary benefits of space should go to those most capable of recovering and making productive use of non-exclusive space resources.[65] An international public policy of “space commons for all humanity” sounds magnanimous, but, from lessons learned on Earth, progress is tied closely – even if imperfectly – to property rights, security, and economic freedom.

The United States does not view space as global commons but as a “legally and physically unique domain” where human activity is governed by law.[66] While the Outer Space Treaty extended the international rule of law into space,[67] it should not be assumed that all nations will abide by international standards of behavior. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, speaking at a National Space Council meeting in 2019, noted that more than eighty nations have now entered the space industry, and many of them are unwilling to follow existing norms of conduct.[68] The risk of contested space is increasing at the same time as exponential growth in the number and types of commercial satellites on orbit is increasingly congesting near-Earth orbits. Without a national ability to identify and deter bad actors in space, a wild “gold rush” scramble for space resources may put life on Earth at risk and require the application of force to restore order.

If this scramble resulted in a war in space, it would have severe repercussions. Space-based capabilities are vulnerable to the environment, accidents, and deliberate action. State and non-state actors can disrupt, degrade, deceive, or seize satellites through cyber-attacks, and directed energy weapons can dazzle or damage satellite optical sensors. Adding complication, nearly everything in space is a dual-use technology.[69] This makes it difficult to identify differences between commercial space applications and military purposes, and the space environment makes identifying and attributing orbital actions more difficult.[70] The most fundamental aspects of an orbital combat system are already practiced in near-Earth orbit. For example, the U.S. Space Force’s Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) has used rendezvous and proximity operations to inspect satellites on orbit to take “truly eye-watering” images.[71] The Russian inspector satellite Kosmos-2542, launched in November 2019, can conduct rendezvous and proximity operations to clean up orbital debris or repair and refuel satellites on orbit.[72] Kosmos-2542 can also be employed as a co-orbital anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon to approach, interfere, or attack U.S. space objects even if they are equipped with a local sense and avoid system.

Direct kinetic destruction of satellites requires a higher degree of technical skill.[73] There is no such thing as a harmless kinetic interception of orbiting targets, and even testing space weapons could destabilize the orbital environment.[74] Any nation firing kinetic kill weapons in space is reckless because fragments from the explosions could create indiscriminate repercussions for all space systems. The United States has the most extensive space presence, and it would be disproportionately affected by the “Kessler syndrome,” which predicts that creating orbital debris could create a domino effect of larger and larger debris clouds that could cost all humanity access to space.[75]

Protecting the on-orbit portions of that infrastructure means minimizing space debris from various accidents and intentional, kinetic destruction. In February 2009, a dead Russian communication satellite and a commercial Iridium satellite unintentionally collided, resulting in two large debris clouds containing more than 2,500 fragments.[76] China has fielded direct-ascent ASAT weapons and co-orbital weapons, in addition to electromagnetic, directed-energy, and cyber capabilities.[77] Debris from China’s 2007 ASAT test, which destroyed one of its inoperative weather satellites more than 500 miles above the Earth, continues to orbit.[78] Russia is developing a range of ASAT weapons, including a new mobile launcher system and satellites capable of sophisticated on-orbit counterspace activities.[79] India tested its first direct-ascent ASAT weapon in March 2019.[80] Pieces of orbital debris from that weapon test are expected to linger in orbit, endangering low Earth orbit satellites and the International Space Station for up to two years.[81]

The Orbital Gray Zone

The renewal of great power competition accompanies a “period of intensified competition and confrontation,” and the contested domain of space is leaning toward a direct clash.[82] China, and Russia to a lesser extent,[83] are challenging the foundations of the U.S.-led international order.[84] In theory, rational actors will avoid the cost of a war in space because the value of access to space is far more valuable than any potential gains of orbital warfare. It is more plausible to believe that adversaries would use coercive statecraft approaches designed to stay in the gray zone below the threshold of open armed conflict to achieve their goals.[85] These tactics have been used terrestrially, and it is only a matter of time and opportunity before these political and economic gray war tactics are employed in space operations.

The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy cautions that adversaries and competitors have become “adept at operating below the threshold of open military conflict and at the edges of international law.”[86] Revisionist states, including those capable of spaceflight, have become adept at terrestrial gray zone campaigning by using incremental combinations of influence, intimidation, and coercion. These aggressive actions, which tend to be difficult to attribute, are intended to remain below the threshold of conventional armed conflict to achieve state goals and weaken the existing rules-based order. Examples include Russia’s actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, China’s actions with island-building in the South China Sea and its financial nation-capturing activities.[87] The United States, on the other hand, has demonstrated only a “tepid, fragmented and generally unsuccessful” response.[88] Traditional and non-traditional political warfare and coercive statecraft are in play because the bulk of the space ecosystem is on Earth (i.e., manufacturing plants, assembly and launch infrastructure, training facilities, communications, and telemetry stations). Applied to the orbital environment, subversive gray war tactics could include the deliberate “accidental” creation of space debris or localized incapacitating activity (perhaps that mimics space weather), bumping into or jamming satellites, and physical, electronic, or cyber interference with their operation.[89]

Becoming a spacefaring nation confers the prestige of membership in an exclusive club of great powers similar to the nuclear weapons club. Experts suggest that prestige seeking is a strong motivation for revisionist actions.[90] China’s obsession with national prestige forms the basis for its terrestrial commercial and military interests, “also animates the country’s space policy.”[91] Space prestige is most associated with human spaceflight and scientific exploration. However, this “prestige” aspect should not lead to underestimating China’s military motivations. China’s actions suggest that it anticipates conflict over resources in space and views counterspace capabilities as a necessary means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness.[92] Chinese aggressive pursuit of foreign technology and state-backed “Space Silk Road” financing is disrupting global market-driven space launch and services through predatory pricing.[93] The counterargument China uses is that their actions, while seemingly predatory, are conducted within the letter of existing international law. All the while, China exploits legal loopholes in U.S. export control law by creating shell corporations in Hong Kong to access restricted space capabilities and build a militarized space program.[94]

These actions indicate that China is a revisionist power that will work within the system to change the rules-based international order to their liking.[95] Where they cannot encourage favorable change, they will use non-traditional “little green men,” coercive economics, and lawfare to exploit the “sheriff-less Wild West” of the international legal system,[96] under the umbrella of gray zone activities. The degree to which these gray zone efforts are used will determine the distance along the continuum from peaceful statecraft of cooperative bargaining with friendly nations to open hard-ball national competition to covert subversion just shy of where the tension would cause armed conflict. This allows China to expand economic and military capabilities while using information operations to increase American political polarity and keep the nation “divided, distracted, and weak.”[97]

Two Challenges for Traditional Statecraft

Winning great power competition requires extraordinary political leadership and the ability to adapt to preserve its power advantages across the five major areas of traditional statecraft: political-diplomatic, ideological, informational, economic, and military.[98] Success in great power competition depends on “strategic empathy and respectful diplomacy” to build an inclusive and less coercive international order—the framework that shapes international politics.[99] In addition to the prospect of long-term competition with China, states that lack the power to challenge the United States directly may act below the threshold of active armed conflict while using the rules-based order only where it suits their goals.[100] Political warfare is steeped in psychological efforts to influence other states. Empathy and respectful diplomacy are weaknesses to be exploited in the gray zone. This includes any number of illegitimate or non-traditional and indirect tactics such as political subversion, denial and deception, election interference, information operations that spread propaganda, rumor and false narrative, harassment through proxies, economic corruption or pressure, sponsored criminal activity, cyber intrusion, and diplomatic strong-arming.[101] Today’s 24/7 news cycle and the influence of social media adds more tools to test or attack national will.[102] The challenge of depending on traditional statecraft to solve gray zone issues and ensure American leadership in space is two-fold: political inconsistency and fragmented government response to threats below the threshold of armed conflict.

First, the American political system tends to focus on issues that have the attention of the public. The government essentially lurches “from one point of apparent equilibrium to another, as policymakers establish new institutions to support the policies they favor or alter existing ones to give themselves the greater political advantage.”[103] This punctuated equilibrium weakens the perception of American leadership needed for political-diplomatic, ideological, and informational statecraft. The treaties, agreements, and processes that won the Cold War took decades of painstaking technical work with allies and partners, strategic thought and debate, and consistent policy. While the leadership to accomplish these tasks depends on reigniting America’s imagination and belief in leading humanity into the next great frontier, consistent long-term policies that leverage industry, signal the decisive resolve to act, and build the economic and military power to support that resolve are needed.

Second, the nation’s fragmented structure for space prevents national-level focus. This is not a new observation. In 1992, three major congressional commissions and a Government Accounting Office report called for a stronger White House focus on streamlining organizational structure for space activities to create more synergy and less duplication.[104] Instead, the National Space Council was disbanded in 1993.[105] In 2001, the Congressionally-mandated Space Commission looked again at the government’s organization. Chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, the report suggested the future need for a “separate space force” to assume responsibility for organizing, training, and equipping a force for military space operations.[106] Budget priorities and 9/11 put an end to the report’s sweeping changes for national security space operations.[107] One year later, in 2002, the original U.S. Space Command, established in 1985, was disestablished, and the missions were reassigned to U.S. Strategic Command due to bureaucratic infighting and budget priorities.[108]

At the time, Stephen Lambakis, then an analyst at the National Institute for Public Policy, criticized policymakers for taking American space superiority for granted: “Americans do not spin in orbit alone.”[109] For the previous 40 years, politicians have “with astonishing irregularity [constrained] military activities [in space] without clear public justification.”[110] He concluded that this dysfunction would eventually diminish America’s international political leverage and threaten national security.[111]

The U.S. space ecosystem is made up of different blocks: civil, commercial, military, and national intelligence space. There is no all-Space leader, and responsibility is spread across more than twenty U.S. government entities. This diffusion makes it challenging to coordinate statecraft in achieving national space policy. Unless the United States creates an effective process dedicated to identifying and coordinating responses to coercive gray zone challenges, both terrestrial and in space, responses will be, by necessity, diffused across government. The nation must find a way to unify its ability to sense and respond to activities out to cislunar space that run counter to U.S. national interests and then apply the appropriate statecraft tool. In the final analysis, however, no one entity is in charge of space.

In the past few years, policy decisions have restarted momentum for American space leadership. This includes the re-establishment of the National Space Council as a senior policy focal point and coordinating body,[112] the integration of military space and terrestrial operations by reestablishing the joint warfighting U.S. Space Command in August 2019[113] , and creating the U.S. Space Force (USSF) in December 2019[114] to provide the strength to protect American interests in space. Just as significantly, creation of bipartisan Space Force Caucuses in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate will help shepherd bi-cameral Congressional oversight.[115] These decisions suggest a growing awareness of space’s importance to the nation’s security and prosperity. These are positive steps in retaining America’s strategic leadership and its ability to act independently and impressively when and where it chooses.


Space is a unique domain of all modern human activities, but humanity has a long history of conflict over resources.[116] The power vast mineral riches from space could provide revisionist powers, like China, the ability to upend global financial markets and imperil the existing rules-based international order and America’s leadership position. The days of space as an elite, national prestige endeavor achieved by only a few are over. More than eighty nations currently operate in space, and that number will grow. While the United States maintains several advantages, it has the most to lose with the most overhead assets in space. The Depression-era wisdom (popularized by Robert Heinlein’s early vision of humanity in space) of “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” argues you cannot get something for nothing.[117] Inaction has an opportunity cost. If America waits for the shock of another Sputnik moment to galvanize a whole-of-nation effort, it will have lost its ability to set the vision for the final frontier.

With space serving as a new “key location for measuring relative power” in great power competition,[118] the United States must “pursue new projects in the ambitious spirit of Apollo 11. Policies must leverage industry, animate public imagination, and signal the decisive resolve to act.”[119] In other words, it must decide on priorities and clear objectives and then act because there is nothing etched in stone to say the stars are an American birthright. If the United States wants to make leadership in space an American destiny, it must fight for it.

No solution is novel – even in a renewed era of great power competition, gray zone conflict, and the potential of war in space. Winning great power competition requires political leadership to understand and rapidly adapt to shifts in relative international power to preserve the nation’s advantages. Given the on-again, off-again place space occupies in American politics and national security space; concerns are easily overlooked. The resulting political and policy inconsistency will provide great power competitors the opportunity to usurp America’s leadership in space. Freedom to act in space remains a core U.S. interest, but institutional predispositions and an unsupported belief in American absolute space primacy may lull policymakers into a false sense of security. The resulting complacency and inertia will prevent the United States from responding effectively to external challenges. “War,” Sparta’s King Achidamus said, “is carried on in the dark, and attacks are generally sudden and furious.”[120] However, Gray zone tactics are continual, holistic, and likely targeted at the seams between government agencies. Coupled with information operations, they are intended to convince policymakers that the nefarious actions were misinterpreted or an easily rectified mistake. Without the structure to coordinate space issues at the national level, other policy priorities will subordinate space even though it is a critical domain that could determine America’s future existence.

America cannot and should not sustain a long drawn out and resource-intensive great power competition. The United States should promote and harness exponential technologies and visionary policies to leap-frog the competition, set the domain norms and values, and ensure that space remains safe and stable for all of humanity.[121] Pragmatic solutions for industrial and economic development in space require political will, risk tolerance, and a dedication to sustaining long-term efforts. Both the public and policymakers must insist on a sustained and integrated national strategy for space to sustain American strategic leadership and domain dominance with the same commitment it used in winning the Cold War.[122] The hard part of deciding on priorities and clear objectives has been done. Now, policymakers must keep the momentum and explore new methods to leverage statecraft to secure the future of space.

Dr. Jim Malachowski is a fellow in the Department of Defense Senior Leader Development Program. This paper represents the author’s views solely and does not necessarily represent the official policy or position of any Department or Agency of the U.S. Government. If you have a different perspective, we’d like to hear from you.



  1. Historian H.W. Brands quoted in Gold Rush, film, dir. Randall MacLowry, (Boston, MA: PBS, 2006), transcript
  2. See James C. Moltz, “The Changing Dynamics of Twenty-First-Century Space Power.” Journal of Strategic Security 12, no. 1 (2019): 15-43,; Joan Johnson-Freese, “Ceding American Leadership in Space,” The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 39, no. 1 (Winter 2015): 98,
  3. Wilbur Ross, remarks at the sixth meeting of the National Space Council, August 20, 2019, NASA Video
  4. The White House, National Space Policy of the United States of America, (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, December 9, 2020), 3,
  5. Wilbur Ross, remarks at the sixth meeting of the National Space Council, August 20, 2019, Time mark 37:0, NASA Video
  6. John Raymond quoted in Joey Roulette, “U.S. builds alliances in ‘wild, wild west’ of space: general,” Space News, Reuters, September 18, 2019,
  7. Christian Zur, “America Must Lead in Settling the New Frontier,” The Hill, August 28, 2019,
  8. George Mancuso, “Future Implication of Commercial Crew,” National Space Society, August 3, 2020,
  9. Therese Wood, “Who owns our orbit: Just how many satellites are there in space,” World Economic Forum,” October 23, 2020,
  10. Therese Wood, “Who owns our orbit: Just how many satellites are there in space,” World Economic Forum,” October 23, 2020, See also E. Marareanu, “Number of Satellites launched from 1957 to 2019,” statista (June 23, 2020),
  11. See Dan Robitzski, “Former NASA Scientist Predicts “Gold Rush” in Space,” Futurism, December 9, 2020, ;Tunku Varadarajan, “The New ‘Gold Rush in Space,” Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2020,; Michael Shilo Delay and Anastasia Bendebury, “The new space rush: Avoiding the hidden costs of profiting in space,” Astronomy, November 16, 2020.
  12. The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America, (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, December 2017) https://
  13. NASA funding was considered a national security priority rather than for science or exploration by the Kennedy Administration, which allowed it to achieve spectacular performance. Once the policy goal of beating the Soviets to the Moon, U.S. policy shifted to cooperative endeavors and funding was cut. Cf. Joan Johnson-Freese, “Ceding American Leadership in Space,” The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 39, no. 1 (Winter 2015), and Robert I. Vexler ed., Dwight D. Eisenhower: 1890-1969 Chronology Documents & Bibliographical Aids (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, 1970), 31.
  14. James C. Moltz, “The Changing Dynamics of Twenty-First-Century Space Power.” Journal of Strategic Security 12, no. 1 (2019): 15-43,; Johnson-Freese, 98.
  15. Cf. “Apollo to the Moon,” Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, nd.,
  16. The White House, National Security Decision Directive Number 42: National Space Policy, (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, July 4, 1982),
  17. Johnson-Freese, 94.
  18. Johnson-Freese, 91.
  19. Sally K. Ride, Leadership and America’s Future in Space (Washington DC: NASA, August 1987), 12,
  20. Ride, 12. Although Dr. Ride was arguing specifically about the return to human spaceflight, the argument holds true in the face of multipolar competition and great power grey-zone competition.
  21. Space: Investing in the Final Frontier, Morgan Stanley, July 2, 2019,
  22. Ed Swallow, Interview with Kevin O’Connell, Director of the Office of Space Commerce, “The Space Policy Show: the Present and Future of Space Commerce,” videocast, Aerospace Corporation (August 20, 2020),
  23. See Robin Dickey, “Space has not been a Sanctuary for Decades,” War on the Rocks, September 16, 2020,
  24. Author notes, General Jay Raymond, Chief of Space Operations, address to College of Naval Warfare, August 8, 2019; Joey Roulette, “U.S. builds alliances in ‘wild, wild west’ of space: general,” Reuters, September 18, 2019,
  25. Defense Intelligence Agency, Challenges to Security in Space, (January 2019), 11,
  26. Howell Estes, III quoted in Peter Hayes, United States into the Twenty-First Century Occasional Paper 42), (Colorado Springs: Institute for National Space Studies, September 2002), 14.US Air Force Academy.
  27. Howell Estes, III, “Forward,” in United States Space Command Long Range Plan, March 1999; although they share a name, the current US Space Command has no lineage relationship to the original US Space Command.
  28. Author notes. See also R. Cargill Hall and Jacob Neufeld, eds. The U.S. Air Force in Space 1945 to the Twenty-first Century Washington DC: USAF History and Museums Program, 1998),
  29. National Space Policy.
  30. Ride, 12.
  31. Catherine L. Newell. Destined for the Stars: Faith, the Future, and America’s Final Frontier (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019).
  32. Pew Research Center, “Majority of Americans Believe it is Essential that the US Remain a Global Leader in Space,” June 6, 2018,
  33. William H. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966).
  34. National Space Policy, i.
  35. Maeve Leakey quoted in Stewart A. Weaver, Exploration: A Very Short Introduction (London: Oxford University Press, 2014), 118.
  36. See Phillip Kaufman, The Right Stuff (Hollywood, CA: Warner Brothers/Ladd Company, 1983).
  37. Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower, Volume 2: The President (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984),
  38. Ambrose,, 425.
  39. Walter A. McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth—A Political History of the Space Age, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997); Cf. Paul Dickson, Sputnik: The Shock of the Cold War, (London: Walker Books, 2011).
  40. McDougall.
  41. Edmund Beard, Developing the ICBM: A Study in Bureaucratic Politics, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976).
  42. Ambrose.
  43. Quoted in Alan Wasser, “LBJ’s Space Race: what we didn’t know then (part 1),” The Space Review, June 20, 2005,
  44. Curtis Peebles, Battle for Space (New York: Beaufort, 1983).
  45. Curtis Peebles, Battle for Space (New York: Beaufort, 1983), 48-9.
  46. William Broad, Star Warriors: The Young Scientists Who Are Inventing the Weaponry of Space, (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1985).
  47. Thomas F. Lynch III and Frank Hoffman, “Past Eras of Great Power Competition: Historical Insights and Implications,” in Strategic Assessment 2020: Into a New Era of Great Power Competition, ed. Thomas F. Lynch, III (Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 2020), 9-10.
  48. The Canadian Royal Mounted Police and the Army established small outposts to prevent riots. Cf. William B. Haskell, Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Goldfields (Hartford, Conn. : Hartford Pub. Co., 1898); America, History and Life. (United States: ABC-CLIO, 2001).
  49. See Pierre Berton, Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899, (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1972).
  50. See John G. Wrench, Non-Appropriation, No Problem: The Outer Space Treaty Is Ready for Asteroid Mining 51, Case W. Res. J. Int’l L., 437 (2019), Cf. Government Printing Office, “Public Law 114-90: The US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (November 25, 2015),
  51. See National Aeronautics and Space Administration, The Artemis Accords,
  52. The White House, E.O. Executive Order 13914.
  53. In Leviathan, Hobbes considered three causes of warfare: necessity (resources), diffidence (preventive war), and glory. See Delphine Thivet, “Thomas Hobbes: A Philosopher of War or Peace?” Journal for the History of Philosophy 16, no. 4 (2008).
  54. In these examples, wars result from a breakdown in economic bargaining. See David H. Bearce and Eric O’N. Fisher. “Economic Geography, Trade, and War.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 46, no. 3 (2002): 365-93.
  55. Cf. Baack, Ben.  “The Economics of the American Revolutionary War.” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. October, 2001,; Alice George, “The American Revolution Was Just One Battlefront in a Huge World War,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 28, 2018, For a robust discussion on the British mercantile economy in the West Indies, see Selwyn H. H. Carrington. “The American Revolution and the British West Indies’ Economy.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 17, no. 4 (1987): 823-50,
  56. For insight into Japan’s intent to neutralize the United States by attacking Pearl Harbor, see Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, Vol 8 (Japan: Kodansha, 1983), 272-3.
  57. Ronald Findlay and Kevin O’Rourke, “War, Trade and Natural Resources: A Historical Perspective,” Michelle R. Garfinkel and Stergios Skaperdas, Eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Peace and Conflict, April 2012, 25,
  58. Shak Bernard Hanish, “The 1990 Gulf Crisis: Political Realism Applied,” Journal of International Relations and Foreign Policy 1, no. 1, June 2013: 1-16,
  59. Katherine Morton, “Ambition in the South China Sea: Is a Legitimate Maritime Order Possible?” International Affairs 92, no. 4 (July 2016): 909-940.
  60. See Elenora Nillesen and Erwin Bulte, “Natural Resources and Violent Conflict,” Annual Review of Resource Economics,” 2014, 75,
  61. Julian Gewirtz “China Thinks America is Losing,” Foreign Affairs 99, no. 6 (Nov, 2020): 62-72.
  62. Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, United Nations office for Outer Space Affairs, December 5, 1979,
  63. The White House, Executive Order 13914 of April 6, 2020, Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources, Code of Federal Regulations, 85 CFR 20381, (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, April 2020),
  64. For a robust discussion of related legal issues see Carol R. Buxton, “Property in Outer Space: The Common Heritage of Mankind Principle vs. the First in Time, First in Right, Rule of Property,” Journal of Air Law and Commerce 69, no. 4 (2004): 689-707, and Alexandre Kiss, “The Common Heritage of Mankind: Utopia or Reality?” International Journal 40, no. 3 (1985): 423-41.
  65. EO 13914.
  66. Ibid.
  67. United Nations, Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, December 19, 1966,
  68. Wilbur Ross, remarks at the sixth meeting of the National Space Council, August 20, 2019, Time mark 37:07, NASA Video
  69. Sa’id Mosteshar, “Space Law and Weapons in Space,” Planetary Science (May 23, 2019),
  70. Roger Handberg, “Dual-Use as Unintended Policy Driver: The American Bubble,” in Societal Impact of Spaceflight, Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius eds., (Washington DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration History Division, 2007), 353-368,
  71. Lieutenant general John Hyten quoted in Mike Gruss, “Air Force sent GSSAP satellite to check on stalled MUSOS-5,” Space News, August 18, 2015,
  72. Joseph Trevithick, “A Russian “Inspector” Spacecraft Now Appears To Be Shadowing An American Spy Satellite,” The Drive, January 30, 2020,
  73. Todd Harrison, Kaitlyn Johnson, Thomas G. Roberts, Tyler Way, and Makena Young, Space Threat Assessment 2020 (Washington DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2020),
  74. Michael Krepon, “Weapons in the Heavens: A Radical and Reckless Option,” Arms Control Today, 34 no 9 ( Nov. 2004 ) : 11-17.
  75. Michelle La Vone, “The Kessler Syndrome: 10 Interesting and Disturbing Facts,” Space Safety Magazine, nd.,
  76. Becky Iannotta, “U.S. Satellite Destroyed in Space Collision,” Space.Com, February 11, 2009,; See also David Wright, Colliding Satellites: Consequences and Implications,” Union of Concerned Citizens, February 26, 2009,
  77. US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “Chapter 4 Section 3 – China’s Ambitions in Space – Contesting the Final Frontier” in 2019 Report to Congress, November 2019,
  78. National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Competing in Space, (NASIC/PA: Wright-Patterson AFB, OH, 2018),
  79. Department of Defense, Missile Defense Review, January 1, 2019, 20,
  80. Doris Elin Urrutia, “India’s Anti-Satellite Missile Test Is a Big Deal. Here’s Why,”, March 30, 2019.
  81. Marco Langboek, “Why India’s ASAT Test was Reckless,” The Diplomat, April 30, 2019,
  82. Thomas F. Lynch III and Frank Hoffman, “Past Eras of Great Power Competition: Historical Insights and Implications,” in Strategic Assessment 2020: Into a New Era of Great Power Competition, ed. Thomas F. Lynch, III (Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 2020): 17-44, xviii.
  83. Gerald F. Seib, Interview with General Mark Milley: The Biggest Security Challenges for the U.S.,” Wall Street Journal Online, December 13, 2020,
  84. Lynch, Strategic Assessment 2020, 9-10.
  85. Cf. Donald Stoker and Craig Whiteside, “Blurred Lines: Gray-Zone Conflict and Hybrid War—Two Failures of American Strategic Thinking,” Naval War College Review, Vol 73, No. 1, Winter 2020; Devin Stewart, “How technology helped turn the great power competition “grey,”’ Rule of Law Blog, Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, University of Pennsylvania, December 5, 2019, For a contrasting view, see Adam Elkus, “50 Shades of Gray: Why the Gray Wars Concept Lacks Strategic Sense,” War on the Rocks, December 15, 2015,
  86. The White House, National Security Strategy of the Unites States of America, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, December 2017): 27,
  87. Douglas Cantwell, “Hybrid Warfare: Aggression and Coercion in the Gray Zone,” American Journal of International Law 21, no. 14 (November 29, 2017),
  88. Jeremy D. Lawhorn, “Pursuing a Strategy for Yesterday’s War,” Small Wars Journal, March 15, 2019,
  89. Jana Robinson, “Cross-Domain Responses to Space Hybrid Provocations via Economic and Financial Statecraft,” Paper presented at the 2018 Deterrence and Assurance Academic Alliance Conference, March 2018.
  90. Cf. Fiona Cunningham, “The Stellar Status Symbol: True Motives for China’s Manned Space Program,” China Security, no.3, 2009, 73-88; William C. Martel & Toshi Yoshihara (2003) Averting a Sino‐U.S. space race, The Washington Quarterly, 26:4, 19-35, DOI: 10.1162/016366003322387082; or Michael Sheehan, “Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program,” Space Policy, vol. 29, no. 2, May 2013,
  91. Craig Covault, “Manned Program Advances Chinese Space Technology: Unmanned Test Reveals Multibillion-Dollar Investment; Chinese Military Lauds Significance,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, November 29, 1999, 29,
  92. Defense Intelligence Agency, Challenges to Security in Space.
  93. Nathan Strout, ”China’s Space Silk Road could pose a challenge to the US,” C4ISRNET, (Sightline Media Group), November 14, 2019,
  94. US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “Chapter 4 Section 3 – China’s Ambitions in Space – Contesting the Final Frontier” in 2019 Report to Congress, November 2019,
  95. Jason W. Davidson, The Origins of Revisionist and Status-quo States (New York: Palgrave/Macmillion, 2006); Scott L. Kastner and Phillip C. Saunders, “Is China a Status Quo or Revisionist State? Leadership Travel as an Empirical Indicator of Foreign Policy Priorities,” International Studies Quarterly 56, no. 1 (March 2012): 163-177.
  96. R. James Woolsey, Jr., quoted in Orde F. Kittrie, Lawfare: Law as a Weapon of War, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). See also Devin Stewart, “How technology helped turn the great power competition “grey,”’ Rule of Law Blog, Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, University of Pennsylvania, December 5, 2019,
  97. See Gamal Abdel Nasser quoted in Miles Copeland, The Game of Nations: The Amorality of Power Politics, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970), 85-6.
  98. Aaron L. Friedberg, The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895–1905 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 10.
  99. Iskander Rehman, “Polybius, Applied History, and Grand strategy in an Interstitial Age,” War on the Rocks, March 29, 2019.
  100. Bryce Loidolt, Mariya Omelicheva, and James Przystup, “Rogues, Disrupters, and Spoilers in an Era of Great Power Competition,” in Strategic Assessment 2020: Into a New Era of Great Power Competition, ed. Thomas F. Lynch, III (Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 2020), 219-220.
  101. Stefan Halper quoted in Peter Navarro, “China’s Non-kinetic Three Warfares Against America,” The Buzz (blog), Center for National Interest, January 5, 2016,
  102. Lyle J. Morris, Michael J. Mazarr, Jeffrey W. Hornung, Stephanie Pezard, Anika Binnendijk, and Marta Kepe, Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Gray Zone: Response Options for Coercive Aggression Below the Threshold of Major War. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019,
  103. Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones, Agendas and Instability in American Politics, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 4.
  104. Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization (Rumsfeld Commission Report), January 2001,; For a summary of the report, see Marcia S. Smith, Military Space Activities: Highlights of the Rumsfeld Commission Report and Key Organization and Management Issues, Congressional Research Service, February 21, 2001,
  105. Congressional Research Service, The National Space Council (CRS Report R44712), prepared by Daniel Morgan, (Washington DC: Library of Congress, December 12, 2016),
  106. Rumsfeld Commission Report.
  107. The Rumsfeld Report recommended the president establish space as a national security priority. Secretary Rumsfeld designated the Air Force as executive-agent for military space in October 2001 but did not pursue changes to Title X of the U.S. Code to assign the space mission to the Air Force. See Benjamin S. Lambeth, Mastering the High Ground: Next Steps in the Military Uses of Space (Washington DC: Rand Corporation, 2003), Cf. Department of Defense, Final Report on Organizational and Management Structure for the National Security Space Components of the Department of Defense (Washington DC: DoD, August 9, 2018),
  108. Author notes, General Jay Raymond, Chief of Space Operations, address to College of Naval Warfare, August 8, 2019; Sandra Erwin, “Five Things to Know About U.S. Space Command,” SpaceNews, October 23, 2019,
  109. Lambakis, On the Edge of the Earth: The Future of American Space Power (Louisville, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 137.
  110. Lambakis, 137.
  111. Lambakis, 137-8.
  112. The White House, “Remarks by Vice President Pence at the 7th Meeting of the National Space Council,” May 19, 2020, https://
  113. Department of Defense, “Department of Defense Establishes U.S. Space Command,” August 29, 2019,
  114. Department of Defense, “Establishment of the United States Space Force,” December 20, 2019,
  115. Jason Crow, “Crow Alongside Lamborn, Horn, Babin, Waltz, and Crist Launches U.S. House Space Force Caucus,” October 21, 2020,; Sandra Erwin, “Bipartisan group of lawmakers launches House Space Force Caucus,” SpaceNews, October 20, 2020, Sandra Erwin, “Space Force gets political boost from Senate supporters,” SpaceNews, September 10, 2020.
  116. Cf. Monika Wohlfeld, “An Overview of the Conflict Cycle,” in In M. Wohlfeld & O. Grech (Eds.), Human Rights and the Conflict Cycle, Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies. (2010): 33-57,
  117. Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1966).
  118. Lynch, Strategic Assessment 2020, 10.
  119. Christian Trotti and Mark Massa, “Lessons from Apollo: Industry and Great-Power Competition,” Atlantic Council, July 26, 2019,
  120. Sparta’s King Achidamus quoted in Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian Wars, trans. Benjamin Jowett, (Lanham, MD: Prometheus Books, 1998), 2.11.
  121. Mir Sadat, “Why innovation is so important to America’s global leadership,” The Hill, November 22, 2020,
  122. Mir Sadat, “America must build its technology industries to win against China and Russia,” The Hill, October 18, 2020,; Steven Butow et al, State Of The Space Industrial Base 2020: A Time for Action to Sustain US Economic & Military Leadership in Space, July 2020, July 2020,


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