The most difficult challenge confronting the US military is access to outer space or the ability to launch satellites into orbit, according to Sean O’Keefe, a former NASA administrator on security and international cooperation in space. He is also a CSIS distinguished senior adviser.
During a conversation with Todd Harrison, director of CSIS Defense Budge Analysis and senior fellow in International Security Program, O’Keefe noted that the US military is increasingly reliant on space-base capabilities, which raise several questions such as how to deter threats and increase cooperations with partners and allies in space.
US military us reliant on United Launch Alliance’s Delta and Atlas rockets
According to O’Keefe, the US military is reliant on the heavy payload of the Delta and Atlas rockets of United Launch Alliance because the satellites are quite large due to defense requirements.
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Over the past two years, the Air Force is in a defensive position trying to justify why its requirements to launch satellites must be unique as they are. O’Keefe said at present; there are ongoing efforts to certify SpaceX to launch military satellites. However, he noted that the effort is still far from achieving a resolution.
According to him, the US military could resolve the challenge to access space by augmenting its launch capabilities from foreign sources. However, O’Keefe said the idea of seeing the US military launching satellites from other countries would make people feel uncomfortable, which he considers “a challenge of our own choice.”
“We have difficulty of looking at broader competitive opportunities due to parochialism and concerns about being reliant on an industrial capacity we don’t have immediate control,” said O’Keefe.
“While there may be an opportunity to break through this logjam at some point and avail ourselves of the global market for space systems, the situations does not appear to be changing anytime soon,” he added.
Impact of deteriorating relations with Russia to US military & civilian space program
When asked about the impact of the deteriorating relations with Russia to the US military and civilian space programs, O’Keefe said the Russians are now in control of the coordination efforts of logistics, operations, resupply, and crew exchange process for the International Space Station when it comes to civilian space programs.
According to him, the United States is now completely beholden to Russia to be accommodating when it comes to launching crews to the space station. The US does not have the capacity to launch crews to the space station any longer because of the retirement of the space shuttle.
O’Keefe noted that the ISS s mature and strong enough to maintain the space program activities despite the strained relations between the US and Russia.
When it comes to the US military space programs, O’Keefe said the government is concerned about its continued dependence on Russia to provide the RD-180 engines needed for the Atlas launch.
O’Keefe noted that Russia appeared to view the situation in its best interest either because of it is looking for hard currency, maintaining relationship, or both.
China has ability for space exploration
According to O’Keefe, China has ambition and ability to engage in space exploration. He also noted positive signs of progress with China regarding the U.S. concerns about intellectual property piracy and export-control compliance. If the progress continues, it will encourage the US to invite the Chinese government to join the club of space-exploring nations.
O’Keefe said the United States can establish, develop, and maintain relations with China in space exploration the same way as it did with Russia during the Cold War.
International Code of Conduct for Space
When asked if there is a need to develop an international code of conduct for space, O’Keefe said it would be challenging to enforce it. He explained, “It is not easy to apprehend someone or to stop another nation from accessing space. TYhere is also a greater risk of accidental collisions with satellites or with space debris. All these challenges make the space domain a more difficult to regulate.”
According to him, creating a workable set of protocols through bilateral agreements is more feasible.