The United States, which earned its place as the premier space fairing nation on the planet with the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s, is at risk of falling behind its global competitors, according to Air Force Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast.

“In my best military judgment, China is on a 10-year journey to operationalize space. We’re on a 50-year journey,” Kwast told CNBC.

His concerns are not unfounded.  The last space shuttle mission concluded in July of 2011, and since then, NASA has relied on Soviet era Soyuz capsules operated by the Russians to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.  The shuttle’s replacement, the Space Launch System (SLS), has been plagued with delays. Most recent expert estimates suggest it still won’t be ready for its inaugural unmanned launch until midway through 2020, more than four years after its original projected launch date.

According to Kwast, the United States needs to “bring together the right talent” to spur a Wright Brothers like leap forward in our nation’s orbital capabilities, if we hope to remain peers, let alone dominant in space operations in the future.

“We could be on a five-year journey because it’s all about how aggressively we are going about this journey,” Kwast said.

While Kwast voiced serious concerns about China’s rapid military expansion into the “ultimate high ground,” they don’t present the most pressing orbital concern for America’s security. According to Kwast, it’s the comparatively underdeveloped North Korea that should spur an influx of interest and funding toward orbital defense.

NASA may be a civilian agency, but China's space program is unquestionably a military endeavor

Read Next: NASA may be a civilian agency, but China's space program is unquestionably a military endeavor

“Right now, if North Korea were to launch a missile into space and detonate an electromagnetic pulse, it would take out our eyes in space,” Kwast said.

America’s massive military has grown increasingly reliant on satellites for communication and navigation in recent decades, both of which would be abruptly cut off if an opponent were to detonate a warhead in orbit.

According to the general, who recently submitted a slew of recommendations to the U.S. Air Force Space Command, a concerted effort must be made to shape a defensive posture in the skies above our heads, but it must be done the right way in order to ensure the maximum return on taxpayer investment.  That means cooperating with private space companies like SpaceX whenever possible, and, despite the pressing need to move quickly, being strategic about how the effort moves forward.

“We could have an operational space force in three to five years,” Kwast said. “However, that would be jumping to answering what the form looks like, before you know the function.”

Until recently, lawmakers had pitched the idea of establishing a branch of the Armed Forces tasked specifically with orbital defense, but the effort was scrapped as a part of the budget reconciliation between the House and Senate.  Because of this, the effort remains squarely within the purview of the Air Force, whom some have criticized as prioritizing space after conventional military assets such as planes.

According to Kwast, a balance between public and private interests can help spur the change we need, but it will have to entail changes to existing regulations for space flight in the private sector as well.  The United States must use every asset available to it, otherwise, we may soon find ourselves the underdog in peer level conflicts of the future.

“It took from the Wright Brothers in 1903 to 1945 — two World Wars — to get flying to where we needed an Air Force.”

 

Image courtesy of YouTube