Eurospace Position Paper: The growing US ambition for space dominance, a new challenge for European independence in space

The US has recently made known its increased ambition to dominate space. For many years US institutional space budgets have been 6 to 7 times higher than European budgets. The policy of increased US ambition now represents a further strong challenge to European competitiveness and freedom to act in space.

Space capabilities are critically important to civil, commercial, security and defence-related policy objectives. Europe needs to ensure its freedom of action and autonomy; therefore, it needs to have access to space and be able to establish and use space infrastructure. This principle is set out in the “Space Strategy for Europe” Communication of the European Commission. This short paper proposes necessary European actions.

Space: a US political priority

The Trump Administration has articulated an overall vision of US dominance in defence and space in reaction to perceived threats to US leadership, in particular from China. This is reflected in an ‘America First’ mantra in which allies’ policies and budgets are to be aligned behind US strategic interests, as expressed in the National Space Strategy released by the White House on March 23rd, 2018. While the notion of US dominance in space is not a novelty, the Trump administration now unequivocally presents it as a comprehensive national security strategy encompassing military, civil and commercial goals against any peer competitor which might be perceived as seeking ways to undermine US pre-eminence. In this regard, President Trump’s policies are consistent with his predecessors, but with greatly strengthened execution. This ‘America First’ vision is anchored in civil space by invigorated governance through the National Space Council, which was relaunched in mid-2017 by President Trump with Vice-President Pence appointed as chairman.

A strategic and budgetary priority

Ongoing organisational and procurement reforms at the Pentagon aim to reconfigure US military space through two mutually reinforcing goals:
– Retain the US technological edge by focusing the R&D houses (DARPA, Strategic Capabilities Office etc.) on disruptive capabilities
Increase resilience and reduce costs by harnessing the commercial sector’s innovation and flexibility.

The US priority is to retain its technological edge by focusing the large DoD R&D budgets for Space and Intelligence on development of disruptive capabilities. An estimated budget of $40Bn is proposed for military space programmes in 2019, including over $9Bn for non-classified programmes, whereas the budget for missile defence is set at $10Bn per year. Allocated budget for the renewal of the Nuclear Deterrence triad is also expected to double within the next decade. The combined European investment in military space programmes is an order of magnitude below the corresponding current US budgets.

Key investment priorities for US military space programmes are:
– Responsive launch capabilities
– Resilient architectures including military constellations
– Space Situational Awareness and Space Traffic Management with the creation of the Commercial Integration Cell inside the Joint Space Operations Center
– Point-to-point solutions, such as Conventional Prompt Strike or suborbital strategic transport
– Manoeuvring hypersonic systems.

In his 3rd Presidential Directive, President Donald Trump directed officials on June 18, 2018 to establish a military Space Force, as a new sixth branch of the Armed Forces. This action absolutely confirms the strategic importance of military space for the current US Administration.

As already said, the US military is also looking at leveraging the dynamism of the commercial sector in order to increase resilience and reduce costs. By using the commercial sector, the stated goal of General Hyten, USSTRATCOM Commander, is to bring launch costs for the US Air Force down under $100M, get to 3-to-5year development timelines for satellites and build modular spacecraft where new payloads can be integrated with existing government or commercial space platforms.

A reorientation of institutional civil space programs

The National Space Council has reoriented over the last months the US civil space policy along key priorities:
– Bring US citizens back to the Moon (before Chinese taikonauts)
– Ensure national sovereignty for action in space (Buy American Policy)
– Leverage opportunities offered by New Space companies to reduce the “federal bill”
– Leverage past and future related investments in super heavy launchers (SLS) and associated human spaceflight systems (Orion).

Regarding strategic policy, Presidential Directive 1 signed by President Trump in December 2017 reassigned return to the Moon (before China) as a top priority for NASA. In terms of fiscal policy, the budget recently awarded by the Office of the President for FY 2018 even exceeded NASA requests, reaching $20.7Bn. For comparison, Europe invested €7.7Bn in civil space in 2017, with a moderate growth trend. European industry is being requested in most cases to provide co-funding for R&D activities including orbital demonstration programmes, unlike US companies that routinely receive 100% government R&D funding.

A significant evolution is the proposal to end US federal funding for the International Space Station by 2025 in association with a soft transition to its commercial exploitation. A new $150M yearly funding line is being launched to foster commercial space station initiatives in Low Earth Orbit and prepare the post-ISS transition towards ‘commercial procurement of science in LEO’. This echoes what has been so successfully done by the US to kick-start commercial launch of Supplies and Crew to the ISS.

The Deep Space Gateway initially planned to prepare astronauts for Mars exploration has been reassigned as a manned cis-lunar station supporting future human activities on the Moon’s surface under the new name of Lunar Orbital Platform (LOP)-Gateway. The first module is planned to be launched as early as 2022 on a commercially procured launcher. Allies have been invited to join an international cooperation programme around the LOP-Gateway.

In the short term, NASA will focus on procuring commercial services from small size robotic missions (benefiting from the private investment generated by the Google Lunar X Prize) targeting a yearly launch cadence to the Moon from 2020 onwards. In the medium term, the objective is to partner with commercial players on medium to large size robotic missions, such as the Blue Moon lander proposed by Blue Origin. In the long term, the decrease in budget provision for ISS exploitation and for SLS/Orion after the development phase in 2024 will give room in the NASA budget to develop a human-rated lunar lander returning to the Moon surface in the second half of the next decade.

Space: a commercial priority for the US

US commercial actors are seen as the 3rd pillar of the US national space enterprise strategy and fully participate as such in the comprehensive approach to US space dominance. The objective of achieving leadership on commercial space activities is supported by a favourable procurement policy for launches, supply and transport of crew to space infrastructure. There is a Buy American Policy accompanied by easing of the regulatory environment to unleash entrepreneurship as well as tolerance of higher domestic pricing differentials that foster competitive exports. No Buy European Policy exists to match the explicit Buy American policy.

The 2nd National Space Council meeting in February 2018 emphasised the Trump administration’s willingness to create a regulatory environment favourable to the development of US commercial space activities under the supervision of the Department of Commerce. Presidential Directive 2, signed May 24, 2018, called for new regulations for launch and re-entry that would encourage more commercial-spaceflight operations, aiming at encouraging American leadership in space commerce. Furthermore, a reform of export and regulatory control is intended: in particular a single license for all types of commercial space flight, launch and re-entry operations. This is expected to follow a review by the National Space Council (before February 2019) of export licensing regulations affecting commercial spaceflight activities. In addition, agencies were directed to present a report on improving global competitiveness of United States space radio frequency spectrum policies, regulation, and activities at the ITU and other multilateral forums.

In his 3rd Directive, President Trump also signed a new U.S. policy for space traffic management under the responsibility of the Department of Commerce, for monitoring objects in orbit and sharing the information so spacecraft can avoid collisions.

Commercial pre-eminence is sought with measures and policies that go far beyond current international business practices, the pay-back of it being in private investments benefitting US public programmes. In this perspective, large-scale private projects such as the Starlink mega-constellation currently designed and built entirely by SpaceX (launchers, satellites and ground terminals) are candidates for massive US governmental support through long-term service contracts, directly contributing to the strategic goal of US hegemony of the global space sector.

Europe must react to move towards a level-playing field

The policy being implemented in the US significantly challenges independent European access to and use of space. US ambitions are reminiscent of the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) and the 1960s space race with the Soviet Union. This time though there is an additional angle of commercial exploitation of space – including physical resources in space.

As in the past, the US will leverage its bilateral relationships with individual European nations to create a “coalition of the willing” in support of its national objectives, preferably to let Europe develop its own comprehensive and coordinated response.

Europe must react quickly and define independently its own ambitions in the fields of satellite manufacturing and applications, space logistics and exploration, space exploitation and military space, space transportation fleet and infrastructure evolution.

For this purpose, recommended concrete institutional actions should include the following:

Define and implement a space industrial policy coherent with the objectives of the “Space Strategy” and the Joint Declaration ESA-EC, and which takes into account the space policy of other space powers, the latter aiming systematically at independence, and even dominance. At EU level, this should also mean to take advantage of the flagship programmes as tools to achieve industrial policy objectives, such as securing the supply chain.
Promote institutional demand of space-based applications at the service of public policies.
Secure an institutional domestic market for European industries.
• Support European space exports with regulations favouring exports and economic diplomacy, monitoring market distortions or asymmetries in markets.
• Ensure in challenging science and exploration missions, where international collaboration is the rule, the possibility for Europe to have primary roles by allowing it to dispose of a sufficient level of autonomy and have critical competences to bring to future partnerships.
• And last but not least invest more in space R&D and infrastructure, since public support is an indispensable asset to maintain and expand independent access to, and use of, space


Oct. 12, 2018