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The Strategic Advantage in Space. Who Has It?

  • Published
  • By Captain Shelby Kenyon

Using their unique political and economic structures to justify their authoritarian regimes’ ceaseless pursuit of power, Russia and China believe that space dominance will guarantee the longevity of their respective nations. Both countries have, therefore, strategically put themselves in a position to potentially secure the space domain. In comparison, American bureaucracy and slow-moving policy hamper its progress in the new space race, forcing the United States into a reactionary position. Facing losing the ability to defend space from authoritarian nations and preserve space exploration if it fails to adapt to current threats and unify as a nation. America faces serious threats to national security and stability due to the self-imposed challenges that our history and modern governance have created.

While Russia and China have significant control over their economy and population that enables them to respond quickly to the need for more research and development in space, America’s predominantly two-party system and government oversight committees have created opportunities for lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle to delay America’s ability to advance space capabilities proactively and, by extension, the ability to secure the space domain. China’s development and implementation of State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) has allowed their economy to skyrocket, granting them the funds and political ability to out-pace the U.S. In contrast, Russia’s turbulent political history demonstrates the current threat America faces in Putin. His outright aggressiveness, political unpredictability, and concrete space capability threaten to destabilize the space domain. This paper will explore Russia and China from a political and economic standpoint to demonstrate their strategic advantage in space.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a highly centralized and exclusive group. Having come into power through violence in 1949, the CCP is deeply entrenched in the idea that it has a permanent monopoly on political power.[1] While the CCP’s membership numbered approximately 98 million, this makes up less than 7% of China’s population.[2] Despite efforts to liberalize and slowly develop a constitutional democracy beginning in 2008, the current general secretary of the CCP, Xi Jinping, has made great efforts to secure his control of the CCP and the PRC, restoring authoritarian rule akin to Mao Zedong, the founder of the PRC. Once accepted to CCP, the process of initiation begins. Ideas like free will and individual choice are taken away. Life membership is a requirement to avoid death or other forms of severe punishment. Additionally, members are expected to punish those who do not please the party. This CCP initiation aims to render all party members obedient to Xi Jinping. In this system, the population outside the CCP is viewed as pieces in a chess game.

China has begun to operate more like a large corporation than a nation-state, as Xi Jinping introduced the ideals of Juguo Tizhi or “mobilizing the country as a whole system.”[3] While citizens can operate businesses within China, the party owns all vital resources that are key to running those businesses. Furthermore, businesses must allow tax authorities to take funds directly from their bank accounts. The government can close a business and take back resources at any time if they so choose. However, under the “no politics, no problem” mindset, the CCP agrees to stay out of a company’s accounts so long as it stays out of politics. Over the past 40 years, this posture has allowed China’s economy to prosper in ways similar to that of capitalism, relying on productive citizens who contribute to the goals set forth by the government. But after Xi’s “zero COVID” policy ended in 2022, the Chinese economy failed to rebound as Chinese citizens did not reinvest their savings into the private sector, preferring the liquidity of savings accounts.[4]

Xi’s “zero COVID” policy may have stymied the Chinese economy, but his absolute control has still enabled him to pursue great advances in the space domain. The CCP has viewed the space domain as key to its status as a great power. When Russia launched Sputnik in 1957, Mao Zedong claimed that China should not be considered a great power because it “cannot even put a potato into space.”[5] Xi has asserted that China’s eternal dream is to “explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry, and build China into a space power.”[6] When Xi decided to treat civil space development as a pillar of innovation in 2014, he issued a policy called Document 60 that enabled large private investment in space companies.[7] Since 2016, China’s space industry has accomplished its stated objectives and attracted global attention. China has completed developing and operating the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, the high-resolution earth observation system, SATCOM (satellite communication) and broadcasting, and their “orbit, land, return” lunar exploration plan.[8] Over the next five years, China plans to continue focusing on developing methods for high-quality space capability for long-term efforts. China’s growing strength in space presents a greater threat to the United States due to our inability to advance space capabilities quickly due to the behemoth bureaucracy.

While many view Putin as Xi’s junior partner, improved Sino-Russian relations raise the potential for their efforts to undermine America’s space dominance. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems to have garnered most of our attention to the detriment of the space domain. The United States has been supplying Ukraine with weapons and munitions, which experts believe will take years to replenish.[9] Not only does this depleted inventory represent a direct risk to the United States, but it is also an indirect threat to our position in space as it will likely draw away funding for space. China’s objective is to beat us with their information dominance and political warfare because they know they cannot beat us in a ground war.[10]  According to a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) senior defense analyst, China and Russia’s on-orbit capabilities grew 200% between 2015 and 2018 and another 70% from 2019 to 2021.[11] By keeping the US’ attention on the ground war in Ukraine, China and Russia can potentially outpace before the US can respond.

While the American population has often been united in its response to external threats recently, China and Russia have sought to seed discord to impede a unified American response.  The 9/11 attacks sparked a similar sense of unity amongst the American people that allowed us to focus our money and efforts on waging war.[12] However,  China and Russia are utilizing information warfare campaigns to sow discord amongst the American people, thwarting the potential for the US to unite.[13]

While Chinese economic policies have provided them advantages, their authoritarian regime has inherent weaknesses. China’s SOE allowed them to take the benefits of the American private sector and use it to boost their economy and capabilities. Additionally, China’s greatest strength is its manufacturing capability. By exploiting its workforce, China can keep manufacturing costs low to not impede its development. Nearly 90% of China’s launches were carried out by the state-owned Long March rockets, whereas only about one-third of US launches were from government-funded manufacturing.[14] While Russia and China’s authoritarian nationalism allows them to focus on their own internal goals, their centralized command and execution only allow for a certain amount of innovation. Any incredible strides made in countries like Russia and China are mostly due to the theft of intellectual property. Although authoritarian countries can appear prosperous during positive economic trends, any economic downturn often exposes the fragility of this facade.

While the U.S. has been plagued by international expectations to participate in and often solve global issues, the “American Dream” ideology is the key to its success and economic prosperity. During the Obama administration, the Strategy for American Innovation was to promote market-based innovation, thereby acknowledging the critical role that the private sector plays in the success of the American economy and innovation machine. The “Wild West” style of constant competition between established firms and entrepreneurs has given America the economic growth and prosperity that state-owned enterprises cannot. Another pillar of Obama’s strategy included expanded support of Intellectual Property (IP) protection in conjunction with addressing the U.S. patent system. The effective enforcement of IP is critical to protecting and encouraging economic growth. [15]

Chinese centralized control, however, has a distinct advantage when it comes to defense spending, particularly the acquisitions of space capabilities. Due to the increasing costs and difficulty of space acquisitions in the US, the United States Space Force has turned to partnerships with other agencies.[16] However, this can lead to struggles between the needs of the government, contracting and acquisition professionals, and the demands of the outside agency producing the space system.[17] In particular, the Department of Defense’s acquisition system is the largest inhibitor to American success in the space domain, as programs can take decades to come to fruition after the contract has been awarded.[18] Most of the DoD’s recent large space acquisition programs have experienced greater risk and fragmented leadership decisions, leading to billions in cost increases and delays.[19] For example, the government divided the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), a joint DOD, NASA, and NOAA effort, into separate civilian and military efforts after spending $5 billion and 16 years developing it. In 2012, the Air Force canceled its portion without launching a single satellite.[20]

Though the U.S. is trying to modernize the space systems acquisition process, major issues still limit its effectiveness. Battles over requirements and contracts are often lopsided as a rotating group of military personnel have to contend with experienced professional teams in outside agencies that have their own jargon. Many of these experienced professionals are former military acquisition officers and take their experience to the private sector. This results in unsuccessful space systems that cost millions or even billions of dollars.[21] Security concerns can also prevent lawmakers from having the information needed to make the best-informed decisions. For example, in 2022, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense (HAC-D) gave the Space Force $300 million less than requested for research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) due to a lack of clear funding and programmatic implications in the Space Force’s budget request.[22]

As a new space race begins, the U.S. is beginning to see shifts in its acquisition strategy. Led by Senator Martin Heinrich (D- N.M.), Congress established the Space Rapid Capabilities Office (SpRCO) as one of three arms of acquisitions in the  Space Force in 2018. To achieve acquisitions faster in order to deliver timely capabilities to the warfighter, the SpRCO operates with much more autonomy than traditional government procurement agencies.[23] Increased reliance on commercial and international partnerships will require a different approach to what the US has used traditionally. General Michael Guetlein, former head of U.S. Space Systems Command and newly appointed Vice Chief of Space Operations, rolled out his “exploit, buy, build” campaign as a new acquisition strategy to tackle some of the issues faced in space. The Space Force is also on the verge of finalizing a commercial space strategy that will provide industry partners with what they need to help address gaps and allow the government to utilize private sector technologies fully.[24] This demonstrates that the U.S. is acknowledging the need for faster-moving innovation in the space sector as well as more reliance on the stability of the economy due to increased investment in private-sector technologies.

While these changes are being made to address the threat, will they be fast enough to outpace it? While the US engaged in long, protracted operations in the Middle East, Russia and China made advances in space, thanks to their ability to exercise complete control over their citizens and economy. To guarantee free trade in space and future economic prosperity with asteroid mining, the US needs to ensure that it does not get outpaced by authoritarian nations.


Captain Shelby Kenyon
Capt Kenyon currently serves as the Executive Officer to the Director, Innovation and Prototyping Acquisition Delta, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. Previously, she served as a Missile Warning Crew Commander for the 2nd Space Warning Squadron and the 11th Space Warning Squadron. She is a graduate of the University of Houston, where she earned her commission through ROTC.


[1.] Cai Xia, “The Party That Failed, Foreign Affairs, December 5, 2020,

[2.] C. Textor, “Number of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members in China from 2012 to 2022(in millions),” Statista, July 5, 2023,

[3.]  Shaomin Li, The Rise of China, Inc: How the Chinese Communist Party Transformed China into a Giant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022).

[4.] Adam S. Posen, “The End of China’s Economic Miracle,” Foreign Affairs, October 17, 2023,

[5.] John Gittings, “China takes Great Leap into Space, The Guardian, November 22, 1999,

[6.] Major General John M. Olson, Steven J. Butow, Colonel Eric Felt, and Thomas Cooley, “State Of The Space Industrial Base 2022: Winning the New Space Race,”August, 2022,

[7.] Neel V. Patel, “China’s Surging Private Space Industry Is out to Challenge the US,” MIT Technology Review, January 28, 2021,

[8.]  Kevin Pollpeter et al., “China-Russia Space Cooperation: The Strategic, Military, Diplomatic, and Economic Implications,” Air University (AU), May 2023,

[9.] Mark F. Cancian, “Is the United States Running out of Weapons to Send to Ukraine?,” CSIS, September 16, 2022,

[10.] Kerry Gershaneck, “To Win without Fighting: Defining China’s Political Warfare”  Expeditions with MCUP, June 17, 2020.

[11.] Todd Lopez, “Defense Intelligence Agency Report Details Space-Based Threats from Competitors,” U.S. Department of Defense, April 12, 2022,

[12.] Terri Cronk, “Biden Calls Unity America’s Greatest Strength on 9/11 20th Anniversary,” U.S. Department of Defense, September 11, 2021,

[13.] Kashif Anwar, “Russia-China’s Information Warfare in a Changing Global Order,” The Defence Horizon Journal, December 3, 2023,

[14.]  Sarah Halpin, “NSR’s Global Satellite Manufacturing & Launch Report Projects $633 Billion Market by 2031” Northern Sky Research, September 7, 2022,

[15.] President, A Strategy for American Innovation (Washington, DC: White House, October 2015),

[16.]  Lopez, “Defense Intelligence Agency Report.”

[17.] U.S. Government Accounting Office, Space Acquisitions: Some Programs Have Overcome Past Problems, but Challenges and Uncertainty Remain for the Future, GAO-15-492T (Washington, DC, 2015),

[18.] Philip S. Anton, Brynn Tannehill, Jake McKeon, Benjamin Goirigolzarri, Maynard A. Holliday, Mark A. Lorell, and Obaid Younossi, “Strategies for acquisition agility: Approaches for Speeding Delivery of Defense Capabilities” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2020),

[19] GAO, Space Acquisitions.

[20.] U.S. Government Accounting Office, Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellites, GAO-10-558 (Washington DC, May 2010),

[21.] U.S. Government Accounting Office, Space Acquisitions: Changing Environment Presents Continuing Challenges and Opportunities for DOD, GAO-22-105900, (Washington, DC, April 2022),

[22.] Theresa Hitchens, “HAC-D Scolds Space Force on Lack of ‘Realistic Budgets,’” Breaking Defense, June 23, 2022,

[23] Sandra Erwin, “Secretive Military Space Agency Stepping out of the Shadows,” Space News, February 22, 2023,

[24.] Sandra Erwin, “Space Force in Discussions with Industry on Future Market for Space Surveillance Data,” Space News, October 4, 2022,

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