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‘Ten Years Hence’ lecture describes the future of competition in space

| Monday, March 21, 2022

On Friday, March 18, undergraduate and graduate students gathered in Jordan Auditorium at the Mendoza College of Business to hear a lecture from Benjamin Bahney titled “Inter-Governmental Competition in Space.” 

Bahney serves as a senior fellow at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL) Center for Global Security Research. A federally-funded research program, the LLNL’s efforts encompass a broad range of scientific, political and technological research pertaining to the nation’s nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. Bahney’s research centers on the effects of space, cyber and emerging technologies on strategic stability, deterrence and escalation control. 

“[The LNNL] was founded as part of the U.S. weapons complex to help sustain these capabilities,” Bahney said. “The institution contains some of the nation’s most exquisite high-performance computing capabilities and laboratories.”

Bahney’s lecture discussed how civilian and military interests in space might look by 2032. 

He opened with a quote from Edward Teller, one of the LLNL’s co-founders who is widely regarded as the father of the hydrogen bomb. “‘You can’t lie about the future.’”

Bahney said Teller emphasized that “you can’t intentionally be wrong about how the future might look because the future is ours to create.” 

Nation-states’ space ventures fundamentally boil down to the decisions made by the political, military and intelligence community.

“The international environment between the major space players — namely China, Russia and the U.S. — is only growing and becoming more acute,” Bahney said. 

Bahney pointed to several developments to support this point: Japan has begun debating the possibility of hosting U.S. nuclear weapons on its own soil, Sweden and Finland are seriously considering joining NATO and China has demonstrated that they seek to wield influence in their geographic sphere and the entire world. 

These developments have been closely monitored by nations’ militaries, prompting a fierce global battle to establish hegemony. 

Bahney first pointed to the Russians, who have begun to display weakening prowess and might in space. Most of Russia’s space energies have been devoted toward falling back on core space capabilities, such as counter-space defense systems and intelligence surveillance, rather than pioneering new technologies. 

“All the trends we have observed point towards a dark, gloomy future for Russian space cooperation,” Bahney said. “Russia’s growth is hindered by its resource limitations, and their ongoing invasion of Ukraine has prompted severe backlash from the international community.”

Bahney said Moscow’s perceived might has actually been revealed to be relatively modest, opening the door for domestic companies including SpaceX and other nations to occupy this market share. 

He then turned the audience’s attention toward China. 

“China has completely transformed their economy in 30 years from a developing state to an impressive middle-income country,” he said. “The nation is at an inflection point, transitioning from an investment-based economy to a consumer-based economy like the U.S.” 

Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has embarked on a series of large projects in space to conduct complex operations. 

“China’s ambitions will put their space program into closer contact with the U.S., unlocking a broad level of security and cooperation challenges,” he said. 

In the United States, military and civilian space interests are beginning to interact more and more. The past few years in particular have witnessed increasing collaboration between SpaceX, Blue Origin and NASA. 

“While the Russians and Chinese have armed up in space, the U.S. trails behind,” Bahney said.

He pointed to the Cuban Missile Crisis as a prime example of the existential risk that spirals from not having sufficient mechanisms to limit other nations’ competition. 

He said he suggests Washington look to forge new space arms control policies and other mechanisms to ensure that competition remains peaceful.

“The pivotal question for us to answer is what our space priorities are going to be,” Bahney said. 

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