Is It Taiwan’s Turn to Invest in Space?

Written by David Michael Jaffe.

Image credit: Formosat-5 Mission by Official SpaceX Photos/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

Space Force. Space Operations Squadron. Strategic Support Force. These are the entities, all created within the last five years, responsible for shaping the future of military space operations in the United States, Japan, and the People’s Republic of China, respectively. Russia, too, calls its military’s outer space division the “Space Force.” Meanwhile, South Korea – while it has yet to name a new division formally – recently launched a military satellite aboard a SpaceX rocket in Florida and plans to launch a military satellite from its own soil in the next few years. Australia has already launched satellites from its own soil. Members of the country’s Defence Science and Technology Group are considering launching their own military satellite and advocating for creating their own space force. It is no secret that North Korea also has ambitions to engage in the military space arena. Its National Aerospace Defence Administration is a dual-use entity that exists for overtly peaceful but ostensibly military purposes. Even Singapore has launched various satellites with military surveillance capabilities, although this has yet to happen from its own soil.

The Pacific state that noticeably lags is Taiwan. Taiwan has launched various satellites through its cleverly named FORMOSAT program. However, none have originated from Taiwanese soil, and no satellites have been launched for military surveillance. Taiwan has launched only six rockets from its territory; all of them were sounding rockets, which are generally small, unmanned, last only minutes in space, and are used to take measurements and conduct brief experiments. They usually do not reach the height above Earth requisite for satellite orbit. In an age where virtually all of its neighbours—friendly and threatening—have taken comparatively giant leaps toward militarising outer space, Taiwan’s failure to overtly match others’ space military prowess may negatively affect its ability to deter, detect and defend against attacks in the space age. Further, it is in danger of lagging behind as the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China race to develop a space economy where joyrides, nights on the moon, and the mining of celestial bodies are expected to create trillionaires.

The opportunity to conquer the final frontier and generate considerable wealth drives private and public actors to invest in outer space. Some asteroids are purported to contain enough metal to render profitable virtually any size investment in space mining and bulk transportation, provided that the demand for nickel and other metals used in electric car batteries and cell phones continues to grow. Compound the treasure to be found in space with minimal regulation in the region and some nations’ tendencies to pursue primacy on land, sea, and air, and one begins to understand why Taiwanese technology firms are looking to play an integral role in future space technologies. In terms of security, Taiwan should invest in space to keep pace with a People’s Liberation Army that benefits from substantial dual-use investments by the Chinese National Space Agency. For Taiwan, losing a strategic edge in surveillance, propulsion, aerodynamics, and other scientific endeavours affiliated with space research could result in an emboldened China on the other side of the strait. Simultaneously this could make the nation more dependent on the United States that cannot be comfortably relied upon for defence.

It is peculiar that, from a technological standpoint, Taiwan has not launched larger-scale rocket programs. It has a leg up on South Korea’s budding rocketry program in that Taiwan’s program uses solid fuel—a luxury South Korea has only recently been afforded by the United States. Until this past summer, South Korea would have had to rely on liquid fuel rockets to launch satellites, which one official says is “like delivering a dish of [noodles] by a 10-ton truck.” Solid fuel was kept out of South Korea’s hands by the U.S. as solid fuel rockets may be used to launch nuclear weapons at a moment’s notice. The result is a stunted domestic South Korean space program that can only utilise the fuel to which Taiwan has had access for decades. South Korea is now moving full speed ahead in planning its own domestic military satellite launches.

The reason for Taiwan’s slowness to launch its domestic satellite program may be steeped in international relations. Washington has likely held Taipei’s collar over the last few years, denying the state permission to launch advanced rockets over concerns that doing so would elicit an aggressive response from Beijing. In 2019 it was reported that a Taiwanese plan to revisit indigenously launched rockets was scrapped due to pressure from the U.S. Historically, Taiwan has launched satellites from California on American rockets. It is uncertain whether there are also corporate rocket-building interests behind the U.S.’s objections. Taiwan presently retains SpaceX as its sole contractor for launching small FORMOSAT satellites used for meteorology. Should the nation revisit domestic launches, it will likely be limited to sounding rockets.

Taiwan’s failure is certainly not out of a lack of eagerness to invest in space among Taiwanese. Business leaders and academics are holding out hope to revitalise the nation’s satellite launch program, albeit on rockets significantly smaller than those launching from the U.S. and China these days. TiSPACE – a young launch company – hopes to offer commercial launches to clients in the late 2020s and is seeking access to the Vandenberg Air Force Base launch facility in California. TiSPACE CEO Chen Yen-sen hopes to make Taiwan a leader in small-scale commercial satellite launches, replacing consumer technologies as Taiwan’s claim to technological fame. The company had planned to launch, from Taiwan, its first rocket, Hapith-1, by December 2019. However, the project has seen significant delays. The company is exploring non-domestic launch location options as the Taiwanese government declared TiSPACE’s domestic launch site illegal. In the meantime, TiSPACE is working with engineers from Taiwan’s National Central University to develop private satellites and research payloads for launch, but plans to launch such missions have also been delayed.

Despite its kneecapping of TiSPACE, the Taiwanese government is also interested in developing a commercial launch sector that could reap both financial and security benefits for the island nation. In fact, draft legislation designed to encourage private investment in space-related companies and enable the government to purchase private satellite data is currently making its way through the Legislative Yuan with substantial support from the Ministry of Science and Technology. From 2019 to 2028, Taiwan has budgeted to develop new satellites capable of conducting defence-applicable sensing. The goal is to launch one satellite per year for the next ten years. However, it is unclear how many of these launches will be of FORMOSAT meteorological satellites and how many will be of the aforementioned in-development military satellites.

Ultimately, ambitious Taiwanese CEOs like Chen – eager to launch hundreds of private satellites – are no substitute for a government-led space defence initiative. As strategic competition in the Pacific and in outer space heats up, it would behove Taiwan to seize this opportunity to leverage Taiwanese commercial and academic excitement to engage in more than just space commerce, research, and meteorology. Taiwan should look to South Korea for direction; the Moon administration’s extraction of the solid fuel usage concession from the U.S. might hold the key to Taiwan’s loosening of America’s hold on its domestic large-scale rocketry program. In the meantime, the difficulty for Taiwan going forward will be in convincing the United States to allow SpaceX to launch one of its forthcoming military surveillance-capable satellites—an action that could upset China.

Ultimately, Taiwan’s space program does not have to look like North Korea’s or China’s, where every investment in space technology is made to advance its military posture. Instead, Taiwan might model itself on the United States, where private interests in getting rich in space complement the government’s recognition that the future of security will be in our ability to compete in this final domain.

David Jaffe is a senior earning his Bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies at Stanford University. He will soon matriculate to Cambridge University for a Master’s degree program in Politics and International Studies. David is from Mesa, Arizona.

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