23 June 2020
Is the United States losing the African Space Race?
by Judd Devermont and Temidayo Oniosun
War on the Rocks
Africa’s space programs account for a very small part of the world’s space activity. But the continent’s profile in space is growing, and if decision-makers in Washington don’t start paying closer attention to Africa’s orbital ambitions, the United States will see itself outpaced in this critical space race by China and Russia.
Since 1999, 11 African countries (Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, and Sudan) have successfully launched 38 unilateral and three multilateral satellites into orbit. Space in Africa, which was co-founded and managed by one of the authors, estimates that by 2024, at least 19 African countries will have launched at least one satellite into space, with the total number of satellites launched by African countries rising to over 90. In 2017, the African Union passed legislation to establish the African Space Agency and recently approved Egypt as host country for the new agency’s headquarters. South Africa’s ambassador to the United Nations recently declared that “Africa’s demand for space products and services is among the world’s highest as the continent’s economy becomes increasingly dependent on space.”
The United States, however, has been a minor player in these developments. The U.S. private sector has expressed minimal interest, and American policymakers have done little to drum up support. It has been minimally engaged in the development of the region’s satellite programs, launching less than 18 percent of Africa’s satellites. Not only has it missed several opportunities to benefit from Africa’s burgeoning $7 billion space industry, but the United States has not reckoned with the potential consequences of growing Russian and Chinese prominence in the African space sector. If the United States wants to help shape the emerging ecosystem, it needs to compete in Africa’s space race.
U.S. critics have been quick to dismiss African governments’ entrance into the space age as a vanity project at best and a corruption scheme at worst. Innovations around satellite technology, however, have dropped the cost of the devices, making it increasingly viable for low-income nations in Africa to design or manufacture their own small satellites. In many cases, it is less expensive to launch and maintain a satellite than to purchase imagery and other services from commercial companies and foreign governments. For instance, NileSat, Egypt’s publicly-traded communications satellite company, makes an average of $200 million in revenue each year from its satellites, offering communications services locally and to neighboring countries. The satellites have made Egypt less dependent on outside services for its satellite broadband and television needs. Space infrastructures, when used well, improve the African market and help countries to be less reliant on other countries.
Africa’s Space Race and National Security
Advancing American economic and development goals in Africa will translate into influence in harder national security spheres. Africa’s space industry is projected to grow to over $10 billion in the next five years, according to Space in Africa’s African Space Industry Annual Report. This is a significant opportunity for the United States to expand bilateral trade with African countries, which rested at a mere $40 billion in 2018. U.S. companies are well-positioned to sell space equipment and services to African governments. Specifically, the U.S. private sector could build new satellites, sell ground station equipment, provide capacity training, and offer launch services. These investments in the region’s space sector could support America’s goal of substantially increasing two-way trade.
The nascent space industry in several African countries also furthers USAID’s efforts to foster self-reliance, boosting growth and employment in sectors such as telecommunications, navigation, and Earth observation. These systems and services help to address major societal challenges including imperfect markets, climate change, scarce resources, health systems, and an aging population. For example, about 61 percent of Africans do not have access to the internet, a problem communications satellites could address.
The entire satellite value chain has important implications for U.S. political influence in Africa. The technology transfer process, access to technologies and data, and support for development have the potential to increase U.S. political influence and to deepen national security ties between the United States and African partners. The United States has historically used space diplomacy in Africa to display U.S. commitment. These ties have the potential to translate into African support for U.S. positions on data-sharing, safety coordination, and other international space norms. Currently, Burkina Faso is a vice-chair of the U.N. General Assembly’s First Committee, which oversees disarmament issues in space; Cameroon is vice-chair on the Fourth Committee, which moderates international cooperation in space; and South Africa is chair of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the ad hoc U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. African support, for example, could add momentum to the U.S. government’s new legal framework, known as the Artemis Accords, to govern the behavior of countries and companies in space and on the moon. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine recently underscored the importance of these norms, pointing out that debris from a spent Chinese rocket stage landed in Cote d’Ivoire.
It also may blunt Chinese and Russian efforts, via state-owned companies, to strengthen their geopolitical influence and surveillance capacity in the region. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, China uses its commercial sales “to bolster relationships with countries around the world” and “lead the space community.” China established an 18-meter diameter dish in Swakopmund, Namibia in 2001, which some analysts worry could be used to advance the People Liberation Army’s (PLA) cyber, space, and networking objectives. China’s Great Wall Industry Corporation notched its first foreign sale to Nigeria in 2007, delivering the total package: satellite manufacture, launch service, ground station construction, project implementation, financing, insurance, and training. The Russians launched Angola’s first satellite and will do the same for its replacement later this year. Russia claims it is currently negotiating with unnamed African countries to deploy Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) ground stations across the region. China funded Ethiopia’s first satellite and trained its engineers. It also launched Sudan’s first-ever satellite, which will conduct Earth observation research for military and civilian purposes. If the United States is not engaged, it has a limited ability to counter and mitigate the risks posed by adversaries in this sector.
The Big Picture
The United States has an opportunity to join the African space race, establishing itself as a major partner in the region’s rapidly expanding space programs. Doing so would advance American economic, diplomatic, and national security interests by increasing U.S. trade and investment, deepening ties with influential African governments, and staking a U.S. claim in a sector where China and Russia are increasingly dominant.
Washington should build on some of NASA’s recent engagements, including an agreement last year with South African National Space Agency (SANSA) to conduct technical and environmental research on the potential to establish a ground station in South Africa. The U.S. government ought to promote the space sector as a key focus area for the Trump Administration’s Prosper Africa initiative, showcasing SpaceX’s role in launching satellites in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. Specifically, Washington should consider providing financial incentives and credits to enable its private sector to compete with state-backed Chinese and Russian firms.
Finally, the United States should work with African officials to develop common understandings and positions in international forums to develop norms for outer space, ensuring an even playing field for foreign companies and addressing potential threats to sovereignty. It is in the U.S. interest to be part of this success story — it just has to make the leap.
Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He previously served as the national intelligence officer for Africa, the Central Intelligence Agency’s senior political analyst on sub-Saharan Africa, and the National Security Council director for Somalia, Nigeria, the Sahel, and the African Union.