Successes and Opportunities in US-Taiwan Cooperation on Satellite Technologies

Successes and Opportunities in US-Taiwan Cooperation on Satellite Technologies

Successes and Opportunities in US-Taiwan Cooperation on Satellite Technologies

This is the first in a series of articles focused on case studies of opportunities for US-Taiwan cooperation in the scientific and technological domain.

Despite the complexities of geopolitical circumstances, US-Taiwan cooperation on space technologies has consistently remained a productive channel of engagement with the potential for continued progress. Although Taiwan’s space programs and organizations have received relatively limited analytical attention to date, these initiatives have achieved considerable advances. Notably, the FORMOSAT-3/7 and COSMIC-1/2 programs present successful case studies of the promise and potential of such cooperation. Looking forward, the United States and Taiwan should build upon their history of collaboration in this scientific domain to pursue opportunities for future cooperation.  

Taiwan’s Space Programs and Organizations

Since the 1990s, there have been significant advances in the sophistication of Taiwan’s space programs and the associated research and development. Taiwan’s National Space Organization (NSPO, formerly the National Space Program Office), established in 1991, has successfully implemented three satellite programs, FORMOSAT-1, 2, and 3, and is currently pursuing the FORMOSAT-5 and FORMOSAT-7 space missions. In addition, Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST) has played an integral role in advancing Taiwan’s defense technology, including the SG100 space computer used for its low-orbit satellites and experiments in space, synthetic aperture radar systems used on satellites, etc.

Successful US-Taiwan Space Cooperation

For the United States and Taiwan, space-related cooperation has been particularly productive in the joint development of satellites with clear benefits for meteorology and climatology. FORMOSAT-3, or the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC), was the first US-Taiwan collaboration, involving a partnership between NSPO and the National Science Foundation. The program has placed six micro-satellites into low earth orbit (LEO) since 2006. Similarly, FORMOSAT-7/COSMIC-2 is an ongoing US-Taiwan collaboration, involving NSPO and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop a constellation of 12 microsatellites, with applications including weather and climate monitoring. Through enhancing data collection capabilities, FORMOSAT-7 will similarly support global scientific efforts in climate monitoring and research. This collaboration has occurred in the broader bilateral context of extensive cooperation in science and technology, for which there have been over 200 hundred bilateral agreements signed as of the end of 2016.

Beyond these cooperative programs, Taiwan has also developed its own indigenous satellite, the FORMOSAT-5, an earth observation satellite on track to launch in the third quarter of 2017, which will be used for remote sensing. The launch of FORMOSAT-5, initially scheduled for February 2016, has been delayed due to challenges with the SpaceX launch schedule (and the explosion during a September 2016 test), and has since been rescheduled for the third quarter of 2017. In the meantime, Taiwan has quietly relied upon Japan’s satellite services, until FORMOSAT-5 can take over the remote sensing imaging mission of FORMOSAT-2, which has started to malfunction. To date, the United States and Taiwan are not known to have cooperated on remote sensing satellites, perhaps due to the dual-use nature of these systems.

Constraints on Cooperation

Despite the record of successful cooperation to date, the complexities of the US-Taiwan relationship have imposed some constraints on space program collaboration, especially with regard to systems with potential military applications. For instance, there has been speculation that the United States may have discouraged NSPO’s long-term plans to develop an indigenous satellite launch capability, due to concerns that the potential military applications of the technologies in question could antagonize Beijing. The initial plans to create the Taiwan Small Launch Vehicle, which would have been built indigenously by CSIST, do not appear to have progressed. Potentially, as J. Michael Cole has reported, US opposition to the plan could have been hardened by CSIST’s involvement, since CSIST was also responsible for the development and production of the Hsiung Feng-IIE (HF-2E) land-attack cruise missile.

Options for Future Cooperation

Looking forward, US-Taiwan space cooperation might focus on several different domains, building upon existing collaborations, such as the COSMIC-1/2, and addressing critical challenges for Taiwan.

  • Taiwan has already started to contribute to NASA’s moon-mining project, Resource Prospector, and such expeditions to exploit resources in space could present the potential for a long-term cooperative agenda. At present, Taiwan’s CSIST is building a $47 million lunar lander, to be delivered to NASA by the end of 2018, that will carry a rover designed to excavate hydrogen, oxygen and water from the moon. As China increasingly focuses on the exploitation of natural resources in space, the United States and Taiwan might consider expanding this initial collaboration into a more expansive agenda to enable the utilization of space-based resources.
  • As the United States remains focused on the challenge of maritime domain awareness in Asia, the United States and Taiwan might expand cooperation on this issue, as Ian Easton and Randall Schriver recommended in their report “Standing Watch: Taiwan Maritime Domain Awareness.” In particular, as their report suggests, the United States might focus on supporting Taiwan’s efforts to enhance its advanced early-warning radar systems, including space tracking capabilities. However, cooperation on this issue, as on any dual-use capabilities, could provoke concerns over the potential sensitivity.
  • The United States might also support Taiwan’s efforts to enhance the resilience of its existing and future space systems against Chinese counterspace threats, including through techniques to harden and enable the maneuverability and distribution of existing and future systems. Looking forward, the United States and Taiwan might also build off on successful US-Taiwan cooperation on microsatellites to pursue more distributed space systems architectures.

The main point: US-Taiwan cooperation on space technologies has been a productive channel of engagement that has the potential for continued progress. The United States and Taiwan should consider building upon their history of collaboration in this scientific domain to pursue opportunities for future cooperation, including on the utilization of space-based resources, the enhancement of maritime domain awareness, and the improvement of space systems’ resilience against counterspace threats.