The world has thoroughly entered the second space race, and the military applications of emerging spaceflight technologies may be central to global conflicts in the near future.
Exiting a lull in recent decades in global space investment, China has recently completed the world’s second operational space station — prompting an alarmist US response. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Administrator Bill Nelson warned on July 5, 2022, of a Chinese “takeover” of the moon, claiming, “We must be very concerned that China is landing on the Moon and saying: It’s ours now and you stay out. … China’s space program is a military program. … “What do you think is happening on the Chinese space station? They learn there how to destroy other people’s satellites.”
The director’s rhetoric contributes to the possibility of global conflict, which the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the United States’s provocations of China threaten to increase.
Most recently, in 2022, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a diplomatic trip to Taiwan amid warnings from the Chinese government during a time of profound military tension between the two nations. Meanwhile U.S. military strategy involves rearming Japan, intensifying provocations on the Korean Peninsula and increasing military presence near Chinese territories, potentially provoking a multi-domain conflict with the nation.
While NASA Administrator Nelson embellished on China’s public statements about the moon, he is correct about space technology’s military applications.
From Star Wars to Space Force
In the 1980s, the Strategic Defense Initiative — better known as “Star Wars” — was designed by Ronald Reagan’s administration as a space-based missile defense system complete with space-based laser stations, nuclear x-ray laser satellites, and ground- and space-based missile systems to intercept hostile intercontinental ballistic missiles. Derided as expensive and technologically unfeasible by policymakers and scientists, the program was ended by the Clinton administration in 1993. However, it demonstrated a nationalist recommitment to technological superiority in the Cold War and a temporary, dangerous reneging of détente.
Rather than “defense,” successful construction of any such weapons would disrupt the global balance of power significantly in the owner’s favor. The U.S. has not engaged in a defensive war for nearly 80 years, instead destabilizing governments worldwide in Vietnam, the Korean Peninsula, Iraq, Afghanistan, throughout Africa and across Latin America.
In late 2021, Daniel Gallington and Henry Cooper, both senior fellows at the Center for Security Policy — a right-wing military think tank — argued U.S. geopolitical enemies cannot be trusted to obey nuclear disarmament treaties. Since U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, which limited development, testing and deployment of missile defense systems, especially those in space, Gallington and Cooper believe U.S. leadership has yet to take advantage of Reagan’s idea.
Although all weapons of mass destruction in space are technically prohibited by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, it isn’t without precedent for major military powers to withdraw from such treaties altogether when they no longer fit assumed strategic interests. The U.S.’s failure to respect treaties with Indigenous peoples represents a similar strategic selectivity.
Following this pattern, the past several years have seen a systematic breakdown in the global regime of anti-nuclear treaties. In 2019, the U.S. withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on the basis of Russian noncompliance, although Russia denied the charge. More recently, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has seen Russian President Vladimir Putin claim that “all weapon systems available” would be used to defend against attacks on Russian territorial integrity.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for “preventative strikes, so that they’ll know what will happen to them if they use nukes, and not the other way around.” President Joe Biden warned the world could face “nuclear Armageddon” if Russia used a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. Russian and NATO forces have been escalating nuclear drills throughout Europe, and Russia recently withdrew from the 2010 New START treaty to reduce nuclear arsenals on the basis that it was being abused by the U.S. to help Ukraine secure strategic victories.
In addition to withdrawing from nuclear treaties, the U.S. has proceeded to ramp up investment in space technology. In 2019, President Donald Trump diverged from President Barack Obama’s promise he would “not weaponize space,” and created an official Space Force. The move made explicit the military significance of space today, systematizing GPS and satellite security and defense as a sub-department of the Air Force.
As TJ Coles writes in CounterPunch, countersurveillance and counter-communications have been central goals of U.S. military space operations since the 1990s, alongside attaining U.S. “full spectrum dominance” of all potential conflict sites — including space. Evidence of this fact: The Biden administration has continued the Space Force, which was seen as ridiculous by liberal commentators during the Trump administration.
On November 22, 2022, Space Force formally established a unit within the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command amid rising tensions with China. The unit is Space Force’s first outside the continental U.S. and is critical to “increase the range and lethality of our weapons systems,” according to unit leader U.S. Brigadier Gen. Anthony Mastalir. The decision was “driven by the rise of China as a space power” according to Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations for the U.S. military. On the same day, the Space Force’s first command component was activated in the Hawaiian islands, which U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. John Aquilino said would combat the top U.S. national security threats, “whether it be the People’s Republic of China, the Russians, the North Koreans or violent extremists.”
On December 2, 2022, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), responsible for military operations in the Middle East and South Asia, activated a Space Force component known as U.S. Space Forces-Central. Previously, positioning, navigation, timing and satellites for the U.S. Central Command were all controlled by the U.S. Air Force. Today, space “underpins every element of warfighting in the CENTCOM region” according to CENTCOM Commander Gen. Michael Kurilla. On December 5, 2022, the Space Force took over the first U.S. Army battalion stationed in Colorado.
The National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense Review published by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) for the first time on October 27, 2022, are revealing of future U.S. military plans in space. This document discusses the importance of moving nuclear deterrence into space and constantly references the developing space-technological capabilities of China and Russia, as well as a supposed threat from North Korea, also reflected in the November 29 Pentagon Report on Chinese Military Development. Whatever their actual policy, Chinese public statements reflect few public plans regarding the militarization or contestation of space.
The Military-Industrial Complex in Space
Perhaps most notably, the same National Defense Strategy says the DOD “will be a fast-follower where market forces are driving commercialization of militarily-relevant capabilities. … We will increase collaboration with the private sector in priority areas, especially with the commercial space industry.”
Space infrastructure — as envisioned by the Cold War Reagan administration and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and now presided over by the new Space Force — increases the risk of global nuclear war by presenting new opportunities for armament and hostility. As the DOD review noted, the government’s ability to militarize this technology is strongly related to investment and development in the private sector through companies such as Boeing, SpaceX and Blue Origin. The commercial arm of the military-industrial complex is extending into space.
The dominant narrative about spaceflight leading to the settlement or exploitation of resources in space is mostly public relations. While there are tremendous useful minerals throughout the solar system, the energy required to reach, extract and return them is far beyond feasible, given current technology. It will take decades upon decades of stronger materials, decreased launch costs and other technological advancements to make space mining profitable. Further, infrastructure necessary to support even a few people alive in space remains vast and expensive. Tourism and settlement of space, which will never be accessible to most, are still decades away.
In a 2013 Robotic Asteroid Prospector report, NASA concluded regarding the financial feasibility of asteroid mining that, “There is no economically viable scenario we could identify that depends solely upon returning asteroid resources to [low-Earth orbit] or the surface of the Earth. To be economically feasible, asteroid mining will depend predominantly upon customers in-space who are part of the space industrial economy and infrastructure.”
But when it comes to military contracts, profits are here already. The new Blue Origin bid for the Artemis program — NASA’s plan to return to the moon in a series of missions during the 2020s — is being led by private corporations Boeing and Lockheed Martin, simultaneously two of the largest orbital launch contractors and the two biggest non-space vehicle and weapon manufacturers for the U.S. military. SpaceX, the predominant space-infrastructure firm globally and NASA Artemis-launcher contract winner, also contracts significantly with each of these companies for non-space military goods and vehicles.
SpaceX has also worked with Northrop Grumman, one of the world’s largest military contractors, delivering a classified payload into orbit for the company in 2018. In 2022 Northrop Grumman joined SpaceX in satisfying another NASA contract to resupply the International Space Station through 2026. Space and non-space contractors for the U.S. military and NASA share significant overlap.
SpaceX is also the “primary launch service for national security missions” for the Pentagon. Along with Blue Origin, SpaceX has collaborated with DOD in developing rapid global military cargo delivery systems, which the DOD hopes will make for global military logistics — delivery of supplies, weapons and even human soldiers anywhere on earth — in under 60 minutes.
Starship, a SpaceX vehicle being developed for rapid terrestrial cargo and personnel delivery using orbital exit and reentry, demonstrated the potential of terrestrial space-lift transportation to the U.S. National Defense Transportation Association, a nonprofit, public-private consulting group for transportation and logistics clients, particularly the military. This group sees the technology’s potential to launch several mechanized infantry battalions and adequate supplies anywhere across the globe in half an hour, alongside which anti-air capabilities would prove “deeply intractable.”
SpaceX-owned Starlink satellite infrastructure already serves as privatized, upgraded military internet and GPS for U.S. Arctic troops and for Ukrainian forces in the Russia-Ukraine war. There’s even Starshield — a developing version of Starlink which SpaceX intends to sell to the U.S. government for military applications, including end-to-end construction and supply by SpaceX and strong encryption for “classified payloads.”
These space-military contractors consume significant amounts of U.S. public resources. The $1.7 trillion U.S. government budget passed on December 23 included $797 billion for the military and $26 billion for the Space Force alone. While this figure is still dwarfed by other military expenditures, it is almost $2 billion more than requested and a $6 billion increase from last year. Military spending totaled more than education, health care, infrastructure and all social programs combined. Meanwhile, the DOD just failed an audit in December for the fifth time in a row, failing to account for 60 percent of their $3.5 trillion in assets.
Space contractors maintain and consolidate oligopoly over this market while influencing the same government which renews their contracts, through millions of dollars in bipartisan political lobbying each year. This influence is why Blue Origin received a $10 billion bailout simply after failing to secure a deal in competition with SpaceX, and why SpaceX qualifies for billions of dollars in public subsidies on top of the military contracts which sustain the firm’s massive profits. These companies comprise the space arm of the military-industrial complex.
Fred Scharmen writes in the 2019 book Space Forces: A Critical History of Life in Outer Space:
If property rights are the basis for a capitalist economy, then the right to possess and exploit material in space, as upheld by Obama’s SPACE Act of 2015 and Trump’s executive order of 2020 is the foundation of a space economy. A Space Force is an obvious next step, with the capability to defend those rights on behalf of U.S. interests. The supporters of the space force see threats to those interests in emerging state actors like China, and in other established ones like the old Russian rivals.
Common heritage, the concept of outer space belonging to humanity rather than specific persons, corporations or governments, being replaced by a doctrine of U.S. corporate ownership with Trump’s 2020 executive order, strengthens the potential for future conflict over off-earth resources. But the militarization discussed in this article already serves to advance U.S. interests in terrestrial conflicts.
As Robert Gordon writes in the blog Future Conscience, public relations about space vacations and resource extraction hide “the real purpose of SpaceX and its current activity as a facilitator of American Imperialism. … The new space race isn’t about colonizing Mars or building the first international base on the Moon, it’s about dominating the upper atmosphere and orbit of Earth itself.”
The U.S. is the world’s largest military spender, funding the military more than the 10 next greatest spenders combined, holding military bases or presence in over 170 of the world’s countries and on every continent. The U.S. government has a long history of intervention in democratic governments throughout the world, during and long after the end of the Cold War. All this overseas violence is co-dependent with the U.S.’s role as the wealthiest country in the world, its substantial direct ownership of foreign assets, and the resulting immense global inequality.
Yet, as the U.S. military’s generals and reports make clear, global investment in the militarization of space is occurring in the context of a dramatically changing geopolitics. The Russia-Ukraine war has shown evidence of this shift, as nations throughout Latin America and Africa refused to condemn Russia’s invasion and sanction the country alongside NATO and the U.S.
In the past 20 years, China has overtaken the U.S. as most countries’ primary trading partner, alongside substantial new global membership in the Belt and Road Initiative and BRICS countries. Some officials argue it is only a matter of time before China surpasses the U.S. militarily.
Meanwhile, this new space race contributes to the threat of nuclear war and feeds into growing social and ecological crises — all while enriching billionaires, technological corporations and the military-industrial complex. Space hegemony now joins “mutually assured destruction” among the core strategies the U.S. will use to try to maintain primary global superpower status.
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