With outer space being, as anyone over the age of 25 or so knows, the Final Frontier, is it any surprise that the Pentagon is rushing full speed ahead to turn it, against the general desire of almost everyone on Earth, into a battlefield?
To borrow science fiction parlance, Afghanistan was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but for billions of Earthlings, outer space represents an endless source of fascinating discoveries, mind-blowing photographs, and noble dreams. More practically, according to Trump’s nomination for NASA CFO, Greg Autry, space is a market emerging faster than almost any others, and one where in the moody American post-graduate job market, almost anyone can find employment.
Why then must our government squash so many good things by declaring it a battlefield before any obvious threat has manifested itself?
Recently-confirmed Secretary for the Air Force and the Space Force, Frank Kendall, described the situation in orbit as "a national, strategic, long-term competition with a strategic adversary," when he spoke at the Air Force’s Air, Space, and Cyber Conference on Monday, Sep. 20th.
A former vice president at Raytheon who served as Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics for Obama, Kendall made most of his money consulting for Northrup Grumman. It’s unsurprising then, as a former keeper of the Pentagon’s checkbook, that he should be chosen to head up the fledgling Space Force as they enter the eternal contest of squabbling over sections of the defense budget.
With private American space enterprise rocketing forward at a pace years and billions faster than long-existing government programs, Kendall is likely spoiled for choice when considering which lamprey-like firms he will award contracts to as Space Force continues to develop a "warfighting doctrine," a "Space Warfighting Center," or to establish a "Space National Guard," costing several billion dollars and meant to serve as the reserve component of a military branch that has less than 5,000 personnel.
"China has moved aggressively to weaponize space," Kendall said at the recent 36th Space Symposium, where he was the keynote speaker. "It is impossible to overstate the importance of space-based systems to national security".
Monday at the Air, Space, and Cyber Conference, he continued his fear-mongering by noting "I have had the opportunity to catch up on the intelligence about China’s modernization programs," which he would go on to describe as "the most disturbing developments in nuclear proliferation I’ve seen in my lifetime".
For this startling claim, he cited the progress China has made on developing hypersonic cruise missiles. Aside from the fact that technological impossibilities in the mere concept of a hypersonic cruise missile have meant every project that aimed to develop one has failed, the greater danger in a hypothetical war in space isn’t to be found in Cold War-era demons, but something much more trivial.
Calling space a space
The greater threat to the initiation of a war in space, starts with the immediate designation of space as a warfighting domain, because any act that under peacetime might be assigned to the devilry of a private actor, such as a hacking incident, suddenly begs the question: "is [blank action] an act of war?"
That question was on full display at the Space Symposium, where lampreys and acting military members alike debated the implications associated with something like a "satellite blinding". In such a case, which presumably could happen tomorrow, a laser is fired from space into the eye of a satellite, depriving the military, or a poor sod trying to use his cellphone data, of its feed.
Under such circumstances, Lt. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of U.S. Space Command said that "the appropriate measures can be taken".
How are we civilians supposed to take that comment? Let’s suppose the US military is using a satellite to watch the Chinese portion of the South China Sea, or pilot a drone in the remote regions of North Africa, and that that capability is lost for a short period (a laser can only jam a satellite so well, as eventually its orbit will take it around the other side of the earth) can we honestly expect that either of those actions are either important to our national security or worth going to war with China in space?
How else are we to take the phrase "appropriate measures," when after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard shot down an American drone loitering where it shouldn’t have been, Trump was pressured by the military to launch a strike that would have killed dozens of Iranian service members?
It is the pronouncement that Earth’s orbit is the warfighting domain of the Pentagon that makes what otherwise could be considered a schoolyard prank in national security terms, a potential act of war. Under different circumstances, such an act might be taken in the same vein as Angela Merkel’s disgust when the Edward Snowden leaks revealed that troves of her personal communications were being held in a foreign, allied, intelligence service database.
A satellite blinding would deserve no more than a slap on the wrist if rather than declaring outer space a battlefield, the Pentagon rightfully acknowledged that just within our own solar-system there is more wealth, opportunity, and resources than any number of humans could ever hope to fully-exploit.
Chris Kubasik, the CEO of L3Harris, a major defense contractor for the UK and US noted that "if you think of the impact of a war in space and how it impacts something as simple as our cellphones, navigation, supply chain, logistics, healthcare… I think it is a serious issue," he said, calling it "the biggest threat facing our nation".
But leave lamprey to be a lamprey, as Kubasik also said shockingly that public awareness campaigning needed to be done at scale to ensure the DoD gets the funds needed to "make sure that we deter or defeat our adversaries in space". As if the DOD needed awareness raising to earn its money.
Trade is the lifeblood of nations
According to data gathered by Finbold global orbital rocket launches surged by 44% in the first half of 2021 compared to 2020. The US, with its powerhouse commercial entities like SpaceX and Blue Origin, lead the way, launching 29 rockets into space. China launched 18; just another milestone in the leaps and bounds the Chinese space program has come on in just ten years.
China has conducted five consecutive lunar missions in quick succession while peppering the atmosphere with advanced satellites. They brought back tens of kilograms of moon rocks having never launched a retrieve mission before, and now to crown off their frenzy of focused activity they put a lander and rover on Mars, accompanied by an orbiter – all three of which succeeded first time, something never before accomplished by any nation.
Dean Cheng, a senior fellow and expert on China policies from the Heritage Foundation describes space as "substance and symbolism" for the Chinese.
"The PRC has long seen the aerospace field as a locomotive for broader development of China’s various capabilities. The Chinese often describe aerospace as "dense" in advanced technologies. A successful space program will involve aspects of information and communications technology, advanced materials, power storage, precision manufacturing," he wrote for Space News.
"Chinese space exports, including satellites and associated launch services, have helped China not only build ties to a variety of states including Nigeria and Bolivia [and Namibia], but also to tout a "Space Silk Road" to complement the terrestrial "Belt and Road Initiative."
In an era of such unprecedented innovation and human achievement, where we can use robots to bring scientific samples back from other worlds, where we can mine asteroids, travel into space with no formal astronautical training, survey the universe like never before, it would be the height of folly to contaminate this field with our Earthbound political disagreements.
Having China as a commercial ally in space would effectively double our country’s ability to innovate, explore, research, and expand. It can take a decade for craft to reach to outer edge of our solar system, or bring samples back from Mars. Even ancient peoples understood trade to be the lifeblood of a nation, and in a field where costs are so high and timescales are so long, closing oneself off to the fruits of others’ labor is simply absurd.
The Cox Amendment, which Biden’s NASA Administrator wants to make permanent, bans all American public aerospace workers from having any contact with a Chinese national, full-stop, and despite the fact that China has said the lunar regolith their Chang’e-5 Lander brought back recently from the Moon could be available to any scientists of any nation acting in good faith, NASA has stated publicly they’d rather be the proverbial child-in-the-corner with folded arms.
Carey Smith, CEO of defense and cybersecurity contractor Parsons, said during the Symposium that it is her opinion that "the path to war in space is really based upon a space arms race, and we’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to delay it up until this point, but it is perhaps imminent".
Despite NASA’s favorite budget justification that research into space has produced so many everyday inventions we take for granted, humanity’s knowledge of space and the capacity to operate there, conduct scientific research, tourism, or heavy industry, is essentially being halved by the Space Force and the lampreys suctioned-cupped to its underside, as they work to make outer space an exclusionary one.
Andy Corbley is founder and editor of World at Large, an independent news outlet. He is an avid listener of Antiwar radio and of the Scott Horton Show.