Given that modern global superpowers (The United States, Russia, and China), have set their sights on sending missions to the moon within the next decade, military organizations have been increasingly monitoring the moon. Furthermore, all of them are targeting the same area, the moon’s south polar region, for its valuable resources, especially water ice and other natural resources.
Given the rekindled enthusiasm for dispatching unmanned expeditions to the moon, evidenced by recent space missions from Russia and India, along with the United States’ intent to land humans on the moon by 2025, apprehensions regarding the moon’s militarization are mounting. This concern is underscored by the following indicators:
1- Washington’s Plans for Moon Militarization: In 2020, the U.S. founded the Space Force and is currently considering plans to deploy weapons in deep space or the far side of the moon.
However, some experts argue that the massive cost of this move outweighs any limited military gains.
Moreover, American plans include the deployment of military spy satellites in the moon’s orbit, although such plans date back decades, such as the “Horizon” project, a military study completed in June 1959 to study the feasibility of establishing a “human” military base on the moon by 1966.
However, the available technological capabilities at the time prevented Washington from executing this plan.
In 2019, American interest in space militarization was renewed, and the United States Space Force was established.
Recent planning guidelines issued in 2020 by the Chief of Space Operations, General Jay Raymond, encouraged major expansion of the United States’ ability to explore, communicate, protect and defend its interests in lunar space and beyond.
The outline of this new role was documented in a memorandum of understanding between NASA and the Space Force signed in 2021, specifying that the focus of the new military force extends to 272,000 miles and beyond, at least to the far side of the moon, which is more than a tenfold increase in scope.
One of the strongest supporters of this increased role of Washington in space is Lieutenant General John Shaw, Deputy Commander of the U.S. Space Command.
However, American plans are not limited to the establishment of unmanned bases or deploying drones but also include deploying human forces.
For his part, Commander of the U.S. Space Force, John Shaw stated on September 29, 2020, that “at some point, we’ll have humans operating in space,” adding that they could, for instance, operate a command centre somewhere in lunar space.
2- Chinese Lunar Activities: NASA has expressed concerns about the possibility of Chinese deployment of military equipment under the guise of moon exploration, especially since China plans to establish a self-contained lunar research station near the moon’s south pole by 2025. Moreover, Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator and former astronaut and U.S. senator from Florida, warned that Beijing may seek to claim ownership of resource-rich areas on the moon. He explained that the U.S. and China are in a “space race,” stressing that Washington should understand that Beijing could reach a point on the moon under the guise of scientific research and claim it as its property.
3- Chinese-Russian Cooperation: In March 2021, the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) and the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) signed two agreements to establish a joint lunar research centre and monitor deep space exploration.
In December 2022, Russia revealed that it signed an agreement in November of the same year outlining collaboration plans for the next five years. According to the announcement, both countries agreed to complete the construction of a lunar station by 2035.
According to the Annual Threat Assessment report published in 2022, The U.S. intelligence community thinks that China and Russia are “increasingly looking to space as a new battlefield”. In 2015, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) established the “Strategic Support Force” responsible for space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum.
For its part, Russia established an independent space force in the same year, thus in September 2019, France established the Space Command, and the U.S. followed suit in December of the same year.
In 2020, then Chief of Space Operations General Jay Raymond revealed that two Russian satellites were tracking an American spy satellite, describing the behaviour as “unusual and concerning.” Regardless of the accuracy of these accusations, Washington used this incident to justify its move towards militarizing outer space.
Causes of Conflict:
It is evident that the escalating conflict over the moon in recent times is linked to several factors, which can be detailed as follows:
1- Control over Resources: Major powers seek to mine space, as seen in programs like NASA’s Artemis. While its aim is to send humans back into space, it also aims to reap the economic and military benefits of space utilization.
This is particularly true given that many companies seek to exploit the resources in space. Companies like the Japan-based “iSpace” and the U.S.-based “Astrobotic” are developing commercial landing vehicles on the moon’s surface and have plans to eventually gather lunar resources such as water or minerals.
However, available studies suggest that the commercial exploitation of space is decades away for humanity. The economic viability of all potential commercial activities in space is extremely limited due to four main reasons: the basic technology for space exploration and mining is still lagging; there are no potential buyers until around 2040, especially considering the cost of space mining or other commercial space utilization activities exceeds the expected revenues; mining various minerals on Earth is cheaper than doing so on the moon.
Nevertheless, some natural resources are present on the moon and not available on Earth, such as “Helium-3,” an isotope known since 1988 to be useful in nuclear fusion reactors.
In theory, “Helium-3” provides many advantages compared to current nuclear energy, as it is characterized as being abundant, low-carbon, and without nuclear waste, making it a competitive resource.
Moreover, This isotope is useful for other applications such as cooling, quantum computing devices, and magnetic resonance lung imaging.
China has demonstrated a significant increase in its space activities directed towards the moon, economically and technologically, sending its first probe to the moon’s orbit in 2007.
Since then, the “Chang’e 4” (2018) and “Chang’e 5” (2020) missions have made great progress in exploring space, particularly in understanding and studying data related to lunar terrains and soil composition.
One of the goals of these missions is to determine the precise quantity of Helium-3 on the moon. To achieve this goal, the Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology (BRIUG) measures the Helium-3 content in lunar soil, assesses its extraction parameters, and studies its geological fixation. These developments also reflect Beijing’s comprehensive strategy to control and utilize lunar minerals and metals.
Although Article II of the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”, states that “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means,” the United States has not ratified this treaty.
Additionally, the law passed by President Barack Obama and Congress to enhance the competitiveness of launching commercial spacecraft into space, enacted in 2015, declares that space resources are the property of any American citizen capable of extracting them and not a “common heritage of mankind” as international agreements state
This has opened the door to intensified conflict among nations over the exploration of outer space and the control of its resources, which means that the countries able to access mining areas on the moon will declare private ownership, thus escalating the competition for mining areas on the moon among major powers in the international system capable of making massive investments in this framework.
The lunar poles, both north and south, are particularly important, as they are unique environments with vast reserves of water and other volatile materials on the moon’s surface. Moreover, since the moon’s rotational axis is nearly perpendicular to the sun’s location, the latter always appears on the horizon at the poles, making them ideal places for economic or military exploitation.
2- Absence of Binding Legal Rules: The rules governing the exploitation of outer space are embodied in five main agreements: the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space, the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, in addition to the Agreement on the Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, and finally, the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.
These agreements do not explicitly prevent military space activities, as the U.S. and the former Soviet Union never agreed on a single interpretation of the word “peaceful.”
While Washington interpreted “peaceful use of outer space” to mean the prevention of using the moon and space for aggressive purposes, Moscow interpreted it as “non-military use.” This means that the American interpretation of peaceful use also encompasses non-aggressive military activities.
Therefore, manoeuvres, missile tests, bombs, and other military activities are considered peaceful acts, despite ultimately serving the purpose of war preparation in peacetime. As a result, the American interpretation strips the principle of its legal value, which the Soviet Union opposed.
However, with Washington adopting its interpretation and with the absence of any real restrictions on preventing countries from deploying weapons in outer space, it becomes evident that the militarization of space is the most likely scenario, especially if one country started to deploy military bases, which will drive other countries to follow suit.
3- Fear of Technological Leaps: Russia and China managed to develop hypersonic missiles, while the United States has lagged in this field thus far and as major powers continue to rise, and China’s space program achieves significant technological leaps, Washington remains apprehensive about Beijing’s potential technological advancements in commercial space utilization.
Such leaps might grant China the ability to exploit outer space wealth, especially the moon, accessing its resources before Washington and gaining a huge advantage in the intense economic competition with Washington.
Major powers are racing to reach the moon and attempt to control rich areas to reap their benefits. However, their ability to reach this goal will depend on their technological progress in the space domain, allowing them to build military bases in ideal areas before competing powers can do so.
By: Dr. Shadi Abdelwahab
(Military and Strategic Researcher)