Moon Militarization Current plans & their implications on international stability

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.‬

Conclusion

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)‬

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