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Is Earth-moon space the US military's new high ground?

As multiple nations have exploration crosshairs on Earth's moon, including private sector interests, there's also increasing discussion of the military utility of cislunar space and lunar territory, too.
As multiple nations have exploration crosshairs on Earth's moon, including private sector interests, there's also increasing discussion of the military utility of cislunar space and lunar territory, too.
(Image: © Leonard David/Inside Outer Space)

U.S. military space policy officials have increasingly flagged a new role in guarding American assets and interests in Earth-moon space. 

This evolving doctrine extends to the moon's surface, given NASA's Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration and American companies' plans to mine moon resources such as water ice. 

What do space experts say about extending military tactics to a new "high ground" domain beyond Earth orbit? Space.com asked experts for their opinions regarding an evolving military doctrine that builds on air, land and sea warfare strategies — and is now headed for the ocean of deep space.

Related: Military Space: Spacecraft, weapons and tech

Challenges, inflections and choke points

American military interest in Earth's moon was spotlighted in a recent report, "State of the Space Industrial Base 2020: A Time for Action to Sustain US Economic & Military Leadership in Space." 

The July 2020 report, which you can find here, was based on a virtual workshop that brought together more than 150 thought leaders from industry, government and academia. The mind-meld meeting was staged by NewSpace New Mexico, the Defense Innovation Unit, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and the United States Space Force

The summary report explains that the U.S. faces major challenges and inflection points in the final frontier. In terms of cislunar (Earth-moon) space and the moon itself, there is a need to control critical "choke points." 

"As space activities expand beyond geosynchronous orbit, the first nation to establish transportation infrastructure and logistics capabilities serving GEO [geosynchronous Earth orbit] and cislunar space will have superior ability to exercise control of cislunar space and in particular the Lagrange points and the resources of the moon," the report says. (Lagrange points are gravitationally stable spots in space where probes can "park," remaining in place without expending much fuel.) 

Race to the moon

More to the point, the recently published report observes that lunar resources — especially ice-derived hydrogen and oxygen, which can provide spacecraft propellant for civil, commercial and national security applications — are key for access to asteroid resources and Mars, and to enable overall space commercial development.

"Today's race to the moon has little to do with flags and footprints," the report states. "Strategically, it is a race to the great wealth of lunar resources which will fuel the greater space economy and enable future exploration and settlement in the solar system."

Taking these report findings to a new level is next month's first annual Cislunar Security Conference (CLSC), to be held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. "CLSC is a classified forum on the technology, policy, doctrine, and strategy implications of ensuring free access, transit, and use of the Earth-Moon system beyond GEO," the conference website reads.

Winning concept

This month, the Space Vehicles Directorate of the AFRL announced winning concepts of a competition to decide on the next set of flight experiments, one of which is an experiment in space domain awareness beyond GEO all the way out to the moon. That winning concept is dubbed CHPS, short for the Cislunar Highway Patrol System. 

"The 21st century space economy is expanding beyond traditional orbits out to the moon with commercial companies seeking to harvest resources, and NASA and other countries returning to the moon," said AFRL's David Buehler, a program manager. "This increase in activity will require greater domain awareness, which is what CHPS is trying to address."

Related: NASA wants to buy moon dirt from private companies

Power projection

"There is indeed a reimagination of space to transcend simply LEO [low Earth orbit] and GEO to move onto the cislunar space," said Namrata Goswami, an independent analyst specializing in space policy. From a period where going somewhere first in space, planting a flag for your nation or on humanity's behalf was seen as optimal, today the space discourse is shifting, she told Space.com.

From the perspective of space warfare, Goswami said, it's much more feasible to blind or damage a satellite in GEO or LEO, without being noticed, from cislunar space than from Earth's surface. "Countries are beginning to understand this critical perspective, especially due to the growing dependence of modern warfare on LEO and GEO-supported space command and control," Goswami said.

What Goswami foresees is that space power projection — via civil, military and commercial efforts — will move beyond simply satellite presence, anti-satellite technology and the International Space Station to include real-time presence on the lunar surface. "Once lunar permanent presence is achieved in the next decade or so, space thinkers, leaders, military space leaders will be forced to account for that new reality, whether they like it or not."

Related: The most dangerous space weapons concepts ever

Space-centric culture

There's lots of ongoing and planned activity beyond GEO, especially near or on the moon. So to some extent it is natural that the U.S. military would want to pay more attention to that big patch of space, said David Burbach, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. 

Speaking in a personal capacity, Burbach said that, in principle, spacecraft in cislunar space can affect the many satellites in lower Earth orbits, or be relevant to military operations on Earth. So the presence of more non-US spacecraft in that region is a change, albeit a small one.

"Organizationally, the whole point of creating a separate service [the Space Force] was to forge a space-centric culture, and it's natural that a new organization would want to take steps to differentiate itself from its parent and to show that it is actively taking on new missions, and as a corollary, needs new resources," Burbach said. 

Given the increase in a variety of cislunar activity by multiple nations, "it's not surprising that a military organization wants to be able to know what's going on in an area of potential relevance to their mission," he said. 

New El Dorado?

Burbach said that he believes, institutionally, a central focus for the U.S. Space Force is getting better "space domain awareness" beyond GEO — being able to track, and likely listen in on, spacecraft out at lunar distances, which current U.S. surveillance systems are not optimized for. 

There are some people in the U.S. space community, Burbach said, who envision the moon as the "new El Dorado," a place of fabulous wealth or opportunity.

That wealth could come from mining lunar water ice, gathering up helium-3 fuel for nuclear reactors or moving our heavy industry to the moon. So, some advocates see a near-term economic boom in cislunar space, though Burbach and many other analysts are skeptical that this will happen in the next few decades.

And a few vocal backers figure that, just as a navy protects foreign commerce, or the U.S. Army set up forts to protect wagon trains moving west in the 1800s, "the U.S. military should have a cislunar presence in order to facilitate U.S. companies and US citizens winning out in the lunar gold rush, and preventing others from shoving us aside and jumping our claims," Burbach said. It's unclear how big a role this reasoning plays in Defense Department and Space Force thinking, he added.

Talking points

While NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and other high-ranking officials have strongly embraced the Trump Administration's deep-space strategy, still missing is such an embrace or even acknowledgment from Space Force or Defense Department leadership. 

That's the view of Peter Garretson, an independent strategy consultant focusing on space and defense and a senior fellow in defense studies at the American Foreign Policy Council.

"You'd think the Space Force would be the thought leader here … but so far the Space Force has ceded such thought leadership to others, and kept this out of their highest-level talking points," Garretson told Space.com.

Garretson expects that "thinking boldly" and designing for the next 100 years would include the articulation of a vision or strategy for cislunar or an in-space economy that excites future Space Force recruits. But so far that thinking has come from innovation units outside the Space Force proper, he said.

Looking down or looking out?

"There is recognition in the new Space Force doctrine that U.S. interests in space are moving beyond GEO. And that being the case, there's need to provide space security and defense of commerce wherever U.S. citizens are," Garretson said.

The current argument over military ranks for Space Force, Garretson suggested, is also fundamentally about whether or not the Force should be focused looking down or looking out — including at the moon and cislunar.

"Those who favor a focus on space resources and development of the moon seem to favor naval rank, while those wanting the Space Force to remain an overhead robotic monitoring force favor status quo rank," he said.

Wanted: visionary thinking

Garretson said it will be interesting to see if the current generation of Space Force leadership, which grew up within the Earth-centric culture of the Air Force, will be able to bridge visionary thinking in their posture statements and then force design guidance. 

"Certainly that's the criterion many of us will be using to grade those documents and statements on. We are waiting to see whether or not the Space Force leadership has in fact embraced the vision of Congress and the administration or intends to be merely a status quo continuation of Air Force Space Command and a puppet of the Air Force proper," Garretson added.

"We will know there is real progress when cislunar becomes part of headquarters-level documents, vision, strategy and congressional testimony," he concluded.

Leonard David is author of the recently released book, "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published by National Geographic in May 2019. A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. This version of the story published on Space.com.

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  • newtons_laws
    Quote from the article "U.S. military space policy officials have increasingly flagged a new role in guarding American assets and interests in Earth-moon space. This evolving doctrine extends to the moon's surface..."

    Of course any military activities on the surface of the Moon are expressly forbidden under the UN Outer Space Treaty (to which the US was one of the original signatories). Quote from Article IV of the Treaty "The moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies shall be forbidden." https://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties/outerspacetreaty.html
    Reply
  • Gareth
    Quite right - glad somebody brought up the OST as it seems to have been largely forgotten in the blind rush to repeat all the same mistakes that we've already made on Earth.

    As an example of this attitude from the article:

    "the U.S. military should have a cislunar presence in order to facilitate U.S. companies and US citizens winning out in the lunar gold rush, and preventing others from shoving us aside and jumping our claims," Burbach said.

    "...our claims..." - No one has the right to "claim" anything in space, not a country, nor a company, nor an individual. Space should be the preserve of all mankind as stated in the OST, and not subject to same kind of greed motivate free-for-all that has caused so much conflict and short term thinking here on Earth.

    The US can't very well turn around to China and criticise that country's actions in the South China Sea on the basis that those islands don't belong to China under international law, and then flout international law (namely the OST) to grab finite mineral resources from the Moon or elsewhere the moment it senses a profit to be had. And it certainly has no right to "police" outer space, any more than any other country does. The moment this threshold is crossed it will just open up a scramble for space without any thought for future sustainability or equity among nations. If space truly is the "preserve of all mankind" then any resources mined by anyone should be distributed equally among all, and not simply hoarded for profit.
    Reply
  • DrRaviSharma
    For right reasons we have violated Outer Space Treaty during Apollo 13 reentry where the Lunar Module carrying the Radioisotope Thermal Generator RTG with Plutonium for ALSEP expts on Lunar Surface attached to LM leg also re-entered the Earth atmosphere with command Module and we tracked it using NORAD and Baker Nunn Cameras global network and it fortunately landed safely in Marian Trench off Japan. I was one of investigators of the team that tracked the space craft and any releases during lunar missions using 60+ telescopes.

    The Engineering was perfectly planned, just in case RTG had to reenter, the body was designed as independent reentry heat shielded body so frangrament would not easily spread.

    Still we were in violation but US must have informed the UN on this incident.

    I received Apollo Achievement Award from NASA and later when I was in India I represented India to the Outer Space Committe - Technical sub-committe in 1974 and 1977.

    Yes we (US) are bound by OST but many aggressive nations are emerging and they do not adhere to open and correct information and such an example being this pandemic source(?).

    Therefore, as much as we would like such countries to not bully us, we want the capability to protect our and allied assets in space and should not violate OST as long as no one else tries.

    China's claim as mentioned by Gareth is more serious regarding S China Sea and is counter to all kinds of UN and other treaties and norms and their visciousness is to challange both superpowers as well as other Asian countries by claiming everything as theirs. We hoe we have not forgotten the lessons from World Wars, to not allow such treaty violations on our planet itself.

    Perhaps the strength of US Space Force will be to maintain peace in cislunar space by protecting other nations and the US assets to counter such bullying and the Force will adhere to new refined detailed understanding that will be perhaps be newly created by the UN Outer Space Committee.

    The OS Committee should start addressing the concerns that my two previous commentators have rightfully posed, namely what are the refined rules for sharing and exploring the lunar resources and we hope we can objectively explore (not exploit like carbon problem) the resources on the moon for Earthlings benefit!

    From Apollo Soyuz to the ISS both the superpowers have shown and practiced collaboration for mutual benefits.
    hopefully bullying will stop and cooperation will actually start with Openness!
    Reply
  • newtons_laws
    DrRaviSharma said:
    For right reasons we have violated Outer Space Treaty during Apollo 13 reentry where the Lunar Module carrying the Radioisotope Thermal Generator RTG with Plutonium for ALSEP expts on Lunar Surface attached to LM leg also re-entered the Earth atmosphere with command Module and we tracked it using NORAD and Baker Nunn Cameras global network and it fortunately landed safely in Marian Trench off Japan. I was one of investigators of the team that tracked the space craft and any releases during lunar missions using 60+ telescopes.

    The Engineering was perfectly planned, just in case RTG had to reenter, the body was designed as independent reentry heat shielded body so frangrament would not easily spread.

    Still we were in violation but US must have informed the UN on this incident.
    I'm puzzled as to why you think the Apollo 13 Lunar Module reentry with the ALSEP RTG was in violation of the Outer Space Treaty? Nuclear weapons in Outer Space are banned by the Treaty, but nuclear powered instruments are not. What Article of the Treaty do you believe was violated?
    Reply
  • DrRaviSharma
    Release of Plutonium and Radioactivity in space, will have to study the articles, but you are right in saying that we actually did not release as RTG did not break up. If it did then there would perhaps be violation. We were afraid of the legal implications during re-entry of LM.
    There have been several missions especially toward outer planets where RTGs as source of power have been since launched and I am assuming that their details have been informed to the UN Outer Space Committee!
    Reply
  • Locke&Demosthenes
    There are so many points here that are simply wrong.

    Gareth said:
    Quite right - glad somebody brought up the OST as it seems to have been largely forgotten in the blind rush to repeat all the same mistakes that we've already made on Earth.
    The principles in the Artemis Accords -- NASA's statement on the US approach to lunar development and resource extraction -- build directly on the OST, offering clarity and doubling down on this historic international treaty. In NASA's own words, the Accords represent "a shared vision for principles, grounded in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, to create a safe and transparent environment which facilitates exploration, science, and commercial activities for all of humanity to enjoy."

    Perhaps you're thinking of the Moon Agreement, which the Accords do explicitly refute, as they are ambiguous, overly restrictive, and de-incentivize space economic development. Of course, the Moon Agreement is widely considered defunct by all major space powers, none of whom are party to it.

    No one has the right to "claim" anything in space, not a country, nor a company, nor an individual.
    Again, this is simply inaccurate. I recommend reading the OST before using it to back your points. Resources can arguably be claimed by non-state actors under the OST, though discussions to clarify this are underway, and some countries have passed national law that does so.

    Article II 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." While nations are forbidden to claim territory, the OST says nothing about private actors and resources. This is a grey area commonly compared to the Law of the Sea, in which no nation can own the ocean, but they may own the fish they catch from the ocean; similarly, actors are not prohibited from claiming and owning resources they may mine from the territory, so long as they do not claim ownership over the territory itself.

    It is the customary position of international lawmaking bodies that if a treaty does not expressly forbid an activity, then the activity should tacitly be considered legal; otherwise, the treaty would have included it.

    Now, sure, the Moon Agreement goes so far as to forbid essentially any actor from ownership of celestial bodies and their resources. But again, it's defunct, nonbinding, toothless, and irrelevant.

    Space should be the preserve of all mankind as stated in the OST
    Again incorrect. Space itself is not the province or common heritage of all mankind. This is commonly misquoted.

    The actual text of Article I reads: "The exploration and use of outer space... shall be the province of all mankind." No nation is forbidden from engaging in space exploration and development, hence the "free access" clause... but certainly no nation is compelled to give away its material profits to all nations. This exploration and use "shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries"; initial lunar economic development by one or several nations, so long as they do not deliberately exclude access to other nations, opens opportunities for less-developed nations to participate, and therefore it can certainly be argued this in the best interest of all countries.

    What's more, Article IX protects against interference, which may be construed to protect temporary, finite, localized claims rights (potentially including non-interference zones for operational safety) for the purposes of mineral extraction. In any case, it calls for state parties to the treaty to consult internationally with those potentially affected before acting, and several principles in the Artemis Accords suggest this is the desired US course of action in such an event.

    The US can't very well turn around to China and criticise that country's actions in the South China Sea on the basis that those islands don't belong to China under international law, and then flout international law (namely the OST)...
    Nations are certainly allowed to criticize the illegal invasion and seizure of other nations' sovereign territory. In the case of Chinese military seizure of the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, the UN ruled in 2016 in favor of the Philippines, backed by an international coalition of 40 nations. China ignored the finding and proceeded anyway with more warships. What sort of precedent does this behavior set? What does this communicate to the international community about Chinese regard for national legislation when aggressive resource exploitation is concerned?

    So far, the US has not breached the OST in pursuit of space resources, so the point is hypothetical at best. The US is currently one of the leading nations when it comes to formulating/advancing international, bilateral space resources legislation.

    ...to grab finite mineral resources from the Moon or elsewhere the moment it senses a profit to be had.
    There are indeed more- and less-advantageous locations that render certain mine sites more profitable than others. This is an important point of contention, and all parties must work together to reach a sustainable, fair solution.

    However, the idea that the Moon's mineral resources are "finite", in any practical sense of the term, is completely out of proportion. Speaking for lunar polar ice, where the potential for conflict is highest and most immediate, there is enough there to sustain operations for several millennia. These reserves, such as they can be proved, are hardly in danger of running out in the early years that first-movers might potentially enjoy unilateral access.

    If space truly is the "preserve of all mankind" then any resources mined by anyone should be distributed equally among all, and not simply hoarded for profit.
    Again, this is not the text of the OST, which does not advocate for the equal distribution of resources to all nations, regardless of participation. Benefits should certainly be shared, and open access/collaboration encouraged, but equal distribution is a laughable concept that destroys any incentive for any commercially motivated actor, even those with the best intentions, to invest effort into an inherently risky space resources venture.

    Finally, let's consider the resources that are really in question. "Hoarding" lunar water does no good for the owner. This isn't a diamond monopoly with a limited, tightly-controlled supply; actors will simply return to launching propellant from Earth at marginally higher cost. The value of water is in its use and sale: using for life support, to enable a greater number of humans to inhabit deep space settlements, and as cryogenic propellants, which bring down launch costs and extend humankind's reach, thus democratizing access to space for developed and less-developed nations alike, leaving all the world's nations in a better position to fulfill the original designs of the OST.
    Reply
  • newtons_laws
    Talking of the Outer Space Treaty it's maybe appropriate to remind the head of the Russian space corporation Roscosmos who recently said "Venus is a Russian planet" that Russia is an original signatory of the OST..... ;) https://www.businessinsider.com/venus-is-a-russian-planet-says-countrys-top-space-official-2020-9?r=US&IR=T
    Reply
  • Geomartian
    Would the forward placement of Nuclear Weapons for the purpose of rapid action against asteroids be a breach of the treaty? Interstellar asteroids can reach Earth from the orbit of Jupiter in about three months. The only defensive posture that would be effective requires that nuclear weapons be placed in forward positions.

    That is if the war to break the Starlink blockade didn’t create enough space debris to prevent all space travel.

    So, who are the sponsors for this new military player in space?
    Reply
  • Lovethrust
    China has already claimed the moon as a logical extension of it’s South China Sea territories!
    Reply