Can the militarisation of space be avoided?

Can the militarisation of space be avoided?

The most novel aspect of the new space race is the central role occupied by private business actors, with companies such as SpaceX (Elon Musk), Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos) and Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson) leading the way. SpaceX’s interplanetary spacecraft prototype construction site for missions to the Moon and Mars, April 2021, Boca Chica, Texas.

(AFP/Reginald Mathalone/NurPhoto)

The launch of the artificial satellite Sputnik 1 into orbit on 4 October 1957 propelled with it the conquest of space to the top of the agenda of the world’s major powers, where it assumed a place alongside the traditional areas of strategic competition: land, sea and air. And while driven in part by the human desire to go beyond the frontiers of the known, the space race must above all be understood as a central element in the struggle for planetary hegemony among a handful of global powers.

While other state actors attempted to stake out territory for themselves in the waning years of the Cold War, the confrontation essentially always boiled down to two players: the United States and the Soviet Union. The US saw itself as the world’s most advanced technological centre, with the self-appointed role of leading humanity. It thus came as a shock and a major blow to its prestige when its rival in Moscow, which was not believed to have that level of development in space and missile technology, overtook it with the aforementioned launch of Sputnik 1. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, and with the USSR already having conducted its first nuclear test in 1949, the thinking in Washington was that if Moscow could place a satellite into orbit it could also launch the nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles it had just tested that same year with the very powerful R-7 Semyorka rocket.

The US response – led by the Department of Defence, which proves that the space race was and is, above all, a strategic and military matter – was immediate. Washington greatly increased support for the Navy’s Project Vanguard, aimed at launching its first intercontinental ballistic missile and placing the satellite Explorer 1 into orbit on 31 January 1958. The same year saw the creation of ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency, soon to be renamed DARPA, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Agency, on 29 July). The UGM-27 Polaris (submarine-launched ballistic missile) programme was also created and President John F. Kennedy would go on to approve the development of 1,000 LGM-30 Minuteman missiles.

Thus, by the time the first humans landed on the moon (20 July 1969), the arms race was already in full swing, with both sides building up tactical and strategic nuclear arsenals that plunged humanity into the grim scenario of Mutually Assured Destruction in which we are still immersed today.

With the secondary nuclear powers of Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel looking on, the two superpowers would go on to equip themselves with the so-called ‘nuclear triad’, strategic missiles based on land, submarines and bombers, and accumulate more than 60,000 nuclear warheads.

At the same time, the US and the USSR improved the technology of their launch vehicles, building increasingly powerful engines in a ‘civil’ race no less intense than its military counterpart. While Washington is often considered to be the winner of the space race (which, beginning with Apollo 11, focused on developing low-orbit space shuttles), it is Moscow that should receive the most credit, not only for being the first to place a satellite into orbit, but also for achieving the first manned space flight (12 April 1961), first spacewalk (18 March 1965), first space station (Salyut 1, 19 April 1971) and first permanent orbital station (Mir, 20 February 1986).

New state and private competitors and the militarisation of space

The implosion of the USSR in December 1991 and the subsequent end of the Cold War paradoxically led to increased cooperation between the US and Russia. This was fuelled by economic interests and, above all, Washington’s fear that the deep crisis in which its main rival found itself would lead to the flight of Russian space scientists to North Korea or Iran. The result was a new era of collaboration that culminated in the International Space Station (ISS) when the Mir reached the end of its life in 2001.

While the ISS is a joint endeavour involving 15 countries and remains active today, it would be a mistake to assume that the conquest of space has ceased to be an area of active military competition between major players. On the contrary, this century has seen the space race take on new life, infused with new players and new features.

Additional countries with very ambitious objectives have joined the traditional competitors. Today, more than forty countries have active space programmes at different stages of development.

Despite its considerable technical and economic resources, the European Union appears to have withdrawn from this competition due to its unwillingness to speak with one voice on the international stage. China, in contrast, has entered it with full force.

While thousands of satellites already orbit the planet and navigation systems such as GPS, Galileo, Beidou and Glonass are already operational realities, the most novel aspect of the new space race is the central role occupied by private business actors, with companies such as SpaceX (Elon Musk), Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos) and Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson) leading the way. And while state actors continue to play an important role, public-private partnerships have become the new established framework for cooperation. In 2016, the space economy was already estimated to be worth around US$326 billion annually (three-fourths of which is accounted for by the private sector). Morgan Stanley projects that it will be worth US$1.2 trillion by 2040.

Indeed, by reducing costs, until recently thought to be impossible, the competition between these private sector players, coupled with increasingly astonishing technological developments, is to a large extent making such projects feasible. As a result, both China (which landed a lunar rover on the far side of the moon in January 2019) and the United States are once again considering lunar missions (though the Biden administration has admitted that it will be impossible to go to the moon by 2024 with the Artemis programme). And the horizon continues to expand with plans to reach Mars and beyond. The goals of such missions include both prestige as well as more tangible benefits such as telecommunications, data acquisition, space mining and tourism.

And while these aspects have attracted the bulk of media attention, technological development applied to the militarisation of space continues unabated.

With countries such as Russia currently engaged in the most ambitious programmes in their history to modernise their strategic arsenals, and with China catching up, this technological momentum suggests that the militarisation of space will be inevitable. The only international treaty governing space law, the Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967 with the express purpose of prohibiting the use of space for military purposes, does not appear to be a sufficiently adequate instrument for preventing it.

This article has been translated from Spanish.