By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
The Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) recently made headlines by successfully landing a lunar module on the dark side of the moon. Chang’e 4 is part of an ongoing Chinese scientific expedition to the moon; it uses lunar rovers to measure surface temperatures and collect rock samples.
The Chinese lunar mission is similar to past U.S. lunar missions. Ultimately, China hopes to establish a manned outpost on the lunar surface sometime in the 2030s, but CNSA must first complete some incremental missions to ensure the viability of its space systems.
NASA Plans to Set up a Lunar Base by 2026
NASA has lunar plans as well and wants to set up a base by 2026. The idea is to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2028.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine recently stated that the U.S. plans to use private companies in a bid to meet the 2028 timeline. He also said that President Trump is committed to the proposal, having signed the Space Policy Directive in December 2017.
Unlike the Chinese mission, however, the U.S. plans to use an occasionally inhabited moon base for its manned missions to Mars. The U.S. and Chinese flights to the lunar surface will expand mankind’s reach into space for scientific purposes, if events on earth do not intrude.
International Conflicts May Expand to Space
No nation has placed weapons in orbit, but some advanced military nations have become dependent on space-based systems for everything from weapons targeting and navigation to intelligence collection. As nations look to establish a semi-permanent presence on the moon, conflict will become inevitable with the lunar surface having a role in how events on Earth play out. In much the same way as the Wright brothers’ plane evolved into a strategic bomber, earthly conflict will expand to spacecraft and a manned presence on the moon.
It seems far-fetched to think in these terms, but mankind has proven adept at turning many scientific achievements into weapons of war. For example, during the past 30 years, Internet access has become nearly omnipresent. But the Internet also serves as a venue for disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks.
It’s also relevant to point out that the systems that maintain human life in space would work equally well for soldiers. All of these advancements to further scientific research and maintain life aboard the International Space Station can easily be adapted to military purposes. It’s now just a matter of funding to build military space systems based on established technology.
In 1959, the U.S. Army conducted a study called Project Horizon that considered establishing a moon base with construction occurring throughout the 1960s. The formal establishment of NASA in February 1958 shelved the project. However, the study demonstrated the military’s long-held desire for a permanent space presence.
Repairing and Protecting Technological Assets in Space
With space-based systems now ubiquitous, there is a need for platforms in space to protect technological assets and repair them when necessary. That will mean having humans in space to manage these systems.
The U.S., China and Russia have the capability to shoot down satellites. Replacing these satellites would require rocket launches with replacement equipment on board.
With space-based systems, however, those assets could be repaired or replaced faster from orbiting stock or from a lunar base. From a U.S. perspective, this would save time and money. Also, it would lessen the potential impact of losing launch centers at Vandenberg AFB and Cape Canaveral in an international conflict involving missile attacks.
Militarization of the Moon
It is certainly a possibility that the moon will be militarized in some fashion. China’s questioning the limits of national sovereignty in space puts in doubt Beijing’s adherence to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.
That treaty defines the moon as the “province of all mankind” and reserves it for peaceful purposes. But the speed with which contemporary leaders have forsaken international treaties could throw this status into doubt.
Some Chinese legal scholars, for instance, claim that the space above China, at least that which is in geosynchronous orbit, is sovereign Chinese territory. Clearly, by including anything within that geosynchronous orbit, these scholars are referring to the moon in much the same way that China makes claims to nearby territorial waters.
Currently, there is no treaty that delineates the vertical extent of a nation’s sovereignty into space. However, the Chinese claim suggests that Beijing might ignore existing international norms if they conflict with China’s interests.
The Unspoken Moon Race
The first manned mission to the moon was for the benefit “of all mankind.” Today’s extension of military affairs into space suggests that the once-peaceful endeavor of a lunar landing will eventually take on a combat dimension.
Scientific breakthroughs are currently taking the headlines and attention away from the pressing matter of preventing space-based military moves. The U.S., Russia and China have lunar missions planned into the 2030s. Whether those missions will actually take place largely depends on political will and national budgets.
A conventional conflict involving the U.S., Russia or China would be an impetus for the expansion of space-based military assets. That would make the current ventures to the moon ever more pressing during peacetime.
In essence, the current race to the moon certainly appears peaceful. But the potential to use the lunar body for war is certainly not lost on political or military leaders.
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