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  • Don’t look up … the arms race has moved into space

Don’t look up … the arms race has moved into space

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft launches from Space Launch Complex 41, Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (AFP)
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft launches from Space Launch Complex 41, Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (AFP)
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29 Dec 2019 03:12:38 GMT9
29 Dec 2019 03:12:38 GMT9

When the “sixth branch” of the US military was first proposed, it was panned as a distraction flung out by an embattled, scandal-ridden White House. President Trump made it official this month by signing a defense authorization bill creating a Space Force, which will become an independent service under the Department of the Air Force.

Conventional thinking has always relegated space to a province of scientific inquiry, exploration and discovery. However, this ignores historical fact that there would not have been a US space program were it not for the Soviet Union sending the Sputnik into orbit in 1957.

In response, the US set about laying the foundations for decades of American dominance in space, where satellites became lynchpins for the delivery of military and national security priorities. As a result, space has always been tainted; a final frontier for discovery, indeed, but only as a means to demonstrate military superiority.

Granted, space programs have created many benefits, from facilitating communications to cutting-edge research that has delivered numerous breakthroughs. There is also the international prestige of having manned missions to Earth orbit, the Moon and, eventually, Mars. More than 80 countries now have some form of space program.

Hundreds of startups the world over are also seeking to provide new launch capabilities, new services via mega-constellations of small/micro satellites, and innovative analytics from data gleaned from space assets.

In a perfect world, such a transition from the military to the commercial would be welcome. Space programs are expensive and risk prone. Despite the Moon’s proximity and previous successful manned missions, there is no urgency for a return.

However, the Trump administration’s ambitions to dominate space and re-categorize it as a war-fighting domain will upend that progression. Along with China’s aggressive pursuit of space milestones since the launch of Project 921 in 1992, Trump’s Space Force is in stark contrast to a diminishing military footprint in space, relative to private commercial interests. Worse yet, it further escalates an arms race to a scale far larger than the Cold War-era nuclear stockpiles.

This was inevitable, especially for the military brass and analysts at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in 2007, watching a ballistic missile launched from Sichuan province hurtling toward a Chinese weather satellite 800km above. It is not unusual for countries to destroy space assets they own, but this particular launch created a belt of debris traveling at 18,000kph and capable of destroying other satellites in low-earth orbit, regardless of owner or country of registration.

In other words, it was a demonstration of how countries such as China and Russia could easily target sensitive space hardware, make their orbits inhospitable, and then hide behind the right of disposal codified in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. This is what experts hope the newly created US Space Force will defend against, but there is a problem.

Congress has also demanded that the Pentagon develop a space-based missile defense system that entails placing weapons in what was meant to be a conflict-free global commons envisioned in the Outer Space Treaty. Such a demand reveals that this is no mere race to militarize space, distinct from the usual geopolitical and geo-economic tussling; it is a continuation of the arms race.

In short, the world is back to a familiar place; the needless and costly development of arms in preparation for some future hot war. For now, the “mutually assured destruction” philosophy rules out the use of nuclear weapons.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Russia has new strategic weapons such as the Poseidon, a nuclear-powered and armed unmanned underwater drone; the Burevestnik nuclear-powered and armed cruise missile with unlimited range; a laser weapon for defense against drones; and air-launched ballistic missiles and enhanced hypersonic capabilities. China displayed similar lethal capabilities during its 70th anniversary celebrations in October.

On the Korean Peninsula, experts warn that Pyongyang’s long-range ballistic missile program is more advanced than previously thought. In the Middle East, Iran has faced few repercussions for its subversion, and fired up nuclear-capable missile development to create its own nuclear deterrent. Work continues on advanced solid-fuel multistage ballistic missiles capable of reaching targets across the Middle East and southern Europe.

Some of Tehran’s conventional weaponry has cascaded into the hands of Houthi militias, worsening the Yemeni conflict, and threatening critical oil infrastructure and shipping in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia has signed on to jointly develop and manufacture American guided missiles. In Europe, the French president has floated the idea of a European collective defense force, separate from a NATO embattled by American absenteeism — if only to counter a growing Russian threat.

In short, the world is back to a familiar place; the needless and costly development of arms in preparation for some future hot war. For now, the “mutually assured destruction” philosophy rules out the use of nuclear weapons.

However, nations do not set aside billions of dollars to develop increasingly complex tools of war, or suddenly create new military branches, on a whim. Their creation justifies their use — war is merely an opportunity to do so.

Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell

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