Cis-lunar space and militarisation of the Moon is the impending next chapter in an evolving astrostrategic contest for dominance of space beyond geostationary orbit.
The implications of space warfare are now at the vanguard of military strategic thinking within the Australian Defence Force. Particularly in the context of a U.S. Space Force being established in response to apparent military risks in space. Since my initial assessment and context narrative on space conflict issues in 2017, the space domain debate continued to evolve and has now attracted visible strategic attention in Australia.
The focus is presently directed towards resilience of on-orbit space capabilities, such as satellite communications and remote sensing, including position, navigation and timing systems. This is because the sum of these mission-critical space capabilities underpins terrestrially focused military operations in an increasingly sophisticated and technology enabled force. So the use of cis-lunar space and the Moon for military purposes has been largely verboten.
Space Achilles Heel
Defence embraced digitalisation of combat forces with vigour and is creating a digital nervous system, but the unintended consequence of a rising dependence on space systems to support digital transformation has also created an ‘Achilles heel’.
This ‘space Achilles heel’ has been well reported and characterised as a potential Space Pearl Harbour; consequently, substantial effort is underway to ensure space assets are more resilient and responsive. However, space systems that Australia and its allies rely on inhabit orbit profiles out to approximately 36,000km above Earth, from low-Earth orbits to geosynchronous or geostationary orbits. But what about space beyond the outer orbit belts and the Moon itself?
Thus far the Moon has largely escaped overt strategic attention in terms of its potential for militarisation by global competitors due to the technical difficulty, high costs to travel there and international space agreements.
Arguably, the Moon should also be considered in military strategic calculus; as in terms of space terrain (in military vernacular), the Moon may represent future vital ground should major conflict on Earth or warfare limited to the space domain occur. Holding the vital ground is an axiom deemed critical to military mission success, so herculean efforts can be made to secure it during combat operations. Consequently, strategic competitors might act early on this.
Military Moon Bases
While the Moon will become more important to astrostrategy, as to when its military use might practically occur is probably still many years away and more likely from the mid to late 2020’s.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) prohibits installation of military forces on the Moon or other celestial bodies. All nations have so far observed this particular clause, despite apparent OST loop holes, but this could be set to change in the future noting the ostensible focus on Moon territory. A marked change in space posture by some nations is possible because the intent of the OST has, in effect, already been circumvented with the reported positioning of anti-satellite spacecraft in orbits around Earth.
While the OST doesn’t prohibit space weapons per se, it does ban weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in space. Therefore, noting the high dependence of global transport and communication systems on satellites, the sudden mass disabling of satellites due to space war could trigger accidents on Earth and civilian casualty events. Hence, the actions of malicious spacecraft in Earth’s gravity well could be akin to WMD-like effects on space infrastructure, particularly if the Kessler Effect is triggered and low-Earth orbit becomes totally choked with space-debris.
Military forces stationed on the Moon has not yet entered the public consciousness, but early indicators and warnings are already apparent if you consider unilateral occupation of the South China Sea and recent efforts to explore the dark side of the Moon.
As we witnessed, the disputed territories in the South China Sea were quietly occupied along with the positioning of defensive weapon systems and infrastructure designed to protect military forces and/or influence sea and air transit corridors. This quiescent occupation is instructive and should serve as an astrostrategic red flag to space-aware national security chiefs, especially noting expressed plans by some countries to exploit resources of the Moon.
The South China Sea is resource-rich with influence over shipping lanes, which has been a primary driver for strategic competition. Therefore, with untapped resources and dominance of space overlooking Earth and its orbital transfer trajectories (a.k.a.spacecraft lanes), potential for Moon militarisation, analogous to South China Sea expansionism, looms large like a Super Moon in the not-too-distant future.
There have also been concerns raised in relation to activity in Antarctica and the perceived risk to Australia’s territorial claim there. This is yet another strategic marker that points to the possibility of similar preparatory actions or future intent to secure space resources near Earth.
From the Moon a rival could relay communications to forces on Earth via remote controlled equipment, or act as an alternate headquarters node. Hostile anti-satellite spacecraft could be deployed to disrupt allied space systems with relative impunity.
Militarisation of the Moon would be repugnant to most governments and societies of the world, so early attempts to do so won’t be obvious to avoid international outrage and sanction. It’s plausible that scientific outposts or commercial entities on the Moon might be surreptitiously used to mask secret military activities. Particularly as Article IV of the OST permits military personnel on the Moon for ‘scientific research’.
Alternatively, civilian Moon outposts could be rapidly repurposed as military installations in the event of major war on Earth or to ‘defend’ a substantial lunar resource claim. Therefore, the occupation and militarisation occurring in the South China Sea and associated territorial claim disputes stand as strategic precedence in terms of lunar resource competition.
Discovery of valuable resource deposits on the Moon and unilateral attempts to secure them could, absolute worst-case, trigger a lunar-based military skirmish that expands to terrestrial miscalculation and broader conflict.
Warfare on-and-from the Moon seems far-fetched and unlikely, but will it be in ten years? Once there is a permanent human presence, a.k.a. space outposts, and Moon mining exploration commences on the lunar surface, there is scope for misunderstanding between competing nations, or companies acting on behalf of states. This is exacerbated as only a small number of nations have signed the Moon Treaty. Regrettably, risk will likely increase as space capabilities mature and lunar outposts multiply.
‘Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the Moon.’ – Paul Brandt
Space friction points might be no different to conflict drivers and sensitive geopolitical dynamics on Earth. Moreover, the establishment of lunar military outposts may become the genesis of unique global trepidations with as yet unforeseen ramifications. How will peaceful societies react if they know the Moon orbiting above them in full view is home to a foreign military installation(s) that are not from an allied nation? It will probably not be well received.
Will we see surface-to-orbit missile batteries or directed energy weapons positioned on the Moon in the future, similar to what we have seen with anti-ship missile systems on islands in the South China Sea?
Whilst the idea of war extending it’s ugly tentacles all the way to the Moon seems distant or improbable, it’s worth noting that nobody envisaged or acted to arrest the creation of militarised islands in the South China Sea. Contemporary strategic planners worth their salt must keep an open mind. Expecting the unexpected is now ‘par for the course’ in the current international environment, so why not consider Moon competition in mid-to-long range strategic forecasts?
Astropolitical tensions will be substantially amplified if military installations are established on the Moon in blatant contravention of international norms and space agreements.
Moon based chess pieces are only just beginning to be positioned, so it remains to be settled how international competition in space will evolve. How will resources in space be shared? Will it continue to be prohibited to use the Moon and other celestial bodies for military installations, or will international space agreements be circumvented, akin to hostile satellites in orbit? Hence, the legal and diplomatic architectures will be paramount to modulating friction on these vexing issues. Any framework building process must reinvigorate the Moon Treaty given the future potential for volatile situations in cis-lunar space in the next decade plus.
Including Moon Treaty reform as a priority for the United Nations General Assembly would be a logical place to progress international cis-lunar space law reforms.
The Legal Sub-Committee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will also be a vital participant in any space law modernisation. Furthermore, by stimulating international debate on the peaceful use of cis-lunar space it could lead to new agreements and fair management of Moon territory. These are worthy goals to strive for in lieu of the alternative: more international disputes or conflict. Space promises to provide unprecedented bounty of resources for all, so let’s aim for peaceful and cooperative approaches to avoid the unintended consequences of a rising Blood Moon.
About the Author: Greg Rowlands, a retired infantry Lieutenant Colonel, served over 27 years in the Australian Army. He holds four degrees and is a graduate of both Command & Staff College and the Capability & Technology Management College. He has published extensively on military space operations and drone defence concepts, including other emerging technology trends and shocks to inform Defence modernisation. You can find him on Twitter @glrowlands1.