The December 21 reusable recovery of a SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has improved the economics of commercial activity in space, but it has fundamentally changed the military balance of power and, perhaps inadvertently, launched the era of space militarization.
Founder Elon Musk said on SpaceX’s website, “A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.” Given his estimate that it only costs $200,000 to fuel a $60 million Falcon 9 missile, SpaceX’s ability to reuse its missile probably cuts the cost of launching payloads into space by 80 percent, even after missile recovery and refurbishment costs.
The timing of SpaceX’s accomplishment is consistent with Stratfor Global Intelligence (SGI)’s argument that “The Battle to Militarize Space Has Begun.” SGI warns that “as existing technologies proliferate and new developments provide greater access to space, Cold War frameworks for the peaceful sharing of Earth’s near orbit will erode.”
The German Peenemünde Army Research Center first militarized space in the late stages of World War II with the development and launch of V-2 unmanned missiles that crossed the Karman line–the 62-mile altitude boundary that separates Earth and space.
By the late 1950s, manned and unmanned systems were routinely launched into orbit in a Cold War competition to dominate the battlefield “high ground.” Intercontinental ballistic missiles were designed to project an arc that temporarily went into space before returning to deploy re-entry vehicle warheads that plummeted to their terrestrial targets.
Since it was technically impossible to develop, stage and provide maintenance to space-based weapons and manned bases at that time, there was fear that a space orbiting weapon might accidentally explode and then rain down nuclear debris onto the Earth. That made it uncontroversial for the U.N. to arrange signed treaties deeming anything in orbit as in international space, and anything not orbiting as in national airspace.
President Ronald Reagan’s highly criticized Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed Star Wars, was a logical evolution of the technology for missile defense by planning to stage orbital kinetic laser weapons platforms integrated with ground-based tracking systems.
The offensive space-based platforms were never installed, but Reagan’s satellite-based C4ISR communications and surveillance infrastructure orbiting in space, coupled with the technical development of precision bombs, allowed U.S. command and control (C4ISR) to achieve military omnipotence since the 1990s.
To make sure that no other power could compete, the U.S. developed the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system to attack ICBMs in their mid-space flight trajectory. GMDs employ an “exoatmospheric kill vehicle”, which separates in space from its booster and maneuvers to collide with an incoming projectile. The technology did not violate U.N. treaties, but integration with C4ISR was key to maintain military dominance.
The reliance on space-based systems, such as satellites, and the deterioration of existing regulations now make the militarization of space inevitable. China, Russia, Israel, Japan and some NATO allies all have advanced military space-based capability. The U.S. is now vulnerable to a potential military adversary disabling multiple interlocking U.S. space-based systems, and then executing a physical strike, with the U.S. military potentially suffering an information blackout.
China appears to represent the biggest threat to U.S. military orbital systems, following a series of missile test that have improved China’s effectiveness at firing ground-based anti-satellite weapons and potentially stationing satellite hunter/killer platforms in space. Such advances risk soon neutralizing the U.S. C4ISR infrastructure advantage.
As militaries around the globe race to expand, occupy and dominate space, the justification for treaty structures set in place decades ago is becoming dated.
The Pentagon on October 30 started talking about “space control,” which is an admission that the U.S. has the “Star Wars” technical capability and now has the political will to step beyond the boundaries of the U.N.’s “Outer Space Treaty.”
Long-term considerations about coming resource exploitation across the broader solar system will be a major driver of military competition in the future. Since there are no clear precedents for ownership, being able to occupy territory on planets creates the equivalent of homesteading rights.
This rapidly approaching space gold rush explains why Elon Musk repeatedly talks about the colonization of Mars as being not just important for NASA pioneers (military), but also for ordinary people.
After SpaceX’s feat, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos tweeted “Welcome to the club,” apparently to try to diminish SpaceX’s accomplishment, after his “Blue Origin” successfully recovered an intact rocket after a sub-orbital flight. But Bezos’ accomplishment has no military and little commercial value.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 precision intact rocket landing after an orbital flight is the breakthrough technology that will facilitate the militarization of space by radically bending down the cost curve for launching and providing maintenance to space-based weapons and manned bases.
America has leaped forward by a decade in the competition for military balance of power. But the struggle has just begun.