The militarisation of space – can Australia avoid following America?

America’s space policy reveals its hegemonic obsession and the future quandaries for Australian policy. Even America’s approach to exploration and colonisation of the Moon is only comprehensible in terms of terrestrial geopolitics. It now expects the world to bow to its power in outer space.

Both China and America have ambitious plans for colonisation, resource extraction, and industrialisation on the Moon. But the way forward remains highly speculative. The engineering solutions to the demands of a long-term extra-terrestrial presence are nascent and untested, and massive practical problems remain to be solved before a sustainable human presence on the lunar surface could be established.

Still, American foreign policy warriors are already frantic about the prospect of America’s leadership being contested in space by China. Most are unrealistic, even hysterical, about the Chinese threat to American lunar interests. However, the US Space Force is already collaborating with NASA, and is planning to militarise the lunar surface and preparing for a space war.

Both China and America intend to build a permanent base on the Moon. This has the potential to develop into the site of a new great power competition mirroring the terrestrial domain. A dangerous competition that the US is embracing.

As Deganit Paikowsky observes, “In recent years, the space race entered an age of economic competition. Winning this race requires not only technological prowess or military acumen but the ability to leverage tools of economic power on the space program’s behalf.” The current struggle over the earthly rules-based order will be extended off-world into one about who writes the rules concerning sovereignty, property, and security in space.

America’s hegemonic geopolitical space agenda has long been explicit. The Obama and Trump Administrations sought to establish rules and protections for US commercial interests in outer-space. Recent policy documents reinforce this obsession.

President Biden’s 2021 Space Priorities Framework (SPF) declares “the United States will work with allies and partners to update and harmonise space policies, regulations, export controls, and other measures that govern commercial activities worldwide [italics added]”. The SPF says America will “combat foreign government non-market practices, protect critical U.S. technologies and intellectual property, and reduce reliance on strategic competitors for key space capabilities”. Clearly directed at China, which, presumably, is expected to submit to America’s rules in space or face a rerun of the South China Sea deterrence measures.

The National Cislunar Science and Technology Strategy (NCSTS) is intended to apply to “all space-faring nations and entities” and announces that “The United States continues to engage the international community to uphold and strengthen a rules- based international order for space [italics added], including in Cislunar space”. These rules aren’t a multilateral product. They are to be “consistent with the President’s stated goals” and to reflect America’s “shared values”.

The Americans’ rules-based order for the Moon and beyond can also be found in the Artemis Accords. These Accords can be interpreted as America demonstrating leadership or, as Paikowsky notes, as the “the unilateral attempt of a superpower to impose its will—and, by extension, its values—on the international system by establishing a field of action, the rules of the game, and the agenda for the next era of lunar exploration and exploitation.”

Australia has signed up to the Artemis Accords, and to the Artemis project that aims to “establish the first long-term presence on the Moon…[then]…take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars” in collaboration with commercial and international partners. A major scientific, technological, engineering and management challenge, and also a strategic conundrum.

Australia has ratified the UN Outer Space Treaty (OST) which commits Australia to observing, among other things, the following principles:

  • outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
  • the establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies shall be forbidden; and
  • all stations, installations, equipment and space vehicles on the moon and other celestial bodies shall be open to representatives of other States Parties to the Treaty on a basis of reciprocity.

There are strong indications that at a minimum America plans to breach the second principle.

American legislators, policymakers, and commentators are likely to go incandescent about the need for American lunar hegemony in the next decade as both China and America forge ahead with their space plans. Forget about Taiwan, if an incident were to occur on the Moon, or even if America decided that it will unilaterally enforce its rules in space and attempt to impose them on China, it could have significant strategic implications on Earth.

There are glaring contradictions between the rhetoric and planning for the American space project and the cosmopolitan aspirations of the OST for sharing the Moon as a peaceful global commons. As both China and America build their lunar presence the risk of conflict will only increase. If America seeks to claim some priority rights over resources and norms or deploys military force to protect its interests China will inevitably do the same.

It was outside of the Defence Strategic Review’s mandate to address lunar issues. However, under the auspices of AUKUS, cooperation on military-to-military research in space capabilities is being enhanced. Given the involvement of both Australia and the US Space Force in Artemis, and America’s intolerance of geopolitical rivals anywhere, Australia inevitably will confront the question of whether to support a peaceful or a militarised exploration of space.

Geopolitical competition on the Moon could heat up decades before Australia gets its nuclear powered AUKUS submarines. The less visible entanglements of the agreement could force Australia into a difficult strategic choice well before then. Were Australia to fall out with the Americans over the militarisation of space what would that mean for the alliance and the submarines?

Image: U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, USSPACECOM commander, and Royal Australian Air Force Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts, Australia’s first Defence Space Commander, signing an enhanced space cooperation memorandum of understanding on 20 April 2023 in Colorado Springs, USA.

Copyright Mike Scrafton. This article may be reproduced under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence for non-commercial purposes, and providing that work is not altered, only redistributed, and the original author is credited. Please see the Cross-post and re-use policy for more information.

Also published in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.