In recent years, we have seen a spike in interest in space exploration: revolutionary developments in the space launch services market; new satellite services for various purposes; the introduction the first new manned spacecraft in some time; and the ambitious U.S. crewed moon programme. However, militaries all over the world are also suddenly becoming very interested in outer space.
Regardless of what we think about Donald Trump’s eccentric personality, he has left quite the legacy. One of the decisions pushed through due to his unwavering (although not always constructive) energy was establishing the United States Space Force as a separate branch of the military , which was officially announced on December 20, 2019, following a few of years of discussion. Protecting “U.S. and allied interests in space” was proclaimed to be the principal mission of the Space Force, while preparations for orbital warfare were openly declared to be its principal task. Orbital warfare is also one of the subjects to be taught to officers at the new training centre.
The U.S. initiative caused a domino effect among its allies. In September 2019, France established, as part of its air force, a Space Command with a higher status than before, and in October 2020, NATO announced the creation of a space centre at Allied Air Command in the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is planning to establish its own Space Command in 2022, and even the “pacifist” Japan announced the launch of a new “Space Operations Squadron” to “protect Japanese satellites.”
Undoubtedly, this process is only gaining momentum, and in the near future, all the large military powers will grant their military space agencies a higher and more autonomous status.
Significantly, this is where Russia has been well ahead of the curve, as the country’s space forces have always enjoyed a relatively high degree of autonomy. It has reported directly to the General Staff of the Armed Forces since the 1980s, and in the 1990s and in the 2000s, it existed as a separate branch of the military. Currently, however, Russia is in the process of partly rolling back this process, with the space forces, the anti-aircraft defence force and even the military aviation being absorbed by the Air Force to form the Russian Aerospace Forces.
The new military branches will command unprecedented satellite constellations: as the satellite systems will not have any radically different tasks, they will keep in line with the general trend of establishing super-large constellations of small satellites instead of a few large ones. SpaceX’s massively advertised Starlink system immediately comes to mind, the first service to offer low-latency, high-speed broadband  internet access anywhere in the world via the satellites (initially, it will be available at limited latitudes). Deploying this system and transitioning fully to operational mode will certainly be one of the biggest events of the next few years, in many ways due to the brilliant advertising campaign.
In the meantime, it is not only sailors and farmers in the sticks who might find a use for the Starlink system, as the United States military has also expressed an interest: back in October 2019, the U.S. Air Force hastily organized its first military exercise using the rudiments of the constellation, with its aircraft being “hooked” up to the system. Later, the military, figuratively speaking, paid for a three-year “subscription” to the service in order to carry out assessments and exercises.
Starlink is only the tip of the iceberg. Excluding other commercial constellations that could be used for dual purposes (and already are: commercial Earth remote sensing services are still inferior to the military ERS services, but their large scale potentially makes for faster information delivery due to higher numbers of flyovers over the targets), the U.S. Space Force plans to build a multi-layered “national” constellation of more than one thousand satellites that will handle the tasks of communication, missile defence, missile attack warning , intelligence (with top speed information transfer directly on the battlefield) and navigation at a drastically new level. To give the reader an idea of the scale: there are currently fewer than 3000 “live” satellites in orbit in all countries and serving all purposes, and the U.S. Military and government agencies own less than 400 of them.
Russia calls the Sfera constellation of about 600 satellites its “main project in applied cosmonautics” for the next decade.
Despite the announced benign purposes such as, for instance, “monitoring the movements of animal groups,” similar environmental supervision, and internet access for passengers on vessels travelling the Northern Sea Route, the task of ensuring national security is obviously the crucial and only task that could prompt the government to finance this programme. Clearly, China will not remain on the side-lines, as it has been the leader in carrier rocket launches in recent years. It is also inevitable that we will see rapid development of military anti-satellite systems, as the huge interest that many states have “suddenly” developed in combating the “space debris” problem demonstrates.
The coming decade will see exponential growth of “live” orbital craft, and their services are likely to create a consumer services revolution comparable to first seeing your house on Google Maps or your phone offering a travel guide around a new city in a new country. Certainly, not all users of those services will use them solely for peaceful purposes.
Deployment of huge space constellations (the English term is particularly apt here) is ensured primarily by miniaturizing equipment and transitioning to the distributed work of complex systems. However, the revolution on the launch services market cannot be disregarded either. Economically, the changes that are currently taking place are the largest since Russia moved into the open market, while technologically, they are the largest since the Shuttle and Buran.
I have already talked about the revolution in the launch services market in an article published on the RIAC website, and I would not like to repeat myself here. In short, the essence of the revolution is that many new players entered the market with the support of their governments (and military agencies in particular), which thus increased competition due to new economic models and dumping policies, as well as to the development of new carrier rockets that provide a competitive edge thanks to the relatively low costs of manufacturing and operating them, and the trend towards lightweight satellites and partial reusability. The old leading players were, in turn, spurred on to step up the development of a new generation of carrier rockets. We can say with some certainty that we are witnessing a boom in launch vehicles, especially if we keep in mind the quantitative growth of China’s capabilities, where quantity is well on the way to transforming into quality, and the spread of lightweight launch vehicles throughout the world (even individual European states such as the United Kingdom and Germany have started their own programmes).
All this could paint a grim picture of the sky being transformed into a battlefield. However, a new worthy goal of manned space flights is shining brighter and brighter against the generally dark background: after half a century of sitting in low orbit, humanity is finally ready to go back to the Moon.
And humanity is now gearing up to go beyond “flag-sticking” mode. It wants to go there to stay, to make Tsiolkovsky’s, Korolyov’s and von Braun’s dreams of humanity expanding into the solar system a reality. At the very least, Donald Trump called for efforts to be stepped up in this area, as he restructured the space programme of the previous administration and suggested that the first moon landing of the 21st century to be pushed forward to 2024 (apparently, he was planning to go out with a bang at the end of his second term as president).
The new programme was named Artemis in honour of Apollo’s sister. Curiously, despite the misogyny label attached to the Trump administration, Trump’s slogan for Artemis was landing “the first woman and the next man” on the surface of the Moon. Although the President’s “roadmap” was more coherent than the Obama administration’s extremely vague “Flexible Path” , its ambitious timeframe immediately raised questions concerning its feasibility. Certainly, the Trump administration is not entirely to blame for this. The situation with the super heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle (SLS) in particular is absolutely horrendous in terms of delays and overspending – had there been no other issues, this problem alone would have likely buried any hopes for a 2024 landing, if only for the simple reason that its first trial launch was moved to late 2021 . No one can be certain that there will be no more pushbacks and that the launch will go entirely smoothly.
There is, however, a host of other problems, too: in particular, as of late 2020, the lunar lander had not even been selected yet, and none of the options had been manufactured, never mind tested, although NASA had not officially abandoned the programme and its timeframe. Realizing the infeasibility of the timeframe and clearly not planning to finance rush and risks, the Senate had essentially buried the 2024 landing plans even before the presidential elections, earmarking only a fraction of the funding NASA had requested for developing the lunar lander.
Artemis would thus have been reformatted in any case, and it is likely to improve the “rationality” of the “roadmap,” since the politically conditioned landing date had progressively subsumed everything else, forcing the agency to work on both full-fledged and provisional solutions simultaneously. Most likely, any administration coming to power in 2021 would have allowed NASA to push the landing date back to the late 2020s, and the Democrats were not opposed to that programme as a matter of principle (even though their ideological paradigms will most likely prompt them to partially redistribute funding to finance the study of climate change).
However, the new timeframe will not alter the programme’s political role. It primarily symbolizes the upcoming shift of the efforts (mostly financial) of the United States, as the country will refocus its manned space flights on the Moon instead of low orbit. This inevitably means the end of the ISS either in 2024 or 2028. The station will not be able to exist, at least in its current form, without the United States, which contributes several times more than anyone else (its partners will clearly switch their spending to participate in the Artemis programme). It is doubtful that Russia will take part in the American lunar programme, which threatens the future of Russia’s manned space flights in general.
Second, in some manner or other, this development looks, at least for now, like the beginning of human expansion, however slow and cautious it may be. This is not simply a “flag-sticking mission,” which is clearly proved by the fact that the U.S. military has started real work on the CHPS (Cislunar Highway Patrol Satellite) programme – effectively the first military spacecraft intended for use beyond the Earth’s orbit, in this case, for monitoring the lunar space and non-U.S. space vehicles around the Moon. This work aims to discover whether these vehicles are engaged in activities that threaten U.S. national interests (American interests now extend at least to the lunar orbit, with the menacing addition “and beyond”), whether such activities may pose a threat for the space vehicles and astronauts of the United States and its allies, and how these activities generally align with the Artemis Accords. The Artemis Accords are a code of conduct for outer space that the United States demands its partners sign. They are of interest in and of themselves and will probably play a historic role in the future. Critics, including those in Russia, fell just short of declaring them an attempt on the part of the United States to annex the Moon. What concerns them are provisions in the Accords that both allow and encourage the use of celestial bodies for the needs of bases, colonies, or commercial use and establishing security zones around the facilities similar to zones around oil rigs in the open sea.
There are regular claims that the Artemis Accords go against the so-called Moon Agreement of 1979 that proclaims the right of humankind to “promote on the basis of equality the further development of co-operation among States in the exploration and use of the moon and other celestial bodies.” There is usually deliberate or accidental confusion with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Unlike the latter, the Moon Agreement was signed and ratified by a handful of such “great outer space powers” as Uruguay and the Philippines. This Treaty can only be seriously mentioned together with such “promising” initiatives as the attempts undertaken by some equatorial states at roughly the same time to extend their sovereignty to the geostationary orbit portions , which were not met with understanding by the space powers.
Clearly, any space exploration will only be possible with the use of local resources, and large-scale exploration will only begin if it is economically viable to do so (which is hard to imagine in the foreseeable future).
Any prohibitions in this area are simply criminal, and those who insist on equal rights could start by trying to get a share of the oil basin of the Persian Gulf, which is as much the heritage of humankind as any nameless asteroid. On the other hand, the problems with the Artemis Accords lie in the fact that the United States is promoting them single-handedly, as a condition for partnership, which, taken together with the political confrontation with China and Russia, prevents space powers from working out common rules of the game. It would be highly desirable to make some progress in developing a common charter in the upcoming decade, but, sadly, as is usually the case, this is extremely unlikely to happen before acute conflict situations emerge.
The pandemic and the impending austerity period will certainly force many space programmes to be delayed or even abolished. However, I would still like to believe that we are at the beginning of a new stage in space exploration. And we will have to embark upon this stage with space militarization and competition between great powers as our inevitable companions. If humanity succeeds at containing these developments within reasonable rules, then it will not be all that bad. In the long run, Gagarin’s rocket, cell phones, GPS and GLONASS also have military origins.
1. The military structure of the United States is very different from that of Russia. Any comparisons of their respective status are thus provisional. I believe that positioning the Space Force and the Marine Corps as individual services, on the one hand, which do not have departments of their own within the Department of Defense, on the other, is closer to that of a military branch than an army specialization.
2. Strictly speaking, orbital internet has been in existence for a while already. The services provided, for instance, by Iridium can be qualified as such, but the speed and signal lag leave much to be desired, to put it mildly, and so does the cost for the end consumer.
3. Modern MAW satellites lock on missile launches and monitor them at the active stage, while future MAWs will trace warheads and hypersonic gliders in flight and provide target pointing.
4. Robert Zubrin, an advocate of space exploration and President of the Mars Society, described it as a plan that “proposes to spend USD 100 billion on human spaceflight over the next ten years in order to accomplish nothing.”
5. In 2010, it was slated for 2016.
6. The 1976 Declaration of the First Meeting of Equatorial Countries on claiming sovereignty over the portions of geostationary orbit portions over their territory.
From our partner RIAC