What does the United States do when it’s faced with hegemonic decline, ascendant rivals, and an inability to use its massive military apparatus to turn the tide in favor of its own imperial ambitions without incurring costs that far outweigh the benefits?
To paraphrase former First Lady Michelle Obama: When they go low, we go high.
In this case, shift the battle to “the final frontier” – outer space — where mining interests suspect that rare mineral resources can be found in abundance and yield massive profits.
During his time on the campaign trail and upon coming to power, President Donald Trump issued a stream of statements explicitly calling for a reinvigorated effort to boost the militarization of space. The goal would be to ensure that his “America First” approach to economic and military matters extends to outer space through a deployment of the U.S. Armed Forces to outer space on a permanent basis.
On May 1, Trump revived the idea of creating a new military service branch dedicated to space combat in a speech to the West Point football team, noting that the branch would be called the “Space Force.”
“I’m just telling you now. We’re getting very big in space, both militarily and for other reasons, and we are seriously thinking of the Space Force,” he said.
For longtime anti-militarism activist and analyst Bruce Gagnon, a coordinator for the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, the push to form a Space Force reflects the desires of the U.S. war industry. As Gagnon told MintPress News:
They know they stand to make massive profits if they can consolidate space operations under one military service, so they will likely continue to push this in the coming year. I think they stand a good chance of eventually making it happen – recognizing that most politicians in Congress are now subservient to the military-industrial complex.
TRUMP PROPOSES “SPACE FORCE!” pic.twitter.com/PgOtvmGBQP
— Trump Image Library (@TrumpLibrary) March 13, 2018
While liberal late-night TV hosts like The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah and Late Show’s Stephen Colbert have mocked the idea, Trump is far from the only figure in Washington who sees space as a “war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea,” as he said in March.
Indeed, House lawmakers have already inserted plans for “a subordinate unified command for space under U.S. Strategic Command that would be responsible for joint space warfighting operations,” in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.
While not quite the space-oriented service branch or Space Force that Trump has called for – complete with its own Chief sitting alongside the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces – the move is a stride forward in the long-agreed-upon bipartisan strategy to ensure that outer space remains the unchallenged domain of Washington.
Extension of Terrestrial Battles
What interest could the U.S. military possibly have in extending its presence in the cold, dangerous, and expensive realm of outer space?
For University of Cambridge Professor Peter Dickens, an environmental sociologist who researches the growing role of capitalism and militarism in space, the answer isn’t much different from why a military would seek to establish itself anywhere else here on Earth, whether it’s in the frozen Arctic or in the insurgent mountain ranges of Afghanistan.
“Some of the answers lie in capital endlessly seeking more profitable investments,” Dickens told MintPress News, adding:
In other words, compared with investments on Earth, investments in outer space – now including military investment in space – can look relatively profitable relative to investments on Earth.
Any time the government seeks to build up its military, the purpose isn’t merely just to inject funds into war industries as a form of “corporate welfare,” but it’s a means of guaranteeing that the military continues to ensure the expansion of capital, protecting its property and investments across the globe. Proponents of the militarization of space hope to extend the same dynamic into the cosmos.
As far back as 1958, then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson offered a prescient observation on the crucial role outer space can play in securing military dominance on the ground:
[T]here is something more important than the ultimate weapon. That is the ultimate position – the position of total control over the Earth that lies somewhere out in space. That is … the distant future, though not so distant as we may have thought. Whoever gains that position gains control, total control, over Earth, for the purposes of tyranny or for the service of freedom.
Johnson’s argument didn’t fall on deaf ears. In the 1996 report Vision for 2020 — by the Defense Department’s Aerospace Joint Command Headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado — the report’s authors give a clear layout of the mission of the United States Space Command, which was created in 1985:
Dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect U.S. interests and investment. Integrating Space Forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict.
Watch | Arsenal of Hypocrisy
On its third page, the report notes, “the emerging synergy of space superiority with land, sea, and air superiority will lead to Full Spectrum Dominance.” The cover of the report depicts a satellite firing a laser beam down on a target below.
Gagnon sees the U.S. delusion that it can achieve absolute unchallenged military control on the planet as an absurd idea that is not only fraught with danger, but could lead to the hollowing-out of remaining U.S. social programs:
The militarization of space gives the U.S. the idea that it can prevail in a full-scale war, which is an insane notion. The cost of the militarization of space would destroy the human and physical infrastructure of our country because they’d have to defund all social progress in order to pay for it.
In the 2007 book, Cosmic Society: Towards a Sociology of the Universe, Dickens and co-author James S. Ormrod wrote about how the militarization of space can guarantee capital investments and property rights in a cheaper, less risky manner than the simple deployment of military force on the ground:
It has long been recognized that struggles over space on Earth are intimately connected to social struggles, to contests between classes and others. … Sadly now, those interests monopolizing and controlling the use of outer space are those attempting to monopolize and control social relations, social processes, and forms of subjectivity on Earth. It is possible to imagine the total militarization of the public sphere from space, civilians’ every move being watched and targeted. In short, the current way of humanizing outer space is again about exerting the hegemony of the powerful.
Mining the moon
In recent years, tech companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have engaged in a mad dash to develop their own private space programs capable of conducting a moon landing, exploring Mars, or providing space-based tourist attractions. The rapid development of this private space race – supported by companies such as Google through its Lunar XPRIZE contest – is to unlock “the lunar frontier and the multibillion-dollar industry that follows,” as Bob Richards, founder and CEO of Silicon Valley startup Moon Express, said in a recent statement.
While these tech entrepreneurs wrap their aspirations to tap into the resources of the cosmos in such idealistic language as “unlocking the mysteries of the universe” and other mawkish Roddenberry-esque clichés, their real motivations are much baser and boil down to simple dollars and cents – or, in the case of the moon, “a treasure chest of rare metals and other beneficial materials that can be used here on Earth.”
On Tuesday, these companies received a massive boost to their efforts when the House of Representatives passed the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Bill, which encourages private business to be carried out under the auspices of the Office of Space Commerce (a division of the Department of Commerce). The bill further ignores the Outer Space Treaty (OST), an oft-disregarded international agreement signed in 1967 that is meant to keep space peaceful, safe and accessible for all who seek to explore it.
Lawmakers believe the bill will exempt the U.S. from its legal responsibilities under the OST stemming from U.S. private corporations’ activities, yet one can expect that the Department of Defense — and the Space Force, if it ever comes to fruition — will be on-hand to protect U.S. business interests, when necessary.
“Owners of capital are becoming increasingly interested in The Moon as a site of rare materials [and] this kind of investment in space is happening because these players believe that investments in space will be very lucrative and, as such, require protection,” Dickens told MintPress News.
Rare-earth minerals are crucial in the manufacture of electronics, medical technologies, defense hardware and renewable energies, and can be as common as zinc and copper or as rare as magnesite and cobalt. From our smartphones to our cars to our hospitals and power plants, rare-earths such as neodymium, lanthanum, cerium and other elements play a key role in our daily lives. However, the process of extracting rare-earths is dangerous, costly, and runs the risk of ruining local environments.
In 2016, China produced nearly 80 percent of the world’s supply of the precious elements. Its abundant reserves of the minerals caused leader Deng Xiaoping to famously say in 1992, “The Middle East has oil. China has rare-earths.”
Owing to the country’s strategic possession of the reserves, markets were spooked in 2010 when a border dispute with Japan resulted in a rumor that China would block rare earth exports to the country, causing prices to momentarily skyrocket by around 2,000 percent. Subsequent announcements by the government that it would slash production quotas in response to the environmental damage mines were causing have also caused the prices to fluctuate.
The idea that the so-called “vitamins of modern society,” perceived to be scarce, would remain under the lock and key of the Communist Party of China was viewed as an apocalyptic scenario. This led to a storm of alarmist articles about the Chinese monopoly or “stranglehold” on the minerals, as well as a rush by mining firms to scour the globe for new exploitable sources in locales such as the Amazon rainforest, sensitive environments in Latin America, Afghanistan, shuttered mines in California, North Korea – which recently was found to have reserves estimated to be worth $6 trillion – and even in the heavens above.
As Julie Klinger wrote in her 2018 book Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes:
[I]n the race to open up new extraction points, less remote, apparently easier to access deposits have been overlooked in favor of the far northwestern Amazon and the Moon.
Moon Express co-founder and chairman Naveen Jain made clear his excitement over the mining of the lunar surface in 2012:
The problem we face on earth is that beyond their scarcity, these elements are not evenly distributed throughout the world. We need to disrupt this market. By finally being able to reach the Moon and harvest the resources that are there, we can overcome the scarcity of rare-earth elements and create the infrastructure necessary for innovation to continue.
Since 2014, NASA and the private sector have undertaken Lunar CATALYST, or the Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown, which seeks to develop prospecting and cargo-bearing robots that would mine the lunar crust for rare-earth minerals.
By 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Commercial Space Act, which lifted restrictions on private companies seeking to legally haul back any material found in space – whether it be on asteroids, the moon, or even the planet Mars, which Trump seeks to explore and Tesla’s Elon Musk hopes to colonize.
A year later, White House advisers Robert Walker and Peter Navarro – the latter of whom is a major China hawk and now-director of the National Trade Council – penned op-eds calling for a “peace through strength” approach to space that would “simultaneously strengthen (the U.S.) economy and manufacturing base while significantly expanding (U.S.) civilian and military space budgets.”
Using emotionally-charged language evoking a pioneering spirit, the authors propose “private sector solutions” to U.S. national defense and space challenges meant to counter “existential” threats in space from rival superpowers, ensuring corporate interests and a future where the U.S.’s “freedom-loving people … lead the way to the heavens above.”
Extreme privilege combined with the cultural capital surrounding space-related endeavors generates a kind of evangelical zeal that manifests in the near-complete inability of space investors to handle deeper questions about their projects. Anyone critical is simply lacking vision, is not bold enough, or does not understand the importance of space exploration.
… While these endeavors promise fundamental transformations in how resources are produced and consumed, they are betting on the durability of the current unsustainable political-economic status quo. … Only loosely regulated and currently free from clearly enforceable social and environmental accountability requirements, the Moon seems to represent the ultimate terrain of capitalist freedom.
China and Russia observe and prepare
The United States, with its massive war budget and sprawling military-industrial complex, remains the front-runner in the competition to deploy armed forces in outer space. Yet, as the successful 2013 landing of Chinese lunar rover Jade Rabbit proved, China’s National Space Agency is well-positioned to actually mine rare-earth minerals on the Moon.
In an article cited by Klinger from the China Military Channel, the country’s defense establishment made its intention behind the Jade Rover mission clear:
The rich…rare-earth, uranium and thorium resources on the Moon can ease China’s energy crisis, maintain the status of China as a rare-earth power, and facilitate the rapid development of China’s aerospace technology…China now has ‘first-strike capability’ on lunar mineral development.
In the meantime, the country has patiently built upon its ability to launch effective anti-satellite missiles. Yet its own arsenal pales in comparison to that of the U.S. military, which possesses dozens of Aegis-equipped guided missile cruisers and destroyers capable of knocking down Russia and China’s satellites in an actual war.
Pleas from China and Russia to negotiate a new space treaty preventing the use of space for the deployment weapons have also been ignored by the U.S.
For Bruce Gagnon, whose 2003 documentary, Arsenal of Hypocrisy, delved into the nexus between the U.S. space program and the imperialist prerogatives of the U.S. military-industrial complex, the reason is simple:
The U.S. has always believed it had the opportunity and right to control and dominate space. The logo of the U.S. Space Command reads ‘Master of Space’. But China and Russia have not been idle and have developed the ability to counter the U.S. efforts to control space and thus the earth below. While the U.S. still is ahead of Russia and China in overall space technology, those two nations are quickly closing the gap because they are determined not to allow the U.S. to be dominant in space.
The “Bad Seed” in Space
For critics, the issue isn’t so much the exploration of space or its “humanization,” as Dickens and Ormrod refer to it, but the extension of inter-state and inter-imperialist competition beyond the planet. As the two authors wrote in 2007:
As and when elements of nearby outer space are legally subdivided and exploited by different private or state interests, this precludes public and private investments in probably more worthwhile projects on Earth. Furthermore, such imperialism also opens up the possibility of wars between those powers gaining access to the Moon or other nearby parts of the cosmos. This form of imperialism and capital expansion may seem particularly attractive to ruling elites, given the contradictions and increasingly evident social and environmental crises of Earthly society. But the fact remains that this fourth stage of imperialism may in the long term simply reproduce Earthly conflicts, Earthly sociopolitical coalitions, and environmental degradation into the cosmos.
Yet Dickens warns against giving up hope in the possibility of humanizing space, noting that the achievements of space exploration could bring major benefits to human society — provided such humanization remains centered on the improvement of the whole of humanity, rather than the agendas of individualistic entrepreneurs dreaming of gold in the stars or generals seeking to use space platforms to prevent their rivals from accessing space.
“And it would certainly be a mistake to ignore the ‘push factors’ of new coalitions against military investments, these perhaps being best exemplified by Bruce Gagnon’s attempt to create coalitions against outer-space investments,” Dickens added.
For Gagnon, the U.S. desire to gain a monopoly on access to space remains key to the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space’s opposition to the push for monopolizing the cosmos. Gagnon refers to this imperialist dream as “the bad seed” – which could blossom and bear frightening, poisonous fruits for generations to come:
It would be a tragic mistake for any nation to carry the bad seed of greed, competition, conflict, environmental degradation and war into the heavens. The U.S. has made the decision to do that very thing. Sadly few on the planet are aware of the dangers to this thoughtless and irresponsible policy.