Karl Grossman has written a number of very interesting and enlightening pieces about the US nuclear industry and the corporate/military push to weaponise space. There are numerous funny and absurd pieces already on the internet about the new US Space Force (a re-named branch of the US Air Force with added budget and bureaucracy), especially regarding the contest for its logo and the design of its uniform. I shall not make any such jokes, since I am very much in favour of the wonderful new US Space Force, for reasons which will become clear. Instead I’ll point you towards this piece by Grossman, in which he shows that the Space Force is not the insane, treaty-busting scheme of a lone despot in the White House, but rather a bipartisan project, supported by Republicans and Democrats alike.
It is salutory to think of all the Democrats who made possible this new arm of the US military, dedicated to war in space. In the House of Representatives, 188 Democrats joined 189 Republicans in voting in favour. Only 41 Democrats (including Gabbard, DeFazio, Lee, Jayapal, Ocasio-Cortez and Omar) voted against.
In the Senate, 37 Democrats joined 48 Republicans in ushering in the militarization of the stratosphere. Only four Democrats – the two Merkleys, Gillibrand, and Wyden – voted against. Not wishing to offend anyone, Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar, Booker and Harris did not vote.
Why, the astute reader might ask, do I support this insane plan, a multi-billion dollar boondoggle which will benefit Boeing (poor Boeing! They need our money!), General Electric, and the usual suspects? Because I am a fan of 40s and 50s and 60s science fiction, and novels like The Space Merchants in which everything has been converted into a corrupt, money-making scam? Because I like the visual lines of the orbiting nuclear weapons we see in Kubrick’s 2001, after that memorable cut from the graceful, ape-man bone? Because I like treading on the same rake, and having it fly up and hit me in the face?
Not at all. The Outer Space Treaty (signed by the US in 1967) forbids the placing of weapons of mass destruction in space. The US and the other signators abide by this not because they are good, but because putting nuclear weapons in orbit around earth is simply not worth it. If this were easy to do, by now all the nuclear powers would have done it – and there would be American and Russian and Israeli and Chinese and British and French and Indian and Pakistani nukes circling over our heads now.
Putting useable nuclear weapons in orbit is a huge and difficult project. It isn’t like blasting the Cassini probe – with its 72.3 pounds of Plutonium-238 fuel aboard a Titan IV rocket – into space and hoping for the best (Grossman has an excellent piece about that here). Nuclear weapons like the ones in 2001 would have to be hefted into orbit and maintained there, indefinitely. If the weapons’ orbit decayed, they would have to be destroyed in space. Nukes in space would be a target for any nation which felt threatened by them – just as ICBMs and air bases and submarine pens are now.
Instead, the Space Force will probably aim for full-spectrum dominance – in the unfortunate event of war, or sanctions, or whatever – by taking out some or all of the assets our “foes” currently have in orbit. This will be done, at first, by ground-based missiles, though I imagine Raytheon have a nifty hypersonic missile in the works for later (two trillion dollars! cheap!) Of course, the Space Force will need lots of “eyes in the sky” too (though these will largely duplicate what the NSA and military already have up there), plus “anti-jamming” communications satellites, and there will no doubt be expensive tests of “satellite killer” missiles and “missile killer” satellites, and even of space-based missile interceptors (Grossman discusses the Missile Defense Review here).
Right now it all sounds ever so exciting. Air Force General John “Jay” Raymond has praised “the uniforms, the patch, the song, the culture of service…” And well he might, for he is not only Chief of Space Operations, he is also Chief of the Space Force and Commander of US Space Command, too! And the bipartisan site Defense One wants us to know that “The US Space Force is Not a Joke.” So there. And the US National Guard is asking the Pentagon to create a “Space National Guard” as well.
The wonderful thing about all this is that is it so painless! It doesn’t even have to involve any “nudets”. On the one hand we have a George Lucas/Buck Rogers star wars scenario, with spacepersons, badges, uniforms and songs…
And on the other hand, since all the best science fiction veers towards the dystopian, not the frivolous, we have the likely result: that the US Space Force (or the Russian Space Force, or the Chinese, it doesn’t matter), by accident or design, actually tries to destroy another state’s surveillance or communications satellites. What happens then? The victim state, less technologically advanced perhaps, retaliates with air-burst missiles in the upper atmosphere, a crude but entirely effective way of crippling any satellites (including those “anti-jamming” ones) in the vicinity.
Space debris, we are told, is already a problem. It bedevils the Space Station, and is the starting point of the popular movie, Gravity. If the US Space Force succeeds in its mission, and fights wars in space, Earth will be surrounded by a dense skein of space wreckage. Long distance communication and navigation systems will be degraded. Intelligence and surveillance satellites will be destroyed. For a while there will still be GPS — GPS satellites orbit at higher altitudes than ICBMs can reach, and would need to be destroyed by space launch vehicles, assuming they could make it through the debris belt. Either way there will be no more space travel. Elon Musk and Richard Branson will never fly to Mars.
Imagine, all the clever brains and rare earth metals and fossil fuels currently engaged in blasting stuff into space, being redeployed to more useful activities on Earth.
The astronomers may complain, as will the unfortunates flattened when burning chunks of space junk come hurtling home. But planet-wide, reality-based science and discourse are long overdue, and the US Space Force could be the way to acheive this change of emphasis.