US Space Force

Donald Trump's America wants a space army. Issues and dangers.

President Trump has announced his intention to create a new force: the United States Space Force. At a time when the conquest of space is in full swing and rockets are rushing through the gates of space, when our society is vitally dependent on satellite networks and precious resources are being discovered in the stars, this presidential announcement does not bode well. Is space, hitherto the neutral terrain of humanity, about to become the new battleground of a sidereal Far West?
JCalls on the Department of Defense and the Pentagon to begin immediately the process of establishing a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces "said Donald Trump at a meeting of the National Space Council on June 18. A force from space, the idea is irresistibly reminiscent of science fiction movies and armies of stormtroopers who built the fantasy of the Starwars saga.

It's not a movie.

But what Trump is announcing is not cinema. This statement resonates perfectly with the ears of the high-ranking officers of the American army. This is the case of Air Force General Steve Kwast, who recently... asserted that future conflicts could arise outside the world and that, without a special programme to prepare the United States for such a conflict, it may be 50 years before the country is ready. With a committed Space Force, this could be reduced to three years.
The announcement of the Space Force has yet to be endorsed by Congress, but for once the President seems to have no concern about the outcome of the decision. Indeed, the Americans are sensitive to the threat posed by China and Russia with their anti-satellite weapons. The secret services are convinced that Moscow and Beijing have already developed space missiles and weapons of satellite destruction. The threat is significant because our hyper-technological societies depend to a large extent on satellites: communication, observation, meteorological, scientific, GPS and so on. However, a satellite that navigates in space is, by its very nature, fragile and unarmed.
It should also be added that never before have so many rockets carrying satellites been launched into orbit. Space is on the way to becoming the site of a great traffic jam. It is no longer just government agencies like NASA or ESA that send rockets. Private players have rushed into this juicy market, including billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. This led Donald Trump to give up: " Billionaires love rockets. ». He's not wrong.
Photo ©Saul Loeb / AFP
Faced with this highly strategic landscape, the idea of putting order in what is today an open and free place, easily germinated in the spirit of Trump, whose taste for power relations is no longer to be demonstrated. « America will always be first in space... ", said the American president in a speech at the White House. « We don't want China and Russia and other countries to dominate us, we've always dominated... ", he continued. « My administration will take over as the premier spacefaring nation... ». But he immediately adds: " To defend America, a mere presence in space is not enough, we must dominate space... ». The armed force in space then takes on its full meaning and the danger of a space war becomes more and more precise.

Major geostrategic challenges

Yet space, since 1967, has already been protected by a international treaty...initiated in the middle of the Cold War by John Kennedy. This text establishes the principle of non-appropriation and prohibition of weapons of mass destruction in orbit. Other treaties, five in all, have since followed. But none of them envisage the use of offensive methods to cause destruction or interference through satellites. No text has imagined what is possible today in the field of space warfare. Professor Dale Stephens, one of the leading experts on the subject, refers to in this regard"anti-satellite missiles, directed energy weapons (including lasers), electronic warfare (exploitation of an adversary's radio emissions), cyberwarfare and certain dual-use technologies, such as in-orbit infrastructure for satellite maintenance. "
The damage caused by such military interventions could be extremely serious for the economy and functioning of the targeted States. A single figure illustrates this dependence on space technology: 6 to 7 % of GDP of Western countries today depends on GPS satellite navigation.
So when China demonstrated in 2007 its ability to destroy one of its old satellites with a ground-launched interceptor missile, the world's military shuddered. More recently, Russia launched its Kosmos 2499 satellite in complete secrecy. It has the particularity of moving in its orbit to get close to the debris of a drifting rocket. It is only a short step from there to fuelling suspicions of a "satellite killer" experiment.
Trump's decision to create his US Space Force thus opens up the battlefield of space. The military stakes are immense but they are also economic. They touch on the question of mining resources and risk making space a Wild West landscape.

The Space Gold Rush

Our solar system is filled with millions of asteroids, rocky worlds ranging in size from a few metres to hundreds of kilometres in diameter. The majority of asteroids are found in what astronomers call the Asteroid Belt, located between the planets Mars and Jupiter. Many of these objects are remnants of the early formation of the Solar System. Some of the asteroids are rich in rare and precious metals. Iron is found in abundance, but also rare minerals that the high-tech industry is particularly fond of: cobalt, titanium, antimony, tungsten, thorium, silicon...
On these pieces of rock wandering through space we could find everything we need to build space stations, to transform the water in them into liquid oxygen and hydrogen, the fuel for spaceships. And then absolute fantasy, you find gold.
Asteroid 169-Psyche - Image: Arizona State University
Those asteroids are a fortune. The iron in asteroid 16 Psyche alone is worth about 10 quintillion dollars. This number tells you nothing; this is normal because it is written with an impressive number of zeros: 10,000,000,000,000,000 $. How do the scientists - in this case NASA - have they come up with that assessment? They estimated to within a few kilos that this asteroid contained 17,000,000,000,000,000 m3 of iron (17 million km3). At €80 a ton, do the math.
According to NASA, if we were able to extract all the minerals from the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, we could write a cheque for $100 billion to every human being living on Earth! Unfortunately, this calculation is only theoretical, because even if these astronomical sums of money were proven, there is little chance that the manna would be redistributed so generously... But we can still dream.
Still, lust is stirred. Government space agencies are joined by a myriad of private companies, some of which, such as Space X of billionaire Elon Musk, have just proved their ability to send giant rockets into space and back to Earth. Space has become the new Eldorado where the issue of resource appropriation is turning heads.
The race for space assets is facilitated by a decision made by the Obama administration in 2015. The U.S. Senate unanimously approved a law recognizing that every individual "shall have the right to access, use, and enjoy the benefits of space.... the right to possess, appropriate, transport, use and sell any space resource ». This text is based on the 1967 treatise on space and circumvents it in a skilful semantic gymnastics. The United Nations at the time had enshrined in international law the impossibility for a state to declare its sovereignty over a space body. But the treaty says nothing about the exploitation of resources. Who does not say a word consents? The American text of 2015 therefore specifies that one cannot own a space body. So be it. On the other hand, we will be able to monopolise its resources, especially mining resources. Nuance.

READ UP : The U.S. Senate votes for the commercial exploitation of space. Welcome to the Space Wild West...

A law tailor-made for American companies created for the exploitation of space resources. This is the case of Planetary Resourcesa startup financially supported by Google CEO Larry Page and American film director James Cameron. This company is ready to build real space service stations. By extracting water and ammonia found on asteroids, it says it can make the fuel needed for space missions in space. We don't have to come back to Earth to refuel, we can refuel on the ground. The company does not say whether these space highway gas stations will be accompanied by shopping malls and fast food chains.
Deep Space Industries is another company created in 2013. It is already identifying asteroids that are eligible for mining and plans to start extracting them in 2020 in order to manufacture materials directly from space. The company plans to acquire a fleet of nanorobots, the Firefly...whose mission will be to survey celestial bodies to measure their potential mineral resources. A second series of ships, the Dragonflywill be able to bring back to Earth up to 150 kg of rare minerals, or even entire small asteroids. The whole operation is coordinated by a flagship, the Mothershipwhich will carry exploration nanobots beyond Earth's orbit and provide communications to deep space. Finally, the company plans to develop the tugboat Harvestor that will be able to bring an entire asteroid back into Earth's orbit.
Kepler Energy and Space Engineering plans to use existing guidance, navigation and mooring technologies from successful asteroid missions such as Rosetta-Philae and Dawn.
The project will use technology transfer from NASA to build and send a four-module automated mining system (AMS) on a small asteroid to collect surface materials. Each of the four modules, after its successful work, will make its return trip back to low Earth orbit. The project plans to be completed by 2020.
This race towards the asteroids represents colossal financial stakes but also geostrategic stakes. Indeed, the quest for rare metals has become an obligation for all digital and ecological transition industries. No smartphone, wind turbine, electric car, satellites, connected objects, robots or nanotechnologies without rare metals. These highly coveted raw materials exist everywhere on our planet but their extraction represents a considerable environmental and human health cost. Gradually the world has therefore abandoned the extraction of these metals to China, which today holds 99 % of the rare metals market.

READ UP : China: Hijacking the high-tech raw material

In the face of these challenges and dangers, the idea of a space force that germinated in President Trump's mind is the most obvious. And the hypothesis of space wars is no longer a subject of science fiction. The governments of the world are concerned about it, as is the French government. The Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, reacted to Trump's announcement by saying: " Space is a major area in which there could eventually be confrontations... ». In the 2019-2025 military programming law, which has just been passed by a joint commission, is statement an issue formulated in the form of an incantation: " in the face of increasing risks and threats, the continued strengthening of the protection and resilience of new space assets is required ». This is the minimum in view of the prospect of the Earth's orbit becoming a war zone.

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