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Vladimir Putin's threat to invade Ukraine comes just months after Chinese President Xi Jinping used similar saber-rattling rhetoric against Taiwan. Regardless of how the ongoing saga on the Ukrainian border plays out, one thing feels all but certain, we are entering a moment of heightened military tensions between great powers. Despite wanting to leave the geopolitical analysis to the experts, I'm increasingly worried that a key space where conflicts will play out isn't getting the attention it deserves. That space is, well, space.
For better or worse, it is impossible to broach the topic without talking about Donald Trump.
In the grand arc of history, President Trump's creation of America's Space Force might end up being his most notable and lasting accomplishment. Many observers falsely believe Space Force to be Trump's brainchild. This misconception has caused many in the media to mock the newest branch of the Armed Services—for its logo resembling Star Trek or its unfitted uniform pants—rather than grappling with the implications of the militarization of space. In fact, both of Trump's predecessors laid the groundwork for the program. Journalists who laugh off these developments as some idiosyncratic (or idiotic) relic from the Trump years, do a disservice to their readers.
Luckily for us, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, takes space seriously:
Space is already an arena of great power competition. Chinese and Russian space activities present serious and growing threats to U.S. national security interests. Chinese and Russian military doctrines also indicate that they view space as critical to modern warfare.
Austin's analysis is worth underscoring again and again until the point sinks in.
In November, Russia tested anti-satellite technology and destroyed one of its own satellites, igniting fierce pushback from the international community. (Russia was also recently criticized for positioning a weaponized satellite in close proximity to a U.S. satellite.) This reckless demolition sparked growing concern about space junk causing cascading collisions which would create enough debris to render our lower earth orbit unusable. This phenomenon is known as the Kessler Syndrome. As Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO secretary-general, recently wrote, "This would literally ground humanity on planet Earth and bring all the economic, environmental and scientific benefits of space to a screeching halt."
After Russia's testing gambit, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution stating that member nations are "........Seriously concerned about the possibility of an arms race in outer space," and the U.N. Committee on Disarmament scheduled a meeting for February 14, to avoid such an outcome. Last week, in the midst of threatening to invade a sovereign nation, the Russian government informed the committee "that it is not prepared to move forward" with the meeting.
Despite the vastness of space, there is actually limited room for satellites to safely orbit the planet without risking collisions, and Elon Musk's Starlink program—which has deployed thousands of satellites—might crowd out all future competition. (Although, I'm skeptical Russia and China would allow themselves to be crowded out instead of putting their anti-satellite technology to use.) The head of the European Space Agency claims, "You have one person owning half of the active satellites in the world. That's quite amazing. De facto, he is making the rules". China has taken notice and voiced its frustration by issuing a complaint to the United Nations—which the United States refuted—claiming that the Starlink satellites are endangering its space station.
Tensions around international behaviors in space are beginning to add up. The United States should resist the urge to treat these disputes as something separate from standard geopolitics, because they're very much not separate. They are, if anything, the future of geopolitics.
In some sense, the future is already present.
This month, China and Russia signaled the deepening of their alliance by declaring a "new era" of international politics. If we are indeed on the path towards a second Cold War, U.S. officials need to recognize that new real estate has been added to the geopolitical chessboard since the last time around.
With this in mind, it is worth revisiting a 2021 agreement between China and Russia to build an international lunar research station by 2027. (In comparison, the U.S. is targeting a less ambitious objective of landing two people on the moon by 2025.) Ostensibly, the lunar base is intended to be a research facility. However, as evidenced by their threats to invade neighboring states, China and Russia each have territorial expansion on the mind, and not just on earth. The highly valuable territory on the moon is up for grabs—at least for now. (Suitable locations for a lunar base are in limited supply.)
Establishing a dominant position on the moon would be highly advantageous for a pair of authoritarian leaders who seek to inaugurate a "new era" of global competition. The scientific, economic, and propagandistic advantages would be significant but not devastating to U.S. interests. The true threat would be the military advantage. Should they choose to follow their research site with a military base, and if the U.S. is too slow to follow suit, this budding authoritarian alliance could dominate the ultimate high ground.
Like with any other race, if we are too slow off the block, we might be doomed to lose regardless of how hard we try to catch up. The time to catch up is now. It was maybe even yesterday.