The Space Force should safeguard US interests on the moon (op-ed)

Artist's illustration of NASA astronauts near the moon's south pole, a region thought to be rich in water ice, a key resource that could help humanity extend its footprint out into the solar system. (Image credit: NASA)

By Rick Tumlinson,
Published by, 2 October 2023

The potential for conflict beyond Earth is coming.

It’s been reported that United States Space Force Commander Gen. Chance Saltzman surveyed the Force’s members to develop a mission statement for America’s newest military branch. Aside from the novelty of crowdsourcing soldiers as to their interpretation of their mission (which I like but could draw criticism from more constitutionalist folks), the result seems to be on target: “Secure our nation’s interests in, from and to space.”

However — and with all due respect to the general from this son of a sergeant — I believe his interpretation of at least a part of this statement may be incorrect and informed by a bias that is all too common in the sometimes overly conservative and hallowed halls of the Pentagon.

First, having a simple and concise statement is essential. Shorter is better. Having that statement be co-generated by those forming the first cadres of the Force is an excellent idea to encourage buy-in and ownership.

The term “secure” is also essential. Protecting U.S. national interests is the chief priority of all our military branches, from under the sea to above the sky and all places in between.

He interprets securing that national interest “from space” as the defense of systems and technologies such as communications, navigation and missile warning. In other words, protecting those elements of the defense infrastructure vital to what the military refers to as the “Joint Force” (i.e., all the branches that might be part of a combined military action or activity on Earth).

So far, this is all great stuff. However, what the good general is missing in his reading and interpretation, and perhaps, in what his soldiers are saying (although I bet not, given their probable age demographic), is anything referring to the outward-facing phase of developing space activities without reference to direct support of our on-the-planet military posture and capabilities. In other words, the Space Force‘s role in securing our national interests beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).

Be it an oversight or intentional, this omission is revelatory of the Big Split within the Space Force. On the one hand, we have those who see it as a practical tool for supporting traditional strategies and tactics on the ground. On the other are those who believe (and in many cases are ringing the alarm bells) about the doctrine, strategy and tactics we need to develop now to “secure our nation’s interests” beyond Earth orbit — places such as the moon, asteroids and beyond.

Primarily a function of Space Force’s birth, this Earth-centricity results from being forged out of Earth-based military forces whose entire existence and functions are defined and limited to what happens on the little rock we call home. It is not incorrect at all. The Force is a new tool, allowing new ways of supporting actions on the land and in the water and air below. But far sooner than many realize, the utility of Space Force will become far, far more than that. It represents not just a new tool to be used in traditional domains. It is an early key to assuring our interests in the new space domain of the solar system — one that dwarfs all the rest.

So here is where the traditionalists will expect me to begin to wax poetic about the human expansion into space, the establishment of new human communities on the moon and Mars, and the Free Space between worlds. Consider it done and done with conviction, as we are on the verge of what I have long called the Space Revolution finally reaching its goal of enabling the human breakout into space.

Others might expect me to call for a “Star Trek“-like shifting of the Force toward boldly going where no one has gone before. Again, consider it done and done. Just as navies and government explorers of the past, such as Lewis and Clark, have helped open our frontiers down here, I also urge this positive and enlightened mandate be built into the evolving mandate of our Guardians moving forward.

However, what I am calling for right now is that Gen. Saltzman and those around him who see the Force looking down from space re-interpret the voices of their people to mean it is their job also to lift their gaze and look outward at the threats already developing beyond LEO.

The leadership of the Space Force must begin to prepare for the next war rather than just adding better tools to fight the last. With just a little imagination, they can begin preparing now to “secure our nation’s interests” on the moon and elsewhere in cislunar space. More importantly, they can set the tone of acceptable ideation within the service, encouraging not just innovative ways of using space assets on Earth, but forming a leadership cadre that “gets it” when it comes to winning the wars of the 22nd century (now within the lifetime of its youngest Guardians) rather than those of the 20th and before.

For example, with a shift in their mindset and willingness to take a bit of risk, they can begin the planning and long-lead work now — before we find ourselves responding to adversaries building “islands” in the sky.

We already know the intent of China in space. They tell us yearly in their Congresses and through announcements and utterings, such as a recent resource roadmap of the solar system published by one of their top scientists. (Let’s be clear: nothing in China of such note gets “accidentally” published, nor are they ever just “thought” pieces.)

An animation from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation shows what China’s first crewed moon lander would look like on a future lunar mission with astronauts. (Image credit: CCTV)

For decades, we in the Frontier community have known that “ownership” (immediate dominant presence, if you will) of the lunar poles equals control of the inner solar system. With India at the South Pole with their brilliant Chandrayaan-3 mission, they clearly get it, too. Had the once great Russian space program not just sadly exhibited the same competence in space they are showing in Ukraine, they too would be marking their future territorial ambitions on the gray sands of Luna.

The potential for conflict beyond Earth is coming. I hate that it is coming. I hope we can avoid it and find ways for all of us to work together to open the resources of the moon and the spaces between worlds in ways more focused on the citizens of Earth than on those few who hold power. But as any good general will tell you, we must prepare as if this will fail, even as we work for it. And thus, my difference with the good general and my suggestion to him.

Along with the apparent need to support and enable the other terrestrially bound services of the Joint Force, securing our “national interests IN space” includes protecting our current assets, such as satellites. Yet, it means so much more, which needs to be articulated from the top. It also means preparing now to secure what Americans from NASA to the thousands of entrepreneurs and others in free societies worldwide are sweating to build every day — a beachhead for freedom on the Frontier beyond Earth. This cannot be just a nod nor lip service, but implementation, starting with the strategies and doctrine that will inform planning for the future and signal to others that the U.S. military has not ceded its vision and is preparing for that future now.

Space Force can support those who walk and float on the old ground and seas of Earth and those working to open the Frontier at the same time. The Guardians can protect our ability to wage and win traditional confrontations down here — and should have this as today’s prime focus. And, right now is the time to begin developing the Force of tomorrow that can, by its clear focus, intelligent design and superiority “secure our nation’s interests” for the decades and centuries to come IN space by deterring those of malign intent from even starting plans to take the high grounds of the High Frontier.

Rick Tumlinson is the founder of SpaceFund, a venture capital firm investing in space startups. He also founded the Space Frontier FoundationEarthlight Foundation, the Space Cowboy Ball, was a founding board member of the X Prize Foundation and hosts the Space Revolution podcast.

See: Original Article