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#SpaceWatchGL Op’Ed: Privateering the Solar System – A Long View of Commercial Space and National Security

The Dark Side of Pluto: NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft took this stunning image of Pluto only a few minutes after closest approach on July 14, 2015. The image was obtained at a high phase angle –that is, with the sun on the other side of Pluto, as viewed by New Horizons. Seen here, sunlight filters through and illuminates Pluto’s complex atmospheric haze layers. Photograph courtesy of NASA.

By Dr. John B. Sheldon

The role of commercial space in today’s national security environments is known well enough. There are useful policy debates to be had over what national security space systems a state should absolutely provide for to ensure sovereign decision making in war versus where commercial entities can step in. In this essay, however, I propose to take a longer view of commercial space and national security as the exploitation of space resources, and establishing a permanent presence on the Moon, and even Mars, becomes a plausible reality in the coming decades. To aid this longer view, I should like to turn to history as a broad guide.

The roots of English – and subsequently British – sea power lay in 16th century Elizabethan privateers that harassed and plundered the Spanish fleet, and ultimately destroyed the Spanish Armada. What would eventually become the sine qua non of sea power in the 19th century started off as a rough-and-ready commercial venture that actually lasted until the 19th century through companies such as the East India Company who operated large, armed fleets of ships. Here we also see that the roots of modern European naval power was also the progenitor of colonialism in the Indian Subcontinent, Africa, and large parts of Asia. The horrors and vicissitudes suffered by the victims of European colonialism also offer important lessons for commercial space activity and national security in the future.

The domain of oceans is often used as a strategic analogy for the space domain, despite huge differences between the two in terms of environmental and topographical conditions, physical laws, and technological requirements, never mind relative scale. Still, in spite of the flaws in the strategic analogy, many policy makers and military strategists insist upon its use. Oceans are vast, space is vast, ergo space is an ocean, so the analogical thinking goes. Science fiction books and cinema is replete with ‘fleets’ of ‘ships’ that ply the galaxies, commanded by ‘Captains’ and ‘Admirals’. In the realm of strategic thought, the study of space power has seen military thinkers attempt to apply the maritime and naval thought of Sir Julian Corbett and Alfred Thayer Mahan to space power as a result of the pull of the sea power analogy for space.

In the final analysis, this author is largely skeptical of strategic analogies applied to any domain, but I understand their usefulness as a cognitive crutch for the process of understanding new domains (and historically speaking, space is a new domain), how to operate in them, and their strategic significance for polities. It is in this spirit that I offer some thoughts about the emerging strategic implications of commercial space for national security, and for the grand strategy of a spacefaring country.

Let us begin with an assumption that is admittedly debatable, but that I use nevertheless to support my argument that ultimately commercial concerns will be the primary strategic actor in spacefaring activity – to include warfare – in the future, but will eventually morph into and under state control, much like the private seafaring fleets of the 16th through 19th centuries.

The first assumption is that contrary to fashionable yet nonsensical and ahistorical analysis in some corners of political science, the state will endure as the primary actor in international politics on Earth, and furthermore, the political concept of the state will travel with humanity as and when it settles on other celestial bodies, even if initial settlements are tenuous in numbers and survivability.

Since the late 1990’s commercial space entities spend more on space activities than governments do, primarily in terms of satellite acquisition and launch services. This trend is only increasing as space access becomes cheaper and more reliable, and as satellite and robotic technologies become more affordable and therefore are no longer monopolized by the state. It is therefore most likely that it will be commercial companies – private, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, or state-owned such as, for example, a company from China – will exploit space resources and even settle celestial bodies.

This does not mean, however, that the state is not relevant for space activities, and that governments cannot shape and influence the character and scope of commercial space activity. Commercial space entities are physically located in, and under the legal jurisdiction of, states and are therefore subject to regulations and laws, as well as the national security imperatives of governments. Indeed, the emerging geoeconomic competition today between major powers such as China, United States, India, and others, is characterized by national security concerns and imperatives determining the way in which (and the scope of) commercial competition is taking place internationally. Our exploitation of space, whether it is in Earth orbit or beyond, will be no different.

The space domain, to include celestial bodies, is increasingly seen as an economic resource that, theoretically at least, could generate vast wealth for those with the resources and initiative to exploit it. At least in the Earth-Moon system, the space domain will be economically exploited in the coming decades, and this exploitation will be done by private and state-owned (or subsidized) companies. These companies will engage in intense cooperation with each other, and will likely end up being proxies for Earth-bound states as they compete with each other to both dominate and benefit from the wealth generated off-planet.

The political and historical debate over whether flag follows trade continues to this day. The East India Company was a private corporation with private shareholders, but it still required a royal charter to carry out its business and pay its share of revenue to the state treasury. As commercial interests morphed into state interest, the already blurry line between private and national interest disappeared altogether; merchants became political agents; armed employees guarding goods and stores on wharves soon became enforcers of company, and  government, policy against local populations and their legitimate political arrangements. These armed employees are then replaced by uniformed soldiers; navies are built and deployed to protect trade routes, and before anyone is really fully aware, governments find that they have interests they never realized they had.

History rarely repeats itself, but it tends to rhyme. For sure, there are nontrivial technical challenges to be overcome, but the inner Solar System will likely become more accessible for economic exploitation in the coming decades, whether through robots, humans, or a mixture of both. Thankfully, at least as far as we know there are no civilizations to exploit and dominate, but human civilization will extend its reach and this in turn will sow the seeds of future conflict between off-planet settlements and the insatiable demands of Earth.

Looking this far into the future, it can be seen that commercial space is far from an unalloyed good, even if it will be an economic necessity. This creates a dilemma for long-range policy thinking, how to enable and encourage responsible exploitation of space resources in space and on celestial bodies while at the same time ensuring that commercial interests do not blindly morph into state interests.

This may all seem far-fetched as companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries who, only a few years ago were breathlessly heralded as the brave new future, now languish in disappointment, steep costs, and technological dead-ends. But these can be viewed – albeit at a stretch – as the historical equivalent of the doomed North American Jamestown colony financed by the Virginia Company of London in 1607. That venture proved to be a salutary lesson for others like the East India Company, who, instead of being put off, actually went off to conquer and exploit other parts of the world.

Dr. John B. Sheldon is the Chairman and President of ThorGroup GmbH, and the publisher of SpaceWatch.Global. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBSheldon

This Op-Ed was originally published in the Observer Research Foundation’s Space Alert on 5 January 2019, and can be found here. It is republished with their kind permission.

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