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Not enough war on the ground, the US is taking it to space

Not enough war on the ground, the US is taking it to space

The military industrial complex is suiting up for a new arms race, far beyond the stratosphere

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

Elon Musk’s space company SpaceX recently secured a classified contract to build an extensive network of “spy satellites” for an undisclosed U.S. intelligence agency, with one source telling Reuters that “no one can hide” under the prospective network’s reach.

While the deal suggests the space company, which currently operates over half the active satellites orbiting Earth, has warmed to U.S. national security agencies, it’s not the first Washington investment in conflict-forward space machinery. Rather, the U.S. is funding or otherwise supporting a range of defense contractors and startups working to create a new generation of space-bound weapons, surveillance systems, and adjacent technologies.

In other words, America is hell-bent on a new arms race — in space.

Space arms, then and now

Attempts to regulate weapons’ presence and use in space span decades. Responding to an intense, Cold War-era arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Union, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty established that space, while free for all countries to explore and use, was limited to peaceful endeavors. Almost 60 years later, the Outer Space Treaty’s vague language regarding military limitations in space, as space policy experts Michelle L.D. Hanlon and Greg Autry highlight, “leave more than enough room for interpretation to result in conflict.”

Stonewalling subsequent international efforts to limit the militarization of space (though the U.S. is participating in a new U.N. working group on the subject), Washington’s interest in space exploration and adjacent weapons technologies also goes back decades. Many may recall President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which was established to develop land-, air-, and space-based missile defense systems to deter missile or nuclear weapons attacks against the U.S. Cynically referred to by critics as the “Star Wars” program, many SDI initiatives were ultimately canned due to prohibitive costs and technological limitations.

And while the Pentagon established Space Command in 1985, the Space Force, an entirely new branch of the militaryfocused solely on pursuing superiority in the space domain,” was launched in 2019, signaling renewed emphasis on space militarization as U.S. policy.

Weapons contractors cash in 

Long-term American interest in space war tech now manifests in ambitious projects, where defense companies and startups are lining up for military contracts to create a new generation of space weaponry and adjacent tech, including space vehicles, hypersonic rockets, and extensive surveillance and communications projects.

For starters, Space Force’s Space Development Agency recently granted defense contractors L3Harris and Lockheed Martin and space company Sierra Space contracts worth $2.5 billion to build satellites for the U.S. military’s Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture (PWSA), a constellation of hundreds of satellites, built out on tranches, that provide various warfighting capabilities, including the collection and transmission of critical wartime communications, into low-Earth orbit.

The PWSA will serve as the backbone of the Pentagon’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control project, an effort to bolster warfighting capacities and decision-making processes by facilitating “information advantage at the speed of relevance.”

Other efforts are just as sci-fi-esque. Zoning in on hypersonic weapons systems and parts, for example, RTX (formerly Raytheon) and Northrop Grumman have collaborated to secure a DARPA contract for a Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapons Concept, where scramjet-powered missiles can travel at hypersonic speeds (Mach 5 or faster) for offensive purposes.

And Aerospace startup True Anomaly, which was founded by military officers and has received funding from the U.S. Space Force to the tune of over $17 million, is developing space weapons and adjacent conflict-forward tools. An example is True Anomaly’s Jackal Autonomous Orbital Vehicle, an imaging satellite able to take on, according to True Anomaly CEO Even Rogers, “rendezvous and proximity operations missions” with “uncooperative” targets.

As True Anomaly finds fiscal success, accruing over $100 million in a December 2023 series B fundraising round from venture capitalists including Eclipse Ventures and ACME Capital, other aerospace start-ups are flooding the market with the assistance of the U.S. government, both in funding and other critical partnerships.

Take how Firehawk Aerospace — which wants to “create the rocket system of the future” to “enab[le] the next generation of aerospace and defense systems” — partnered with NASA in 2021 to test rocket engines at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. It recently secured Army Applications Laboratory and U.S. Air Force Small Business Innovation Research Awards to advance developments in its rocket motors and engines.

And data and satellite-focused American space tech company Capella Space, a contractor for federal agencies including the Air and Space Forces, specializes in reconnaissance and powerful surveillance tools, including geospatial intelligence and Synthetic Aperture Radar monitoring that help national security officials identify myriad security risks. In early 2023, Capella Space even formed a subsidiary, Capella Federal, to provide federal clients with additional access to Synthetic Aperture Radar imagery services.

We need diplomacy, not space superiority

The funding of expensive, futuristic space surveillance and weapons projects indicates the U.S.’s eagerness to maintain superiority, where military personnel posit such advancements are critical within the context of both a “space race” and an increasingly tumultuous geopolitical climate, if not the possibility of war in space outright.

As Space Force General Chance Saltzman declared at the recent Mitchell Institute Spacepower Security Forum: “if we do not have space, we lose." Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in late February, U.S. Space Force General Stephen N. Whiting explained that the U.S. Space Command must bolster its military capacities through increased personnel training and investments in relevant technologies so that the U.S. is “ready if deterrence fails.”

While upping its own military capacities, however, Washington is simultaneously pushing against other countries’ anti-satellite weapons testing, a capability the U.S. already has.

What’s more, the U.S. recently accused Russia of developing possibly nuclear anti-satellite weaponry in violation of the Outer Space Treaty. But the accusations, which Russia denies, are vague. And, as Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and Clayton Swope of the Center for Strategic and International Studies posit, Russia’s use of such a weapon seems unlikely as it is “effectively [a] kamikaze attack,” and would likely take out many of Russia’s own satellites while prompting major retaliation from adversaries.

In any case, such pointing fingers, when coupled with ongoing space deterrence and weapons proliferation efforts, does little to advance genuine diplomacy, where states could instead discuss, on equal terms, how space should be used and shared amongst nations.

Ultimately, weapons and aerospace companies’ efforts have launched a new generation of weaponry and adjacent tech — buoyed by consistent support from a “deterrence”-focused U.S. As a result, the military industrial complex has further expanded into the domain of space, where defense companies have new opportunities to score lucrative weapons contracts and theoretically even push for more conflict.

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Analysis | Military Industrial Complex
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