Since the beginning of the Space Age, military operations have been a major component of outer space activities. For example, the GPS satellites that we use for mapping our terrestrial trips were actually created and are currently used by the military to help in guiding weapons to their targets; and our spy satellites help to keep track of the military activities of those who are considered adversaries.
Donald Trump’s recent creation of a separate “Space Force” branch of the armed services illustrates the increasing focus on outer space in military activities. Under Biden, various U.S. officials have recently asserted their continuing desire for U.S. space dominance, and the Space Force is intended to consolidate these efforts. Over the long term, the military plans to continue its old roles in space, but is also preparing new space weapons and missions to defend U.S. military and commercial activities in space. Examples of the commercial space activities that it may want to defend include the mining by U.S. corporations of valuable minerals on the Moon and asteroids. (Yes, it appears that corporately sponsored space mining will become a reality within the next few decades, and the U.S. military wishes to enforce control over those activities.)
Nuclear reactors in space are one of the new developments that may shortly contribute to space militarization. These space nuclear reactors are essentially (very) miniature versions of the nuclear power plants that currently provide much of Minnesota’s electricity. The space nuclear reactors are planned to have two principal uses:
Artist’s depiction of objects in space orbiting the earth. MIT News
First, they can generate electricity to run various power-hungry spacecraft systems, possibly including sophisticated laser and particle beams that can attack and destroy other spacecraft.
Second, they can heat gases to very high temperatures to provide high-energy rocket propulsion for ease in maneuvering and changing orbits, something that would be essential for a nimble space weapon.
Because it is so hard to lift anything heavy into orbit, the main benefit of space nuclear reactors would be their ability to provide a large amount of usable energy from a relatively light apparatus, thereby opening up new military possibilities.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans the placement of weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear weapons) into orbit, and the treaty has been honored so far by every nation on Earth. However, space nuclear reactors do not qualify as weapons of mass destruction, so they are not banned by the Outer Space (or any other) Treaty.
Indeed, both the U.S. and what was then the U.S.S.R. placed nuclear reactors into orbit decades ago in order to power military satellites, but the practice was stopped by both countries after a Soviet reactor-carrying satellite accidentally reentered and broke apart over Canada, leaving behind a many-hundred-mile-long trail of highly radioactive plutonium debris.
The new generation of space nuclear reactors that are planned will be somewhat safer, principally because their fuel, if released in an accident, will be low-enriched uranium, which is significantly less dangerous than that in the original plutonium-fueled reactors, although these reactors are not totally benign.
For one thing, the proposed reactors would create a host of other radioactive elements as a byproduct of their normal operation in space, which would also be spread to the environment if an unplanned reentry of another satellite occurred such as the one that accidentally broke apart over Canada.
And, aside from the potential spread of radioactivity at the untimely end of a mission, another major danger is the possibility upon launch of an explosion of the nonnuclear rocket hosting a nuclear reactor which might spread the radioactive reactor fuel over large areas. (Efforts are being made to harden the reactor so that it could survive such an explosion intact, and, as noted above, if it were to be released in a launch accident, it is much less dangerous than the original space reactors which were fueled by plutonium.)
Another more abstract issue is that the development and use of these very capable devices will enable the military to expand the missions it is able to accomplish. It is easy to imagine how the majority of peace advocates would interpret these efforts!
Earth with objects orbiting. Image: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
Several efforts to develop space nuclear reactors for military use have recently been funded. NASA is also funding projects aimed at creating similar devices for civilian spacecraft, although any space nuclear reactor could be employed for either civilian or military uses. It is clear from these multiple funding activities by NASA, the military, and private or corporate enterprise that a major effort is being made to develop a new generation of space nuclear reactors, and that they will probably be used for a variety of missions in military and civilian satellites.
Meanwhile, there are international efforts to prevent the general militarization of space (including the military space reactors discussed here). Numerous resolutions have been submitted to the UN on this topic over the years, with the U.S. almost always voting against them in the face of overwhelming support by other nations. A draft treaty, called the PAROS (Prevention of an Arms Race in Space) Treaty, has been submitted to the UN (first by Russia in 2008 and later by several nations including the major spacefaring ones – i.e., Russia, China, and India) but unfortunately the U.S. has been unwilling to even engage in negotiations on this treaty.
Why? Presumably because the U.S. wishes to have an arms race in space, betting that its usual technological prowess will keep it ahead of those countries it regards as competition. U.S. Space Force officials have stated numerous times that outer space is a “warfighting domain.” The price? Undoubtedly billions upon billions of dollars and reduced security for all nations as they all scramble to keep up with the U.S. by developing their own versions of space weapons. How much saner it would be for all parties to negotiate them away!
It is my opinion that peace and social justice activists should keep track of these developments since they may well affect military space activities in a major fashion over the next several years.
Joel Weisbergrecently retired from Carleton College, Minnesota, and is the Stark Professor Emeritus of Physics, Astronomy, and the Natural Sciences. He is a member of WAMM and a peace and social justice activist who follows nuclear issues.
In late September, in a vote of 316-113, the U.S. House of Representatives added $25 billion to Biden’s Fiscal Year 2022 request for the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – evidence that China Fever is in full swing. The designated new principal enemy must be “defended” against.
The Minnesota delegation was split with Representatives Craig, McCollum, Philips, and Stauber voting Yes and Emmer, Fischbach, Hagedorn, and Omar voting No.
Where Is Congress in the War on Yemen?
An amendment to the NDAA, added by Representative Ro Khanna (California District 17), to end U.S. support for the Saudi war on Yemen passed 219-207.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Gregory Meeks (New York District 5) added an amendment to stop the U.S. servicing of Saudi planes; it passed 223-207. Sara Sirotta of The Intercept says that “the provision Meeks and his colleagues have introduced is especially lenient to the White House’s current approach to the war.”Antiwar.com reports that the Meeks amendment “calls for the suspension of the U.S. servicing of Saudi warplanes that are responsible for civilian casualties in Yemen, although the wording leaves room for exceptions that the Biden administration could take advantage of to continue the war.” This amendment would require “the suspension of U.S. sustainment and maintenance support to Saudi air force units responsible for airstrikes resulting in civilian casualties in Yemen ‘with certain exemptions for territorial self-defense, counterterrorism operations, and defense of U.S. government facilities or personnel.’” (Italicized emphasis by this newsletter.)
What about Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles?
An amendment by John Garamendi (Third District, California) to block funding for new ICBMs was defeated 299-118.
Jay Kvale is a member of the WAMM End War Committee.
ACTION: FFI: weapons and what we can do now: See page 2 of newsletter. [cards]
The following is a separate item attributed to The Atlantic (not part of article by Jay).
What Will the NDAA Fund? Third Revolution Warfare Ahead
“As someone who has studied and worked in artificial intelligence for the better part of four decades, I worry about such a technology threat, born from artificial intelligence and robotics. Autonomous weaponry is the third revolution in warfare, following gunpowder and nuclear arms.” ~ Kai-Fu Lee, “The Third Revolution in Warfare,” September 13, 2021, The Atlantic
What’s on Polly Mann’s Mind Today? Who Wins in War?
The United States War on Afghanistan has officially been called to a halt after 20 long years. The U.S. has also been winding down in the Middle East. However, there are still prisoners in Guantànamo, held for their supposed involvement in 9/11, 2001, where this foreign policy originated. And the U.S. is still carrying out air strikes in countries across the Middle East and Africa and is taking actions in the Asia Pacific threatening China.
The CIA and military drone-strike programs have continued since the Bush Administration and have not seriously been challenged; as the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan, the killing by drone of a man in Kabul who worked for a U.S.-based charity, together with his seven children, is only the latest known case in decades of mistaken targets.
Costs of War project, Watson Institute of International & Public Affairs, Brown University
The wars the U.S. has waged were not successful even in terms of stated missions to defeat declared enemies. IS appears to be making a comeback in northern Iraq.* In Afghanistan, the Taliban rules and Al Qaeda still exists in its newest iteration, IS-K. (The nefarious history of funding, training, and supplying IS-type salafist groups has long been credibly reported, but not in Western corporate media.)
The fact that the war continued for so long testifies to the control of U.S. foreign policy through a system of weapons manufacturers, their lobbyists, and the congressional members under the influence of lobbyists. William Hartung reports in his study, “Profits of War: Corporate Beneficiaries of the Post-911 Pentagon Spending Surge,” that “weapons makers have spent $2.5 billion on lobbying over the past two decades, employing on average over 700 lobbyists per year over five years. That is more than one for every member of Congress.” Hartung and researchers from The Costs of War project of the Watson Institute of International & Public Affairs at Brown University (tinyurl.com/r7vsan7h) found, not coincidentally, that one-third to one-half of the total $14 trillion spent on the war on Afghanistan went to military contractors.
To continue the profits of war, the project concluded that a new “rationale of choice” is needed, and it is “exaggerated estimates of the military challenges posed by China.”
We say, after 20 years of death, enormous destruction, and trillions of dollars, can’t we finally have peace?!
Polly Mann is a co-founder of WAMM, and contributor to this newsletter. Mary Beaudoin contributed research to this article.
* According to the September 22, 2021, Iraq Oil Report, which monitors energy extraction risks, “The Islamic State militant group is staging increasingly bold attacks on both security forces and civilians in northern Iraq, with energy infrastructure at risk.” https://tinyurl.com/57vb854m