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The militarisation of space and private companies: Who’s in?

By Shira Jeczmien

Oct 25, 2018

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In a speech at the White House two days ago, Vice President Mike Pence announced the Trump administration’s plan to create the sixth branch of the U.S. military: Space Force. Because if missiles could orbit us at all times, you can trust that Trump will be the man to put them up there. Following a characteristically hyperbolic announcement of the U.S.’s intentions to reignite the country’s space exploration and put American astronauts on “the red soil of Mars”, Pence highlighted that “our Commander-in-Chief’s highest priority is the safety and security of the American people.” Continuing to say that while Obama’s administration continuously failed to see “the growing security threats in space, President Trump has stated forcefully a truth that the leaders of the National Defense University have long understood: that space is ‘a warfighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea,’ and America will be as dominant there as we are here on Earth.”

The Trump administration’s deluded approach to war and protectionism is by now a given, and with that this new space-war turn of events does not come as a shocking surprise. What does however present itself as somewhat of a plot twist is SpaceX’s compliance to aid the administration on its new mission. While the private space exploration company—the only one operating as such in the world—spearheaded by Elon Musk, has thus far launched several of its Falcon 9 for the U.S. military Air Force, the question of sending out weapons into orbit is entirely new.

Emphasising the need to both further militarise and privatise space as a new war-fighting domain, Pence stressed that the new branch of the military is targeted for a 2020 implementation date. And in case you were wondering what the new budget for this new sixth military branch might be, the administration is pushing for $8 billion in new space spending. At the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space, and Cyber conference in September, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell confirmed the company’s tightening relationship with Air Force and, more worryingly, when asked if SpaceX would launch military weapons for the government, she answered “I’ve never been asked that question. If it’s for the defence of this country, yes, I think we would.”

Thing is, while it may seem ludicrous that a space exploration private company has never considered the possibility of using its highly advanced technology for the use of national security (or at least publicly admitting as such), it is because, basically, it’s illegal. By treaty, the U.S. is barred from placing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction as well as conventional weapons into orbit. And to date, no President has opened this pandora box since 1993 when Bill Clinton’s administration brought Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) to a close.

This new turn of events has raised one crucial question: will tech tycoons use their technologies to advocate defence systems and warfare in the name of national defence? Apparently, for SpaceX at least, the answer is yes.