National Security & Defense

Space: The New Strategic Heartland

Earth seen from the International Space Station, March 25, 2018. (Johnson Space Center/NASA)
It’s time for the U.S. to create a Space Force.

Editor’s Note: We are re-posting this article in light of the president’s June 18 announcement directing that a Space Force be created.

Space is quickly transitioning from a benign environment in which actors operate peacefully “for all mankind” to a militarized domain which will play host to the international great-power competition. While it is true that military power has been present in space for some time — in the form of weather, communications, and surveillance satellites — the coming years increasingly will see the use of space-based weapons systems. An article in a leading Asian defense journal reported that China recently held a conference to discuss placing sensors and weapons on the moon to target U.S. satellites in low-earth and deep-space orbits. Meanwhile, Russia and China both are developing a host of terrestrial capabilities to track, disrupt, and destroy American satellites. “Star Wars” will no longer just be a popular movie franchise; it will represent the new era of geostrategic competition.

This transition is similar to previous watersheds in geopolitical strategy. In 1904, British geographer Halford Mackinder presented the beginning of his “heartland theory” to the Royal Geographical Society, highlighting central Eurasia as the “pivot area” in global great-power politics. All commercial and military competitions, Mackinder argued, turned around this region. Mackinder asserted that this zone of competition was strategically important because of exploration and colonization: “Scarcely a region [is] left for the pegging out of a claim of ownership, unless as the result of a war. ”

Seventy-five years later, Richard Nixon, in political exile at his home in San Clemente, Calif., wrote that the Middle East, with its vast energy supplies, and Africa, with its largely untapped mineral resources, had become the new geostrategic heartland in the great-power competition that was then raging between the Soviet Union and the U.S. Nixon perceived an ongoing “Real War,” where the Soviet Union’s goal was to cut off the West from the supplies that were essential to its industrial economy.

Now, space has emerged as a critical domain of competition for a world still characterized by American leadership. Following the United States military’s overwhelming “100 hour” victory over Iraq in 1991, other powers began to understand that essential components of American power lay in space. The nation’s precision-strike complex, which relies on technological overmatch to offset the on-the-ground numerical advantage of its opponents, depends on space-based satellites. The Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation ensures that weapons are both accurately aimed and precisely timed. Political leaders and military commanders maintain contact with and coordinate the efforts of subordinate units via communications satellites.

A growing portion of the American economy also relies on space. Major communications and banking efforts run through space, lowering costs while adding capabilities. Direct-to-home television broadcasts are transmitted from space. Earth-observation services, from weather forecasting to crop management, from energy and mineral exploration to market intelligence, are blossoming. And medium-earth orbit commercial prospects are brightening as the potential of global navigation equipment becomes clear.

A bit higher up, in the manned realm, the International Space Station is quickly approaching the end of its life span. The next space station, for there surely will be one, could be a public–private partnership if not a fully private commercial enterprise. Further out, opportunities on the surface of the moon and in its orbit for public–private partnerships are emerging. The manned and unmanned missions to the moon during the past two generations have identified locations of water, minerals, and rare elements on and below the surface of the moon. Establishing living and manufacturing facilities in the moon’s low gravity would allow companies to construct deep-space ships more quickly and cheaply. Such ships could enable the exploration and subsequent development of manned installations on Mars, the Earth’s nearest and most-habitable planetary neighbor. Still further, Lunar-based ships, both manned and unmanned, could take the lead in mining asteroids — such as the Massachusetts sized nickel-iron rich Psyche asteroid, or the 433 Eros asteroid, which was found to contain more gold than has ever been mined on earth — out in the space that lies between the inner rocky planets and the gas giants.

Any nation that establishes control of space, or gains the ability to deny others access to space, will have a strong strategic advantage.

Space is indeed becoming the new “heartland” for the emerging great-power competition. Mackinder labeled central Eurasia the “heartland” because he felt that all power, economic and military, ran through it with sufficient density that whoever controlled the heartland would control the world. Two generations later, Nixon assigned similar importance to the Middle East and Africa. Whoever controlled access to the raw energy and mineral resources there would control the world economy; whoever controlled the economy, Communist or capitalist, would control the world. In today’s information age, money, information, and entertainment flow through space. The U.S. military, and those of China and Russia, increasingly depend on space-based systems. If one nation was to establish control of space — or at least design an architecture that could deny others access to space — it would therefore have a strong strategic advantage. Whoever controls space could potentially control the world.

China understands this fact. With its grasp of strategic trends, China has sensed the direction of mankind’s competition and moved expeditiously in that direction. The country has announced its intent to lay “vertical sovereignty” claims over certain geo-synchronous regions of space. Several Chinese officials, have advanced arguments to lay sovereign claims upon territory on the moon despite the fact that this would be in direct violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. China also has expressed interest in the gravitationally stable and strategically important LaGrange points that make up the Sun-Earth-Moon system. China clearly knows where the modern heartland is located.

The United States, however, does not. Despite having had a significant head start on space travel and exploration, the United States has made few investments in assuring its access to space (aside from its obvious military dependence on space-based technology) or considering paths to denying such access to potential enemies. America’s Space Command is largely focused on supporting military operations within the air, maritime, and land domains on Earth. It is less prepared to defend the nation’s interests in Earth’s orbit or beyond. Sensing that the nation’s space community has been myopic, Congress has repeatedly asked the question: Is now the appropriate time to set up a Space Force? The answer from the Department of Defense, despite the president’s suggested support, has been underwhelming: requests for more time to consider the problem.

The time has come for the United States to move aggressively outward into space — as its competitors, especially China, are doing. The U.S. can no longer afford to ignore that its vital national-security interests flow through space. Space is the new strategic heartland, and the time has come for the president and Congress to create an independent U.S. Space Force.

Jerry Hendrix — Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a vice president with the Telemus Group, a national-security consultancy.

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