Yesterday, I discussed a story covered by my colleagues over at Wizbang Blue about advances in military technology. Oddly enough, shortly after that one was published, another author there wrote a similar story — this one about the militarization of space.
Paul Hooson’s piece is a bit on the hysterical side, but he brings up a good topic: just what should we do about the militarizing of space?
I spent a couple of hours trying to track down a quote I’d read years ago, and utterly failed. (This is where one of you cheerfully chimes in “oh, the exact phrasing is XXX, and it was said by YYY in the book ZZZ.”) The closest I can recall it was something like “if you do not control the peaks, you will surely die in the valleys.”
In military terms, the advantage is almost always to the side that hold the higher ground. You can see further, shoot further, and move faster. You have a natural cover, while the enemy is more exposed. And the enemy will be slowed when trying to attack you, as they must scale the heights to reach you.
This was a large factor in the development of air power, as it allowed forces to bypass natural terrain limitations and strike with relative impunity. Also, the force of gravity was a tremendous ally — the Air Force has a saying: “Cluster bombing from B-52s is very, very accurate. The bombs always hit the ground.”
In that context, space is the ultimate “high ground.” It’s why we put communications and spy satellites up — they can reach around nearly all terrain obstacles and work their magic.
And it’s a wonderful place to put weapons.
In Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress,” a lunar colony rebels against Earth rule. Their primary weapons are mass drivers, electromagnetic catapults used to launch ore into space for refining and processing in orbital factories. The rebels re-aim them at Earth.
In essence, they are threatening to toss big rocks at the Earth, a flashback to medieval times. But because those rocks will be falling from space, they’ll hit with a force greater than an atomic bomb — and they do.
For years, actual weapons were — by and large — kept out of space by treaties. This was not some high principle, but simple fear: all parties were afraid of the others gaining advantage in this new celestial arms race, and agreed to the terms to avoid losing an advantage.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union changed all those equations. Suddenly, we had no one to negotiate with.
The United States saw that there were other threats on the horizon — such as North Korea’s experimentation with long-range missiles and nuclear weapons — and started looking to space for defense. While it’s nice to see an incoming missile from space, it’s even better to stop it from there before it gets too close to us. This led to a resurgence in ballistic missile defense measures, something we had signed away in various treaties — but the nation we had made those pacts with no longer existed.
Next up, Communist China — which has placed a man in orbit and is working towards becoming the second nation to put a man on the moon — kicked its anti-satellite program into high gear. They made at least one unannounced test of one system, destroying one of their own weather satellites and unleashing a storm of highly-destructive debris in Earth orbit.
For all the grand talk about the war-mongering US, so far all of our efforts towards militarizing space have been theoretical. We’ve discussed notions, kicked around theories, made some small-scale tests. The Chinese have actually carried out full-scale tests and proven their capabilities.
Perhaps we should try to stuff the genie back in the bottle and once again free the heavens of the threat of warfare, of bringing our conflicts to the stars. The real challenge will be in getting all the parties who can do so to oblige — and in a verifiable way.
After all, all the mice in the world can vote to bell the cat — but the cat has to agree to abide by the vote.