When national security becomes lunar-base security, what will the real estate rules be? Tara Copp raised the question in her recent Defense One article: “If China and the US Claim the Same Moon-Base Site, Who Wins?” China and Russia are on one side, planning the development of what the moon has to offer, and the United States and its partners are on the other. Each is determining how best to utilize lunar-basing. At this time, America’s adversaries represent an imminent threat on earth, but what will happen when Russia and China start claiming large portions of the moon?
The point of Copp’s article is when going to the moon again begins in earnest, exploration will turn quickly to exploitation. Having a moon-base close to what are believed to be “limited pockets” of water ice would be helpful in sustaining habitable facilities. Also, the lunar surface has the potential to provide such resources as rare earth metals and helium-3. ExplainingTheFuture.com describes the value of helium-3:
“Helium-3 (He3) is gas that has the potential to be used as a fuel in future nuclear fusion power plants. There is very little helium-3 available on the Earth. However, there are thought to be significant supplies on the Moon. Several governments have subsequently signaled their intention to go to the Moon to mine helium-3 as a fuel supply.”
The concern is that the earthly competitors for resource, economic, and military dominance will vy for the same on the moon. Global competition observes some rules and constraints, but thus far the moon has not been restricted by international treaties. Copp suggested that the closest to a use-of-the-moon agreement is the Artemis Accords that outline the Artemis Base Camp project. In it, NASA and other partnering nations “endorsed the idea of ‘safety zones’ on the Moon, to require communications between two space operations that want to operate in the same area.” Copp quoted Laura Duffy, a space systems engineer with Canyon Consulting, who explained, “Whoever gets there first can use the resources, but no nation can ‘claim’ the territory.” However, the concept that a lunar grab is not allowed may be ignored by America’s primary adversaries, China and Russia, which are not members of the Artemis Accords.
A Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report released in July 2020 highlighted the importance for the United States to achieve and maintain economic prominence on the moon. Sounding a cautionary note, CSIS pointed out that:
“The US is not alone in planning to return humans to the Moon or expanding the use of space. China has announced its intention to do so by 2035. China is committed and credible in its pledge to become the leading global super-power, to include space, by 2049, marking the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic. A key component of China’s strategy is to displace the US as the leading power in space and lure US allies and partners away from US-led space initiatives, through its Belt and Road initiative and plans for an Earth-Moon Economic Zone.”
Managing and defending America’s national security lunar rights will fall to the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command. Again, from the CSIS report:
“An increasing US presence within an expanded cislunar economy will require security and a stabilizing military presence … A Space Force that presents forces, capabilities, and doctrine for national space power with the clearly defined mission to enable and protect US space commerce will project confidence and lower the perception of risk by providing stabilizing presence, surveillance, aids to navigation, and help when required.”
There is an enormous advantage that the United States and its partners have in using the moon for its resources and as a practical rest stop on the way to Mars. We have entrepreneurs. Unleashing the entrepreneurial prowess of such visionary companies as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin presents a formidable market-driven counter to the Chinese. Establishing a market economy on the moon may proceed in fits and starts but it would tend to be self-regulating with less chance of establishing a threat to the United States and its partners.
As it stands, the situation among wannabe space explorers going to the moon is akin to the start of the Oklahoma Land Rush, and participants are outfitting their highflying “Conestoga wagons.” And by no means should anyone forget that when the next lunar travelers arrive, they will see six flags – all Stars and Stripes. The first Old Glory was put there more than half a century ago, before anyone else.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.