As it looks to pave the way for a new Space Force, the Pentagon is also reexamining the possibility of putting weapons, especially anti-missile systems, into orbit. But the U.S. military will need help getting them there and private space launch firm SpaceX says it could do the heavy lifting if asked.
On Sept. 17, 2018, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell took the stage at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space, and Cyber conference to tout the company’s space launch capabilities. She also promoted the firm's growing relationship with the Air Force, which is presently responsible for procuring the bulk of the U.S. military’s satellites and launch services, and took questions from the audience about the ever-growing importance of space to military operations.
“Would SpaceX launch military weapons?” someone asked.
“I’ve never been asked that question,” Shotwell said. “If it’s for the defense of this country, yes, I think we would.”
It’s not surprising Shotwell hasn’t considered this issue. The U.S. government largely brought serious discussions of space-based weapons to a halt in 1993, when President Bill Clinton’s administration brought the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to an end and shifted focus entirely to terrestrial missile defense systems.
By treaty, the United States is barred from placing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction into orbit, as well, though it has stymied efforts to expand those restrictions to cover conventional weapons. At least officially, the U.S. government’s position is that the newer proposed agreements do not do enough to prevent countries from development ostensibly peaceful systems that could double as weapons. A particular point of contention is the matter of small, highly maneuverable space-based “inspectors,” which primarily exist to examine and potentially repair other satellites, but could also disable, damage, or destroy an opponent's satellites.
Whether or not this is the real reason the United States has opposed new space-based weapons treaties has come into question recently after Congress inserted language into the annual defense policy bill cover the 2019 fiscal year that orders the U.S. military to start development of orbital anti-missile systems. The provisions express a hope that the Missile Defense Agency-led effort will have a workable prototype or prototypes by 2022 – less than four years from now.
So, it also means that SpaceX, among others, will have to grapple with questions about whether it will be willing to support these efforts. The company has already been working with the U.S. military for years, but has only used its novel low-cost Falcon 9 rockets, which each feature a reusable booster that lands back on Earth after launch, to put payloads into orbit that fill non-kinetic military roles, such navigation, and intelligence gathering.
But while Shotwell’s comments elicited applause from uniformed and civilian members of the U.S. military, defense contractors, and others in attendance at the Air Force Association conference, for her apparent patriotism, she smartly inserted a very diplomatic caveat into her answer. “I think” is in no way a guarantee that SpaceX would agree to launch an armed satellite into orbit in the coming years.
Shotwell is almost certainly aware of the potential problems for the company’s carefully managed public image and internal culture that could come from helping place weapons in space. Participation in an “offensive” military project recently caused significant trouble for Google internally.
In June 2018, Google’s cloud computing arm announced it would not look to renew its contract with the Department of Defense for a program known as Project Maven. This effort seeks to use artificial intelligence algorithms to rapidly sift through mountains of intelligence imagery and quickly identify items of potential interest. The goal is to speed up how quickly analysts can pore over the pictures to aid in locating terrorists or militants and the planning of subsequent strikes against those targets.
As it turned out, a group of employees had led a mutiny within the company, objecting on moral grounds to the work on Project Maven. Despite the lucrative nature of the deal, the multi-billion dollar company apparently decided that anything remotely related to “drone strikes” cast too negative a pall over the company’s public image as a whole. The decision sent a ripple through other parts of the tech industry.
SpaceX has gone to great lengths to cultivate a similar “hip” image and has been heavily promoting its space travel and tourism plans. On the same day Shotwell made her comments at the Air Force Association conference, the company’s founder and CEO Elon Musk announced plans to launch Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa on a first-of-its-kind trip around the moon aboard one of the companies Big Fucking Rockets, or BFRs, as early as 2023. Musk is hopeful that these spacecraft, or derivatives thereof, will enable humans to eventually travel to Mars.
At the same time, SpaceX’s lucrative contracts with the Air Force have been important to the company’s growth and expansion. The two parties are forming an ever more inseparable bond, which Congress has now in many ways enshrined into law by requiring the U.S. military to at least consider using lower-cost reusable booster rockets for any future space launches.
SpaceX already dominates that market with its Falcon 9 and tested its larger Falcon Heavy design for the first time in February 2018. The latter type will be able to launch significantly bigger payloads than the Falcon 9 thanks to its three reusable boosters. In June 2018, the company won its first ever contract to launch a payload with the Falcon Heavy – a $130 million deal with the Air Force.
With the U.S. military pushing hard to expand and improve its space-based capabilities in the face of growing threats including anti-satellite weapons, jamming, and signal spoofing, the demand for space launch services is going to explode in the coming years. SpaceX has positioned itself to be at the forefront of that boom, but competitors are growing in number and in the variety of capabilities they offer. If the California-headquartered company won’t take a particular mission, there will surely be others lining up to take their place.
In addition, if the Air Force decides to hire SpaceX for standing launch services over a specified time frame, the company might have to launch a space-based weapon system or risk violating the terms of that deal. A demand to include a provision allowing the firm to refuse to launch an armed satellite might be a deal breaker.
Space-based weapons with a purely defensive role, such as missile defense, might be an easier sell for SpaceX's stakeholders. Unlike Elon Musk's automotive venture, Tesla, the company isn't publicly traded, either, which might better insulate it from any public protests regardless.
“We would like to put large cargo on the surface of the moon by 2022. And we have our eyes on the prize to send people to Mars in 2024,” Shotwell said during her speech at the Air Force Association conference. “Imagine what we could do for the defense of the United States.”
If the Pentagon's space-based weapons plans become a reality, SpaceX's president may soon need to give a more definitive answer on whether or not what the company can do – or is willing to – includes empowering the U.S. government to conduct kinetic military operations from outside the Earth's atmosphere.
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