While the mainstream media obsesses over “Russiagate” and the United States’ numerous ongoing wars (seven and counting) drag on, a major military development is occurring largely out of view that will have a long-term impact on U.S. foreign relations: the U.S. is militarizing space.
Earlier this month, the unmanned Boeing X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) landed in Florida after a two-year secret mission. It was reportedly the drone’s fourth successful orbital spaceflight.
In a press release, the Air Force reiterated its claim that the X-37 was merely collecting data to support “the scientific and space communities,” and noted no military dimension to its development or missions. The actual details of the mission are classified.
Despite the Pentagon’s claims of wholly benign intent, the evidence is pretty clear that X-37 has numerous military applications. One quarter the size of the now-retired NASA space shuttle, the X-37 drone is ideal for gathering intelligence. In particular, the X-37 would be useful in gathering signal intelligence by eavesdropping on information being sent by satellites, both civilian and military. Additionally, it could be used for ground mapping radar or other surveillance as the drone is large enough to be adapted for other intelligence missions.
And that’s putting aside some of the more speculative analyses of the X-37, which include the drone being a space-based weapons platform that can be used either to attack a target in space or on earth (enemy satellites for instance) or protect U.S. space assets from anti-satellite weapons.
But even if the X-37 somehow is a completely benign scientific pursuit, its existence and ongoing operations are triggering other countries to further develop space-based military hardware. Both Russia and China have already been investing in unmanned space vehicles as well as anti-satellite weapons. In 2007, China used a missile to blow up one of their weather satellites, seemingly proving they could target U.S. satellites successfully.
Now, with the U.S. making further progress with the X-37, expect Russia and China to follow suit, if not double-down on already ongoing efforts.
The ultimate consequence of militarizing space could be disastrous. Even if, somehow, a war in space would not translate into a war on the planet, the destruction of a fair number of the 2,000-plus satellites orbiting the earth would give the global economy a heart attack. GPS, weather monitoring, media, and other communications could be compromised for months if not years.
During the Cold War, the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union led to exploration and technological development (not without severe tensions). But this new standoff has all the hallmarks of a more grounded turf war that could spiral out of control, creating chaos on earth as well as the heavens.