In 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump declared his intention to develop a U.S. space force. Supervised by Chief of Staff Joseph Dunford, it would then become the sixth independent branch of the United States military. Thus, on December 20, 2019, the United States Space Force (USSF) was created to conduct military operations in space to protect U.S. assets and interests. To operate, the USSF relies on the space assets of the United States Air Force, namely government satellites and two Boeing X-37 shuttles, which for several years now have been operating secret, unmanned missions in orbit. In other words, at present, the USSF does not send any military personnel into space, but this could change.
Indeed, the debate over the possibility of sending military patrol vessels into space to protect U.S. interests has been open since the official speech of Major General John Shaw, Chief of the Space Operations Command of the Space Force, on September 29, 2020. He said, “At some point, yes, we will put humans in space. They will then be able to operate command centers somewhere in the lunar environment or elsewhere“. These words were later qualified in early October by Lieutenant General David D. Thompson, U.S. Deputy Commander of the U.S. Space Force, to reassure international partners and the public who accused the USSF of hiding certain military activities: “the construction of a military base on the Moon was not on the agenda, especially because the robots are doing a very good job at the moment“.
Military space patrol vessels are therefore being considered by the USSF, but this will not be in the near future. Lieutenant David D. Thompson speaks of a decade before lunar patrol ships can be deployed. This project echoes a doctrine that appeared in August saying that the service must prepare for a future when the moon and the volume of space around it could become the next military frontier.
But what are the U.S. Space Force’s expected goals in sending lunar patrol ships?
As the head of the U.S. Space Force, General John Raymond, reminds us, “we want to help prevent conflicts in space, not trigger them“. But while today’s military space activities extend no further than satellites in geostationary orbit, tomorrow’s commercial space activity and future U.S. capabilities have the potential to extend the reach of U.S. interests to the Moon and beyond in the longer term. “It will therefore be the responsibility of the U.S. Space Force to ensure the security of our interests wherever they are in space“, and if they “extend beyond geostationary orbit, then we will deploy beyond that as well“. As David D. Thompson said in a DefenceOne web conference, “we must prepare for the possibility of increased human activity on the Moon and its colonisation, which may require a military presence“. To do this, it will be necessary for the U.S. Space Force to prepare patrol vessels to understand the environment and to have space awareness capabilities to be able to carry out the assigned missions, which will necessarily take time.
In order to effectively prepare for this mission, NASA, in collaboration with the U.S. Space Force, is soliciting the help of private companies that invest in space projects. Indeed, American commercial companies are developing deep space technologies previously exclusively reserved for governments, ranging from space communications to navigation to lunar landing systems. Space awareness technologies are a fundamental component of the infrastructure needed to support a cislunar economy, and are critical to the successful completion of space missions. For example, the Space Vehicle Directorate is planning to hold a conference for interested contractors during 2021 at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico (if the health crisis allows them to maintain this conference).
NASA and the U.S. Space Force have also partnered in a broad agreement that will eventually allow the U.S. Space Force to conduct human spaceflight, provide space transportation and space security expertise to U.S. interests, as well as scientific research and planetary defense, according to a recent NASA statement. NASA explicitly wanted to sign such an agreement in order to be able to protect space projects currently underway on the Moon, such as Project Artemis, which plans to send astronauts to the Moon and build sustainable lunar infrastructure, so that it can conquer Mars in the coming years. NASA does not hide the fact that the viable and sustainable exploration of the Moon and Mars is based on the use of natural resources. Thus, the U.S. Space Force, which is dedicated to protecting American interests in space, both in terms of space infrastructure and low-orbit activities, will be required to ensure the security of Americans and the economy on the Moon.
Indeed, the threats and risks to which the first lunar explorers will be exposed will be essentially related to traffic management, meteorological (radiation, solar activity) and meteorite (fall, collision) surveillance, as well as communication security (cuts, jamming). These are dangerous activities where the protection of lunar patrol boats will be necessary. That said, in the longer term, if diplomatic relations between the United States, Russia and China do not improve, nothing can legally prevent Chinese or Russians from disembarking within a short distance of the Artemis Base Camp. And even less from exploiting the same deposit of a lunar resource: this is also why lunar patrol boats are greatly considered by the United States of America.