In recent years, an unlikely focus has emerged in the realm of militarized space exploration, research, and funding: the Moon. As Space reports, military and defense agencies mainly account for this spike in interest. The U.S.’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the most well-known, dramatically intensifying its lunar-centric activities. The phenomenon raises vital questions about the future of space exploration as well as geopolitical implications.
What Does DARPA Do?
DARPA accounts for several programs geared toward furthering lunar technologies. A major one launched in 2021 is the Novel Orbital Moon Manufacturing, Materials, and Mass Efficient Design (NOM4D) program. Additionally, funding goes to the Lunar Operating Guidelines for Infrastructure Consortium (LOGIC), which is even more recent. The final major program on the Moon is the 10-Year Lunar Architecture (LunA-10) Capability Study, which aims to create integrated lunar infrastructure for peaceful U.S. and international applications.
These initiatives would probably seem benign to the outward observer, hardly evidence of militarization. But DARPA’s close affiliation with the U.S. Department of Defense raises eyebrows. Concerns understandably revolve around whether the Department of Defense’s efforts could commence a new arms race among nations to establish military presences on the Moon.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2023 report voiced reservations about China’s aim to secure access to the lunar body for strategic (militaristic) purposes.
DARPA’s programs, however, abide by the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty mandating the peaceful development of the Earth’s big satellite. Furthermore, the U.S. supported the Artemis Accords, which underscore the principles in the UN’s Treaty. According to experts like the American Foreign Policy Council’s Peter Garretson, DARPA’s initiatives constitute peaceful endeavors to spur a commercial lunar industry.
Indeed, DARPA’s developments don’t have to be militaristic to seem like the stuff of sci-fi. As per Garretson, neither LunA-10 nor NOM4D involves actual surface activity on the Moon by the Department of Defense. Instead, they aim to lessen technical risks associated with commercial actors in space and develop technical skills in the sector.
Nonetheless, international concerns arise. Most of this growing apprehension centers around China. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2023 report voiced reservations about China’s aim to secure access to the lunar body for strategic (militaristic) purposes. Upon establishing a genuine presence in cislunar space, China would potentially impact U.S. national security assets therein.
As it stands, there are contrasting opinions about the militarization of the Moon in the expert community. An associate professor at the University of Leicester, Bleddyn Bowen, considers the Moon to retain little military value. Instead, he highlights the legitimate need for infrastructural support to augment lunar activity.
While, of course, abiding by international treaties.
Still, Bowen discourages the political messaging, however unintentional, given by overtly military organizations such as DARPA spearheading lunar technological development. Such PR could inadvertently increase military interest in lunar activities overall.
Whereas Daniel Duedney, a professor at John Hopkins University, voiced skepticism about the overall cost and feasibility of advanced enterprises on the Moon, such as extracting water to fuel rockets. The expert supports a less militaristic, more cooperative, and international approach to lunar exploratio. One steeped mainly in scientific research instead of resource extraction.
Nonetheless, as Paul Szymanski of the Space Strategies Center articulates, there nonetheless exists abrupt spike in interest regarding defense spending on the Moon, starkly contrasting past decades. Whether this funding results in strictly scientific and technological gains—rather than militaristic ones—remains to be seen.