All these stories about asteroids are great for selling newspapers (digital anyway). So it warms the cockles of one’s heart to read that NASA is sending a flying bomb (kind of) to hit a nasty asteroid, hopefully for a six so it will avoid hitting the Earth (not really, coz it’s only a test). We can all rest easy that this is one of the more noble actions by Uncle Sam and the world should take notice and be appropriately appreciative.
But hang on a moment. Something from Earth that hits an asteroid in outer space doesn’t sound so great when you think about it. What if that asteroid was a US asset and the flying impactor was a Russian missile? Not so great after all.
Military leaders especially tend to think of things in terms of “dual use”. That’s when something designed for peaceful purposes can also be used for military purposes. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; after all countries have to defend themselves. You just don’t want things getting out of hand.
That’s what’s happening now. Hitting a threatening asteroid uses means which are dual purpose. Missions to Mars and the Moon are dual purpose too. Scientific missions to outer planets and moons such as to Titan and Enceladus are also dual use.
There are probably dozens of things that most of us regard as being innocent, peaceful uses of space technology that are also dual use, even though the common Joe would never suspect it. These days with chips galore, new types of apps, AI and the rest of it, many if not most civilian technologies might well be dual use.
There are actually two categories of dual use. One is peaceful things that could be turned to military use. Another is things that are already military but terrestrial that can also be used for military purposes in outer space. Hypersonic missiles come to mind.
The US seems to be losing that particular battle but no doubt we are already pulling out all the stops to reverse that trend. In the meantime, we need to be aware that the impactor for that ornery asteroid NASA will hopefully shoot “down” could also be a Chinese hypersonic missile in another scenario.
As we speak, the US and Russia re working on the new START treaty to limit the number of intermediate range nuclear weapons. That sounds kind of small-time and academic when you compare it against outer space distances, interplanetary military bases and hypersonic missiles. There are so many dual use technologies out there, some of which are potentially emerging on a monthly basis. Planetary defense is just one of them. Yet in its own right it’s a potential game – read warfare – changer.
Believe it or not there is an Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, that prohibits signatories from using outer space and planets for military purposes and for initiating and conducting warfare in space.
20 years ago, that might have been a comforting backdrop to the space plans of the powers that have advanced military and space capabilities. Not now. What are the next dual use features when China, Russia, North Korea, Japan, Israel and so on start their own planetary defense initiatives? How about when not only the European countries (whom we can hopefully “trust”) but also others who just might harbor nefarious motives such as Brazil, Qatar, the UAE, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia join the club?
As we know only too well there are a huge number of asteroids out there. We’re going to need numerous asteroid defense plans and projects to be able to mount a successful defense against them, including not just the tiddlers but the odd dinosaur-ending behemoths.
The countries that launch asteroid-smashing impactors will have more than ample reasons to do so. Piggybacked on most, if not all of them will be dual use applications, most of which are going to be imaginative, powerful and subtle, if not outright clandestine. These are the true wreckers of arms control efforts of the future.
The US Department of Defense has just set up a special unit to monitor reports of UFOs and other such phenomena. If indeed we do get confirmed reports of aliens that’s going to be another reason for planetary defense projects. That will start another gold-rush for planetary defense initiatives. That’s going to be interesting.
It turns out that its not going to be the nuclear threat after all that is the main threat to the continued survival of humanity. It’s going to be planetary defense since it is, on the surface, all about humans being good and altruistic, yet gives air cover to countries with warlike aspirations, and no doubt authoritarian tendencies. Nuclear weapons are probably the least of our arms control problems in that context
Right now, the threat is planetary defense against asteroids. What if we really do see aliens and then we have to have planetary defense again them as well?
It’s not good.