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Preserving Freedom of Action in Cislunar Space

  • Published
  • By Capt Bryan W. Maher, USAF


A distress call originating from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) outpost on the lunar surface’s south pole indicates imminent loss of atmosphere inside the habitation module. NASA mission controllers monitoring the communications from the lunar outpost realize with horror that the two astronauts stationed there are most likely dead when the distress call reaches Earth. The mission controllers urgently try to establish communications with the lunar outpost, only to receive a loss of signal error. The fate of the two astronauts cannot be verified for at least three days, leaving NASA administrators and the current US government administration under immense public scrutiny for this terrible tragedy.

(Source: NASA Imagery S86-27256, June 1986)

Figure 1. Artist’s concept of a lunar base

This fictional scenario, set one or two decades in the future, could be how initial conflict between the US and China plays out after both states have established outposts on the lunar south pole. In this scenario, NASA established an outpost first in a prime location situated over the largest deposit of water ice on the lunar south pole. A Chinese contingent of military personnel, having arrived two months later, established an outpost several miles away from the NASA outpost in an area lacking significant quantities of water ice. Competition for the valuable water ice (rocket fuel and radiation shielding) became exacerbated when Chinese efforts to utilize horizontal extraction techniques failed. The realized economic gains and strategic location of the NASA outpost over thick deposits became an attractive option for the Chinese government. A plan was developed to attack the NASA outpost and make it look like a micrometeoroid shower destabilized the integrity of the habitation module. Without any type of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites or manned surveillance stations orbiting the Moon, attributing nefarious actions to the Chinese government will be next to impossible.

This scenario highlights an asteroid-sized hole in US space strategy; the US government has no military plans to protect and defend its commercial Moon and asteroid mining initiatives against adversary aggression and competing interests. Unless a strategy is developed by the Department of Defense to utilize military assets to preserve freedom of action within the Earth–Moon system, our adversaries can capitalize on our inaction. The US civil strategy for NASA to establish an outpost on the Moon’s south pole addresses a piece of the overall US space strategy but lacks a military component that is addressed in our adversaries’ space strategy. For example, the Chinese government’s goal for its space program is to create wealth, obtain resources, and establish a permanent human presence in space. In the 2016 white paper on space activities, released by the Information Office of the Chinese State Council, the government outlined how its space program is oriented toward “economic and social development,” as opposed to NASA’s model, which is more focused on “space exploration” and “scientific discovery.” China views space exploration as a way to expand its economy and encourage national development.1

US national space policy recognizes three distinct sectors of space activity: national security (military, intelligence), commercial, and civil.2 Alternatively, the Chinese government does not make such a clear distinction between its sectors of space activity. This lack of distinction gives their space program great flexibility to transition more seamlessly between the different sectors simply by allowing their personnel to change “hats” depending on the circumstances. This situation is concerning since their military space activities can be disguised or excused as primarily for civil or commercial purposes.

The aim is to win the game for influence and power projection utilizing a peacetime offensive, especially in a domain like outer space without bloodshed so that a Chinese order is established and legitimized.3 If the Chinese are successful in establishing the first lunar outpost, the consequences could be disastrous for the US and its allies. This scenario is concerning considering armed forces on our Moon theoretically would possess great strategic advantage, because spacecraft require significantly more energy to escape from the bottom of Earth’s "gravity well" than if launched from the Moon. The gravitational pull of the Moon is one-sixth as strong as that around Earth. Occupants of military positions analogous to the “high ground” enjoy greater room to maneuver and freedom of action.4

More broadly, this high ground extends into cislunar space; a region of space that extends from geosynchronous orbit to the Moon’s orbit, including the Lagrange points (L1, L2, L4, and L5). The Lagrange points are strategically important because the gravitational effects of the Earth and Moon cancel each other out. These points are situated at the top of the gravity well and are considered gravitationally stable points in space, meaning that structures or spacecraft could be placed there permanently.5 This is strategically important because who controls circumterrestrial space could dominate Planet Earth; who controls our Moon could dominate circumterrestrial space; who controls the L4 and L5 points could dominate the Earth-Moon system.6

To gain control of the Lagrange points, US National Security Space Strategy needs to include a vision for how to accomplish such a feat. This strategy has been outlined for our civil space agency (NASA) by adopting ideas by space pioneers such as Wernher von Braun’s “Lily Pad” approach.” In a series of articles for Collier’s magazine in the 1950s, von Braun sketched out his vision for space development. First came orbiting satellites, followed by manned reusable vehicles, then a space station, bases on the Moon, and finally an expedition to Mars.7 The US military ought to pursue a similar construct as von Braun’s “Lily Pad” approach focused exclusively on cislunar space. US space strategy needs to be accomplished in concert with our allies and partner nations; more broadly, cooperation should be expanded to include other States whose governments share similar world views and values.

The US space program should pursue joint ventures in our distinct sectors and with foreign partners when goals and efforts converge but be clear when these goals and efforts are intended to diverge as to maintain our distinct and separate sectors. The US can utilize its civil capabilities to advance national interests and augment its commercial capabilities to strengthen the nation’s space abilities, while utilizing US and allied/partner nations’ military capabilities to secure and protect any economic benefits.8 US and allied/partner nations can ensure freedom of access to space and ensure freedom of action in space much like the Navy’s charge to ensure freedom of access to and action within international waters, and when directed in times of conflict, to deny these rights to adversarial states.9 In much the same way it has maintained control of the high seas, enforcing international norms of innocent passage and property rights, the United States could prepare outer space for a long-overdue burst of economic expansion.10

A manned military presence in space will be necessary to enforce norms of behavior and international law when US companies and entities of adversary States begin economic expansion on the Moon and near-Earth asteroids. The trillions of dollars at stake for the products created from water ice and extraction of platinum-group metals could create intense competition for these resources. Plenty of examples of conflict between states competing for resources in the land and maritime domains demonstrate the same can and should be expected in the space domain. China’s blatant disregard for the Law of the Sea, which the Chinese government signed and ratified, provides insight into how China will behave in the space domain given that the Outer Space Treaty is more ambiguous and outdated than the Law of the Sea.

In conclusion, the US needs to establish more proactive and aggressive space policy that includes development of military capabilities to protect US freedom of access to space and freedom of action in space. This policy should promote the construction of sustainable military infrastructure in space to support a thriving space economy. It is imperative infrastructure be established in the strategic Lagrange points to ensure US and allied/partner nations’ interests are preserved. The US and its allies must win this race against the Chinese for control of cislunar space if the US is to remain the preeminent space power.

Capt Bryan W. Maher, USAF

Captain Maher (MS, University of North Dakota; BA, Simpson College) is the standardization and evaluation flight commander with the 533rd Training Squadron at Vandenberg AFB, California.



1 Jack H. Burke, “China’s New Wealth-Creation Scheme: Mining the Moon,” National Review, 13 June 2019,

2 Scott Pace, chapter 7: “Merchant and Guardian Challenges in the Exercise of Spacepower,” in Charles D. Lutes and Peter L. Hays, Toward a Theory of Spacepower: Selected Essays, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2015), 127–51.

3 Namrata Goswami, “China’s Grand Strategy in Outer Space: to Establish Compelling Standards of Behavior,” Space Review, 5 August 2019,

4 John M. Collins, chapter 18, “U.S. Military Spacepower: Conceptual Underpinnings and Practices,” in Charles D. Lutes and Peter L. Hays (2nd Ed.), Toward a Theory of Spacepower: Selected Essays 2nd ed (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2015), 352–69.

5 Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr., chapter 3, “International Relations Theory and Spacepower,” in Charles D. Lutes and Peter L. Hays (2nd Ed.), Toward a Theory of Spacepower: Selected Essays, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2011), 29–43.

6 Collins, “U.S. Military Spacepower,” 2015.

7 Pace, “Merchant and Guardian Challenges,” 2015.

8 Pace, “Merchant and Guardian Challenges,” 2015.

9 Everett C. Dolman, Everett Henry F. Cooper Jr., chapter 19, “Increasing the Military Uses of Space,” in Charles D. Lutes and Peter L. Hays (2nd Ed.), Toward a Theory of Spacepower: Selected Essays, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2011), 373–89; and “U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission: Hearing on “China in Space: A Strategic Competition?”, 2019, Testimony of Namrata Goswami.

10 Dolman and Cooper, “Increasing the Military Uses of Space,” 2015.


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