Mining the Moon: The First Mover Advantage

The US government is starting to lay down the groundwork for diplomacy on the moon. On 15 May, 2020 NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine released a set of principles that will govern the Artemis Accords on the exploration of the moon. The accords are named after NASA’s Artemis programme, the US initiative to explore the moon, with a planned launch of astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024. Other countries are also increasingly turning towards the moon, which is concerning when a landing on the moon can send up clouds of potentially hazardous dust that travel a long way across the surface and even into orbit…

At the moment, there is little practical international law governing activities on the moon. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 deals with general space exploration, while the more specific Moon Agreement of 1984 states that “the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of all mankind”, prohibiting the ownership of any part of the moon or any resources from the moon….However, no nation capable of human space flight has signed the Moon Agreement, effectively rendering it moot. In fact, in April 2020, US president Donald Trump issued an executive order supporting moon mining and taking advantage of the natural resources of space.

The Artemis Accords aim to protect historic locations like the Apollo landing sites but encourage mining in other areas. They also promote transparency and communication between nations, requiring signatories to share their lunar plans, register any spacecraft sent to or around the moon and release scientific data to the public.  That transparency requirement might be a stumbling block for potential parties to the accords, says Forczyk. “I really don’t know how much countries are going to be willing to share some of their more delicate, sensitive information,” she says. “

The rest of the stipulations of the Artemis Accords are about safety: nations will be able to set “safety zones” to protect their activities on the moon, they will have to work to mitigate the effects of debris in orbit around the moon and they will agree to provide emergency assistance to any astronauts in distress.

Rather than attempting to put together an international treaty, which could be difficult to negotiate before NASA’s next crewed launch to the moon, the US will sign bilateral agreements with individual countries.

Excerpts from Leah Crane, NASA’s Artemis Accords aim to lay down the law of the land on the moon, New Scientist, May 20, 2020

Choking the Water: Dams, Dams and More Dams

Since Tibet is part of China, Chinese engineers have been making the most of that potential. They have built big dams not only on rivers like the Yellow and the Yangzi, which flow across China to the Pacific, but also on others, like the Brahmaputra and the Mekong, which pass through several more countries on their way to the sea.

China has every right to do so. Countries lucky enough to control the sources of big rivers often make use of the water for hydropower or irrigation before it sloshes away across a border. But If the countries nearest the source of water, like China,  suck up too much of the flow, or even simply stop silt flowing down or fish swimming up by building dams, the consequences in the lower reaches of the river can be grim: parched crops, collapsed fisheries, salty farmland.

Tension and recrimination have been the order of the day for China and its neighbours… In part, this is because a river like the Mekong does not contain enough water to go round. China has already built 11 dams across the main river (never mind its tributaries) and has plans for eight more; the downstream states have built two and are contemplating seven more. Last year, during a drought, the river ran so low that Cambodia had to turn off a big hydropower plant. Even when rainfall is normal, the altered flow and diminished siltation are causing saltwater to intrude into the Mekong delta, which is the breadbasket of Vietnam, and depleting the fish stocks that provide the only protein for millions of poor Cambodians.

China has long resisted any formal commitment to curb its construction of dams or to guarantee downstream countries a minimum allocation of water. It will not even join the Mekong River Commission, a body intended to help riparian countries resolve water-sharing disputes…

China has not signed any agreements about managing the Mekong with the other countries it flows through, so is not obliged to share a particular amount of water with them, nor even provide data on the flow or any warning about the operations of its dams. It does provide the Mekong River Commission with a trickle of information about water levels and planned releases from dams, which helps with flood-control lower down the river

Excerps from Water Torture: Hydropower in Asia, Economist, May 16, 2020; Torrent to Tickle: the Mekong, Economist, May 16, 2020

The Game of Chicken in the Melting Arctic

In 2018 the NATO alliance, joined by Sweden and Finland, held Trident Juncture, its largest exercise since the end of the cold war, in Norway. That involved the first deployment of an American aircraft-carrier in the Arctic Circle for three decades. Western warships have been frequent visitors since. On May 1, 2020 a “surface action group” of two American destroyers, a nuclear submarine, support ship and long-range maritime patrol aircraft, plus a British frigate, practised their submarine hunting skills in the Norwegian Sea.

Such drills are not unusual. But on May 4, 2020 some of those ships broke off and sailed further north into the Barents Sea, along with a third destroyer. Although American and British submarines routinely skulk around the area, to spy on Russian facilities and exercises covertly, surface ships have not done so in a generation. On May 7, 2020 Russia’s navy greeted the unwelcome visitors by announcing that it too would be conducting exercises in the Barents Sea—live-fire ones, in fact. On May 8, 2020… the NATO vessels departed.

It is a significant move. The deployment of destroyers which carry missile-defence systems and land-attack cruise missiles is especially assertive. After all, the area is the heart of Russian naval power, including the country’s submarine-based nuclear weapons. Russia’s Northern Fleet is based at Severomorsk on the Kola peninsula, to the east of Norway’s uppermost fringes.

Western navies are eager to show that covid-19 has not blunted their swords, at a time when America and France have each lost an aircraft-carrier to the virus. But their interest in the high north predates the pandemic. One purpose of the foray into the Barents Sea was “to assert freedom of navigation”, said America’s navy. Russia has been imposing rules on ships that wish to transit the Northern Sea Route (NSR), an Arctic passage between the Atlantic and Pacific that is becoming increasingly navigable as global warming melts ice-sheets . America scoffs at these demands, insisting that foreign warships have the right to pass innocently through territorial waters under the law of the sea. Although last week’s exercise did not enter the NSR, it may hint at a willingness to do so in the future.

On top of that, the Arctic is a growing factor in NATO defence policy. Russia has beefed up its Northern Fleet in recent years…Russian submarine activity is at its highest level since the cold war…Ten subs reportedly surged into the north Atlantic in October 2019  to test whether they could elude detection….Russia’s new subs are quiet and well-armed. As a result, NATO’s “acoustic edge”—its ability to detect subs at longer ranges than Russia—“has narrowed dramatically.”

Russia primarily uses its attack submarines to defend a “bastion”, the area in the Barents Sea and Sea of Okhotsk where its own nuclear-armed ballistic-missile submarines patrol.  A separate Russian naval force known as the Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research (GUGI, in its Russian acronym) might also target the thicket of cables that cross the Atlantic.

The challenge is a familiar one. For much of the cold war, NATO allies sought to bottle up the Soviet fleet in the Arctic by establishing a picket across the so-called GIUK gap, a transit route between Greenland, Iceland and Britain that was strung with undersea listening posts….The gap is now back in fashion and NATO is reinvesting in anti-submarine capabilities after decades of neglect. America has stepped up flights of P8 submarine hunting aircraft from Iceland, and Britain and Norway are establishing P8 squadrons of their own. The aim is to track and hold at risk Russian nuclear subs as early as possible, because even a single one in the Atlantic could cause problems across a large swathe of ocean.

GIUK (Greenland, Iceland, UK) gap. Image from wikipedia.

But a defensive perimeter may not be enough. A new generation of Russian ship-based missiles could strike NATO ships or territory from far north of the GIUK gap, perhaps even from the safety of home ports. “This technological development represents a dramatically new and challenging threat to NATO forces…. Similar concerns led the Reagan administration to adopt a more offensive naval posture, sending forces above the gap and into the maritime bastion of the Soviet Union. 

Excerpts from Naval Strategy: Northern Fights, Economist, May 16, 2020

Builiding a Nuclear War Chest: the US Uranium Reserve

The US electricity production from nuclear plants hit at an all-time high in 2019… generating more than 809 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, which is enough to power more than 66 million homes.  Yet, despite operating the largest fleet of reactors in the world at the highest level in the industry, US ability to produce domestic nuclear fuel is on the verge of a collapse.  

Uranium miners are eager for work, the United States’s only uranium conversion plant is idle due to poor market conditions, and its inability to compete with foreign state-owned enterprises (most notably from China and Russia) is not only threatening US energy security but weakening the ability to influence the peaceful uses of nuclear around the world. Restoring America’s Competitive Nuclear Energy Advantage was recently released by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to preserve and grow the entire U.S. nuclear enterprise…. The first immediate step in this plan calls for DOE to establish a uranium reserve.   Under the Uranium Reserve program, the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) would buy uranium directly from domestic mines and contract for uranium conversion services. The new stockpile is expected to support the operation of at least two US uranium mines, reestablish active conversion capabilities, and ensure a backup supply of uranium for nuclear power operators in the event of a market disruption [such as that caused the COVID-19 pandemic]. 

NE will initiate a competitive procurement process for establishing the Uranium Reserve program within 2021.  Uranium production in the United States has been on a steady decline since the early 1980s as U.S. nuclear power plant operators replaced domestic uranium production with less expensive imports. State-owned foreign competitors, operating in different economic and regulatory environments, have also undercut prices, making it virtually impossible for U.S. producers to compete on a level-playing field.  As a result, 90% of the uranium fuel used today in U.S. reactors is produced by foreign countries.

Establishing the Uranium Reserve program is exactly what United States needs at this crucial time to de-risk its nuclear fuel supply. It will create jobs that support the U.S. economy and strengthen domestic mining and conversion services….The next 5-7 years will be a whirlwind of nuclear innovation as new fuels and reactors will be deployed across the United States.

Excerpts  from USA plans revival of uranium sector, World Nuclear News, May 12, 2020.  See also Building a Uranium Reserve: The First Step in Preserving the U.S. Nuclear Fuel Cycle, US Office of Nuclear Energy, May 11, 2020.

Will Saudi Arabia Own the United States?

In the coronavirus pandemic’s financial fallout, Saudi Arabia’s $300 billion sovereign-wealth fund has emerged as one of the world’s biggest bargain hunters, taking minority stakes worth billions of dollars in American corporations.  Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund  (PIF)  in the first quarter of 2020 bought shares valued at about half a billion dollars each in Facebook, Walt Disney,  Marriott International,  and Cisco Systems.  The fund bought financial stocks, investing $522 million in Citigroup, and $488 million in Bank of America while also spending $714 million on a stake in Boeing…Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler, tasked the sovereign-wealth fund in 2015 with diversifying the country’s economy away from oil by investing in companies and industries untethered to hydrocarbons.

PIF’s recent buying spree highlights a bold strategy of piling into global stocks even as the novel coronavirus and a crash in oil prices mean that Saudi Arabia’s financial position is now the most precarious in a decade. The Saudi government in May 2020 tripled its value-added tax rate and cut subsidies to state employees as it contends with lower oil revenue and an economy weakening under coronavirus lockdown.

Many of the stocks that PIF has targeted are trading at historic lows, bruised by the fallout from the coronavirus and rock-bottom oil prices that have battered stocks of energy companies in 2020. Teh PIF bought in 2020 undisclosed stakes in a bevy of energy companies, including Equinor (Norway), Royal Dutch Shell, Total (France) and Eni (France). The PIF invested $484 million in Shell, $222 million in Total and previously unreported stakes of $828 million in BP $481 million in Suncor Energy and $408 million in Canadian Natural Resources.

It also purchased shares valued at roughly $80 million each in: Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway; chipmakers Broadcom and Qualcom ; IBM; drugmaker Pfizer;  Starbucks; railroad company Union Pacific; outsourcer Automatic Data Processing; and Booking.com….On top of the stakes in public companies, PIF is also awaiting regulatory approval for a roughly £300 million ($363 million) buyout of U.K. Premier League soccer team Newcastle United.

Excerpts from Rory Jones and Summer Said, Saudi Sovereign-Wealth Fund Buys Stakes in Facebook, Boeing, Cisco Systems, WSJ, May 18, 2020

Our Cold War Roots: Weaponizing China’s One Child Policy

The elite US special operations forces are ill-equipped for high-tech warfare with China and Russia, experts warn, as the Trump administration pivots from the “war on terror” to a struggle with geopolitical rivals. Special operations, known for kicking down doors and eliminating high-value targets, number 70,000 personnel, cost $13bn a year and have carried much of the burden of the war on terror. But it is unclear what role they will play as the Pentagon moves to redeploy troops from Afghanistan to the Indo-Pacific to counter China’s regional ambitions.

General Richard Clarke, commander of special operations command (Socom), told an industry conference this week that the US needed to develop new capabilities to “compete and win” with Russia and China. He added that Socom must develop cyber skills and focus on influence campaigns rather than “the kill-capture missions” that characterised his own time in Afghanistan after the September 11 2001 attacks. Socom’s fighters include US Navy Seals, Army Green Berets and Marine Corps Raiders. Defence officials say China has raised military spending and research with the aim of exploiting American vulnerabilities, while Russia has tested out new technology during combat in Syria. “Maybe we are further behind than we know,” Colonel Michael McGuire told the annual Special Operations Industry Conference

McGuire highlighted US vulnerabilities in cyber security, and soft-power tactics by America’s enemies that could “drive fissures through some of our alliances”. He proposed shifting focus to defence over attack.   “You could have hundreds and thousands of engagements every single day in a fight against China. We are just not fast enough, dynamic enough or scaleable enough to handle that challenge,” said Chris Brose, chief strategy officer at Anduril…. He added “Most of the US-China competition is not going to be fighting world war three,” he said. “It’s going to be kicking each other under the table.”….

US special operators have for years had the run of the battlefield. But they face very different conditions in any fight against China, which has developed an arsenal of missiles, fighter jets, spy planes and other eavesdropping and jamming techniques that would make it hard for America to conceal troops, transport and communications. Special operations forces are not ready for operations against a near-peer foe, such as China, in a direct engagement… He called for a return to their cold war roots. “Vintage special operations forces is about stealth, cunning and being able to blend in — they were triathletes rather than muscle-bound infantrymen with tattoos,” said the former officer. 

David Maxwell, a former Green Beret and military analyst, is among those who favour a shift towards political warfare.One such idea of his would involve a popular writer being commissioned to pen fictionalised war stories based in Taiwan intended to discourage Beijing from invading the self-governing island. He told a gathering of Pacific special forces operators in February 2020 that fictional losses could “tell the stories of the demise of Chinese soldiers who are the end of their parents’ bloodline”. He argued that Beijing’s former one-child policy could be weaponised to convince China that war would be too costly. But Mr Maxwell said such ideas have yet to catch on. He added that psyops officers lamented to him that it was “easier to get permission to put a hellfire missile on the forehead of a terrorist than it is to get permission to put an idea between his ears”.

Excerpts from Katrina Manson , US elite forces ill-equipped for cold war with China, FT, May 16, 2020

Nuclear Operators: Who Helps India and Pakistian with their Atomic Bombs

Using open-source data, the nonprofit Centre For Advance Defense Studies (C4ADS) report published in April 2020 provides one of the most comprehensive overviews of networks supplying the rivals, in a region regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear flashpoints.

To identify companies involved, C4ADS analysed more than 125 million records of public trade and tender data and documents, and then checked them against already-identified entities listed by export control authorities in the United States and Japan. Pakistan, which is subject to strict international export controls on its programme, has 113 suspected foreign suppliers listed by the United States and Japan. But the C4ADS report found an additional 46, many in shipment hubs like Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. The father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, AQ Khan, admitted in 2004 to selling nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya. He was pardoned a day later by Pakistani authorities, which have refused requests from international investigators to question him.

India has a waiver that allows it to buy nuclear technology from international markets. The Indian government allows inspections of some nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but not all of them. C4ADS identified 222 companies that did business with the nuclear facilities in India that had no IAEA oversight. Of these, 86 companies did business with more than one such nuclear facility in India.

Both countries are estimated to have around 150 useable nuclear warheads apiece, according to the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit group tracking stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

Excerpts from Alasdair Pal, Exclusive: India, Pakistan nuclear procurement networks larger than thought, study shows, Reuters, Apr. 30, 2020