Published in View from the Edge – A monthly column by Lee Han Shih, Founder of the Potato Group, featured in the CompassList newsletter. The Sailor’s Log offers analysis, insights and coverage of noteworthy trends from up-and-coming startup ecosystems. It goes out the first and third Wednesday of every month. Get the CompassList newsletter here.
Faced with climate change, food security, the pandemic and a worsening relationship with the US, what has pushed China to spend massive amounts of resources on sending an unmanned vehicle to crawl on the surface of Mars?
The answer is survival. The justification was written 2,500 years ago in a military treatise called The Art of War.
Authored – purportedly – by a strategist and general called Sun Wu (later honored as Sun Tze, the sage), The Art of War was presented to a petty king in 515 BCE during China’s turbulent Spring and Autumn period of city-states and warring kingdoms.
This treatise of 13 chapters, concisely written on bamboo scrolls, has been highly influential to leaders and generals in the East and West throughout the ages. It was the text used by Shih Huangti to unite China in 212 BCE, by Mao Zedong to gain China in 1949, Ho Chi Minh for Vietnam’s independence and Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu to unite Japan in 1603. It is also a must-read of the military colleges in the US, Germany and many other countries.
Sun Tze stated: “In weakness, defend; in strength, attack. One who, adroit in defense, hides under nine layers of earth. One who, adroit in attack, maneuvers above the nine layers of sky. Thus, one maintains safety and can achieve total victory.”
“Nine layers of earth” is figurative; nine being the ultimate number in Chinese. It meant stealth, with forces spread among the population, escaping detection by the enemy.
“Nine layers of sky” was also meant to be symbolic, denoting an overwhelming and sudden attack, like a thunderbolt from the sky, undetected by the enemy and leaving him no room to mount a defense. Two American generals adopted this strategy in the Gulf War in the 1990s. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf Junior, in their “shock and awe” aerial bombings that rendered the Iraqi forces unable and unwilling to fight.
Warfare in the 19th century focused on control of the sea. In the 20th century, it was air supremacy. In the first half of the 21st century, it has switched to space – above “the nine layers of sky.” Sun Tze’s figurative speech has become prophetic.
Control of space started during the time of President Ronald Reagan with his “Star Wars” anti-missile plans. Decades later, these plans and other related ones have moved from science fiction to stark reality. With both the US and China now owning precise global positioning systems, the two superpowers can pinpoint targets in each other’s territories.
Technology has also advanced to the state where mass destruction from outer space is no longer dependent on nuclear weapons, prohibited by a 1967, 107-country Outer Space Treaty. We now have kinetic harpoons, including the US military’s Project Thor, or “rods from God,” which are simply huge metal (tungsten, for example) rods, each 7 meters in length, bundled together and hanging above target cities thousands of kilometers away in space. Once dropped, they gain velocity as they fall and can hit at 10 times the speed of sound, with the impact rivaling nuclear bombs but with no radiation issues.
Then there is a space platform that can gather and focus sunlight into tight microwave beams to hit selected areas. China is planning one in its far west for power generation, though no one doubts it could be weaponized as well.
Conventional defense is powerless against such attacks from “above the nine layers of sky.” The only possible safeguard is to be as powerful in space as the other superpower, thus preventing possible mutual destruction. This is why China is going to Mars, and the US is starting a Space Force.
Star Wars could soon move from movie theatres to real life.