Clausewitz in Orbit: Spacepower Theory and Strategic Education


The politics of war and peace in space is an overlooked field. Space is a quiet and lonely place in war studies – despite space systems performing critical infrastructure roles in war, peace, politics, economics, and nuclear stability. In the mid-1990s John Sheldon and Colin Gray bemoaned the fact that there is no ‘Mahan for space.’ Neither writer apparently considered the possibility that they had answered their own plea, or in other words, that there is a Mahan for space: it’s Alfred Thayer Mahan. The 19th century navalist is one of a constellation of strategic theorists (such as Clausewitz, Castex, Corbett, to name the most prominent) whose work I am applying to create a spacepower theory intended to inform the diverse strategic problems conflict in this new medium might pose.

What are the grounds for analogy from terrestrial warfare to space warfare? How can universal principles about war at the highest levels where politics and violence meet – i.e. strategic theory – be reasonably crafted and constructively used? I believe there are two crucial grounds for analogy from the Earth to space. The first is Clausewitz’s most famous dictum that war is a continuation of politics with the addition of other means. This idea, that war is political, allows Clausewitz to connect any wars that are infinitely variable in their details and see what is common between them in order to learn more about why certain decisions were made and the conditions within which those decisions were made. This is done by asking questions that are based on a grasping of a few universal principles. Regardless of the situation, a universal principle should help develop useful questions to ask of any given situation. The political nature of war pervades whatever we may understand as war. This provides a basic ground for examining wars and helps train the individual to appreciate why wars are so different. Why is one war more costly than another? Why was one war forfeited when the costs were so little when ‘total’ wars have destroyed entire states before resistance was crushed? The political aspect helps Clausewitz develop a strategic analogy for the better understanding and study of the phenomenon of war. This in turn should help practitioners better grasp their craft. Identifying thematic commonalities among wars helps identify their particular differences. Readers familiar with Clausewitz’s ‘remarkable trinity’ will no doubt appreciate the universality of passion, reason, and chance in every war, yet their manifestations are innumerable in their forms in history.

But what does this abstract theorising mean for space warfare? Space warfare – actions taken to destroy or interfere with enemy space systems – is not inherently escalatory, limited, ethical, a prelude to nuclear war, or inevitable. Space warfare will be a reflection of the political conditions of any belligerents that fight who happen to have a capability in using or denying space systems. Clausewitz, through stressing politics, brings the human element and the wider prevailing strategic context of any political violence to our attention. A recent series of articles on anti-satellite weapons and the risks of nuclear war fail to mention the realities of second-strike nuclear capabilities, the politics and psychology of nuclear threat perception, and the imponderable systemic political context that any single decision to attack will be within. Instead, select technological devices are ascribed a political value (stabilising or destabilising) without connecting the discussion to any political context between the established nuclear powers. These narrow arguments fail to adequately put space warfare in its strategic and political contexts and can impose blinkers on strategic thinking. Spacepower theory should help put these narrow arguments in their strategic contexts, and illuminate factors that have been omitted – in this case mutually assured destruction, second strike capabilities, and the politics and psychology of deterrence.

The second ground for analogy is that space warfare is best thought of as being comprised of as celestial lines of communication (a well-developed idea by John Klein) and over the contest of a command of space. This of course is analogical to concepts of sea lines of communication and the command of the sea popularised by the seapower theorists Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett. Along these lines or communication, information, wealth, and satellites travel either on Newtonian orbital paths or through data streams in the electromagnetic spectrum. Like sea lines of communication, denying the use of these celestial lines of communication may have an impact on a war. Indeed, the more an economy and military depends on those celestial lines of communication, the more lucrative a target those lines may become for an adversary. Though there are many problems by other authors on their use of seapower theory for spacepower theory, Mahan and Corbett, in conjunction with other lesser-known seapower thinkers make outer space more of a coastline than an open sea. Indeed, that is a central aspect of my spacepower theory. But, as Clausewitz and Mahan often argued, strategic creativity and good leadership escape quantitative analysis and defy mechanistic approaches to understanding war.

These two basic grounds of strategic analogy from warfare on Earth to outer space serve to illustrate how ‘Clausewitz in orbit’ works. But with such a qualitative approach, it is hard to declare success. Rather, only discussion and the academic process will deem spacepower theory of any use. Indeed, it is impossible for spacepower theory to be ‘correct’ – it can only be useful for the strategic education of the individual. This approach may be distasteful to some in an era of increasing quantitative analyses of educative practices and performance analysis.

By saying that war is political, I believe we can better see how thinking of space warfare must be mindful of Earthly politics and the human element. In this context, Clausewitz’s other concepts – of passion, reason, and chance, of friction, of the strategic defence being the stronger form of war – make more sense and become easier to apply critically to scenarios where our focus may be on what happens in Earth orbit and its interactions with terra firma. In a similar vein, when we use an analogy of celestial lines of communication and the command of space, it helps us to better think critically about other problems such as how decisive space power can ever be in war, what is the influence of spacepower upon (future) history, and how can belligerents respond to and learn from various forms of spacepower?

The critical application strategic analogies have led me to seven propositions of spacepower theory:

  1. Space warfare is about the command of space
  2. Space is a distinct geography but it is not isolated
  3. Preponderance in space does not guarantee preponderance on Earth
  4. The command of space is about exploiting celestial lines of communication
  5. Earth orbit is a cosmic coastline
  6. Spacepower finds itself in a geocentric mindset… and may outgrow it
  7. Dispersion is a condition and effect of spacepower

These propositions show the headline outcomes of Clausewitz, et al., in orbit. As I near the end of my PhD research, I hope that my framework for spacepower theory helps take the next step in strategic thought about space, and to help understand more about astropolitics and questions of war and peace in orbit. Understanding the epistemology of strategic theory in a way that Clausewitz and Mahan did helps put limitations to my theory, but stresses their strengths and usefulness (see Jon Sumida’s Decoding Clausewitz and Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command for discussions of this pedagogical approach to strategic theory).

It is necessary to finishing by stressing what strategic theory is not. Most strategic theory is not there to provide answers or axioms for success. In addition, knowing spacepower theory is not a prerequisite for good command judgment in space warfare. Neither is grasping spacepower theory a guarantee of making the best decisions. Strategic theory is meant to help an individual in one’s self-education on military-political matters by making problems more accessible to a reader in the absence ‘genius.’ Spacepower theory should not only aim to make complex political matters over war and peace in space more comprehensible by grasping at the political roots of space warfare, but also to pave the way for an appreciation of creative and well-founded strategic thinking and command judgment in a realm so often dominated by technical or scientific mentalities.

This is what a Mahan for space is: distilling his Clausewitzian attitude to teaching command and strategy, and applying the seapower concepts of lines of communication to Earth orbit. With spacepower theory, outer space need not be such an undiscovered country.

Image: SM-3 missile ignition for a satellite destruction mission, via Wikimedia Commons.

11 thoughts on “Clausewitz in Orbit: Spacepower Theory and Strategic Education

  1. Frau Clausewitz’s compilation of her dead husbands notes aside, the underpinning relationships in space are physics and well attested to by Dr Kessler. While ‘Gravity’ overstated the problem for cinematic values, the problems are real and space is not as much a ‘conflict domain’ as it is a ‘scarce natural resource’. Spacepower is a conceit that politics can trump physics and the ‘Darwin Awards’ celebrate similar conceits in other domains.


    1. Interesting stuff, thanks for the post. I know that for several decades now, the USAF has struggled with developing a sound strategy for the employment of American space power. Have you looked at the theory of space power employment that places like SASS, AF Doctrine Center, and AFSPC (who has responsibility for organizing, training, and equipping space forces) have developed? I’m curious as to what big ideas they’ve come up with, and your take on them. That said, the whole “Mahan in space” approach has been tossed about for years, as well as silly ideas like “10 Propositions for Space Power” (a hijacking of the “10 Propositions for Airpower”) and a space organizational doctrine that is almost a carbon copy of air doctrine. The danger with the failure of (at least) the USAF to really think about this issue, as I see it, comes with a gross misreading of history. It thinks Mahan and Clausewitz contain the answers, but no one is really sure what the questions are. Americans, for example, have had a lots of trouble in defining the policy they want to take toward space warfare (for example, what is the US public policy on waging war in space — say kinetic ASAT attacks, or even e-attacks?) so unlike the RN and USN in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that had a farily clear naval policy on which to base a Mahanian strategy, the current space “warriors” have had a very hard time knowing what exactly they should be aiming for. But that problem is not a show stopper, even in time of a “space war.” Doctrine is just a political football, and it can be punted (American analogy here) with little cost when necessary. Warfighting, not so much. I contend that the real problem for the military space professional is the lack of an operational and tactical knoweldge base on how to “fight” in space. The USAF made some efforts in the late 90s and early 00s toward fixing this with the publication of some TTP documents (it tried to create a weapon system manual for space {AFTTP 3-1.28} just like there’s one for each airframe, and some other things under a program that can’t be named here, etc), but it quickly proved for naught when rice-bowl battles trumped the deep & revisionist thinking that the problem demanded. The USAF, for example, could not decide if space warfare was really glorified electronic aka information warfare, and vice versa; the concept of a Venn Diagram escaped it, so instead of moving forward and giving the warfighters something they could use, they produced nothing but some white papers that properly ended up in the shredder bin. Watching the “brain trust” try to create a Joint doctine for space power employment would have been comical if it hadn’t been so sad. After everyone spent their parochical bullets and then “agreed to disagree,” the Air Force decided it would just classify all its stuff so it did not have to talk with the other services about it, or anyone who wasn’t already indoctinated aka “read in” to the programs. So … what kind of obstacles have you encountered in trying to write an unclassified diss. on something that is classified out to Pluto and beyond? Trying to grapple with the problems of space warfare in a way becomes a Rumsfeldian (by the way, Rummy led the Blue Ribbon Panel on Space in the 21st Century just before he became Bush the Younger’s SECDEF, and had the bright idea that “Transformation” fueled by space power would allow the US to win in Iraq with far fewer troops that his field commanders said they needed) Catch-22: the Imperial You doesn’t know what You don’t know. How do you envision your doctrine, essentially your theory, informing how the US/UK/CAN/AUS wage the forthcoming space war against say the PRC or maybe the “space terrorists?” I really look forward to reading what you have to say. Cheers. PS please pardon typos; I used an iPad to type this.


      1. Thanks very much for reading and for posting your comments! Thanks as well for your kind words. I have a few responses I hope you find interesting.

        I have had the pleasure of meeting the people at SAASS, and I have looked at the published works of the authors there and some publically available essay work. They do good work, and I use it in the early stages of my spacepower theory. Your question becomes difficult to answer depending on what we mean by spacepower theory or doctrine. I believe they are two very different animals, but some people use those words interchangeably (as you seem to do at the end), and even then people have different opinions as to how they can be used and what kind of knowledge they represent. Hopefully the blog post explains well enough what kind of knowledge spacepower theory does. My spacepower theory is not a doctrine. It does not describe a military service’s mission roles, composition, duties, rules of engagement, advocate specific courses of action, institutional responsibilities, rules of best practice on deployment of specific equipment, etc.

        Doctrine can be more than just a political football. Assuming you’re coming from a US perspective, I fully appreciate that statement! I’d recommend reading Hoiback’s work on doctrine, I found it very useful for my own study on doctrine and in teaching doctrine. I’m not as interested in space warfare doctrine because that’s an applied theoretical task for the needs of a specific military service at a specific time towards specific missions and contingencies, and often takes a more prescriptive or descriptive tone. My spacepower theory operates at a more universal level, presents what I think are universal problems in the conduct of space warfare and spacepower – not codes of best practice and categorisations of missions or roles (like some doctrine), but exploration of the possible given what we know about operating in space and exploiting it. This spacepower theory is for thinking about the politics of war in space (but the blog post above is more about the method and epistemology, rather than an exploration of my seven propositions).

        Yes Mahan has been thrown around in space a lot. Corbett a few times, too! I don’t think they’ve been done well enough to my liking – others may disagree! What is difficult as well is when particular and contestable views of the theories from these thinkers are applied. In my thesis, my interpretation of Mahan differs considerably in some areas from others who have applied Mahan’s concepts to space. More importantly, I try to be as transparent as possible in the strategic analogies I make so that readers can follow them, and hopefully decide for themselves whether the interpretation and application of the theories are sound, or useful.

        Your comments on Clausewitz and Mahan knowing the answers but we don’t know what the questions are – I think it’s the other way around. These classic thinkers do not have direct answers for us. They never did have answers to specific problems when they wrote about strategic theory (as opposed to actively advocating specific policies, like Mahan’s US fleet build-up or Clausewitz on Prussian resistance against France). Rather, thinkers like Clausewitz and Mahan have good questions or tools to help us ask good questions for us to find our own answers to specific problems. That is the purpose of strategic theory at its highest abstract level, I think. Paret said that theory is for study, and I believe a certain canon of strategic theories can help us study spacepower and space warfare, to come up with our own questions and answers based on the questions classic strategic theorists asked of the nature of war and politics. These seven propositions are tools to help study and consider the practice of spacepower.

        You are absolutely right that we have little track record of space warfare – that’s why I resort to strategic analogies. We can still find useful thinking about war and peace in space from terrestrial experience. The way things are, we need to be thinking constructively about these things and increase the quality of strategic discussion on space, rather than wait for a war to happen and just hope that the right people will have given enough thought to how to do war in space. That’s relevant no matter which side of the Taiwan Strait you’re on, or whether or not you as a space user are on that Strait at all.

        Electronic warfare is one means of many of going after celestial lines of communication, so space warfare is not just glorified EW, and EW is a different (but connected) thing to information warfare (assuming you mean cyber warfare?). Even so, EW against celestial lines of communication does demand space-specific knowledge on orbital physics and space technology.

        I don’t know enough about the US’ inter-service politics when it comes to drafting spacepower (or doctrine?) documents – I’ll have to do some digging! Regardless, spacepower theory does not need the approval or acknowledgement of a military service (as an idea or a thing in its own right) to be valid in the field of strategic studies. Though it’d be nice, of course! People will still need to think about how spacepower fits into modern warfare at the highest strategic levels, therefore, I think spacepower theory will be useful to any who wish to do so, whether or not they’re in uniform and say in public that they do space warfare or not.

        As for difficulties, once I knew I was doing spacepower theory, very few problems have come up in terms of classified information. Of course, I don’t know what I don’t know but those are generic epistemological problems. I can only use what I can find in the public domain, and since I’m not that concerned about the latest of the most sensitive space activities, and more concerned in creating a theory that educates about strategic thinking about spacepower, it wasn’t that much of a problem.

        And yes, Rumsfeld and the Space Pearl Harbor. Never dull with him around. It’s impossible to escape the 2001 Space Commission when reading about American spacepower. Before transformation the buzzterm was RMA, and that’s addressed early on in my thesis as context-setting really. But my spacepower theory tries to get people to think about not just the exploitation of spacepower on Earth, but how it will be contested and denied. And we’d best have a good think about it even though we have little to no track record of a space denial or space control campaign between capable opponents.

        As for your last question, I don’t know in detail. If it is to get any kind of attention in that regard, I’d only hope my theory provides practitioners with useful tidbits of strategic wisdom, like space warfare will reflect, and be a product of, the bigger politics at play on whatever the dispute is about on Earth. Space warfare is not isolated from Earthly politics. Additionally, I hope it can get people off the red herrings of space-based weapons and kinetic-kill weapons because they either don’t exist or are one of many options of taking out celestial lines of communication. Thanks to the works of Mahan, many strategists have a rough notion of how seapower, empire, and global trade works. I hope that spacepower theory can help people grasp the long-term universal fundamentals of how spacepower works in the context of politics and war in the modern political-economy that is stitched together by the space systems.

        Thanks for your comments, excellent food for thought! I hope my responses are adequate.


  2. Thanks so much for responding. Spacepower theory really isn’t my thing as a historian of the 18th century drawn to what Huw writes here, but it was cool ntl to read your stuff. It brought me back to my military days when I worked for an organization, back before the GWOT, focused on making sure US ground forces got all the support putatively available to them from the space assets “overhead.” One of the main issues I saw there was the chomping at the bit of the space community to be treated as more than a support arm of the combined arms/warfighting community. Frankly it was pathetic, but that’s a different story. The important thing, I think, for your work is that the “space cadets” could not in fact elucidate what they “brought to the fight.” They were obsessed with the weaponization of space, especially the PRC/PLA efforts to develop systems that would allow it to fight the “space war.” The cadets kept telling us that we would lose all our space-based ISR, navigation and positioning, and C2 capabilities. That would really suck to be sure, but it was real Chicken Little stuff. So there was talk about ASATs and killer satellites and defensive counter measures etc and relatively little effort to make sure the American sergant fireteam leader had the latest imagery of the bad guys’ entrenched positions over the hill. The cadets threw around a lot of Clausewitz and Mahan, but it was clear to me that very few of them ever read C & M other than the 2-paragraph synopsis that took off the internet: space is an American COG, we need to control the space choke points just like the RN cotrolled Gibralter and Singapore, we must have space supremacy [not just superiority], etc. Another biggie was “Space is a RMA,” but when I suggested that it might just be a MTR (because I knew they had never read Roberts or Parker and knew nothing of the work Soviet theorists had done on RMA/MTR) people looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language, which I think I was for a lot of the USAF theory and doctrine writers). That’s why I contend the US military space community has not asked the right questions and instead thinks it has the answers from the old dead white guys of the 19th century. The inch-deep/mile-wide theory was in place (hopefully you will change that), but the policy, strategy, and doctrine were absent. That’s why I think that separating theory from doctrine is a dangerous thing. Especially in the realm of space, where it is almost impossible to conduct exercises, all that remains are theories on which to base doctrine. Of course, there are wargames, but for space, those are essentially computer simulations, and as I watched several of them, it became clear to me that the wargames served as little more than a medium to build support for the acquisition of more space assets: SBIRS, space-based GMTI/AMTI platforms to “replace” AWACS/JSTARS, hyper-spectral imaging satellites to “find” hidden tanks that they enemy had protected with CCD, the list went on and on. I heard over and over again that space assets allowed the US military access to “denied territory” and would give us ‘information superiority” and “full-spectrum dominance,” but they never said who “we” were — see above about the sgt. fire-team leader. There were lots of theoretical buzzwords thrown about, but no one could answer the questions (the ones my PhD adviser pounded into my head) of “so what new here, and who cares?” In the end, I came to the conculsion that the US space community was a self-licking ice cream cone for a bunch of guys who had convinced themselves they were the “smartest guys in the room.” (I heard an USAF major general at the Space Operations Center at Vandenburg AFB actually announce that he indeed was the smartest guy in the room; as a lt col, I did not think it was my place to remind him that all the guys who came up with that saying ended up in prison, but I digress). Hopefully you can change that; I hope that somebody, somewhere, will use your theory to shape policies and strategy, and the US military in turn will use them to build a doctine of warfighting. I know, from what you said above, that that’s not really your intention, but I also think it’d be a shame if you did not peer into the gap (abyss?) between theory and doctrine. Of course, it’s your work, and I know how frustrating it can be when voices from the peanut gallery keep giving you “good ideas” as you try to finish your disseration. So, please take my insights for what they are worth (probably not much) and good luck with the diss. It’s back to the Seven Years’ War for me. Cheers :). PS please pardon typos as this is from an iPad.


    1. Hi again. Thanks again for more comments (and for persisting through an iPad)! Very interesting to hear your perspective. I see what you mean now about the limitations of USAF’s approach to it and the (inter)service quirks. I hope that my finished thesis (and resulting book with any luck) can escape the gravity well of the USAF’s dominance (and to a lesser extent the critical mass inside the DC beltway) of spacepower theory/doctrine. I worry by getting into doctrine more I get too close to the egotistical battles of various bureaucracies, and the latest wishlists and pension schema of military services. The transition of space into a place where fighting or interference happens, or the ‘space segment’ being threatened should help more people outside of USAF see spacepower’s potential contribution to modern warfare and (grand) strategy. As for a supporting wing – that’s mostly it for spacepower. But reading Mahan’s ‘Influence’ book, I get the same impression about seapower. It boggles my mind how people can reduce Mahan’s ideas to only the big battle fleet and imposing a decisive battle.

      I agree with you that Mahan and Clausewitz have only been engaged at a surface level (with some notable exceptions, though!). The space as a COG thing – it grinds my gears! Classic misuse of Carl’s concept in the way it’s usually presented.

      At the end of the theory I hope there’s enough intellectual ammo for people to make the connections on how spacepower fits into wider political ends and economic gains (like Mahan does so well with his seapower history, I think).

      Would it be possible for you to drop me a line at my email address – (my email addy is on there, rather not post it in the open here) – if you wouldn’t mind. I have some ideas on post-doc research and your experience and insight sounds like just what my research needs!

      And the 7 years’ war is interesting! Though I know little of its history beyond Mahan and Kennedy, and playing through it in a certain computer game…


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