Missile Defence and Spacepower: A Panel Proceeding at ISA 2017

Dr. Bleddyn Bowen

This blog post is a short summary of a panel, on which I presented a paper, at the 2017 International Studies Association Annual (ISA) Convention in Baltimore, Maryland. The panel I was kindly invited to present on was titled ‘Missile Defenses, Space Weapons, and Advanced Conventional Weapons: Strategic Choices in Troubling Times for Arms Control and Disarmament,’ and was held on the 25th of February, 2017. It was expertly chaired by Dr Rachel Whitlark of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who also acted as a superb discussant. I would like to extend my thanks to Dr Whitlark, my fellow panellists, the audience at the panel, and ISA for an excellent conference.

Katarzyna Kubiak, German Institute for International and Security Affairs: ‘Strategic Culture and German Policy on Ballistic Missile Defence’

Katarzyna argued that the preferred German policy of using Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) as a NATO-wide policy has fallen into disuse due to the deterioration in NATO-Russian relations and the continued disagreements within NATO as to how to deploy the European BMD system. Amidst this shift, Katarzyna examined German policy preferences over missile defence through the lens of strategic culture, and found that existing strategic culture did not help German policymakers adapt and pursue a new position on BMD. With no sign of a rapprochement between NATO and Russia, Germany now has to contend with balancing its residual preference to support BMD through NATO whilst risking further antagonising Russia.

Marco Fey, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, ‘US Strategic Missile Defense Politics: Do We Really Witness an Emerging Consensus in Congress?’

Marco delivered a presentation that examined US Democratic and Republican attitudes towards missile defence between 1995-2014 using content analysis. Historically, the Democrats have staunchly opposed missile defence whilst the Republicans have faithfully advocated it. Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, known as ‘Star Wars’ by its detractors, made BMD a simple partisan issue in the 1980s. Many observers claim that, under Barack Obama, the Democratic Party came to support missile defence. This, however, may not be the case. Marco, analysing speeches, debates, and legislative documents, came to find that although Democratic support for BMD has grown since 1995, in 2014 there was still no consensus within the Democratic Party over it. The shift towards supporting BMD is undeniable, however.

Andrew Futter, University of Leicester, ‘Full-Spectrum US Missile Defense: Toward a New Era of Instability?’

Andrew presented his thoughts on full-spectrum BMD, which includes ‘left of centre’ options such as cyber infiltration and disabling of enemy ballistic missile systems before they are launched. Although the US is considering cyber capabilities to complement its kinetic missile interceptors, China and Russia are probably to remain unconcerned about US hacking initiatives into missile control systems, due to their own extensive cyber capabilities. Full-spectrum BMD is likely to be a more significant threat to smaller and poorer nuclear powers. Andrew also raised the possibility that this shift to pre-emption could have dire consequences for strategic stability, and that American cyber defences regarding missile command and control may not be that robust should potential adversaries copy American thinking. Perhaps antiquated computer systems using large floppy disks may be a safer option than the lampoons of US Air Force missile control systems suggest.

Namrata Goswami, Senior Analyst and Minerva Grantee, Maxwell AFB, ‘China’s Attitudes and Aspirations toward Expansionism, Territoriality and Resource Nationalism in Space’

Namrata presented her analysis of evolving Chinese thought and discourse on space exploration, particularly regarding lunar exploration, asteroid redirection and mining, and space-based solar power. China’s plans regarding lunar missions and resource extraction, asteroid mining, and space-based solar power currently have deadlines in the 2020s, but China’s space achievements that we have all become familiar with were first articulated in the early 1990s – manned missions, a space station, and robotic missions. A degree of credibility should be given to lofty Chinese goals, so long as the funding and political stability that underpins any such expensive technical programme remains. As it stands, such ambitions enjoy the full support of Xi Jinping, the Central Military Commission, and the 8th generation of space scientists. Namrata also hypothesised extremely interested land-grabbing scenarios where China rushed to harvest resources on the moon, whilst copying the United States’ own private stellar resources law (SPACE Act 2015) to justify its own mineral extractions and profiteering in space.

Bleddyn E. Bowen, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, ‘Down to Earth: The Influence of Spacepower Upon Future History’

A detailed summary of this paper was provided previously on Defence in Depth, and can be found here. I noted that Chinese and American war plans over Taiwan, which are now dependent on their own precision-strike weapons systems and space infrastructure, must exploit, and adapt to, the dispersing influence of spacepower. I also challenged the view, prevalent among many analysts, that such a war will start with a ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ – a major first strike from China against US space assets. I posited that such an astrostrategy was one possible strategy, and that an alternative of holding weapons systems in reserve until a critical moment in the terrestrial campaign was a possible alternative. I argued that deciding when to strike against space systems may be determined by when and where either side wishes to exploit and deny the dispersing effects of spacepower upon terrestrial warfare.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

China’s space weapons test ten years on: Behemoth pulls the peasants’ plough


This post is based aspects of a forthcoming paper presented at the ISA Annual Convention 2017 in Baltimore, MD.

Ten years ago, on 11th January 2007, a road-mobile SC-19 Chinese antisatellite (ASAT) weapons test renewed interest, debate, and occasional polemic hysteria, in the role of space weapons in international security and Sino-US relations. The test destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite, and in the process created thousands of pieces of debris which threatened other satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO), the bulk of which will take another 30 years to de-orbit. It also caused some chaotic, heated, and embarrassing diplomatic fallout: three months later, China was due to host the 25th annual meeting of the international Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. .

This instance was part of a wider programme of Chinese space weapons development and testing – which has included a series of ‘cleaner’ kinetic-kill tests at allegedly higher altitudes (almost reaching geosynchronous orbit ), laser dazzling, and radiofrequency jamming – and which is the fruit of the larger program of military modernization in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its supporting defence industrial base that stretches back to Plan 863 from 1986. This space weapons programme itself is part of a larger drive to modernise the PLA to enable it not only resist and inflict punishment and pain on a spacepower-enabled adversary (such as the United States), but also to develop its own space infrastructure in support of terrestrial military capabilities.

These two pillars of Chinese military spacepower have altered the balance of forces significantly 20 years after the Taiwan Crisis of 1996. As well as flooding the Taiwan Strait with over 1,200 short range ballistic missiles in support of an amphibious assault, China is on its way to holding US Navy carriers, naval bases, and air strips across the western Pacific hostage with precise long-range weapons systems. These long-range weapons systems depend upon Chinese space services to provide targeting data and to cue terrestrial air, land, and sea reconnaissance and targeting systems. This dependence on space systems will only increase if aerial and naval drones are increasingly deployed

The 1991 Gulf War demonstrated the potential of spacepower in terrestrial warfare. Spacepower supported mechanised forces are, generally speaking, faster, more mobile, flexible, precise, and efficient than those without, as the ‘Highway of Death’ and Schwarzkopf’s ‘left hook’ in the Iraqi desert proved. China, like many other powers, is developing or refining armed forces that can effectively target what they can see as rapidly as possible – and space technologies are central to this endeavour.

Since 2007, Chinese space infrastructure has grown tremendously. China has been launching rockets with orbital payloads at almost twice the usual rate of the preceding years, at around 15-20 Long March launches a year. China has over 180 satellites registered to it, whilst Russia registers just over 140. The United States meanwhile, registers approximately 580 satellites, both military and non-military. Russia’s involvement in Syria demonstrates some of its progress in long-range command and control, as well as in precision munitions with cruise missiles and guided bombs. China has been consistently investing for longer in space technology for ‘force enhancement,’ and has a far larger chequebook and space industrial base to rely on than Russia. The space security community is still waiting for the watershed moment in Chinese space support for its military. Recently, a reorganisation of the PLA created the PLA Strategic Support Force, which combines PLA ‘space troops,’ ‘cyber troops,’ and ‘electronic warfare forces’ as one independent service. Whilst it is too soon to draw any firm observations from this, it is clear that China is thinking strategically about the role of its space systems as the connecting mesh between its terrestrial forces, and how it should be protected and exploited.

The dual-use nature of satellite services means that space infrastructure can be used for military and non-military purposes rather easily. China’s maturing position as a major spacepower is thus not solely a military story. Its development of a navigation system – Beidou/Compass – to rival GPS is as much an economic infrastructure as it is a military asset. Similarly, Chinese Earth observation and continental communications satellites are about economic development as well as military modernisation. China’s international space diplomacy continues apace, and is making inroads in developing satellites, services, as well as control and tracking stations in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Chinese space systems now take centre place in civic planning, infrastructure development, and the building of a high-data urbanised economy.

The economic take off from the late 1980s gives Chinese spacepower huge potential, and this is being delivered upon through efficiencies in resource use, communications networks that span a continental state, and the consumer markets that emerge from that infrastructure. Spacepower is essential for China’s ongoing ecological crisis and for managing the worst effects of climate change and urbanisation. Should President-elect Trump fatally wound the United States’ leading position in Earth science and climate change monitoring, China is on track become the single-largest 21st century spacepower contributing to climate politics and developing a less carbon-intensive advanced economy.

Chinese spacepower development has been so rapid in the 20 years since the Taiwan crisis, and the ten years since its controversial space weapons test, China has not only developed an ability to threaten aspects of US spacepower and military capability but also begun to mirror the United States in its multifaceted dependence on spacepower for conventional military power and economic well-being. True, in a Taiwan war China will be less dependent on space systems than the United States. However, Chinese long-range weapons systems needed cueing and targeting information from space to strike American and Japanese ships and bases at a distance. However, for missions other than Taiwan, the PLA would find greater use for space communications, especially as its Navy begins operations further afield. And it is these expeditionary operations or regional wars with non-nuclear states that are far more likely to occur for the PLA than a ‘tweet’ that launched a thousand missiles.

In the context of a maturing Chinese military space power, American worries of a ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ are making a comeback. A crippling Chinese attack on US space infrastructure would no doubt hamper US abilities to conduct a war in the Pacific. Yet, the details required to plan such a scenario cast doubt on its practicality. Some satellite constellations can suffer significant losses before services even begin to degrade – such as the Global Positioning System. Those who worry of a pre-emptive space attack are right to worry, but the effects of such attacks will depend upon whether an adversary can disrupt or destroy enough of the right satellites and communications networks. That caveat and lack of information is sometimes missing in public debate. Specific satellites provide specific services, and the timing of such attacks must be coordinated with terrestrial operations for space warfare to have any meaningful effect. Furthermore, the United States continues to explore methods to not only adapt to space warfare, but also is developing latent space weapons technology of its own, with a dual-use capability in the Aegis-equipped ‘missile defence’ destroyers and in on-orbit manoeuvring technology in the X-37B and the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program. Simplistic notions of surprise attacks at the outset of hostilities in space clash with the ability of many space systems to actually be resilient in warfare. Space weapons do not herald the era of certain doom for, or easy solutions against, high-technology militaries.

China and America are two leading space powers that are integrating spacepower into their military, political, and economic power. It is no surprise, then, that both are hedging against the possibility of space warfare – although rhetoric and proposals on space arms control seem to ignore this reality. Indeed, even European and Japanese space infrastructure has increasingly military potential through dual-use services. The growing Chinese orbital behemoth, like America’s celestial leviathan, is a fount of economic and technological momentum, as well as a source of simultaneous vulnerability and resilience depending on the space systems relied upon and threated. Although China has continued its space weapons development on a steady course in the past ten years, it has been hard at work launching many more targets of its own into outer space.

Image: a US SM-3 missile launch to destroy the NRO-L 21 satellite, via wikimedia commons.

It’s about reaching the decision, not victory: strategic theory and the difficulty of taking action


As students of the Defence Studies Department grapple with strategic theory this winter, a useful way to begin is to consider the purpose of strategic theory and the work of ‘that dead Prussian’. One perspective on this issue is that we are engaging with why reaching decisions in war is difficult – not merely why certain decisions in particular wars were the right ones. Answering such questions requires intellect as well as experience. The conduct of war is as much an intellectual activity as it is a physical one. Planning and conducting organised violence for political purposes, from the smallest tactical engagement to the grand strategic level, demand powers of comprehension, multilateral thought, organisation, and decision that can test even the most agile and sharpest of minds. The thoughts and concepts developed by the likes of Carl von Clausewitz, Henry Lloyd, Sun Tzu, Antoine Henri Jomini, and Mao Zedong – to name but a few – combine to constitute what we today call strategic theory. Many classic theorists melded experience and intellect into strategic works that continue to stand the test of time and the political, economic, and technological changes since they committed their ideas to paper. No matter the time and place, reaching good decisions that produce the desired strategic results remains at least as difficult as it was Sun Tzu’s day. The strategic theories we use today are based on the desire to educate us in what to consider when making strategic appraisals and decisions in war, and not in how to win a particular set-piece battle.

My own research involves using the experience and thought which informed ‘classical’ strategic writings for thinking about the use of spacepower and the possibilities of space warfare in the 21st century. The base elements of strategic theory allow us to consider the various manifestations politics, uncertainty, passions, friction, and intelligent competition in any scenario. For my research, it means that space warfare involving satellites, rockets, lasers, and particle beam weapons will also be ultimately political, emotional, and uncertain in its fundamental nature. Strategic theory provides timely and timeless insights into the pervasive nature of war that does not change across time and space.

This sort of theory is not one that can be held accountable to being ‘proven’ like the laws of gravity and thermodynamics that can accurately predict the movements of bodies in the cosmos. Rather, strategic theory is more of a philosophical lens used to study and teach about the practice of war. Such theory can only be more or less useful for the task it has assigned itself, not whether it is objectively true or false. This perspective gains its weight not only through the persuasiveness of its own arguments, but also through its relative consensus among the works of numerous strategic thinkers. Strategic theory, then, is a collection of propositions and concepts that help us think in more constructive terms about war, regardless of our own time and space.

Whilst Clausewitz and Sun Tzu have often been compared regarding their insights on the political nature of war, civil-military relations, and the psychological aspects of conflict, many others have thought along the same lines. The most persuasive of the commonalities between them all is that such theories of conducting war are about educating the mind to consider all the possibilities open to the commander or leadership with a free and critical mind. With such a plethora of possibilities, and how only some concepts can be applied at certain times, we gain an insight into why strategy is so difficult in practice.

Principles and concepts in strategic theory are a point of departure to consider your options for action, which can provide mental structure to the chaos of reality and guard against unhelpful dogmas at the same time. In other words, strategic theory is not a strategy. Strategic theory should be useful in any circumstance to help you develop a strategy for any particular scenario. This approach is used in the seapower theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Julian Corbett, and Raoul Castex. Their seapower theories are the intellectual bases or frameworks for forming applied maritime or naval strategies. Mahan, Corbett, and Castex did not argue that decisive battle would always grant you the strategic success you sought, but grappling with the difficulty of why decisive battle only sometimes succeeds in bringing about a strategic result would help you decide when a decisive battle at sea may be worth pursuing or denying. Engaging with these questions in the classroom develops the strategic intellect. For example, we learn more about the practice of maritime strategy not by asking how Nelson won the Battle of Trafalgar, but by examining how and why Nelson chose to impose battle upon the French at Trafalgar in the first place.

Consistent and long-term reflection is required to develop the mind-set and attitude to learn principles, detach from those principles to clear your mind, and then see the possibilities open to you. Yagu Munenori instructed that it is a sickness to be obsessed only with winning, or only with the offence or the defence. A keen mind is required to understand what is possible and necessary in any given scenario. This intuitive grasping of strategic truth at any moment is what Jon Sumida referred to as the ‘undermind’ in Clausewitzian theory, and is also evident in Alfred Thayer Mahan’s teaching style which draws on the educational styles of Zen Buddhism.

Principles discussed in books and classrooms on strategy include the duel, the centre of gravity, concentration and dispersal, attack and defence, decisive engagements, friction, and the politics, passions, and uncertainty of war. Munenori, Musashi, Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz can help outline the various lessons from the applications of such ideas in the past, but they cannot tell you when or how you should apply them next. Clausewitz urged you to strike the centre of gravity of an opponent when there is one and if you can strike it without undue risk; Sun Tzu tells you to adapt asymmetrically to the enemy’s weaknesses but also to not merely be reactive to the enemy; Munenori cautions you against single-minded offensive actions yet admonishes defensive obsessions; Musashi tells you to understand your foes as well as your own side’s nature, but your own deviancy from norms must be embraced. None of these theorists will tell you how their abstractions will work in your particular situation. A critical and thoughtful intellect is required to do that, and through critically applying such concepts, you sharpen your intuitive grasp of the nuances of conducting warfare.

Michael Handel argued persuasively in Masters of War that the seeming contradictory observations within the works of individual theorists are more instructive for thinking about warfare than the few disagreements between them. They all grappled with the difficulty of applying the strategic theory, of why strategy is so difficult to do. All argue in their own way that understanding this difficulty is the key to strategic education.


Further reading:

Carl von Clausewitz On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, trans., ed. (Princeton UP 1984) Book II in particular.

Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings, Thomas Cleary trans., ed. (Shambala, 2003), also contains The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War by Yagu Munenori

Raoul Castex, Strategic Theories, Eugenia Kiesling, trans., ed. (Naval Institute Press, 1994)

Jon T. Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1997)

Michael I. Handel, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought (Routledge, 2001)

Image: Miyamoto Musashi, via wikimedia commons

From Sparta to Space: Astropolitics and IR Theory


What does the world of Thucydides have in common with that of Wehrner von Braun or Sergei Korolev; of the realm of the trireme with the Delta IV rocket? Much like the popular misconception that satellites in orbit have ‘escaped’ the influence of Earth’s gravity, there is a common perception that outer space is a politically different or separate realm to Earth. I argue that our affairs as a species in outer space have not escaped the influence of homo politicus; that reaching outer space is not a road to absolution as many hope. Astropolitics is what humans seek to make of it. So far, it reflects some of the prevailing features of international relations and an anarchic system that dates back to antiquity; there may be nothing politically new under our sun.

As explored in a previous post for Defence in Depth, I explained that the foundational analogy that we can make between human behaviour on Earth and in space is Clausewitz’s conception of war as a political, emotional, and chaotic activity; that space warfare is the continuation of Terran politics by other means. By understanding space warfare and spacepower as being ultimately political activities regarding the exploitation of a geographic place and medium, it opens one’s mind to the conceptual (not historical) analogies one can make between other politically-enthused concepts from IR theory into outer space. Space is not a place that is uniquely free of humanity’s fears and interests, though popular perceptions may give the impression that outer space is defined as a scientific frontier where the great scientific powers cooperate in manned exploration and interplanetary science.

Ideas and arguments across recorded history that examine and question the larger concepts of power, security, and politics are either of direct use or contain insights into new scenarios and locations – including those that escape the atmosphere of Earth. This is not merely an entertaining allegory one might make between the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Klingon Empire in the early 2390s; the past can contain useful insights and education for thinking about and examining contemporary politics, even in outer space. My research is predicated on the conception that very little has changed in the core motivations of humans in dealing with politics, power, and resources across time and geographies. Whether it is to check the growth in the power of Sparta or to match the prowess of the Soviets in space, it is the same base motivations that still influence, if not define, strategic behaviour and the pursuit of armaments. Four examples below show how activities in space can be understood through some timeless concepts from a realist approach to International Relations theory.

Thucydides famously described the motivations for Greek empire-building in the wake of the Persian retreat and the Peloponnesian War (431-403BC) as being motivated by fear, honour, and interest. He believed that, due to the unchanging nature of humans, these general parameters leading to war, or at least lenses guiding perceptions of insecurity, would recur in one way or another again ad infinitum. Though not comprehensive, these three motivations certainly capture some of the most fundamental drivers of strategic behaviour from the dawn of the Space Age to today. The United States and the Soviet Union invested heavily in space technology by the late 1950s as a result of their mutual fear, their competition over technological prestige, and the pursuit of their own further interests as a result of their exploitation of outer space in the international system.

Without a long-range bomber force to strike in kind against the American homeland, the Soviet Union would always fear the possibility of nuclear blackmail. Such American technological advantage had to be negated, and harnessing the physics of orbital mechanics and ballistic rocketry was a way to do so. In October 1957, it was America’s turn to fear the technological prowess of the Soviet Union. Sergei Korolev, the USSR’s chief rocket scientist, had succeeded in launching humanity’s first artificial satellite – Sputnik. This triggered a scare among the American population, who had taken American and capitalist society as the technological leader of the world. Yet there was a Red Moon in orbit. The Soviet Union had engineered a coup for its image as a technological powerhouse, which unsettled the United States. Furthermore, and more importantly, this demonstrated to Eisenhower that the Soviet Union was on-track to developing the capability to deliver nuclear warheads to the continental United States.

By the early 1960s, American fear – and no small desire to regain lost prestige – drove the simultaneous development of American rocket science (under the leadership of the former German SS officer Wernher von Braun) and satellite reconnaissance systems. Working under the guise of the International Geophysical Year, the United States was able to develop the first US orbital-capable rocket and the means to build spy satellites in secret, whilst also being able to claim contributions to scientific advancement. The Corona programme gave the United States the means of spying on the closed Soviet Union. Lyndon Baines Johnson would later praise the American satellite reconnaissance programme for quelling the fears the United States had in the so-called missile gap that was an election issue in 1960 between Nixon and Kennedy. Indeed, the missile gap existed – but US satellite reconnaissance had shown the American leadership that the gap was in their favour. This helped reassure Washington that Khrushchev’s bark was worse than his bite, as far as the security of the continental US was concerned.

Following the Space Race, and the victory of the United States in securing its prestige with American bootprints on the Moon, the US and the USSR continued to pursue varying interests in outer space. But by the 1970s more states were developing interests in orbit. In 1976, a coalition of equatorial states attempted to enshrine the recognition of their sovereignty from their airspace upwards to infinity in the Bogota Declaration. This would allow the equatorial states to control and set conditions for the use of the geosynchronous and geostationary orbital slots that were directly above their territories at an altitude of approximately 36,000km. The declaration failed. The two superpowers had supreme national interests in continuing to have unfettered access to their strategic communications and early warning satellites in geostationary orbit, and to recognise a spatial form of sovereignty – as opposed to platform-based – would give too much influence to the equatorial states upon the space-faring states of the global North. Europe and Japan were beginning to develop their own space sectors at this time as well, and did not support the declaration through their own self-interests in using outer space for strategic and commercial purposes.

Also in the 1970s, Europe and the United States demonstrated the roles of diverging interests in their pursuit of spacepower. The United States was willing to launch European satellites on the condition that they were scientific satellites. This effectively barred European states from launching their own communications and reconnaissance satellites for both military and commercial purposes. Europe, under the leadership of France, West Germany, and Italy, pursued the development of a European launcher, giving birth to the Ariane family of launchers in use today. Early European rocket development was supported by the donation of the abandoned Blue Streak data and materials by the British. The United States had not assisted European rocket development, and France even turned to the Soviet Union from 1974 onwards for the supply of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (a crucial compound for rocket fuel). The United States’ interests were being threatened by the entry of European competition into the commercial satellite communications launch business, and would also allow European states to collectively follow a different strategic path to the United States should European militaries develop independent spacepower infrastructure. Such concerns played out again in the Galileo satellite navigation negotiations between the United States and the European Union. Only after extensive negotiations, and a flirtation with Chinese cooperation, did Europe and the United States agree to make Galileo and GPS interoperable. Galileo, if integrated into European militaries, will allow greater freedom of action in tactical and operational terms from the United States’ ubiquitous GPS service.

Some of the core concepts of political life derived from the classical era can be just as useful to frame understandings of contemporary astropolitics, and makes the case for viewing outer space as just another place where human politics continues as it does on Earth. The choice of Thucydides to highlight this does not mean that astropolitics is only about human competition or cooperation – but that it is just as complicated and diverse as the politics of any other place. Outer space is not a place of unfettered cooperation or unrivalled competition, and is not an aberration of human political life. Space is used for military purposes and motivations driven by fear, honour, and interest. It has been since the dawn of the Space Age. This understanding – that space is used for military purposes by all major powers – takes the hyperbolic sting out of contemporary official statements and denouncements in space arms control proceedings about the supposed doom facing peace on Earth if outer space is ‘militarised’ or ‘weaponised.’ For better and worse, humanity’s use of outer space is shaped by Terran politics, and is a rich vista waiting for the humanities to join the engineers and scientists.

Further reading on the various topics raised in this post:

Michael Sheehan, The International Politics of Space (Routledge, 2007)

Shen-Chi Wang, Transatlantic Space Politics (Routledge, 2013)

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (Ballantine, 1997)

Walter McDougall, …The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (Johns Hopkins UP, 1985)

Everett C. Dolman, Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age (Frank Cass, 2002)

Image: Thermopylae – Monument of Leonidas, via flickr.

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.