Space Warfare: the present and future

As a science fiction author, I’ve got a particular interest in current and future space operations.  Since I also write Military Science Fiction, that interest is a bit more sharply defined.  So I’ll address a couple of points regarding combat in space, and then leave a couple other areas open for your interpretation.  The first area in question is, of course, whether there will be combat in space.  Next up, just what technologies are currently available and what the future might hold.  Then there’s the big question, what roles will humans play in all this.  Lastly, I’ll talk some of the common SF tropes and what technology we’d need to get there.

The question as to whether there will be combat in space is one which can cause a number of people to argue.  It seems odd to me that there is any argument at all.  Some of the oldest artifacts of human existence are weapons.  Inevitably, weapons are a key part of human technology… and that is because when someone wants what you have, and they’re not as moral or ethically driven as you, then they’ll resort to violence.  Resources are almost always the root of human differences, more food, more wealth, more power.  The easiest way to take and hold those resources is not through discussion, but through violence.  The easiest way to prevent such violence is to create weapons and defenses of your own.   There are various treaties against space warfare, but those treaties are only as binding as the governments and people’s will of the signatory nations.  To top that off, there are always extra-government organizations who are not only non-signatory, but often simply don’t care, or worse, would view unarmed vessels and stations as targets.  Terrorists, pirates, and corporations might easily see opportunities in violence in space.  To be disarmed is to invite such violence.

Current technologies for space combat are, whether people acknowledge them or not, already present.  The Chinese demonstrated their ability to kill a satellite in 2007, when they destroyed a weather satellite in low earth orbit.  The US has conducted its own missile launch of an SM-3 in 2008, which mirrored the result on a deorbiting satellite.   The Chinese kill resulted in serious space debris, some of which has required the movement of other satellites to avoid damage.    Futher extrapolations of this technology are apparent.  The American SM-3 is a missile designed to intercept ballistic missiles.  Further improvements of the technology could eventually see missiles of greater range and capabilities.  An example of this is how the Russians currently use retrofitted ballistic missiles as launch platforms for satillites.  Other technologies are the so-called ‘kill-sats.’   Kill-sats are satellites designed with weapons or to be weapons.  These platforms would have greater maneuverability and might come with weapons packages or be designed to ram or strike other satellites.  An extrapolation of current technology would be using older or obsolescent satellites to deliberately ram or damage newer ones, rather than deorbiting them.  These means of space combat could lead to Kessler Syndrome, which was proposed in 1978 by Donald Kessler, a scientist with NASA.  He projected that a series of collisions could cause a cascade effect.  Each object destroyed, be it station or satellite, would in turn, give off a cloud of further debris.  This would fill the Earth’s orbitals with a cloud of fast-moving projectiles which would make space operations extremely hazardous.  It is a sort of nuclear option, which would deny the use of space platforms to anyone.

Future technologies are varied.  Lasers, once thought to be fantasy, are more and more prevalent even in the civilian sector.  Lasers powerful enough to be used as weapons are options, though this has limits based on energy density of what can be packed into a space-going platform.  Laser weapons on the ground, used to fire into space are also an option, though thermal bloom within the atmosphere robs these weapons of some of their punch.   Drones, which will be discussed later, are already prevalent in ground and air combat, it is easy enough to project their use in space as technologies develop further.   One thing to note in all of this, is that space combat, at least in the near-term, is extremely lethal.  One solid hit virtually guarantees the destruction of a target.  Current space craft are the equivalent of the first powered aircraft:  lightly built, individually constructed, and designed for specific purposes.   To make matters more difficult, space is an inherently inhospitable place.  A pinhole in the pressure compartment of a manned space craft could potentially kill the entire crew.  Radiation, debris, and a host of other dangers make survival in space problematical even without adding in the threat of someone trying to kill you.  It could very well be that space combat becomes a matter of whoever gets the first strike is the victor… or a case of mutually assured destruction.  More advanced technologies can change this.  Especially in the areas of increased energy density: reliable fusion, super-capacitors, and a host of other ideas are steps in the right direction.  Larger, more robust space platforms would be more likely given increases in the ability to lift as would the creation of a legitimate space infrastructure.  Even more advanced technologies could entirely alter the paradigm; warp drives, energy shielding, the real science fiction aspects, would further evolve the nature of space combat.

What exactly are humanity’s roles in space combat.  At least at first, we have little direct role.  Current technology space suits are cumbersome, at best.  Fighting in a low gravity environment would be difficult in the extreme.  Drones and robots, currently seen in ground and air combat, are more likely, especially given the shift by NASA towards robotic exploration.  It could be something so simple as the ability to throw dirt over the enemy’s solar panels or as complex as weapons mounted aboard, but as exploration continues, and space becomes a frontier full of resources rather than the distant void which money funnels into, sabotage and combat are inevitable.  Humans first roles might be that of hacker or saboteur, as a means to destroy or disable enemy drones and robots.   Eventually, however, as humans get out there, the role of combat will shift.  Direct control of drones from nearby will allow higher bandwidth and greater control of operations.  From there, it is only a step to imagine that the human controlling the drones becomes the target, and therefore needs some means of protection.  Ships might set out with a dozen combat drones, which could function as combination weapons platform, missile and probe, and mounting their own internal weapons such as lasers or projectiles.  All of this would be controlled by a handful of crew.

The last area of discussion is the common SF tropes.  Shields, antigravity, force fields, ray guns, lasers, missiles… the list goes on and on.  Many of these are highly dependent upon the technologies, societal preferences, and the combat paradigms.  Various sub-genres of SF have their own favorites.  Generally the space fighter is very common.  Issues with that are numerous, to include the fact that a drone would be capable of sharper maneuvers and greater accelerations.  However, one could easily imagine a future where the common man is very uncomfortable with the thought of space-going death being controlled by a computer.  This might preclude the use of such drones by the major powers.  Furthermore, perhaps hacking has become so prevalent that drones are seen as too unreliable, and are relegated to the role of support ships.  The same goes for ship automation.  Powerful lasers might well become extremely prevalent as new energy sources become available.  Warp drives might allow missiles that can strike an enemy before they know you’ve fired it, or allow ships to execute maneuvers that would be impossible to otherwise accomplish.  Powerful, world destroying weapons such as singularities, quarkium, and molecular disruption device might one day make our current nuclear arsenal seem amusing by comparison.

That’s the broad overview of what I think about combat in space.  Next week I’ll go more into depth on some of the topics and introduce some complications.  If I get time, I’d like to run through a hypothetical scenario, or war-game on a couple of these topics, mostly as illustration.  As always, I’d love to hear people’s input.


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