The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Cylon basestar
We’re a long way from the “basestars” from Battlestar Galactica, but the concept of large manned orbiting platforms for military operations may not wholly be in the realm of science fiction. (credit: SciFi)

The age of the great battlestars

The United States Air Force Academy’s Class of 2013 began Basic Cadet Training this summer. Why is this significant to the readers of The Space Review? Because according to George Friedman in his book The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, in 2045, one of them may well be a major general of US space forces—and will be killed in orbit.

Friedman’s description of the war between the Alliance (USA, Poland, UK) and the Coalition (Japan and Turkey) in the 2040s lies in the middle of his forecast and to a casual reader has no shortage of seemingly fanciful details. Ignoring altogether the belligerents and the geopolitical rationale for the conflict, fantasy and science fiction abound. Giant military space stations with crews of hundreds, satellite battle groups, and a massive missile attack from secret bases on the far side of the Moon are normally the fare of the local bookstore’s fantasy section, not supposedly hard strategic analysis, even if written for a popular audience. Many reading Friedman’s book will likely dismiss his space war as mere hokum. After all, if you are going to write a prophecy for the 21st century, you have to write something sensational about space, right? However, closer study reveals that there is more to the war than can simply be dismissed as space opera. Analysis of current trends in military doctrine and in the space industry reveals that many of Friedman’s predictions may sound fanciful but are actually eminently possible and perhaps even likely. Delving deeper into Friedman’s war may give us useful insight into understanding the future of military space.

A brief history of the Great Space War

In the mid- 2040s, geopolitical pressure will convince major regional powers Japan and Turkey that they have no choice but to end the United States as a global military hegemon. They know that they cannot defeat the US in a protracted war, so they decide to strike at the key enablers of US informational and military supremacy: the US Battle Stars. The Battle Stars are three geosynchronous orbit space stations (one each over Peru, Papua New Guinea, and Uganda) that support US military operations worldwide. They provide command and control (C2) of swarms of satellites in orbit organized into satellite battle groups, where smaller defensive satellites protect more expensive military satellites that provide communications, navigation, and even strike platforms able to engage targets on Earth or in space. In addition to controlling America’s space armada, the Battle Stars provide targeting information and C2 to ground-based unmanned hypersonic aircraft which act as America’s primary strike capability. Finally, the Battle Stars house hundreds of military and other personnel that operate the Battle Stars and (as orbital mechanics) maintain the robust space infrastructure that the modern world depends on. The Battle Stars are the “eyes, ears, and fists of the United States.”

Analysis of current trends in military doctrine and in the space industry reveals that many of Friedman’s predictions may sound fanciful but are actually eminently possible and perhaps even likely.

The Battle Stars are so important that if they are destroyed or isolated, the warfighting capability of the United States would be catastrophically paralyzed. Therefore, the US closely monitors any potential threat to them—from Earth. The Japanese recognize this fatal defect and prepare a missile strike from Japanese scientific bases on the far side of the Moon.

Three days before Thanksgiving Day, the Japanese launch a barrage of small rock projectiles attached to rockets on a course from the moon that will not directly intersect the stations. Then, after the projectiles have closed with the Battle Stars, they will change their orbits and attack the stations.

Only too late will the US realize that the Battle Stars are under attack (as most of the military is off for Thanksgiving) and despite an evacuation and an attempt at perimeter defense, all three Battle Stars are destroyed by impacts with moon rocks at a cost of hundreds of crew killed that were unable to abandon them in time. As a result of the loss of C2 provided by the Battle Stars, the overwhelming majority of US satellites are instantly disabled. A simultaneous strike against America’s hypersonic vehicle bases will destroy a large portion of the US ground-based strike capability. In one day the US military is laid waste.

Despite generous terms from the Coalition, who have taken pains to spare American lives with the exception of the Battle Star crews, the US refuses to surrender and attacks with a rage unseen since Pearl Harbor. Through years of attrition ground warfare in Poland, the Coalition attempts to force the Alliance to relent as America rebuilds her space and air forces. Ultimately, the Alliance triumphs through the time bought by the skill of Polish and UK ground forces and overwhelming US industrial and technological supremacy. Through wartime crash programs, the US achieves an even greater space superiority than before, which will last for at least another fifty years.

Reality: Battle Stars

While Friedman’s Battle Stars certainly resemble Star Trek rather than an Air War College study, the idea of the Battle Star actually reflects a reasonable extrapolation of current military space doctrine fairly accurately. There is certainly an aversion to human spaceflight (addressed later) in military space thought, but everything else about the Battle Star is a very logical evolution from today’s space thinking.

US space forces today provide force enhancement through communications, navigation, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Much military space conjecture involves space force application and space control missions that envision weapons from space attacking Earth and space targets. The Battle Stars accomplish nothing more than these missions, already well established in space doctrine.

The key innovation of the Battle Star is that C2 for space forces is now accomplished from space rather than from terrestrial nodes. But what would drive C2 from the easy ground to the very difficult and expensive space realm? Friedman says that it is logical because space provides additional speed as well as natural line of sight and secure communications. An extension of secure communications can be made to explain why such a dramatic change may be necessary in the future. That is the threat to space systems from space control operations.

The key innovation of the Battle Star is that command and control for space forces is now accomplished from space rather than from terrestrial nodes.

Space control and anti-satellite weapons bring to mind lasers and missiles. Indeed, rudimentary systems have been used as the recent Chinese and American satellite engagements attest. However, the easiest (both militarily and politically) and cheapest avenue to disabling a satellite is through jamming its uplink communications (the information flow from the C2 ground station to the satellite itself). Without constant communication from the ground, a satellite (no matter how expensive) will become almost completely useless probably from the very moment that communication is disrupted. Modern space control doctrine revolves mostly around jamming uplink signals. Physically disabling or destroying spacecraft has the severe repercussion of orbital debris and international outcry. Downlink jamming is often impractical for many systems due to power constraints (GPS being a notable exception). Uplink jamming brings space control into the aggressor’s favor.

However, with C2 from space uplink jamming is largely stripped of its advantage. Here, satellites are controlled from orbit, removing the attractiveness of jamming terrestrial communication to space systems because it will no longer be the critical C2 necessary to remain operational. Uplink communication will more likely resemble the routine and nonessential traffic between a warship at sea and its base of operations: important but not essential to survival. With the jamming option gone, space control will have little choice but to turn to the more expensive and problematic kinetic and directed energy weapons, which will make offensive space control operations more difficult physically, politically, and economically. These new barriers will dissuade many from even attempting space control activities—a key boost to the security of space powers.

So, we have a clear motivation to move space force C2 from Earth to space. That still leaves the question of how we do it. How can we sustain a population of hundreds in orbit? Trends in the space industry may lead us to understand a potential path.

Human spaceflight and the space industry

Friedman describes the Battle Stars as emerging from space commercialization programs begun in the 2030s that have matured in the 40s as a robust ability to work in space. These programs will be heavily subsidized by federal R&D dollars, much coming from the Defense Department. We may not need to wait that long.

Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport located in southern New Mexico, had its groundbreaking ceremony on Friday, June 19th. The industry that Spaceport America represents promises the entry of entrepreneurial and innovative firms into the space market that will energize the total space industry in ways not seen since Apollo. It is an open debate whether the so-called “NewSpace” industry will deliver on its promises, but no responsible observer can dismiss their efforts outright. What is known about this industry is that its leaders see a very human future in space.

Virgin Galactic, Armadillo Aerospace, and others are betting their business plans squarely on the success of space tourism: sending paying individuals into space. Even though their plans are initially to send people into suborbital space “joyrides,” no one hides the fact that the ultimate goal is to see people vacationing in space hotels, orbiting the Moon, and visiting other exotic space destinations. Bigelow Aerospace has flown two space station prototypes orders of magnitude cheaper than the International Space Station. Other goals of the entrepreneurial space industry, such as severe cost reductions for orbital launches and gigantic leaps in flight safety and responsiveness, could dramatically advance space power but it is opening space to large numbers of humans that may call forth the Battle Stars.

The military space enterprise will be greatly enhanced by the success of the NewSpace industry. Indeed, if the NewSpace industry succeeds the current techniques and assumptions of military space power will dramatically change, whether defense planners want them to or not.

Given thirty years, the “New Space” industry may very well make moving C2 to space stations staffed with military personnel an irresistible option, especially if the industry is seeded by military expenditures. Coupled with the advantage of being able to station maintenance personnel in orbit to respond to spacecraft anomalies (recall the importance of human astronauts to the Hubble Space Telescope repair missions), these human military space missions make sense under current doctrine as soon as they become financially feasible. What is financially feasible for the military is a great deal more expensive than tourists would consider reasonable, so the cost savings from the New Space industry’s focus on the vacationing customer will only make the military find human missions that much more attractive.

The military space enterprise will be greatly enhanced by the success of the NewSpace industry. Indeed, if the NewSpace industry succeeds the current techniques and assumptions of military space power will dramatically change, whether defense planners want them to or not. With the maturation of human commercial spaceflight, Friedman’s vision becomes much more likely to come to pass, and much more necessary for planners to study.

The need

Which brings us back to the Class of 2013. Assuming Friedman’s war starts in 2045 (he never mentions an exact year), a ’13 US Air Force Academy grad will have been in service for 32 years, around the middle service year for a major general. In the US Air Force, a major general often commands a Numbered Air Force, which at certain times in Air Force history was an expeditionary unit. Appointment to a Battle Star will likely be considered a tour-length expeditionary assignment, and overall combatant command of such an important force would probably go to no less than a major general.

Why is this important at all? Because it means that even though Friedman’s conflict sounds farfetched, and to some so remote as to be unimaginable, if he is correct a person already in an Air Force uniform may die from it. Though he may be a freshman cadet being hazed by an upperclassman and years away from his commission, he still serves in the US Air Force. This simple fact makes Friedman’s scenario compelling. Though there may be more pressing matters for planners at the moment, to glibly dismiss giving any thought to Friedman’s scenario because it “cannot happen” or is “too far in the future” is quite simply wrong. Military space planners should ponder his prediction and come to their own conclusions regarding whether current doctrine and future capabilities may merge to create a future like George Friedman predicts.

In 1925, British journalist and military writer Hector Charles Bywater wrote The Great Pacific War telling his story about a US-Japanese naval war in the Pacific. In it, he describes a catastrophic sneak attack on the US Navy by Japan (in the Philippines, since Pearl Harbor was not then an important naval base), an island-hopping US strategy to beat back the Japanese, kamikaze-like attacks on US ships by Japanese aviators, the reconquest of the Philippines, and even American bombers dropping leaflets on Japanese cities urging citizens to appeal to the Emperor to end the war. All of these events more or less happened in real life over a decade later. Of course, Bywater didn’t get everything exactly right. Although he gave an important role to carrier aviation, Bywater did not foresee the fierce carrier battles that took place at Coral Sea, Midway, and other locations. Regardless, those who would plan for and fight the Pacific War later would have benefitted from reading it.

It appears that US naval planners didn’t give the book much thought. However, historian William Honan discovered that Bywater’s book was secretly published by the Japanese, read widely by the Imperial Japanese Navy, and debated at the Imperial War College before the war. Even Admiral Yamamoto himself may have been influenced by the book to develop the Pearl Harbor plan. The Great Pacific War may be an example of life imitating art.

The Age of the Great Battlestars may not be science fiction, but perhaps a challenge just over the horizon for military space.

To say that The Next 100 Years will share a similar history is probably over the top, but it cannot be entirely discounted. Perhaps through Bywater’s story we can view Friedman’s work in a new light. The idea of the Battle Star now exists, and study of current trends in military and commercial space show that such a system may be possible and desirable in the timeframe Friedman describes. The US, or another power, may decide to build the Battle Stars simply because Friedman advanced the very interesting and useful idea in his book. By studying Friedman’s forecast, maybe the Battle Star designers will install a system that can identify attacks from the Moon as well as Earth, and save a poor cadet’s (future) life in the process.

Friedman’s text does not escape the distasteful determinism present in almost every book on realist geopolitics, though his predictions are very well defended and logical under his assumptions. In any case, the space war explored in The Next 100 Years is worthy reading for those interested in military space issues. The Age of the Great Battlestars may not be science fiction, but perhaps a challenge just over the horizon for military space. Space professionals should be ready.