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On Collision Warfare
The Theory and (likely) Practice of Military Operations in Orbit
“It is often said that space is the ultimate high ground. That’s a very…geocentric model. But semantics aside, how does one take a high ground that never ends? For that matter, how does someone fight at tens of thousands of miles an hour where the slightest bit of debris can prove a crack in your armor?…How do you write a manual for a place most humans have never been?” -The First Starfighter, EX SUPRA
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We live on land, we sail the oceans blue, we fly the skies, and our entire civilization is built upon surfing the internet. But aside from a lucky few and our support satellites ranging from GPS and reconnaissance to Sirius radio and Starlink…humanity does not exist in or on the space domain in the same ways it does land/sea/air/cyber. The functions that come from the heavens are beyond critical to our modern way of life, and yet all most will ever see of it are twinkles of refracted light when we look up from our phones to stargaze with our loved ones. Compounding this physical and mental distance from orbit is the black box where our orbital capabilities are kept. There are good reasons for this, but as members of Space Force and Congress have repeatedly declared, we hide too much. Simply put, it’s not just the public that’s uninformed on orbital warfare: it’s most of the US military and decisionmakers. Indeed, even most read in on the programs, as with cyber, have likely very little understanding of what they’re actually being briefed. The technology and implications are simply too technical, too out of reach, for far too many. So today, I’d like to bring the heavens down to earth, and explain what we have and do in space, how space impacts the the average person and the average warfighter, and what the future may look like. As I walk through the present and future, I’ll be using the orbital combat sections from my novel about the war after next, EX SUPRA, to paint a picture of both the opportunity and disaster that awaits us.
The State of Space
In 2022, we hit 65 years in space as a species. For 65 years, no country has fired a shot in anger at another beyond the stratosphere. Space is largely self-governed relative to the rest of Earth. We have the Outer Space Treaty, which bans the use, deployment, or testing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer space, and outlaws any signatory from declaring dominion over any heavenly body. But we have no rules governing more “conventional” outer space weaponry from lasers to orbital bombardment. Recently, the US has led an effort to ban live testing of anti-satellite weaponry. We’ve also tried to get the world on board with the Artemis Accords. The Russians and Chinese aren’t having it, and have instead proposed their own arms controls at the UN that would undoubtedly limit US capability in orbit while securing their own advantages. We’re engaged in a quiet arms race that puts our modern way of warfare and way of life, at risk of utter destruction.
We have come close, several times, and the debris from weapons tests even closer to igniting cataclysm in orbit. In November 2021, a Russian anti-satellite weapons test caused debris that forced the International Space Station from its regular orbit causing a mild panic for a few hours. But even more than debris from weapons tests is the orbital pollution of all manner of objects from aging weather satellites to loose screws. Even the smallest objects, like a stray titanium bolt, can become a lethal projectile in orbit. The speed at which everything moves in orbit means everything is a stray bullet. In recent years, we’ve invested billions into new tracking radars capable of tracing the paths of objects down to the size of a baseball in orbit. If we can see it, we can avoid it. For now. Until we can develop a system capable of efficiently and cost-effectively removing debris from orbit, the best we can do is dodge the big stuff and armor up against the small stuff. But should we break that streak of peace in orbit, or should an uncontrolled collision with a large enough object occur, then all bets are off. Enter Kessler Syndrome.
To help visualize, the terrestrial comparison to Kessler Syndrome could be a cyberweapon that would cripple whole sectors of the internet (and internet of things) or the battlefield release of a bioweapon. In this scenario, you wouldn’t lose access to everything with an IP address, but a lot of critical services would be limited and dysfunctional. You wouldn’t end the world with a virus, but you’d end up quarantining whole regions until a vaccine is developed, immobilizing US military options and crippling society. In a Kessler Syndrome scenario, enough of a debris field is generated that not only does it block out a certain segment of orbit, the debris collides with other satellites as it revolves around the earth, creating a cascading effect of collisions rendering much of orbit useless until the debris is cleared or burns up in the atmosphere. But as bad as Kessler Syndrome is, it’s not the first thing that would happen when the first shot is fired in orbit.
The Space War of Today
“In space, no one can hear you start an arms race, but on the ground, it was the shot heard round the fuckin’ world.” -Burning in the Skies, EX SUPRA
Early in the morning, US Eastern Time, a satellite-based video conference between the Secretary of Defense and the Commander of US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii goes down. The Commander and his staff have been up all night trying to manage a crisis in the Western Pacific as China prepares to invade Taiwan. While China has launched missile strikes against Taiwanese targets, the PLA has not yet fired a shot against the United States. While it won’t be confirmed for several hours, the first shot was fired in orbit as the US military communications network goes dark thanks to a PLA cyber attack months in the making. Despite US warnings about escalation risks, US space-based early warning systems are then hit by PLA in-orbit kinetic strikes. Tiny hunter-killer satellites launched from larger host satellites silently scream towards their targets and disable the satellite array that watches for missile launches around the world. Down below, PLA missile crews fire off a barrage against the US Pacific Fleet. This is their only shot at a first strike, because once the US figures out what’s going on, the next shots fired will be against the PLA’s own targeting satellites. And so the war will go on, one eye in the sky poking out another, until we’re blind beyond the stratosphere and collateral damage mounts as debris strikes countless civilian and dual-use systems from GPS to Starlink.
What happens next, assuming a ceasefire is not reached, will be a pause in large-scale orbital operations. Like high-end systems deployed and expended by the Russians in Ukraine, there will be a pause until more can be produced and deployed. Satellites take time to build, and rockets take time to assemble and launch. Both sides only have so many launch sites, delivery systems, production facilities, and backup systems…and all are impacted by bad weather. These sites will undoubtedly be targeted by cyber attack and sabotage, if not missile strikes themselves, in order to delay deployment to orbit. As with all other US military problems from anti-ship missiles and airfields to javelins and ships, we have a problem with production capacity, supply chain, and staging chokepoints for orbital systems. I would assess we have an advantage here over China at present, but they are rapidly catching up for the specific purpose of wartime capacity and destruction of our own systems during wartime. There’s a saying in the PLA, which has been indirectly proven by how our systems have faired in Ukraine: “If the Americans can’t see, they can’t fight.” Our advantage is our ability to see the battlefield better than anyone else, and guide our systems onto target. Take that away, and the playing field becomes more level.
The fear of the loss of such systems is serious enough that the services have made an effort to return to training on old-school navigation systems and fighting in “spectrum contested” environments, which can mean anything from signal jamming to complete loss of orbital systems. In this way, Ukraine provides another window into what the loss of orbital control means for war on the ground: a renewed emphasis on the close fight, with maneuver slowing to the pace of terrestrial targeting and reconnaissance. You move slower with a map, you shoot only at what you can see, and the best overhead view you’ll get is with whatever link you can establish with the drones organic to your unit. There are smart systems that can overcome these limitations, but they are expensive and will undoubtedly be expended early in the conflict. What happens next in orbital warfare is largely theoretical, but if we take the industrial and tactical lessons of Ukraine and apply them, we come up with a pretty good theory of the next phase: collision warfare.
Collision warfare may be defined as the phase of orbital combat at which ground-based or non-lethal effects (cyber, jamming, terrestrial-based ASAT missiles) are too slow to gain and maintain control of an orbital lane and keep pace with terrestrial operations. It is at this phase that a variety of orbital-based kinetic measures are introduced and/or are dominant from the firing of kinetic interceptors or lasers from larger satellite platforms to suicide strikes by waves of microsatellites. In the above vignette, we saw the first wave of these systems deployed, but these were the most exquisite versions aimed at ensuring first-strike success against other exquisite systems.
In a peer conflict, the industrialization of orbital warfare will likely result in the collision of attacker satellites colliding with one another, like massed infantry in a bayonet charge at thousands of miles an hour high above the war below. As launch platforms proliferate and the cost of microsatellite production and launch drops dramatically, it is likely we will see waves upon waves of satellite collisions during a peer conflict with the US and China. There will be a race to the bottom to send the cheapest systems, in greatest numbers, into orbit in the cheapest, fastest way possible. These systems will have a short life-expectancy and will be meant for temporary orbital control to either dislodge the enemy in orbit or support a new operation earth side. Imagine microsatellites armed with reconnaissance cameras surging at low orbit in a wave to collect strategic targeting intelligence before a counterwave is launched to knock them out of the sky. Or micro attack satellites, orbital buckshot, launched to disrupt the enemy’s targeting process in order to delay their advance on the ground. Collision warfare, as put forward here, is not so much a doctrine as it is a natural phase of combat: orbital attrition.
These collisions would undoubtedly generate so much debris as to pollute a good portion of orbit, particularly low-earth orbit and possibly lead to a Kessler Syndrome Scenario. At which point the fight for safe orbital lanes from which to operate would become even more intense as useable orbital real estate dwindles. Now as much of the fighting would undoubtedly occur at the lowest levels of orbit, there may be hope that much of the debris, small as it is, will burn up on reentry as it is pulled back home by earth’s gravity and orbital trajectory. That is the promise of many new microsatellite systems launched today, including Starlink. As to whether that will hold up, we will only know when the skies start burning.
“The high ground meant more than the simple height of a hill. It meant more than controlling the skies. It meant controlling local orbit and working your way down through each layer of defense. A ground commander had three flanks: left, right, and up…Just as armies of the past had to contend with overstretched supply lines or lack of air cover, now they had to factor in a flank that they often couldn’t even see with the naked eye until it was too late. Given the speed and persistence of orbital operations, measuring in hundreds of miles per second, the ultimate high ground could change hands several times before ground commanders could even react appropriately.” -As Above, So Below, EX SUPRA
So what does this all mean on the ground? How should a commander or policymaker think about the impacts of maneuver and attrition in orbit? How do we prepare for collision warfare? Well, there’s a few things to consider:
Ground-based operations should be timed with orbital operations just as you would initiate an attack with artillery fire or airstrikes. You can fight without orbital dominance, but you don’t want to fight while the enemy has control, either. If you can’t have it, you have to at least deny it to the enemy. Scorched heavens.
Ukraine shows that cheap air systems will proliferate as exquisite systems are expended. The Cheap microsatellite will become the commercial, handheld drone of the orbital battlefield.
There will come a time, after first-strike, when terrestrial-to-orbit strike systems (whether it be cyber or missiles) have a limited impact on space warfare relative to what can be deployed fast and on the cheap with little preparation. The need to stockpile and diversify launch systems, parts, and satellites, is critical to our ability to sustain an orbital war of attrition and support a sustained ground campaign. We need a menu of options and suppliers, not a golden child. Choosing between companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX is a great way to limit our ability to rebuild and relaunch during war.
Stark’s Phases of Military Operations in Orbit:
Phase Zero: Preparation of the Orbital Battlefield. This phase entails targeting and reconnaissance of orbital systems, may include harassing but not engaging enemy systems in order to gauge enemy reactions. It also includes infiltration of enemy systems via cyber and industrial sabotage.
Phase One: First-Strike. Knock out as many enemy exquisite systems as possible, and disrupt enemy ability to quickly launch a counterstrike from orbit or on the ground. The priority goes to communications and early warning systems. These strikes can be, but don’t have to be kinetic in nature. Long-planned cyber operations may disrupt, disorient, degrade, or destroy on-orbit or terrestrial relay systems. Jamming, spoofing, and blinding via lasers can also be effective if you’re hoping for a short conflict with minimal escalation and collateral damage (good luck).
Phase Two: Mutually-assured destruction (if you’re first strike failed), or temporary domain dominance in orbit (if it succeeded.) If victorious, consolidate your gains and ensure your systems are resilient to an enemy counterattack and that any counterattack will be delayed significantly via terrestrial operations such as strikes on launch pads. In either case, both sides are scrambling to rebuild and relaunch new systems on the cheap as they reconstruct the larger, more exquisite systems such as GPS and early warning satellites.
Phase Three: Large-Scale Collision Warfare.
Phase Four: The pivot from the attrition of collision warfare back to maneuver as enemy industrial resources are depleted and domain dominance (as well as lane clearance of debris) can be achieved long enough for the reestablishing of exquisite networks and systems back into orbit.
Phase Five: Consolidation and reestablishment of civilian systems post-conflict.
The Department of Defense should establish a collaborative in-house functional center, like the newly-established Irregular Warfare Center, to produce public and classified research, public awareness, wargames, and senior civilian and uniformed leader and operational training on orbital warfare and systems. The lack of awareness and knowledge in government and among the public on the function of the Space Force and US orbital systems is a grave threat to its regulation and evolution, in addition to joint readiness.
“Reconnaissance satellites, orbital comms relays, early warning sensors, even a few weather satellites. We were so confident…that we could control everything. But the truth is, our hubris blinded us. Every time I try to sleep, your honors, all I can see is that burning in the skies…and so long as we’re blind up above and down below…I fear the fire will soon spread.” -ADM. Higgins, Burning in the Skies, EX SUPRA
I make these recommendations in fear; fear that not only are we falling short of our obligations to combat the threat in orbit, but also in our obligations to protect humanity’s access to the heavens. It is extremely likely that orbital combat will take place in the next war, and we will have to work extremely hard to ensure that it does not ruin us. I truly believe our future is among the stars, so the best way to ensure that future is to ensure we have an appropriate deterrent in orbit. That starts with ensuring that we can, and that everyone knows, that we can win and dominate collision warfare and a broader orbital campaign. It means reducing the cost of losing the high-ground by continuing to train under contested and denied conditions from communications to targeting. It means developing smart systems that can operate without a satellite link and still deliver the appropriate effects. Reducing our reliability on orbital systems, and boosting our defenses and attack capabilities, will reduce first-moved advantage and enemy confidence in orbit just as it has for cyber operations. We have a lot of work to do, but can get to a place where the cataclysm of an orbit first-strike, and Kessler syndrome, are dramatically reduced for the good of our security and humanity.
If you would like to read more about the future of US-China conflict, the invasion of Taiwan, and what the future of orbital warfare looks like, check out my book, EX SUPRA. It just got nominated for a Prometheus Award for best science fiction novel! And if you have any suggestions for topics for future newsletters, please send them my way on Twitter @Iron_Man_Actual.
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