War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics

  • Published

War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics by Bleddyn E. Bowen. Edinburgh University Press, 2020, 288 pp.

Bleddyn E. Bowen, an associate professor of international relations at the University of Leicester, is known as an expert in space policy and spacepower theory largely because of his pioneering work, War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics. He initiated his research in the space domain because it was largely neglected by the international relations field and because prominent scholars such as Colin Gray stressed a need for an Alfred Thayer Mahan-like theorist to address space.

Bowen answers that call with War in Space. His research is exhaustive of the extant literature on seapower, astropolitics, policy, and law. Bowen lays out seven propositions that together constitute his spacepower theory:

I. Space warfare is waged for the command of space

II. Spacepower is uniquely infrastructural and connected to Earth

III. The command of space does not equate to the command of Earth

IV. The command of space manipulates celestial lines of communication

V. Earth orbit is a cosmic coastline suited for strategic manoeuvres

VI. Spacepower exists within a geocentric mindset

VII. Spacepower is dispersed and imposes dispersion on Earth. (5)

Given these propositions’ basis in physics and politics they are unlikely to become obsolete with advances in technological development.

The book is organized into three parts. The first part builds on the work of others to define and refine the first four of the seven propositions. Part two discusses propositions five and six, which constitute the beginning of Bowen’s original contribution. The unique idea here is that space is a celestial coastline, and that insight has implications for how spacepower is used for commercial and military purposes. In part three, Bowen discusses the ramifications that spacepower imposes on terrestrial warfare.

The gist of Bowen’s argument in part one is that by using bluewater seapower theory as espoused by Mahan and Julian Corbett or airpower theory as expressed by Guilio Douhet to form a basis for understanding space, one gains some insights but also reaches erroneous conclusions. The absolutists, as Bowen calls them, reason that space is much like the vast open ocean and command of space is likened to command of the seas or air supremacy. Other strategists stress that moving through space is communication and a nation’s goal is to hinder as much as possible the enemy’s use of it for this purpose, while maintaining space for itself to apply maximum economic pressure. The starting point of such theories is that command of space is the ultimate high ground and total space control should be the objective of space strategy.

Bowen’s first critique of these theories is that they overlook the uniqueness of space as a medium. Bowen cleverly starts with a proposition made by a direct analogy between spacepower and seapower and then pushes its logic to determine where it holds up and where it begins to break down. He notes that while space capabilities convey enormous benefits in commercial and military activity, antisatellite capability can deny the exclusive use of space without a nation ever becoming a spacepower. His conclusion is that space will always be a contested environment.

He also points out that physics governs specific orbits. All orbits have some advantages and disadvantages. Changing orbits is possible, but it is also an expensive and time-consuming process. The value of a specific orbit to any nation is highly dependent on the nation’s objectives and geographic location. To make use of space, a nation or commercial enterprise, such as SpaceX’s Starlink, typically needs a constellation of satellites and the infrastructure to build, launch, monitor, and control them. Weaker nations are not required to attack satellites to reduce space capability because they can alternatively attack the supporting infrastructure.

The idea of weaponizing space seems appealing, but once expended, those weapons cannot be easily replenished. The lead time to replace lost satellites and predictability of launches make achieving surprise unrealistic, particularly if a nation’s infrastructure is damaged or destroyed. Destruction of enemy satellites from space litters orbits with debris, making them less usable to all parties and risking damage to neutral parties’ interests. Bowen concludes that while one cannot outright reject the ideas of analogy from bluewater naval strategies neither can one rely on them to construct a ready theory for war in space. In sum, Bowen’s argument in part one is convincing.

In the second section of War in Space, Bowen argues that space is a celestial coastline. He makes this analogy using the continental naval theories of French Vice Admiral Raoul Castex. The point here is that a continental power must establish its army as its main effort and its seapower must support that landpower. He compares space to terrestrial coastlines which are shared by neighboring countries, some friendly and some hostile. It is this common coastline that is most vulnerable and has the most impact on the conduct of warfare, not the open ocean. Satellite orbits all cross over the land mass of many nations, simultaneously making those nations vulnerable to space exploitation and satellites vulnerable to attack at specific points in time. All nations share this celestial coastline effectively as neighbor states.

Here again, Bowen makes a compelling argument. He concludes this section with a discussion of the culture and organization of space forces, noting that the origin of forces and their history will leave an imprint of how space forces conceive of and use spacepower. This concept of the celestial coastline forms Bowen’s main and unique contribution to strategic theory.

In part three, Bowen explores the ramifications of the celestial coastline. He argues that space is, and always will be, an adjunct to landpower, airpower, and seapower. Additionally, he claims that because spacepower involves the duality of making the entire Earth’s surface vulnerable from space while satellites are vulnerable to disruption and degradation from both Earth and space, that dispersion of assets is necessary for survivability when at war with another space-faring nation. The need for dispersion creates an additional burden on space-based communications and intelligence, causing belligerents to become simultaneously more vulnerable from space and more dependent on space. He uses this paradox to refute prescriptions that an all-out war for control of space will be the opening salvo in the next major conflict between spacepowers. Instead, he argues that dispersion in space is inherent in satellite constellations, distant orbits, and diverse ownership.

Because of this dispersion, degradation, intermittent disruption, and deception of space assets are more likely than destruction. War in space and for space will be tempered, calculating, and situationally dependent. He aptly illustrates his ideas with a hypothetical defense-of-Taiwan scenario. Yet while thought-provoking, this section is more open to dispute than the others. In particular, the idea that spacepower imposes a need to disperse forces on Earth can be challenged. There are other options for force protection beyond dispersion, including point defense, deterrence, and concealment. There are also alternatives for communication that are independent of satellites. One must also account for any adversary’s appetite for risk. In short, there are just too many alternatives to consider.

A few other points should be considered as well. While Bowen’s reasoning from theories of seapower is appropriate and convincing, he makes little use of airpower theory. Beyond a quick look at Douhet’s ideas and the mention of Boyd’s observe, orient, decide, act (OODA) loop, he does not delve into the tenets of airpower. While I doubt that a discussion of airpower theory along the lines of part one of the book would change his conclusions, there are competing ideas based on airpower that he has not addressed, and his propositions would be stronger had he dealt with those ideas as he did with competing seapower analogies.

As for readability, the prose is heavily salted with acronyms and jargon such that a reader not already familiar with them will repeatedly have to refer to the list of acronyms contained in the front matter. Bowen seems to assume his audience is already familiar with the ideas of nearly all military theorists and most of the previous literature on space written by contemporary scholars in international relations and security studies. Yet that audience is a niche one and probably a narrower audience than he intended to influence. Even if readers find that they have some knowledge of military theory and the current scholarship on space but are not familiar with every theorist referenced—I fall into this category—some homework to familiarize themselves with those theorists’ ideas will be necessary.

Still, with War in Space, Bowen has made the strongest contribution yet to a theory for spacepower and will take his place alongside other key theorists for what he has achieved. Government officials engaged in defense, mid-grade to senior military officers, and scholars of national security studies should find the time to read this book as it will likely become a foundation of spacepower theory and the point of departure for all future dialogue.

Dr. Phillip G. Pattee, Commander, USN, Retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."