Fight for the Final Frontier: Irregular Warfare in Space

  • Published

Fight for the Final Frontier: Irregular Warfare in Space by John J. Klein. Naval Institute Press, 2023, 264 pp.

Fight for the Final Frontier plots irregular warfare strategic theories from traditional warfighting domains to space, arguing that established military strategic thought on limited warfare is valid in this newly recognized domain. John Klein, a retired US Navy commander with 22 years of service as a naval flight officer, has written extensively on space strategy and deterrence and is currently an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and Georgetown University’s Strategic Studies Program. A clearly established academic in the field, Klein builds on his previous work on space strategy to demonstrate how irregular strategies might influence the execution of space warfare by the United States, its Allies, and its partners. The book considers a range of strategic theories applied to historical vignettes, and whilst not exclusively focused on lessons from the maritime domain, it does follow the general trend of military space literature by focusing on maritime synergies.

Klein corrals a variety of strategic concepts across eight chapters. Throughout, the key tenets of multidomain strategic theory commonality, opportunity presented by asymmetric tactics, primacy of technology, and inevitability of third parties in play shine through as consistent themes. He first introduces irregular warfare itself, comparing it with limited war, hybrid war, gray-zone conflict, gunboat diplomacy, and other similar, perhaps popularized terms that fulfill his fundamental criteria for irregular. For Klein, irregular warfare amounts to any multidomain strategy that does not involve conventional warfare, where the end result is won by more than military force alone. This point is important and one of a few golden threads through the work; the lessons from recent history regarding counterinsurgency, maintaining political will, guerrilla wars, and great power competition all apply in irregular warfare and in the space domain. It is in these early chapters that Klein’s key argument that “space is not special” starts to become clear. Although space is not a new domain, theory can be applied to it as well as any other domain. This makes the work accessible to students of military strategy who find themselves attempting to navigate the application of operational art to the space domain.

Klein makes the assertion that a state’s space strategy will probably align with its other multidomain strategies, which are fed by the state’s politics and culture. Actions in space are unlikely to be strategically decisive on their own, but their impact may have strategic consequences. This is one area where Klein is able to describe the application of indirect warfare theory to the space domain, and he does so convincingly. Irregular warfare in space lends itself to cumulative strategies of small, non-decisive action, which prevents an overall victory. This highlights the asymmetric opportunity of a small space force and also the intractable nature and impact of time on irregular strategy, both of which are compounded in space domain conflict.

Chapter 3, arguably one of two key sections for space operations practitioners, discusses small space wars and the operational art of conducting irregular space warfare. Klein asserts that command of space—analogous to both command of the sea and control of the air—cannot be absolute but will be bounded temporally and spatially as well as often disputed. Key terrain across space, link, and ground segments are discussed. Klein also takes the opportunity to reintroduce celestial lines of communication— “those lines of communication in, through, and from space associated with trade, materiel, supplies, personnel, spacecraft, electromagnetic transmissions, and some military effects”—from his earlier work as a way to describe key terrain in space to be contested.1 It is a fair argument that certain frequencies for communication or certain orbital regimes or planes are more valuable than others and that they will be contested. Klein discusses space control in terms of general versus local and persistent versus temporary—a valuable discussion, but one that left me wishing for a quadrant matrix as an accompanying figure to illustrate a space vignette fully.

In chapter 4, Klein also delineates how limited warfare or assertive activity short of conflict can still present challenges to space actors. Analogies with gunboat diplomacy are again well made and should give strategists thought when considering how to either assure access to space or coerce an outcome. A key argument introduced here and continued later is how space domain awareness—and its attribution of space action—is needed to reduce the gray zone that adversaries operate within during limited war. This argument offers one of the book’s more immediately and practically applicable ideas, reinforced in chapter 8 with Klein’s framework that recognizes space attribution as a process; however, it deserves even further exploration than this book provides.

Chapters 5 and 6 introduce lawfare—“the intentional distortion and misuse of legal regimes for competitive advantage”—and commercial risks and opportunities (91). Klein demonstrates how adversaries already have lawfare within their arsenal and how it is likely to also be employed in space. Borrowing from naval irregular warfare, he discusses space privateering and piracy, where the probability of the former—the pillaging and taking of “prizes” such as space capabilities or services with the authority of the government or other licensor—is well argued. Yet, the possibility of space pirates—who act outside of the law—seizing such prizes, is perhaps a step too wide on the cone of plausibility. Setting the conditions for lawfare to be employed, he argues that commercial actors in space will drive the maturity of the space domain more than government actors. It is therefore incumbent on states to integrate key commercial elements into a hybrid space architecture, both to establish norms for space behavior in order to defend against lawfare and to exploit the opportunities and redundancies found within dual-use capability.

This latter opportunity from the commercial sector is further discussed in the context of space technologies in chapter 7. Klein offers that technology can provide deterrence by denial; any definitive action against a capability in space that can be mitigated through a hybrid redundancy potentially reduces the chance of the action at all, protecting sovereign capability. Klein then contends that, largely owing to the technologically driven context of space operations, the domain is inherently both offensive and predictable. A valid example is seen in the ways costs of launch forces prioritize ensuring payload capability over including defensive suites, whilst technology makes obfuscation difficult.

The book’s second key element for the practitioner is the proffered 10 counterstrategies for irregular warfare in space. Here, Klein argues for education in irregular space warfare and then the criticality of maintaining political support and patience when in a prolonged, irregular conflict. He restates the importance of attribution through his space attribution framework, which creates a triad between space domain awareness, intelligence, and commercial elements. He argues the case for defensive measures and resilience in space and notes the need for a nonmilitary solution to irregular warfare, stating the importance of dispersal and concentration—that is, maneuverability—before work with commercial partners and allies. Klein’s final point is to tie off a key thread that runs throughout his work: space is not special. There is no all-encompassing answer or rules to space strategy; there are just strategic guidelines for current strategists to contend with and apply.

Klein has made convincing arguments throughout. In what is a nascent but growing pool of academic literature, Fight for the Final Frontier is accessible to current military strategists and will help place space warfare thinking in the minds of multidomain planners. Yet whilst some of Klein’s key strategic theories are well illustrated at a level accessible to the generalist, one or two clear and realistic space vignettes with more depth would help seat the book’s offerings in the generalist strategy student’s mind and therefore neatly into multidomain strategic education. Overall, Fight for the Final Frontier presents a good thesis. It deserves a place as essential reading for any military member engaged in professional military education or indeed any staff charged with operations, strategy, or capability development.

Squadron Leader Mike Lambert, Royal Air Force

1 John J. Klein, Space Warfare: Strategy, Principles and Policy (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2006), 51.

"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."