Sunday, May 31, 2009

Orbital Warfare Should Not Work That Way

Of course I'm concerned about the future. It's where I plan to spend the rest of my life.

When I first came across George Friedman's The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century in a bookstore, I flipped through it but didn't buy it because 1) I had to get to work soon and 2) I really didn't feel like shelling out $30 CDN plus applicable taxes. Nevertheless, it did intrigue me quickly and the ideas I was exposed to from briefly flipping through it kept nattering at me, and so on Friday I went and paid the $30 CDN plus applicable taxes.

Forecasting is an inherently tricky business. Also on my shelf is Your Next Fifty Years by Robert W. Prehoda, circa 1979, which among other things forecast a barely-averted Malthusian famine and population collapse in 1994 that ended the Cold War because the United States shared its emergency food supplies with the Soviets. Technological forecasting, which is really what much of the field is concerned with, is particularly hard to nail down.

Geopolitical forecasting is something else again. Geopolitics doesn't play by the same rules as technology - regardless of the tools at hand, the overarching goals, drives, and motivations of its players are the same as they've been throughout history. As the founder and Chief Intelligence Officer of the private intelligence agency Stratfor, Friedman probably has access to a wealth of information from around the world that helped him design a possible 21st century.

This is not a review; I won't cover the grand sweep of the book. Honestly I think I may raid it for inspiration myself, as if nothing else it is creative - nowhere else have I seen the 21st century shaped, in part, by a great power war between the United States, Poland (!), Japan, and Turkey (!!). Nevertheless, the way Friedman pulled off that war kind of bugs me.

In Friedman's 2050, the United States has militarized space and keeps watch over the world from three geosynchronous stations called "Battle Stars" - named such "for no other reason than that it's a cool name" - which, in turn, are the nerve centers of the new American remote-controlled military of UAVs and hypersonic missiles. The war begins when Japan destroys the three Battle Stars with, in a page from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, kinetic missiles hurled from its lunar station.

Friedman did score extra points for acknowledging that, yes, these launches would have been detected by the American orbital awareness system. He likewise explains why that detection does not necessarily mean awareness - computers in his 2050 are of the don't-speak-unless-spoken-to kind, it seems. None of the Battle Star's defense systems are effective at brushing away the missiles, and "at 5 p.m., all three Battle Stars will explode, killing all of the remaining crew members and knocking out the rest of the U.S. space force."

Whether or not a space station with room enough for hundreds of people would explode in the manner to which televised science fiction is something I'm not deeply qualified to comment on, but based on my limited knowledge I'd tend to say "space does not work that way." That's a moot point, though; a kinetic impact would break up the station, and so it may just be a problem of suboptimal word choice.

What really gets me is that, considering that the Japanese-Turkish coalition is banking on its possession of an intact satellite network to pummel the United States into submission, physically destroying its Battle Stars is fucking stupid - but then, when you get right down to it, the same can be said for orbital warfare as a whole.

Humans are spoiled by habits that a gravity field encourages. If we blow something up, we expect the rubble to stay where it is; no fun to clean up, sure, but also something that can be sidestepped and no longer provides any value to the enemy. Space doesn't work that way. Sure, Japan's destroyed the Battle Stars and blinded the American eyes in the sky, but it won't matter because the debris from the destroyed stations, tens or hundreds of thousands or millions of pieces of debris, is now hurling around Earth at 8 kilometers per second on unpredictable orbits that may intersect with yet more satellites. Many of them would, undoubtedly, constitute the intact Japanese-Turkish network with which they can keep an eye on the States.

This is a perfect recipe for a Kessler Syndrome, something I've written about before, where the volume of debris in Earth orbit makes spaceflight effectively impossible. This is also something people aren't really familiar with yet. After all, garbage doesn't last forever - except in space, where it effectively does.

I don't think it's a question of whether space is militarized, but when - the only reason it hasn't happened yet is because spaceflight is still extremely expensive, and presently there's no reason to place weapons in space when they'd just be doing the same things Earth-based ones do, but not as well.

When it does happen, though, for the future's sake I hope they're not all idiots about it.

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