The Future of Space Warfare Will Be Influenced by Naval Strategy

The Future of Space Warfare Will Be Influenced by Naval Strategy

There might be more to "sailing the stars" than one might think.

Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo, rich in raw materials vital to the economic health of the Republic.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… Trade Federation officers must have read Alfred Thayer Mahan’s naval classic, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. In true Mahanian fashion, the Trade Federation massed their capital battleships to blockade Naboo. The Trade Federation pays homage to the East India Company that once controlled the trade routes and paved the way for Britain to become a world power. In The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, Mahan believed that sea control could be gained in part by blockades – an observation borne out by Great Britain’s ascent as an economic and military powerhouse. Renowned navalist Milan Vego offers further guidance of how to ensure sea control in his canonical book, Maritime Strategy and Sea Control: Theory and Practice. In it, Vego demonstrates through historical examples that sea control can be achieved by strategically positioning forces in straits and chokepoints. Mahan’s focus on blockades combined with Vego’s theory for sea control in straits and chokepoints can guide United States interplanetary grand strategy as the United States, China, India, Russia, the European Union, and countless others shift their sights towards the final frontier.

Straits and Chokepoints

Vego asserts that sea control, in its simplest form, is the ability for a nation to use a given part of the sea and associated air (and space) across the spectrum of conflict to deny the same to the enemy. Applying Vego’s definition of sea control and its application to specific geographic regions, the importance of straits becomes evident. Straits or “chokepoints” are a textbook case of sea control limited to a specific region and have remained of great importance throughout history. Nations that control these chokepoints can asphyxiate the enemy by halting commerce causing major economic impacts or denying freedom of maneuver in wartime. During the Napoleonic War, the British had a vested interested in ensuring a neutral Denmark and thus neutral Danish Straits. The plains to the north provided timber for the British and French Navy and were also critical for transporting grain amongst other vital commerce. A century later, Germany’s de facto control of the Danish Straits prevented Britain from reinforcing its Russian ally during the First World War. During the Second World War, the occupation of Denmark allowed Germany to leverage the full economic resources of Scandinavian countries while denying the Royal Navy access to the Baltics. Even in a galaxy far, far away the Trade Federation realized the importance of blockading Naboo by placing their battleships in key locations with the goal to leverage the full economic resources of the planet.

Admiral John Fisher, the First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy and founding father of the Dreadnought battleship, identified the strategic importance of Straits when positing this rhetorical question, “Do you know that there are five keys to the world? The Strait of Dover, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, the Straits of Malacca, the Cape of Good Hope. And every one of these keys we hold.” Although oversimplified, his aphorism still rings true today. In March of 2021, the M/V Ever Given became lodged in the Suez Canal disrupting commerce and causing an estimated 9.6 billion dollars of economic damage per day. Ships once waiting in line to transit the Suez Canal extended their voyage and incurred additional fuel and crew costs by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to their destinations.

Lagrange Points and Halo Orbits

The same analogy holds true for space travel. Despite the incomprehensible distance, times, and vastness required for interplanetary travel, the chokepoints of sea control can also be distilled down to Lagrange points for space control. Lagrange points are specific points (orbits) between any two orbiting celestial bodies where gravitational and centrifugal force negate each other, resulting in orbits that can be maintained with little to no propulsion. In simpler terms, only five Lagrange points (labeled L1 through L5exist between planets and their respective moons or the Sun and its planets. Due to the gravity-stable properties and low fuel requirements of Lagrange points, they are ideal for satellites and are understandably well known by space agencies. In 2017, the Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, Dr. Jim Green, proposed the radical idea of placing a magnetic dipole shield at Lagrange point L1 in the Sun-Mars system to create an artificial magnetosphere, shielding Mars from solar winds and radiation. This shield would allow the volcanic activity on Mars to continually build up the atmosphere until a point of self-sustainment. If a state or non-state actor saturates or even blockades critical Lagrange chokepoints, the ramifications could range from economic depression and collapse of critical space infrastructure to the loss of interplanetary colonies that may eventually inhabit the cosmos.

Closer to home, satellites from both NASA and the European Space Agency have already made home in earth-system Lagrange points. Lagrange points, specifically L1, L2, and L3, can also host an ecosystem of satellites through halo orbits. Although halo orbits are dynamically unstable and require more fuel than the stable Lagrange points at L4 and L5, satellites in halo orbits at L2 can serve as communication relays from the dark side of the moon, Mars, and other celestial bodies. In May of 2018, China placed the first-ever lunar relay satellite, Queqiao, into a halo orbit at the Earth-Moon L2. The following year, China landed their Chang’e 4 rover on the far side of the moon using Queqiao as a communication relay. In addition to China, NASA and the European Space Agency have already placed satellites in Lagrange point L2 while countries such as Russia, India, and Japan have their own Lagrangian aspirations. Because Lagrange points and associated halo orbits can only host a limited number of spacecraft, the contest for this limited real estate by spacefaring nations can have terrestrial consequences. These important areas in space are not treatise to international norms and measures yet will be essential for lunar and interplanetary space lines of communication.

Access to Resources

The Trade Federation blockaded Naboo in an attempt to leverage the rare economic resources found in the planet. Similar to here on Earth, access to resources is necessary to lift countries and their populations’ standard of living. It is unlikely that much of the world will sacrifice their consumerism to live in harmony with each other and Mother Nature, leaving the limited resources on Earth to support an ever-growing consumer economy. Governments in the future are likely to look to space to solve their growth problems, much as European colonization looked to supplement sapped domestic resources in the 17th and 18th centuries. Beyond Lagrange chokepoints serving as potential flashpoints for real-estate between countries launching satellites, Martian trojan asteroids make home in the gravity-stable environment at Lagrange points L4 and Lin the Mars-Sun system. The imperative of space lines of communication is not necessarily scientific exploration or protection of desirable orbits, but the ability to leverage the vast resources that abound in space. One asteroid floating between Mars and Jupiter is assessed to contain over 10 quintillion dollars of precious metals, more than 10,000 times larger than the 2019 global economy, far more wealth than Han Solo could have ever imagined.

Interplanetary Transport Network and Space lines of Communication

Alfred Thayer Mahan’s unmistakable first lines in the Influence of History Upon Sea Power state:

“The first and most obvious light in which the sea presents itself from the political and social point of view is that of a great highway; or better, perhaps, of a wide common, over which men may pass in all directions, but on which some well-worn paths show that controlling reasons have led them to choose certain lines of travel rather than others. These lines of travel are called trade routes; and the reasons which have determined them are to be sought in the history of the world.”

While the great highway, wide common, and well-worn paths refer to the sea, his quote can be analogous to Star Wars as well. The hyperspace routes in Star Wars, or trade routes, link the major worlds in the galaxy like an intergalactic superhighway. The routes are safe and account for traveling without colliding into celestial bodies including their gravitational pull. Han Solo couldn’t just punch it when blockade running from Imperial Cruisers. As the Imperial Cruisers closed on him, he quipped to a young Luke Skywalker that, “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy! Without precise calculations we could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova and that’d end your trip real quick, wouldn’t it?”

Although hyperspace only remains a reality in the Star Wars Universe, a great highway through our solar system already exists. Lagrange points serve as interplanetary straits, connecting celestial bodies in our solar system through the Interplanetary Transport Network (ITN). The halo orbits around Lagrange points can be used to alter spacecraft and satellite trajectories to arrive at any point in the solar system with minimal energy, although reaching Mars could take a millennium using the ITN – far longer than the record breaking 12 parsec Kessel Run flown by Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon. However, the slowness of ITN trajectories can be modified with external speed injections. In 2003, Cal-Teach professors introduced a Multi-Moon Orbiter concept. The concept proposed that a spacecraft could use Lagrange points to modify its trajectory to survey the moons of Jupiter with a final touch down on Europa where NASA speculates both water and life could exist. Lagrange points will serve as the keys to unlock the universe that could transform mankind into a multi-planetary species.