By Dr Bleddyn E. Bowen[1]

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Dr Bleddyn Bowen examines the place of space power in modern high-intensity warfare. In doing so, he discusses two competing astro-strategies and their applicability to air forces and the use of air power.


Modern air forces cannot conduct precise and highly coordinated operations without the navigation and communications services provided by satellites. Proven in 1991, America’s space power-enabled military forces decimated Iraq’s massed conventional forces and turned a defeat into a rout as Iraqi troops abandoned their heavy weapons and dispersed. Other military forces have now emulated precision bombing and networked air interception capabilities. Space power integration within the military forces of China and Russia proceeds apace with their precision strike and sophisticated standoff area denial weapons.

It is inevitable that space power’s influence on the battlefield, as well as attempts to disrupt or disable satellite operations, will be a significant feature of high-intensity warfare. Deterrence failure would open up space to the trials of space warfare for the first time.[2] Satellite communications, intelligence, and navigation services are essential to the operation of modern warfare in all terrestrial environments, and in particular, enable the combat and logistical effectiveness of fifth-generation air forces. Air power in future wars will be increasingly shaped by the influence of space power upon terrestrial warfare.

Two astro-strategies encapsulate competing visions of space warfare: a Space Pearl Harbor and a Reserve strategy. Both centre upon when and where each side wants to unleash a precision-guided munitions (PGM) salvo from and against air and maritime forces as well as fixed bases. Such a PGM salvo is the tip of the spear that a fifth-generation air force provides.[3] Space warfare threatens to blunt or parry this tip that modern military forces have come to rely upon. This article examines these two astro-strategies that influence the employment of airpower. While both astro-strategies centre upon when and where either side wishes to exploit and deny the dispersing effects of space power on the battlefield, modern air forces have a crucial role to play in imposing and denying those dispersing effects of space power and have a critical dependency on space power themselves to function.

The Influence of Space Power

Space power enables aggressive air forces to reliably shoot what they see promptly and increases the efficiency at which they can operate. This imposes dispersing pressures on the opposing force because of the reliability of precision-strike weapons.[4] Unless the PGM can be intercepted, its launcher destroyed, or its space-based navigation crippled, the targets must hide or scatter. As well as imposing a dispersing influence on enemy forces, dispersion through space services allows friendly deployed forces to remain physically dispersed while retaining a networked ability to concentrate firepower in time and place. The exploitation, denial, and negation of the dispersing effects of space power is a critical operational dynamic for future high-intensity warfare.

The hard edge of Western military forces – deep and precise airstrikes conducted at long distances from home – cannot function without space power. Fifth-generation aircraft and the emergence of ever-more autonomous and remotely piloted aircraft increases the reliance of modern air forces on the communications, navigation, and intelligence provided by satellites. In future high-intensity warfare, the practice of air power seems to grow acutely dependent on possessing a command of space.[5] Naturally, then, satellites are logical targets in any future high-intensity conflict as part of a range of options to degrade a PGM salvo capability. Air forces can be a direct counter-space or anti-satellite capable service with the employment of air-launched suborbital-capable missiles and electronic warfare suites.

Without space systems, the modernised military forces that have dispersed lose their connectivity and become less effective and vulnerable to any massing and concentration of the opposing force. Early warning of enemy movements and a return to ‘dumb’ weapons make massing against a fifth-generation air force and modern ground forces no longer a suicidal option. This is the reason that space infrastructure is a lucrative target in modern warfare: space power makes vulnerable opponents scatter and hide while allowing smaller forces to stand up to larger massed conventional forces. Attacking the space power that supports this military advantage improves the odds against fifth-generation aircraft and their joint methods of warfare.

How and when should an opponent’s space infrastructure be attacked, then? Fears and confidence in the success of a first strike in space warfare, or a ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ may be over-blown but timing a coordinated space warfare campaign with operations on Earth and holding counter-space operations in reserve may be more difficult than anticipated. These opposing views of space warfare in a future great power clash dominate operational-level thought about space warfare.

Space Pearl Harbor Strategy

The phrase ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ gained traction following the publication of Donald Rumsfeld’s 2001 Space Commission Report. The Commission noted a potential threat to U.S. space systems in the form of a debilitating first strike from a near-peer adversary against its space systems. Striking space systems first is an attractive strategy from China’s point of view because it undermines America’s dependencies in long-range precision-strike capabilities. Reducing the speed and flexibility at which fifth-generation aircraft can be tasked, reducing their weapons accuracies, decreasing the ranges at which they can fire-and-forget, as well as hampering battle damage assessment, can improve the odds of strategic success for the People’s Liberation Army. The incentive to strike American space systems and risking a like-for-like retaliation may seem like a possibly acceptable cost given China’s disproportionately reduced dependence on space power for a Taiwan scenario.

Not only has China developed a credible suite of anti-satellite capabilities, but China has also begun to resemble the early stages of the space power-enabled military machine the United States had in 1991. A massed military force is slowly transitioning to a lighter and more lethal-per-platform professional force. Today, both China and America are developing longer-range precision strike and uncrewed weapons to counter increasingly sophisticated air defence and maritime denial systems. These increase the dependency on space power and its dispersing effects on oneself and the enemy.

In future high-intensity warfare fifth-generation air forces must consider their dependencies on space systems for various degrees of operational capability as area-denial, and anti-access (A2AD) capabilities increasingly seek to disable and disrupt space communications. A Space Pearl Harbor strategy is increasingly appealing for the United States – not only its potential adversaries. China’s Qu Dian system – its satellite communications, command and control, and intelligence-gathering capabilities – is a potential target for America. China and America may become the first two military powers with competing systems-of-systems and fifth-generation aircraft to fight each other, with space systems providing the backbone for all long-range military capabilities. Both military powers possess reconnaissance-strike complexes, have provided ample targets for each other in orbit and on Earth.

U.S. Navy intercepts malfunctioning intellegence satellite
Launch of the SM-3 missile that intercepted USA-193. (Source: Wikipedia)

A key calculation in the strategies of China and the US with their opposing precision strike complexes is how long naval and airborne forces could operate within one another’s A2AD zones to fire their PGM salvos and retreat to safety. Successful counter space operations – whether through soft kill jamming or hard-kill destruction of satellites – may provide more time for aircraft in an anti-access region as dismantling the space component of A2AD weapons reduces the effectiveness and reliability of a precision-strike complex. However, the United States is also thinking and acting along these lines. China’s ever-increasing space infrastructure provides more targets worth hitting for US and allied ASAT programs, especially as China itself intends to project the dispersing influence of space power-enabled terrestrial strike weapons across the Pacific.

There is a strong incentive therefore to an early strike against space systems for both sides to prevent fifth-generation aircraft from being able to reliably intercept enemy fighters and bombard targets on Earth’s surface. Doing so would undermine the opponent’s ability to launch a fully capable PGM salvo which requires reliable celestial lines of communication. Part of China’s A2AD plan for a war in the Pacific may require the targeting of US bases in Guam, the Philippines, and Japan, and is developing longer-range air-launched PGM capabilities to do so. Such deep PGM strikes resemble what Clausewitz called an attack on the enemy’s army in its quarters, which prevents the enemy from assembling at its preferred location and buys significant time for the assailant as the victim spends days assembling at a more rearward, safer, position.

Space power’s influence on fifth-generation air forces partly increases the value of the first strike against space systems, especially if it is to prevent an expeditionary force from arriving in theatre before other hostilities begin. A fifth-generation aircraft’s utility in future high-intensity warfare may be determined by what happens in orbit to a degree only glimpsed by fourth-generation aircraft. Losing a space warfare campaign may seriously undermine the long-range strike options available for fifth-generation air forces, as without some space systems aircraft could not even leave an airfield, let alone navigate to a specific target and reliably hit it with one-shot-one-kill reliability. In close combat operations, impaired space support may disable reliable close air support that small and dispersed land units have come to rely upon in Western armed forces.

However, this does not mean that a U.S.-China war will inevitably begin in space. For strategists, the discussion of when and how which satellites may be targeted in war is particularly thorny, and has no obvious answer, despite the benefits of striking space systems. Space power is pervasive and diverse in its functions and influences, and space infrastructure may be more resilient or redundant than a first strike strategy may anticipate. Surprise attacks may not produce the strategic results desired, and forces will be needed in reserve. Betting everything on a surprise attack and a debilitating first strike is the other aspect of the Pearl Harbor analogy that seems under-emphasised in such discussion. A surprise attack has no guarantee of success, and there are good reasons why strategists tend not to commit their entire force and war plan to the success of the opening shots. The Space Pearl Harbor strategy has its merits, but it is only one possible astro-strategy. The defender is not always so helpless, and not necessarily so strategically vulnerable to such attacks.

Reserve Strategy

Beijing must assault Washington’s celestial lines of communication that support the maritime and air forces that Washington must dispatch to aid Taiwan. The consequences of doing so, or failing to do so, results in the dispersing influence of space power being brought to bear on the side that manages to keep using space power and commanding space to a good enough degree.

A strike against space systems at the outset of hostilities or manoeuvres may not be necessary or inevitable because of the needs and conditions of the terrestrial campaign. If a terrestrial campaign requires complete surprise, an attack on space systems may give away the terrestrial attack and reduce its effect. Expecting space superiority for an air strike may tempt the opposing force to conduct an opening airstrike without space superiority – much like how Egypt’s land offensive in the 1973 Yom Kippur War took Israel by surprise because they did so without air superiority.

A simple incentive to use a reserve strategy is that its timing can be used to increase the terrestrial consequences of the loss of space support at a crucial time. America would have more incentive to wait until its forces are converging on Taiwan when China needs to gather more data from sensors ashore to increase its anti-ship missile hit probabilities – making this the opportune time to disable the Qu Dian system and launch a concerted American space offensive. This is seemingly risky, but if timed well, can create the crucial opening for amphibious reinforcements of the Taiwanese resistance by the US Navy and Air Force. If the Qu Dian system is neutralised too early, workarounds may have been deployed by the time American expeditionary forces arrive in-theatre.

The reserve strategy may be useful to as a responsive posture based on when the adversary is about to launch a PGM salvo, and that salvo in itself may be used only when enemy terrestrial forces have concentrated on Earth around a geographical point, such as Taiwan and its surrounding waters. Counterspace operations and point-defence systems can parry the blow of a PGM salvo, or at least deny the one-shot-one-kill potential feared in Chinese A2AD systems. Indeed, the best time to deny Chinese A2AD systems is when the Chinese are counting on them to work at a crucial time of their choosing. This approach, however, may require a risk appetite that is now alien to the leaders of Western air and maritime forces.

The US Air Force launches the ninth Boeing-built Wideband Global SATCOM satellite at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., March 18, 2017. Such satellites play an integral part in the strategic and tactical coordination of military operations. (Source: US Department fo Defense)

Space power and air power are not immune to strategic logic. The abstract and absolutist nature of a Space Pearl Harbor assault on space systems is feared and has triggered thought and planning on mitigating the damages of such an attack on both sides. Mitigating the risks of a decisive blow from above in space follows a classic logic of strategy. Space systems may be more resilient than some assume. Terrestrial mitigation measures to parry the blow of a PGM salvo may decrease the need for excessive and pre-emptive counter-space operations. Fifth-generation aircraft may have a significant role as interceptors of long-range A2AD platforms and projectiles to protect the heavy-hitting destroyers and carriers as they approach a point of geographic interest and increase their risks of taking on damage. There may be an incentive not to shoot at or disrupt satellites first if one side thinks they can weather successive rounds of PGM salvos and exhaust the enemy’s supply of PGMs while retaining the ability to meet the objectives of the campaign in the aftermath. Space warfare and astro-strategy in a Taiwan scenario should – in part – be subordinated to the needs of a terrestrial salvo competition, which is itself partly subordinated to the needs of the amphibious Taiwan campaign and its political objectives.


The proliferation of space power increases its usefulness in warfare. Therefore the payoff of counter-space operations also increases. This proliferation, however, does not necessarily result in reduced strategic stability, as the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ mentality encouraged by the Space Pearl Harbor astro-strategy is not without its inherent strategic flaws as a surprise attack. Space weapons and anti-satellite operations may be held in reserve to coincide with a critical moment on Earth: joint operations must include space power, but space operations must also embrace the needs of terrestrial warfare. With the advent of fifth-generation air forces and the emergence of remotely piloted or autonomous reconnaissance and combat aircraft, the reliance of air power on space power will only increase. Future high-intensity warfare will witness competing systems-of-systems, and space warfare will play a frontline role as a method of parrying and blunting each side’s precise airborne spear tips as two high technology militaries exploit and impose the dispersing effects of space power.

Dr Bleddyn E. Bowen is a Lecturer in International Relations at the School of History, Politics, and International Relations, University of Leicester. Previously, he lectured at King’s College London and Aberystwyth University. Bleddyn is a specialist in space power theory, astro-politics, and space security, and has published in The Journal of Strategic Studies, The British Journal of International Relations, and Astropolitics, frequently contributes to blogs on space warfare, and has featured in the podcasts The Space Show and The Dead Prussian. Amongst other things, Bleddyn is currently working on his research monograph on space power theory and convenes the Astropolitics Collective.

Header Image: An Atlas V rocket carrying a Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit satellite for a US Air Force mission lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, 19 January 2018. (Source: US Department of Defense)

[1] This article is based on research presented at the International Studies Association 2017 Annual Convention and will feature in a forthcoming monograph. Bleddyn E. Bowen. ‘Down to Earth: The Influence of Spacepower Upon Future History’, paper presented at ISA Annual Convention, Baltimore, February 2017.

[2] Bleddyn E. Bowen, ‘The Art of Space Deterrence’, European Leadership Network, 20 February 2018,

[3] Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark, Winning the Salvo Competition: Rebalancing America’s Air and Missile Defenses (Washington, D.C.: CBSA, 2016)

[4] John B. Sheldon, Reasoning by Strategic Analogy: Classical Strategic Thought and the Foundations of a Theory of Space Power (PhD Thesis, University of Reading, 2005)

[5] Bleddyn E. Bowen, ‘From the sea to outer space: The command of space as the foundation of spacepower theory’, Journal of Strategic Studies, First Online, 2017

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