Putting the life back in science fiction

Space War 2020
February 3, 2020, 4:22 am
Filed under: American politics, fantasy, fiction, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing | Tags:

Not that I’m a fan of Trump, but the move to establish a US Space Force caught my attention.  There are two points of interest.  The lesser one is what apparently happened.  Of greater interest to me is how someone could use it in military science fiction, and what it might say about the future of space warfare.  And space cadets.   What apparently happened, and why the democrats agreed to founding the USSF.  Here’s ye olde Wikipedia page on the USSF, and if you dig into the details it’s a bit less revolutionary or boondoggle-y than one might first guess.  There were two things going on for the last I-don’t-know-how-many-decades (six decades?).  The bigger fight was the perennial one in the US Department of Defense, over which branch of the military got to control which resource.  The related fight, within the US Air Force, was how many resources went into their space division, versus resources to pilots and planes.

I got a peanut gallery seat, because in San Diego, right next to the I-5 freeway on the way into downtown, is this huge Navy building prominently labeled “SPAWAR.”  I’d always assumed that, in addition to running the Navy’s program on using dolphins and sea lions as patrol animals (among other things), it held some important chunk of the Navy’s space warfare command.  And it did, until June 2019, when it pivoted into Informational Warfare.  Long story short, the fight over whether each service had its own space arm, or whether one service got to bogart the satellites (so to speak) was finally settled (for now!) in favor of the US Air Force becoming the US Air and Space Force in all but name.

Trouble is, the satellite intelligence Force of the USAF was apparently not getting sufficiently funded, presumably because jet pilots are cool while others drool, and more importantly, because fraternal funding battles are where the echelons above reality get their combat experience and promotions.  Anyway, long story short, the funding and independence battle between air pilots and space cadets had been going on for decades, and in 2019 the solution (first proposed in the early 2000s) was to split of the space wing of the USAF into a semi-separate US Space Force which would run the military’s space efforts.  However, the USSF is under the Secretary of the Air Force, just as the US Marine Corps is under the Secretary of the Navy.  So the USSF is a separate force, but not very separate just yet.  I suspect the cadets in Colorado Springs who go in for the new BS in Space Operations are going to get heartily sick of the “space cadet” label.

So that’s the US Space Force.  It’s not boots in the sky just yet (or weapons deployed in space).  Right now it’s about flying satellites and doing things with them.  This IS a critical part of the US military, regardless of whether there are weapons up there or not, so I’m actually okay with them being their own force.

The fun part is going forward, what this means for science fiction, specifically the military culture of space.  To begin with, although I only watched a few episodes of Stargate, I’m perfectly aware that the USAF already has been represented in milSF quite successfully (for those who don’t know, the Stargate of the series was run by the US Air Force, who apparently cheerfully cooperated with the filming of the series).  While I’m not a military SF expert, my major exposure has been to a certain Honor Harrington, whose military is based rather more on the British Royal Navy of centuries past.  Basing a military SF story on the memes swiped modern USSF will be *extremely* different than something aping the Honorverse, possibly in useful ways.

Let’s start with the parameters of space warfare.  Assuming interstellar spaceships are possible, and especially assuming FTL is possible, how do you shoot at a spaceship?  It’s moving far too rapidly for a human to perceive, and probably far too small to see due to extreme distances.  Star Wars and kin notwithstanding.  bodies in space normally move 1-2 orders of magnitude faster than a bullet, so in real life, you don’t hit them by firing guns at them.  At best we’re looking at machines firing lasers or missiles at each other and maybe occasionally hitting, sort of like WW 1 torpedoes.  The idea of Cpl Luke or MSgt Han swinging a gun, acquiring a target, and hitting with the shot is orders of magnitude too slow.

Anyway, that’s space warfare interpreted as conventional warfare, 20th Century style.  And it works in stories. David Weber, to his great credit, made a lot of fun and profit in the Honorverse, through making space naval broadsides cool again.

However, we’re in the 21st Century, and hybrid warfare is the thing these days, rather than battleships or even aircraft carriers.  Can you destroy a starship with physical sabotage, cyber warfare, or social hacking?  Why yes, yes you can.  The speed of the spaceship is not only irrelevant to such attacks, it actually makes sabotage more dangerous and harder to detect in the resulting debris field.  And not so oddly, the USSF strongly appears to be a  hybrid warfare force.  It’s lack of guns in space may be completely irrelevant to its legitimacy or even its deadliness.

If someone wants to do military SF about interstellar warfare now, it is, yes, possible, to unlimber the gimbal-mounted laser cannon and go pew pew pew, as has been done for over 40 years.  Or you can create a universe where starships in full flight are moving too fast to hit with anything except maybe an exceptionally lucky shot with a laser, or perhaps a really well guided, really expensive rocket (and even then, the chance of a hit is fairly abysmal, considering how much the munition costs to launch).   Therefore, if you want to wage successful warfare against an enemy starship in flight, you attack when they’re in orbit around planets (moving slower in predictable paths) or on the ground.  Or you attempt to hack them, boobytrap the information going into, and hack the social networks running the ship, using every weakness you can find about the crew.  Countering such attacks, as we know now, is hard.  It also can make for interesting storytelling.  Is someone aboard ship a mole, a kamikaze saboteur, or just cracking slightly faster than everyone else under an unending bombardment of psychological warfare?  Therein lies part of a story.

There are parallels in older science fiction.  Here, I’m thinking particularly of James Schmitz and his psionics.  I suspect one can draw memes from Schmitz’s psionics stories and repurpose them to our emergent AI era, where you can use big data and machine learning to get inside someone’s skull almost as effectively as a budding telepath could.  Perhaps not so oddly, Schmitz served during WW2 in the US Army Air Corps, the predecessor to the USAF.

Then there’s the whole military culture thing.  I’m not a veteran, but I do like to read, and one of the books I’ve reread several times is  Carl Builder’s 1989 The Masks of War: American Military Style in Strategy and Analysis.  It’s obviously a bit obsolete, but it’s still relevant, because it talks about the different ways the Navy, Army, and Air Force go about dealing with reality. For universe building it’s a worthwhile read, combined of course with other, more modern sources (I’d suggest Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth for one)

For example, SF traditionally has space admirals, because space ships are independent commands like ships, and…But that’s not how the Generals of the Space Force would work, if you believe Masks of War.  They’re less about crusty tradition, and far more about technological superiority, creating doctrine to implement long-term strategies, and using technical analyses to inform their opinions (I don’t think they’ll ever just trust their feelings, whether the Force is strong in them or not).  If this sounds like corporate America, Builder noted the similarity.

As an example of the cultural difference,  US naval aviators identify as Navy officers first, pilots second, while an Air Force aviators identify themselves by the kinds of planes they fly. It’s a different mindset, and it leads to a different culture of warfare.  Again, you can see this a bit in Schmitz’s writing, where battles are often less about naval engagements in space, and more about quick shoot-outs using highest tech guns, with a large side order of skullduggery.

Incidentally, that skullduggery has historical roots.  If I remember correctly, CIA officers who were required to be military officers often got themselves commissioned in the Air Force rather than the other services, and there’s currently a big overlap between the US Space Force and the “civilian” (hah!) National Reconnaissance Office, which does US satellite espionage.  The USAF and the black world of clandestine military activity have been closely associated for a very long time.

I could certainly go on, but if you’re interested in writing military SF, or even writing SF stories about interstellar flight, it’s worth taking a long, even sidelong look, at this new US Space Force and seeing whether the difference sparks your creativity.  Yes, you can still go from windjammers to sunjammers if you must (with space marines doing drops instead of landing on beaches! And crusty admiralty politics among the Lords of Space!).  But if you want to be new and different, maybe get into mind-hacking in space and starship sabotage, and see where that leads you.  If you’re writing your ToE chart,  instead of having the captain of the starship reporting to a commodore or the space admiralty, you might, alternatively have the captain of a flight (in USAF terminology, about 100 people, or 3-4 craft, perhaps a starship and attached drone crews) reporting to a lieutenant colonel running the squadron, who in turn reports to the colonel running the wing (in increasing size), who in turn reports to a general running the numbered space force .  And that’s just a trivial example.

Yes, yes, I know the USSF is really just a boondoggle.  Nothing here to see at all.  Whatever.  I figure it’s grist for the mill, and if it doesn’t fight, maybe it will still inspire something fun to read.

What did I miss?


9 Comments so far
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I think it was James Blish, in ‘Journey To The Heart Stars’ probably, who introduced me to this concept of space battles.

Comment by alyctes

Hadn’t heard of that one, although it’s apparently Mission to the Heart Stars from 1965. I’d personally give more credit to E. E. Smith, who wrote unambiguous space battles at least a decade before in his Lensman series. Probably someone will kick it back before War of the Worlds before we’re done figuring out who had the first space battle.

Comment by Heteromeles

You could also have a situation with two forces hurtling towards an engagement. The engagement would be known weeks ahead of time, involve careful positioning of stealthy and not so stealthy elements for when the combatants shoot past each other at significant velocities and preparations for what the enemy has to throw at you… and last a total of six seconds.

Those weeks of hurtling together, getting a closer and closer look at what one faces as the distance closes and exponentially more information appearing with time as the moment approaches, would be QUITE the time for subversion and electronic and psychological warfare…

Comment by Tony

Off topic. I wanted to get in touch with you offline. How to do that? [ORIGINAL MESSAGE ALTERED]

Comment by David L

I sent a message to your email. Reply here if you didn’t get it. Thanks!

Comment by Heteromeles

Let’s see who can’t get what emails.
I got one from you that you send on 2/18 at 12:29am EST (9:29 PST).
I replied to you on 2/18 at 1:19am EST (10:19pm PST).

So are you missing my reply or am I missing a reply from you to my reply? 🙂

I run my own mail server for that domain and haven’t seen anything trying to get to me after your first email.

Comment by David L

The space cadets launched their first rocket immediately after the worst pandemic and stack market crash in about a century.
I’m sure it’s just a concidence …

Comment by ArtDeco

Well yes, it probably is. As noted above, the Space Force is something that’s been kicking around for at least a decade, so Agent Orange deciding to claim the glory of inking a deal is probably a case of really bad timing, just as that comet showing about the time Covid-19 got rolling isn’t an omen. That said, I don’t think it augurs well for the future of the Space Force, any more than Covid19 augurs well for the long-term survival of most non-chain restaurants at this point.

Comment by Heteromeles

Hello again Frank. Thanks for responding. I suspect the various “war powers” acts probably include monitoring or outright controlling all satelite and cell phone communications as well as old fashioned media like newspapers. Many images on the net show “satelite views” of things like wildfires, pollution from industry or transportation, or the cell phone heat maps on John Hopkins site, all of which could be spun or suppressed to support propaganda efforts. Space Cadets or Spies in Space, the timing is interesting.

Comment by ArtDeco

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