This is the first part in a series about warfare in space. In this first post we will not get into the discussion about possible motives Space Settlements could have to wage war with each other. Rather we will discuss possible tactics Space Settlers could use in space wars.
Assuming that a conflict between Space governments escalates into an armed conflict, we have to consider what potential targets for attack are. It does not take much imagination to conclude that at least the following are potential targets: Solar Power Satellites, industrial stations, transport vessels and space habitats. The first three are relative easy to attack, and the destruction of those will have serious impact on the population of a space habitat which is dependent upon their services.
But what about space habitats as a potential target? Compared to the other targets, space habitats are quite large and will be designed in such fashion that their construction will not fall apart by the first blow. Further space habitats are closed structures, which can only be entered through secure airlocks. In this respect space habitats are quite similar to premodern cities with their fortified city walls. But with the important difference that unlike city walls, Space Habitats have no opening.
In premodern warfare sieges were a common tactic. A siege is nothing more than surrounding an enemy city or fortification by an army, and to isolate the population. The idea is that since most cities couldn’t be taken easily, it would better to cut of the citizens from outside supplies, until they had to give up and to surrender.
Besides surrender there are two other ways in which a siege can end. First, they besieged city is too well prepared, that it will take years before they have to give up due to attrition. Besieging a city draws many resources from the army, and if a siege takes too long, the besieging army has to give up.
Secondly, the besieging army can be defeated by an external force. If the city has allies, or is part of a larger nation, those will attempt to attack the besieging forces. Whether this will successful, depends on whether the besieging party has enough forces to defeat those reinforcements.
As a tactic in space warfare, sieges have certain advantages. There is no need to enter a space settlement, if one is able to cut off all supply lines of that settlement. And since the inhabitants of the settlement cannot leave, they are kept out of commission (as potential soldiers). From an ethical perspective, besieging a space settlement is less problematic than a massive attack which might kill several thousands, and even millions (in larger space habitats such as O’Neill cylinders) of people.
Even if one does not have an inherent commitment to basic ethical standards, it’s rational to avoid mass killings of civilians. First of all, the opposing party might lose its interests in peace negotiations, and instead the opponent might seek revenge. Secondly, parties which were initially neutral might be moved to such war crimes, to either impose sanctions or even to join the war at the opposing side. Thirdly, after defeat the political and military leaders might face prosecution for war crimes.
Though besieging space settlements can be attractive, if neither conquest nor destruction are the objectives; siege warfare has certain disadvantages. First, a substantial fleet is needed to effectively surround a space settlement. And by sending out a substantial force, one’s own settlements are left vulnerable. On a related note as long as the siege continues, those forces cannot be deployed for other operations.
How could space settlements defend themselves against a siege? First, space settlers should be prepared. By building up adequate reserves, they can endure long sieges albeit it on a lesser standard of living. If a space settlement is able to recycle its resources efficiently, then the main concern will be a guaranteed energy supply. The attackers might conquer or disable the settlements solar power satellites, and hence reduce the amount of energy available to the settlement.
Secondly, a space settlement could establish certain defensive capacity, either by installing weapons, such as high energy laser or particle-beam weapons, on the outside of the settlement, or by having a fleet of defense ships in the neighbourhood of the settlement.
Alternatively, if a space settlement is aware that some party is intending to siege them, it could send a military force to attack its opponents before they can strike. This defense strategy, however, requires adequate reconnaissance and well-trained forces.
A possibility would be a tactic, which we will call a reversed Trojan horse. The inhabitants of a space settlement could pretend to surrender, and invite their adversaries to enter the habitat. However, when the enemy is inside, the space settlers overpower them. If the besieging party is relatively small, the settlers could choose to allow all hostile soldier within their settlement. Otherwise they could allow only one unit to enter, which is subsequently taken hostage with the aim of forcing the besiegers to back off. This could be effective, especially if a high-ranking officer is among the hostages.
Whether the siege is a suitable strategy or tactic in space warfare, depends on what is at stake. In case of minor interests, this type of warfare is probably to costly. However, if the stakes are high, sieges are much more attractive.
Next installment in this series about warfare in space, is about piracy.