Space piracy

In this second part of our series on warfare in space we will turn our attention to the threat posed by non-state actors, in particular to pirates. For the purpose of our discussion we will define pirates as those criminals who operate outside the territory of any state, i.e. in international space. Further we distinguish pirates from terrorists, in that the former are primarily motivated by non-political motives, while the latter resort to (threatening with) violence in order to accomplish certain political aims.

Two main questions have to be considered: first, whether the emergence of space piracy is actually a realistic possibility. And second, why we should bother with space piracy. Subsequently we will discuss how to combat space pirates.

Is space piracy indeed a realistic possibility? When the colonization of interplanetary space becomes a reality, and the number of space settlements is increasing, there will be more interplanetary trade. Resources and manufactured goods will be transported throughout the (inner) Solar System. The presence of valuable transport flows, will attract criminals. And if interplanetary trade is feasible, than also interplanetary piracy is feasible.

Since space colonization will not bring dramatic changes in human nature, space pirates will have the same motivations as terrestrial criminals: greed, the need for adventure and so on. This combined with the availability of interplanetary space ships, makes space piracy to a realistic possibility.

Why should the governments of space settlements bother with interplanetary pirates? The existence of space pirates could probably be a greater risk for the security of a space settlement than an inter-settlement war. Since pirates act to their own account, they are also less restrained by public scrutiny as governments are. Also pirates have less alternatives than states, as states go to war to meet certain objectives after other methods have failed. Consequently pirates will be more eager to attack than states.

The damage pirates can cause can be enormous, as interplanetary transport flows provide space settlements with vital supplies such as food, medicine and fertilizers. And due to the distances in interplanetary space, it can take months if not years to deliver goods at their destination. If vital supplies are stolen by pirates, it will lead to huge delays as replacements have to be shipped.

Since interplanetary pirates can disrupt life in space settlements, space governments have to take them seriously. In order to combat space pirates, the establishment of anti-piracy forces seems to be inevitable. Recall that, for instance, the US Navy has been established for purpose of fighting pirates rather than other nations.

But fighting pirates might not be as easy as it appears to be. Though it’s virtually impossible to hide in space, pirate spacecrafts are hard to distinguish from innocent ones. Disguise is after all the art of hiding in plain sight. It is far from difficult to detect a space ship at large distance, but the real challenge is determine whether it’s a pirate or a civilian ship. For most of the time a pirate ship will not behave in a significantly different fashion than any other spaceship.

For interplanetary pirates the strategy to follow is simple: pretending to be a normal spaceship as long as possible in order to approach a potential target as close as possible. When the pirates are close, they can either attempt to hack into the target’s control system or to destroy the ship’s thrust engines.

Most cargo spacecraft will most likely be unmanned, in order to save an expensive life support system. Additionally there is not much work on a cargo ship, which cannot be automated.

Though the actual act of piracy can be seen at distance, the pirates can leave the crime scene before any space force division will be able to get there. At least if the authorities are lucky to look at the right time at the right place. Though it would only take a few hours to scan the entire Solar System, it takes much more time to analyse the collected information.

This does not mean, however, that nothing can be done against interplanetary pirates. By analyzing data, a pirate hunter should consider that pirates will make maneuvers: they need to approach and flee a target, and by doing so they will need to run their engines. The exhausts of these maneuvers will be detectable, as they are hot and hence emitting  infra-red radiation.

Those who send cargo ships, now what routes their ships use. This would enable pirate hunters to monitor potential targets, instead of randomly searching the sky for pirates. But due to distances in our Solar System, it should be taken that there will be a time lag. The distance between the Earth and the Sun is about 8 light-minutes, i.e. it takes 8 minutes for light from the Sun to reach the Earth. Hence when we observe the Sun, we see the Sun as it was 8 minutes ago.

Interplanetary pirates can exploit this time lag to their advantage. If the leave the pirate hunters’ view of sight, they can go into any direction before the hunters can redirect their view.

A more effective strategy would be to install defensive weapons on space ships. These weapons would be used once a pirate attack is detected. The primary objective of such defense system would be to paralyze the pirate ship, either by destroying the engines through kinetic impactors or missiles, or to damage the ship’s electronics through directed electromagnetic radiation.

Of course, interplanetary pirates might use similar weapons to destroy their victim’s defense system. But we should make the threshold as high as possible to deter pirates.