Opinion: Rules For Space Warfare

satellites concept art
Credit: Paul Szymanski

Space is not a target-rich environment where just about every target is strategic. It is also the most difficult theater for verifying attacks with hostile intent, for determining the responsible entity and evaluating the impact of the space battle on an outcome back on Earth. With the creation of the U.S. Space Force, it is imperative to better understand how to fight in space and important to ask the question: Does the nation have the foundational principles by which future space wars can be won? With more than 40 years studying space weapon systems development, I offer the following guidelines for success in space warfare:

How to Fight and Win the Next Space War

Situational Awareness Dominates: Due to the vast distances involved in space and the ease of hiding satellites, uncertainty and confusion will dominate in any space conflict. Space domain awareness and predictive battlespace awareness of space threats and a country’s own force status will be the key to decisive space operations.

Preconflict Positioning: Since it is very difficult to change orbits at the last minute, immediate space combat can only be fought with the current resources at hand. Space forces under immediate attack cannot redistribute or seek reinforcement (and allied nations will not likely be able to help either). Thus, preconflict positioning of space assets is one of the most important aspects of space strategies.

Decisive Political Will: Having space forces that are superior in numbers and technological quality need to be backed by the political will to fully and quickly employ them.

Flexible Doctrine: Due to the newness of space warfare, neither we nor our adversary will fully understand the best theory, doctrine, strategies, tactics and techniques for conducting optimized space warfare. Big mistakes will be made by both sides. Most carefully laid plans and assumptions will prove false and require rewriting midstream.

Define Winning: The concept of “winning” in space warfare is not clearly defined. Its definition may be made by political leadership with limited technological, or military knowledge, and may be based on purely political, propagandistic or failed doctrinal principles. Your adversary will certainly have a very different definition of winning, which means both sides may perceive they have “won” the space conflict They could derive quite different conclusions that will dominate their military, political, diplomatic and economic (commercial and procurement strategies) thinking for decades to come, post-conflict.

How to Fight and Lose the Next Space War

Uncertainty and Confusion Leads to Self-Deterrence: For the first major conflicts in space, unknown factors will dominate. The lack of historical experience in this new military domain more than likely will lead to strategic paralysis. Normally it takes months to assess whether a satellite failure is due to natural or intentional causes. My own simulations show that most major space battles will be over within 24 hr. If intentional attacks occur, the identity and intent of the attacker will be unknown. National command authorities will insist the country of origin for space attacks be verified before any responses are authorized. By then, it will be too late.

Military Space Assets in the Wrong Positions: Having expensive and very capable space assets in orbital locations that do not support the current space or terrestrial battlefield make them useless for fast-paced conflicts. 

There are key “choke points” in space that allow an adversary to deploy its anti-satellite systems to maximize the timing and tempo of his attacks. Though these choke points may appear to be moving in space, conceptually they can seem fixed. Much like geosynchronous orbits, though, these would vary for different conflict zones and adversary operational intents.

Future Political Impacts: Due to the newness of space warfare, neither we nor our adversaries fully understand the political, diplomatic, economic and international ramifications of employing space weapon systems. Assuredly, after the conduct of a major space war, national and international protocols, treaties, rules of conduct and alliances will be radically changed. Space strategies employed during the conflict should take these into consideration to place your nation in a favorable position, post-conflict. After the conduct of a major space war, adversaries and other nations will learn from the war and probably build up their own space weapon capabilities, even if covertly. Space strategies employed during the conflict should take these into consideration to place your nation into a favorable position post conflict. You may think that you won the space war, but ultimately you may lose the subsequent “peace.”

Paul Szymanski is the president of the Space Strategies Center. This is an excerpt of his paper, “Top 40 Rules for Space Warfare.”

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.


The whole idea is sick and repulsive. The nuclear ballance between superpowers, teetering tottering on the MAD fulcrum, seems perfectly sane in comparison. I am happy to be oldish. Full stop.
Not a bad run down, however, you've outlined imperatives, not rules.
After a major space exchange using kinetic devices will make large portions of space, especially the valuable ones, unavailable for the subsequent "peace." Say goodbye to the higher altitude LEO, sun synchronous, GPS, and GEO orbits and the services that they provide. The US and allies have the most to loose playing this game.