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#SpaceWatchGL Geopolitics – Irregular Space Warfare: You Are Part of the Kill Chain

by Christophe Bosquillon


Space and Irregular Warfare lecture. Credit PSSI

On 12 March 2024, the Prague Security Studies Institute hosted a public online guest lecture with Dr. John Klein, Senior Fellow and Strategist at the Falcon Research, Inc. on the topic of “Space and Irregular Warfare,” whose recording is available here. Dr. Klein also instructs space policy and strategy courses at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, Georgetown University’s Strategic Studies Program, and Institute of World Politics at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate levels respectively. PSSI Project Manager for Space Security Kristína Sikoraiová hosted the lecture and moderated the ensuing Q&A session. In Part 1, we will review the key concepts that underwrite the theory and practice of irregular warfare in space.

Militarization vs weaponization of space

Let’s get something straight: space has been militarized since the beginning of the space age. We use the space domain for military command and control. Space launch vehicles launch military payloads, intelligence collection satellites, etc. That space is militarized is nothing new. The issue at stake is the weaponization of space, by some adversaries, and figuring out how does arms control work in the space domain, if it works at all. That starts with monitoring, verification, and compliance. You can request to inspect an adversary’s nuclear weapons facilities down on Earth. But how would you inspect space assets in orbit? Is it to be considered as hostile proximity operations, what does it look like? Arms control has helped in some cases when it comes to the proliferation of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. But is arms control even viable in the space domain? Those are open topics debated with great passion among appeasing and hawkish quarters alike.

 To survive, it is necessary to be able to sustain heavy losses over time to get to fight another day.

No “neat, tidy boxes” to define irregular warfare

Dr. Klein likes to quote Robert Gates, 22nd U.S. Secretary of Defence, also because that quote paraphrases our space community strategic studies master Colin Gray at the University of Reading: “When thinking about the range of threats, it is common to divide the “high end” from the “low end,” the conventional from the irregular, armoured divisions on one side, guerrillas toting AK-47s on the other. In reality… the categories of warfare are blurring and do not fit into neat, tidy boxes.” Irregular warfare is not an irregular occurrence, it is part and parcel of any major conventional war against an enemy who takes a similar approach. Whenever you hear asymmetric warfare, counter-insurgency, grey-zone operations, gunboat diplomacy, guerrilla warfare, hybrid warfare, low-intensity conflict, military operations other than war, paramilitary operations, small wars, terrorism, that’s irregular warfare. From a warfare theory-in-practice standpoint, whereas Clausewitz talks about bloodshed and force-on-force violence, and Sun Tzu introduces the notions of deception, political discouragement, and obtaining the maximum effect with the minimum effort, irregular warfare will focus on alternatives to direct violence on a massive scale. That “alternative thinking” aspect proves critical for space.

Space is not special, just “wonderfully different”

Dr. Klein’s point is that space is not special, just wonderfully different. A bit of conceptualisation is required: at defence institutions, currently existing space forces have historically been conceived as an extension of their country’s air forces, because space is, well, above the atmosphere. As a theoretical domain, it has been common practice to see the maritime, naval warfare model as most appropriate for space. A distilled version of that model supports Rick Tumlinson’s forward vision of a Space Force tackling the Solar System as an ocean, with cislunar space as our proximity sea leading to the Moon as an island on the way to the planets. Among naval warfare theorists, there are two dominant figures: Mahan, widely used in space strategic works such as those by Dr. Ziarnick, and Corbett, who is the focus of Dr. Klein in his 2004 paper Dr. Klein would then go on to write 3 major books on space warfare, understanding space strategy, and irregular warfare in space. Dr. Klein eventually developed practical recommendations for the space domain, beyond the Air Force institutional framework and the naval warfare model.

Irregular warfare in space

In short, and as obvious as it may sound, irregular warfare in space can be defined in terms of the opposite of regular warfare in space. Regular warfare in space involves straightforward actions that are mostly kinetic in nature: take out a satellite with a missile shot from Earth, or bomb Earth with fast-falling orbital tungsten rods that do not carry any explosive charge but generate a devastating detonation by virtue of speed and mass. When operating from orbit, shooting targets with lasers that destroy or blind, taking out entire constellations by creating an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) is also considered regular warfare. But besides massive destruction events that would render the orbital domain unusable, the point here is that a “space war”, or, better said, the orbital warfare component of a terrestrial conflict, is likely to involve a protracted and highly competitive process, whereas adversaries will try to outdo each other over time. This is where irregular warfare comes into play.

Two sides of the same coin

Part of the problem in space and specifically in orbit, is that conflict is more akin to a grinding marathon than a gruelling bloodshed à la Clausewitz (though that too might change if humans in spacecraft are involved). That fits the irregular warfare approach: while it does not necessarily imply immediate violence and conflict, it’s all about competition range and the endurance aspect. Because it includes elements of protracted strategy, the fight is not going to achieve success in a short time frame. So when in 2023-2024, General Bradley Chance Saltzman, Chief of Space Operations of the United States Space Force, proposed his Theory of Success, it turns out that these may be seen as two sides of the same coin, according to Dr. Klein.

Saltzman’s Theory of Success is built around what it calls Competitive Endurance, and has three components: 1) avoid operational surprise, 2) deny first-mover advantage, and 3) confront malign activity. In other words, Saltzmann talks about how you compete with adversaries in this protracted space conflict framework, while Dr. Klein’s approach is directly relevant, in the sense that it’s about offering solutions based on irregular warfare to the Competitive Endurance 3 components approach.

Resilience vs deterrence

All assets in space are highly vulnerable. Everybody can see what’s happening. The adversary who moves first has the advantage because they can take out your most highly valued space assets or spacecraft. If you move second, you will be at a disadvantage. To survive, it is necessary to be able to sustain heavy losses over time to get to fight another day: this is what resilience is about, and it is a key aspect of competitive endurance.

Deterrence is your ability to influence and modify the adversary’s strategic calculus: the adversary avoids the fight, and the status quo may prevail. You can choose to threaten to impose on the adversary a cost that is so unbearable that the expected result of the fight is not worth risking that cost. This is called “deterrence by punishment:” if you mess with us, we will respond at a time, place, and domain of our choosing. We will respond with military force if you attack us. Etc.

But that doesn’t always work. This is why it is advised to consider an alternative and allegedly stronger form of action, which is “deterrence by denial of benefit.” Think of it as two boxers who can become quickly exhausted. Imposing cost and hurting the opponent lead both opponents to give up. They convey the futility of any action no matter what you do. Action will be inconsequential and can’t hurt, but, most importantly, they won’t make any difference in the issue of the fight. You are stuck.

This connects back to the definition of resilience in space warfare and having so many capabilities in different orbits that even if the adversary takes down some, your system still operates. It conveys the futility of the approach of adversaries taking out each other space assets. According to Dr. Klein, considering the position of the US and the attitude of Russia and China, deterrence by denial of benefits should have a significant role, due to different views and positions of what constitutes an actual cost among the three.


Lawfare is the intentional distortion and misuse of legal regimes, which, according to Dr. Klein, is what we see being done by China and Russia. Their strategic intent is to achieve political objectives outside of military force. Building artificial islands at sea and infringing on the neighbour’s fishing rights, using obfuscation and delay by lawsuits, these are actions that we see terrestrially: we can probably see and expect equivalent and similarly nefarious actions in the space domain. In that context, lawfare also becomes one of the weapons in the arsenal of irregular warfare in space.

Irregular warfare is not an irregular occurrence.

Irregular warfare solutions to a nascent space conflict

Beyond space support to military operations (including Special Operations Forces) and Space Domain Awareness (SDA), Dr. Klein selects these essential capabilities as necessary tools to hold in the panoply of irregular space warfare: Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT), Satellite Communications (SATCOM), Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), Environmental Monitoring, and Space Access Mobility and Logistics. To not only monitor the space domain and one’s assets there, but also be able to access and control the entire logistics chain is essential.

Once these capabilities are acquired, the next question is how to counter irregular warfare in space, which, in Dr. Klein’s slides, is straightforwardly mentioned as “outcompete China.” To do this, there is an additional layer of necessary capabilities to build up, such as having credible space domain awareness and attribution capabilities, embracing defensive measures and space resilience, and achieving military effects through dispersal and concentration.

Once those steps are completed, comes the hard part, which is about investment moving forward, doctrine, and preparation for a likely inevitable space conflict, for which Dr. Klein envisions the following critical objectives: to invest in integrated irregular and regular warfare education, to maintain political will and domestic support, to prepare for protracted competition (i.e., competitive endurance) and have patience, to develop gray-zone and intrawar deterrence strategies, to work with allies and commercial providers, to pursue non-military solutions, and to remain flexible and adaptable

To conclude, Dr. Klein emphasizes that this shouldn’t be an academic exercise, but the effort should be able to solve actual problems of irregular warfare, with recommendations to help support these strategies in space. A lot of recommendations are not of a material nature but are essential, such as training and education, doctrine construction, and maintaining political support for protracted types of competition and conflict. The most challenging part for the US is certainly to be able to stay the course on these multi-decade endeavours, beyond presidential office rotations, congressional stalemates, and budget quandaries.

In Part 2, we will review some burning questions covered in the lecture Q&A and how Dr. Klein comprehensively answered them, going the extra mile to provide advice for practical implementation.

Christophe Bosquillon has a diverse professional background, having operated globally with a focus on the Indo-Pacific region. His experiences in Japan, the Koreas, Taiwan, China, ASEAN, India, Russia, and Australia have given him a deep understanding of the multipolar realpolitik of our world under the Pax Americana. With a background in engineering, trade, and foreign direct investment in industries relevant to Space Resource Utilization (SRU), such as mining, transportation, energy, manufacturing, agrifood, environment, and digitalization, Chris is committed to developing SRU value chains that benefit the Earth. As an executive, owner, writer, and founder of Autonomous Space Futures Ltd, Chris has extensive experience in collaborative policy crafting and works to develop space business and governance models relevant to society. He is a member of NGOs that provide input to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) legal subcommittee Working Group on Space Resources. Chris contributes to regulatory clarity on appropriation, priority, sustainability, and sharing in a way that balances national interests with civil society inclusion, provided a transparent due process is followed. When advocating for access to technology and space for the Global South, Chris believes that emerging space powers’ participation in space markets must be commensurate with their interest and involvement in international space politics. He believes that their ability to develop sovereign domestic capabilities with spillover potential is also essential. Chris is keen on ‘Peace Through Strength’ diplomacy and deterrence-based security as enablers of secure space access. He supports sovereign cislunar space situational awareness as mandatory for freedom of circulation in the space domain and deconflicted cooperation on the Moon.

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