Colder Wars

MAD will not work in outer space; pre-emptive strikes are nigh-guaranteed.
transhumanism, politics, SF
2009-06-072013-06-22 finished certainty: unlikely importance: 10

SF novel is fa­mous, and its end­ing well-known: the pro­tag­o­nist is tricked into com­mand­ing a pre-emp­tive in­va­sion fleet which de­stroys all the fleets, their home­plan­et, and by a quirk of their bi­ol­o­gy, the en­tire alien race. The rea­son­ing given is that they could­n’t risk wait­ing for a (third) in­va­sion fleet.


This is rea­son­ing, of course; ver­sion 1.0. The strat­egy is sim­i­lar to early Cold War views, such as those who ad­vo­cated that the USA strike Rus­sia first, be­fore it had de­vel­oped A-bomb­s/lot­s-of-bomb­s/H-bombs.

In ret­ro­spect, such ad­vo­cacy seems fool­ish to us who sur­vived the Cold War; we are not quite so im­pressed by the ar­gu­ment that Com­mu­nism is inim­itable to the and that it is bound by its in­ter­nal logic to sub­ju­gate the world and war on us. It did in­sti­gate var­i­ous wars, prop us var­i­ous regimes, and so on; but the USA has done quite as much of that in its his­tory (and often for rea­sons only os­ten­si­bly re­lated to ideals such as coun­ter­ing com­mu­nis­m). Nor are we im­pressed by the ar­gu­ments that such and such a achieve­ment must be pre­vented by al­l-out war; the world did not end be­cause Rus­sia de­vel­oped an atomic bomb, nor when it had con­structed use­ful quan­ti­ties of them, nor when it cracked the H-bomb.

Why strike first?

The cru­cial char­ac­ter­is­tics of the early Cold War, that made a first strike so com­pelling, is that:

  1. at­tacks can be launched si­mul­ta­ne­ously on all fronts from mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions
  2. each at­tack is ut­terly dev­as­tat­ing
  3. the at­tacks can­not be guarded against (one thinks of the quip that base was ob­so­lete the day it was built.)
  4. the at­tacks are not pre­dictable or ob­serv­able suffi­ciently in ad­vance to take ac­tion like re­tal­i­a­tion

If a fleet of s have an­chored off one’s cap­i­tal, the at­tack can be­gin and end within half an hour, and the mis­siles—which boomers carry in sub­stan­tial quan­ti­ties—­can tar­get any­where in the na­tion. There is no prac­ti­cal more than half a cen­tury after nu­clear war­fare be­came pos­si­ble, and lit­tle prospect of one that could with­stand any more than a few mis­siles. Sur­viv­ing nu­clear ex­plo­sions is an ex­tremely diffi­cult task, and can­not be guar­an­teed. A gov­ern­ment at­tacked would crum­ble in­stant­ly, yield­ing im­me­di­ate vic­tory to the foe. Such s are strate­gi­cally at­trac­tive.

In each re­spect, nu­clear war­fare differs from con­ven­tional war­fare.

  1. It is diffi­cult in con­ven­tional war­fare to have troops on mul­ti­ple fron­tiers pre­pared for an in­va­sion. Planes do not much affect the lin­ear move­ments of mech­a­nized troops, as they must pro­vide air cover and can­not range freely over en­emy ter­ri­tory (due to an­ti-air­craft de­fenses and the en­emy air force); even were to­tal air dom­i­nance achieved, the Air Force could not para­chute large for­ma­tions and their equip­ment wher­ever they pleased.
  2. Con­ven­tional wars us­ing small arms and low-yield ex­plo­sives rarely ut­terly de­stroy a city or op­pos­ing forces; de­ci­sive clashes are rar­i­ties, and not nearly as de­ci­sive as a mush­room cloud.
  3. For­ti­fi­ca­tions and nor­mal mil­i­tary forces can put up a stal­wart re­sis­tance to an in­va­sion. In some pe­ri­ods, de­fense was even stronger than the offense—­for ex­am­ple, in World War I. With nu­clear bombs, the only de­fense is to dig deep into the earth as pos­si­ble, and then even deeper than that. From the de­fen­sive per­spec­tive, this is in­fe­rior in every way to the bal­ance of power in WWI.
  4. Mass mo­bi­liza­tions can be ob­served for weeks or months in ad­vance; with mod­ern telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, the mes­sage of in­va­sion can work its way up the chain of com­mand in mere hours. (This is quite fast com­pared to his­tor­i­cal em­pires, which might not know that they’ve been in­vaded for weeks or months, but still not fast enough to cope with s, much like s.)

A con­ven­tional war is in­trin­si­cally lim­ited. A coun­try can be in­vaded and lose ter­ri­tory with­out too much con­cern. Even the tini­est coun­tries like Is­rael have space to fall back and re­group. The ac­tion hap­pens on a hu­man time-s­cale, with hu­man lev­els of ca­su­al­ties. There can be ebb and flow; strikes can be prob­ing, smal­l­-s­cale.

If one wanted an anal­o­gy, con­ven­tional war­fare is like mar­tial arts spar­ring: mul­ti­ple moves, each strike hurt­ing but not fa­tal, with a back­-and-forth, and wind­ing up after a while; while nu­clear war­fare is like du­el­ing with s. And a cur­tain be­tween the du­elists.

Fun space warfare

Sci­ence fic­tion often deals with space war­fare, but usu­ally in an ex­tremely un­sci­en­tific or ro­man­ti­cized way.

Even when the au­thor throws many de­tails into it, with hard num­bers and equa­tions and rules he must fol­low, the over­all pic­ture is some­times still ab­surd. ( warns us to be wary of be­ing se­duced by Near/­Far think­ing: it is not true that the more de­tail a pro­jec­tion or fic­tion has, the more true or likely it is!1)

We can eas­ily crit­i­cize the re­al­ism of Bat­tlestar Galac­tica (both of them) or that of Star Wars (“prob­a­bly the worst”), but even the ones praised for their care­ful thought are vul­ner­a­ble.

Con­sider the of . His ships are de­scribed in lov­ing de­tail; one can’t go a bat­tle with­out fig­ures like ‘10,000 KPS’ be­ing thrown out; the his­tory is de­scribed in tremen­dous de­tail in ap­pen­dixes and sec­ondary works; the plan­ets num­ber in the hun­dreds, and the com­plex­i­ties of their in­ter­ac­tions feel au­then­tic. Plot events often hinge on ac­cel­er­a­tions and vec­tors; books are pow­ered by tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tions. It feels aw­fully re­al­is­tic.

But is it re­al­ly? The Hon­or­verse is a naked retelling of the old naval genre like , right down to the names of the wicked French an­tag­o­nists (eg. ). The ship de­signs and the uni­verse is con­structed to make ‘’, am­bush­es, etc. plau­si­ble in outer space.

It may be fun to read about “War­shawski sails” or “al­pha and beta nodes”, or “wedges” and “side­walls”; but these are all ad hoc bits of tech­nol­ogy and ar­bi­trary, most ob­vi­ously in the case of the “wedges”2. The mass of de­tails may over­load our crit­i­cal think­ing & fool us, but they ought to make us sus­pi­cious—in the real world, the prin­ci­ples are sim­ple & el­e­gant but the ap­pli­ca­tions com­plex; both prin­ci­ples and ap­pli­ca­tions should­n’t be com­plex and de­tailed. We en­joy only by sus­pend­ing a great deal of dis­be­lief.

Grim space warfare

“A re­ac­tion dri­ve’s effi­ciency as a weapon is in di­rect pro­por­tion to its effi­ciency as a dri­ve.”

, “The Kz­inti Les­son” (“The War­riors”, 1966)

After all, the hum­drum al­ter­na­tive is some­thing like uni­verse, where travel be­tween the stars takes years or mil­len­nia3, where s and s are the best (and also non­fic­tion­al) meth­ods of trav­el, where works its ter­ri­ble mag­ic, where trips are one-way and so­lar sys­tems do not see in­com­ing ves­sels (trav­el­ing at frac­tional ) un­til it is too late.

A more fac­t-based view of space war­fare would look some­thing like this analy­sis by the char­ac­ter Bean from Card’s (a com­pan­ion novel to En­der’s Game), Chap­ter 12:

“Let me read you some­thing,” said Di­mak. “’There are no for­ti­fi­ca­tions, no mag­a­zi­nes, no strong points … In the en­emy so­lar sys­tem, there can be no liv­ing off the land, since ac­cess to hab­it­able plan­ets will be pos­si­ble only after com­plete vic­tory … Sup­ply lines are not a prob­lem, since there are none to pro­tect, but the cost of that is that all sup­plies and ord­nance must be car­ried with the in­vad­ing fleet … In effect, all in­ter­stel­lar in­va­sion fleets are sui­cide at­tacks, be­cause time di­la­tion means that even if a fleet re­turns in­tact, al­most no one they knew will still be alive. They can never re­turn, and so must be sure that their force is suffi­cient to be de­ci­sive and there­fore is worth the sac­ri­fice…. Mixed-sex forces al­low the pos­si­bil­ity of the army be­com­ing a per­ma­nent colony and/or oc­cu­py­ing force on the cap­tured en­emy plan­et.”

This is a sum­mary of a length­ier analy­sis in Chap­ter 8:

“Well of course for­ti­fi­ca­tions are im­pos­si­ble in space,” said Bean. “In the tra­di­tional sense, that is. But there are things you can do. Like his mini-fortress­es, where you leave a sal­ly­ing force out­side the main for­ti­fi­ca­tion. You can sta­tion squads of ships to in­ter­cept raiders. And there are bar­ri­ers you can put up. Mines. Fields of flot­sam to cause col­li­sions with fast-mov­ing ships, hol­ing them. That sort of thing.”

Di­mak nod­ded, but said noth­ing.

Bean was be­gin­ning to warm to the dis­cus­sion. “The real prob­lem is that un­like , we have only one strong point worth de­fend­ing – Earth. And the en­emy is not lim­ited to a pri­mary di­rec­tion of ap­proach. He could come from any­where. From any­where all at once. So we run into the clas­sic prob­lem of de­fense, cubed. The far­ther out you de­ploy your de­fens­es, the more of them you have to have, and if your re­sources are lim­it­ed, you soon have more for­ti­fi­ca­tions than you can man. What good are bases on moons on Jupiter or Sat­urn or Nep­tune, when the en­emy does­n’t even have to come in on the ? He can by­pass all our for­ti­fi­ca­tions. The way and used two-di­men­sional against the of the Japan­ese in World War II. Only our en­emy can work in three di­men­sions. There­fore we can­not pos­si­bly main­tain de­fense in depth. Our only de­fense is early de­tec­tion and a sin­gle massed force.”

Di­mak nod­ded slow­ly. His face showed no ex­pres­sion. “Go on.”

Go on? That was­n’t enough to ex­plain two hours of read­ing? “Well, so I thought that even that was a recipe for dis­as­ter, be­cause the en­emy is free to di­vide his forces. So even if we in­ter­cept and de­feat nine­ty-nine of a hun­dred at­tack­ing squadrons, he only has to get one squadron through to cause ter­ri­ble dev­as­ta­tion on Earth. We saw how much ter­ri­tory a sin­gle ship could scour when they first showed up and started burn­ing over Chi­na. Get ten ships to Earth for a sin­gle day – and if they spread us out enough, they’d have a lot more than a day! – and they could wipe out most of our main pop­u­la­tion cen­ters. All our eggs are in that one bas­ket.”

“And all this you got from Vauban,” said Di­mak.

Fi­nal­ly. That was ap­par­ently enough to sat­isfy him. “From think­ing about Vauban, and how much harder our de­fen­sive prob­lem is.”

“So,” said Di­mak, “what’s your so­lu­tion?”

So­lu­tion? What did Di­mak think Bean was? I’m think­ing about how to get con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion here in Bat­tle School, not how to save the world! “I don’t think there is a so­lu­tion,” said Bean, buy­ing time again. But then, hav­ing said it, he be­gan to be­lieve it. “There’s no point in try­ing to de­fend Earth at all. In fact, un­less they have some de­fen­sive de­vice we don’t know about, like some way of putting an in­vis­i­ble shield around a planet or some­thing, the en­emy is just as vul­ner­a­ble. So the only strat­egy that makes any sense at all is an al­l-out at­tack. To send our fleet against their home world and de­stroy it.”

“What if our fleets pass in the night?” asked Di­mak. “We de­stroy each oth­er’s worlds and all we have left are ships?”

“No,” said Bean, his mind rac­ing. “Not if we sent out a fleet im­me­di­ately after the Sec­ond Bug­ger War. After Mazer Rack­ham’s strike force de­feated them, it would take time for word of their de­feat to come back to them. So we build a fleet as quickly as pos­si­ble and launch it against their home world im­me­di­ate­ly. That way the news of their de­feat reaches them at the same time as our dev­as­tat­ing coun­ter­at­tack.”

Easy warfare

Card’s analy­sis, while good as far as it goes, does­n’t go far enough. The sit­u­a­tion is ac­tu­ally more un­bal­anced in fa­vor of the at­tack­er. Card seems to as­sume that com­bat will be con­ducted with ships, and that these ships while ap­pro­pri­ately dev­as­tat­ing are nev­er­the­less rather short­-ranged and must get close to a planet to at­tack.

But ships on a scale com­pa­ra­ble to ex­ist­ing naval ships or space­ships have tremen­dous prob­lems in plau­si­ble space war­fare. (Space fight­ers anal­o­gous to air­planes have even more prob­lems.) They can be seen com­ing from very far away (al­ready pri­vate am­a­teurs rou­tinely spot spy satel­lites; aca­d­e­mic tele­scopes can spot some­thing like the Space Shut­tle do­ing a lit­tle bit of ma­neu­ver­ing as far away as the as­ter­oid belt, and spot its launch from past Plu­to’s or­bit—and the tele­scopes will only get bet­ter4); they can’t carry very much shield­ing5 and metal shield­ing can be an out­right li­a­bil­ity as far as de­fense goes6; be­ing in a vac­u­um, they have great diffi­culty dump­ing heat gen­er­ated by lasers; and re­quire im­plau­si­bly effi­cient en­gines just to carry any weapons at all! Nor do the SF sto­ries we all think of when we think about space com­bat do jus­tice to just how effec­tive plan­e­tary de­fenses can be against any sort of space fleet. (The fleet can’t hide, can’t see its tar­gets very well, can’t carry an oc­cu­pa­tion force, and the planet can build much big­ger and longer-ranged weapon­s.)

What would one do if one wanted to de­stroy an op­pos­ing world’s civil­ian pop­u­la­tion, on the cheap, and also with great se­cre­cy? One could send a fleet of pow­ered war­ships straight in to smash the other fleet and then scour the world. If one can even do that, a premise I hope I cast a great deal of doubt upon with the pre­ced­ing para­graph.

But there are many bet­ter al­ter­na­tives. Ge­ol­ogy teaches us that the 2 most dev­as­tat­ing & life-de­stroy­ing events are erup­tions, and . Su­per­vol­canos are rather hard to trig­ger, but as­ter­oids? (And mass and ve­loc­ity are in­ter­change­able; an as­ter­oid is heavy and slow, a light and fast. The power de­mands are ex­treme in ei­ther case, rul­ing out known fea­si­ble de­sign­s—we can’t build a rocket which would kill a plan­et.)

If one is a in­ter­stel­lar pow­er, as­ter­oids are quite easy to come by. One could stealth­ily creep into the vast or and send rocks fly­ing into the in­ner sys­tem. The Kuiper and Oort are com­posed largely of light­weight bod­ies (com­posed of things like wa­ter or methane), but they are pretty siz­able ob­jects— is a typ­i­cal Kuiper Belt in­hab­i­tant, and masses 2 to kg. That could still hurt, to put it light­ly. Nep­tune’s moon, which weighs a meaty kg, is a for­mer Kuiper Belt ob­ject.

And such an at­tack would be im­pos­si­ble to pre­vent. The Kuiper Belt alone is a shell around the So­lar Sys­tem from 30 to 55 AU; or an area of ~1.9530 kilo­me­ters7. This is a large vol­ume of space to pa­trol. More fea­si­ble would be mon­i­tor­ing each and every body: after all, there are only ~70,000 bod­ies. Over 100 kilo­me­ters in di­am­e­ter. Es­ti­mat­ed.

And let’s not even talk about the Oort Cloud (5-50,000 AU)!

If that’s not bad enough, one could en­vi­sion fling­ing ap­pro­pri­ate small moons or large as­ter­oids from other so­lar sys­tems. Why not? Boost­ing a large body to frac­tional c ve­loc­i­ties and aim­ing it at a far away planet is­n’t in­her­ently any more ab­surd than build­ing a ship and boost­ing it to frac­tional c. The mo­tion of stel­lar bod­ies is fa­mously pre­dictable out for many cen­turies. The body could guide it­self: add some small mo­tors, and it could even cor­rect for small er­rors in pre­dic­tion. It would be the ul­ti­mate fire-and-for­get weapon of mass de­struc­tion.


Stop it? How could one stop a small moon? If it is trav­el­ing at a good frac­tion of light­speed, then its ki­netic en­ergy will have reached gar­gan­tuan pro­por­tions: no fran­tic last minute at­tacks will al­ter its path very much. Sup­pose one did shat­ter it with ex­plo­sives; con­ser­va­tion of en­ergy and mass will still ap­ply—if a bil­lion tons of ice are fly­ing to­wards New York at 0.5 c, and a bomb shat­ters it, what’s fly­ing to­wards New York at 0.5 c? A bil­lion tons of ice.

And re­mem­ber the early points about the vast­ness of space and how en­e­mies can at­tack from any de­gree—not just along the eclip­tic. (At­tack­ing from a Kuiper Belt, trav­el­ing through or just above or be­low the eclip­tic may well be the most effi­cient path. But from an­other so­lar sys­tem lo­cated at some odd an­gle?) For every mea­sure the de­fend­ers take, like ex­ten­sive tele­scope ar­rays look­ing for fast-mov­ing bod­ies, there are coun­ter­mea­sures like re­duc­ing to pitch-black­ness by ap­ply­ing soot.

Counter-point: nowhere to hide

There is one ad­van­tage a de­fender may or may not have in space war­fare. We al­ready dis­cussed, in pass­ing, some of the dis­ad­van­tages of at­tack­ing space­ships, which must ob­vi­ously be ad­van­tages for de­fend­ers:

  1. If at­tack­ers can be seen com­ing from very far away, then that im­plies de­fend­ers can at­tack them since any­thing you can see, you can tar­get with lasers
  2. If at­tack­ers have diffi­culty car­ry­ing shield­ing be­cause they are at­tack­ing, de­fend­ers can have ar­bi­trary amounts of ar­mor if they are, say, on a planet and can dig hun­dreds of me­ters deep un­der­ground
  3. If at­tack­ers have diffi­culty dump­ing heat gen­er­ated by lasers into empty space, then de­fend­ers have heat sinks handy (eg. oceans)
  4. If use­ful at­tack­ers are diffi­cult to en­gi­neer, then any break­throughs for them may just in­crease the ad­van­tage for de­fend­ers who have fewer trade­offs to deal with

The linked Project Rho pages in­ves­ti­gated these fac­tors in more nu­mer­i­cal de­tail and, I think, demon­strated con­vinc­ingly that a net­work of sur­veil­lance tele­scopes linked to a mas­sive laser is su­pe­rior to any even half-plau­si­ble at­tack­ing space fleet. But do those con­sid­er­a­tions ap­ply to a large guided as­ter­oid or other such body?

Laser ab­la­tion is one of the stan­dard pro­posed , but that and other all seem to fail if there is any ac­tive in­tel­li­gent re­sis­tance. It does no good to shoot some rock from the Moon at an in­com­ing as­ter­oid if there is a laser on the as­ter­oid ab­lat­ing the Moon rock it­self!

Which brings up the ob­vi­ous point: the enu­mer­ated ad­van­tages for a plan­e­tary de­fender also ap­ply to an as­ter­oid! A as­ter­oid laser can be dug into the as­ter­oid to some de­gree, can use the as­ter­oid for cool­ing to some de­gree, can see the plan­e­tary de­fend­ers (and their pro­jec­tiles or laser de­fens­es) from far away to some de­gree, etc. The as­ter­oid de­fenses would be lim­ited in ar­mor or size by the smaller size of the as­ter­oid com­pared to the plan­et, yes, but the de­fenses can be on the los­ing side of each ex­change as long as the as­ter­oid sur­vives to im­pact! The plan­e­tary de­fend­ers need to win and neu­tral­ize the as­ter­oid en­tire­ly, while the as­ter­oid de­fenses just need to de­lay the war of at­tri­tion suffi­cient­ly.

Which has the rel­a­tive ad­van­tage? This is not clear. It may be that the plan­e­tary de­fend­ers still have an ad­van­tage and all at­tack­ers, both space­ships and as­ter­oid­s/­comets, are doomed. Per­haps they are doomed but one can over­come lo­cal de­fenses by go­ing past as­ter­oids to small moons, but moons are still in­effec­tive be­cause to ac­cel­er­ate a moon is so en­er­get­i­cally diffi­cult that it can be ob­served from the tar­get sys­tem and ap­pro­pri­ate de­fenses set in mo­tion to neu­tral­ize the moon; and know­ing this, no one will bother with moon-strikes. I am not op­ti­mistic about ei­ther sce­nar­io, so let us con­tinue to as­sume that things will not work out as one would hope (in fa­vor of de­fend­er­s).

Nuclear & space first-strikes

To re­turn to our 4-point nu­clear war­fare list.

  1. Space is vast & 3D8. At­tacks can be be­gun from any ax­is. There are no space equiv­a­lents of moun­tain passes or val­leys. So this point holds: nu­clear war­fare can at­tack from any­where on the globe to any­where on the globe, and space war­fare is even more free in its ap­proach.
  2. Each at­tack could be even more dev­as­tat­ing than nu­clear at­tacks9. Even small comets or as­ter­oids ex­ceed nor­mal atomic bombs, and it’s about as easy to go for large bod­ies as small.
  3. Nu­clear at­tacks have no de­fenses be­sides be­ing buried deep. They can­not be shot down or in­ter­cept­ed. This is true of moons or as­ter­oids as well. Re­mem­ber the ul­ti­mate sce­nar­io: a moon at near-light­speed. Such an im­pact is best de­scribed as ‘world-shat­ter­ing’. There’s an old mil­i­tary joke: the best way to sur­vive a nu­clear at­tack is to not be there.
  4. A SLBM at­tack is first ob­serv­able when the mis­siles break the wa­ter’s sur­face. An as­ter­oid gone bal­lis­tic is rather diffi­cult to spot at any point on its jour­ney. In the night­mare sce­nar­io, even if the moon is ob­served im­me­di­ately & re­ported on, the alert will reach its des­ti­na­tion only shortly be­fore the moon does!

In every point, space war­fare is even more fa­vor­able to the at­tack­er. There is no per­cent­age in try­ing to de­fend.


Of course, every­one knows that the first strike doc­trines even­tu­ally yielded to ‘’ doc­tri­nes: . If point #2 is weak­ened to be­ing dev­as­tat­ing to only the na­tion and con­ven­tional mil­i­tary, spar­ing the nu­clear el­e­ments, then re­tal­i­a­tion is pos­si­ble. There is no point in strik­ing first if it will only pro­voke a re­tal­ia­tory strike that does you as much dam­age as their first strike would have.

Can we hope for MAD? Per­haps. It’s clear enough that there are all sorts of tech­niques: each star sys­tem could have a fleet qui­es­cent in deep space lis­ten­ing to om­ni­di­rec­tional broad­casts. The heart­beat stops, the fleet sets off for re­venge. (They would be space sub­marines in effect; this would also be an ex­am­ple of “”.) Or a sys­tem could be con­stantly ac­cel­er­at­ing bod­ies at a ri­val sys­tem, but off-course; then on an at­tack, the bod­ies could be re-aimed at their tar­get. And so on.


There is one prob­lem with MAD as ap­plied to space. Nu­clear at­tacks in the real world in­her­ently in­volve ac­count­abil­i­ty. If an ICBM lands in New York City, the satel­lites track­ing it from launch will tell us ex­actly what coun­try it came from. If a nuke is qui­etly shipped into San Fran­cisco & ex­plodes, the fall­out will be im­me­di­ately sam­pled and traced back to its man­u­fac­tur­ing coun­try. Within days or weeks, the USA and the world will know if it was an Amer­i­can nuke, or Rus­sian, or North Ko­rean etc.

The vary sub­tly, and the USA has for decades col­lected fall­out from tests by the nu­clear pow­ers to de­ter­mine the char­ac­ter­is­tic iso­tope ra­tios of those na­tions’ ura­nium and plu­to­ni­um. Fun­da­men­tal­ly, there’s no way to nuke a na­tion with­out be­ing blamed for it. Even if Pak­istan gave Al-Qaeda a bomb and they used it in a way that was not trace­able to Pak­istan, the iso­topes would still fin­ger Pak­istan as the cul­prit and fire would rain down upon their head by the ag­grieved par­ty. Every nu­clear power knows this: they will be held re­spon­si­ble for any use of their weapons, au­tho­rized or unau­tho­rized—pe­ri­od.

Deceiving MAD

The MAD equi­lib­rium de­pends on al­ways hav­ing some­one to blame and at­tack. But this is not nec­es­sar­ily true of bal­lis­tic war­fare. Sup­pose the at­tacked so­lar sys­tem is at­tacked from its own Kuiper Belt? What other sys­tem does it blame? Short of cap­tur­ing the crew or dis­cov­er­ing in­crim­i­nat­ing foren­sic ev­i­dence on a body, there’s no way of fig­ur­ing out who the at­tacker is. They can analyse the body all they want; all they’ll find out is the ob­vi­ous fact that its from their own sys­tem.

Or more sin­is­ter, what if the at­tack­ers are steal­ing a body? That is, ships from sys­tem A steal a Kuiper ob­ject from sys­tem B and ac­cel­er­ate it to sys­tem C? It’s a poor MAD in­deed whose sec­ond-strike at­tacks the wrong par­ty!


A Cold War re­played on an in­ter­stel­lar scale is a fright­en­ing prospect. One could only hope for as child­ish a re­al­ity as the Hon­or­verse, but the sober re­al­ity seems to be a chill­ing es­ca­la­tion of the risks of the Cold War. Outer space is cold in­deed.

  1. Han­son, “Near Far In Sci­ence Fic­tion”:

    Like many oth­ers I en­joyed the new movie, even if I don’t es­pe­cially re­spect my­self for that, and re­cently just re­watched Star Wars . And the most com­pelling vi­su­als and scenes in those movies were sim­i­lar, in that they com­bined fa­mil­iar and emo­tion­al­ly-true fore­grounds with dra­matic sym­bol­i­cal­ly-mean­ing­ful back­grounds which often made lit­tle sense if you thought much about them. For ex­am­ple, in Star Trek iso­lated crowded ship­yards are shown scat­tered in sim­ple farm­land, wildly vi­o­lat­ing economies of ag­glom­er­a­tion… This all sup­ports my de­tached de­tail warn­ing: don’t as­sume that be­cause the char­ac­ter lives de­scribed are com­pelling, the his­tor­i­cal arcs are as plau­si­ble.

  2. After all, how plau­si­ble is it, re­al­ly, that the wedge would pro­vide per­fect pro­tec­tion in 2 di­rec­tions but not the other 4, and that no bet­ter sub­sti­tute than side­walls would have been de­vised?↩︎

  3. In many of his bet­ter short sto­ries, at least; the nov­els are usu­ally far enough in the fu­ture that mul­ti­ple FTL dri­ves are avail­able.↩︎

  4. An­other com­par­i­son I’ve seen; from “City Lights Could Re­veal Civil­i­sa­tions On Other Plan­ets” and re­spec­tive­ly:

    “There is an­other search that could be done closer to home. With the help of some back­-of-the-en­ve­lope cal­cu­la­tions, Loeb and Turner say that to­day’s best tele­scopes ought to be able to see the light gen­er­ated by a Toky­o-sized me­trop­o­lis at a dis­tance of about 50 AU [Pluto is 30-49 AU], that’s roughly the dis­tance to the .”

    “This im­plies that an f⊕-il­lu­mi­nated sur­face would pro­vide the same ob­served flux F as a sun­light-il­lu­mi­nated ob­ject at that dis­tance, if it is ∼√3.6×102 = 19 times smaller in size. In other words, an f⊕-il­lu­mi­nated sur­face of size 53 km (com­pa­ra­ble to the scale of a ma­jor city) would ap­pear as bright as a 103 km ob­ject which re­flects sun­light with A = 7%. Since ∼103 km ob­jects were al­ready found at dis­tances be­yond ∼50 AU, we con­clude that ex­ist­ing tele­scopes and sur­veys could de­tect the ar­ti­fi­cial light from a rea­son­ably brightly il­lu­mi­nated re­gion, roughly the size of a ter­res­trial city, lo­cated on a KBO [Kuiper Belt Ob­jec­t].”

  5. Shield­ing against what? Slugs of met­al? Every pos­si­ble fre­quency of laser? Beams of plasma or charged par­ti­cles? Nukes and their x-rays?↩︎

  6. An en­e­my’s laser can melt through metal like any­thing else, and if the laser is pow­er­ful, the metal might just evap­o­rate/ex­plode—which is­n’t very help­ful at all.↩︎

  7. The area of a sphere is given by the equa­tion:
    1 AU = kilo­me­ters
    30 AU = , or km
    55 AU = , or km
    So the shell is the vol­ume of the outer sphere mi­nus the in­ner sphere:
    , or .↩︎

  8. In the same way con­ven­tional war­fare is 2D; nu­clear war­fare is mod­estly 3D.↩︎

  9. While in the­ory H-bombs can be scaled to in­defi­nitely large gi­ga­ton­nage, this is ex­ceed­ingly im­prac­ti­cal and large bombs are waste­ful.

    As the bomb be­comes larg­er, ever more of the ex­plo­sion’s en­ergy is dis­si­pated away by the at­mos­phere or space, and less is di­rected down­ward into the earth. The rea­son the Rus­sians went as large as the was that they needed overkill to com­pen­sate for poor tar­get­ing—the US with more trust in its ac­cu­racy pre­ferred putting mul­ti­ple smaller bombs onto a tar­get.↩︎