Hey folks! Fireside this week; musing on a rather silly topic: the practicality of planetary invasions in a science fiction setting. I am working currently on (among other things) getting the “How They Made It” post series started up; those will be a set of post-series detailing how pre-modern societies made all of the stuff they had, with a special focus on the people who did the making, with the hope of – by slowly but surely accumulating workers – drawing a more complex and real image of what an ancient or medieval society might look like. My plan for that is to start with agriculture, textile production and iron-working (not necessarily in that order). I hope that will be interesting both from a historical perspective, but also for all of you fiction-writers and game-masters interested in historical world-building.
Before we dive into the musing, I do want to address the comments a bit. The last two posts have produced some contentious debates in the comments. I appreciate that, insofar as I have seen, everyone has remained civil (thank you; I don’t particularly want to have to wield the moderation powers, but I will if I must), but I did notice some rising temperatures, so I want to reiterate the importance of reading with charity. Not everyone writes in the guarded sort of academic style that is designed to be read by a hostile or at least sharply critical audience and so when we read our fellow commenters (or fellow citizens, or fellow humans) it is important to read from that place of charity. Yes, there are bad-faith arguers out there (fewer, though, than is sometimes supposed), but for the most part, we’re discussing these things in good faith and we should lend each other the benefit of the doubt. Everyone is wrong from time to time, even me.
That said, just to make sure it’s clear going forward: there will be no ad hominem attacks, harassment, flame wars, or anything of that sort in the comments. My rule of thumb is that if I wouldn’t allow it in a classroom discussion, I won’t allow it in the comments. So far, it looks like everyone has comported themselves well enough; please continue to do so. Otherwise…
For my musing this week, I actually want to muse about this video and the points that it raises, particularly because I think the video’s creator, Spacedock, has gotten firepower wrong in a very common way. To summarize, Spacedock’s argument is that planetary invasions would never happen because the firepower advantage of an orbiting hostile fleet in any science fiction setting is so great that any planet would be forced to surrender and that consequently science-fiction armies would be minimal mostly-all-infantry garrison forces.
And that makes some assumptions about the effectiveness of aerial (or orbital, in this case) firepower which are worth digging into.
The first major point is to consider is what is being fought over and why. While we often talk about conquest in terms of ‘land’ in practice since the agricultural revolution – and increasingly so since then – the primary resource one aimed to conquer wasn’t just land but the productive population and infrastructure on that land, either to directly extract resources (tribute extraction) or to use the population as a supply-base to support forces aiming to establish control over the region in order to keep other productive regions safe (think fortified Roman frontiers that are held not because they are productive, but because they are in between enemies and the really productive areas – nevertheless, depopulate the frontiers and you leave no logistics base on which to station an army).
What that means is that strategic objectives are likely to impose sharp limits in the ability to use orbital firepower if the goal is to control the planet or even to be able to meaningfully extract resources from it. Blasting a world into uninhabitability using nuclear munitions or even just de-orbiting large rocks may be strategically unacceptable. Moreover, defenders are likely in many cases to know this and plan their defense accordingly, much as modern non-state fighters plan knowing that conventional military firepower is often more limited in densely settled areas. Modern conflict is heavily constrained by the inability to fully deploy modern firepower without sacrificing strategic objectives; there is no reason to think that would change in a space war.
This then ties into the second point, which is the limits of firepower against infantry forces using cover and concealment. How much firepower do you need to remove deeply entrenched infantry? A lot, it turns out. Stephen Biddle (you may recall him) wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs (82.2, 2003), “Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare” where he laid out some statistics for firepower against entrenched infantry. He noted, for instance that “French defenses at Verdun in 1916 endured a two-day German artillery barrage equal to about 1,200 tons of explosives — in nuclear parlance more than a kiloton, or more explosive power than the w48 tactical nuclear warhead — yet enough of the entrenched defenders survived this maelstrom to halt the German assault [emphasis mine].” And “On July 18, 1944…[the allies] deposited…more than 8 kilotons of firepower — on just seven kilometers of German frontage in less than three hours [emphasis again mine].” In both cases, there were enough defenders left not merely to fight, but to actually win both battles. Nor is this merely a feature of old dumb-bombs; in Afghanistan, Biddle notes, “One dug-in al Qaeda command-post was found surrounded by no fewer than five 2,000-pound bomb craters. Still, its garrison survived and resisted until overrun.” In short, it is possible for infantry – with only improvised field-fortifications – to sustain energy delivery on the level of tactical nuclear yields and not only survive, but be fightable at the other end.
(Note, 2,000-pound bomb here refers to total weight, not the explosive weight. I don’t know what bombs were used here, but the Mark 84 is a decent candidate, in which case the yield of all five of them would have been around 3.2 tons of TNT (5 bombs each with 945lbs of Comp-H6, which is c. 1.35x the explosive power of TNT)
Now if we are assuming two sides at rough technological parity, we should assume the defending planet has probably prepared for this possibility. There are likely to be hardened, bombardment proof shelters, not only for soldiers, but also for civilians. In that case, an attacker might be looking at a situation where an orbital bombardment would annihilate functionally all of the expensive ground-based infrastructure (roads, fields, irrigation, factories, pipelines, buildings, etc.) that they hope to capture and still not effectively remove the defenders or damage the population. Prepared positions and concealed forces can absorb truly astounding amounts of firepower and still be ready to fight on the other end.
Which brings us to the third point, which is actually my main point: surrender. We’ve established that against a prepared enemy simply annihilating the defenders is going to be very difficult. So what are the chances of getting them to surrender entirely through orbital (or aerial) bombardment? I feel the need to point out – to quote Winston Churchill – “this has often been thought of before.” Going back to Giulio Douhet in 1921, strategic airpower advocates have long been promising that aerial firepower (in the form of bombing) would render ground combat obsolete precisely because the sheer firepower or the threat of firepower would force the enemy to surrender. The exact mechanism was that aerial bombardment of sufficient scale would erode enemy will to fight, particularly in the civilian population.
That model (which was promoted not only by Douhet, but also by strategic air-power advocates in the Luftwaffe, the Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Corps and later Air Force) was functionally tested repeatedly and it has not worked once. No civilian populace (note: not military junta or dictator) has ever been persuaded to give up on a war effort because of aerial bombardment in the absence of political pressure or ground operations. Post-War studies of ‘morale bombing’ in WWII (that is, the bombing of civilian centers, both by German and Allied airpower) suggested that far from bringing the bombed civilians to the table, aerial bombardment hardened resolve to continue fighting. Only in Japan did it lead to surrender and there not because the civilian will to fight broke (it doesn’t appear to have) but because nuclear attacks convinced the leadership that further resistance was impossible. Efforts to ‘win from the air’ by ‘degrading the will of the enemy’ through either surgical leadership strikes or civilian bombing have failed, in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Syria; in an odd exception, it sort of worked against Serbia, but to a significantly diminished degree than anticipated (and once again, the decision came from leadership, not collapsing public morale). Morale bombing does not work.
Somewhat ironically, Spacedock in his video gives one real-world analogy for why he thinks no one would ever need to do a planetary invasion, which I quote:
It doesn’t matter if you’re ten guys with rifles or five hundred guys with rifles on a tiny island, if there’s a giant battleship parked next to the island, none of the eventual outcomes involve an invasion of the island.
Which is just a real howler as students of the Pacific Theater of WWII will be well aware, because this exact situation happened, over and over again – the only eventual outcome did involve an invasion of the island literally every time.
So it seems likely to be that for a spaceborne force looking to exert control over a planetary population, landing ‘(space) boots on the ground’ is in fact likely to be the only solution. At the very least some forces would be required to target those attacks; one of the revelations of the air campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan is that even 24/7 drone surveillance can be inferior to boots-on-the-ground reconnaissance in identifying and calling in strikes on targets (as Biddle discusses in the article mentioned above).
More broadly, you would need garrison holding forces. Spacedock allows for this but I think undersells the importance of that. He’s assuming that means light, almost purely infantry forces – effectively military policing forces. But even a brief glance at military action against relatively lightly armed (that is, lacking armor or air assets, to be clear) insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that counter-insurgency forces are not simply ‘some guys with guns.’ You need not only regular transport vehicles and logistics but also hardened MRAPs, IFVs, artillery and air-support (which is going to need to be fast and local, not slow and orbital). Even armor has a role, as the Syrian regime has shown to horrifying results, using even outdated tanks to ‘bully’ FSA forces who lacked anti-armor capability. Which is to say that occupation forces would likely resemble the full-spectrum armies that Spacedock is contending would not be necessary in a science-fiction-future.
But in the broader sense – and this is a key takeaway – the amount of firepower necessary to destroy a defense absent of ground forces is so high that there wouldn’t be anything left to occupy. Whatever thing of value was being sought would also be destroyed, it a logistics base, an economy, a population or even potentially just a habitable biosphere. And while ‘morale bombing’ has been offered, since the 1920s as a workaround for this problem, attempt after attempt to operationalize morale bombing has shown that not only does it not work, it is counterproductive. So far, the only way to apply force with the necessary precision to defeat a society’s defenders while keeping the society (which is the thing you want to control) is ground forces – and more narrowly infantry ground forces.
All of which is a complicated way of saying: you would still need to be able to land significant conventional ground forces in order to control the planet, its population and its resources.
Now, does any of that matter? Not to the question of science-fiction battles, no. Fiction can be whatever it wants to be. But I think to broader modern security questions, it does matter. Public overconfidence in the ability of high-tech firepower to simply obliterate enemies leads directly into advocacy for ‘easy’ wars which will be anything but. Firepower – and airpower – are of course very important in modern warfare. But it is crucial to remember when the next prophet of decisive firepower or decisive airpower shows up that such prophecies are frequently wrong and for the public to thus be skeptical that some new technology offers ‘painless’ victory.
At the same time, public assumptions that enemy will can be degraded by massive brutality plays into a narrative that we could win our wars if we only ‘took the gloves off’ – an assertion often made, but one which history does not appear to support. We touched on some of this when discussing chemical weapons. But the Syrian Regime ‘took the gloves off’ to a greater degree than any NATO military ever could (or would, or should) back in 2011 and they are still fighting, despite beginning the conflict with huge advantages (like near total airspace control, or having nearly all of the tanks and heavy weapons, or superior outside support from Iran and Russia). Rampant brutality did not, in fact, relieve the Syrian Regime of the need to send in infantry; one might argue that infantry in the absence of brutality would have served as well (with the caveat that the Syrian Regime was, in part, struggling under a severe manpower shortage and reverted to monstrosity to compensate).
For that reason, I thought those assertions were worth challenging.
On to Recommendations:
I would be remiss if I did not begin by recommending this live reading/performance of Aristophanes’ Clouds, with its opening discussion. The performance itself (done in English translation) is wonderful for bringing the energy and humor of Aristophanes to life. I’ve never had a chance to teach Clouds (but I have taught Lysistrata in translation) and I find students are often caught pleasantly off-guard by how modern and fresh Aristophanes’ humor can feel. Give it a listen!
Also, I finally got around to watching Hamilton on Disney+. You should also get around to watching Hamilton – it has been a very long time since I have been so pleasantly surprised by having something live up to its billing so completely.
Likely a number of you are aware of the developing story of the fire aboard the USS Bonbomme Richard (a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship designed to support amphibious operations). The best piece of writing for understanding the implications of the fire I have read is this piece by Bryan McGrath over at War on the Rocks. What I like the most about this article and why I recommend it are the opening few paragraphs which begin by explaining USN force structure and how the Bonhomme Richard fits into it. A lot of writing on national security issues and geopolitics really fail to capture these points; journalists writing for a public audience don’t include them because they either do not know them (frustratingly common, it seems) or because they want to spare their readers the sticky details, while analyists writing for the nat.-sec. community often leave them out on the assumption everyone already knows them. It can make it hard for the lay-reader of nat.-sec. or geopolitical news to move from facts to wisdom in understanding how those facts fit together.
Finally,as always, I’ll close out with a book recommendation, this time moving to the modern world with J. Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa (2012). There are a number of reasons to recommend this book. First, it presents a major conflict that, by and large, most people know very little about. The Congo Wars are often the ‘biggest wars you’ve never heard of’ or only barely have some limited sense about. Stearns’ book is an excellent ‘this is what happened’ primer for someone (I put myself here) who had little idea of the facts of such a complicated conflict (seriously – Stearns puts a table of abbreviations just for all of the militias involved; be sure to put a sticky-note on that page you so you can find it quickly).
But more broadly, Stearns’ book is excellent because of how relentlessly it resists easy answers. There are many villains here, but no heroes. Stearns resists the compulsion (he is quite open that his editors pushed this way) to come up with a one-true-theory of the conflict and instead attempts – and largely succeeds – to present it in all of its manifest complexity and horror. I should note, however, that this book is a depressing, distrubing read. There are no heroes, but there are many villains and far, far more victims (many of whom are also villains); Stearns does not shy away from the mass murder, brutality, sexual violence and general horror of the conflict. He is not there to spare your feelings, so this might be a book left to read at a time when you are not feeling particularly emotionally or mentally fragile (as opposed to my stupid self that read it in the opening weeks of a pandemic while the job market in my field came to a screeching sudden stop – that was less than wise. Don’t do that.)
Next week: I hope to have the first “How Did They Make It” essay ready, though time will tell if that plan survives contact with my schedule. In any case, next week or the week after, we’re starting with farmers and farming.