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Sunday, January 05, 2020

Asymmetric Warfare in Space


Iran now hates the US with renewed vigor, but they've been chanting "Death to America" since the US Embassy siege of 1979. The targeted drone assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, designated as an 'enemy combatant', by the US has changed the equation; Iran is now hell-bent on revenge and has said so publicly.

I am interested in how potential counter attacks will unfold over time and space. Every mode, weapon, or technique that an opponent uses to attack has associated with it, some characteristic time constant required to develop, to deploy and put it to use. If the weapon is already developed and deployed (setup), the time constant is just the average time required to activate the weapon plus the time it takes the delivery to arrive on target and do assessible damage. For example a nuclear missile can be ready 15 minutes after the order is received and requires 35 minutes to fly the 10,000 km to its destination. So the time constant of a nuclear strike is around 50 minutes give or take. The reason I'm interested in time constants is that how one responds depends greatly on them. If we have a warning of launch, 50 minutes is more than enough time to shelter, even from a nuclear attack if the destination target is known. I happen to have close access to a concrete bunker, so even 5 minutes is enough warning for that kind of attack, but some kind of warning is critical.

Fact Check

Before developing this further some facts and ground truth are in order. Most of these are obtained from the appropriate wiki, CIA factbook or commonly consulted online resource and you can verify them for yourself. Some numbers are as old as 2015, which is more than adequate for ratio calculations. The near parity of naval forces is distorted by the fact that small US ships and speedboats are not included in the ratio, but for asymmetrical analysis this seems adequate.The reader is urged to take a moment and study this table for the offensive and defensive implications it presents:

  • The US has almost exactly four times the population of Iran, but with red versus blue states, the US is more divided politically than Iran, which gives Iran an advantage.
  • The US has 6 times the land area of Iran, which gives the US an advantage in a nuclear attack.
  • Iran is very mountainous however, which provides more places to hide.
  • The US has 45 times the GDP of Iran, which gives the US an enormous economic advantage.
  • The US stated today that it has 52 Iranian targets selected if further attacks occur, one for each of the hostages taken by Iranian revolutionaries in the Nov 4, 1979 to Jan 20, 1981 US-Iran hostage crisis.
  • Iran stated that it has 35 US targets within immediate reach.

Nearly 500,000 soldiers died Sep 22, 1980, to Aug 20, 1988 in the Iran-Iraq war, but some estimates put the total casualties at closer to one million. Iran has faced chemical attacks during these wars and is more battle-hardened than the US in this specialty.

The US has been fighting some variant of a war on terrorism since 2001 and so the US is also battle hardened and prepared for terrorist tactics.

Open vs. Closed Warfare

I'm a fan of chess. I play a lot of it. Chess is interesting because is is completely open - you can see every move your opponent is making as it occurs. The winner is determined by the party who can anticipate the consequences of each move the furthest ahead in the future. Games are often won using heuristic techniques, principles that prove the best at some future time, without having worked out every possible nuance. As the game progresses pieces are won or lost, and there is a running tally of how far ahead or behind a given player is. Between good players, a lead of even a single point can decide the outcome, but more often a lead of three or more points can shift between the players, with the outcome indefinite till the end game.

Some Guiding Principles

There is a saying in conflict that was transmitted to me by Tom Van Sant, a friend of Richard Feynman. He said to me:

"Never proceed based on what you think your enemy is doing, proceed based on what your enemy is capable of doing."

Gichin Funakoshi, founder of the Shotokan branch of karate, in his book, Karate do Kyohan, makes two clever statements:

"Techniques will occur when a void is found" and
"If a thing has an inch of cavity, then an inch of water will fill it."

The first statement explains the second.


Looking at the numbers above, one can see where the US leads Iran in capability, such as in the number of nuclear warheads, and where there is closer parity, such as naval ships. One can also consider space to be the 'new ocean'.

In situations where there is a gross mismatch of capability, the weaker opponent can make up for the mismatch by fighting the battle on terms that are favorable for them. Terrorists and guerilla fighters exploit this all the time using secrecy and lone surprise attacks to put the stronger opponent on their heels.

There are several frontiers on which Iran can exploit the US using these asymmetries. We continue to be vulnerable to cyber attacks, both in the form of virus and trojans which destroy files, and in the form of infrastructure breaches of power plants and electrical distribution grids.

As a lesson in this we have the hacks of the 2016 election by Russia, carefully described in the now famous Mueller report. So even our political system itself is vulnerable to manipulation via cyber attack. But I want to focus on the possibility of a more novel attack.

Main Point

The hijackers in the September 11 attacks were 19 men affiliated with al-Qaeda. Quoting from the wiki, "Fifteen of the 19 were citizens of Saudi Arabia, two were from the United Arab Emirates, one from Lebanon, and one from Egypt."

The main point I want to make is that effective attacks often come from using infrastructure in unexpected ways. The 9/11 attacks used domestic aircraft that the attackers trained to use and then hijacked at a convenient moment. They didn't have to buy, borrow or even rent them.

In 2007, the Chinese destroyed one of their own satellites with a kinetic kill vehicle. The impact and resulting debris field came perilously close to the orbit of the international space station. Again, quoting from the wiki, "A Chinese weather satellite—the FY-1C polar orbit satellite at an altitude of 865 kilometres (537 mi), with a mass of 750 kg was destroyed by a kinetic kill vehicle traveling with a speed of 8 km/s in the opposite direction. It was launched with a multistage solid-fuel missile from Xichang Satellite Launch Center or nearby."

The figure below shows the Iran ballistic missile inventory by type:

Now consider if Iran attempted a similar maneuver as China. It would not be difficult to generate a debris field that would damage or destroy a significant number of satellites in low to middle earth orbit satellites, including the International Space Station. Such a strike would have the psychological effect of 9/11 on a completely new field of battle. The movie Gravity, with Sandra Bullock vividly simulates the havoc that can occur with an event like this. A frame of that movie is fairly used at the top of this note,


It is important, in this age of the internet, not to underestimate the speed with which an opponent, who has started from behind, can catch up and do devastating and unexpected damage.

It is also important for each kind of attack to consider how much warning time we have, in terms of the time constants sketched above. A little warning can go a long way, that fact my purpose in penning this article.