Corbett in Orbit: A Maritime Model for Strategic Space Theory

Since the 1950s, there have been discussions concerning the need to develop a space power theory.1 In their attempts to formulate such a theory, strategists have noted the similarities of space operations to those of air and naval operations. Consequently, many have attempted to derive a clearly articulated, all-encompassing space theory through analogy and comparison to either airpower or sea-control models. These efforts, however, as observers like the contemporary historian and strategist Colin Gray have noted, have not produced a theory addressing space operations and associated national interests.2 Without such a strategic framework for space, some analysts fear that national resources and military force will be applied poorly or even counterproductively.

This article, accordingly, addresses the need to codify a space theory. Do space operations and national interests in space have in fact useful parallels in either air or naval operations? If air and naval models do not fully match the essence of space operations, is there one that does? Given a suitable historical model, what are the principles for a space strategy? Would the resulting space strategic model be borne out by contemporary observations?

We will argue that neither the air nor naval model embraces the breadth of space operations and strategy. However, by expanding naval theory to include broadly maritime concerns, which incorporate the interaction of land and sea, the scope of space operations can be adequately modeled. In fact, maritime theory already exists, in the work of Sir Julian Corbett, on the basis of which maritime strategy can be defined and then the principles of space theory developed. The resulting maritime-based space theory largely meets the test of current observations and ideas while highlighting significant areas that contemporary space literature has omitted.

The United States has developed space systems and doctrine quite well without the benefit of space theory; why bother deriving one? The reason is the adage, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” A theory attempts to make sense of what would otherwise be inscrutable, to set forth “rules of the game” by which actions become intelligible.3 According to the Prussian military strategist and theorist Carl von Clausewitz, theory “gives the mind insight into the great mass of phenomena and of their relationships, then leaves it free to rise into the higher realms of action.”4

To achieve in connection with space the kind of insight of which Clausewitz wrote, this article will compare past strategic theories and use the most suitable model as a framework for a strategic space theory. Using historical theories as a guide increases the likelihood of developing a meaningful space theory beyond that which arbitrary choice, pure chance, or blind intuition would allow.5