Pop Culture Insight Into Space Warfare

Image: Activision

Space is increasingly important to military strategists as a genuine battle domain. As technology advances, space will continue to transition from primarily an intelligence theater to a full conflict one. This turn, prompted by space industry technological breakthroughs, raises the question of who in the US military will be responsible for waging off-planet warfare, whatever form it may take. Although weapons of mass destruction have been banned in outer space as of 1967, more advanced technologies continue to develop that could profoundly change warfare on Earth. With plans to for space exploration and even the colonization of Mars, the possibility of conflict taking place out into the solar system is no longer mere fiction

Currently, the US Air Force is primarily in charge of space operations. Many in the military believe that space should have its own service, much the same as the Air Force split off from the Army in 1947. The argument for creating a standalone military space force is that if it within the Air Force it will be neglected for terrestrial priorities and not have reach its full potential. Budgetary concerns largely drive the debate behind who should conduct and receive the billions that will be eventually allocated for space operations. With the importance of space likely to increase in the near future, it may be beneficial to give space its own command. When examining how space might play into future conflict, it is possible to turn to pop culture for answers. Space combat and interplanetary politics have been a staple in science fiction, reflecting the technological, political and social trends of the time.

The following list (in no particular order) is of some of the top pieces of pop culture that can give insight into what the future of space conflict might look like. Although only a handful of the countless worthy examples will be featured here, these are highlighted because of the diverse range of military aspects they address as well as the clarity with which they address them.


Enders Game – Orson Scott Card (Tactics, Organization, Politics, Technology)

Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel (updated in 1991 to adjust to the end of the Cold War) provides keen insights into the future of space conflict. The novel features ship-to-ship battles as well as zero-gravity individual combat, and offers some analysis into the tactics that go into zero-gravity warfare. It also gives the reader a clear depiction of how different fighting in space may be than fighting on Earth. One highlight is the young protagonist Ender’s realization that in zero gravity all directions and orientations become arbitrary, allowing for truly three-dimensional thinking. Further, the novel gives detailed descriptions of military organization, in which space warfare against invading aliens is conducted by an allied and internationally directed fleet.

Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein (Organization, Politics)

Both the Heinlein book and Paul Verhoeven film Starship Troopers provide a glimpse of life in a future where humans are at war with an aggressive alien race. Starship Troopers provides detailed depictions of what combat on other planets might look like, as well as many of the logistical challenges of moving soldiers across the galaxy. The novel has cutting commentary on the interactions between the military and politics, and some comparisons have been drawn between the plot of Starship Troopers and the later war in Iraq. There are some profound differences between the novel and the movie, most notably that the movie satirizes the arguably pro-fascist leanings of the novel.

Avatar (2009) (Technology, Tactics, Exploration/Colonization)

James Cameron’s 2009 film depicts a colonial human mission hunting for valuable resources on a lush forest moon. The film actually offers quite a bit about the logistics of on-planet military operations, that could be relevant for the organizational structure of future militaries. Humanity is already planning on colonizing other planets such as Mars, and Avatar shows what the structure of the military may look like, and how humans may organize far away from Earth. A similar look at this might be the Alien franchise, particularly the first two films. If a modern country encountered a threat, alien or human, in outer space, these movies show what the response might be and how human soldiers would adapt to function in the new circumstances of outer space.

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (Technology, Organization, Tactics, Politics)

The latest installment in the series, Infinite Warfare adds full-on space combat to the shooter series. Space combat in Infinite Warfare depicts hybrid plane/spaceship systems, capable of operating both in and out of the atmosphere, with Special Operations pilots capable of operating both in space by way of transforming fighters, and on the ground with futuristic (and some not-so-futuristic) technology. The game’s dogfights feel like a cross between Top Gun and Star Wars, mixing technology and features that would be easily identifiable today with a futuristic setting and advanced capabilities. As the most “near future” entry on the list thus far Infinite Warfare provides the most insight into what actual combat between spaceships might look like, and how space and more conventional capabilities might interact. Further, the game depicts a futuristic NATO-like organization, the Solar Associated Treaty Organization with the extremely unsubtle acronym SATO. Also playing an important role in the game’s story are the politics of an Earth-centered planetary political and economic system and what might happen should a colony or group of colonies choose to break away using force.

Warhammer 40K (Technology, Ship to Ship Combat)

Warhammer 40K fills a wide range of genres, with the tabletop game now providing material for a large number of video games and books, and even a direct to DVD movie. The countless factions and deep lore make 40K a deep dive into the far future. Although in many ways a scientifically absurd world full of magic, Daemons, and alien races, much of the technology used by the main human faction Imperium are reminiscent of contemporary technologies. 40K earns its spot on this list largely for mixing sheer entertainment value and absurdism with familiar and fairly realistic technology.

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (AI, Politics)

The first novel of the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice explores a future world in which humans use artificial intelligence to control human bodies for combat, although some regular humans do still fight. The novel explores the intersection of artificial intelligence and space travel in a way that is reminiscent of the seminal Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. This novel also details the warships of the future, and the organizations and logistical makeups of the crews. However, the primary draw for those interested in the military aspect of the novel will be primarily engaged with the collective conscious artificial intelligence that controls most of the human bodies at war.