A cold war, the tension between well-armed powers that doesn't directly lead to an all-out war, but to an era of tension, espionage, proxy-warfare and propaganda. In our own world, the most famous example was the cold war between the US and USSR from 1947 to 1989.

Though in my setting, it takes place across an entire solar-system, and involves more players.

Nuclear Shaped-charges and Bomb-Pumped X-ray Lasers, weapons that can hurl their projectiles at considerable fractions of the speed of light, have been invented during a time in which most of the solar-system has been inhabited, and for the people that live in this system, are surprisingly easy to build.

Any orbital settlement, asteroid mining-town or outpost with enough resources has the ability to build crude, yet functional versions of these weapons.

For the previous decades, most of the system's inner and outer planets were ruled over by a single federation, which had an omnipresent, but still somewhat loose grip on all of its orbital and surface colonies. These new weapons however, have the power to destroy any space-vessels over large ranges, aren't interceptable and perfect for threatening to destroy anything that wants to impose its will over the small colonies.

Edit: Note that, this would only take place in space, as the weapons proposed could neither launch from, or do significant damage to a planet. So it will mostly be a conflict between orbital outposts and ships. The conflict, if it escalated, would stay in interplanetary space, or in the orbits of the players' planets.

My question would be: Could weapons like this trigger a Cold-War type scenario, in which every colony that has one or more of these weapons, can bargain its way into independence, cutting itself off from its former overlords, just by threatening to use them?


5 Answers 5


It is possible, but I think the hatred between the governments, and the demands of the colonies and outposts, need to remain relatively modest to keep the war cold, as this scenario does have a few potential risks.

One is the asymmetry between the factions. The central government, which I presume is located on Earth, would logically have a much bigger resource base and a significantly larger and more dispersed population. Even if it has the technological ability to construct these nuclear weapons, a space station or astroid colony might not have access to enough fissile material for an arsenal large enough to ensure the destruction of the Earth government.

Conversely, Earth can construct many more missiles. And even a single hit is likely to wipe out the entire population of an outpost or colony, if not in the blast, then by damaging the many essential facilities to make life outside of earth possible. So the destruction is probably not exactly mutually assured. The war staying cold requires the central government to value the lives of Earth's population higher than their control of the colonies. Which is entirely possible, minor nuclear powers like North Korea can still deter greater nuclear powers in our world. But it requires the central government not to be too ruthless, or to perceive independent colonies as an existenial threat.

The second thing to keep in mind is detection. If a missile travels towards you at a significant fraction of the speed of light, and you lack FTL sensors or FTL communication with sensors placed further out, you may not notice the missiles in time to counter-launch your own. This makes it less likely you'll get a cold war, and more likely that one side will strike first, motivated by the Prisoner's Dillema.

Of course, the distances the missiles have to travel in an interplanetary war are also very large. So I recommend you do a little calculation when you decide exactly how big of a fraction of the speed of light your missiles can travel, and from what distance missiles can be detected. Keep in mind that a missile could turn its engine off after accelerating, at least when striking a planet or astroid instead of a space ship, making it harder to detect.

Also, since your proposed cold war has more than two sides, it's not enough that governments can see an incoming missile. If they can't reliably tell which of their opponents launched a particular missile, that undermines the deterence that would lead to a cold war. The Martian People's Republic might decide that, rather than dealing with a cold war against the Jupiter United Spacesations and the Earth Federation, they might position a space ship in between Earth and Jupiter, launch some missiles at one of them, and break out the popcorn as their rivals kill each other off. Unless you'd like that kind of plot point occuring, you'll want your setting's sensors to be good and either long ranged enough or spread out throughout the solar system by all parties, to prevent such shenanigans from working.

Edit based on comments

I presumed that the Nuclear Shaped Charge and Bomb Pumped X ray laser were weapons that were mounted as warheads on top of missiles traveling at 3% of the speed of light, until they were close to the target. From the OPs comments, I understand they inteded the weapons to be build and fired directly at enemy targets, without a missile system.

The Nuclear shaped articles states an optimal Casada Howitzer would be "able to extend the range of small nuclear pulse weapons to useful distances (in the thousands of kilometers)." The Bomb pumped laser notes that at 10,000 km, the blast is too difuse to damage an ICBM. Both of these weapons are, in terms of interplanetary travel, short range weapons.

This makes for a different dynamic than our cold war. It means colonies can slap together these weapons, declare independence, and tell Earth that if they send a ship full of marines to land near or dock with the colony to conquer it, they'll use their weapons and blow up the ship. That is a deterent, perhaps enough of one that Earth decides it's not worth the effort to try and retake the colony.

But unlike our cold war, the colony's weapons pose no threat to other colonies or planets, or even any ships that keep their distance. The threat is only to those (military) assets that one side decides to send at their opponent's territory. It's more like World War 2's western front: The Germans had weapons (bunker mounted cannons) that could shoot at ships trying to land troops, whose projectiles couldn't be intercepted. It was a deterence (along with the other assorted problems of an amphibious invasion), but the Allies decided they really wanted to invade, so they spend quite some time preparing their invasion in relative safety, before attacking with enough ships to overcome the defenses.

This seems the more likely scenario, unless Earth cares little about retaking the colonies (in which case, there probably wouldn't be a cold war, just international relationships between independent states). Earth can take its time, scout where the colonies' weapon platforms are located, and when they feel ready send several transports, and escorts with those same weapons to try and attack the colonies' weapons before they fire.

Or, if likely cost of such an invasion is too high, they could go for the WW1 solution and blockade the colony with warships patrolling more than 100.000 km away, well outside the weapon's ranges, but close enough to intercept any departing space ship before it gets anywhere.

This latter option may be your best bet for a cold-war like scenario. If space ships are very expensive while the weapons can be easily mass produced, several governments who strongly dislike each other may decide not to openly attack one another, because each of them are too heavily defended to make an attack cost effective. But outside of the range of the planet or colonies' defensive emplacement, limited conflicts are possible.

You do lose the cold war's existenial fear though, since the opponent's weapons are only a threat to any ships send right to their doorstep. There's no threat that a push on the red button could kill everyone. I don't know if that is important to have for your setting.

  • $\begingroup$ I like your approach, though you're making a few assumptions about the weapons (I've linked to both of them). The Nuclear Shaped-Charge travels at about 3% the speed of light, so they still should be very much detectable. And an X-ray laser releases such an amount of energy that they are similarly hard to overlook. Both of those weapons are also only able to be deployed in space, so they won't directly affect the surfaces planets, just their ships/stations and outpost in orbit. $\endgroup$
    – NimRad
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, if the weapons are intended for use in space only, the cold war becomes a bit more unstable. It means astroid mining bases and orbital habitats can be annihilated, but Earth or colonies build within an atmosphere can not. And Earth has an easier time replacing lost spaceships, or surviving without them, than a space station or astroid base. Earth might be more tempted to launch their missile to destroy a seperatist space station, or perhaps just their supply ships, after moving all non-essential personel off their own space-assets. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ That said, if you can accelerate Casade Howitzers or Bomb pumped lasers to 3% of the speed of light, you can probably do it with much simpler warheads, or even just rocks, and still do a lot of damage if you hit Earth. As a side note, wouldn't the energy of the X ray laser only be released when the warhead goes off, which is too late to respond? I presumed, as in Honor Harrington, that the bomb pumped lasers were used as warheads on missiles, that go off when they got close enough to the target. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 11:23
  • $\begingroup$ the projectiles of those weapons are accelerated to these speeds, not the weapon itself. Like bullets are to guns. And most of the other planets' surfaces are lived-on as well, so it wouldn't only be the main world that has the ability to re-stock their orbital assets. It's a lot less one-sided. $\endgroup$
    – NimRad
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 11:31
  • $\begingroup$ I really like that edit! The latter option of blockades and intercepts might actually play into my story better than an actual cold-war dynamic. $\endgroup$
    – NimRad
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 12:46

As long as you have mutually assured destruction in place, because of the weapons you and your enemy have, a cold war makes more sense than an actual war.

However that is different from a rise to independence. That the wannabe independent colonies have free access to those weapons would require the central government to have given it in non suspect times, which sounds a rather carefree move to anybody who has at least seen Dr Strangelove.

  • $\begingroup$ Access to the weapons themselves wasn't an issue to them. As i wrote in the question, the colonies have the means to build these weapons themselves. $\endgroup$
    – NimRad
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 7:36
  • $\begingroup$ "That the wannabe independent colonies have free access to those weapons would require the central government to have given it in non suspect times," Not necessarily. The ideas of those weapons are very simple and given enough industrial capacity (and access to fissile material), building the nuclear bombs that fuels them is trivial. Both of these are a given with self-sustaining colonies $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Oct 5, 2023 at 8:17

It's not about the weapons... it's about the threat

I'm building on @L.Dutch's answer, which I upvoted.

Can those weapons be used to promote a cold war? You betcha! They pack enough punch to do the job. But the existence of the weapons alone does not make one a player in a cold war.

Cold wars exist when there is an destructive equality. If player #1 has the ability to destroy player #2 ten times over because they have hundreds of such weapons, but player #2 can only destroy (e.g.) one city because they have but one, we do not have and cannot have a cold war. Player #2 isn't a significant threat to player #1. Using the available number of weapons as a rough, one-dimensional measure of influence, such a people also wouldn't have the ability to engage in a proxy war.

Which means it's also an issue of how much territory a player is protecting. A single space station is trivially destroyed compared to an entire planet. That's one of many reasons why the only players in the US/USSR cold war were the two nations: no other nation (save, perhaps, China, but their involvement was complicated) had enough territory to make it difficult to destroy them. I frankly can't imagine a space station participating in a cold war with anything other than something equivalently sized. They'd not believably participate in a cold war with a planet. Unless you declare that the weapons are so small and cheap that the station can carry enough of them to destroy enough of the surface of the planet to consider the planet "destroyed." (You could argue that the space station could distribute weapons on asteroids or orbital platforms to increase their numbers, but then you have a problem defending all that disconnected territory. It's simply unbelievable.)

Which is a long way of explaining that it takes both the type of weapon and the quantity of those weapons to rationalize a cold war. It actually takes more than that as political influence within the region of the cold war must also exist. And an argument can be made that the destructive capability (measured by the number of weapons in this simplistic case) and political influence are both more important than the nature of the weapons themselves.

Like I said, it's not about the weapons. It's about the threat. You can't participate in a cold war if you're not a reasonably equivalent threat when compared to the other players, at least individually.

That last sentence is important. If you have ten players and player #1 is only a threat to player #2 but not to the other eight players, then player #1 will not have the power base necessary to sustain participation in a cold war. Player #1 would need to be a threat to each of the other nine players. And an argument could be made that for a 10-player cold war to exist it requires each individual player to have the ability to destroy all nine other players....

Which is all a really long way of saying there could never be a practical cold war between (e.g.) the U.S. and France. Even if humanity developed small enough, powerful enough, and cheap enough weapons that France could host enough to destroy the U.S., it's simply too small. One of the (many) reasons why the US/USSR cold war could exist is that missiles could be launched from anywhere within a massive landmass. It was technologically too hard to defend against so many weapons launched across such vast areas. But France? They'd all be launching from one location. That makes them a lot easier (read: cheaper, efficient...) to knock down.

Cold wars aren't really about the weapons. It's about the threat. And the basic situation you've described doesn't allow everyone you've described to believably participate.

  • $\begingroup$ I like the answer, it does clear up quite a few things! Though, i've edited the question a bit for clarity, which i should've done earlier to be honest- I've already commented under another answer that the conflict, if it went hot, would mainly take place in space, as the weapons can't be effectively used for surface-attacks anyway. So if push came to shove, it would be orbital stations/ships against other stations/ships. Which would even the playing-field a little bit. $\endgroup$
    – NimRad
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 15:34
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @NimRad That makes the space-based platforms the "weapons," not the weapons you've mentioned. They who have the most platforms over the greatest area represent the greatest threat. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ Kinda wrong IMHO. North and South Korea have been in a cold war since before NK had nukes. They were just able to destroy Seoul (one city, albeit THE South Korean City, with conventional artillery and that was enough $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Oct 5, 2023 at 8:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok You're holding a single-page answer to a pretty high expectation. What proxy wars were fought on behalf of either North or South Korea? I've read of a number of nation pairs throughout the world that were declared to be in a "cold war" when, actually, they simply weren't experiencing open hostilities. If you ratchet the definition down tight enough, two cities could be said to experience a "cold war" simply because they're competing for the same business but not sending their teens to toilet paper one another. I'm only focusing on the US/USSR as the obvious example. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Oct 5, 2023 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH I'm not holding the answer to a pretty high standard (regardless of it's length). The quality of the answer is good, but I disagree with the core statement that "destructive equality" is a requirement for a cold war. Remember that the US had several years before the Soviets hat even a crude nuclear bomb. Aka the IRL full scale cold war was already well underway BEFORE destructive equality was established. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Oct 5, 2023 at 15:51

If you consider your setting to be an 'upscale' of the USSR/US cold war at an interplanetary level, there is a crucial element I want to add to the previously given answers.

An important implication of the locality (I mean, local to a single planet) of the cold war conflict is : if the war ever fully breaks out and one of the participating parties gets nuked into oblivion, there will be catastrophic consequences for the attacker. Consider only the impact of the nuclear war on life on the planet, climate likely changing drastically, crops not growing, radiation clouds and life forms deformities. That's only a subset of the problems the party sending the missiles would have to deal with. For these reasons, going into a nuclear conflict seems like shooting yourself in the foot on many levels.

Now, that being said, taking this situation to a planetary scale, many of the previously discussed points simply do not apply. To present it more bluntly, in this case, the attacking party does not have to deal with the consequences of the conflict since there is no direct proximity.

So, in your setting, an open conflict seems more plausible, since the victorious party can just sit and watch their opponent dissolve into space dust from millions of miles away

  • $\begingroup$ This is generally true, but only if retaliatory strikes aren't likely. Yes, it would further delusions into the perfection of one's defense systems, but given how vast space is, retaliatory strikes could come from anywhere $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Oct 5, 2023 at 8:19

Cold War, whichever, in future or in the past, is a psychological thread, not for both (or more) sides but for us - people, who are forced to work more to "invest" more in the Reinforcements. Then, all those managers earn money because they research and produce (or not produce) armaments, so the people of both sides see they are good with their new weapons. The War itself leads to the same conclusions in modern era - they fight, loosing people, dedicated soldiers or "volunteers", but arms orders are fulfilled by both sides and paid for by citizens.

There's no reason that interplanetary war, or cold war, would not lead to the same situation. They, the leaders, have knowledge that fighting means loosing so many from their strong positions, wealth, goods etc, so they better tend to imitate that and being payed - for free. As simple as that! This "interplaneterism" in this case would lead to some different scale as we think of goods and wealth but all should stay nearly the same as we speak about out homo-sapiens, well known specie. Of course, time scale also would be quite stretched.

So answering that question, all kind of weapon could trigger that Cold War. The key thing is to keep the balance between both strengths to keep people's conviction the research is needed to be payed and go in the right direction.


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