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I want to have a setting for a thing I am doing set in a world with a three-way space race between countries X, Y, and Z. Each country has a space program roughly on par with the 1960s US and USSR. Detente between any two of the countries is very rare.

Having this in mind, I wanted to establish a good reason and way for how this setup could happen/what setting would be needed for this space race, in order to keep the story internally consistent.

My first thought for having this happening was a three-way cold war, but certain questions say that the arrangement would be too unstable.

I want to know what setup for three countries x, y, and z there could be to allow for them to have a space race where it is 1v1v1, meaning they don't become allies/gang up on one/make it a 2v1, and remain at least a little hostile towards both of their respective enemies.

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    $\begingroup$ Have you looked at the real world today? India, China and the US are all conducting and/or preparing for moon missions, with India's most recent lander being highly successful. Looking at their Earthside relations, China and the US are constantly squaring off against each other in trade and over Taiwan, China and India have had lethal melee confrontations over disputed territory on their border, while even India-US is frosty over India's refusal to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine. How is the real world today not the answer to your question? $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2023 at 23:51
  • $\begingroup$ I am looking for a space race between 3 superpowers(on par more with 60s US than 60s USSR), where hostility in space is a bigger factor, and sometimes actual attacks. Though India is making achievements I wouldn't say they are a dominant force in the space race, although even assuming they were, I think the bigger thing I'm looking for is how you could have conflict in space like I described and not have the conflict extend to the surface, since a hot war is not wanted and a cold war is unstable, and alliances are unwanted $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2023 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ This is actually 2 different questions if I'm understanding correctly. The 1st question is about 3-way balance of power, which is the focus of the linked question and, per my comment above, what IMO is actually happening today. The 2nd question is about how to keep a low-level space war from escalating - there are lots of essays on this topic since it is of huge interest to military, space and political planners. (General consensus is it is not possible because space asset = strategic asset.) I suggest you focus on one or the other. $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2023 at 0:13
  • $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 I edited the question to focus on why the race remains a 1v1v1, as opposed to 2 ganging up one 1, or them becoming neutral to one and more hostile to the other. $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2023 at 0:30
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    $\begingroup$ Do you want ONE (or perhaps few) station(s) deorbited because of something claimed to be an accident even if excuse is hollow, or do you want MANY stations visibly blown up in an act of war? Former is kind of doable in any setting even if not really realistic, latter requires people living underground because surface is a nuclear wasteland. $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2023 at 7:30

7 Answers 7

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No nukes, and it probably still won't work

The key problem here is that space assets are strategic assets. Nation states can accept losses of tactical assets - a certain number of military personnel, vehicles, aircraft and watercraft will be lost in training or even barracks duty - but the loss of a strategic asset weakens its entire military posture. Which means that border skirmishes can occur in which a couple or even a couple of dozen people are killed and the respective countries' populations will be angry but escalation to all-out war may not occur.

Strategic assets are different. Satellites provide a number of huge advantages to a nation state:

  1. Communications. Essential for command and control, satellites make communication over large distances, especially with mobile units such as naval vessesls, much easier than the alternatives. Command and control rely on a solid communications network - if someone targets your comsats then they are targeting your ability to coordinate your military, which is a strong indication that they are about to launch an attack. Assuming civilian use, then an attack on comsats is also an attack on your economy.
  2. Reconaissance and early warning. Especially since the advent of ballistic missiles, satellites are typically the first option for detecting the launch of long-range missiles. If another nation starts taking out your early warning network, it is a strong indication that their missiles will not be far behind.
  3. Weather prediction. The ability to accurately forecast the weather is vital for both military and civilian activities - history is full of disasters that could have been averted or lessened with greater foreknowledge of the weather. If someone starts taking out your weather satellites, they are targeting both your military and your economy.

The three types of satellites listed above are strategic assets because the loss of them degrades the entire nations' military and/or economy. They are also very expensive to launch, especially in the days before cubesats, making their loss a significant portion of the national and/or military budget. Attacking another nations' satellites is equivalent to attacking their national power grid, or mining their harbours, or spreading bioweapons through their crops - it is an act of war that will trigger a hot war. Especially if nuclear weapons exist, attacking comsats or early warning satellites is a primary indicator of a nuclear first strike with ICBMs. (Obviously, any country that can put assets into space can put them not-quite-into-space and build a ballistic missile.) So, an attack on space assets is likely to lead straight to nuclear war.

"Ah," you say, "but what if you only target the other country's equivalent of the Hubble Space Telescope? That is not a strategic asset the loss of which will result in nuclear armageddon." Well, maybe, but why? You may come out ahead monetarily - the Hubble-killer probably costs less than its target - but you are just showing that your nation is a group of vandals who may target the Great Pyramid and the Louvre Museum next. This will trigger exactly what is specified as being undesirable - the other nations will get together to stomp flat the vandal who is trying to burn the house down. At a minimum the nation targeted will stop building research satellites and switch to hunter-killers until they control Earth-equivalent orbit. Given that there is no stealth in space, it is not even feasible to try to false-flag attacks and blame someone else.

Where does that leave us? In order to have skirmishes in space that do not lead to full-blown war - regardless of the number of players - the following conditions must be met:

  1. Space travel must be cheaper than it is on Earth, cheap enough that all sides can afford to send up combat units that will be lost through attrition.
  2. There must be no weapons of mass destruction (almost impossible) or international rules that somehow make all nations completely confident that such would not be used by any of the other nations. I have no idea how that might occur.
  3. All nations are willing to live without satellite communications in order to keep Earth orbit an active war zone. Ditto for weather satellites.
  4. All nations with space assets gained capabilities at the same times and in the same quantities - otherwise one would have surged their forces forward and taken control of orbit. This situation somehow persists for decades.

Good luck developing the idea, but it seems implausible to me. Espionage in space is totally plausible, but once conflict starts, I cannot see three or even two equal-ish sides staying in the game, there will either be one or none (see Kessler Syndrome).

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  • $\begingroup$ False-flag attacks are very viable, even in space. Given what we know about misinformation it's very difficult to sort truth out. $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2023 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding condition (2): weapons of mass destruction. While building a ballistic missile is obviously within reach of a nation putting satellites in orbit... it does not immediately follow that nuclear missiles exist. Should the world where this occur lack uranium such that there's no nuclear anything, would there still be other weapons of mass destruction? Would the infamous "massive tungsten rod" fired from orbit be possible for 60s space tech (and how destructive would it be)? $\endgroup$ Oct 14, 2023 at 13:58
  • $\begingroup$ @MatthieuM. hency my "No nukes" in the heading to my answer - but in lieu of nukes, ballistic missiles could still have chemical or biological payloads. As for purely kinetic weapon payloads - big weapons will be damaging, but not to a city-destroying extent. The use for kinetic penetrators touted decades ago was for dropping bunches of "smart crowbars" to devastate armoured formations, but in practice it's almost impossible to sense targets through the plasma sheath in front of an orbital-speed projectile, so they are not precise enough for the intended application. $\endgroup$ Oct 14, 2023 at 16:49
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On Equilibria

A 3-way political equilibrium isn't actually a sustainable equilibrium any more than a 2-way political equilibrium is sustainable. Such systems don't remain stable without feedback loops to regulate and moderate function. You only need them to be "stable" over a period of time. That would be more believable.

A decaying but formerly glorious empire that had 2 rebellious satellites coming into power as the empire faded might be believable. That may be a basis for a 20-30 year period of "stability". You could even then posit some type of a rebirth or rejuvenation to the old empire at some point in it's decline, that would lead it back onto the stage.

The primary problem with human societies maintaining such equilibria is that there are 3-4 various large scale factors that can cause those societies to diverge rapidly in terms of effective power. Technological advancement, resource access, geographical advantages, and cultural norms and the impact on the population size and education. How do you put them into an equilibrium where they are at odds with each other, but those other 4 factors are somehow different, because they will be, but stable, and stable in 3 directions? That's really difficult.

The chaos of large scale social, knowledge driven human-like societies is going to make a long-term stability unlikely. You will have to continually expect a falling out of balance, and then solve the disequilibrium through some believable means. The means you use will have to fit the solution to believable narratives around human behavior and the laws of nature.

Is It Vital?

Is this political setting the point of the story? This setting of 3 political entities in some type of war-like equilibrium is either a device or a setting. Either your are using it to play out some thoughts about how things work, and explore potentials, or it's a backdrop to some other story within which your primary exploration/narrative will play out.

It might be useful to get clear on that, and see if that setting is so vital and necessary, or if another setting would suffice. If it is vital, and it's not the primary point of the narrative, perhaps you don't have to make it hyper-real and believable. Perhaps the reader will suspend critique in order to take the fantastical journey with you in order to engage the primary narrative and the exploration of potential your narrative presents for consideration.

Seeking an Answer...

I would look for complex systems where you have a triadic as opposed to a dyadic equilibrium, and then try to figure out how to transpose that equilibrium into the socioeconomic and political realm. I've never thought about looking for such an equilibrium, but it's possible that such exist.

It's more likely that you will find an dyadic equilibrium where you have a 3rd party that is technically in a relationship to the dyad, rather than in a balanced equilibrium with the other two.

Off the top of my head, a predator-prey relationship is a dyadic relationship, the scavenger relationship is a third to the dyad. Maybe... Anyways, just a thought about how to approach seeking a solution to the problem posed.

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Unreliable space communication, space is dangerous and threat of MAD on Earth

In most of history, where there are proxy-conflicts (which is essentially what you are talking about here) - there needs to be an element of deniability.

"Oh, these mercenary groups just butchered an entire village in location? Well, we didn't order such an attack! No we don't fund these groups! We only pay this reputable company any funds directly - if they then subcontracted out, we wouldn't have the same degree of control"

In short - if you want to have what happens in space to have little to no impact in what happens on the ground - you need a way for all sides to have enough plausible deniability:

  • Space combatants went rogue
  • They were fired on first
  • Strict stand-down orders were sent
  • It wasn't us, it was an unfortunate accident
  • We lost contact with the crew and can't regain comms.

This however, is not sufficient - because why would the other 2 superpowers have a vested interest in going along with various lies?

You need the threat of a greater conflict happening on earth to stop it from spilling over. You could do this via the old MAD strategy (whoever attacks first would get the other 2 retaliate - not talking an alliance, more like kicking an enemy when they are distracted).

There's also no reason why you couldn't have a 4th super-power on the earth that has no interest in Space exploration (due to cultural reasons) but would act very much like an Umpire if anything started to go down on Earth.

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    $\begingroup$ WWIII happened, all 'countries' are now factions, while the Enclave is over there on their oil rig pulling the strings. You guys are running around killing each other with AKs and you have a space program? Whatever. - Mutually assured, or no way to insure, either way +1. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Oct 13, 2023 at 20:10
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  • A three-way Cold War may be unstable, especially if it goes as violent as you describe, but it is plausible enough if you want to have it.
  • Space becomes something like a limited regional war in the real history. Soviet pilots operated Soviet MiGs over Korea against American forces, yet peace held along the Iron Curtain in Europe. That was because both sides came to a tacit agreement how the war would be fought -- no bombing across the Yalu, a few Soviet 'volunteers' instead of the whole Red Army.
  • Certain mutually understood and accepted limitations hold in space. No bombing of surface launch facilities, no attacks on 'clearly understood' major dual-use stations, but orbital fighters and smaller, military-use stations are fair game.
    'Dock an engine and deorbit' sounds impractical, by the way. Direct-ascent ASAT, co-orbital killer sats, debris clouds on intersecting orbits ... say A has a gun platform on some orbit, and B launches a mission which leaves a spent rocket stage on an orbit that will 'intersect' with the gun platform in a couple of weeks. They might even publish a warning, and force the gun platform to expend maneuvering fuel to get out of the way. (The spent stage is no longer maneuverable, of course.) Do that often enough, and the gun platform runs out of fuel.
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  • $\begingroup$ A spent rocket stage is virtually certain to miss the gun platform if thrown (and known) weeks ahead of time....unless those who threw it are lying about it being unguided and unmaneuverable. Successful evasion can basically be tucked into a line item on the stationkeeping budget. $\endgroup$
    – notovny
    Oct 13, 2023 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ @notovny, the idea was to use the rocket stage to make the station 'waste' the stationkeeping delta-V on evasion. The goal is not a hit, the goal is empty tanks. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Oct 14, 2023 at 6:16
  • $\begingroup$ The issue is the lead time. If you've got weeks of warning, even assuming that the unguided spent rocket could be thrown with enough precision to expect a hit, a nudge of less than 1 mm/s will generate a miss on a platform dozens of meters in size. A platform in LEO can count on getting changes in speed like that simply from exospheric resistance changes due to solar activity, without spending anything on stationkeeping. $\endgroup$
    – notovny
    Oct 14, 2023 at 13:50
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This sort of reminds me of the game Metal Fatigue. Where corporations are what run the place, not governments. Which gives me the idea, what if this space race was not between governments, but between corporations. As corporations, an expensive war would hurt their share prices, hurt their shareholders, etc. So any skirmish would never break out into real open conflicts. You would have acts of sabotage only.

And since these are corporations that are in theory not attached to the government (they probably are but plausible deniability) their space fighting wouldn't actually trigger a war.

It would be like if the big oil companies started attacking each others tankers.

This of course leads to mercenaries, privateers, etc. You have lots of real world examples to draw on.

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Creating the three-body problem

George Orwell based the three competing nations in 1984 on his earlier thoughts with regards to nuclear weapons as detailed in You and the Atom Bomb. Namely that the complexity of such weapons ensured that massive states would dominate as opposed to a scenario where small groups can pose huge threats. Of course, nuclear weapons introduce the problem that the world is less stable as one small event can lead to the destruction of entire nations or the human population itself. We need to have a situation where the three nations are in a military stalemate in which none of the participants can successfully invade or permanently damage either of their rivals.

One way to achieve this is to have the states separated by large oceans, and wield devastating short-range weaponry that can't be easily projected with no real alternatives.

  • Each state occupies a continent or archipelago with no land borders to a competing state.
  • A new sort of weapon is developed, such as a pure-energy Beam, that is devastating and extremely precise, but requires large and costly installations to operate. It has limited range.
  • The Beam can shoot down ICBMs and missile-loaded aircraft without cost or trouble, making traditional nukes only effective in skirmishes outside of the states.
  • Conventional naval invasion is all but impossible because large vessels, aircraft carriers, and boarding craft are all easily dispatched by land-based defensive Beam installations that cover every nook and cranny of the coastline.
  • Vessels can host Beams, but these portable installations are not large enough to reach land-based Beams before being vaporized.

Space: the final vaporizing frontier

The three states engage in a ruthless space race because it is the only way to project the Beam where it can level a rival nation.

  • Due to the meteorological makeup of the planet, the efficiency of solar power shoots up dramatically above the world's equivalent of the Kármán line. It is possible to power up a large scale Beam with light but nonetheless highly advanced solar installations that would be ineffective on the surface
  • The lack of atmosphere allows the Beam to reach critical mass otherwise impossible on the surface, which then removes the range constraint of the weapon allowing it to level all land-based Beam support from the vantage point of a large enough space installation. Some of you may fondly remember the GDI Ion Cannon from back in the day.
  • The three states are constantly trying to prevent the other two from building such a Critical Mass Station somewhere in orbit: if a state were to build a CMS-precursor and manage to power it up with a basic Beam, it would be game over for the other two as it would have gained an impregnable foothold in space and eventually the means to dominate by projecting Beam firepower.
  • The planet's atmosphere is constantly abuzz with firefights as the states try to navigate around their enemies and build up their own station. No skirmish leads to MAD as the states are stuck in a stalemate until one of them builds the end-game Beam station.
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    $\begingroup$ Dang - I thought of the 2v1 endless war in Orwell's 1984 as soon as reading this question's title in the HNQ. Basically as soon as any one party makes significant progress, they break from any partnership and go it alone. This leaves the other two sides to cozy up for a while and share some info, until one of them leapfrogs the solo side. Repeat. $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Oct 16, 2023 at 1:15
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Let's think of something that doesn't involve war

The Space Race here on Earth was driven by the cold war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Among other things, it was an important (and this is important) propaganda tool between the two nations as they jostled for dominance as the world's "super powers." Frankly, I suspect if you asked people not in either country back in the mid-1960s what they thought of the curious ballet the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were dancing, most would say something that translated to either "it scares the snot out of me" or "I wish those two would get over themselves." But let's move on.

It's possible to have an N-way cold war: it requires similar technological capabilities, manufacturing capabilities, espionage capabilities, and enough other countries to act as proxies for the fighting. But the more people you add to that stage, the less likely it will feel real. This is because the "world stage" is actually pretty small because alliances are formed and broken about as often as someone changes their underwear and it would be far too easy for two nations to gang up on the third by forming an alliance.

That means we need something to compel the space race that doesn't lend well to alliances on your planet. Wars tend to lead to alliances easily because the resources for and benefits of militaries are right here, right now.

So... let's think of something that doesn't require war (although it might lead to it, and that's half the (*cough*) fun). What we want is something that won't drive nations to alliances, which suggests a benefit to the race that's so overwhelming that an alliance would be deemed a weakness after the race is won.

There's something valuable in them thar moons!

It's 1960ish, but unlike here on Earth, your world doesn't yet have nuclear capability. You see, your world has a limited supply of useful uranium. It's been discovered, tests are being run, espionage shows that your three players are pretty much neck-and-neck in the race for nuclear power.

And then some enterprising scientist in a small country publishes in an international science journal that he knows where all the uranium is! It's in the moons! Said idiot scientist postulates that there was once one moon, but it was hit by a meteor that caused it to break apart (slowly...), causing some of the moon's material to fall to the planet — which is where the uranium came from.

If he's like a math professor I know (one of the kindest men you'll ever meet in your life!) he's a bit involved with his work, and he didn't think any more about what that article would do to international politics than he thought about where he parked his car that morning.

The race is on!

Your three nations now have a reason to invoke a space race — and it can involve all of the tension of a "traditional" (if that word makes sense) cold war without having weapons of mass destruction at-hand. Whomever gets to enough uranium to develop a nuclear program (and nuclear weapons!) first wins the race.

Best of all, because technology (unlike ICBMs) is easily stolen via espionage, it's rational to believe the three nations can keep pace with one another without resorting to alliances. Oh, alliances may exist, but they're poker chips, trading cards if you will, pieces to be moved around the chessboard. So long as the technology and manufacturing abilities of the three nations remain reasonably equal, you can rationalize no alliances that would tilt the balance of power away from the number three, so long as we have one more thing....

Why more than one moon?

I thought about the efficacy of having just one moon, but from the perspective of building your societies, a single moon would too easily lead to the belief that whomever lands a "peacekeeping" force on that one moon first wins the race. I felt that for the development of your civilizations, it was too militaristic and would cause the associated economies and industries needed to facilitate the space race to be too driven by the industrial-military complex. That would lead too quickly (IMO) to either creating a very real cold war or, worse, a fully-fledged war too easily. For the race to have time to complete, you need a balance of power on your planet that isn't too militaristic in nature.

So I'm advocating a principally economic solution. The race isn't about weapons (yet), notably because convincing the public of that kind of expense just for weapons your opponents don't have (without the necessary war or threat of war to drive it) would be a pretty hard sell. On the other hand, the burgeoning nuclear power industry here on Earth promoted energy too cheap to meter along with promises of everything from cheap desalination (ibid.) to nuclear cars. In other words, the economic benefits would be (and, historically on Earth, were) accepted by the tax-paying public.

Worldbuilding Summary

  1. Rather than a military cold war, I'm promoting an economic cold war.
  2. Use an industry that, in the 1950-1960 time frame on Earth, promoted something remarkable and misunderstood, but could be limited by a terrestrial resource.
  3. Place that limited resource somewhere in space that's attainable using 1960s-level technology. That's pretty much gotta be a moon.
  4. Use more than one location in space to promote a race that can be "won" without resorting immediately to military force — but not so many that military force can't become an issue later in the race.
  5. The "winner" of the race is the nation that becomes the preeminent economic superpower.

My use of nuclear energy and uranium is story building. You could use something else such as aluminum to bolster the airline industry or radium for medical. Unfortunately, we have a lot of history with nuclear power, so it's low-hanging fruit. (And it gives you the option of becoming the preeminent military superpower.)

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