|Earth to Orbit Weaponry Take 2
|Thu, 29 Jun 2000 08:19:37 -0700
is the full version.
Well, its going to come up sooner or later when Year of the Comet starts to
make waves on the Shadowrun scene so lets see some peoples opinions on this.
If just from an role-playing angle the capabilities of the Shadowrun world
to knock objects out of orbit should be explored to some degree. Now, in
canon there is little to no evidence of extant ASAT capabilities enjoyed by
any major party. Orbital bombardment weapons are another matter since the
ever-popular THOR kinetic kill weapons have been used by at least one
But any discussion of earth-to-orbit weapons should really concentrate on
what seems to intrigue everyone when it comes up - that of blowing
Zurich-Orbital out of the sky.
Personally I don't see why this is not out of the realm of possibility. Here
you have a station in fairly low LEO orbit following a well-known orbital
path thats been known since the late 1990's (so about 70 years). It's also
operated by an organization that is probably hated by a good amount of the
worlds population and governments. It's also relatively defenseless (unless
FASA postulates magical levels of defensive capability) and its destruction
would have far-reaching impact (not the least of which is killing off a lot
of people hiding out on the station). My bias should be fairly obvious but
I'll do my best to be objective.
Now, let's approach this by areas. I'll break it down into: Technology,
Motive, Defense, and Backlash.
The capability exists today to knock satellites and orbital constructs out
of LEO. Now, things get considerably more difficult once you move beyond
that orbit since the physical means to reach that location are great -
meaning your ground-based unit is going to be very large, very noisy, and
take a long time to reach the target. I've read military reports on the
viability of ASAT weapons so lets break it down like they do. As much as
possible references to extant technologies in SR3 will be used to the
exclusion of SR2 or 1 since we can't rely on those references remaining
Tracking space objects can be broken down into three general categories:
optical, radar, and SIGINT.
Optical tracking stations can be quite small and are virtually impossible to
locate, track, or identify conclusively. Since we can presume that the major
targets of opportunity in SR are easily visible from the ground (Z-O will
have features visible to those using conventional telescopes) then we can
also presume all major belligerents will have the capability to track such
orbital facilities with optical mechanisms. Simple "painting the station
black" are pretty simplistic and won't work anyways. Something like
ruthenium might be more useful but it seems unlikely to be used in any
quantity nor is it guaranteed to be sucessful against an determined opponent
using other means of location. Romulan cloaking devices do not exist in SR
and you can't use the simple expedient of magic so that eliminates most
Part of this is because most major nations can be assumed to have some
measure of ballistic missile defense networks set up that can also be used
to track orbital targets. With the general collapse of most nations in the
early 2000s proliferation of various BMD systems can not only be assumed it
should be expected. Although not all systems will be designed for space
tracking even late 1990-era systems typically have some level of capability
in the area and with the militarization of space evidenced by Ares deploying
orbital bombardment systems and the establishment of a defensive grid around
Z-O we can all assume that such uses will become much more critical. For
this reason it is quite logical to extend current developments and
capabilities to presume most BMD radar systems have the capability to track
The SIGINT threat is a major one, especially since stations such as Z-O must
have some level of emissions just to operate as stated. Although much
traffic will be via laser and microwave that does not preclude location via
those means or through the everyday radio transmissions that would be part
of normal station ops. This can be accomplished completely passively from
any location where the units broadcast footprint would fall on the planets
The technology exists today of jamming the uplink communications to orbital
constructs even up to GEO. These jamming systems are mobile and by 2060
would be small enough to fit into a single vehicle such as a van or small
transport helicoptor. These systems would have the capability to essentially
cut off a constructs communications to its ground stations. And in the case
of important commsat relays this could have extensive effects on a regional
level. GPS systems are typically jammed from local jamming signals that
"spoof" the GPS signal or degrade it to unusable levels.
This is done today, and is typically conducted for political reasons and
extended to Shadowrun it is not unreasonable to assume periodic jamming
attacks against corporate satellite constellations for purposes of PLTG
Transmitting false command sets to a satellite is another part of uplink
jamming but is extensively more difficult then text in VR2 would have you
believe. Aside from encryption, specialized data formats, and various
fact-checking routines it would require an extensive support framework to
accomplish. I won't even get into crosslink jamming since that gets into
even more implausible territory.
This is the attempt to deny a groundside user access to a satellite system.
Platforms conducting downlink jamming will most likely be on UAVs or other
mobile systems due to LOS restrictions on UHF transmissions. Other uses for
these systems include disrupting air-ground communications and with SR-level
microminiaturization of jamming systems it is not unlikely to presume a
platform with multiple jammers .
The threat for this is negligable in Shadowrun.
Physical Destruction: ASAT
ASAT weapons fall into a few general categories: low-altitude short-duration
orbital interceptors, low-altitude direct-ascent interceptors, and
high-altitude short-duration interceptors.
A low-altitude short-duration orbital interceptor is launched into a
temporary parking orbit from which it attacks a low-altitude target
(typically LEO). Both air and ground launched packages are viable with
todays technology and would be considerably more economical with SR tech.
A low-altitude direct-ascent interceptor is launched from a booster into a
suborbital trajectory that directly intercepts a low-altitude (LEO and
perhaps MEO) target. No parking orbits are involved. Both ground- and
air-launched interceptors are possible in Shadowrun.
A high-altitude, short-duration interceptor is launched into a parking orbit
from which it attacks a high-altitude (including GEO and HEO) target.
Intermediate parking orbits may be required in order to engage some targets.
Ground-launched interceptors are entirely possible.
Physical Destruction: Directed Energy Weapons
There are three major types of directed-energy weapon systems: laser,
radio-frequency, and neutral particle beam weapons. If located on ground or
air platforms they can conceivably only target LEO targets with any degree
Ground based lasers will likely be limited to targeting optic systems on the
orbital constructs since the difficulty of getting hard (structural or
thermal) kills prevents them from being economical.
Airborne lasers are more viable and will likely have beam outputs in the 2-3
MW range with the capability to get hard kills (and most likely also perform
Space-based laser weapons are entirely possible (and likely widely deployed
in SR) with beam outputs of about 100kW or more.
A radio-frequency weapon is a type of DEW that uses RF energy to upset or
damage the electronics of a target. RF weapons would emit short pulses of RF
energy (1-10 GHz) with power levels of hundreds of megawatts to tens of
gigawatts. The primary distinction between RF weapons and more conventional
EW systems is that RF weapons actually affect the electronics and not just
the electronic environment, thereby causing temporary or permanent
electronics failure that persists even after the RF beam has been turned
off. RF weapons will mainly target receiver systems with in-band HPM
radiation or computer systems with ultrawideband impulses.
Neutral particle beam weapons are only usable from space platforms but are
entirely deployable since technically there is little difference between a
NPB and CPB systems such as that used by the ANDREWS.
Of course the technology exists to knock Z-O or other choice orbital tidbit
out of orbit but why would anyone want to? Who would DARE strike at the
unassailable corporate overlords of the Shadowrun world and risk
destabilizing the nuyen? Well, a lot of people.
By and large there is little reason to assume that a major nation in
Shadowrun would back an operation to blow away a major orbital installation.
The government could weather anything the corps could throw at them,
especially if the target was Z-O and the corps suddenly find themselves in a
whole world of hurt. But since the corps are so intertwined with the major
governments that would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face. If
the governments really wanted to mess with the corps they could rescind all
extraterritorialityor something similar.
By major governments I mean the UCAS, CAS, JIS and Aztlan. The NAN nations,
the Tirs and the like do not qualify in my opinion.
These include the various NAN states, the Tirs, England, and other advanced
but second-rate countries. They are typically fairly stable and have heavy
investment from the local megacorps. The risk of a small government
attacking orbital assets on its own is minimal, and given the often obvious
corporate ties they don't even make good patsies for attacking rival
These are the nations of Shadowrun where the rulers change on a daily basis
and coup d' etat is the primary form of changing rulers. Whether corp-backed
or the local equivalent of policlub supported these nations are dangerously
unstable. It is entirely possible that a nation on the verge of collapse
from corp-supported rebels would use any available ASAT weapons to strike
one last blow. Or even perform such an act entirely on its own to strike at
the "capitalist pigdogs" or whatever euphaism is used. With the corps
casually screwing with anyone who gets in there way it is entirely possible
that they have trampled on the wrong toes in a small country who has the
technical capability to purchase ASAT weaponry. Another possible line of
thought is a small nation set up to be a patsy for an corp to strike at a
rivals facilities but for one reason or another uses its new toys on the
The corps are a convenient scapegoat for many groups. In some cases the
corps actually are at fault while in others they are merely straw-men. But
in all cases the corps are reviled and hated, and any means justify their
destruction. From eco-terrorists such as Terrafirst! and Greenwar to humanis
splinters eager to strike at the "mutie-lovin'" corpers there is no end to
the desire to strike a blow, any blow, against the corps. And what better
target then those right overhead, polluting the night sky?
These groups will be unswayed by political or economic considerations and
are the most likely organizations to strike at the most valuable targets -
the various LEO assembly facilities and even Z-O itself (not to mention OTV
Since most organized anti-corporate/government groups can be assumed to some
greater or lesser degree such an action would likely be performed either by
a splinter group of a larger organization or by an opportunistic group who
suddently finds itself in possession of the necessary gear and who cannot be
tracked in time. Depending on the group they may either attempt blackmail or
simply fire at the closest target.
Typically shadowrunners fall under the "terrorist" grouping since for the
most part shadowrunners are just poorly organized terrorist groups. It is
doubtful a shadowrunner group could acquire the necessary equipment without
being located and stopped since they lack standard terrorist and insurgent
group security features such as a cell system. The pricetag for an
earth-to-orbit weapon system would also place it beyond the reach of a
typical shadowrunner group.
Defending against an ASAT threat is no small feat. The sheer physics of
attempting to stop projectiles and beam weapons travelling at thousands of
miles per hour is stunning. Throw in various counter-countermeasure systems
and it is hard task for an orbital defender.
The simplest and most effective countermeasure is to prevent proliferation
of such technology to begin with. There is some evidence that this has been
done in Shadowrun since there is no evidence of battlefield missile defense
systems being deployed in any numbers. However, leftover ASAT weaponry from
the EuroWars (where it seems logical they were deployed in great numbers)
may still be available and corporate research is probably still ongoing on
various platforms to engage their opponents platforms "just in case." The
most likely contenders for active space weaponry research are Ares and
However, antiproliferation is only so effective, and in the case of LEO
facilities "homebrew" ASAT weapons are still a threat. As far back as the
1970s there were various plans and research done into modified sounding
rockets and homebuilt rockets for carrying a simple payload into orbit
(typically passive weapons such as metal shards to be dropped in the
constructs path). These systems cannot be easily detected at launch unless
there is a truly magical level of Shadowrun sensor technology but their
payloads likely can be, especially if they drop objects in the constructs
path. Direct assent impact projectiles are perfectly feasable in Shadowrun
but would likely be easier to counter.
In particular a high-value construct will likely have an extensive radar
tracking network and various defense systems such as "brilliant pebble"
antimissile systems and DEW weapons for point-target engagement. Elimination
of passive objects in the constructs path are an different issue and
significantly harder to counter, especially if non-radar reflective objects
are deployed. However, it is not unreasonable to assume the station could
locate the residual fragments from the launch vehicle or that satellites in
the same orbital path as the station will encounter the passive weapons
before the target station - in which case the station could possibly perform
emergency orbit changes until the debris is cleared.
Brilliant pebble systems are essentially a boost package with a tiny warhead
and an advanced sensor package. They will be directed from the platform in
question and will be vectored in through the constructs own targeting and
tracking system. The pebble will boost at several dozen G's towards the
target and likely deploy various systems to destroy the target, ranging from
simple impact to deplying nets or objects to degrade the assending weapons
guidance. Some pebbles could also be nuclear tipped but this seems unlikely.
DEW systems are another measure and in space could be very effective. Their
biggest problem is that they are typically incapable of effectively
penetrating the atmosphere/space boundry without obscene amounts of power
and effective space-based particle beams cannot do so at all. They will be
deployed much as pebbles are, with even fast target acquisition and
engagement times. It is not unreasonable to assume that all ASAT systems
have some measure of protection against DEW systems, such as rapid rotation,
aerosol deployment, or ablative layers.
Armoring an orbital construct is usually a laughable proposition unless its
built into a planetoid o something similar. Not only will a usful amount of
armor weigh dozens or even hundreds of tons it is still no guarantee of
safety since it is impossible to armor important systems on a construct such
as the solar cells or antennas.
Passive defense measures can of course be employed and this includes such
things as painting the bottom of the stations black. Of course this is a
futile task since it does not mask the distinctive "gleam" of constructs as
light strikes their solar panels nor does it impede any professional effort
to track the construct visually or on radar. Some type of radar reflective
or absorbing material is also an option, but the sheer difficulty of hiding
anything against the background of space also makes that a fairly untenable
countermeasure, especially if the builders still want a somewhat efficient
station (hiding the thermal output of such an station borders on the
Periodic orbital changes are a possibility but are of dubious use against
any ASAT system, not to mention such a change could have fatal consequences
in as crowded an orbital environment as LEO.
Against lasers there is little threat of physical destruction (unless from
another space-based system) and most optics will be easily replacable in
case of blinding damage. Hard thermal damage can be mitigated with
reflective aerosols or surface coatings on the station itself.
The best countermeasures for an orbital construct are to either move higher
up the orbital well or somehow prevent from being shot at in the first
place. In the case of Z-O the threat of corporate relatiation and social
instability are the biggest deterrants. Of course, its easily accessible
location and importance makes it probably the #1 target opportunity for
anyone thinking of using an ASAT. The fact that the station and othe
rimportant LEO targets have not been targeted for destruction is due to the
demands of the story and not any technical or philosophical restriction on
those who want to blow it away. Retaliation means absolutely nothing to
fanatics and finding a terrorist cell responsible for such an action could
feasably be impossible since an ASAT can be deployed from almost anywhere,
requires minimal to no technical knowledge, and could have been backed by
In many cases destroying an orbital facility would be an act of war.
However, depending on the treaties and government in question a claim of
national territory could be applied to the space "Above" a country. Since
obviously the UN protocols related to space are null and void it is not
unreasonable to assume that nations could assert "territorial claims" on the
aerospace above their countries. In particular, Aztlan and the Tirs would
probably back up a "clear skies" policy with ASAT weaponry. Other countries
may well follow suit and ban such items as reconnaissance satellites from
overflying their territory and blow away any that are identified as such.
Destruction of a major orbital construct at the hands of a rogue nation or
terrorist would have two far reaching impacts. For one police agencies would
immediately step up anti-proliferation efforts and attempt to trace where
the equipment came from (based on analysis of any weapon fragments
recovered). Focus will be on the location of launch on the assumption that
the group was from the local area. In most cases this will likely be
correct. The second major effect would be further miliaterization of the
orbital arena. Although of dubious usefuless it stands to reason the other
major LEO facilities would get upgraded defensive systems and some sites
would potentially be moved to higher orbit if the threat was deemed severe
enough (multiple installations hit).
The oft-mentioned corporate reprisal for destruction of the Z-O or similar
facility would likely be great, with the entire Corporate Court backing any
location attempts. Of course this assumes that the destruction was not
corporate backed by a member of the Court to begin with or that the people
who conducted the action care anyways. If the group responsible could care
less if they are cought or what happens to their families because it is for
The Cause (many religious and insurgent groups would display such attitudes)
then the corps and governments can only react. They will unlikely be able to
cow further attempts against installations since the first groups will
become martyrs. some terrorist groups may even be able to remain
undiscovered if they are careful enough, surveillance and target tracking
are not so advanced in Shadowrun that it is impossible to not be tracked.
Obviously in most games the gamemaster will mandate corporate response (no
matter how implausible) but outside of the player characters it is entirely
possible (but not likely) that a group could strike against LEO facilities
and remain undiscovered.
Various magical spells such as Vehicle Mask or spirit powers could be used
to conceal an projectile ASAT weapon until it leaves the manasphere, giving
target installations very little time (measured in seconds) to respond.
Spirit movement powers can also "boost" an ASAT to great height and could
even essentially replace aircraft for air lauches (though the ASAT itself
would have to be smarter).
With the examples of Shadowrun laser technology already seen a ground based
blinding ASAT system could be mounted in a mobile platform as small as a
truck and likely have target engagement times of several minutes at a time
(with SR energy cell densities).
There's a war out there, old friend, a world war. And it's not about who's
got the most bullets, it's about who controls the information. What we see
and hear, how we work, what we think, it's all about the information!