Thursday, April 23, 2009

Pirates in SPAAACE !!! - Reconsidered

Somali pirates did not put to sea to further the cause of space opera, but space opera is an unintended beneficiary of their depradations, because we now have an excuse to reconsider a time honored trope: space piracy. Reread this recent post, and this older one. I have usually distinguished hard SF (and retro-hard rocketpunk) from space opera, but of course it is nearly all space opera at heart, no matter how well we tart it up with realistic details. And because we do want to tart it up, we can look to the waters off Somalia for lessons.

Apart from piracy as such, one of my commenters brought up another traditional form of malfeasance at sea, barratry, a name given to many crimes, the one of special SF interest being scuttling a ship to cover theft of its cargo. As I noted in the comments, this is an eminently practical space crime, indeed one that could already have been committed. If a commercial space launch blows up or sends its payload into the Indian Ocean, who knows if there was really a satellite aboard? (For that matter a launch sabotaged by commercial rivals surely also counts as barratry.)

One form of space piracy is a first cousin of barratry. If you can divert cargo spacecraft onto orbits to nowhere, under the right conditions you can divert one to Port Royal. Unlike barratry, there's no concealing this crime, no uncertainty whether a crime was committed, and you know the address of the receiver of stolen merchandise. How you serve a warrant is another matter, but like barratry this sort of piracy is a white collar crime and requires an insider.

What about 'real' piracy – forcible hijacking of spacecraft? The strategic lesson of Somalia piracy is a timeless one: It thrives along lawless coasts. And the first tactical lesson is that real pirates don't fly the Jolly Roger. The traditional image of space pirates striking out of the interplanetary vastness is unlikely, because a pirate ship on a nonstandard orbit is declaring itself to the entire solar system, putting potential victims on alert and giving any patrol force weeks to respond. Pirates will strike in crowded space, where their mother ships are indistinguishable from a host of civil craft.

Contrary to SF tradition, the asteroid belt makes a lousy pirate lair. It is vastly too big, a billion kilometers across, its shipping lanes likewise farflung. But since space piracy is brazen wherever you commit it, why not Earth orbital space? This will surely be the most crowded part of space for centuries to come, and the first to have a shadow side. Given hundreds of spacecraft, many in similar orbits, and a steady flow of inter-orbit shuttle craft moving among them, we have suitable physical conditions for brazen piracy. Distances in Earth orbital space are hundreds of times greater than in the waters off Somalia, and the Space Patrol can't be everywhere.

Boarding in space has its challenges. You can't board a spacecraft simply by bringing a small craft alongside and scrambling up a line – or can you? The defenders can easily jam the airlock, and cutting your way in is difficult, at minimum requiring costly specialized equipment. But pirates don't have to break into the pressure cabin to threaten passengers and crew, and effectively hold them hostage. Cut the power supply, disable the radiators – technically sophisticated pirates might even be able to hotwire the propulsion system and divert the ship without needing to directly overpower the crew.

Future versions of Captain Phillips will improvise 'nonlethal' means of defense. Evasive maneuver is a classic means of defense; attitude thrusters might also be used as fire hoses to keep boarders at bay. Putting defensive armament on civil spacecraft will be problematic for all the same reasons it is today.

The real challenge for our orbital pirates is not making captures, but where to take them. Pirates need a Port Royal, a place where the art of asking no questions trumps orbital mechanics. So why doesn't the Space Patrol simply blast it out of orbit? That is where politics come in. In rocketpunk days the default assumption was a Federation, a 'sole superpower' taken to the max. No room there for Port Royal, not in Earth orbit, not in the Kuiper Belt.

Remove the Federation and things aren't so easy. Take your pick of a Patrol paralyzed by dysfunctional legalism, or rival national patrols paralyzed by dysfunctional mutual antagonism – save, perhaps, a tacit mutual agreement that Port Royal is worth more as an intelligence-gathering asset than as blasted wreckage. Mix in whatever combination and stir to taste. The conditions needed for organized orbital piracy may be unlikely, but where commerce is rich but authority weak or uncertain, it could happen.

Lurking beyond piracy are questions about space warfare. I have been in the school of thought that sees space combat as dominated by the laws of physics and the vastness of space, where 'everyone sees everything,' and battles are fought by automated systems engaging each other at Stupendous Range. But what if real space conflicts end up happening in crowded space, where at Stupendous Range you can't easily distinguish hostile forces from civilian craft including friendly ones?

How things play out in those conditions could be very different – more complex, and because of the human element more interesting than robotic battles fought in the middle of nowhere.


Carla said...

Close-quarters conflict, crowded conditions, difficulty telling friend from foe until it's too late, possibly a messy political situation and divided loyalties. Your scenario looks like a rich seam of plot and story :-)

Are your orbital pirates vulnerable on the way to space-Port Royal? If it's some distance from Earth orbit, would a ship being taken there be on a non-standard trajectory, and would that be obvious to the Space Patrol (or whatever)? If so, does it follow that your pirates have to have a way of making the hostages' lives dependent on the pirates' continuing survival? This is easy if the pirates and hostages are in the same craft; if Space Patrol destroy the craft they kill the hostages along with the pirates. But if the pirates don't actually board the cargo ship, just capture it by hot-wiring its propulsion system or whatever, does this mean that Space Patrol can devise a way of destroying the pirate ship while leaving the captive ship intact? A sort of small but highly accurate torpedo, perhaps - do those work in space, and what would the pirates do about them?

I was going to say that your orbital pirates would also have a problem in profitably disposing of their ill-gotten cargoes, since anyone could see and track a ship leaving Port Royal and arrest it whenever and wherever it tried to sell its stolen cargo. But this might not be an issue if the main profit is in hostage-taking and ransoms rather than the value of the stolen ship and cargo per se. In which case, the most profitable targets for space pirates (hijackers?) would logically be passenger rather than cargo craft, as this gives you more hostages to ransom.

Rick said...

Things do get wonderfully messy when humans are involved.

And yes, vulnerability en route to Port Royal is a problem. The general solution, if you can't conveniently board the prize, is to keep in close formation with the capture.

Precision missiles/torpedoes are certainly possible, and lasers can potentially have ultra precise aim. But so long as only one patrol ship is in position to engage at a given moment, the pirate can position himself 'behind' the capture. The pirates might also attach a mine with a 'dead man' switch - blow up the pirate and the mine goes off.

The Somali pirates depend on ransoming crews and ships, but fencing off stolen merchandise might be possible. If the legal framework is weak enough, legitimate or semilegitimate cargo may also pass through Port Royal, and how do you prove that a given outbound cargo is previously stolen goods?

The underlying requirement is that the shipping industry regard piracy losses as cheaper than paying for enough hugely expensive Space Patrol ships to clean up the spaceways - and perhaps cheaper than opening their own books to prying official eyes.

Jim Baerg said...

"The underlying requirement is that the shipping industry regard piracy losses as cheaper than paying for enough hugely expensive Space Patrol ships to clean up the spaceways - and perhaps cheaper than opening their own books to prying official eyes."

So, no space piracy in David Brin's "transparent society"

Rick said...

I had to google that, but to answer the question - not necessarily. Unwillingness to pay for a patrol force might still be enough to make piracy viable.

In space conditions, a degree of transparency is nearly a given - there's no sneaking in and out of Port Royal by night or fog. But no surveillance technology will see what its operators choose not to notice. I could see 'transparency' leading to a wink & nod culture.

Anonymous said...

As far as pirates getting the 'drop' on a passenger vessel in orbit; your generic OTV (that looks like a thousand others) suddenly, or leasurely, scoots up to your trans-lunar transport and some guys in heavy-duty construction space suits squrt over to your ship and attach some commercial shaped-charges to various sections of your hull. They then tell you to let them on board; when you do, they take control and the OTV leaves, to go about its business. If the half dozen Space Patrol ships are busy shadowing each other (national politics) or inspecting the friaghters from Mars (Customs and Drug Enforcement)or tracking some asteroid (Navigation Hazard Abatement), they then miss the whole thing. By the time someone notices that the transport is NOT headed for Lunar orbit, but is actually on its way to L-4 (Port Royal) it may be too late to stop and board it.
The American and Russian Space Patrols may be more professional and more agressive then say, the Non-Aligned States Space Patrol, but they can't be everywhere. As I've said before, you can tell a lot from a ship's drive flare and acceleration charateristics, but you can't determine the content or intentions of the crew from those facts. To further confuse things, sometimes ships change destinations due to reasons not apparent to the world at large.
If the government of L-4 Port Royal dosen't allow the 'taking' from certain nations or multinational companies, and even provide some 'kick-backs', then Port Royal may be untouchable (if things don't get too annoying to the rest of the various players in space commerice), at least from a political standpoint. As Rick said, things DO get messy when humans are involved. As far as the carefully orchastrated flow of interplanetary travel imagined during the 'golden age' of SciFi, I doubt that logical construction will be high on the list of criteria as space travel evolves and government entities strugle to keep up with the rapidly growing complexity of interplanetary travel and commerice.

Rick said...

The one part of this scenario that might not work out well for the pirates is the pirate ship (OTV) 'going about its business.' Once the act of piracy is committed, the pirate ship has in effect hoisted the Jolly Roger by revealing its intent, and the only safe place for it is in close company with its prize. If it goes off on its own, Patrol ships finally have a clean shot for their fancy long range weaponry.

Once they get back to Port Royal, the pirate ship can be 'laundered' and return to service under a different registration. Again some wink & nod is required.

No doubt this whole situation is unstable; if piracy gets out of hand, there will finally be some sort of crackdown, such as putting Port Royal under quarantine, backed up by Patrol blockade.

As an alternative scenario, when things get out of hand Port Royal gets proactive and goes legit, perhaps establishing its own Patrol to clean out freelancers. Set a thief to capture a thief!

Anonymous said...

I hadn't thought about the OTV 'going about its business' getting shot up and/or boarded after it delivered its 'cargo' of pirates, but you're probably right. Centuries ago, Jamaica was once a center of piracy and eventually did just as you suggest would happen to our future Port Royal; go legit or have its patrons withdraw their support and protection. Of course, if the OTV was just a 'robot-for-hire' type, then it may not really be worth shooting it up or even boarding it...the owners wouldn't know who was going to reprogram it after they rented it out for what they thought was legimate commerice..or, at least, they could claim they thought that.

Ian Moulding said...


There is no Space Patrol. There is a single overarching Federation that controls space, be it the UN or whatever, but Earth is just as heavily balkanized as it is today. The space-controlling Federation acts as a proxy for the collective efforts of the nations that back it. This sort of situation depends on all the great powers of the era wanting to avoid an arms race in space while still having access to the resources of space.

The Federation's main job is to license large corporations to exploit space resources. It also runs a ships registry, provides technical licenses for ship crews, and other administrative tasks, but its main job is to collect fees and taxes from the corporations.

Some of these corporations are owned outright by national governments, others are nationally-owned through shell companies, and some are privately owned. There's a real mix of competing interests out there. All of these companies have private security, mainly to protect their assets from corporate espionage and disgruntled employees but also because there are a lot of expensive assets floating around with no central authority to guard them.

And in this setting it's also common for small highly maneuverable craft to approach larger craft. The corporations don't trust important data to broadcast media, and tightbeam communications can be intercepted by virtual-antennae nanoclouds without totally blocking the beam (Technobabble and handwavium in one sentence!). Pirate craft look just like couriers and packet ships, and if you bribe the right person at the security firm you can even get the proper approach codes.

Earth-Moon space and the busy Lagrange points are good places to approach a victim. Depending on how developed the setting is the Jupiter and Saturn systems might also have a piracy problem. There might also be enough traffic around Earth-Mars cyclers to support piracy:

A pirate base could be a station, cycler, or transfer vehicle owned by a supposedly legit company. Said company is actually backed by a national intelligence agency, coalition of companies, or other backer. Whatever the backer is, it can have a variety of motives - Disrupting a rival's activities, capturing a key piece of information or technology, or distracting attention from some other activity. And there can be multiple pirate havens, all backed by different players.

And no one nation on Earth can take any large-scale actions against piracy. There are too many interests at stake. It would take a majority of the great powers acting in (relative) cooperation to change the system without sparking a war. As long as piracy stays small, it will remain a valuable tool for the corporate and national players in space.

It's an unstable situation, but unstable situations make for fun story backdrops.

Anonymous said...

And just to further confuse things, there will probably be pirates (criminals) and privateers (backed by Letters of Reprisal and Marquee); which is which are closely held secrets.

Ian Moulding said...

Thinking about it, the term 'piracy' and romantic images of the age of sail are probably part of why 'hard' SF writers dismiss the idea of space piracy. The image invoked is one of a pirate ship approaching a victim on the high seas, far from help where no one can see what's happening... But in space everyone knows there's no such thing as stealth*.

Replace the term 'piracy' with 'hijacking'. Cargo vehicles are hijacked on a regular basis in the Western world, on brightly light streets and highways, with GPS broadcasting their positions.

* Part of the problem is that a lot of people confuse the ideas of strategic stealth (The inability to hide large-scale maneuvers) with tactical stealth (The ability to misdirect sensors or break target locks for a few seconds). And there's a lot you can do with strategic misdirection. Just look at the build-up to D-Day.

Rick said...

Ian - I like that scenario. Easy to imagine an International Space Authority that doesn't really have much authority. In this situation the Patrol is likely to be mainly an emergency rescue organization, and even if their craft have some armament, how many ships do they have? Even Earth orbital space is a big place, let alone the rest of the Solar System.

Mars orbital space, Jupiter space, cyclers - anywhere with lots of traffic and no strong overarching authority. If authority is blurred enough you can also get the ambiguities Ferrell mentions. Whether a particular grab is piracy, privateering, or official arrest can depend on perspective!

Our familiar image of piracy definitely produces misleading preconceptions! Truth to be told, even most Golden Age piracy was by small craft operating near lawless coasts. Big quasi-warships like the Black Pearl were very much the exception. William Kidd's Adventure Galley was a similar ship. (The filmmakers perhaps had her in mind - I was impressed that they showed her using oars!) But Kidd was a highly ambiguous character, and Adventure Galley was actually an antipirate design.

In space, though, I suspect that even grand scale piracy - AKA irregular warfare - will happen in crowded space, not out in the middle of nowhere.

The comment about stealth is very well taken. Anyone remember Heinlein's Between Planets? The Venus rebels send troops aboard commandeered space liners to seize Circum-Terra space station. That is a perfectly viable operation, and can as easily be piratical as military - or have elements of both.

Ian Moulding said...

Can't sleep. Ideas got me.

1 - I think we just found the viable setting for human-piloted space fighters. As Carla said - Close quarters, crowded conditions, difficulty telling friend from foe, split-second life and death decisions, all in a boiling cauldron of politics and money. What sane government would leave those decisions up to an AI programmed by the lowest bidder? Small fighter craft piloted by officers trained to deal with hostage situations make sense.

2 - Pirate havens. Given the way legal authority is subdivided, leased out, and just plain sold in the sort of setting we're discussing, any station or orbital platform can be a pirate haven at least once. Station A impounds a craft from Station B for smuggling. Station B security intercepts a craft owned by the same company that owns Station A and demands the release of the craft impounded by Station A. But the cargo from that craft was actually owned by a government-backed corporation that owns Station C. Said government issues a letter of marque and reprisal allowing ships from Station C to intercept craft from Station A and sues Station B for losses. Meanwhile the mafia bribe a dock worker to let them into the impound area, and the cargo from that first impounded ship vanishes into the night.

The International Space Authority personnel give up and go get drunk.

3 - It can't be all crazy all the time, or no one would work there no matter how much it paid. But the major decisions are probably made in back on Earth, between the great powers that control space. For the most part living and working in space is pretty quiet, but when things go wrong there's a real sense of powerlessness. The space cops are almost entirely mall-cops or corporate security, with a few armed marshals guarding important craft. And nothing gets done without a conference call back to Earth.

4 - This is essentially a variant of the cyberpunk idea of corporate governance, and the idea of full-time criminals in this system amuses me. In this set-up everyone either works for one of the corporations, or for the International Space Authority, or is an observer from one of the Earth-based powers. A full-time criminal would be like a cubicle worker who spends 8 hours a day 5 days a week stealing office supplies, downloading corporate data onto portable media for sale on the black market, clogging the company intranet with spyware, letting people into the company vehicle pool, and dealing drugs in the staff lounge, and still aces all his performance reviews.5 - You can still have space colonies in this setting. In this case a group of colonists would register as a corporation and lease a set of resources from the International Space Authority. As long as they pay their corporate taxes no one will care how they live their lives out on some backwater cluster of asteroids.

6 - The situation lasts until:
A) One great power becomes dominant on Earth, and can clear up the situation in space.
B) One coalition of space-based powers becomes strong enough to create an anti-pirate patrol and make the powers back home accept the patrol.
C) The people who live and work in space stop identifying with the green hills of Earth, start identifying with the habitats of Jupiter Trojan L4 (Or wherever), and become willing to shoot anyone who tries to argue the point.
D) All of the above.

Carla said...

Ian's situation seems to me to be somewhat reminiscent of the Border reivers on the Anglo-Scottish border in the 16th century. That situation of blackmail, theft and violence carried on, with both governments and their officials either helpless or complicit, until 1603 when England and Scotland came under a unified crown for the first time (James I/VI). Whereupon James' government suddenly had an incentive to clear up the Border, and did so in a surprisingly short time.

Rick said...

Ian - LOTS to chew on in that last reply! But on the first point, while this type of setting definitely puts humans at the front of the loop, I don't think it produces classical style 'space fighters.' The minimum crew for a boarding & inspection type mission would be (at a guess) three: a pair to board, watching each other's backs, and a third who stays aboard the patrol craft with a finger on the All Hell Breaks Loose button.

But this parallels your point about the familiar pirate image misleading us. The familiar image of space war is essentially (post-1588) sea battles on steroids. Real space conflict might be an entirely different beast, more like police work that occasionally explodes into urban warfare between rival cops.

I'm not even going to try to discuss the other points here in the comment thread, because it goes to the whole question of power politics in space. Which is, shall we say, a big question. :-)

Rick said...

Carla - Somewhere back in the archives (Oct 24, 2007) is a post I wrote on 'The Density of Power.' It wasn't quite about this point, but if the density of power is low, rival top-level powers are liable to have ambiguous zones between them. Local surrogates may be unreliable, but they are cheap, and they can be cut loose in a pinch.

Here we are picturing space a bit as the Forest Debatable, where a little ambiguity serves almost everyone's interests.

Ian Moulding said...

Carla: Yeah, there are a lot of similarities there. There are also similarities to policing in the 18th and 19th Century, particularly in New York City where police from rival boroughs used to fight in turf battles. Rival private firefighting groups also used to brawl over who had the right to put out housefires.

For that matter, think stagecoach robberies in the American West or highwaymen in England. When you really think about it, the peace and quiet of the 20th Century seems to be the anomaly here.

Rick: Who says the space fighter is firing missiles? Put the boarding crew (2 guys at a minimum, a squad of 4-6 may be more likely) into rocket-propelled space armour, give them harnesses with forced-entry gear, and fire 'em from an exterior missile rack. I wouldn't want to do that job - But I don't want to do a HALO jump either.

I've been driving myself nuts for months trying to set up a politically and economically viable setting for space piracy, and suddenly it all falls into place. I just ran a few basic spreadsheets and even a slow rate of space development produces a viable piracy threat by the mid-21st Century. The powersats produce 2% of Earth's power, the space population is .0001% of Earth's, and space mining provides maybe 5% of Earth's material needs. As long as no one hijacks one of the helium-3 tankers the great powers on Earth just don't care what happens. On the other hand, over 80% of the space population has spent the majority of their lives working, training, and living in space. They definitely care.

Enough spreadsheets. It's time to sit down and write.

And I'm definitely using my malignant cubicle worker.