Space: The Next Frontier of War?


By David Ignatius / W.W. Norton & Company

Reviewed by: Jeffrey Harris

The Reviewer — Jeffrey K Harris served as a space program manager at the Central Intelligence Agency, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space and Director of the National Reconnaissance Office before building and operating commercial imaging satellites taking images of the earth while traveling 17,000 miles per hour.

REVIEW — The saying goes that everyone loves a good thriller.  David Ignatius upped his game, in this case, to the vast domain of space with his latest novel: Phantom Orbit.  Space is the domain of rocket scientists who are revered and feared – operating in a medium away from earth following precision mathematical rules that dictate satellite behavior.  This complexity drove space systems, over much of the last six decades, to be the territory of select nation states providing national security protections and civil conveniences.  As a result, few people pondered how space would become an integral part of our daily lives, providing the fabric of services for critical infrastructure that we depend on and for conveniences like ATM transactions.

Today, space commerce is increasingly providing diverse capabilities offered by commercial companies servicing the global needs of citizens and customers.  These products and services extend into war zones.  The US military has reorganized where space is now the war fighting domain of the US Space Force.

Treaties formulated decades ago may not provide sufficient reassurances to ensure the peaceful use of space.  David Ignatius takes a modern look at how commercial space systems are providing timely battlefield information to the Ukrainians, tilting the advantage to the smaller force.  This does not go unnoticed by the Russians and, for many reasons, the Chinese.  The attacker may determine that these commercial systems – signals, imagery and communications – are part of the military infrastructure under the rules of war.

Political leaders in wartime yearn for bespoke solutions to complex situations to provide controls over escalation, leveraging proven methods of deterrence.  Battlefields now include moving through space, like communications and missiles,  and in space, like cyber and anti-satellite attacks. Phantom Orbit allows the reader to gain an important understanding of how a war in space might be envisioned and how it could be realized as tensions increase. 

David Ignatius has done his homework on space operations, enabling the reader to appreciate that supply chain disruption, software, malware and bad actors can all be used to give satellite operators and their benefactors a bad day in a very unforgiving environment.  The twists and turns between the slow-moving bureaucracies of government and academia, the impetuousness of commercial providers, and the escalating, now ever-present superpower competition between Russia, China and United States give the author a pallet to create a rapidly unfolding national security crisis that challenges the behavioral norms that have served the planet for so long.

The good news is that smart, innovative people can align for the good…and in the spirit of a good spy novel leave no trace of the marionette’s strings.

Phantom Orbit as a thriller artfully uses space as a backdrop for what still remains the domain of techies who must master its complexity.  This novel is thought provoking, allowing the reader to ponder and anticipate the complexity surrounding the possible political/military and civil outcomes when the battle seems so far away.

As Sun Tzu postulated, “the greatest victory is that which requires no battle” – when a tree falls in the forest will anyone take notice?  Can satellites be a significant political casualty of war?

Phantom Orbit earns an impressive 3.5 out of 4 trench coats


The Cipher Brief participates in the Amazon Affiliate program and may make a small commission from purchases made via links.

Interested in submitting a book review?  Send an email to [email protected] with your idea.

Sign up for our free Undercover newsletter to make sure you stay on top of all of the new releases and expert reviews.

Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief because National Security is Everyone’s Business.

More Book Reviews