When I was a staff officer in the Headquarters British Forces Middle East (HQBFME) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, during the Gulf War of 1991, we had a then cutting edge IT network installed under an “urgent operational requirement” which was called the Desert Interim CIS System (DICS). Every time the Iraqis lobbed one of their Scud missiles at Riyadh – which happened on sixteen occasions in total – a warning would flash on our computer screens within seconds of launch, to be followed a few moments later with details of the likely target. At the end of the conflict everybody in the HQ considered him or herself a “Scud ace”. In fact we were fired at more frequently than most of the ground troops stationed up country in the desert,
There was a general acknowledgement that our warnings were courtesy of American satellite surveillance of the theatre of operations, but having read Tim Marshall’s most recent book I am now so much better informed. It would appear that were the early beneficiaries of what I now understand is called an “overhead persistent infrared warning system”, essentially US owned and operated satellites which were able to spot the Scud launch signatures from space and let us know what was coming.
This experience apart, I was pretty poorly informed on what was going on above our heads day-to-day, but Marshall’s book has filled in that particular gap. Starting off with a section looking at our historical fascination with the planets and stars from time immemorial, he takes us through a history of space exploration – Sputnik, Neil Armstrong, the ISS etc – right up to date.
Then he looks at the players in more detail. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the USA still dominates the scene today, but China is catching up fast. Russia seems to have rather fallen by the wayside compared to the other two major competitors but is still there. But in many ways I was more interested in his descriptions of the blocs which have coalesced around the further exploration of space – the European Space Agency (ESA), the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organisation (APSCO), and the seven member Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency among others.
However, as a military man, or more accurately ex-military man, it is Chapter 9 that has most appeal. Here we find ourselves very much in Star Wards and Star Trek territory, dealing as it does in the potential for conflict in space, the final frontier if you like. As the author so presciently says at the beginning of the chapter, “each time humanity has ventured into a new domain it has brought war with it”. I fear this may indeed be the case with space.
I suspect you may have already have guessed that I found this book most enjoyable and most fascinating, and I’m not going to spoil it for you by detailing any more of its content. Read it for yourself would be my advice.
Marshall writes about an esoteric subject matter in an easy, accessible style, one which I much admire and seek to emulate in my own scribblings. I like the way he tends to pose, and then answer, his own questions, a bit like you might do during a chat down the pub. That, in my opinion, makes it all the more readable. Nor is his writing without humour, which is always a good sign.
What more can I say? If you’re looking for a comprehensive but easily assimilated account of space, its challenges and developments, and what the future might hold, this is probably as good a place as any to start. I’m pretty new to the topic but feel much better informed having read it. I have little doubt you will be too.
I can think of many much less satisfying ways to spend £20. Highly recommended.
© Stuart Crawford 2023
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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