Ender’s Shadow and Offense-Defense Theory

Posted: November 1, 2013 by blogtarkin in Uncategorized

Seth Green is in his first year of a political science PhD at Columbia, focusing on International Relations.

map of citadel of Lille, designed by Vauban

map of citadel of Lille, designed by Vauban

“Ender’s Shadow” is a 1997 novel by Orson Scott Card, set in the same universe and roughly same time period as his more well-known “Ender’s Game.” “Shadow” centers on a child named Bean, a minor character in “Game,” fleshing out his backstory and trajectory. The setting is a future in which Earth was devastated two centuries prior by an attack from an alien race known as Buggers. Humanity won the war, and then set up an International Fleet to keep peace between states, coordinate future anti-Bugger action, and train the best and brightest children of the world to be military commanders in an off-planet installation known as Battle School, where most of both “Game” and “Shadow” take place.

Bean is a genetically altered, preternaturally intelligent Battle School cadet who started life as a street urchin, and he is quite different from the other children. His genetic gifts enable him to breeze through classes, and so he spends much of his time reading classic military theory and spying on teachers. Eventually one of them goes to talk to Bean about his reading activities:

“”I’ve been looking at your reading list,” said Dimak. “Vauban?”


“Fortification engineering from the time of Louis the Fourteenth?” Bean nodded. He thought back to Vauban and how his strategies had adapted to fit Louis’s ever-more-straitened finances… He started to talk about this, but Dimak cut him off.

“Come on, Bean. Why are you studying a subject that has nothing to do with war in space?”…

“Well of course fortifications are impossible in space,” said Bean. “In the traditional sense, that is. But there are things you can do. Like his mini-fortresses, where you leave a sallying force outside the main fortification. You can station squads of ships to intercept raiders. And there are barriers you can put up. Mines. Fields of flotsam to cause collisions with fast-moving ships, holing them. That sort of thing.” Dimak nodded, but said nothing. Bean was beginning to warm to the discussion.

“The real problem is that unlike Vauban, we have only one strong point worth defending — Earth. And the enemy is not limited to a primary direction of approach. He could come from anywhere. From anywhere all at once. So we run into the classic problem of defense, cubed. The farther out you deploy your defenses, the more of them you have to have, and if your resources are limited, you soon have more fortifications than you can man. What good are bases on moons Jupiter or Saturn or Neptune, when the enemy doesn’t even have to come in on the plane of the ecliptic? He can bypass all our fortifications. The way Nimitz and MacArthur used two- dimensional island-hopping against the defense in depth of the Japanese in World War II. Only our enemy can work in three dimensions. Therefore we cannot possibly maintain defense in depth. Our only defense is early detection and a single massed force… [E]ven that was a recipe for disaster, because the enemy is free to divide his forces. So even if we intercept and defeat ninety-nine of a hundred attacking squadrons, he only has to get one squadron through to cause terrible devastation on Earth. We saw how much territory a single ship could scour when they first showed up and started burning over China. Get ten ships to Earth for a single day — and if they spread us out enough, they’d have a lot more than a day! — and they could wipe out most of our main population centers. All our eggs are in that one basket.”

“And all this you got from Vauban,” said Dimak.

Finally. That was apparently enough to satisfy him. “From thinking about Vauban, and how much harder our defensive problem is.”

“So,” said Dimak, “what’s your solution?”

…”I don’t think there is a solution,” said Bean, buying time again. But then, having said it, he began to believe it. “There’s no point in trying to defend Earth at all. In fact, unless they have some defensive device we don’t know about, like some way of putting an invisible shield around a planet or something, the enemy is just as vulnerable. So the only strategy that makes any sense at all is an all-out attack. To send our fleet against *their* home world and destroy it.”

“What if our fleets pass in the night?” asked Dimak. “We destroy each other’s worlds and all we have left are ships?”

“No,” said Bean, his mind racing. “Not if we sent out a fleet immediately after the Second Bugger War. After Mazer Rackham’s strike force defeated them, it would take time for word of their defeat to come back to them. So we build a fleet as quickly as possible and launch it against their home world immediately. That way the news of their defeat reaches them at the same time as our devastating counterattack.”

Dimak closed his eyes. “Now you tell us.”

“No,” said Bean, as it dawned on him that he was right about everything. “That fleet was already sent. Before anybody on this station was born, that fleet was launched.”

“Interesting theory,” said Dimak. “Of course you’ re wrong on every point.” “No I’m not,” said Bean. He knew he wasn’t wrong, because Dimak’s air of calm was not holding. Sweat was standing out on his forehead. Bean had hit on something really important here, and Dimak knew it.”(1)

(SPOILER ALERT)If you’ve read Ender’s Game, you know that Bean has just deduced, from a text on fortification, perhaps the central plot twist of the companion text. (END SPOILER)

Wormhole travel as envisioned by Les Bossinas for NASA

Wormhole travel as envisioned by Les Bossinas for NASA

He has also provided a neat illustration of the International Relations concept known as Offense-Defense Theory. Offense Defense Theory’s central tenet is that certain technologies, and certain static features, like terrain, are more or less amenable to offensive or defensive war, and so have an influence on whether states are more or less likely to pursue aggressive war. As a simple example, tanks are an offensive weapon, and anti-tank missiles are a defensive weapon; if tanks were generally stronger and more sophisticated than their counterpart, you’d expect more offensive war.* As Robert Jervis puts it,

“when defensive weapons differ from offensive ones, it is possible for a state to make itself more secure without making others less secure…When we say that the offense has the advantage, we simply mean that it is easier to destroy the other’s army and take its territory than to defend one’s own…The security dilemma is at its most vicious when commitments, strategy, or technology dictate that the only route to security lies through expansion.” (2)

What Bean has figured out is that all bets are off when it comes to defending a whole planet; absent a giant invisible force field, we just can’t defend a three dimensional space effectively with the weapons we have. This suggests is that, given our current technology, if we encounter an alien race and we don’t know their intentions towards us, it’s in our strong interest to strike first and decisively (the ability to do so is the virtue most praised in “Ender’s Game”). This is another way of stating the core position of the IR perspective known as offensive realism; as John Mearsheimer puts it, “Uncertainty about the intentions of other states is unavoidable, which means that states can never be sure that other states do not have offensive intentions to go along with their offensive capabilities.” (3)

So if we ever encounter an alien race in our lifetimes, and immediately go to war with them, just know that Orson Scott Card called it.

* Offense Defense Theory isn’t bulletproof. Trenches are fundamentally defense oriented, and yet states still jumped into World War I aggressively. One potential important qualification is that just as important as whether technology skews offensively or defensively is how states *perceive* that skew.


1 Orson Scott Card. “Ender’s Shadow.” “Tor Books; US, 1999; p 108-112

2 Roert Jervis. “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma.” World Politics, Cambridge MA, Vol. 30, No. 2(Jan 1978), p 186-187

3 quoted within http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Security_dilemma

  1. larrydunbar says:

    Of course you can defend a whole planet.
    You “invite” them in, thus sacrificing your queen, but giving them a position of strength to negotiate from.
    But then this strategy also assumes you can still maintain your king on the other side of the planet, and it comes down to a matter of resources.
    If they pass on the “invitation” then all bets are off, and bugs become bug meal.

  2. Michael says:

    Another strategy–avoid having a single point of failure. Space colonies, terraforming, etc, employed to keep some portion of the human race away from invaders.

    I’ve never heard of offense-defense theory, but it seems to have the same potential flaw as geopolitics. When does the search for that extra advantage become paranoia, xenophobia or (in the case of geopolitics) simple greed and lust for glory?

    • larrydunbar says:

      “Another strategy–avoid having a single point of failure. Space colonies, terraforming, etc, employed to keep some portion of the human race away from invaders.”
      Employed by who?
      I mean you could have meant to say deployed, but what you really have is a bunch of “humans” (if they even remain human after such an experiance) who learn how to run for it.
      So their success depends on resources. Success them comes down to a war of attrition, just like “backhome”.
      Apparently this war of attrition is not winable or they would just stay home and continue to become a statistic.
      I don’t think avoiidiing a single point of failure means hiding some of your resources from battle, it means sacrificing some point in your armour that will give you some sort of an advantage.
      You hide resources to keep the enemy from forming a clear picture of who you are.
      With terraforming you are only dividing your forces. Just saying….

      • Seth says:

        So, even if you don’t lose ALL of humanity, losing an entire planet still seems like a pretty bad thing. I’m not sure spreading your population out really changes the calculus that defending a large object in three dimensions is next to impossible, and that if you care about losing that large object, then you’re going to want to attack first if there’s even the LEAST ambiguity about your enemy’s intentions.

        ODT isn’t an endorsement of any strategy, just an observation that in certain circumstances, it’s rational to strike first.

  3. […] Ender’s Shadow and Offense-Defense Theory | Grand Blog Tarkin. […]

  4. jerminator says:

    This is why Israel will soon turn Iran in to a glass factory.

  5. Mike Wheatley says:

    That is, have a fleet hidden somewhere, that can pounce on the alien planet if an attack is made on your own.
    Place it closer to the alien planet, so it can attack before the enemy invasion fleet can get back.

    Though that only works for a pair of planets.

    Then again, any alien is not going to be conveniently near our level of technology, but millions or billions of years in advance of us, and we are living in their zoo, so meh.

  6. Michael says:

    Who’s to say a strategy like this isn’t precisely what the buggers were doing? They saw us, didn’t know enough about us, decided to strike first. Only, of course, they failed to wipe us out and exposed themselves to the same treatment by an enemy who knew precisely what their intentions were.

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