Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Random thoughts on space combat

It is always interesting to see how science-fiction-franchises depict space combat. In the end, it has to provide something familiar to viewers so they can connect, cope with the special challenges the nature of space provides and do something interesting with it. Let's give you two examples for this. Star Wars essentially went for the approach of recreating World-War-II dog-fights. Space combat is almost exclusively restricted to fighters (X-Wing, Tie-Fighter, etc.) and bombers (the Millenium Falcon). There are big battle ships like the Star Destroyers, but we seldom see them fight. Their primary use is as targets for the fighters and bombers. Wing Commander, on the other hand, does the exact opposite. They recreate naval warfare, relying heavily on nautical terms for "destroyers", "frigates" and "carriers". The battles between the big ships resemble the big man-of-wars of the 18th and 19th century engaging in broadsides, while the carriers start fighters and bombers that engage conflict in eerie resemblance to the aircraft carriers of World War II. 
See? Blends right in.

Now, to think about how space combat would "really" look like is kind of a fool's task because right now we can't even think on a proper way of transporting stuff from Earth to Mars. But there are some characteristics of space that aren`t taken into account by the mainstream science-fiction and, when you think of it, really strange. For one, there are the sheer distances. If you think the Pacific is a large body of water, think of the vast areas of nothing that comprise more than 99,9999999% of space. You can see for millions of miles with nothing in between. On the other hand, there is nothing in between, so spotting someone isn't a problem as it is in naval warfare or aerial combat. You have no curvature of earth to take into account, so no hiding behind the horizon, there are no clouds to dive in and so forth. Plus, "above", "below", "left" and "right" are very academic turns in space at best. 

Looking in a straight line of 356,400km.
Next big problem: the space is a dark place. Look at the picture above. You don't really see that well, with the exception of planetary bodies that tend to be a bit larger than your average vessel (the Death Star excluded, obviously). You will rely heavily on instruments, not your eyes. This is not news to any fighter pilot of the modern age, where the average fighting distance is seven to fourteen miles and Top Gun is only laughed at, but in space, with no obstacles in the path there is no reason not to engage at distances that measure in the hundreds of miles. No way to hide, after all. So, even building windows in space ships is totally useless and just a constant source of hazard. Why would a fighter need a window? It's a natural weak spot. One can assume that when the technology to really fight in space is at hand, you can also somehow depict the surroundings on a HUD rather than to have to look around like a pilot in World-War-I. I understand why they do it in the movies, because it's cool and exciting, but it doesn't make any sense. 

Prime example for how to do it: Battlestar Galactica. No windows, only very thick armor.
So, it seems likely that fighting in space takes place over big distances. Anticipating movements or developing seeking weapons is your prime objective, all of which makes computers king. The three-dimensional environment of space, where there is no real up and down poses unique challenges to any pilot. Imagine aerial combat on earth: you're fighting in a big tunnel, basically, restricted by the ground on the one hand and the atmosphere on the other. You may never come to close to either. Nothing like that exists in space. You have plenty of room in any direction. Navigation is almost impossible with eyeball only, since you will quickly lose sight of your origin (say, a base or carrier) and just flying towards the nearest star isn't exactly an option, considering average distances.

A moment of "what the frak is going on?"
This brings us to speed. There is no friction in space. Acceleration and breaking are the issues at hand. You can gain pretty much speed in space. The close-combat dogfights you see in most science fiction are more or less impossible, because you're strafing by each other ridiculously fast. This poses a real problem for any projectiles you're shooting at the enemy: they need to be faster than you, or they'll never catch up. Since size doesn't restrict you nearly as much as it does on Earth (where a bigger ship is slower than a small one), but the problem is more the size of the engine and acceleration. A metal heap like Galactica can be very fast, but we're used to see big ships driving slowly, so that's how we see them in science fiction. Most people are stunned to see that the big aircraft carriers of today can drive faster than many of their support ships if they turn to full speed. 

Yep, these aren't as majestic and slow as one might think. 67km/h is pretty fast for a ship.
This poses the question why anone should build fighters in the first place. They are small, can't carry as much weapons, can't boast such a mighty engine - the only real advantage they get is that they are not so big as targets. But considering the distances, you will need to have a weapon system that is really, really exact anyway (or hits instantly), which makes this advantage a bit obsolete. Plus, it's hard to imagine that whatever engines these ships get will be powered by any type of fuel. More likely that you'll use an equivalent to nuclear propulsion, giving them indefinite range in theory. There we go again with the dog-fight-nostalgia of science fiction.

See any heavy guns attacking the Death Star? I don't.
We should use this impasse to talk about strategy. Why do you fight in space? The concept of "air sovereignty" is ludicrous in space. If you are Earth, what part of space "belongs" to you? Remember that planets circle around stars. They're moving. When you build space stations, they don't move unless they are in orbit of a planet. Is there even a worth in "occupying" space? Battlestar Galactica ran into this trap more than once, but never more so in the stupid season 3 episode "Hero", where an armistice line through space was a central plotpoint and the exact working of it stayed really, really unclear. 

Where exactly do you put something like this?
Since we can't possibly predict the technology and prerequisites in space warfare, we have to stick with what we know to some extent. So let's assume for the sake of the argument after dismissing the digfights and windows that strategic control is thought in terms of plantary bodies (including moons and pretty big asteroids). This seems to be the only stuff that can be used somehow and is worth fighting over, and we have a distance around planets that's considered an "intimate space", much like the three-mile-radius of today's coastlines. This zone would of course move with the planet (although you could define the whole ellipse of its orbit around its star as intimate space if you like). That's what you defend, using your fleet and stations. We would have space yards, because there's no serious reasons to build ships that are able to land on planets (restricting them to all the laws of gravity that simply don't apply like that in space). A stationary defense mechanism seems reasonable, too. So, what to do with ships? 

Other than to boldly go where no one has gone before, I mean.
Attacking other planets, of course, and preventing the other guy from doing that. It seems logical that you would want to keep the enemy from entering your intimate zone, just like today. Defending your country is always more fun if you do it in the country of the other guy. Therefore, fleets will try to cut each other off and position themselves in a way that they can prevent the other guys from zipping past to the juicy targets. At some point, they will fight it out. Let's just skip over the big, climactic space battle which we win. No, we hover in orbit, avoiding the wreckage of the stations we blew to kingdom come. What do we do now? If we have fighters, they can now engage in some pretty formation flight show. The other, big ships will most likely bombard the planet and serve as transporting vessels for invasion. But as the post gets longer and longer as we go, it seems like we should dedicate another one to the tactics and strategy of intergalactic warfare. 

It's a trap!
So, let's summarize. It's unlikely that we'll see any dogfights in space. The fact that we don't really see dogfights even today supports this theory. Instead, expect to see big, thickly armored metal containers with lots of weapons, engaging in a game of who was the better aiming systems. Before this contest takes place, they'll try to get the better position, as defined by being able to reach the target planet first, forcing the other side to act first. This leaves many problems unanswered, which we will discuss first in the comments and then in another post to come, so feel welcome to write what you think of it so far!


  1. You could take a look at the from Ian M. Banks, he has some pretty advanced ideas about future spacefight.
    In his latest novel one spaceship destroyed half of an enemy fleet within a second, later playing it back in slow motion to the human passenger.

  2. Maybe relevant... if you have plenty of time ;-) Essay on Realistic Space Combat

  3. Stefan, did you ever get around to the post dedicated to tactics and strategy of intergalactic warfare?

    1. Nope. Have to do that one time. Thanks for the interest!