Friday, April 3, 2020

Fortuitous Space Battles


As you may have noticed I do like (some) military SF, and it’s fine if that borders on not all too realistic Space Opera. However, regardless of the believably of the generic concept I still like to see some consistency. Or at least stick to certain mechanics and principles.

Making sense

All the upcoming stuff may sound a bit militaristic, but I’m mostly using these as examples of thinking things through. It’s amazing how many times a ‘conflict in space’ makes no sense once you start paying attention.

The magic trick

Explain things in a believable way, or simply assume they work and don’t explain them at all. Both approaches work for me, but it’s nice to have some limitations / constraints established before introducing some for the sake of plot progression.


In a vacuum there is no sound. Of course, space battles without sound are fine in books, but won’t work that well in movies or television series. So yeah, I simply accept the ‘whoosh’ and ‘pew pew’ sounds aforementioned movies and series come with.

And bonus points for those who can finish ‘In space nobody can’...

Energy shields

It’s a magical shield, duh!

Okay, that’s fine. I can live with this one. Just assume a yet unknown technology allows us to generate shields which can take up damage. From a strictly scientific point of view shields may make no sense, but provide a great alternative to tons of heavy metals / ceramics / other armor...

The thing is: how would it work and what would it stop?

Shield types

The most common SF energy shield is the 'shimmering transparent shield'. That would assume it's no good against lasers (transparent, hmm).

I suppose a good shield would protect against all types of attacked, ie. everything (like the 'wedges' in David Weber's Honorverse). Such a shield would be completely opaque, so the moment you would deploy a shield you would effectively go blind. That actually makes kind of sense. Perhaps the shield is very local, so captains would leave some spots open to communicate with remote sensors to keep track of the battlefield.

To reduce the effectiveness of such a shield you might rule it is more effective against energy weapons, or material weapons, or perhaps shields consume that much energy they can only be used for short periods. Lot's of options there for the entrepreneurial writer πŸ˜‡

Lasers, energy beams, particle weapons, plasma cannons, death rays

I can live with these (except the death rays, probably :-)). Keep three things in mind though: targeting, matter, and distance.

If weapons are energy based then they need a targeting device, something which sends the beam / ray in the right direction. This would mean you a. would have to acquire the target, b. point the weapon at the target, and c. fire the weapon.

Unless you have a non-mechanical targeting mechanism, aiming the weapon will take time. Non-mechanical targeting mechanisms may be faster, but even those require time. Thus at the high speeds of space combat and the huge distances involved your targeting system may actually miss the target. And no, we’re not going to discuss weapons which requires the weapon platform (read: space ship / fighter) to line up with the target.

Still, lasers might work.


Unfortunately laser light is mostly but not entirely coherent. Lasers suffer from divergence. What is a single, high density, pin point beam of light at the source will ‘spread’ as the light travels onward. And with spreading it will loose its pin point focus so the focused energy will be spread over a larger space, which might mean it simply will not affect the target.

On top of that, space is empty, but not entirely empty. So the light will hit dust particles, and thus be affected and reduce in effectiveness at increasing distances.

How about other energy weapons… What are energy weapons anyway? A ‘plasma cannon’ would shoot ‘plasma’ at its target. Plasma is probably :-) created using matter, and accelerating matter to any serious fraction of light speed is (energy wise) rather costly. One could still rule that plasma weapons are energy weapons as the amount of matter involved is little, but still… For now, assume they are short range and slower than lasers.

Particle weapons

In between lasers and plasma sit particle weapons (and perhaps 'ion cannons', whatever those are). Accelerate some kind of particles up to near relativistic speeds and let them fly. Mission accomplished. Sounds great, but slower than laser, hard to generate, and still suffering from targeting and the impact of distance. 

Possible use

With all these limitations good ol’ KEW’s and missiles might be better options. Still, there are some situations such 'energy' weapons might make sense:

1. Lasers as long range offense. Moving at light speed, they are the only long range energy weapon making sense, though may have little impact.

2. As payload for missiles. An overpowered, one shot laser might be what we need to punch a hole through that enemy vessel. If we can get it close enough (aboard a missile) it could hit something which the missile itself could not. The same goes for plasma weapons (just dump a load of matter and heat in the path of the enemy ship).

3. As defensive weapons.

4. As a short range weapon, in 'knife fighting' range.  (I could imagine a fighter with a plasma weapon).

Paralyzing / death ray

What is it with rays which paralyze? How likely is it that a ray would paralyze all organic beings aboard a well shielded war ship which can stand energy weapons and incoming nukes, missiles, KEW’s?

Let’s assume the ‘green paralyzing ray’ actually exists, and there is no defense against it, and only the enemy has it. How to deal with it? Easy. The moment your ship has been hit and your crew is incapacitated, you let some automatic systems kick in, running a pre-programmed series of actions, varying from attacking, defending, evasive action and what not. So unless the ‘green paralyzing ray’ would also affect machinery it would be a useless weapon.

And please, please, please, never ignore inertia. A moving spaceship will not slow down if it gets hit by such a ray. In effect, if its engines are still running it is only likely to move faster and faster, and if its engines have stopped it keeps moving at its original speed.

IMHO Death Rays belong to Dungeons & Dragons, not SF.


Kinetic Energy Weapons… Your stupid metal ball, if launched at sufficient speeds, does a lot of damage. So yes, guns do work, and only work better once the bullets go faster. Unfortunately it is incredibly hard to hit evasive targets with thrown bricks, especially when these bricks take minutes or hours to reach a (highly) maneuverable target.

KEW are great for destroying stuff on planets, but for inter-ship warfare they’re not that great.

Atom bombs

Unless your goal is to bathe your target in radiation atom bombs make very little sense in space combat. There is no air to move, thus the explosion does little to any object, unless it is very close, or isn’t properly shielded against radiation.
As spaceships are, well, in space they must withstand at least some radiation, making nuclear weapons pretty ineffective, unless they are very close, etcetera.

This means classic nukes (relying on mechanical impact of the moving air) are fairly useless. It also means any usable nuclear weapon (in space combat) will be radiation based, and needs to be delivered as close to the target as possible.

Another funny limitation: why would a space ship only carry one or two nukes? We got thousands on earth, so we could spare a few, couldn’t we?

So, if we can get nukes close enough to the enemy they might make sense, but not too much. Perhaps we could pack trillions of steel balls together with a nuke and use it as an area of effect weapon?

Though a bag of sand might just work better, if positioned in the right place (directly in the path of a very fast moving object) than all the nukes in the world.

So nukes are useless? Not entirely. They release massive amounts of radiation, and thus may be effective as defensive measures against incoming missiles (to destroy and / or confuse the targeting systems aboard such missiles), and may distract defensive systems when part of a multi weapon attack wave.

Missiles versus torpedoes

Can anyone tell me the difference between the two? In space? I have no idea whatsoever so I’ll assume we’re talking about missiles, period.

Dumb missiles make no sense. Fire something without targeting abilities, and it’s never going to hit anything unless it is planet sized.

So missiles need to be intelligent, adaptive. They must react to, or even better anticipate any location and course changes of the target. Thus the missiles need to include a means of propulsion, scanning, identifying, targeting, etcetera. There’s also the question of what kind of payload the missile needs to deliver. A laser? Atom bomb? Kinetic weapon?

In space, missiles have no range in the usual sense. You could aim for a planet, give the missile a little shove, and ten thousand years later it will arrive at the target, assuming the target doesn’t move. So the range of a missile is not defined by distance, but by the amount of energy it can spend to reach and hit the target. Shooting a missile at an accelerating target (moving in a direct line away from the attacker) is only effective if the missile has sufficient energy available to accelerate faster than the target.

Well, perhaps ‘space torpedoes’ could exist if you would allow things like ‘hyperspace’ or ‘subspace’ in which such a missile / torpedo would travel until it reaches its destination, but effectively it would just be a missile with an FTL or stealth engine.

Strong defense requires saturation

One shot, one kill is the military mantra. Unfortunately space battles would be short boring that way, at least in SF. So typically we end up with well defended objects slugging it out at large distances. (There’s little to no chance of capital ships getting close enough to each other for a real slug fest, unless both no longer have sufficient long range ammunition to overcome the enemies defenses, in which case the losing party is probably going to run.)

So assuming a target has decent defensive capabilities you will have to saturate those defenses, to make sure one or more attacks get through. Logging one or two missiles at a well defended object makes no sense at all (look at David Weber's Honorverse).

The trick? Launch multiple missiles at the same time. If you can’t, launch one after the other, but make sure they arrive on target simultaneously by taking different routes, accelerating at different speeds, etcetera. Stuff still won’t arrive simultaneously, so you might have to chuck a 20% extra missiles in there.

Of course, massive attack waves will be harder to defend against, because the threat pattern won't be spread evenly.

Weak defenses lead to a battle of attrition

The opposite mechanic. If all weapons are missile based, including defensive ones, and they miss, then the defender will ‘waste’ a surplus of missiles against each attacking wave. In other words: for each attacking missile the defender may have to spend two or three defensive missiles. It may be hard to hit a large moving target with a missile, but try to hit that incoming missile with one of your own, that’s even harder (and thus easier to miss).

Of course, massive attack waves will be harder to defend against.

Mutual kill / fire and flee

In space distance equals time. So two opposing parties might wipe each other out, because they each have launched their respective attack waves, then just sit pretty waiting for the other incoming one.

In the opposite corner of space combat tactics sits ‘fire and flee’, just launch, then run without waiting for the results. Probably a very sensitive tactic when it comes to space battles.

Long versus short-range

Depending on the effectiveness of the different weapon systems, ships might have no option but to enter short-range combat to hurt each other. If defensive measures are too good, and long-range weapons not effective enough then any combat would only have an outcome if both parties are willing to get into a kind of melee and slug it out.

But... if one of them isn't willing to, there would never be an outcome... Except perhaps for the incidental world blown to smithereens because it cannot run away.

Short jumps

If you have FTL engines, or hyper jumps, then you just might consider equipping your missiles with FTL engines to reduce the time they take to reach the target. Such a 'short-range' jump engine might be of a different nature of the long-range main engines of a ship. If it takes an incredible amount of energy to get into hyperspace it just might be impossible to do so with a missile. Perhaps it takes more computing power that is available in a missile targeting computer.

Short jumps change the game in many ways.

Transformation cannons

I think I've only seen these in the venerable Perry Rhodan series, but in a way they make sense.

Instead of putting an FTL drive aboard a missile build something that throws an object 'into' hyperspace to have it come out of hyperspace at a desired location. You might be able to fling nukes at your enemy, which explode the moment they return to normal space. With the (near) relativistic speeds of spaceships, even a regular brick would do huge damage if it would hit.

Of course, the problem would be targeting. Trying to hit something moving from a long distance requires sensors, and those sensors might be slower than light, thus causing a delay, misses, etcetera. Who said it would be easy? 😁

Space (distance, speed, direction changes, inertia)

Space is huge. It is very unlikely opponents can see each other with the naked eye. The chances to miss are incredible.

Space is time. The greater the distance, the longer the weapon takes to reach the target, and the target will be long gone from its original position once the weapon reaches its location.

Space is empty. There’s no medium (except gravity) that allows you to change your movement vector without bleeding-off energy (ie. you’re committing once you start moving).

The Star Furies in Babylon 5 got it right. (Though I would have to revisit the series to see if my memory serves me well.) The X-wings in Star Wars fly through space as if they are were planes... Not right. (Though they look great 😘)

Those getting it right

Some authors get it right. Or at least keep things believable. David Weber’s Honorverse is an example. The Bob’s toss planets at their enemies. Battlestar Galactica throws in enough grit and dirt to keep things believable (and who doesn’t love a Colonial Viper)...

 Those getting it wrong

… can still write great stories! Farscape pretty much gets everything wrong when it comes to science, but is a joy to watch even though I have to dial up my suspension of disbelief to eleven…

Then Star Trek… Their idea / depicture of space combat simply doesn’t work for me.

And sometimes it just doesn’t work at all. Michael Wallace’s Void Queen is an example. The mechanics are just not properly thought through, and on top of that sometimes change. In one scene a ship stopped moving when its crew got paralyzed…



Unfair? Yes. But that’s what it is: I find it easier to suspend my disbelief when it comes to movies and series, yet I want books to do a better job.

So, on the odd chance that a real-world writer would stumble upon this page, please write something believable? Not all your readers are stupid...

Dapper 169 / TellTales! 162

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