Space Combat != Naval Combat (Or: Why Star Wars Will Always Be Awesome)

By Deane Barker on December 10, 2012

I read a long essay this morning on what real space combat would look like.  Frankly, it was a bit depressing.  Science fiction has deluded us for a long time, and the article reveals a key reason why:

[…] we must realize that space will present a new unique environment with new and unique challenges for any military operations in it. Space warfare will not resemble sea warfare or air warfare; it will be its own thing

If there’s one thing that science fiction has convinced us of, it’s this: space combat is the same as naval combat, just in space.  Space is the ocean, spaceships are seaships, planets are land masses. The analogy is very neat; it’s very relatable.

But nothing like reality, it turns out.

In reality, space has several differences that change everything:

[…] the thing you really have to remember about space is that it’s big, dark, cold, and empty, and, paradoxically, you have perfect visibility. This brings us to our first realization: there will be no stealth in space. Any source of radiant energy in space will be very obvious […]    The simple fact is just about every viable space propulsion scheme in existence works by blowing hot gas out the back of your ship, and that’s just not something you can hide.

You’re not going to sneak up on anybody in space.  Furthermore, there’s no horizon.  We can detect things in space from ridiculous distances, and interplanetary space (meaning the space between planets) is so vast, that combat would take place on an effectively wide-open, three-dimensional plane in which you would clearly know where everyone is at any time.

In this battlefield, speed wins.

Speed confers two advantages. First, the side with the fastest ships will get to shape the battlefield, determining whether and under what circumstances the fight takes place. Second, missile range decreases against a faster ship.

Note that speed is really defined by acceleration, since there is no practical speed limit in space (no limit that you’re actually going to hit, anyway).  With a car or boat or plane, top speed is the point where the forces of friction (road, water, or air) equal the peak power of the engine.  In space, no friction means you can keep accelerating forever (or until you run out of fuel).

When it comes to weapons, there’s all sorts of fun things to know:

  • Missiles work really well in space.  They don’t even have to explode.  A hit from a big chunk of metal is going to ruin your day, explosion or not.
  • Lasers require an insane amount of power.  They could conceivably work, but you’ll carry around a bigger power-supply to shoot your lasers than to power your ship.  And they don’t just shoot, shoot, shoot. Laser batteries will shoot…then recharge…then shoot again.
  • Those neat little pulses you see in movies?  A myth.  Lasers are consistent, focused beams.  Think a long-range blow-torch, trying to burn through something.  Therefore, a great defense is to spiral your ship.  Anything that keeps a laser beam from focusing on one point for too long helps.
  • The best defense again lasers might be…the lowly radiator.  A system that diffuses and sheds heat from the hull will help prevent burn-through.

In the end, here’s what it looks like:

The best terrestrial analogy for space warfare would probably be a battle on a perfectly plain at night, fought between sports cars painted with phosphorescent paint, with machine guns mounted on their hoods. All sides will be aware of the movements of the other. The battles will likely consist of long periods of boredom while the ships chase each other, accelerate towards each other, or vie for an intercept that favors them, punctuated by a few minutes of terror as they scream past each other at many kilometers per second and fire away.

And here’s the final nail in the coffin of Star Wars.

The notion of a space fighter arises simply from overstretching the analogy between space combat and sea warfare.

And that’s true really: the need to put a single person into a tiny ship is more a story convention than any sound battle plan.

When you look back at the history of space fiction, it’s understandable why it became confused with notions of naval combat.  E.E. Smith was writing back in the 20s and 30s, and the “golden age” of space fiction was probably in the 60s (before Kubrick ruined it with his damn realism in 1968).  Even by that time, we still had the recent memory of big ships shooting cannons and launching planes at each other.

But, in reality, naval combat hasn’t been like this in ages.  When was the last time two large ships actually fired on each other?  From Wikipedia’s article on naval combat:

The only major naval conflict that has taken place since World War II is the 1982 Falklands War, between Argentina and the United Kingdom. […] [It] was a unique conflict and at the present time, large naval wars are seldom seen affairs as modern day warfare evolves further from warships, which have existed for centuries, to reliance on new technologies such as military aircraft and land warfare.

So, that’s one odd, outlying naval battle in the last 70 years or so.  Today, big ships would never even get within range of each other — an Exocet can hit from 110 miles out.

Which takes me back to Star Wars.  Oddly, this essay makes me appreciate it even more. Now, I’m not naïve — I knew that the entertainment version of space combat was wildly unrealistic, so it’s not like my world-view has been shattered.  What’s got me contemplative is the idea that Star Wars is really just a fable of our world in a bygone era.  It’s really the story of colonialism, piracy, and exploration — not spaceships.

Mos Eisley is Tortuga.  The Millenium Falcon is the Black Pearl. Han Solo is Captain Jack Sparrow.

The fact that Han and Chewie are jumping between planets and not sailing the high seas is simply incidental.

Next Steps —


  1. There are a few other key points to consider about space combat, which are sometimes reflected in more thoughtful science fiction. 1. Space has no strategic value; battles will occur on or near planets. (Hyperion Cantos) 2. Defense is nearly impossible, because the forces required to maintain a credible defensive “line” (sphere) in three dimensions increase exponentially. (Ender’s Shadow) 3. Those lead to the conclusion that any interstellar war would be fought on the surface planet by planet (e.g., Starship Troopers), would be a mostly strategic cold war/colonization race (e.g., The Worthing Chronicle), or would be a war of total destruction (most likely mutually-assured destruction).

  2. My point is mainly that looking at the Lensman and Star Wars series, and then saying “science fiction has it wrong” is like looking at a Nintendo Entertainment System and saying computers have no value in business.

  3. “So, that’s one odd, outlying naval battle in the last 70 years or so.”

    The Falklands was a war with a series of battles, not just ‘a’ battle.

    The lack of ‘fleet v fleet’ battles since 1945 might be less about the weapons and more about the Cold War. Two antagonists who dared not wage war on each other leads to a dearth of juicy naval combat.

    For the US Navy there have been five surface engagements since 1945 – the largest being Operation Praying Mantis in 1988. That featured guided missiles, guns, Marines, and aircraft.

  4. Okay, I’m a science fiction author. In three of my books , space combat takes place. In Red Moon, it is very realistic, using the types of moves achieved though use of thusters, since that combat is between a armed Chinese excursion pod and a modified Apollo lunar lander. In The Hive, most of the combat takes place with NERVA powered Earth ships packing nuclear missiles and ambushing an alien fleet as it passes near the asteroid Vesta. In Ace of Aces, it is most like air to air combat on Earth, but the climactic battle takes place within the atmosphere of the planet Neptune, which has only 14 percent more gravity than does Earth. As for this article, the author is correct, space combat would be BVR (Beyond Visual Range). This would be accurate but boring as hell in a novel or in a movie. A could counter to the blog would be Niven and Pournelle’s Foot Fall in which a massive Orion type battle craft is launced from Earth using nuclear pulses for power (a proven technology). They fight their way through a gauntlet of Fipth digit ships to attack the mother ship with is trying to power up and move out of range. The Earth ship, Michael, then launches fighters and 4 Space Shuttles, armed with nukes to attack the mother ship. the battle is intense and believable.

Comments are closed. If you have something you really want to say, tweet @gadgetopia.