The Hard Truth About Space Combat

Just ran another mission of an RPG I wrote entitled ‘Frontier: 2280″ (which all my friends call ‘Battlelords”, but that’s a whole different game–one I played, liked, and then decided to completely depart from and make into my own paramilitary sci-fi adventure game). In this one, as in some of the past sessions, space combat has played an important role to the party’s survival. As with the rest of the game, however, I’ve tried to keep things as close to ‘real science’ as I can, and I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about how space combat might work in the future and why. Here’s what I’ve come up with:


No, not this.

It is important that prospective space combat cadets push from their minds the flash and zoom of pulp sci-fi. Fighting in space doesn’t work that way. Indeed, it is actually quite boring for those people not crunching the math on incoming ordnance with white-knuckled urgency. If you’re lying in your accel couch after the maneuver alarm, nothing much is happening so far as you can tell. Watch a movie or something.

Tactical Assumptions

1: Space Combat Happens Over Long Distances
In the early years of ship-to-ship combat, the boarding action was generally considered the be-all and end-all of the space combat arena. This was the case because neither side really liked the idea of punching holes in things as expensive as spaceships and, furthermore, it is really, really hard to hit a moving spaceship with any kind of conventional weapon. It is akin to hitting a bullet with another, smaller bullet and, frankly, the difficulties involved made the whole affair impractical.

This, however, is no longer the case. As sensor systems improved and the guidance AIs on missile got better, the prospect of actually crippling or destroying an enemy vessel that was still >5000km away became more of a reality. Furthermore, given the efficacy of close-range laser attacks and the brutal finality of boarding actions, it became preferable to blow up the enemy when they were so far away you needn’t worry about debris from their exploding vessel putting holes in your own vessel or their last laser strafe cutting your fuel lines or some kind of last F-U virus being uploaded into your system and killing your computers dead.

Modern ship-to-ship combat has more in common with the largely mythical submarine duels of the 20th century Cold War than it does with the Milennium Falcon. Enemy vessels are barely and intermittently visible to sensor suites and advanced targeting systems are constantly calculating a likely intercept course for sophisticated missiles to fly out there and hunt down the enemy. All the while, one’s own vessel is hoping no missiles are coming in towards them or, if they are, they are picked up by tactical radars and targeted by point-defence laser systems before they get too close. Close-quarters combat is extremely rare unless the enemy is actively trying to capture and not destroy the enemy vessel in question. Sometimes they are so far away, one can’t ever be certain if they did, in fact, kill the enemy. All they know is that the ship has stopped popping up on their sensors.

2: Let Space Do the Killing For You
Fun Fact: the vacuum of space is the most hazardous environment known to mankind. Accordingly, space-based military technology has oriented itself towards creating circumstances wherein the vacuum of space is the thing doing all the killing–it does so for free and with a minimum of fuss. You really don’t need to blow up an enemy ship. All you need to do is kill their engines and then let the crew drift off into the void and starve–easy, see?

The vast majority of naval weapons are missiles. They run in a couple general types:

-Spikers are fragmentary explosives on a massive scale. Their purpose, quite simply, is to put holes in ships–lots and lots of holes in lots and lots of places and, if possible a really big hole somewhere. This often doesn’t result in explosive decompression (though it can), but more practically makes portions of a vessel unusable, causes them to leak fuel, and can make them much, much easier to spot on sensors.

-Rad-blasts are intense radiation munitions designed to cook the people inside ships until they are dead. These work best after a spiker has put lots of helpful holes in a vessels radiation-shielded hull. Volleys of missiles are often timed to have Spikers detonate immediately before Rads.

-Killers are direct-impact high-explosive munitions. They are designed to blow a ship into smithereens, and they do so quite well. The problem with them, however, is it is very difficult to score a direct hit on an enemy vessel at ranges of thousands of kilometers while both ships are moving at incredible rates of speed and, often, on conflicting courses with limited sensor information. In a practical sense, Killers are saved until it is clear that an enemy ship is crippled and spewing enough radiation to be easily found by the Killer’s pAI guidance system.

-Nukes are effectively useless in space combat. They do spill a good amount of radiation (though Rads kick out more), but their ‘explosive shockwave’ is dependent upon the presence of an atmosphere to be effective (you don’t get a shockwave if there is nothing to push). Nukes are used exclusively as orbital bombardment ordinance or as ship-to-ship weaponry for the desperate.

-EMPs are electromagnetic pulse weapons intended to disrupt or disable the electronic systems aboard a starship. They are very effective at doing this, but at the cost of making the other ship harder to detect for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours as they get their systems back online. Also, they don’t kill ships or even people aboard them, so long as they still have operational generators. They are often used to precede boarding actions.

There are numerous other forms of ordnance, but those are the major ones.

It is important to remember the sheer number of ways space can kill ships. Only a few of these ways are ‘hot’ (hit by a Killer, Spike-rad combos, atmospheric re-entry, boarding action, short range laser-strafe). Most of them are ‘cold’, including starvation, dehydration, freezing, or asphyxiation. To affect these ‘victories’, the enemy need only disable the enemy vessel’s engines or power systems, for the most part, and let them drift into the Big Empty, never to be heard from again.

3: ‘Fighters’ are for Suicidal Nut-Jobs
The idea of a ‘fighter’ has been roundly abandoned by pretty much everybody by the 23rd century. The idea of a small, manoeuvrable vessel with good acceleration and high weapon payload exists, but those things are called ‘missiles’ and they are ‘manned’ by pAIs, not people. That way, when they don’t come back (and they don’t), you don’t care. You also don’t need to worry about things like inertial stress on the pilot or keeping life support active. It is cheaper, more efficient, and easier to just fire missiles that maintain fighters. Fighters still are very important in atmospheric roles, but not in space.

The notable exception to this is the HBV (Hostile Boarding Vehicle). These are basically assault boats used to board enemy vessels. They are only launched at short range when the odds of interception are very high (miss your intercept on an HBV and welcome to Cold Death) and they are also one-way trips, most of the time. Once attached, an HBV is not easily disengaged from this ship it’s boarding, and their boarding team needs to win the boarding action or wind up the prisoners of the enemy crew (or dead–there’s always that option). Ideally, HBVs are launched at crippled ships with disabled or non-existent point-defence systems, and they are usually launched in groups (why send one when you can send three?). ‘Ideal’ situations, of course, are not always possible. It is for this reason that marines are considered crazy.  

4: Fuel = Life
Due to the likelihood of Cold Death in the Big Empty, power is of utmost importance. Everything a ship does takes power and, therefore, fuel to accomplish. Want to change course? Fuel is needed to power the reactors which power the engines. Want to operate your point-defences? Fuel is needed to power the reactors which power the lasers. Want to speed up or slow down? Fuel. This is the primary reason, by the way, that missiles are preferred over other weapons (railguns, lasers, wavecannons, plasma throwers, etc.) because, unlike all those other weapons, missiles require a minimum of power to fire and are every bit as effective.

Without fuel, a ship is as good as dead. It’s life support can’t function, it can’t stop, turn, or speed up, it can’t fight, it can’t even see. Again, this has a huge impact on space warfare. Fighters aren’t used in part since the power needed to retrieve them is power wasted. Ships focus on crippling and letting enemy ships drift since, usually, the power needed to kill them isn’t necessary and needlessly weakens yourself. Battle happens at extreme ranges since the power needed to outmaneuver and intercept a ship isn’t necessary and can be a disastrous waste of resources.

Most vessels operate a main fusion reactor with a number of auxiliary fission reactors in reserve. The fusion reactor eats He3 fuel at a relatively speedy rate, but is able to reliably power all systems at once. The fission reactors are much less powerful, but work through their fuel rods at a much slower rate. Some ships maintain a store of chemical boosters and emergency beacons that run on their own, self-contained power in case of emergency, but those aren’t going to push a ship anywhere quickly nor are they especially likely to save a ship that’s drifted too far out of course. They only really buy you time.

5: Sensors are Limited
Star Trek is a load of nonsense. Unless you’re within a hundred clicks of a ship (give or take a few), you can’t tell whether an enemy vessel is powering weapons or how many lifeforms are aboard or really much of anything, especially not if the other ship doesn’t want you to scan them…or it’s venting radiation or it’s in the middle of a dust cloud or there is unusual solar flare activity or any number of other environmental concerns that render even the most sophisticated sensor arrays pretty useless.

‘Sensors’ refer to a couple distinct systems: RADAR, radio and conventional telescopes, thermal detectors, spectographic scanners, and gravitic recorders. All of these things work at the speed of light (c) or slower, meaning a vessel that rests 7 light-seconds away, when scanned, will be delivered information 7-14 seconds old (7 to get there and in some cases 7 to get back) or even more. If you have a *really* good fix on another ship, you know its velocity, direction, acceleration, and, if you’re very lucky or very good, can make an accurate guess at its mass. Typically, all you get is a read on its drive signature–either ion trails being picked up, telling you more-or-less where the thing is headed, or the gravitic warping effect of a slip drive, telling you basically the same thing. By crunching a lot of math, you can make a fairly accurate guess as to the velocity of the thing and, eventually, take a guess at its *average* acceleration. By crunching even *more* math you can hazard a guess at how much power it has at its disposal, giving you an idea of its size or, at least, the size of its reactor. If in a fight with a ship, the only good way to know if you’ve damaged it is to notice erratic patterns in radiation spillage, drive streams, or maybe even register a large explosion (if you’re lucky). Clever tacticians, of course, learn how to fake these things pretty well, so crews learn to stay on their toes.

The best way to learn about another ship is to talk to it. Again, communications run at the speed of light, so there is usually a slight delay. All non-military vessels and most military vessels that aren’t on active duty broadcast a callsign unless they are up to no good, which tells anyone who’s listening the ship’s name, complement, mass, and intended destination. Thanks to pirates, a ship’s callsign can be assumed to be inaccurate to varying degrees, even though SPIT-NET considers this behaviour illegal. Still, talking with somebody can reveal a lot–if nothing else, you can see if what they say matches up with your sensor data and guess if they’re lying and maybe even postulate why.

The tactical fallout of all this is, essentially, that most ship-to-ship space battles end before one side knows what’s happening. Getting blindsided by a spike-rad combo before you have your point-defence system running at optimum is a regrettably common occurrence (and also a reason to have your point-defences *always* operating), as is finding yourself under attack from a ship you can’t even see. Space combat is a giant game of lethal hide-and-seek, and if you don’t know you’re playing, you are usually going to lose.


So, that’s the gist of it. I’ve been running it this way, and so far it has given way to white-knuckled suspense for the players aboard their little souped-up merchant vessel. They haven’t been hit by a missle yet, but it will happen. Then the fun will really start…


About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on March 5, 2012, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts, Gaming and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. This isn’t helping me regret any less that we never got you to run Shadowrun back in the day. 😦

  2. You did a good effort of nailing the part about distances, but I woudn’t say this is much realistic either. If anything, the part that pulp science fiction got RIGHT was the part about energy weapons instead of projectiles. Why? Energy is much more abundant in space than matter. You can get evbergy with photovoltaic generators, even solar sails – it’s pretty much free, if not fast. But matter is entirely another thing. Assuming the setting doesn’t have big space mining and manufacturing industries (actually sited IN SPACE, not planets), the cost of putting matter in orbit makes it inordinately expensive. And yes, military stuff is expensive by default, but it also needs to be somewhat durable. Missiles being the weapon of choice, your ship would easily run out of them, and have nothing to replace them – no refuels, no restock, no rearm. It’s not like going to the port and getting ammo (as in submarines). So, lasers, plasma, and all kinds of rays would be the weapon of choice. Highly concentrated matter/effectiveness ratio would also be good, and in that, nuclear and antimatter weapons would be king (considering, also, that you don’t need to worry about radiation and civilian casualties). Those are just my two cents on the matter (and energy) of the topic.

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