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I'm building a science fiction setting for a space combat game, one in which players would be in the cockpit of a starfighter or bomber.

Unfortunately, reality says they would be vaporized by a laser-based point defense system before they could see any enemy ships.

I've been trying to work out a means to mitigate the effectiveness of point defenses so that fighters would still be viable while holding to a mostly-realistic world (realistic, but with some number massaging.) I've been trying to avoid any solution that involves floating matter around a ship to physically block projectiles or requires an overhaul of existing ship designs. Plasma shields are also out due to various issues, at least as a passive defense solution. They're used for something else.

After thinking a while, I came up with a an interesting idea; electronic warfare.


One idea I've been playing with are carriers and other capital ships producing electromagnetic interference. This interference cloud prevents computerized targeting systems from acquiring a lock precise enough to hit smaller targets like a fighter, bomber or transport/boarding craft.

As a bonus, I feel this also has an interesting effect on gameplay. It creates "islands" or influence zones where smaller craft are safe as long as their capital ships survive. It also helps to define gameplay boundaries.

In this scenario, what types of active scanners and passive sensors would be affected by electromagnetic interference? Which ones would not be affected by it at all? And would the remaining usable detection systems be capable of tracking small ships for targeting purposes?

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  • $\begingroup$ the various gundam series use a similar justification, the particles emitted by their reactors prevent the use of radar greatly distort heat output and the like making visual targeting necessary. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 27 '17 at 4:33
  • $\begingroup$ I was going for something similar to the Minovsky particles of the Gundam Universal Century timeline, but with the goal of reducing targeting ranges and automated point defense accuracy. I wanted to see if there was something in the real world that was comparable or that could be adapted/upscaled for a similar purpose. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Dec 27 '17 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ In the real world you stay as far away from the enemy as possible and shoot the biggest guns you have at them. It's going to be easier to just shoot your carrier than your fighters then your carriers are going to get shot. Point defense are going to have a harder time stopping a high speed missile/kinetic weapon/energy weapon than a fighter/bomber however you want to slice it. $\endgroup$ – A. C. A. C. Dec 29 '17 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ Go play Kerbal Space Program for a few hours. Try to do some orbital docking. Then try to use detachable solid fuel rockets as missiles. You will soon learn that the distances and velocities involved in space combat render visual contact-based combat impossible. $\endgroup$ – Renan Dec 29 '17 at 20:19
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But here is my take on it.

One For a laser point defense system to be effective, you have to be able to have the laser focused on the exact surface of the space craft it is hitting. If the laser isn't focused it won't be able to melt or damage the fighter ships as effectively and gives them time to adjust their course, block you with a larger ship or use multiple ships to take turns absorbing the heat. All the while they approach you. This isn't a normal laser you have in a lab that can burn a small hole through metal in a 10m range. This is 100's to 1000's or even more meters and your laser isn't focused its just a high powered light (Please correct me if this is wrong. I don't know of any high powered lasers that don't have a focus point of high energy)

Two Focusing the laser is an extremely delicate and complicated task. You would require huge focusing crystals/lenses that have to be perfectly clean or they will affect the focus of the laser. Tremors, shakes and acceleration would all affect the focus of the laser and affect the reliability of your point defense system. Once the enemy ships are on top of you and hitting you, your going to be shaking so much it will likely damage the internal laser generation and with all that power you are putting into the system it could easily break.

Three Distance plays an important role. At huge distances, focusing a laser and tracking can be extremely hard. A small time delay would be enough to allow a detection system to start taking evasive maneuvers. Whatever manipulators you are using to redirect the beam and its focus will need an incredibly high degree of accuracy and reliability, as well as being able to track the enemy.

Four At close range fighting, the lasers would be terrible. Any ships flying too close would be basically impossible to track fast enough to effectively hit and the constant shaking and tremors from being hit would probably end up damaging your system. The lasers would also likely take up a huge amount of space and power to run, and if they are ineffective at close range, that man power would be better placed somewhere else.

Five If there is something that would let enemy ships immediately close the gap (warp speed anyone?), your point defense system would be useless. Two carrier type ships fighting each other with point defense systems might be cool, But if I can hit you with plasma that just burns through your ship before your point defense system gets me, I win. Also I don't think a point defense system would be able to stop high velocity plasma (not sure about the actual physics of it).

Six I'm not sure how a laser point defense system would stop solid projectiles. If it was something that carried an explosive charge I could see it being useful, but wouldn't most solid projectiles (which would travel in a predictable fashion and hence be ideal for a point defense system to tackle) just melt or become plasma and continue along its original trajectory as it was originally travelling extremely fast? It might not do as much kinematic damage, but it would burn and weaken the hull.

Some other suggestions.

  • You could purposely shoot out gas, which would disrupt the lasers. Lasers are generally invisible, once it hits gas, its energy is reduced as it bounces off the particles.
  • Carriers with a ton of drones would be effective distractions for actual fighters. They could effectively shield the ships from the lasers.
  • If your lasers are powerful enough, I don't see any reason you wouldn't use it to destroy the capitol ships rather than smaller fighters. Of course, if the laser isn't effective enough, you would give your position away, and a more effective weapon would be able to take you down leading to a trade situation which is bad for both sides.
  • High powered lasers are not simple tools to operate. They would require a huge amount of power and people to constantly maintain them, not to mention they are expensive and can be very large.
  • A natural counter to capitol ships with lasers would be a swarm of smaller ships. There would be an point where have 2 smaller ships with lasers beats a single ship with a bigger laser. It becomes an arms battle at which is the most cost effective
  • Lasers aren't miracle weapons that will burn through everything in their path. There is a focus point where the beam will converge and be the most effective. Lasers aren't generated from a point source and the light waves don't all move in the exact same direction alone a perfect line and hence need to be focused. Think of a magnifying glass. If you aren't close to the correct distance its not nearly as effective as you would imagine.
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The spectrum is too wide for this to work

You say

I know that electromagnetic interference would not do anything to cover up heat signatures. I am going to look into a separate solution for this.

This is sort of showing an lack of understanding. Every object emits radiation; this is called blackbody radiation. The temperature of the object determines the wavelength of this radiation. For example, the sun is hot, so it radiates a lot of visual light. You are not so hot, so you radiate mostly infra-red.

You idea to use electronic warfare to jam the spectrum will only apply to whatever wavelengths you can jam. Here on Earth, that is practicable. There are a lot of limitations on how far radiation will travel on Earth. Our thick atmosphere attenuates signals, so that only a certain subset of signals are good for long range detection. These signals can be blocked with electronic warfare. Even more limiting, intelligence agencies are used to determine the exact wavelengths of enemy sensor systems, so that you know exactly what to jam.

In space, the spectrum is wide open. There is nothing blocking signals of any wavelength. Therefore anything from LF radio waves up to gamma rays can be used as a sensor. In order to blind sensors with electronic warfare, you need to emit a lot of energy in all wavelengths. Sort of like a star does.

So unless you are/have a mobile star, you won't be able to jam enough wavelengths of EM radiation to make this practicable.

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  • $\begingroup$ I doubt fusion reactors would create enough EM radiation to qualify as a 'mobile star', would they? $\endgroup$ – Arvex Dec 27 '17 at 3:29
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    $\begingroup$ In essence, a device which could emit enough energy over a wide variety of frequencies would be a weapon in its own right, and to be truly effective and compact enough to be used, would need to send its radiation pulse in a directional beam or cone. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Dec 27 '17 at 5:05
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The problem with trying to jam in space is that you are loudly announcing to everyone where you are, so all they have to do it turn down the gain on passive sensors and you've kindly given them your exact position, how fast you're moving, and in what direction.

Consider submarine warfare as an example: sure, you could produce a tonne of noise to try and overwhelm someone coming after you with active sonar, but all you're doing is loudly announcing to passive receivers even further away where exactly you are.

Jamming is more effective in atmosphere, as mentioned, because it's possible to "hide" more effectively. You can be below the horizon so they don't have line of sight. Thermal isn't as effective over long range. You can hide in clouds. None of that is true in space, giving a defender a far greater ability to use a multitude of methods to see and track you.

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  • $\begingroup$ I figured it would be announcing its presence to passive sensors. The idea was really to make smaller craft hard to target since only the big ships are producing this interference. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Dec 27 '17 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ Ah. For gameplay purposes, that's actually a doable. However, it creates the problem that the jamming identifies the location of the carriers, which means optical systems can be pointed at them and thus spot the fighters being launched (or at least the areas where the fighters are likely to be coming from). The other issue is that this would, by necessity, screw up the sensor systems of the friendly ships as well. This would be sub-optimal, and would tend to lean toward it being used only in short-term and very specific circumstances where blinding everyone is better than the alternative. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Dec 27 '17 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ Disruption of friendly sensors is something I was factoring in. The interference is supposed to reduce the effective range of sensors, not render them completely inoperable. This would also serve to bring fighting in closer together. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Dec 28 '17 at 4:17
  • $\begingroup$ Someone using that system would be beaten by the first group that kept distances long and forced fighters to come to them, away from the jamming carriers. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Dec 28 '17 at 6:30
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In most mediums, the trick is to try and eliminate as much of your signature as possible, making it harder to detect you, or to get a target lock. This is the reason that submarines and fifth generation fighters are designed with so much attention to signature reduction and passive sensors, to avoid revealing themselves until it is too late to do anything about it.

Space is a much different environment. Because it isn't a fluid medium like water or air, it does not absorb radiation, so your signatures do not get absorbed or diminish, and there is no differential absorption of different wavelengths either. In addition, you are playing against a background which is marginally above absolute zero, meaning any emissions show up against the cold background of space. You need energy to maintain life support and other "hotel" functions, much less move or fire weapons, so you will be a bright spot against the cosmic background. Atomic Rockets has a section on the ins and outs of "stealth in space" for the gory details.

Not everyone agrees, and on the Tough SF site there is a detailed and rather interesting attempt to define ways where you could achieve stealth in space, under certain circumstances. While I don't necessarily agree, the author has though this out in detail, so perhaps if everything works out you could achieve stealth for limited periods. Unfortunately, the ship designed around these principles resembles a WWI U boat more than a fighter.

enter image description here

Solar powered Hydrogen Steamer (after Matter Beam)

This leads to another issue. If people are trying to sneak around in stealthy spaceships, then everyone else will be doing everything possible to detect them. My preferred solution would be constellations of sensors operating as interferometers at a multitude of wavelengths, effectively becoming sensors with apertures of 1 light second in diameter (similar to the distance between the Earth and the Moon). Larger ones are possible, but the light lag between the elements makes them unwieldy.

enter image description here

now keep adding mirrors....

Of course if I can create that much sensor power to find spacecraft even if they are cooled to 22K (Matterbeam's suggested operational temperature), then I can target anything from incredible distances, which leads to the final objection to coming into "eyeball" distance: you are flying into a gauntlet of fire accurate to 1 light second away. (In practical terms, you could shoot much farther, but a greater than 2 second delay between detection and a laser reaching the target starts allowing for jinking manoeuvres). With even less than SFnal technology, you could send rocket propelled weapons that distance, the "New Horizons" spacecraft crossed the distance between the Earth and the Moon in 9 hours, which would be sufficient to deliver a spread of submunitions unless the spacecraft has even greater amounts of deltaV.

Luke Campbell described the ultimate laser weapon in Atomic Rockets, under "non bomb pumped lasers", which can send a Ravening Beam of Death (RBoD) X ray laser capable of vapourizing metals, ceramics or carbon fibre at a distance of a light second, and is highly dangerous even a light minute away. Since size and power outputs can scale rapidly in a space environment, I suggest that the name of the game in space warfare is to detect and fire at targets at at long a range as you can effectively do so. Your space fighter isn't being targeted by a CIWS cannon, but by the freaking Death Star.

enter image description here

Not this

enter image description here

but this (to understand the scale, the "racetrack" is an electron beam accelerator a kilometre long)

So sadly, unless you are willing to do a lot of handwaving, there is really no way to achieve your goal. On the other hand, by carefully examining the actual space environment, you could create a very alien play environment much different than "Dawn Patrol" in Space.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm not trying to do complete stealth in space, just trying to interfere with sensor accuracy. The goal is to simply muddle up targeting systems enough that fighters and bombers won't be instantly vaporized by a high powered laser once they're in sensor range. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Jan 3 '18 at 0:27
  • $\begingroup$ The point is sensor range is effectively infinity in space, with target lock at one light second (due to light lag between the sensing of the target and laser fire arriving). Any device powerful enough to mess up sensors a light second away is effectively a weapon in its own right, and probably something similar in size and scale as Luke Campbell's RBoD. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Jan 3 '18 at 0:51
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I might be a bit late to offer insight to this that hasn't been provided by the other answers, but I suspect there might be something that hasn't been looked upon yet:

The Realism-Playability-Relationship.

Of course I'm in no way an expert to that topic nor could I provide wisdom not available to a greater extend to our first instance of online knowledge with the capital W.... but I'm a wargamer.
As such I spend much time playing games where a great effort has been spend making them pretty realistic. And while "realistic" and "space warefare" isn't anything you'll find today, one can jump into an P-3 Orion and do ASW all by himself, reading MAD and SAD lines.

And while you'll get games where you can hide your submarine below several thermal layers or even below another ship, conceal your torpedoes behind other torpedoes, turn off all your active sensors (and your engines) of your ASW frigate to make it next to impossible for submarines to detect you without active sensors... all games have to cut it somewhere, to make it still possible for an untrained operative (the casual gamer) to grasp how to use that stuff.

All the other answers are probably correct with their assumptions about how utterly impossible it is to hide in a high vacuum where you are the only source of radiation for a couple of megameters. And that you will be done for once you get into the range of their laser guns.
There is at least one try to get something like active stealth in space, which happens to be the Normandy from Mass Effect, which is said to store their heat internally but need to release it from time to time in an atmosphere... But that seems to be no option when your enemy is expecting you.

So you need to either skip that and just claim that its done somehow for the sake of playability. Even Dangerous Waters, which is a game made from guys that do actually create military grade naval sensors, cuts its realism at one point, which is the way the ocean does work. There are thermal layers in that game, but they do work way more simple than in reality. Or your sonar buoys are limited to shallow and deep, instead of a self defined depth.

And what can you do?

Skip it

Your game needs to skip that part, where your poor fighter crafts get toasted by lasers, and just insert them right into operational range, either by elaborate handwaving or other means. Still... even if you just plain avert this, there is another problem you need to avert, too: the high speed of objects passing each other in space.

I suggest grabbing the Demo of Kerbal Space Program and try to dock two spacecrafts, which both have a relative velocity of 500m/s. Or just watch it zip past you. It will shift from dot to highly visible to dot in a couple of seconds... and because KSP is scaled down, use km/s instead of for the relative velocities in use by our modern day spacecrafts. If you want to reach your enemy in a decent timeframe, you need to get even faster, where you might get to a point where your timeframe for aiming and shooting is about 10ms.

But why is that a problem? Because your "realistic fighters" would drift out of the "too close to aim" area in a matter of eye blinks. Right into the "absurd big core firing area of any useful laser cannon", which will get a superb trajectory of your fighters zipping by and just need to lead their aim.

To be honest, I did ponder about the mechanics of a realistic space ship fighting game some time ago too, and I needed to forfeit at the point where I didn't found a way to keep the game realistic and playable, because at a given point its duked out not by pilots or weapons, but the Sensor-ECM-ECCM complex.
I noticed that any spacefight would work like this:

  1. detecting each other (minutes to hours)
  2. getting into effective firing range (probably even longer)
  3. being the first to get a weapon lock (micro to nano seconds)
  4. wait for the laser to hit (a second or so)

And most of the "action" happens in 1 and 3. While 1 can be interesting if you allow some less than realistic approaches to hide and sensor something, 3 will evolve into something that isn't short in tactical depth to chess.

As the others told you, there are way to much emissions to hide from passive sensors, but you might be able to go the other way:
hide in your own blob of em-emissions, or extend it to make your ship a bigger target (and leave the question "where in that 1km² sensor blob is that darn enemy?" up to your enemy). If you can't hide yourself, all you can do is making it as hard as possible to actually get the... exact location of the signatures source.

While that might work if you doing an Star Trek like battle between precise but quite small fleets (or even single ships), an environment with fighters would went for "spray and pray (but with lasers)" to take potshots at as many targets as possible.
Well, that does sound like Battlestar Galactica, but they do use guns for this which are reduced in usefulness to most close range defence (which is sufficient, because its that way there).

Instead of that you could cover that whole 1km² em blob within a second or less using a statistically calculated firing pattern that will grant the biggest chance to hit something with your laser cannon.

So, what can you learn from this?
I would think that you scenario isn't a candidate for "most realistic game of the millenia", so you can...

  1. drop the fighter/bomber approach,
  2. avoid the question of "how to ecm them" and start thinking about "what's about the relative velocities",
  3. try to use the "hide behinde the wall of dead bards" approach, eh, I mean "behind the wall of false sensor information"
  4. greatly extend the ranges involved to a point where your fighters distribute themselves all over a star system and wait for prey in more usuable location, like the Cronosphere of the local star, at which it would stop feeling like a fighter-carrier game (thats why I didn't even talk about it until now)

I do wonder what you will choose.

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    $\begingroup$ If you want to get soft linebreaks in your answer/question result you need to add two spaces at the end of a line before you hit the Enter key. $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jan 2 '18 at 10:23
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not going for most realistic as a realistic game in this genre would not be fun. I'm just trying to make sure that what exists makes sense in a realistic context. Modern point defense systems would probably be sufficient enough to ruin the game before factoring in 600 years of technological advancements between the present and period of the game. So I feel like that's a big unanswered question I should attempt to tackle. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Jan 3 '18 at 0:20
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Although your question asks if electromagnetic interference would be effective (it wouldn't: visual, infra-red, etc, even reverse triangulation all can counter this), your question actually is:

[How do I] mitigate the effectiveness of point defenses?

Point-to-point laser defences have an insane number of flaws. Realistically, all they can target are small craft and missiles (low armour, poor shielding).

However, there's quite a few major issues:

Reflective armour plating

Whilst mirror-esque armour might be useless against conventional kinetic weaponry (it's reflectivity is easily thwarted if it becomes damaged), it offers a near perfect defence against lasers as it dissipates nearly as much energy as it receives (which is why missile interceptors must be coupled with point-to-point lasers to stop this being a thing).

Slow or weak pivot points/fast ships

One major issue for the laser turrets is they must be able to provide a basic 180 degree (or nearest) coverage, and to do that, they must be able to pivot. Older models of point-to-point laser systems have slower pivots and thus cannot keep up with faster missiles or craft.

Faster pivots tend to be more technical, and thus more suspect to breakage or wear.

Refractive chaff

In space, one big issue is debris hangs around for a long time. As an anti-point-to-point defence measure, some ships and larger fighters come equipped with micro-reflective chaff that they can deploy, which 'muddies the waters', so to speak, causing micro-deflections of energy and thus reducing the damage the laser does.

Multi-targets

Even the fastest point-to-point turret system has to be paired with other turrets, because another issue is sheer numbers of targets. Fleets of fighters use swarm tactics, as do missiles (some missiles with multiple warheads).

Some fighters carry dud missiles whose sole purpose is specifically to trick point-to-point systems (this is usually circumvented by having two categories of PTP: anti-fighter and anti-missile).

Cloaking

A PTP's biggest weakness is it cannot hit what it cannot see. However, cloaking makes a ship invisible on the visible light spectrum. Some ships have cloaking so advanced that PTP lasers simply 'bend around' the craft - a variation of the mirror armour.

Thickness versus strength

Another cause for PTP failure is that the armour thickness is greater than the heat or melting point strength of a laser. This is especially true in older PTP models encountering newer types of armour.

Energy absorption system

Some armour variations actually absorb the light (kinda like a heavy duty solar panel) and either dissipate, redistribute or even absorb the energy (often going back into the shields).

Other point-to-point systems

Even more infuriatingly, some people had the bright idea to use PTP defences to attack other PTP defences.

So, to recap, your ship can use:

  • Mirror shielding/armour.
  • Thicker armour.
  • Decoys.
  • Mirror Chaff.
  • Cloaking (bending light)
  • Energy absorption.
  • Speed.
  • Covering fire from other PTP systems.
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remote electronic warfare and military satellites is not really a big thing

Military satellites are an expensive venture, most are built with enough security and encryption features to expressly prevent unauthorized control. Even their ground control systems are kept isolated from public networks. So to be able to remotely "hack" a satellite is harder than to remotely hack the pentagon which actually has connections to public networks.

Hiding from the prying eyes of modern sensors is also extremely difficult with the best options being under water or underground (even then theres no guarantee). Factor any array of futuristic orbital weapons (currently banned by treaty.....) and there is really no defense.

However here is one evolution of orbital warfare that I foresee progressing:

Currently the hubris of satellites is that they are assumed 'safe' because they are isolated by 100s of miles of space which make physical access costly and noticeable.

You could destroy a satellite, but I see that as wasteful as they are expensive.

I believe a robot could be created and remotely be controlled to fly up to satellites and carry tools to physically access satellites. Once accessed they can establish a direct connection to the operating of the satellite allowing remote hackers to take over the satellite. Thus acquiring them both a new operational asset and potentially a counter intelligence counter operational asset. If their take over was undetected they could feed the originating country false information. IF it was a weapons satellite they could tweak the targeting system such that if the enemy uses the satellite to target an allied target they could adjust the values such that any attack would miss. This way the enemy wastes attacks while revealing their target and is lured into a false sense of confidence(this is probably the greatest advantage one could attain in war).

The next evolution is:

Satellites become equipped with proximity detection sensors and defense turrets to prevent hack bots. As well as possible counter hack bots.

Then the next evolution is:

armored stealth hack bots

The evolution of software and AI factors into this progression randomly.

Eventually you end up with manned orbital warships with orbital war being similar to naval war with parties vying for orbital dominance.

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