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I'm intrigued by the use of Cyber- or Electronic Warfare (short EW) in a space combat scenario.

Basically something that is very rarely (if at all) seen in Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galatica, etc., but is a major player in today's reality on Earth where Cyberwarfare has huge effects over virtually any matter, possibly more impactful than an army of tanks.

Would it actually be possible to apply EW over a distance of hundreds of thousands of kilometers? Could you channel these virtual (wave) weapons at an enemy vessel and would it actually be able to have any effect on said vessel?

I'm assuming electronics are still a part of technology in a few hundred years, and "power" as well as "command" on a ship would be transmitted not by wireless but on hardened lines and as such would be less prone to attack. So simply scrambling by overloading frequencies wouldn't work.

Would it actually be possible to affect a target vessel's "main computer" and perhaps disable its weapon systems, alter engine behavior or something or is this just some random rambling without any reasonable grounds?

If so, what exactly would be the main difference on why Electronic Warfare is so powerful in our time and would be without any use in a future time ?

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    $\begingroup$ Related, possibly duplicate: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/22641/… $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Jan 12 '18 at 11:41
  • $\begingroup$ @F1Krazy I feel the "Why doesn't it work?" question sufficiently separates these two questions to not be duplicates, but they are strongly related. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jan 12 '18 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre Fair enough. I wasn't sure myself, which is why I held off on close-voting. $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Jan 12 '18 at 13:43
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    $\begingroup$ I thought the reason that Galactica even survived was that it was harded/impervious to the Cylons Cyber-Attack? $\endgroup$ – Whinja Jan 12 '18 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ Many video games with space combat actually do have EW, it's just not flashy enough for action movies. Also, as mentioned, Battlestar Galactica had EW shown, both on-screen and off-screen, as effective as you'd expect it to be. Raptors even had a designated workplace for an EW officer. $\endgroup$ – Alice Jan 12 '18 at 15:24
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Difficulties

Off of the top of my head, I can think of a few reasons why this might not work. A large spaceship would have its own communication network or networks, and I can't really think of a reason why an intergalactic-capable civilization would leave any part of that network exposed such that an external enemy ship could get access to any part of any network. Of course, friendly ships must have some way of communicating with other friendly ships, but I assume any such communication link would be extremely well defended and possibly even airgapped from the rest of the ship's systems.

Incentives

There are huge incentives in space warfare to not actually pursue combat that could destroy ships. First, space vessels are going to be WILDLY expensive under any rational system. If you could defeat an enemy using cyber warfare, you could not only stay well out of range of conventional weapons, you could also capture their vessel completely intact. If you don't particularly care about human lives, you could just vent the ship and voila, you have acquired a perfectly intact, unmanned vessel of incredible value. If you do care about human lives, you could ransom all those thousands of people back to their side (for a nice chunk of change) and keep the vessel anyway. Furthermore, if neither side of the conflict inspires significant loyalty in their troops, you could just acquire the vessel wholesale, completely ready for action.

Arms Race

As may have been clear above, I can't really picture what sort of cyber defenses and attacks would be possible in a intergalactic-capable civilization. They would be quite unimaginable in my estimation, so far past our own current capabilities as to be unrecognizable. What I can guess is that, as soon as we invent cyberdefenses that seem unconquerable, someone else will invent an attack to conquer our system. As soon as that attack seems unstoppable, someone will invent a way to defend a system from it. This arms race will continue all the way up until the setting of your world, which will most definitely have some flavors of attack and defense. One side may have the temporary advantage, but sooner or later their will always be a new exploit.

Conclusion

It might be possible to create a system that is completely invulnerable, or an attack that is unstoppable, but I doubt it. I would guess we don't see cyber warfare on the silver screen because it doesn't make for particularly compelling television. In real life, I believe militaries would use every tool available to them, including cyber warfare.

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Forget Electronic Jamming

If you spend a colossal amount of money on a war spaceship you would make it resistant to any magnetic storm that a solar flare could cause, and if you are able to produce that amount of energy, you might as well use it as a way to melt the enemy ship.

Sometime Size Matters

The hacking could be a really good weapon, at least again small ships where there would be fewer electronics, so it is possible that you could disable every system quite nicely but if you try it on a real big ship there will be a big problem because it would have really compartmentalized network structure, they won't put all their important systems on one big computer, they would most probably compartmentalize it to limit the damage any one intrusion could cause.

But the More Important Part is How You Use It

The real advantage of Electronic Weaponry is that you can target an internal system. It wouldn't replace conventional weaponry but for sure it would be a powerful way to complete your arsenal.

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    $\begingroup$ Im thinking the opposite would be true. Cyber-attacking, if possible, a larger ship would be easier, since it has way more attack vectors compared to a smaller one. While it might be more heavily decentralized or fire-walled, it would also have more vulnerabilites. Also, it would be easier to track over long distance and hence, apply cyber. Dont you agree ? $\endgroup$ – user431806 Jan 13 '18 at 10:29
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    $\begingroup$ i dont think you would hade the same level of security on a litle compared to a big cruiser, and because a lot of thing would be decentralized, you would maybe probleme on a litle part of the ship that can be ignore during the battle. also if you hack in a small ship they if you jamm a system their is less chance that it got backup system (i think about survive system $\endgroup$ – shas Jan 13 '18 at 10:45
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I would distiguish electronic warfare to

  • Hard or physical - e.g. EMP weapons which roughly speaking burn your circuits
  • Soft or physical - e.g. Hacking, Viruses which does not destroy the hardware, but does something more delicate on software level.

Hard

It is actually very easy to protect almost anything from time-varying electromagnetic field by Faraday Cage and to some degree even against static magentic field. The reason why modern weapon systems and civil infrastructure are volnurable to such weapons is mostly inertia and cost - nobody yet invested to modyfing it to be resiliant against such weapons.

On the other hand spaceship would most probably utilize many components which cannot be shileded due to nature of tis function. Most profoundly Electromagnetic coild of propulsion system - e.g. from plazma nozzle or Electromagnetic tether or some sort of magnetic sail. Shield based on magneized plasma bouble (artificial Magnetoshpere) would be also very volnurable to EMP.

You can rather easily project electromagnetic pulse to large distance. In essence it is just like Radio-Frequency pulse. Only problem is that the pulse has rather long wave-lengh, so you need rather large Antena. And the antena must either survive the pulse (which limits the pulse power ... e.g. Nuclear bomb generated pulse would destroy any metalic antena ) or be dicarted each shot (which is huge waste of material, since the antena is large).

Best obtion seems to be plasma antena which is basically large cloud of plasma formed into desired shape by magnetic field. You may also think about plasma lense where similar effect is achieved by varying electromagnetic impedance for puls traversing through the plasma cloud. Such antenas can easily reach diameter >100km and focus pulse to distance up to milion km.

You may produce such plasma antena or lense eigher slowly (using some electromagnetic tethers and coils using e.g. solar wind or electron/ion gun), but than you risk it can be destroyed by enemy before you use it. You can also make it fast using nuclear pre-explosion which first create a plasma cloud, while second nuclear induce electromagnetic wave inside it. That would be similar to fuel art explosive, where cloud of fueld is first dispersed by one explosion, and then ignited by second.

Soft

I don't know much. I'm a physicist, not expert on internet security. But I guess you can very well protect your ship from any hacking simply cutting off all communication. Even if you need to communicate, current encoding using asymmetric codes are very hard to break, and you can always just make it longer thus exponentially harder to break. Maybe quantum computer will change it, but I guess there is some fundamental limit po performance of quentum computers, as with increasing number of quibits it is exponentially harder to keep the quibits form decoherence due to external noise.

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Unlikely

Cyberwarfare would be an important part of any space navy. However, you will still need conventional weapons of some kind. Cyberwarfare as a ship to ship weapon is going to be unlikely. However in space combat and scifi it will remain important. Even the star wars original films it shows up. "it's an older code but it checks out," The rebels steal a clearance code to defeat the defences around Endor.

Difficulty

Gaining access to the systems in a remote enemy ship is going to be difficult. The communications systems are going to be airgapped from the important control systems for the simple reason that cyber attacks ARE a great way to attack a ship. The ships designers are going to be take cyber warfare into account and make it the internal systems inaccessible from outside.

Communication in space isn't trivial and without a communication area pointed at your vessel the enemy ship may simply not receive your attempts to hack them.

Time

The biggest difficult with cyberwarfare replacing conventional weapons is time. If an enemy ship is bearing down on you unless you have a prebuilt attack ready for them you probably aren't going to be able to be able to beat their mass drivers or lasers to the punch.

Adaptability/Lifespan

Upgrading your armor is expensive and resource intensive and may take years before the next generation of armor renders your weapons obsolete. The vulnerability you use to break into a ships system could be resolved before the battle is won. If you turn off their engines they may be able to turn them back unless your have a boarding party or laser or missile to permanently disable them. You can also disable their first round of ships but if you are attacking a vulnerability in their software than you might not be able to disable the second.

If information travel is significantly faster than the travel of ships than news of the weakness may arrive weeks ahead of your ships after you take out one ship with it.

Show of Force

Anytime you let you enemy know you have an exploit for their system, that exploit is going to be short lived. If you want to stop a vessel from bombing your homeworld you will need to either destroy it or convince the crew it would be destroyed before it could drop the bombs. The vulnerability you use to stop the first ship they send is unlikely to stop the second. You want enough conventional force that enemy doesn't feel that can simply roll over you. You can't simply say that you have a cyber attack ready to stop his navy at moment's notice otherwise he will search it out and fix it or call your bluff.

Advantages

Cyberwarfare would be an important part of warfare in space.

Cyberwarfare has reach that will become more important the more spread out humanity becomes. As a ship to ship weapon it is less useful but if you can access their designs you can find vulnerabilities. You can also delay their production reducing the enemy strength. A ship may take months to reach a target but if you can shutdown all life support on a space station you may never need to send a ship to destroy it.

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The information security(hacking) side has been addressed by others, so I'm going to focus on the more traditional side of electronic warfare, radar jamming and it's cousin electronic information gathering. In modern warfare, especially air warfare, electronic warfare is as effective as it is because of the reliance on active sensors that send out and receive a signal(basically think about all of the ways you could be clever or cheat in a game of Marco Polo). Aircraft are almost entirely detected by radar, with generally much more limited use of things like passive infrared detection that can simply detect the heat from the aircraft. Most electronic warfare is thus about making the enemy's radar less effective so that your aircraft can blow up their defenses or slip past their defenses to do something else. Jamming also requires accurate information about the nature of the radars that you are trying to jam in the first place, so much of the work is about electronic information gathering in peace time so that you can have the information before you start. It also means that moving radars is an extremely important part of the game.

The problem with all of this in a realistic space context is that the majority of sensors for spacecraft can rely on passive sensors, as there is virtually nothing to hide against with the backdrop of space. Thus fooling active sensors won't have much value. Decoys with enough energy to fool sensors would be just as expensive as the original ship itself, because of the thermodynamic limits involved. While there are infrared countermeasures used by aircraft on Earth, including actual infrared jammers(used by helicopters against anti-aircraft missiles) this would really not work in space because there is no medium to disguise the heat against. It all comes down to the old adage that there is no stealth in space. This is not as absolute when it comes to electronic warfare over stealth, but it is still much more limited than on Earth with something to hide against.

Even communications jamming has significant problems in space. If you're using lasers as a communications device, there is virtually nothing you can use to block or alter them in the same way you can radio signals. Even satellite relays for high altitude military drones are extremely hard to block or intercept using highly directional radio signals. Stories you've heard about drones signals being intercepted are generally about the unencrypted data feeds being sent to friendly forces.

Also, in Star Wars specifically there is actually quite heavy use of electronic warfare. It is even good enough that active jamming doesn't just mean you can't see a specific thing, it means you can't detect the fact that you are being jammed in the first place. When Lando's fighter squadrons are preparing to attack the second Death Star, none of them are capable of noticing that their lack of reading means jamming rather than that the shields are down.

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