In my scifi world I would like space combat to frequently involve sending boarding parties to defeat the enemy ship.

Perhaps the infiltrators can disable the enemy ship's shields so that they be more easily destroyed. Or perhaps they could kill the whole crew of the ship.

However it raises the question; instead of teleportation or breaking into the ship. Why not just teleport an explosive into their ship? Or send a missile? It seems like this would be much more effective way of defeating the enemy ship.

I appreciate that sometimes you would like to take prisoners, or take supplies, or take the ship itself, which is easier if you don't use explosives.

But I would like boarding to be the easiest way to render an enemy ship inoperable. How can I achieve this?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Mołot, Draco18s, kingledion, Renan, Anketam Feb 9 at 14:56

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • What's wrong with Terminator explanation that only tissue can be transported? Please describe how you envision your teleportation if it plays so major role in your question. – Mołot Feb 9 at 0:02
  • Ships in your universe are equipped with "Non-explosion field" generators. This fields prevents any explosions - chemical or nuclear, inside or in near proximity of the ship. Only a boarding party armed with ray guns can disable this generator or capture the whole ship. – Alexander Feb 9 at 0:03
  • Does Space Battles need to happen? You could have something in the vein of a "Gentleman's war" where spaceships don't so much enter combat as they are stealthly boarded and taken away. – Sasha Feb 9 at 0:52
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    In FTL it is possible to teleport aboard an enemy ship, kill the crew and salvage more scrap and fuel. Whereas destroying the ship has a smaller payout. – Will Feb 9 at 12:00
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    Honestly, take a look at why ships are boarded historically rather than just blown up. Same answer, regardless of relative tech levels or anything else. The only reason to board a ship is to have the ship or things it has on it (people/supplies/etc). And frankly, that's a good enough reason. – Paul Feb 10 at 18:25

22 Answers 22

Spaceships are sacred relics from the Ones-That-Came-Before

The techniques of building warp engines have been lost centuries ago and now each of the surviving spaceships capable of FTL is a priceless relic.

No one wants to destroy a spaceship, so combat will be more to take control of it then to destroy it.

Alternatively:

Wars are a thing of savages and barbarians.

These days with the advanced sensors a ship can detect any enemy way ahead of time and blown it out of space with a swarm of nuclear missiles, but what happens when the catering team you hired to entertain your guests turns out to be space pirates?

When spend trillions making a space battleship when you can hire a rag tag team of colorful and zany thieves and scoundrels to infiltrate and take over your enemy ships?

Actually, it could be as simple as debris.

Space is big but that doesn't mean that it's all going to get traversed evenly. There are going to be transit lines between major star systems and even between planets in a single solar system.

But wait! (I hear you say;) Planets are in orbits, so you're never going to use the same space to get between Earth and Mars, for instance.

Not entirely true. The Hohmann Transfer windows for instance will commonly be used because they're efficient and fast, so provided your transit isn't time critical (and in many cases where it is) you'll just wait on Earth for the planets to be aligned properly to fly between them.

So; given that you have the equivalent of shipping lanes, and that because space is big your ships have to travel really fast to get somewhere within a reasonable timeframe, the absolutely LAST thing you can afford is a bunch of debris right slap bang in the middle of your transit route. You already have a massive ice shield on the front of your ship to protect you from interstellar dust et al; imagine what would happen if you struck a two tonne jaggedly edged piece of Hardashellium that used to be part of a destroyer's hull?

So; you could say by convention, but really it's enlightened self interest that stops you from attacking ships directly with weapons. You send in small assault shuttles that are designed to either burn through the hull and preserve the bits that you cut out, or just hack an airlock, and send your marines in. This keeps your shipping lines free of debris and allows your ships future safe passage.

Besides; these things are hellishly expensive. Back in the 1800's, it was customary to try to take enemy supply ships and naval vessels as 'prizes' if possible; by doing so, you saved your country the resources and time required to build a new ship from scratch, and you denied your enemy the benefit of those invested resources. The same thing would be true in the future with space ships insofar as if there are only limited resources that can go into building them in the first place, capturing hostile ships instead of destroying them provides you a significant advantage in any conflict.

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    "By doing so, you saved your country the resources and time required to build a new ship from scratch" and also gave yourself the ability to study technological advances made by the enemy and improve the ships you built in the future. – Peter Taylor Feb 9 at 10:56
  • "Space is big [citation needed]" Citation supplied. – TripeHound Feb 9 at 15:26
  • More importantly to the sailors involved in boarding prizes a portion of the value of the ship captured was awarded to the crew as a reward. – Sarriesfan Feb 9 at 18:54
  • @TripeHound, Oustanding. I'm using that from now on. – Tim B II Feb 9 at 22:22

They want to take the crew alive.

http://deremilitari.org/2014/07/killing-or-clemency-ransom-chivalry-and-changing-attitudes-to-defeated-opponents-in-britain-and-northern-france-7-12th-centuries/

... The battle was a resounding victory for the Anglo-Normans, yet of the 900 or so knights engaged, only three were killed.[2] The Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis, writing at the monastery of St Evroult in southern Normandy and one of our finest sources for the nature of contemporary warfare, offered his own explanation for this striking lack of casualties:

They were all clad in mail and spared each other on both sides, out of fear of God and fellowship in arms (notitia contubernii); they were more concerned to capture than kill the fugitives. As Christian soldiers, they did not thirst for the blood of their brothers, but rejoiced in a just victory given by God for the good of Holy Church and the peace of the faithful.

There are several reasons why the victors might want the crew alive.

1. Chivalry. It is bad form to kill fellow beings if avoidable. It shows greater finesse / nobility / honor to the Creator to take your opponents alive and treat them well.

2. Ransom. Not completely incompatible with #1 - perhaps the crew have family or backers to whom they are worth something. Those people might be willing to pay ransom to have them returned.

3. You need crew. Sailing ships long practiced impressment - a sailor is a sailor and if you need some you can take them off of other ships you encounter. The crewmen on the captured ship might be working men with no particular deep loyalty who are glad to continue in their line of work as crewmen and so will go to work for the captor. That is especially true if you capture their ship intact - who is going to fly it for you?

4. Rules of war. Maybe your world operates under something like the Geneva convention or Kittamer accords. Blowing up a starship outright is a war crime like the use of poison gas or torture. Proper war conduct involves boarding opposing ships and fighting it out. Both sides adhere to these conventions because neither wants a return to the wasteful murderous bad old days.

Spaceships are expensive. Thus, it's cheaper to capture your enemy's ships and use them yourself (as done in the Age of Sail) than to blow them up while building even more of your own.

There's almost no good reason for this to be the case; for the same reason that if the goal is eliminating a (modern day) opponent's war-fighting capability, you don't need boots on the ground.

Particularly in space combat, enormous transfer of energy is going to be the easiest way to stop anything.

However, my best explanation:

Spacecraft are Impossibly Tough

Early in [Your Race's] exploration of space, they discovered Unperturbium. This mineral/element/whatzit allows construction of materials so tough that it requires enormous amounts of energy just to forge them, and once forged, even dropping them into a sun takes some time to destroy them. This has made fractional-C travel much easier, if somewhat noisy, as the hull is impervious to virtually any impactor.

Gumming up their rocket nozzles or destroying their fragile sensors can blind or hamper a ship, but if you truly wish to defeat an Unperturbium-hulled ship in combat, it's seizure or nothing.

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    Interesting idea, one could also specify that docking ports are not armored like this, to reduce the cost of the vessel. If the docking ports were to be armored like the rest of the ship, boarding would be impossible, as any access point needs to be breached in order to board. – r41n Feb 9 at 7:35
  • I like the idea that the indestructible hulls are found or naturally occurring objects - perhaps geode-like hollow crystals. Impossible to synthesize and extraordinarily difficult to machine. – Willk Feb 9 at 13:14
  • @r41n - presumably there has to be a means of "unlocking" the ports from the outside, in case one locks one's key-equivalents in the ship. So the boarders could pick the lock, be it digital or mechanical, rather than having to breach it. – jdunlop Feb 9 at 19:47

Are you familiar with the history of the Ford Pinto? It was a car sold in the 70s. If the vehicle was rear-ended, the gas tank tended to explode.

Getting to your question - Space travel is a complicated engineering challenge. Engineers struggled for millenia on how to get an economically efficient engine able to power a spaceship at a reasonable rate of speed. It was eventually accomplished, but are still some design problems that haven’t been worked out yet.

Those spaceship engines don’t like to be jostled.

And when they are jostled, as they would be if someone was foolish enough to shoot at them, the results are...bad.

When those engines go, it isn’t just bad news for that ship’s crew. Other nearby ships tend to suffer as well. It’s rumored that, hypothetically, a bad enough reaction could create a new black hole.

So DON’T SHOOT THE SHIPS!!!

addendum to address some of the excellent points raised below:

I think a catastrophic failure could affect ships even if they were a million miles away. Ships won’t be sitting still while they’re being shot. They will be moving around. So all that mass is moving in one direction. The power core has enough juice to move all that mass at faster-than-light speeds. Perhaps, if an enemy laser knocks out the regulators on the power core BEFORE doing enough damage to the engines to render them inoperable, all that energy spikes through the engines. The ship (already damaged) suddenly gets pushed into an uncontrolled FTL speed. Catastrophic structure failure is likely. Then you have less of a ship and more of an FTL shotgun. That could plausibly have negative consequences to an enemy ship no matter how far away they were.

Also, regarding the comments on the Ford Pinto being more of a hysteria problem, that’s a good point. Humans can get fixated on dramatic, spectacular negative outcomes even if they are extremely unlikely. Which adds to my point. It doesn’t matter if it is LIKELY that a catastrophic engine failure can wipe out another ship a million miles away. All that matters is it’s POSSIBLE. It will be on every crew’s mind every single time someone gives the order to fire. Which, in turn, makes boarding actions much more attractive.

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    If you're near enough to take collateral damage from a target ship exploding, you're doing space combat wrong. Popular fiction is notoriously bad at portraying space combat; realistically ships would engage from millions of km apart using lightspeed energy weapons and self-guided missiles that take quite a bit of time to arrive. Similarly, boarding would be done with purpose-built shuttles. – rek Feb 9 at 4:41
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    @rek "It’s rumored that, hypothetically, a bad enough reaction could create a new black hole." Even though that doesn't pose an immediate danger, it could have consequences down the road. For example, if the black hole falls into a star, you no longer have a star there, just a bigger black hole. – PyRulez Feb 9 at 4:54
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    @PyRulez, small black holes are currently believed to evaporate due to the emission of Hawking radiation. Unless these ships are insanely big, they don't have enough energy to create a black hole which will have long-term consequences. – Peter Taylor Feb 9 at 10:58
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    Swap creates black holes with "unstable hyperdrive bubbles" which make a regional FTL travel impossible and suddenly nobody will want to risk a ships catastrophic failure. Problem with the debris / long term mess answers though is that they make good sense as intentional weapons as sabotage, especially if an aggressive actor just does not care about fallout. – Windlepon Feb 9 at 11:19
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    While not really directly related to the answer, the Ford Pinto - like the GM pickups of the 80s, Suzuki Samurai of the 90s, and various Toyotas of the 2000s - was not actually unsafe. The real lesson of the Pinto, as with all these other cars, is that sometimes public hysteria erupts for no good reason. – fluffysheap Feb 9 at 12:18

A space "battleship" will likely operate more like an aircraft carrier or mobile fortress than a naval warship. As it is with current day navy ships their ability to dole out damage far exceeds their ability to take it and this is a trend that will likely continue into the future. So like the modern day carrier group a battleship is more of a staging ground and support facility than a frontline combatant, having smaller more agile craft do target acquisition while it sits a few AU outside the solar system, occasionally firing on the enemy from afar.

When there's a carrier group off the coast you don't get into a HE shell slugging match because the best case scenario for that is mutual destruction, instead you might try to capture some of the landing craft and counterassault with boarding parties. It's a risky strategy but warfare is rarely symmetrical and in asymmetrical warfare if you're on the side without the big guns you want to attack the enemy in a way that prevents them using their firepower advantage against you.

LOOTING!

You need to get on the ship to gather up the booty efficiently, lest it all just scatter into space. It'd still be possible to collect in that state, but much more cumbersome.

It's the only way to take live prisoners

Society has gotten to the point that even war, killing is not allowed. If some other country is attacking you, you are morally required to take them captive instead of killing them if possible. If you don't, you'll be classified as barbarians, and all the other countries are free to plunder/sanction you.

So why not just attack them with a weak enough attack to stop the ship? The reason is because life-support technology is fragile. Any attack on the ship strong enough to disable it will also disable the life-support. So you would need to teleport not only a bomb, but a bunch of space suits as well (directly onto all of the enemy combatants). Otherwise, you would have their blood on your hands.

The only other alternative is to teleport combatants onto their ship to take them captive.

(An interesting plot point in this is if a country decides it doesn't care if the other countries call them barbarians, and just starts blowing up enemy ships.)

In history ship boarding was one of two weapons, the other being ramming.

Why these were the tactics is because they were no reasonable stand off weapon that can kill a ship.

In your world electromagnetic shields can make a ship unable to be harmed by energy weapons. Ships that go really really fast need physical shields from matter and would be enormous, able to takes a few nukes. (plenty of answers here pointing out the size of physical shields to go star to star).

Defensive Teleportation

A bomb can easily be teleported onto a ship, but the defending ship can just as easily teleport it off again. Ship teleportation systems are programmed to identify high energy reactions and teleport them as far away as possible. Unfortunately, this autonomous system only works because explosions have a 'loud' energy signature that the teleportation can lock on to. Human boarders cannot be as easily identified, and therefore have a chance to gain control of the ship without being spaced.

Easy: ships are no-pun-intended astronomically expensive, so a siezed ship will more than pay for the cost of the torpedos, energy cells, and crew lives expended to capture it. A destroyed or irreparably damaged ship is such a net loss that you might tank your economy and be unable to recover from the bungled operation.

You first have to figure out where to hit them.

Building a spaceship is a massive project, and each spaceship is unique in its design and internal structure. From the outside not much of the internal structure is seen, and the shields block your scanners. Teleporting a bomb to a random position of the enemy ship is a game of luck. You have to get a recon squad to the other ship to spot critical components from up close.

Additionally, this might open spy wars about spaceship data. If you have the construction plans of your enemy's ship, you don't have to guess.

Harry Harrison's matter transmitter stories. They are paired--if you capture one that gives you a portal to the enemy base. Sapper throws a two stage bomb, the initial charge is conventional--destroy the transmitter. Stage 2 is nuclear--you just blew up the enemy base, wherever it might be in the universe.

Shields!

Shields surround the ship. You mentioned teleportation in your question, so perhaps teleportation is limited by shields. Adding teleportation may however, make ships obsolete. My suggestion is to make them store valuable cargo, which is extremely volatile. Perhaps fuel. Maybe this fuel powers not only the ship, but shields, which are needed to protect from random teleportation attacks. (If you want another option to attacking that is harder, perhaps the fuel is able to be teleported, but at a high cost.) Adding to this, perhaps this fuel also powers blasters, teleporters, food fabrication (farming could be obsolete if you wanted), an AI that rules their empire (if you want the Singularity to have already passed), implants, etc.

1) Like part of Will's answer, except rather than law it's convention/culture. If people find out you killed a ship, word gets around (faster-than-light communication, not unlike present-day gossip) and suddenly you can't dock/fuel anywhere, friendly or unfriendly.

2) A super powerful neutral nation supplies most/practically all of the non-combatant ship crew. They are the best, they are all that anyone would ever think of using. And they don't like it when their buddies are killed. And if they don't like you, they won't work for you, and your ships won't work [alternatively, they vaporize your home world]. They realize that you are going to fight each other, and they accept that. But you had better figure out a way to do it that doesn't hurt the noncombatant crew or you will not be able to get a crew.

3) Same as 2 but some kind of union/convention thing. Super-strict neutrality of engineering crew, with severe penalties for violations, whether that is the engineering crew participating in hostilities or being injured by them.

Initial assumptions: your spaceships' cababilities don't include things like teleporting the entire ship, ignoring G-forces, effortless FTL travel. Ships are much smaller than, say, a planet.

Tl;dr: You'll mostly be meeting your opponents around assets like planets and space stations, which affect the way battles are fought. Information warfare is central and requires physical access to ship systems.

Your objective determines the battlefield

Space is big, mostly empty, and spaceships moving at relativistic speeds are hard to see coming and/or intercept in time. Battles would usually take place near planets, space stations, dyson swarms and other such points of interest, even if your target is specifically a spaceship.

Other large objects in the vicinity (that you can't just vaporize because they're either very valuable or massive enough to withstand your fire for a while) will affect tactics.

Open space combat is deadly

Whether you're zooming past your target at near light speed and dropping projectiles in their path or exchanging missile barrages from two light seconds away, the most likely outcome for roughly equal opponents is mutual destruction.

If you intend to accomplish anything worthwhile in space combat, you need to use the "battlefield" to your advantage.

Scenario: Taking a planet

A ship/fleet sent to conquer a planet or a large space station would probably need to be designed with that purpose in mind. They'd start firing at the target's stationary weapons and general vicinity far in advance of their arrival, hopefully hitting enough to be able to approach without being torn apart by counter fire.

Defenders near the opposite side of the planet will be mostly unharmed, so the attacking force would be wise to take advantage of this cover as well. Maneuvering up and down the horizon and attempting to snipe one another with railguns is still an option, but guided missiles going around the planet don't require you to expose yourself. These, on the other hand, are slow enough to be targeted by all sorts of point defenses, the most powerful of which have been placed planetside or in low to medium orbit to avoid the initial barrage.

Surviving forces on the planet and in orbit will easily outnumber ship crews, and with point defenses struggling to keep up with saturation bombardments, boarding parties have a decent chance of getting to their destination.

Intelligence is key

Electronic warfare can turn a battle in an instant. Courses and tactics need to be communicated. Point defenses and targeting systems need split-second coordination. Turning one enemy railgun against their allies is a guaranteed kill. Broadcasting bogus telemetry can crush a fleet.

But in an equal contest of wits and processing power, the defender always wins. You need physical access to their systems in order to hack them. Blowing up one of their 25 redundant processor banks won't accomplish much. Allowing a team of soldiers and technicians to plug into it will get the job done. And who knows what kinds of useful info they might find in the process?

From a warfare standpoint most often than not actual ships ( water ones ) will hold a lot of information well worth taking the trouble to not completely sink it, code books to cipher enemy cryptography, charts, maps with enemy position, you name it. Now it seems to me that you are looking at boarding for a combat style reason, you want it to be the best way to take down a ship. There are several ways you can achieve that.

Assuming we are talking about actual warfare where spacecrafts would have enough people to dispatch in smaller "infiltrators" and the conflict is in a big scale We could have:

Starships were meant to fly

Fast boarding ships could make for hard targets for those big cannons, making boarding an evasive approach, ironically...

Gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire

Maybe the same thing that fuels your shields, also fuels your guns and boy those guns are like a 80s Jeep running on a flat tire, making firing very delicate and exposing. Thus making boarding ships again an interesting approach

Damn I have no lyrics for shield...

Shields could need the sense of direction, instead of being just a bubble around the spacecraft, now boarding ships have to maneuver around the target. Thus rending "direct attacks" harder.

Beam me up, Scotty

Now its not clear to me if you though of teleport just as a possible solution or if you really wanna make it a major part of the boarding process you're going to need to lay down some restrictions on teleportation.

It could need some sort of receiver on the other end, so you couldn't just teleport anything anywhere. So whilst a bomb could be teleported the enemy would have to hack through a receiver to do so, perhaps this is why boarding is so interesting, we board, steal ciphers and then tele-bomb away at the other ships.

On small sized, transportation vessels it could just be that weapons are just too expensive to have and maintain.

If you board the other ship, and attack the others, it is possible you could take their ship as well. Even if your character does not take ships, it could be motivation for others to board. Also maybe a law could be passed to not blow up ships? It could prevent space junk from building up, so it isn't too outlandish.

Getting stuff into orbit is really expensive. Even if you have handwave-Drive(TM), your fuel consumption for going to orbit is considerable higher then going around in space.

If you can believable explain that people can be sustained in space/orbit without any resource transfer to them, but some parts and or fuel cant be produced in space, suddenly you dont care how many lives you need to spend to get that nice new juicy starship

Bio-Matter teleportation

The fields needed to teleport only work on living beings (possibly only sentients, see below) and only over a relatively short distance (otherwise there'd be no need for ships, you'd just teleport where-ever). A living body might allow a small amount clothing/gear to be transported as well. If everyone had to go through naked (as in Terminator) defense against board would probably be far too effective. Of course some psychopath would have the bright idea of sending bombs over "in" people or animals so maybe teleportation only works on a sentient being?

Boarding is probably the easiest, as you are going to need numbers.

The crew of the enemy ship is going to actively resist you. Wait till your big ship gets up close, and SURPRISE grenade to the face. You don't want your big super expensive ship damaged by explosives hiding in the debris. The loss of shuttle pod is nothing compared to massive damage to your ship. Also they may have launch-able explosives that your ship is to big to avoid, but the shuttle pods can easily dodge.

It is highly likely the enemy will have transporter jammers and/or scramblers.

The ship could have many values to it.

Obviously

  1. the ship itself
  2. resources aboard
  3. crew for (crew, slaves, or etc)
  4. enemies communication encryption keys
  5. Trojan horse (before the enemies know its been taken)
  6. particularly any technology you don't already have or their version of it is better than yours.
  7. Dock at any enemy port, and steal,kill,capture everything.
  8. Infiltration, hide your agents among the crew. (kill/capture and replace someone)
  9. Communication logs, enemy intelligence(of course protected against remote download)

The ship draws energy from an explosive or unstable force, blackhole, and if you damage the containment field the blackhole escapes and sucks you and them in with it.

You may have disabled its engines, but it energy shield may still be in place elsewhere on the ship, so and your energy weapons may not penetrate it. Also you need to prevent the other ship from being self-destructed by it captain. So you need a team to attach their ship to the enemy hull, cut through, and take the ship before it can self destruct or have its computers wiped.

Clearly any good ship will have the ability to turn off radio communications so you can't be hacked remotely.

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