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Story Details

After a massive space battle that took place over a planet, the invading forces won, but with heavy losses on both sides. The space around the planet was littered with the bodies of the lost ships that took part in the battle. The invasion on the planet was underway. However another battle was being fought, the battle to save the many crew members left alive inside the ships before their air runs out. The commander of the operation had a difficult task ahead of him, not only was he trying to save the lives of his own men but the enemy's men as well. The ships were all in different conditions. Some with just a few holes shot in them, others with just the power lost, however some ships had been torn asunder with only a few pockets left for survivors. The rescue work was underway with many crews saved on both sides, but then a grim discovery was made. The bulkhead doors on some of the ships were cut open, the crew inside sucked out into the void or left to suffocate. Some of the dead crew had suits on but were also killed; this can only be the work of raiders. It seems that the raiders are just outside of our scanners range, circling like hungry sharks. They wait till the target ship is in the shadow of the planet, and then they turn off the power on their ship and glide it over towards their prey. Undetectable with all the debris floating around, the raiders are ready to loot and ready to kill.

The Commanders Forces:

1 Heavy Destroyer: HQ for the rescue effort. 2 Light Cruiser: mainly used for patrols but holds two fighter wings. 7 Light fighter wings: each wing has ten fighters each. 10 Corvettes: used for patrols and protecting the recuse ships. 12 Rescue ships: unarmed but do have a few soldiers on board.

Reinforcements can arrive from the main fleet if the commander gets attacked (will take a few hours to arrive) but will only be a temporary aid, a war is on after all.

The ship graveyard is currently two hundred cubic kilometers in volume and growing by the day. The number of damaged ships is close to eight thousand, the vessels sizes vary but most are Cruisers, Corvettes, and Destroyers. So patrolling all of it with ships is too much for the commander to handle with so many hiding spots and the risk of ambushes.

The objective is to minimize loss of life, the ships themselves are expendable. But not letting blood crazed raiders getting their hands on military hardware is high on the to-do list

The Raiders Forces

Mostly just rag-tag groups working together, they are not unified. They have nothing bigger than a Corvette and only a few of them (not even close to as much firepower as a military one) they mostly have a few hundred Light fighter size ships (again not on par with our fighters). They will most likely run when spotted but will attack a fighter, Corvette or rescue ship if it’s on its own and or they have the numbers. The raiders have also installed radar inhibitors across the graveyard making the rescue effort hard and detecting them even harder. The only way to find them, other than line-of-sight, is either by their heat signature or their ships energy readings, both are masked well and a lot of background noise doesn’t help much.

The raiders are just after military hardware and good old loot. The reason they are killing people is just that they were in their way or that signs of life indicate that is where the most intact loot is. The reasons change depending on the group, some kill while others just loot empty ships.

Question: What can the Commander do to protect the Damaged Ships from being raided

I'm having a hard time trying to come up with a good plan to protect the ships from the raiders. I was thinking of using flares to light up the areas they were patrolling but I don't know if space flares can happen (lack of air and all that) I'm more interested in plans and tactics but I'm open to any ideas you guys can come up with.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nitpick: "After a massive naval battle that took place over a planet"; that would be a "space battle". If i understand your question correctly, you are asking how your commander could defend and rescue as many sailors as possible with limited ressources and under the threat of attack by raiders... $\endgroup$ – DarthDonut Jul 10 '18 at 12:33
  • $\begingroup$ Do your vessels have escape pods or the like? I'm sure there'll be some crew stranded anyway, but having escape pods would drastically reduce the numbers you need to rescue. $\endgroup$ – Marshall Tigerus Jul 10 '18 at 12:45
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    $\begingroup$ Picknit: it might be better to have your battle in deep space. Unless all combatants got in stable orbits before the battle began, over a planet, all debris is going to be moving rapidly towards the planet. That is the real race for time. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 10 '18 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ @DarthDonut just making a point to say its near a planet and yes you did understand me with what I'm asking $\endgroup$ – Creed Arcon Jul 10 '18 at 12:48
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    $\begingroup$ 200km is really a VERY small field for as many ships as you're mentioning. Pretty much any weapon your fleet has will be able to easily shoot that far. Your entire fleet could just sit on the edge of the debris field and provide covering fire. $\endgroup$ – bendl Jul 10 '18 at 13:28
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Recruit the raiders.

You two are really not at cross purposes. You want to rescue the humans. The raiders must be after something else - valuable ships parts. You are not interested in that, whatever it is. Your interests actually do not conflict.

Make peace with the raiders. Forgive the sailors they spaced - war is hell and all. The raiders become a salvage operation. In exchange for not being attacked, raiders will retrieve any live crew and place them in lifeboats (that you supply) with a flashing radar beacon.

Now you have more manpower on the project,. The raiders can do their salvage work without fear of attack. More space sailors get saved. Also, salvage work is useful too - the raiders can sell you back your stuff later, which is fair. It will be easier dealing between you if you have just worked together on the rescue / salvage project.

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    $\begingroup$ Nice out-of-the-box idea, creating a win/win situation. $\endgroup$ – Infrisios Jul 10 '18 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ the secondary objective is not letting raiders get access to military equipment, so they are at odds with one another. $\endgroup$ – Marshall Tigerus Jul 10 '18 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ It’s a nice idea and +1 but there is a few... issues with this 1 the raiders are not unified just because you made peace with one group does not mean others will be cool with it. 2 the raiders don't have the proper hardware to save anyone. 3 it’s the biggest even if you made peace with all the raiders and gave them the hardware to save the crews, the crews when met with raiders knocking on their doors will have a hard time in believing there here to help (most don’t have working com’s to find out). $\endgroup$ – Creed Arcon Jul 10 '18 at 13:06
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    $\begingroup$ @CreedArcon - these issues give the narrative energy. Raiders with unorthodox methods of saving crewmen. Menacing-looking raiders with handwritten "ЯESCU HELPER" signs, to hopefully avoid being fired on by scared crew. I picture the scene where the raiders free trapped crew, hand them a lifeboat then go to work trying to cut loose the fusion drive. The grateful crew pitch in to help. What have they got better to do? The raiders, shorthanded already, see the value in this and bring the crew to the next salvage. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 10 '18 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ @MarshallTigerus: Salvaged parts are not precious art works. The raiders want to unload this military equipment fast and leave with cash. Who better to sell to than the prior owner of said equipment? $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 10 '18 at 14:44
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I'll give you a relatively "realistic" approach to the issue.

After a fight in orbit, it should not take long for debris to spread all around the planet (depending on the orbit height of the fight, possibly a matter of hours in low orbits around earth-like planets). Your "200km area" wouldn't last long. After a day it would be spread all around the planet.

Expecting advanced sensor technology* and processing power, placing just a few ships in high or geostationary orbits and having them observe the debris should be sufficient. The computers can calculate the debris trajectories, should they remain undisturbed. Any anomalities can be observed more carefully, a controlled burn should be relatively easy to detect.

My strategy would be: Split 12 Rescue ships into 2 groups of 6, keep each group in close distance of a light cruiser as "rescue outposts". Keep "HQ" safe with leftover fighter wings, together they are not only HQ, but also the main group to take down raiders.

The corvettes, unlike fighter wings, should be large enough to be independent from supply for a few days and they probably have solid sensory equipment, so I'd put them on "scanning duty". They'd observe the debris from a distance. They are networked and inform HQ and rescue ships of any movement.

*) even today's technology should be sufficient. Passive (optical/infrared) and active (radar) systems make it easy to detect debris, and especially infrared sensors should be able to detect active engines with ease. A civilization that wages full-blown space wars surely has better technology.

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  • $\begingroup$ Your footnote on scanning/detection technology possibly even undersells our current scanning capabilities. I mean, we're currently keeping track of everything bigger than a baseball that's in orbit, so detecting an incoming ship should be no problem. $\endgroup$ – Gryphon Jul 10 '18 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Gryphon well, we can not exactly keep an eye at them. Currently we just note down their orbits and every now and then we check if the objects are still there. We would have our fair share of problems with a whole, fresh debris field of parts that are burning and colliding. But it's definitely technically possible with more advanced, yet realistic technologies. $\endgroup$ – Infrisios Jul 10 '18 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ True, but all you really have to do is have somebody go fly a few-hundred km out from the 200km area where all the debris is, and simply paint the entire area with radar. It wouldn't get baseball-sized objects, but it would easily pick up an approaching vessel. $\endgroup$ – Gryphon Jul 10 '18 at 13:05
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If life is the top priority then you largely ignore the raiders, keep the whole rescue fleet together for security and make a systematic sweep from one end of the field to the other as quickly as possible. People the raiders get to first you can't help, but that's a given no matter who you go about it. If the raiders run then it's not an issue, if they fight then you have local superiority unless they all get together to have a go at you.

To keep as many weapons as possible out of raider hands they should be a primary target for the weapons systems on every armed ship in the rescue fleet. In any case where they can be destroyed without further lose of life you shoot the weapons you don't want anyone taking to pieces.

Depending on the interstellar travel technology of the setting you may be able to blockade the system to prevent raiders from getting out with their loot, if raiders attempting to run said blockade are shot down on sight then it will discourage raiding in the system in general.

Those are the straightforward military solutions, here's a different angle that may work.
Your commander is limited in the amount of hardware and personnel they can bring to bear on the task but if they have access to a lot of capital they could put a large bounty on returned sailors. If people are the most valuable loot in the field the raiders will actually do the rescue part of the job for you. Limiting the proliferation of military hardware can be handled in the same way, if you create a situation where the commander can truthfully say "it's worth more if you sell it to us than trying to fence it elsewhere" then a lot of the "raiders" will also salvage working weapon systems for the fleet too.

These solutions are not going to work with all the raiders, there will be those whose motivation is ideological rather the financial but for those who are purely chasing the cash they will smooth the way.

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You want to rescue both your own and the enemies sailors. A noble and honorable decision. But i fear that the raiders may be your smallest problem of a whole pack:

  1. De-Orbiting of the debris (Optional):
    you have not specified if that debris and disabled ships are in a stable orbit around the constested planet. If they are, you may skip this point. If not... woe them.
    If your ships needed to use their engines to stay where they are, the wrecks will follow their last velocity vector, meaning that if this vector is leading them into the athmosphere, the sailors on board will have a hard time, but only for a short time. Example: The Space Shuttle only needed about 60 minutes to deorbit and land after the deorbiting burn. (Sorry, source is in German)

  2. Debris and Wrecks crashing into each other:
    After the ships got disabled due to damage, no one is able to correct their course so they don't crash into each other. And we are in orbit (hopefully, see point 1.), so the relative speed of each thing flying may be measured in kilometers per second. I do not want to be there if there's a crash. Furthermore, you will have alot of small, pebble sized debris thats swirling around. That stuff could be dangerous for your SAR (Search and Rescue) ships. See Kessler Syndrome.

  3. How to get the sailors out?:
    Imagine the following: One of the ships has been shot in half. You scan for signs if life, find some, but... on the wrong end. That end, that does not have airlocks. Problem is: These sailors may not have emergency suits, and if you open up the hull to get them, you may cause decompression and killing them while trying to save them... Dammit.

  4. And finally, Raiders:
    And now the raiders come into play. They want to steal stuff, loot the wreackage for valuable equipment, and they have no problem with killing that poor souls who are still in there. But, they are scavengers: Scavengers will only fight, if they are completely sure that they will win with only minimal losses. Because a won fight with only a meager loot is still a tactical loss, and so they will avoid a military operation as far as they can. They will attack and destroy a single, ill-defended military ship, but even then they would be alot more clever if they try to board it...
    Solution: Organise as Wolvepacks. A larger group is less likely to be attacked, and even then there are other groups nearby if the situation gets sticky.

Not a problem per say, but you have to be honest to yourself: You will not save everyone. You will have to decide who has the best chances of being rescued, and who will die. Design a clear method on how to differentiate these two groups. And maybe give those in the second category the mercy of a quick death.

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Space has this very interesting property called "0% occlusion".

Rescue force commander just need to manufacture simplest possible of surveillance devices - a camera - which remain passive, that can be built in large numbers and easily deployed. Practically undetectable, and can be made from shipboard surveillance systems (which are already space hardened), with simple stabilisation packs, power sources and movement detection. Any machine shop on a warship could be able to turn dozens within several hours, and several dozens will give 100% coverage ability, as picture would be crystal clear up to several tens of kilometres. Then even average resolution (which can be huge looking at progression of smartphone cameras) would give excellent quality image.

This will allow to take entire chunk of space under surveillance, identify trajectories along which the Raiders arrived and track them back, all without giving away anything.

That way Raiders' staging point(s) can be identified, invested and destroyed in a very short time.

Also, I do find 200 km area a bit on the tiny side for a battle "site". Simple rocket can attain speeds of tens of thousands m/s in a matter of seconds, I beleive that combat range could be in tens of thousands of kilometers at the very least. Just to compare: today's AIM-9X SIdewinder missile is capable of 20g flight, which will give it, after 60 sec burn, 10-12 km/s terminal speed. ANd all that from 3 meter long, 30 cm wide missile. Obviously it's max speed is 3.5 km/s in atmosphere only, but space does not have atmospheric friction. SM-3 IIA is capable of sustained (allegedly) 30g for 2-3 min, which will give it speed up to 20 km/s. It's atmospheric max speed is (allegedly, theoretical) Mach 14,5 with range of (allegedly) 2000 km. ANd this is 6m long missile, about 0,5 m diameter. Not that big. Obviously some of the capabilities need to be cut down for maneuvering thrusters, but really, how much?

200 km area is literally nothing in space terms. Assume every suit has a built in some sort of navo pack for movement in microgravity, it's quite possible every survivor in a suit can get to any point in space in specified battle zone within hour or two (today's astronaut's MMU allows for speeds of 100km/h without constant acceleration). A container of 1 kg of compressed gas will give ability to give several seconds of acceleration/deceleration each, giving theoretically possibility to travel across 200 km of space in under an hour easily. This would obviously impact rescue effort big time, since majority of survivors can get to safety on their own in no time.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Simple rocket can attain speeds of tens of thousands km/s in a matter of seconds", but only if its rate of acceleration is thousands of gravities or, more likely, it has accelerating for a considerable time beforehand. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jul 15 '18 at 5:27
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android - Thanks, good catch. What I meant was m/s. Corrected and added some data to show that it's already standard tech. $\endgroup$ – AcePL Jul 16 '18 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ You're welcome. Always glad to improve a question. Good luck with it! $\endgroup$ – a4android Jul 17 '18 at 2:27
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I'm going to sidestep the issue of hiding in space, and assume you have some kind of handwavium as to why a "low powered" vessel could hide (as that's how the raiders are approaching).

Establish a Perimeter

This option is probably not feasible with your forces on hand, but you establish a rough perimeter around the rescue area with your warships and fighters, ideally with overlapping sensor areas to detect the raiders. If you perimeter is tight enough, you can ensure that you detect all raiders on approach and handle them. As I said, not likely because of the amount of forces available.

Shrink the Recovery Area

If you rescue vessels have towing capability (or any of your ships) you could tow all the vessels you care about saving into a smaller area that can be more easily managed/defended.

Play Possum

You have a few squadrons of fighter craft. You could send them around the debris field and then have them power down and wait. If the raiders approach, they could engage them or call for help.

Booby Traps

Your engineers could go through and rig some of the craft to explode if entered. Since you are concerned with rescue, and they are concerned with pillage, they may target vessels you've already cleared (less likely to be interfered by you and no pesky crew to worry about).

Only Rescue Your Men First

This is the less humanitarian concept, but you could prioritize your own men being rescued over the enemy. It's not your fault that raiders are killing their men, and there's no reason to suspect you'd be held accountable for it.

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