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In Sci-fi, space fighters often look like exotic versions of fighter jets: wing shape is often different but the general shape is most of the time kept.

However this seems unrealistic: the shape of fighter jets is almost always the same, because it is optimised for air-combat. In particular wings serve no purpose at all in space.

What would a realistic space fighter look like?

In terms of technology, I would like to stay as close as possible to what is possible today.

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    $\begingroup$ Do you want a fighter that functions both in-atmosphere and in-space? Or just in space? $\endgroup$ – JDSweetBeat Mar 20 '15 at 12:45
  • $\begingroup$ What type of armaments do you anticipate it carrying/facing? $\endgroup$ – Rozwel Mar 20 '15 at 12:48
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    $\begingroup$ @DustinJackson Just in space is enough. $\endgroup$ – Maxime Lucas Mar 20 '15 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ if the answer isn't giant humanoid robots with energy swords fighting in close range while being fired at with enough lasers to give me seizures then I don't want to live in this world any more! $\endgroup$ – dsollen Mar 20 '15 at 13:19
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    $\begingroup$ I don't have enough for a full answer, but I can direct you to this video, which talks about how to replicate dog-fighting in space. The general gist of it is that one Earth, wing surfaces are capable of generating many kilo newtons of force, which is fairly large compared to the thrust output of the forwards motion, which is the engine. However, in the vacuum of space, there is no air for traction, in order to be able to dogfight in space, you would then need many engines, all equally powerful pointed in all the control directions. $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Mar 21 '15 at 3:10

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A large sphere, possible with engines jutting out of it.

Any surface area on a fighter is somewhere to be hit, leading to either damaged (important) systems or loss of air. Surface area is bad! Thus, in absence of any aerodynamic requirements, the optimal fighter jet would be the one that maximizes volume, to fit equipment, instruments, pilot etc, while minimizing dangerous surface area. As it happens a sphere is the most optimal 3 dimensional structure to do so.

It's possible that engines or weapons may jut out of the sphere, depending on how large they must be and, in particular, rather there is a need to ensure the engine exhaust is far enough away from your fighter to avoid damaging it.

Of course even that is a lie, because there is no such thing as an optimal space fighter. In space with no obstructions to block line of sight it's possible to see, and thus attack, from a massive distance away. Missiles and long range weapons can engage from such long distance that anything as 'short range' as a fighter is pointless. The only use of a fighter compared to a missile is to better avoid obstacles and be smart enough to blow up its target without blowing up something else. Obstacles don't exist in space, there will only be one obvious target to hit, and our AI will be smart enough to 'drive' to that point anyways.

Couple with that the fact that a space fighter requires extensive systems to keep its pilot alive, systems that cost money and increase the required size, and thus surface area, and they become even less cost efficient than modern fighters of today. And before someone says it, yes I know modern fighters already carry their own oxygen supplies and other systems to survive in high atmosphere, but not as much as you need in a complete vacuum.

And then of course there's the whole pesky preservation of life thing. A fighter shot down in space is almost certainly a dead pilot. A missile shot down isn't a big deal. That is a strong motive to prefer missiles even if fighters were close to their viability, which they really aren't.

IF you want to come up with a system in which space fighters exist and make sense it can be done with some smart work. I spent quite a bit of time justifying such a system, the key trick was to create shield technology used by 'capital' ships. The shields are vulnerable to certain energy weapons that only work on very short ranges, and are more vulnerable if attacked form multiple angles (lots of tiny fighters make more sense than just big guns on a capital ship). You could also claim that electromagnetic radiation from shield deflections is so great that remote controlled fighters don't work, the signal gets lost in the noise. It took a lot of work to justify, and even then I admit I still have a few handwaves of minor things for the sake of plot, but it's far more viable than most versions I see. If you post a second question about how to justify space fighters I can go into more detail as to some of the tricks I used.


I forgot to throw in that humans can only handle a few G forces before they die in interesting, yet disgusting, ways. An AI driven missile would be far better at avoiding hazards because it could handle much greater accelerations. AIs would only have to be slightly better than ours for high acceleration dog fighting to be practical. To be frank I suspect we could manage the AI part of that now, if we had reason to build it.

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    $\begingroup$ Discussion of this answer has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Mar 20 '15 at 19:57
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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't cubes be more efficient in terms of holding armaments? It's kind of hard to fit anything in a sphere. Cubes are easy. I never figured out why the Borg have both... $\endgroup$ – Mast Mar 20 '15 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ The assertion that a sphere "minimizes dangerous surface area" is not necessarily correct, as dangerous surface area is only the area that faces the enemy. Optimizations depending on the type of enemy expected may be made. For example, to counter enemies that fire beam weapons only, a flattened ellipses with the smallest cross-section facing the enemy would be far less dangerous. A safe bet is to minimize the cross-sectional area along the same axis that ship's main thrust is on. A ship with good maneuverability and tracking can, say, turn to face incoming attacks.r $\endgroup$ – Jason C Mar 21 '15 at 2:19
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    $\begingroup$ Recognizing the trend to unmanned fighters is correct. Fighter jet pilots are already being made obsolete nowadays. So far unmanned drones are only used for recon and tactical bombing, but it is only a question of time until they will also take over the air superiority role. Going back to manned fighters for space warfare would then be quite implausible. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Mar 22 '15 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Ash Programming a military AI to put its self-preservation over fulfilling its mission would be counter-productive. It is a misconception that every AI program must have a personality which is a perfect imitation of the human psyche. That level of anthropomorphisation of computer programs sometimes makes for interesting plots, but it's not the only way to write a story featuring advanced AI. Creating an AI which fully realizes that it is an expendable resource created solely to fulfill military objectives and is perfectly fine with that is completely plausible. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Aug 2 '17 at 15:30
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Great start by stipulating missiles and bullets as your combat systems. That is a good beginning constraint for this answer. Only with sufficient constraints can we figure out what the applicable answers might be.

(That said, remember that in space, normal guns are going to be complicated because of recoil. Once again, Newton wins... Your guns will secondarily act as maneuvering thrusters, retro-rockets, or boosters depending on the angular difference between your velocity vector and the direction the gun is pointing.)

Also, +1 for your interest in Newtonian realism. You're quite right about the wings.

However, I'm taking your concept of realistic space combat to mean orbital combat. Whether Earth orbit or the long interplanetary paths of solar orbit, you would have to posit an incredibly powerful spacedrive to get away from that basic physical reality.

Orbital Mechanics (or, for a more a more hard-nosed engineering approach, you might want to go here) is intensely counterintuitive and weird. For example: if you want to speed up your orbit around the Earth, you... fire your rockets against the direction you are traveling. That has the effect of dropping you to a lower orbit, which will get around the Earth more quickly. Your speed is slower, but your orbital period is quicker.

So really: orbital combat will be enormously physically different from aerial or nautical combat on a planet. Your ship design will be working with some unusual issues.

You need to consider:

  • What kind of propulsion systems will you use? By this, I do not mean nitpicking over the differences between, say, anhydrous ammonia and powdered rubber as rocket fuel. I am talking about "propulsion" in terms of three specific ship-design characteristics:

    • How much thrust is it capable of generating? Is it an always-on or always-off thrust, or can it be throttled/modulated?

    • How much fuel (in terms of mass and volume) does the vessel need to carry per second/minute/hour of thrust?

    • What are the physical characteristics of the engine in terms of size and shape? (I'm skipping the question of whether there's a way of steering the engine's thrust away from the ship's axis of travel. :-)

  • What kind of construction techniques and materials would you be willing to consider? Presumably nothing too exotic.

  • What kind of detection instruments might you be using? This has two influences on the question:

  • It changes the mission profile immensely if you can be aware of an enemy vessel 10,000 km away as opposed to 100km away.

  • It suggests ship design changes for stealth purposes.

This is why these questions matter: Space - even planetary orbital space - is big. (This is neatly discussed here.)

Whatever your "realistic fighters" are going to be doing, it will not be a lot like aerial dogfights. This, I think, is the main reason that classical SF space forces were thought of as being analogous to naval, rather than air, forces. Your combat spacecraft is probably going to resemble a guided missile frigate more than a supersonic jet - unless you can tinker with your technology and engineering to get a result closer to your taste. And even the missile frigate is a poor analogy for orbital combat.

  • It's appalling how much energy it takes to get around out there.

  • It's shocking how much time it takes to move on orbital paths.

  • Given how very fast you are traveling when you and your opponent converge, combat becomes very odd. You might be co-orbiting, and exchanging fire at very close range (for space); or, if your orbits are not aligned, you will likely get some kind of one-shot interceptor pass before you're out of weapons and perhaps detector range again.

Unless you are willing to tweak your worldbuilding pretty hard (especially with regard to propulsion systems), you are likely to come up with a much different mental model of orbital combat than you may be anticipating.

Which, after all, may be extremely cool. :-)

Good luck. This is a great fundamental question, and I hope you get where you need to be, creatively.

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Have a look at the Starfurys from Babylon 5. They seem to have a sensible design for actual space fighters; they have X shaped wings, with thrusters pointing in all directions at the wingtips. If you watch some of the battles in the series, you notice that they do stuff like turning around and flying backwards, etc...

http://babylon5.wikia.com/wiki/File:Presfury.png

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    $\begingroup$ The 'wings' are potentially justifiable to increase the moment arm of the thrusters for rotation, both increasing maximum rotation rate and reducing the amount of propellant used for a given amount of turning. $\endgroup$ – Ghillie Dhu Mar 20 '15 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ They also move potentially dangerous parts of the vehicle farther from the pilot. $\endgroup$ – aslum Mar 20 '15 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ Another point stolen from a Star Wars wiki: having guns farther apart gives your shots better spread, making it easier to aim - assuming the guns are static and pointed forward. (This assumption is admittedly problematic, why not mount the guns on gimbals and have a computer assist in aiming. That would let you have the shots cover the area you want at a given distance.) $\endgroup$ – millimoose Mar 20 '15 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ There is no passive cooling in space, as I understand it. Any heat you generate has no other matter to spread out to, so it just spreads through the ship. You have to either actively jettison hot material, convert it to energy, insulate it from temperature-sensitive parts, etc. $\endgroup$ – Bryon Mar 20 '15 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ @BryonDowd: You can radiate heat (as IR or some other form of EMR), but that's highly inefficient and gives your location away. Mass Effect's supplementary materials explore this topic in some detail. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Mar 20 '15 at 19:23
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Why Fighters?

When anybody thinks "space fighter," they are analogizing to fighter aircraft. After all, space is kind of like the air, just higher. And even the Air Force handles the military's space stuff! This must mean space fighters make sense, right?

Wrong

Let's look at a couple of existing types of warfare:

  • Ground warfare
  • Air warfare
  • Naval surface warfare
  • Submarine warfare
  • Space warfare

All of them take place in different environments. None are equivalent to any other; in particular, space combat is not the same as naval combat or submarine combat, or air combat.

Before we try to generalize the concept of a fighter to space, which people have much less intuition about, let's try to generalize it to the other military branches. I'm going to define a fighter as a small one- or two-man vehicle, that places emphasis in combat on speed, maneuverability, and positioning.

  • Land fighter: The closest thing is probably a tank or Humvee. However, neither tend to shoot on the run: they place more emphasis on protecting their occupants with armor. Tank combat is more like hide-and-seek than tag, unlike aerial dogfights.
  • Sea fighter: As far as I know, there are no one-man ships. As far as I know, very small boats are typically used to move people from ship to shore and are not pitted against one another on the battlefield.
  • Submarine fighter: The smallest combat submarines have dozens of people onboard. Small submarines are used only as research vessels, and always operate with a 'mothership.'

Space is Hard

If the fighter concept doesn't work for land or sea, it seems unlikely to work for space either. However, there are a few points which turn that into a definitely.

  • Humans are heavy. The smallest possible human-carrying spacecraft would be something like Mercury: 6 feet wide by 10 feet long (2 x 3 m) and weighing only 1.5 tons, the only maneuver it could perform was a single reentry burn. It required a 30 ton launch vehicle, which barely lifted it into orbit. Also note the fact that this spacecraft was not reusable, and had only enough life support equipment for around a day (reusability and longevity add significant weight, just look at Shuttle). The military typically likes their aircraft to last multiple decades, at least.
  • Humans are squishy. Even trained fighter pilots won't last long past 10 g's of acceleration. Sounding rockets can easily hit over 20 g's during launch, riding one would be potentially lethal to a human. Even heavy-lift vehicles ramp up from around 1 g to over 5 gs over the course of four or five minutes. The long and continuous application of g-force could also easily be fatal.
  • Humans are bad at space. As was pointed out, orbital mechanics are unintuitive. Although this could be mitigated to an extent with training, there's no getting around the fact that maneuvers in space require timing and control far beyond what a human could achieve. The other problem is that piloting a real-life space fighter would involve hours of tedious scanning the sky with a telescope for targets, then recording orbits and calculating trajectories, culminating in a rendezvous at 10 to 15 km/s. Humans don't work slow enough or fast enough to handle either part well. Play around with Orbiter for a bit to get a feel for the problem.

We've actually already solved most of these problems: we send computers into space! They can be extremely small, with low power requirements, and can handle extreme conditions of temperature, vacuum, and acceleration.

Since there are no assets to capture in space (no resources [that would be economical to obtain] or cities [see, space is a bad place for people, above]), space combat will likely be all about destroying your opponent's spaceborne assets (weapons platforms and intelligence-gatherers). For this task, only one form factor makes sense: an anti-satellite missile.

So to answer your question... (tl;dr)

The closest equivalent to a space fighter would probably be slung under a real fighter, carry no people, and spend less than five minutes in space before exploding. Hey, you asked for realistic, and reality is disappointing. Sorry.

(Realistic spaceflight is only fun for hardcore space nerds like me, handwave away the problems and let yourself have fun with it instead!)

Update: Star Wars

celtschk makes a good point: if space fighters don't make sense for offense, maybe they make sense for defense? To answer this, let's take a trip back in time to the 1980s; no, not for movies, for the other Star Wars.

At this point in history, something like antisatellite weapons already exists, called ballistic missiles. Antisatellite missiles existed too, but ballistic missiles were the bigger threat. Lots of people were figuring out ways of stopping said missiles.

Typically you can't stop the missiles in their boost phase, before they leave the atmosphere, since this would typically entail having weapons in your enemy's airspace, which they don't really like. It's also hard to stop the warheads when they reenter, since they're moving very fast. Therefore the only place to stop them is in space.

Since explosions don't work in space, you'd stop a warhead (or antisatellite missile) the same way that an antisatellite missile would destroy a satellite: just before impact, explode into a cloud of shrapnel that strikes the target, ripping it to shreds. There is no defense against this, especially when the closing velocities are tens of kilometers per second.

Here, the same disadvantages for humans that I mentioned above are even stronger. You want your weapons to be extremely small and light so that they can be put on an intersecting orbit within seconds. If Star Wars systems were ever deployed, they would have been completely automatic, as having a human in the loop makes the response too slow to be effective. You also need your interceptors to be inhumanly accurate and expendable (see, "explodes into shrapnel," above).

A plausible defense system consists of IR and UV cameras aimed at the Earth (both detect heat from the exhaust plumes of missiles, but UV has the advantage of not penetrating the ozone layer, so you only see spaceborne sources), and a constellation of kinetic kill vehicles that coordinate to intercept and destroy each of the incoming warheads. These systems were called Brilliant Eyes and Brilliant Pebbles, respectively.

Why are these systems not in place today? You run into a scaling problem. Your enemy can release not one, but dozens of warheads from a single missile. All of them but one are inert. Since they are basically cans, they cost almost nothing to add to your missiles. However, you can't distinguish which ones are which, so you have to deploy enough interceptors to destroy all of them. The catch is, none of your interceptors can be duds! They all have to be fully-functional, expensive systems.

This is why laser systems that destroy missiles in their boost phase before they can separate their warheads are so attractive. However the same issues of detection, targeting, and speed come into play, so any laser weapon would be computer-controlled. You might stick a person on board to deactivate the system in case of a false alarm, but then you need all the support equipment for that person, making you a huge target.

Beyond The Infinite

There is one change that could make space fighters plausible: reactionless drive. All spaceflight under known physics is fundamentally limited by the rocket equation:

$$ \frac{m_f}{m_p} = e^{\Delta v/v_e} - 1 $$

This equation comes from the fact that momentum is conserved, so in order to change your momentum, you have to emit something with momentum opposite the change you want to make. The reason this equation is so bad is that the change in speed is in the exponent, meaning that the required fuel mass fraction increases dramatically as you increase the amount of maneuvers you can make. But what if:

$$ \frac{m_f}{m_p} = 0? $$

A reactionless drive doesn't require any propellant to be expended. This would change the whole game, as now spaceflight is no longer a mass-minimization exercise. You can put anything in space that you want, and move around as much as you want once you're up there. This invalidates most of my arguments against space fighters, although it requires breaking the laws of physics to do it!

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    $\begingroup$ If one goal is to destroy your opponent's spaceborne assets, the logical other goal is to protect your own spaceborne assets from being destroyed by your opponent. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Mar 21 '15 at 11:51
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    $\begingroup$ @celtschk Let me know if my update answers your comment $\endgroup$ – 2012rcampion Mar 22 '15 at 17:41
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    $\begingroup$ It does. Unfortunately I can't give you a second upvote. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Mar 22 '15 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ @user16295 Good point, although both of those fulfill more of a 'stealth bomber' role than an 'air superiority' role. $\endgroup$ – 2012rcampion Jan 29 '16 at 9:00
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    $\begingroup$ Friends don't let friends have Reactionless Drives, they're on the "Oh God don't do it" list. $\endgroup$ – Ash Aug 2 '17 at 14:23
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One of the credible developments described in the Night's Dawn Trilogy is that most combat is performed by small autonomous drones ( called 'wasps' in the series ) which are launched from ships and perform the majority of combat themselves. There is then an arms-race between the designers of wasps to make them smarter, faster and better able to defeat one another and reach their initial target.

This seems to me a credible development as AI will become faster and more effective than human piloting, drones can be smaller and less subject to problems with rapid changes of speed and inertia, and the loss of a drone- even an expensive one- is less significant than the loss of a human pilot.

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History Channels the Universe actually did an episode on this subject titled Space Wars that had some pretty interesting ideas.

Since space has no air and these ships only fight in space, why make your fighters aerodynamic an any way? Not to mention that if you are in space you are likely firing projectiles at each other from huge distances and adding wings only makes you craft that much easier to aim at and hit. In space you can accelerate to much greater speeds without wings. George Lucas got it right! Or rather the Empire did.

famous tie fighter

Aerodynamic ships would be at a distinct disadvantage because a small, round fighter is likely going to be much more maneuverable than a burly x-wing!

enter image description here

The History channel does make a good point that the tie fighter pilot will experience higher G's as he will move rapidly in any direction he chooses. For space combat I like to imagine small, maneuverable spherical ships rather than the more rectangular winged ships. This is not to say that planetary surface landing craft would not have wings, though.

In short, for space-only combat missions a tie fighter without (or with detachable) wings would probably be the prevalent design, possibly remote-controlled from the planetary surface or "mother-ship".

I highly suggest you watch that episode of "The Universe," as it will give you many ideas!

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  • $\begingroup$ I think the X-Wing was actually intended to be capable of atmospheric flight. (Whether it would be viable by real world aerodynamics is another question.) Of course, the Star Wars verse isn't super consistent about this. The Millenium Falcon can fly in an atmosphere and it looks like a huge flat boulder. And I have a hunch the video games or the animated shows have shown TIE craft in an atmosphere. $\endgroup$ – millimoose Mar 20 '15 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ Every sentence of this is wrong. The history channel is not a resource for any actual information, especially not the physics of spacecraft. Wings have nothing to do with acceleration (they don't produce drag). Spacecraft are bundles of heating elements all stuck inside a thermos - any pilot would quickly roast without a way of dumping heat as rapidly as it is produced, which means large surface areas for radiation ('wings' provide that surface). That being said, Star Wars doesn't follow actual physics anyway, so it is hardly a source of insight on design. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Mar 20 '15 at 18:54
  • $\begingroup$ @millimoose: "capable of atmospheric flight" is not the same as "capable of staying in the air based on aerodynamic properties". Both X-Wing Fighters and the Millennium Falcon may well be using some antigrav gadgets (repulsorlift?) that are capable of keeping the vessels afloat even relatively close to a gravity well (e.g. within an atmosphere of a planet). That does not preclude that a streamlined shape like that of the X-Wing Fighters is still beneficial in terms of fuel efficiency. $\endgroup$ – O. R. Mapper Mar 22 '15 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ In an EU novel, it called out an issue with atmophere-trained TIE pilots preferentially changing directions along their vertical axis, since the air resistance of the large panels would cause serious problems when trying to slide sideways. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Jul 5 '16 at 19:50
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TL;DR: It depends how technological advances happen. But if you're talking solely today's technology, I'd definitely suggest thin, long shapes similar to today's stealth fighters. Though with wing-like protrusions being in any direction and shape, as long as it's all flat.


I'd take a look at this question - Though it's talking about defensive space structures, there's plenty of interesting points on space combat that we can apply here:

Opposite to the advice of the higher answer, a radial structure would be a frighteningly bad design for a fighter.

  • Large mass, meaning accelerating everywhere will leave you with huge inertia that's gonna take a whole lot of fuel.
  • As noted in the linked question, your field of view (FOV) is severely limited.
  • Your "hitbox" is big, and easy to target. Fighters are going to be in constant dogfights and a sphere, though a small surface area, is an obvious and easy target from any angle.
  • This would be impractical for fast forward-movement when thinking about things like space debris making giant holes in your ship.
  • Due to the smallest possible surface area to volume ratio, you may encounter horrible horrible cooling issues. Certainly not good if they're manned craft.

So, to the point, what is the best design for a space fighter? Rather boringly, the answer is likely to be almost exactly like our current fighters are. A flat shape of some design, maybe not horizontal protrusions, arced wings or arrow-shapes, but thin.

  • When looking at your fighter, especially from behind, you want to be as small and untargetable as possible. When people are chasing and shooting you, you want to be nothing more than a set of thin lines. This is by far the best way to avoid fire.
  • With weapons mounted on wing-like protrusions, you are highly unlikely to encounter cooling issues. Weapon malfunctions are much less likely to be lethal to your pilots. "Firing rockets. Rocket clamps won't release. Oh dear." BOOM "well, that's one wing down."
    • A kind of sub-point, if your wings are shot off, you could keep flying with relative ease. This also essentially allows you to mount loads of weapons while paying little cost per fighter, or in lugging mass around space.
  • Depending on your fighter delivery system - If they were mounted in a carrier of some kind, you can certainly stack 100 flat fighter ships much easier than any other shape. Plus cheapier and easier dock construction. You ever tried to keep a bunch of balls in a flat drydock? It's not the easiest task.
  • Like my point above, your FOV is good: A modern cockpit could potentially provide almost 360 degree vision minus wingspan and gadgets.
  • Again like above, a small cross section with highspeed movement allows you to evade space debris much easier. And even if it does hit, as long as it's not your cockpit, there's a decent chance of survival.
  • Lightweight, contrary to a couple other answers you want lots of surface area, just surface area that's hard to hit. You don't need volume when making fast, maneuverable machines, you want lots of weapons and very little mass to move around. It's cheap and fast and easy.
  • Wing mounted thrusters would allow a ship to turn incredibly quickly by providing a useful pivot against the centre of mass, especially with lightweight design. Again definitely useful in space combat, especially as banking against atmosphere is obviously not an option in space.
  • Much like modern aircraft, ballistic weaponry would have to be symmetrically mounted, or your ship will go into a horrific spin.

However, this isn't a definite. It all depends on what technologies advance best, what ones come out to be super useful. In the case of modern-like bullet/explosive ballistic weapons, these would certainly be practical, though you'd want them in large numbers or much larger speed, as space combat includes large distances.

Similarly, laser-like weapons would likely be lightweight, energy-intensive weaponry, which would definitely be more useful if we could make them efficient and compact enough.

However, if say modernised armor was incredibly vulnerable to railgun-like weapons. Though it'd be unlikely, you may want more centrally mounted weapons, or thicker wings so that your spaceship doesn't tear itself asunder.

If laser weaponry with near-perfect computer tracking ended up viable (less likely than you might think, especially over large distances), you'd invest far more in having a high defense (possibly reflective armour), than you would about maneuverability, as dodging would be nigh-impossible.


Conclusion:

All in all, much like today's weaponry situation, designs are circumstantial and each have their strengths and weaknesses. Your mainstay spacefightervehicularmachine is going to be hard to hit, fast to move, easy to stack, cheap to make.

Spheres, cubes, pyramids are going to be poor for these. Our current fighter design is good for a lot of these. Other designs could be plausible, like triange (2-dimensional as possible) shaped fighters, but if it doesn't fit those criteria, it won't do well in battle.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't see where you explain why you think a flat design would be harder to hit. While that may be true for any opponent on the same plane as the flat ship, it becomes exactly the opposite when the opponent is perpendicular to that plane. In essence, if you are above or below a typical airplane fighter, the attack surface it much larger than just about any other design. Not saying that's a bad thing. If you can orient toward your attackers, and they can't come at you from three directions at once, you are golden. If they can though, you're at a disadvantage. It's like min-maxing. $\endgroup$ – Bryon Mar 20 '15 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ A sphere, of the same volume, will be a smaller target than any other shape, in the worst case scenario. As in, if the enemy is looking at your largest profile. The reason it is hard for airplanes to shoot airplanes is because they are more or less on the same plane, no matter which direction they are coming from. Throw in three dimensions, and it just doesn't work well if attacks can come from any and all directions. That said, if you can limit the direction, flat still isn't better, depending on how you can limit it. A single direction results in a narrow cylindrical ship being ideal. $\endgroup$ – Bryon Mar 20 '15 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ Flat is optimal if attackers are only coming from two arbitrary directions at most, since you can orient onto the plane formed by yourself and the two attackers. And then you probably want a narrow rectangle. If they can come at many direction on the same plane, then it becomes a disc (think flying saucer). $\endgroup$ – Bryon Mar 20 '15 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ Dogfights are practically totally composed of fighters chasing other fighters. If you're being attacked from three perpendicular directions at once, you're not a good fighter pilot. A sphere is going to look like a giant O to literally anyone attacking you. A flat fighter can look like a line to at least one attacker, and practically no more surface area than a sphere to others, and then only when they come from at least two other directions which is going to be highly unlikely. $\endgroup$ – user2979044 Mar 23 '15 at 9:53
  • $\begingroup$ "and practically no more surface area than a sphere to others". This depends on how flat you are. A 6ftx15ftx90ft flat fighter has about the same volume for internal components as a 25ft diameter spherical fighter. In the best case for the flat fighter, it presents 90 square feet to the enemy, but in the worst it presents 1350. The sphere is 490 from any direction. Remember, in this 3D dogfight, if your target goes 'up' and you turn your flat fighter 'up' to chase him, you're exposing your flat side to any opponent he was setting you up for. This is how traditional fighters work as teams. $\endgroup$ – Bryon Mar 23 '15 at 15:01
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Wings might be useful for a number of reasons:

Heat, Wings may be needed to vent heat out of the aircraft quickly, space is cold, but the engines and weapon systems might get very hot.

Size, The aerodynamic shape is also good at reducing the profile of enemies in front and behind you. tailing the spherical fighters others have suggested may give a much easier target than an x-wing.

Ground attack, A spherical aircraft would be unable to enter the atmosphere so would be much less versatile, I don't think I have seen any Sci-Fi shows where the majority of the population or military sites are in space, the space combat is a means to an end.

Shielding, the cockpit of the tie fighter, and more to the point the defender, are surrounded by plates. As the laser bolts seem to explode rather than penetrate this may save the aircraft from side on attacks.

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I would actually say that there is not really a need for space fighters in galactic warfare.

Aircraft in Earth military history were first used in a recon role, as spotters for artillery or to discover enemy troop movements. Later on, they were equipped with projectile guns, bombs and missiles, both to take out enemy forces and to defend themselves. They were especially useful because back in those days, missiles and artillery weren't capable of being fired very far, but bombers could get further and also had more control over what targets they damaged. A V2 guided rocket only had a 200 mile radius and was quite inaccurate. A Dornier bomber had 3X that range, could care a far larger payload, could drop much more accurate bombs.

However, 70 years later, a Minuteman ICBM has over 6200 miles of range, can carry 3 separate warheads, is fired in minutes and is accurate up to less than a mile. In addition, remote controlled combat drones are replacing the expensive piloted aircraft currently in use.

Space combat is often compared to aerial combat, but the fact is that it's much more like nautical combat. It's much more efficient to have a warship with a large crew and even a local ammunition fabricator. a single ship is easier to produce, can carry a far larger gun repertoire, usually has redundancies in both crew and material and can be built much sturdier. You lose maneuverability, though, so you need active or passive countermeasures against missiles and other attacks.

When we look at Sci-Fi space combat, it's almost never just a fighter vs fighter battle. In Star Wars, there are VERY often 2 fleets of large, capital-class ships, fighting against each other. in Star Trek, there aren't even any fighters, with battles being waged between singular or sometimes pairs of larger, multicrewed ships. When I look at webcomics like Schlock Mercenary, A Miracle of Science, Legostar Galactica, there aren't any fighters as well, with battles waged between warships. Mass Effect has fighters, but they're supporting warships with kinetic weapons, and one of the 2 major parties uses drones as their fighters.

Even comedy series like Futurama get this right: Apart from the Nibblonians, there aren't any fighters.

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I'd consider a few things

  • "Aerodynamics" may not matter. You're free to design asymmetrically, in whatever way you want. Ignore if its a hybrid atmosphere/space fighter

  • The idea of having a physical glass cockpit is silly at so many levels. Its the cape of space combat. Its useless except at short ranges, restricts your vision (damn it, we're in space, WE HAVE CAMERAS), and is a single point of weakness at the component of the space craft that is... squishiest.

While teleoperation would be ideal, considering the ranges in space, and that there's no air resistance, and gravity might be a bit more complicated, you're better off sticking them in an armoured bathtub (tm), forget the windows, and just control everything over goggles. Glass cockpits are only useful for knife flighting range.

  • If you do go into knife fighting range, your basic needs are maneuverability (and G forces matter there) and usable firepower. You basically want to give the enemy a minimum aspect (so sharp angles and facets are good) and maximum firepower. Something like the x-wing does make sense, over a sphere (which essentially is a big circle to target from any aspect). You want to keep your nose and guns pointed on the enemy's rear or better yet his side (crossing the T anyone?). You don't want aerodynamics. You want one side that's hard to see and hit, and MIGHT have shots glancing off.

Now lets consider a base'class' of fighters.

Traditional 'space opera' fleets are heavily inspired by ww2 and older naval fleets. You had large command vessels with manned fighters for defence.

You had 'hero' fighter pilots capable of taking on capital vessels with snub fighters... which is a bit silly.

Lets start by considering point defence and ECM. Your average fighter from movies would be shredded to bits by a capital ship. You'd probably go for extreme maneuverability, maximum annoyance and the realisation that you're probably better off letting the big boys duke it out. Outside the cockpit, the starfury design from Christopher Schank's answer and B5 makes sense. it would also make a good base design for something that could work as a drone fighter as well. Have them work in teams of say 3-5 with one command fighter with a pilot (or none, depending on your ECM environment, and AI quality).

You might also want something with a little more firepower. Part of me thinks a 'tug' pulling containers of self contained missile pods makes a lot of sense. Yes... an space train!

There's an alternate school of thought there - having a central pod (say, our bath-tub of death) detachable trusses, and weapons pods off them. While it does make out hypothetical 'heavy' fighter have a high aspect ratio, trusses are expendable, and might draw fire.

If you want to take on capital ships, you'd probably want bombers. Or suicide-drones based off the same basic design. Have some explode and fill the area with chaff or shrapnel, others just dumb mass designed to punch through or just knock off course, and some explosives. If your enemy dosen't know which ones are the command fighters, or which ones are the decoys, its even better.

A smart hypothetical space fighter to me would be a small fireteam against other fighters, and the equivilent of a horde of rabid toddlers to a capital ship.

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It would look much like ISS, in my opinion. No air drag lets you attach lots of girders with hardpoints to carry weapons, thrusters and external tanks. Getting some of them shot off would be merely an inconvenience in space. Of course that gives quite an inertia, but you can see your enemy clearly from relativistic distances. Nothing is sudden in space.

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Remote controlled, guided missiles. If we look at the way airborne warfare is going now, with the rise of drones delivering missiles and we change the battlefield to a huge void of nothing that is completely inhospitable to life and the huge distances over which you can scan and the complete lack of anything to block your approach, sending in live humans seems very pointless.

We're already moving the pilots from the aircraft to a computer terminal and I suspect it'll only get worse. A guided missile can fly much faster, maneauver better, and does not lose any experience when it gets destroyed.

Plus, considering the speed at which objects move in space, I think the added damage from an attack delivered by a fighter is very minor compared to just using the entire bulk of the fighter by slamming into the enemy vessel at top speed. It'd just be a waste of a pilot, which is why you remove him first.

So I don't think we'd really see fighters in space, just missiles and drones of different types. But you could still have those be controlled by humans in some situations.

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First I'm going to defend and define the role of the starfighter:
To my thinking space fighters would only realistically exist to fill one role, that of inflicting light, accurate, opportunity driven damage to a larger vessel. Why? Because spaceships are really expensive, of materials even if not of labour and time, and if you're fighting people who breath the same air mix as you, or close enough, you can always use another salvaged ship so you don't want to blow ships up if you can avoid it. Also you don't want to blow up ships where people live and shipping occurs if you can avoid it because then you have to clean up, or put up with holes getting punched in everything that goes through the area for the next forever. So instead you do as little damage as you can in order to cripple your opponent, to do that accurately and on the fly humans are better than any computer I've ever heard described in Sci-fi. So yes capital ships will duke it out full bore with the biggest baddest long-range weapons that can be devised, especially when they're far from home and/or up against aliens who breath sulfur dioxide, but at home against drug runners and the like you want something small that doesn't do a lot of damage but does it accurately when opportune targets present themselves.

What does such a craft look like? Babylon 5's Starfury is a good starting point but I'd make a couple of adjustments. Rear mounted main engine, check. There should be orientation thrusters that allow for turns in any axis, check. These should be wing mounted to give maximum torque per unit of thrust applied but unlike the Starfury they should be arranged equally around the cockpit which should be pretty well spherical. The wings should be as narrow as possible with relation to "front-on" fire since the vehicle is responsive enough to present front in any direction at a moment's notice. Wing length and configuration is always going to be a compromise pitting damage vulnerable surface area, against orientation thruster efficiency, against material strength and turning G loads, but maximum G endurance of the pilot is probably the most limiting factor since humans are pretty squishy. Sitting is a good position as it places the pilot back-on to main engine burn G loading of the vital organs but the legs should be straight out in front like in a formula one car to minimise the vertical cockpit space requirement. Fuel and life support loading are going to depend on the expected maximum mission time and range, they'll dictate the overall size of the vehicle much more than anything else but it should be as small as possible to do the job it's expected to do. Weapons are the same; they need to be light enough not to destroy a ship outright anyway so you leave them as light as possible to do the damage you need against the most armoured target you expect them to be working against and no more. Weapons should be mounted as centrally as possible to afford the pilot the most intuitive grasp of their operation that you can. A fighter relies on speed and maneuverability to survive the mission not armour, it can't survive going toe-to-toe with even another fighter, let alone a warship, radiation shielding for the pilot and that's about it.

This is obviously a manned fighter, with an FTL control rig you could remote pilot such a vehicle in real time so it doesn't need a cockpit or any life support systems and G loading can be increased to the limits of the materials you build it from but it will still look about the same, a bulb of guns, fuel, and main engines with radial arms mounting orientation thrusters.

Please note that a manned fight is not a weapon that you are going to take out into enemy space or even deploy against capital ships at home unless you're ridiculously desperate, though they may screen support craft from opposition fighters on occasions of need. Even drone fighters are basically wasted resources in a capital ship engagement.

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One thing I don't see mentioned here much is handling g-forces. Not just from a pilot's perspective, but from an engineering one.

There is a reason that we build skyscrapers in generally "stick" shapes - because we have to, that's the only reason the structure can handle the constant acceleration by gravity. A sphere the volume of the Empire State Building would collapse on itself - having everything in a line strengthens it. A ship is the same way - you need to design it so that the structure can take the expected acceleration from the engines. A sphere maximizes volume-to-area, but it's a horrible design from an engineering perspective because of how the support would work.

The end result of this is that a ship would have to be heavier, with stronger cross-bracing and extra materials, in order to be spherical. A "stream-lined" fighter can be designed to handle thrust easier, which means it would be cheaper and more efficient.

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I like the "sphere" answer, but maybe you could also think in terms of "swarms." Imagine taking the "carrier/fighters" model and taking it down another level of scale.

The mini-fighters would be smaller, faster, more maneuverable protectors/attackers that stayed close to the larger, less mobile fighters, frequently returning to the mothership for recharging. The unmanned drones could be subjected to higher G-forces, and could try to maneuver in front of oncoming projectiles (okay, that might be hella tricky). The sensory rig and situational awareness computers would likely be on the fighter itself.

There are some advantages to this configuration. If the fighter itself is destroyed, the drones could ally with a teammate. Since the drones will be specialized for various purposes, the fighter can be heavily configured for various tasks, simply by changing out the drone payload. The drones will be relatively cheap and expendable compared to the (presumably manned) fighter.

The disadvantage is that "hacking the drones" becomes a possibility.

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There are explosive possibilities. Space fighters may end up in a myriad of forms (and pieces) and could become obsolete before they exist - being targeted from millions of miles away.

The likely (conventional) candidate is an unmanned missile guidance platform. Do we assume that putting people into fighters will severely diminish the capability of the fighter? If we can remove this limitation to maneuverability we'll probably end up with a large (patrolling*) missile which can fire others.

Other directions I (daresay) reckon include a (spherical or initially multi-faceted) object collecting (/RECEIVING VIA BEAM) as much kinetic energy as possible and stabilized into spin - able to switch between reflective and absorbent and potentially able to sustain a (self-destructable) fusion core. In conjunction with a huge cross-sectional array of beam-forming antennae spaced around the globe you could... put a sock in it.

Another scenario with space-fighters is the dog-fight chase around the solar system, taking months/years - both with a laser targeting lock on each other and downlinked firmware, the eventual winner being the system with the best trajectory calcualations.

Potentially, in a more head-on approach it would be more a question of who has the superior [l]aser or the most ablative surface/EM shielding and seeing who blows up last.

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I think the best fighter would be a space craft with a huge number of antennae, sensors, etc. and the ability to fold them up and become a dark, cool object if needed.

The larger the number (and possibly size) of sensors, the better, because in space probably the key to winning a fight in that vast emptiness is to be the first to detect the other ship with almost nothing else mattering. You detect it, you can send an unmanned missile its way or hit it with lasers.

Real fights in space would involve constant attempts to detect dark, small objects at extreme distances, along with probably hiding whenever possible. Think, submarine warfare on earth, or even submarines vs. convoys.

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protected by a CVn Mar 21 '15 at 18:31

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