I always wondered what it would look like for a Sci-Fi battle in space to occur if it were a bit more realistic. I don't plan to use any space fighters or anything like that, just big capital ships and freighters that can fire in full vacuum / zero atmosphere.
Space battles, at least realistic ones will be done with computer targeting systems. Humans will not have a big task on the spaceship. I imagine repair and ensuring the AI/computer won't go rogue will be the main task of these crew members. Beyond that will be troop and logistical transport.
Realistic spacebattles can easily be incredibly intense. Crew members put their fate into the hands of a targeting computer that can hopefully outperform the enemy's targeting computer. To give you an idea of the atmosphere look at movie scenes featuring submarines. Das boot, the hunt for red october...
Maybe the ship gets hit and high velocity projectiles penetrate the hull. Rooms become decompressed, people get sucked out, critical systems might get destroyed or disabled.
My best guess is focus on the aftermath. Battles themselves will be brief, but brutal affairs where humans have little to no control over. Somebody get his head blown off by a passing projectile, another guy gets sucked out into space,... However crew have to deal wih the aftermath. They might have won, but are they going to be able to get home?
Realistic spacebattles will be a combination between trench warfare and submarine warfare. The helplessness of standing in a trench during a bombardment and the hostile environment of a submarine. Ever heard of a tv serie named 'The Expanse?' Perhaps you could look at that for some ideas. I've heard it's pretty realistic, at least compared to most space operas.
I've yet to see a space battle in a movie or game actually come close to dealing with real-world physics. A few examples, at least one of which is always broken:
There is no "Speed limit" or max safe speed for ships, in fact there is no "Speed" for ships unless you choose an object to calculate your relative movement. You are not moving "1/3 the speed of light" or x-mph or anything like that without a target. Also ships won't rattle at high "speeds" (since there is no such thing)--they might rattle or shake at high acceleration.
If you were to accelerate away from earth until you were moving nearly the speed of light relative to earth, you wouldn't really even know your ship was moving (because it wouldn't be). You wouldn't be compressed or moving slow or any of those silly effects, however all the stars would be moving unimaginably fast so the streak effects for stars might be accurate.
For every minute your fighter "Burns" going in one direction, it must turn around and "Burn" a minute in the opposite direction just to counter it's movement and stop relative to the other ship (Not accounting for your constant loss of mass which would make it slightly easier to maneuver over time). Also don't forget that after decelerating it must accelerate to get back to the "battle". This would lead to something more like jousting than what you see in movies or games. It would be accelerating at each other for a few hours, firing a volley then spending twice that amount of time turning around and returning for the next volley--either that or they decide to just slowly close the distance and pound each other without much movement--but they would absolutely not be zipping around each other!
Fighters cannot bank against a non-existent atmosphere. This means that they will constantly be rotated at really strange looking angles that are only vaguely related to their intended direction in order to compensate for existing momentum. They would virtually never be thrusting in the direction of their target but always at some oblique angle.
If you only shot weapons out the front of your ship and thrust out the back as with most movies, you would never hit anything as you couldn't thrust in a reasonable direction and fire at the same time.
I don't know if this is the kind of realism you were after, but it's one of those things that always bothers me about space movies/games, but reality would be boring and weird.
To focus more on what might make it interesting:
First assume that both sides have EMP weapons that can destroy active sophisticated electronics in a snap, so electronics have to be shut down during battle. This changes EVERYTHING.
Now you have a battle where everything is done by humans. Acceleration will become critical--this is limited by mass and human ability. All targeting will be manual, and no drones!
Also, if you think about it, the thickness of the shell of the ship adds to mass and wouldn't help much with a direct hit anyway (Decompression would be extremely disruptive even if everyone was wearing suits)
An exciting solution? Eliminate the shell. Shed it before the battle begins (leaving non-fighting humans safe somewhere) and just take in a fighting crew strapped into seats in their suits. The ship could come apart like a transformer, disgorging it's guts in the form of dozens or hundreds of individual manned ships (Previously these were the inner hulls of the ship).
I could imagine many small jet-ski like fighters manned by a pilot and gunner along with a few larger 6-10 people command/control ships--maybe looking like those two-level open-top tour busses and possibly manning moving guns like the tail gun in star wars.
I could even see a large carrier in the shape of a sphere with 50 people strapped to chairs and guns all around the outside--the chairs would, of course, be oriented so everyone was facing outwards covering the entire sky for targeting, navigation and defense.
That would be exciting!
Tell the story from the perspective of the people
Which is what needs to be done anyway.
What would the people hear? The sound of stressing/tearing metal? Burning circuits? Escaping atmosphere? Other humans yelling? I'd hate to be the comm officer.
What would the people see? Dying friends? Other ships exploding? Their own ship being torn apart? I'd hate to be the medical officer.
What would the people feel? The forces of inertia thowing the ship around? (I love the quote from the movie U-571 "The shockwave from one of these explosions could snap your spine.") Nausea from a concussion? Heat? Vacuum?
Authors sometimes have difficulty shifting their 3rd person perspective. In your case, you're probably thinking of the god-view from above looking down on the battle and wondering how you'd tell it since you can't hear anything. Shift to 1st or 2nd person perspective. Put yourself in the shoes of the poor schmuck who's doing damage control or the janitor who was pulled in to help the doctors or the shuttle pilot who's helping damage control fix some strut outside the ship during the battle. Don't tell your story...
David Weber's Honor Harrington series does a good job of describing realistic space combat. A couple of things to remember.
- Space is BIG, really Big. A geosynchronous satellite is 22,236 miles (35,786 km). The fastest missile we have goes about Mach 8(6,135 MPH). At this speed, it would take that missile 217 minutes to go from Earth to the satellite. At the speed of light, it takes 8 minutes for light from the sun to reach the Earth.
- Unless you do something about inertia, you can't change speed and direction of a ship quickly, or you'd turn the crew into a bloody pulp.
- Unless you invent shielding, ships are vulnerable. Armor uses density to withstand attack. As mass increases, your energy budget increases to move the mass. This means there is an interaction between ship armor, speed, and engine size. Likely, ships would not be able to take much damage because the cost of moving that much armor is too expensive.
- You cannot really hide in space. Space is empty. Space is cold. Space is dark. A ship would be not-empty, hot and bright.
- While we have some beam weapons, they would be impractical at distance. Beams spread over distance. While the beam weapon would melt the hull at 10 meters, it wouldn't even warm it at 1000 KM.
So, you're going to have to fire lots of missiles in order to do damage. You're going to employe anti-missile missiles to protect your ships. Everything will seem slow (even at incredible speeds, the missiles would take 20 minutes to impact.)
Battles will be snap decisions, commitments to courses of action, and waiting to see how they turn out.
Go for suspense, not spectacle
In addition to some excellent answers already given I would like to add that a realistic space battle might not lend itself very well for "Saving Private Ryan" like spectacle (meaning the beach scene ofc). Another answer already mentioned submarine warfare, I would very much recommend to watch the excellent movie Das Boot (if you haven't already) for an imho unsurpassed depiction of this. The psychology of being trapped in a metal container in a hostile environment while being hunted by the enemy makes for excellent suspense.
Also, assuming your battle takes place in orbit around planets, maybe with moons, the orbits of the bodies involved will lead to 'windows' where the warring parties can see each other before they are obscured again by the planet or moon they are orbiting. This is especially useful if they use laser-like weapons, that need a clear line of sight to work. The 'downtime', where a ship cannot be seen can be used for course corrections, so the other party can be pretty sure it will surface again, they just can't be sure of exactly when and where. You could use this to create a game of cat and mouse, like the opening scene of the movie Drive but in space.
The fact that in space almost all resources are scarce can be used to further the suspense. All choices have consequences, waiting for the perfect moment to strike will cost you food, air and time for the other to prepare. Firing a drone means you will probably never see it back. Maneuvering into another orbit might leave your vessel unable to go home or be recovered.
I'd like to respectfully disagree with @TheShadowOfZama's answer: there will be a lot more than just waiting for a computer to do its thing.
Generally, human+computer team will beat a pure computer: https://jods.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/issue3-case
Broadly, humans will try to find and exploit faults (or features) of enemy’s computers and hardware.
There could be evasive maneuvering to confuse the target-tracking system. There would be electronic counter-measures against the one type of targeting or guiding system, but exposing the ship to other system type.
There would be rock-paper-scissors choice of weapons and defensive systems.
There will be a choice of aligning the ship for best protection / best weapon coverage / easiest escape. You can have fighters or smaller ships hiding behind or inside larger ones.
There could be flanking the enemy, which gives you a chance to surround them, or strike vulnerable points, but it also disperses the force, and lets them be picked one by one if enemy has multiple weapons (or multiple ships).
I would recommend watching Battlestart Galactica; it has pretty realistic space combat, and tactics that goes with it.
Bill K's answer gets to the heart of the style of combat I imagine, but I'd like to emphasise an aspect of his description that I think can provide a wealth of cool story hooks: acceleration. Unless there is some technology that can negate the stress of acceleration then a ship's ability to maneuver is directly limited by how much acceleration the crew can withstand before blacking out/suffering injury/dying. If the crew on your ship can withstand higher g-forces than the enemy's then you can out-turn and out-run them, which obviously gives a huge advantage in combat.
So in regard to creating excitement, I can imagine space battles where ship captains and crews are constantly judging how much acceleration they are willing to go to to gain minor or major edges in the fight, looking for openings to push that little bit harder then the opponent to gain an advantage, trying to force the opponent to wear their crew out pulling too many Gs, potentially even accepting crew casualties from acceleration if it means making or avoiding a killing blow.
This also puts humans back in control of the battle; computers would do all the targeting and weapon control with near perfect accuracy but the captains and crew would be in control of how hard they chose to push their g-forces and all tactical decision-making would revolve around that.
Seems like you could make this the real heart of your space battles, it can provide a wealth of tactics, tension, daring gambits, heroic sacrifices, etc. It could even shape the type of characters you get in ship crews; instead of relatively disconnected IT guys running the ships you could have teams of gritty, hard-nosed mavericks that are valued for their ability to take risks and push the limits.
Edit: Another thought I just had, if you have some technology that can dampen/reduce the amount or damage of g-force to a crew then this could be a defining characteristic of different classes of ships. If the dampening tech scales with power or size then it allows bigger ships to safely accelerate harder, or perhaps ships that have better dampening have less power or room for weapons systems, etc
By the time we get into space and do battle, we already have such advanced computers that humans barely have anything to do in the grand scheme of warfare. The only reason humans would still be anywhere near the attacks is when AI cant be trusted. Not because the AI goes rogue but because AI learn so fast we wont know what they'll do when, say, they have a choice between saving 101 murderers or 100 civilians, or decides to build somewhere and evicting the people there.
With self-replicating robotics it becomes a matter of mass and useable energy. Entire asteroidbelts if not planets would be transformed into space ships and launched at the enemy. Although at that tech level the question arises of why anyone would still wage war outside of pure disagreement on ideologies and how to live.
There IS sound
Hear me out (pun intended). While it's true that pressure waves (what we traditionally refer to as 'sound') don't propagate through a vacuum ... BUT ... any matter (or even many forms of radiation) impacting the hull of a ship would vibrate the hull of the ship itself, causing sound for those within. This includes radiation from an enemy 'ion engine' or any similar propulsion, debris from damaged or destroyed ships, escaped atmosphere from those same ships (if encountered by an intact ship before it dissipates), various forms of radiation from exploding reactors (a shock wave that would be destructive from too close, deafening from mid range, and merely audible from longer range) and much more could all be audible to a crew.
Now, the problem with most of these is that they are only relevant if the ships remain in close proximity to each other during the battle. As many answers pointed out, this is difficult on the scale of space as a whole, so how do you do it? That part of the answer is also mentioned briefly in some of the other answers here, and that is that resources in space are VERY limited, including ships that have already been constructed. Raw materials may be (relatively) easy to come by. After all, if space can be navegated well enough for battles to be a thing, then reaching other planets or asteroids, moons, belt systems, etc, for mining should be likely options. But time and manpower to actually convert raw material in to a ship would be a much more rare thing, so the ships themselves, even the smallest and simplest, would be VERY valuable. In this situation, capturing ships would be highly preferable.
So, any battle other than the last ditch effort of a single ship, would NOT focus on turning an enemy ship in to a puff of scattering matter. Instead it would focus on disabling an enemy ship while producing as little actual damage as possible or, even better, completely outmaneuvering and capturing it with no damage whatsoever, and then boarding it and taking it over and using it to help capture even more. Grappling cables, clamping arms, hull cutting systems, etc., would make very unique sounds on hulls of ships. As would the exhaust from maneuvering thrusters pointed directly at a ship in an attempt to thrust away from it's grappler equipment.
Add multiple ships on each side, and watch them try to outflank each other, using small scale weapons to try and shoot off communications arrays to confuse the enemy or disconnect grappling systems from enemy ships, or dent/bend a maneuvering thruster to disable their handling capabilities, all while trying to get to some point on an enemy ship where they can grab on without getting shot themselves, could get very up-close and personal, intense.
And it could be AUDIBLE even from a camera perspective in 'space' outside the hulls of any of the ships involved as the 'camera' passes through thruster exhaust trails, debris fields, minor and major explosion shockwaves, etc.
'Epic' or 'cool' are too vague and dependent on the individual to nail down(using those descriptors is probably what drew the VTCs), but what I can help you with is "intense" and "realistic"
Put a high emphasis on information gathering and pumping out misinformation in your setting. Ships can make use of an array of systems like radar absorbent hulls, heat dampening, laser scattering, etc; we usually call these "stealth tech". They can also gain concealment from asteroids and debris when powered down, however this would be extremely difficult to get considering the true vastness of space. The most readily available form of this would be hiding in the "shadow" of the Sun or a moon/planet. A hostile fleet that may or may not be lying in wait at Lagrange Point L3 can be the sword hanging over your protagonists' heads. Don't use a nebula in a high realism setting; they realistically provide nothing other than a pretty backdrop for your battles.
For misinformation, consider targeted or area saturation white noise. In The Expanse one commonly used combat technique is to beam massive quantities of junk data directly via laser at enemy combatants in order to overload their targeting systems. You can also have mechanical white noise generators on a huge scale(likely in fixed emplacements), and natural but extremely dangerous sources of radiation from solar events like the Carrington Event. Computer viruses either transmitted by enemy ships during combat or pre-placed by saboteurs can play a part here too.
The key take away here is suspense achieved by placing your POV characters under pressure from constant threat of attack, not necessarily the attack itself. Higher realism settings would place a high emphasis on ambushes and localised use of overwhelming force as opposed to large fleet on fleet showdowns. As a means of fleshing out the setting while adding to the fear of attack, you can have your protagonists receive occasional news broadcasts about fleets/convoys being lost with all hands from mysterious unidentified attackers.
The answer depends mightily on the tech involved. You'll have to tailor the answer to suit your tech. However, the general answer today is that you need to focus on the strategy involved. In the modern setting, space is a wide open environment, where it's very easy to predict where someone is going. There's no tactics on par with, say, a Wrestling match where two fighters vie to get the best grip on the other. The rules are simpler:
If you are predictable, you die.
Your fighters are necessarily going to have to be on the absolute edge of the combat envelope. Move into the envelope at all, and someone will send a missile your way with enough delta-V to 100% guarantee your doom.
As such, the psychology of the combat is going to be incredibly important. You have to get into their mind, and predict what sort of "unpredictable" move they're going to make.
The book I recommend on the topic is The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. In the opening chapters, he discusses winning a "push hands" competition against an opponent who seemed to read him like an open book. Forgive me for not having the direct quote (I read it as a library book), but he points out a huge Tai Chi push-hands championship win where he attacked his opponent with eight attacks, seven of which were only in his mind. Combat in space is almost certainly going to fall somewhere between a deadly game of Chess and Tai Chi.
In the movie realm, I recommend Master and Commander, which shows just how fully one must be engrossed in the mind of your opponent to second guess them before they guess themselves.
I don't think there is a easy way to build up realistic battles and have them look cool. Battles aren't about being cool and exaggerated poses and the weapons and equipment used are meant to be effective and destructive. Not flashy or sound cool.
Sound plays a huge role in our perception of events and so removing that completely would be like asking someone to enjoy food with a blocked nose. You can do it, it just won't be as good as it could have been.
I propose the following way to present it
- Show attacker charging weapons (Slow motion if necessary) or giving out the order (with necessary pauses for drama)
- Show the weapon discharging with noise from the attackers perspective (Camera could be in a 3rd person view and focused on the weapon, but your hearing the noise from the attackers perspective, or localized on the weapon)
- Switch to a overview of the projectile/weapon travelling with the sound of the weapon still fading out
- Show reaction of the attacked with sound from their perspective
- Switch back to a overview of the attack landing, accompanied by faded sound from the attacked persons perspective
- Switch to the attacked persons perspective of the attack spreading causing damage with the sound coming into focus
You say you are combining the noise from both perspectives rather than having a 3rd party with a drone viewing the space battle and listening to actual audio.
Don't do God mode overview
Very hard to make that epic without focusing in on areas of action. Try describing an intense traditional battle, but from a distance where people look like ants.
There is plenty of it. Unless dying, people aren't exposed directly to the vacuum. They're protected in suits where their own body and breathing produce sound, or they're on ships which also propagate sound. Not to mention communications.
The distance of units has only increased as technology advanced. From fistfights, to spears, bows, guns, artillery and so forth. Even today the distance is so great it's largely assisted by technology, and not visible to the naked eye.
In space, even more so. Just consider how far out the various asteroids we are tracking are, and we aren't capable of anything close to Sci-Fi space battles.
The exception would be if you were trying to board enemy ships for some reason.
There's no 2 flanks on either side in space. Above and below are equivalent to left and right, as you can rotate your ship in any orientation you want. The distance makes it very hard to flank someone during battle, and would more so rely on positioning prior to engagement.
It's largely technology based, so it will rely on technology warfare. Disrupting their tech and protecting your own is vital for success. If your space-radar is knocked out, you can't track and aim at your enemy. At best you can defend against slow projectiles and boarding attempts.
Radio chatter, sure, but also health monitors that you can see and hear.
You can have a dashboard showing the heart rate and blood pressure, oxygen intake of yourself and others in the battle. When these go up, yellow/orange/red lights on the dashboard will flicker, and alarms will go off at different levels.
My gut feeling about space battles is that unlike (classic) terrestrial battles, size would be a bad thing: I think that a dozen small fighters would destroy the capital ship, every time, while the capital ship would destroy only half of that dozen in the same time. That you already have post-WW2: No more massed tank battles, because A10 Warthog/Tankkillers are picking them off using their slow airspeed and long loitering times.
As mentioned in several of the (much better than this) answers, inertia/cost/slowness scales nonlinearly with size. I'd expect to build for the similar amount of materials (or less) eight ships each half as big as the enemy's, that will be more manoeuvrable. And unmanned (don't get me on Holdo riding to her death completely uselessly --- it'd be no different from putting a brick on a car's accelerator, steering towards the target, and jumping out!).
Basic physics' conservation laws being what they are, I always feel like shields should dissipate the energy of incoming attacks more than neutralize them... Just like a bullet proof vest will stop you from gushing wounds, but you still get hit by exactly the same number of Newtons as without.
Also you often have "Shields at 10%" type things where repeating the attack that took you from 100% to 95%, will at that point take you from 10% to 5%... I don't feel that makes much sense. Just like a tired boxer is just a fraction slower, but that's enough to lose every time from an evenly-matched-but-fresh one.
Historically, the primary purpose of battle between capital vessels in the pre-information age was to gain (or deny) territorial control over resources but in space, there is no concept of territory, and as we have seen from WWI to the the Falklands, capital vessels can be destroyed by far cheaper weapons systems, rendering them useless. Pit a multi billion dollar aircraft carrier battle group against a few Exocet missiles or a diesel sub and it will be sunk.
I am sorry to have to say this, but space battle (at least scientifically realistic space battle) is epically boring and more then a little pointless. It really comes down to putting a lump of rock where the enemy is going to be and waiting for the enemy to hit it. Without some sort of 'magic' propulsion system or significant hand waving, space ships have extremely limited mobility options, remember Apollo-13 which had absolutely no ability to turn back, and orbital mechanics being what they are, it is very easy to predict exactly when and where an attacking force will be at any and every moment in the future, making it extremely easy for defenders to ensure there will be something to greet the attackers and ruin their day. As others have mentioned, there is no stealth or camouflage that can hide either the ships or the weapons.
One lone idea, in case it sparks something for someone:
If your spacecraft get into close quarters (ie. not just xray lasering each other from half a million miles apart) then knocking out one craft's propulsion would leave it drifting, unable to dodge or maneuver. The crew play dead, deactivating weapons and the like. The opponents might assume it's crew are dead, or the craft is helpless, and ignore it in favor of more urgent targets.
Meanwhile, the disabled ship's crew waits, tensely like a submarine battle from Das Boot, drifting past fields of fire, taking stray hits, all without giving any response that would reveal they weren't dead.
Eventually they drift close enough to an enemy to unload some knockout close-range weapon - maybe just climb outside, flinching at the ongoing battle around them, and shove a timed bomb by hand to intercept the enemy at 3mph.
Have a look at Isaac Arthur's excellent Youtube channel.
He has many episodes on future and space warfare (being former military) which are all scientifically accurate. You'll be surprised about the ideas he offers!
You never see your enemy.
Even in modern air combat, weapons are released when the enemy is out of sight. Some of them have ranges of well over a hundred miles. You won't see the enemy you kill except as a marker on a display screen.
Like submarine warfare, there will be significant delays between the release of a weapon and it reaching a target. Counter weapons will be important, but due to velocities involved will be almost entirely computer controlled.
Computers fight. People plan and fix.
People will mostly have two functions: Planning the situation that leads to combat, and repairing damage to try to keep the ship functional.
People are your biggest resource.
By in large manpower is more expensive than metal. It takes millions to train a modern fighter pilot. If you sink a modern carrier, you don't just roundup 5000 men off the streets and fill up a new one. In WWII the Germans were sending up high school kids with only a few hours flight time to be slaughtered by Allied fighters -- they could still build planes, but not train people to operate them.
Ships will be as automated as possible to have minimum crews.
Space war is six dimensional.
Space combat isn't 3d. It's 6d.
A submarine war is truly 3d. Your x,y,z position (latitude, longitude, depth) determines what you can do. Speeds are limited. A fraction of a mile per hour when patrolling, a bit faster than that when hunting, but you go fast, you make noise. And even at flank speed, you have a max fixed speed.
The time it takes you to slow down from max speed to patrol speed is small compared to voyage times. Generally a few minutes.
In space there are no speed limits. So you have a 6d coordinate, 3 spatial ones, and 3 velocity ones. Two fleets passing each other at 10,000 km/sec relative speed using missiles that have a range of 100,000 km (1/4 of the way to the moon) the entire combat is over in 10 seconds.
Combat engagement is determined hours or days before the encounter to arrive at the right place at the right speed.
Gravity doesn't matter much
Given large delta-v (Your ships can accelerate at 1-10 g's for hours/days at a time, and your missiles can accelerate at 100 times this) gravity is mostly inconsequential. In our solar system everything dealing with gravity is under 100 km/sec. At 1 G changing your speed by 100 km per second takes 10,000 seconds -- about 3 hours. Gravity does affect your course, but not much.
If you have very limited speeds, then voyages take months or years. Makes for a boring story. Gravity does have an effect then.
Stealth is hard
Like submarine warfare, much depends on not being seen. Unlike submarine warfare space is clear. If you have very accurate sky maps, and good optics, you can see when an enemy ship blocks the light of a star. With high power radar you can have fixed stations 'ping' the whole solar system for extra bits. You have to sort out the ships from the asteroids.