I'd think the future combat of planetary invasion (as in conquering, not destroying) would use space fighters/gunships with infantry for CQC support.

Realistically, in a universe where interstellar species exist and space combat is commonplace, why would ground vehicle systems, armored or otherwise, not become obsolete?

Watercraft would pretty much become non-military leisure relics, seeing that only some planets have water and even less have sprawling oceans like Earth. Also, they cannot go onto land where the bulk of the conflict would be.

Edit1: Future tanks, mechs and APCs etc will always be less maneuverable and less mobile than fighter-sized airborne craft regardless of tech. And with further advancements in exotic weaponry and propulsion, I don't see why any space-civilization would waste time/resources with slow moving sitting ducks. Smaller powered armor infantry would seemingly supplant vehicles.

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    $\begingroup$ Aerial combat didn't make ground vehicles obsolete. Though, if you have cheap anigravity, you may float any vehicle in the air. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Dec 27, 2018 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ One thing to keep in mind is that planets are BIG. Space flight won't change that. Most planets will be controlled by a large number of governments with competing interests, and most wars will be between governments on the same planet. Planet v. planet conflict will likely be fairly rare, for the same reason that countries tend to fight wars against their neighbors, rather than with distant countries. Also: why should watercraft be a relic? "Under the ocean" is a great place to build things in order to protect them from orbital bombardment. $\endgroup$
    – ckersch
    Dec 27, 2018 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ Habitable planets will have large bodies of water. And water transport of goods, particularly heavy and non-time critical ones, is efficient. That's why we have ocean freighters & oil tankers in the age of FedEx :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 27, 2018 at 21:57
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    $\begingroup$ Bicycles didn't make walking obsolete, cars didn't make bicycles obsolete. We still drive even though we also have airplanes now. And we fly despite having spacecraft now. Or do you take a soyuz or BFR to the local store for milk? $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Dec 28, 2018 at 6:04
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    $\begingroup$ Nothing useful ever gets obsolete in the military. There are still combat knives even though we have ICBMs. Just their role gets demoted. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Dec 28, 2018 at 7:40

7 Answers 7


I think your premise has some problems. We have no FTL drives right now, not even a concept how to build one, so we cannot know what kind of advantages one gets by that time -- antigrav, force fields, compact fusion reactors, ... or just the stardrive and nothing else that isn't on the drawing board today.

But once you have defined the technology level for your setting, some things should still hold true:

  • Take a fighter or gunship design that is capable of atmospheric and space combat. Make another design without any equipment that is used only in space, and another design without any equipment that is used only in an atmosphere. The specialized designs should be better in their niche, the generalist design should be more flexible.
  • Take the atmospheric gunship design and further specialize it in the firepower-mobility-armor tradeoff. One variant is more heavily armored but slower, another is fast and armored but carries few weapons, and so on. Again there will be niches where each design excels.

So far I was making the case for low-flying, slow-flying, heavily armored aircraft to augment the high and fast space fighters. It may be an advantage to swap the flight systems for wheels or tracks. That very much depends on how they fly -- a sufficiently magic drive will beat wheels or tracks. But consider these factors:

  • Is stealth an issue? If so, will there be an advantage for vehicles in direct contact with the ground? Think radar stealth, but also infrared and other frequencies.
  • Does a hovering flyer produce noise and dust?
  • A ground vehicle may be better able to deal with excess heat from rayguns and futuristic reactors.
  • Can tracked ground vehicles carry much more armor than flyers? Is this armor worthwhile?
  • Are weapon ranges so high that a stable firing platform becomes important?
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    $\begingroup$ (+1) Very much this. The wheel is one of the biggest inventions of humankind, not for anything. We can (and have) build a flying car. But it's expensive to build, expensive to use, expensive to maintain. Even if you could mass-produce them cheaply, you need much more energy to keep something in the air against a gravity field that you need to keep something in the floor. Flying vehicles, then, will always have (MUCH) biger energy consumption than wheeled ones. To start with, the OP's scenario requires unexpensive antigravitatory devices and/or unlimited free energy. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Dec 28, 2018 at 9:54
  • $\begingroup$ There are many good answers here, but the bottom 5 points brought up in this answer reveal the advantages of ground vehicles. Adding in the facts that critical engine failure is safer while on the ground, and they are generally more reliable than sophisticated spacecraft for mundane/short-ranged tasks. $\endgroup$
    – bluet
    Dec 29, 2018 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ @bluet, that might be right unless your flight technology is sufficiently neat. Take Star Wars. It seems to be at a tipping point, with repulsorlift speeders replacing wheeled tanks and co-existing with walkers. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Dec 29, 2018 at 14:40

War is not about lethality. Lethality is just one element, not the goal.

The goal of war is influence. It's about making the enemy do what you want them to do, even though they violently resist.

Overwhelming lethality is great if your goal is simple extermination of an enemy population. However, you will go down in the history books as one-of-history's-greatest-monsters to most folks, and being universally reviled for the next billion years tends to be strong disincentive for many. Plus there are all kinds of unanticipated consequences.

Example: The British could perhaps have acquired one or two atomic bombs in 1945 to nuke Indian cities that were rising up, led by Gandhi. However, that would have been counterproductive, would have prevented the British from achieving the goal they actually wanted.

Most nations find it in their interest to use limited force instead of overwhelming force in order to limit the unanticipated consequences of their actions - like the growth of an opposing coalition, or a emergence of domestic political opposition, or international sanctions, etc.

And limited force in pursuit of specific goals may create a condition where orbital batteries sit silent while armored vehicles crawl across the surface.

(...or maybe the Rebels on Hoth simply have too strong of space-facing shield)

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    $\begingroup$ Something to note, the reason the Empire needed the Death Star was because the empire was simply too large to rule effectively. Central rule was impractical, necessitating regional governors ie the Moffs. A Star Destroyer showing up could effectively cow a system, but there were never enough Star Destroyers. The Death Star was a huge psychological weapon. No more restraint. In general, I think ground combat would still exist, but would be highly situational and really depend on how large the nations and the inhabited universe is.Also how effective travel and communication were. $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2018 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ I like how the most popular answer always does not answer the question. $\endgroup$
    – Exerion
    Dec 29, 2018 at 11:14

Aerial warfare didn't make infantry obsolete, for the simple reason that you need to place foot on a territory to conquer it.

A similar concept can be applied also to this case. Yes, you can fight in space, but then to take control of land and seas you need to have troops there. This means having infantry, motorized and water transported troops capable of exercising control on the territory.

Having space control would provide a tactical advantage, for sure, but by itself would not be sufficient.

  • $\begingroup$ Space control is orders of magnitude greater than Air control though. Space control allows you to effectively glass a planet, quite easily too. Space control is to Air what nuclear weapons are to conventional. So the question is, what do you want that planet for? If for resources, how difficult are the extractors to setup and how are they manned? $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2018 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ @user2259716 Does it though? The ability to glass a planet is not automatically a given capability simply by virtue of space travel and space warfare. $\endgroup$
    – T.J.L.
    Dec 27, 2018 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ @T.J.L. If Interstellar travel is possible then yes it is a given. It would be simple to angle an asteroid into such an impact. Interstellar travel also implies larger ships. Such a ship alone might cause an extinction level impact on the planet. Not to mention the idea of Rods from God on an increased level. We can already create tactical nuke level strikes at our tech level, at an interstellar level it would be simple. $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2018 at 21:05
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    $\begingroup$ @user2259716 There you go again, assuming facts not in evidence - like the nature of the setting's interplanetary travel mechanism. For all you know, it could be position jumps that require the ship being at zero-acceleration relative to the star before engaging. It could be something that doesn't work inside a star system's gravity well, making near-planet operations slow. It could be something that isn't even part of the ship itself. $\endgroup$
    – T.J.L.
    Dec 27, 2018 at 21:09
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    $\begingroup$ @user2259716 the ability to glaze a planet does not give you control anymore than the ability to nuke a city gives you control of it. And not just because indiscriminately killing civilians just makes more enemies. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 27, 2018 at 21:57


So, first off, good on you for recognizing that you'll still want infantry - after all, artillery didn't make infantry obsolete. We still use infantry today.

Consider that the MBT (main battle tank) is a key part of modern-day COIN (counter-insurgency) combat. And COIN is probably going to be one of the major roles of infantry in a setting where a spaceship can provide orbital support. After all, going in and trashing a peer's industry is going to be done via spaceship. And a spaceship might be providing orbital fire support to infantry in COIN operations (depending on how accurate it is.)

But infantry in future-COIN ops probably wouldn't be calling for orbital support any more than they call for conventional artillery support currently (probably even less, if the orbitals are using the current concept of "rods from god," which have a horrible time-to-target.) Tanks, and their ability to handle small arms easily, are very important for COIN. Also, if your orbitals have a horrible time-to-target when acting as artillery, then you'll want artillery vehicles.

Not to mention you'll want transport vehicles to support your infantry, from moving them around to moving supplies for them.

Now, these might not be strictly "ground" vehicles if your setting has cheap anti-gravity or something with a similar effect, but even then there are still reasons to keep wheels and treads (mainly, they're cheap and reliable, and also fail in a very safe way - your vehicle simple stops moving, as opposed to a hover vehicle which falls)

  • $\begingroup$ COIN is a really good point, but I could see COIN being orbital based. Easy insertion. COIN makes sense because you would be fighting over assets whether people or machines. If you don't care about either, it is more effective to glass the area from orbit. If this is your planet, then infantry is fulfilling COIN / Policing roles. Similar to how infantry does not make police obsolete. Are you really going to drop an artillery strike on a neighborhood over a stolen car? $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2018 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ "Are you really going to drop an artillery strike on a neighborhood over a stolen car?" That's what you're suggesting with "COIN being orbital based." If your only option for dealing with insurgency is "orbital strike" then you better be ready for that entire region of the population to rise up in arms after the first civilian casualty. Or possibly even before then. You want more options? Use infantry. You want options for all scenarios? Those infantry need mechanized support. $\endgroup$
    – ltmauve
    Dec 27, 2018 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ I was agreeing with you. I meant drop pods not orbital strikes. $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2018 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ So you're just going to use infantry then? Ever heard of "combined arms?" Also, shame on you for taking an enemy-centric approach to COIN, which only works when you have a single, hierarchical insurgency. COIN isn't just about military operations, it's a host of political and social issues as well. You constantly want boots on the ground when you're doing COIN, especially because you hopefully have civilian advisers trying to undermine the insurgents and prop up the preferred government. $\endgroup$
    – ltmauve
    Dec 27, 2018 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ It's not about being able to kill people from orbit. You need to be able to protect the civilians on the ground. If insurgents are trying to remove or control medical services, then you need to put troops around the hospitals. And possibly tanks, depending on the equipment the insurgency has. Rods from God have long shot lag. By the time your RFG gets there, the insurgents will have accomplished their goal. Honestly, orbitals are going to be more useful for surveillance than fire support against an insurgency. $\endgroup$
    – ltmauve
    Dec 27, 2018 at 22:27

This depends on your goals

One could say that ground vehicles became obsolete the day carpet bombing was invented. So, why do we still have vehicles, or even infantry?

Because war is usually about more than 100% destruction. You don't want to ruin a city, you want to force your enemy to relinquish it so you can use it. The same is true for mines, transport hubs... heck, even the population is useful. Slave labor, you know.

So, unless you're going to invest in a lot of Clarkean Magic (...indistinguishable from magic) then you won't have the precision necessary to surgically destroy only what you want from space. Think about it. Really precise energy discharges. You can carpet the skies with satelites so that you have thousands (if not millions) of directed energy weapons slowly picking off people and disabling defenses...

But eventually you need boots on the ground to sieze control, plant your flag, and declare Emporer G'hurzak the supreme ruler of the world. Then you need to invest in a new government, bureaucracy, transport, police & emergency... (and don't forget teachers. The Propaganda Ministry hates it when nobody uses their stuff).

Even if all you plan to do is strip mine the place, you need to move people around.

But, this really depends on what you mean by "ground vehicles"

Of course, you could suggest that nobody uses wheels. All your vehicles are hover craft, so there are no actual ground vehicles. Unless you declare hover craft to be ground vehicles... then you could claim that short-range limited-altitude transport are ground craft... It all depends on your point of view.

So, what this really boils down to is that (in my humble opinion), there will always be a reason for troop transport, mass transit, and status symbols to move people from point A to point B. They'll range in size (as they do today) from luxury automobiles to bicycles to buses to trucks to planes...

In short, whether or not wheels and treads are involved doesn't change the fact that what they do for us today will be a service that is always needed.

So, yes, you'll always need ground vehicles.

Unless you have billions of Star Trek transport pads.... Then, maybe, you won't need ground vehicles anymore. Seems like a lot of work just to get your kid to give up his Camaro.


Not if you still need to get things from place to place on the same planet. It's not feasible to launch something into space in order to move it 100 miles away. If the primary theater of combat is in space, then your ground-based munitions might be focused more heavily on anti-spacecraft, and you ground-based transports would be defended from bombardment, or go underground, but no, you wouldn't get a total obsolescence of ground (or sea) transportation, just selective obsolescence of specific vehicle types.


So what, exactly, are spaceships like in the future? You write of "further advancements in exotic weaponry and propulsion", but just how exotic is this? If spaceships can travel at Mach 100 in the atmosphere, and use 3 micrograms of water per kilometer of travel, come with full armor, and cost as much as an SUV, then I'll agree that they will supplant almost all other forms of transportation. If they have any of the characteristics of current space vehicles - not so much.

Spacecraft are, by their nature, expensive, and are likely to form the high end of the vehicle cost spectrum. That, in turn, means that there are likely to be few of them. This, in turn, suggests that they are spread out (almost certainly in orbit), and their response times aren't likely to be short. After all, if you need a ship and it has to deorbit and go 1/4 of the way around the world, and cost 100 tons of LOX and LH2 to do the job (ferry a company of grunts 100 km), don't you think that 20 trucks might just be a better choice?

Plus, of course, spaceships by their nature need to minimize weight (at least, for any currently-feasible propulsion technology), which means they are fragile, and you can't armor them. If you need airmobile insertion of a platoon into a hot LZ, don't you think that a half-dozen helicopters and a couple of gunships might be quicker and cheaper than risking a spaceship to ground fire? If you've got a bunch of insurgents hiding in a town, sending in some tanks and IFVs to root them out might just be a better idea than levelling the town from orbit, don't you think?

The idea that the latest technology will make the old ways obsolete took hold (briefly) in the US during the post-WWII era. In this particular case the golden boy was nukes. Who needs conventional forces when you can apply the Windex solution? You know, nuke it until it glows, then send in somebody with Windex to polish the glass left behind when the ground melted. This was despite the Korean War, which should have been a wakeup call. Instead, it took the post-colonial insurgencies, most especially including Vietnam, to make it crystal clear that old-fashioned blood and sweat were still necessary. Thinking that spaceships will be the end-all and be-all of military transportation is just another example of the genre. At least for the forseeable future.


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