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So, say you have a stealth technology that is really effective. But, the tech is too big to mount on missiles, and anything over a certain size (like a space ship) is too large to hide properly. If you put it on little single- or dual-pilot ships, these ships can become essentially invisible... until you fire any weapons from them, at which point the enemy becomes able to track them via the weapons fire and shoot them down, making the losses you take in people and hardware more expensive than any damage you could inflict with weapons small enough to mount on your "fighters". So, using them as weapon platforms is impractical.

But, you have figured out that you can move these ships in close to an enemy ship and not only use them to observe for weaknesses and pass messages along quickly (by bouncing the signal from one fighter to the next), but you can also use them to vastly extend the useful range of you ship-fired missiles by handing control of the missiles off from fighter to fighter as they travel closer to your target, allowing you to guide them in on the most effective attack paths and avoid some of the enemy's defensive measures. This greatly improves your combat ability compared to your enemy's, because you can shoot from further away than they can and still land decent hits (since dumb missiles out of control range and flying in a straight line are pretty easy for point defense measures to kill).

Does this sound feasible for space battles? What kind of problems could this strategy have? And where else would this technology be useful, if you had it in a space-faring civilization? (Note, the tech is expensive enough that it's not going to be available for trivial or nonessential mainstream uses, and it is classified, since the government and military doesn't want other governments getting their hands on it).

Edit: Assume for now that the fighters need to be manned, for some reason or another they can't just be drones.

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    $\begingroup$ You don't allow pilotless drone ships - that's the limitation of the question? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Mar 27 at 0:34
  • $\begingroup$ Haven't made up my mind about that yet. At the moment, the ships need to be manned because the missile control computers need human oversight or because their autonomous AI tech isn't good enough yet, perhaps. I know I want the ships to have one or more crew members, but haven't quite decided why yet. I'll add this to my question to clarify. $\endgroup$ – MarielS Mar 27 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ What is the kind of "space battle" you are looking for? Are you talking about the TV show kind with lots of flash and close quarters, or are you talking about a realistic fight where ships are millions of km apart and a missile might need to fly for days or weeks before hitting their target? $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Mar 27 at 4:17
  • $\begingroup$ Your technology available otherwise is very important, especially what form of propulsion is available, and what weapon systems. Overall forward observes seem rather useless in the environment of space $\endgroup$ – Whitecold Mar 28 at 13:55
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Bombers.

  1. Sneak up invisibly. Get snuggly with target.

  2. Detach bomb from bomber. Gently now, gently. If you have the skills, leave it stuck to the target with some space putty.

  3. Turn around. Leave invisibly.

  4. When bomb is outside of your cloak, it detonates. Your wingman has a remote he presses to do that. Or maybe there is a timer. Or a long string?

  5. Go get another bomb. Repeat.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very sneaky! I like it. This would be another handy use for such tech, if you could get close enough without risking betraying your stealth. $\endgroup$ – MarielS Mar 27 at 6:09
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Think of some real-world naval technologies and how they apply in your space setting:

  • The Soviet Union had helicopters like the Ka-25K to guide cruise missiles. The shipboard missiles were much too large for the helicopters themselves.
  • During WWII, scout planes of the US Navy were used to spot the fire from cruisers and battleships.
  • The OH-58 Kiowa Warrior can laser-designate targets for the AH-64 Apache.

Your spotter spacecraft is relatively small, slow, and stealthy; those three go hand in hand. Your attack ordnance is relatively large (for a missile), fast, and may or may not be stealthy. The spotter spacecraft arrives before the attack ordnance, picks targets, and relays that data.

No need to "chain" relays of spotters for missile guidance, simply give the shipboard missies enough intelligence to follow a course and wait for terminal attack orders.

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I don't think you can win a war by taking out a few capital ships.

You should use the stealth "fighters" to identify high value targets deep within enemy territory. ( Ship Yards, weapons manufacturing plants, metal mines, etc.) From there, use them to guide the long distance weapons.

Its pretty hard to fight a war when you can't get your ammo replenished.

In other words: Use the stealth "fighters" strategically (war), not tactfully (battle)

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until you fire any weapons from them, at which point the enemy becomes able to track them via the weapons fire and shoot them down

Weapon firing is a very brief process, just few seconds. If the enemy can shoot them down based on this, they must have very bad speed or maneuvrability relative to enemy weapons abilities. So they are more similar to nuclear submarines or satellites, rather than stealth fighter jets.

One issues:

  1. if they provide guidance to ammunition, or bounce signals, some energy must travel out of it. Hiding the source of energy is much harder than detecting it. Especially when the ship has severely constrained mass and volume, while the potential "radar" can be much larger and heavier. Other methods (e.g. deploy lots of decoys, using randomized fuzzy movements in the final approach, electronic noise makers, etc.) could give similar survivability to the missile.

And where else would this technology be useful, if you had it in a space-faring civilization?

Being classified precludes civilian applications. Being very expensive and lightly armed precludes combat applications, at least against equal, or slightly weaker opponents (different story against much weaker opponents, the US used expensive B2 bombers against lesser opponents, due to the certainty it won't be shot down). So there would very little other application. Perhaps combat operation against much, much weaker opponents, but when political neutrality must be kept. Or some mission against civilian targets of great importance, but much "softer" than military ones.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking of weapons that fire projectiles, the path of which can be tracked. I should have specified that there are no Star Trek laser cannons and so on. The fighter would obviously have moved on after firing, but if they know what general area to scan, they can still break the stealth if they manage to hit you with their sensors. $\endgroup$ – MarielS Mar 27 at 6:12
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There is no reason this couldn't work.

@MichaelKutz made a good point about hitting strategic targets that you might want to think about.

What I'd like to discuss is how this would change combat from blowing things up to electronic warfare. If the two sides have been at this for a while, they would start developing counters to each other's approach.

If missiles receive outside guidance, they are vulnerable to enemy commands. This will lead to an escalation of encryption/decryption, spoofing/identification, hacking/defense, jamming/counter-jamming, etc.

Heck, if the enemy knows how close the stealth ships have to be to the missiles, they can start throwing shrapnel into that area.

The main thing is to put yourself in the shoes of the other side and figure out what you would do about it.

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I think I see a vulnerability (opportunity) here: how do you pass signals between cloaked ships while remaining undetectable? If you broadcast any frequency of radiation, that defeats the whole point of the stealth field; at best, you give away your location, and at worst, you also give the enemy hints about what communication frequencies you use that can get past your stealth tech, which implies it can not only be defeated but reverse-engineered. You could target/focus the signal on neighboring stealth ships to prevent triangulation of your signal, but then you'd need to know where your neighboring stealth ships are, and we've come to the same point. In short, if you can detect your own stealth ships, then the enemy might be able to as well, and a single mistake can cost everything. Trust is transitive.

The solution is probably an ansible based on quantum entanglement, but it's likely expensive or even physically unfeasible to have one stealth ship connected to more than a couple of others via QE. I think this actually helps explain the need for manned vessels: you have to maintain a specific formation to keep the relay system working, but also adapt based on the enemy's position, and you can't afford to lose a single scout to a mistake, so anything less than a highly sophisticated and self-aware AI would not be trusted to successfully pilot such a vessel. Bonus convolutedness points(?) if the sophisticated and self-aware AI actually does exist but is itself built on some sort of quantum tech that interferes badly with the communication relay.

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You are essentially describing the F-35 in combat, however the current lines of thinking are to use the F-35 to scout ahead and locate targets, then pass the coordinates to nearby arsenal aircraft, warships or other platforms. A Marine F-35B might communicate a target location to a Marine artillery battery, for example. On a larger scale, the Marines demonstrated this capability in an experiment where the F-35B located an incoming "missile", then cued and launched a missile from a nearby warship, and guided it to intercept.

So your stealth scouts move ahead and locate targets. behind them are stealth missile busses which are nearly equal in size to the scouts, but since they don't need life support systems are vastly more capable fo carrying weapons. Once the scouts have located targets, the missile busses receive the information and calculate fire solutions.

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