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I've been working on designs for some model starships, in particular warships. My working assumption has been that the designs and materials for these ships will reflect the way that the civilisation itself conducts warfare. Purely as an example: a warship that uses particle beam weapons will be shaped and armoured to maximise its survival under fire from similar weapons. This is predicated on the assumption that said vessels are being designed and built by a civilisation that has never actually gone to war with any external military force, they have fought at least one internal conflict include space warfare or they'd have no militarised spacecraft at all. I'm wondering if that assumption is valid.

My question is what, if any, factors/events (aside from contact with another civilisation that uses different tactics and/or weapons) would lead to a military force building ships that use armour and/or hull shapes designed to defend against weapon systems that that force does not itself use?

Assume:

  • the civilisation has met no alien beings.

  • they think their primary weapon systems are the best available option (they could be wrong).

  • other weapons have never been seen as viable options for primary combat operations.

  • fitting out different or multipurpose armour/hull designs is relatively expensive.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jul 9 at 11:14
  • $\begingroup$ This isn't really an answer, but I think you might find some very useful material on the Atomic Rocket website and the Tough SF blog. There are so many variables involved in answering this question in full, that a deep dive into these sources is really the best recommendation I can give. $\endgroup$ – Algebraist Jul 9 at 21:27
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I'm going to present a frame challenge here because there are a couple of really important factors that your question leads me to believe aren't getting proper consideration.

First: The biggest reality check that almost everybody ignores when it comes to spacecraft design is that NOTHING is more important than mass. Earth-based vehicles of all types can make use of the ground, the water, or the air to help dissipate or otherwise support the mass of the vehicle and help propel it more efficiently. Spacecraft can't do that. So unless you're planning to handwave Newton's third law away by positing propulsion systems with effectively limitless thrust and fuel, then the most critical aspect of your design is making the spacecraft as mass-efficient as possible and that means no heavy armor.

Warships in The Expanse universe are a good example of this. This is more near-future than most science fiction shows, and even the biggest warships are only armored well enough to protect against shrapnel, because any armor that could actually stop a direct hit from a projectile would make the ship so heavy that it couldn't get anywhere you needed it to go in the time you have to get it there.

If you're actually concerned about realism, the defenses on your warships will be electromagnetic in nature, either star trek/star wars style shields, or more realistically: electronic warfare designed to prevent your opponents from being able to target you accurately enough to hit you in the first place.

Second: Military designers are RUTHLESS pragmatists. The short answer to your question is that no military designer anywhere, ever, would design the defenses of a warship (or anything else) to protect against ANYTHING except the weapons they believe are most likely to be used against them.

That said, they might do so ACCIDENTALLY, but only if they thought they were solving a different problem. E.g. a hull material designed to make the ship more difficult to detect ALSO happens to dissipate energy from beam weapons so effectively as to reduce or prevent damage.

This, ultimately, is the answer to your question though. If you're not actually fighting wars, you design your weapons systems to protect against the most dangerous stuff you can think of. This is what the US Navy has been doing for the last 80 years. If you're REALLY lucky, something you did to solve one problem ALSO solves problems you didn't know you had yet.

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    $\begingroup$ "If you're not actually fighting wars, you design your weapons systems to protect against the most dangerous stuff you can think of. This is what the US Navy has been doing for the last 80 years." Not really. If you're not actually fighting wars, you design your weapons systems to win the last war that you fought, whether or not it makes sense to do so. The U.S. Navy is a prime example. Only modest steps have been taken to respond to multiple post-WWII threats, and the predominant ship designs date to the 1980s, about 35 years ago. There have been minor upgrades but not major rethinking. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Jul 9 at 8:37
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    $\begingroup$ There is a sociological reason why this happens. The people who are promoted to make decisions going forward are the people who were most successful in the last war, whether or not those traits are valuable going forward, because people promote folks who are successful rather than people who weren't. But, the people who were most successful in the last war are the ones who are most wedded to old technologies and tactics. For example, in WWI millions of lives were lost when generals insisted on using cavalry charge tactics long after it became clear that the machine gun had made them obsolete. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Jul 9 at 8:44
  • $\begingroup$ As an example of your second point, World War I battleships had heavy armor to protect against gunfire, and anti-torpedo bulges to protect against torpedoes. They didn't have any guns on high-elevation mounts since naval aircraft were seen as scouts, not a serious threat. Cue frantic efforts to add anti-aircraft guns in the aftermath of the attacks on Taranto and Pearl Harbor. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jul 9 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark exactly. Another good example is the famous German 88mm. They MEANT to design a high-velocity anti-aircraft gun capable of accurately engaging high altitude targets. It took ten more years before armored vehicle technology advanced to the point where a vehicle-mounted weapon that size was required, and hey look, they already had the BEST ONE. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Jul 9 at 19:44
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Historical experience is no guide at all if you are working in a new and unknown medium.

To use an example, imagine asking a very knowledgeable officer in the 1700's how air combat might work. He might start with the assumption that air vehicles would be some sort of evolution of sailing warships. If he is really astute, he might consider that the newly developed steam engine might be somehow useful in flight

enter image description here

Miazaki airship

The answers would include ideas like finding and gaining the weather gauge, crossing the enemy "T", debating using broadsides of cannon vs carronade....

They would never anticipate this:

enter image description here

Fokker Eindecker

Let alone this:

enter image description here

F-35B

Terminology like Immelmann Turn, "Boom and Zoom", Energy Maneuverability Theory, BVR combat, Stealth and so on would be totally meaningless, since there is no context or examples to draw upon.

Space combat might be derived from "First Principles" if the nation creating the Space Force is lucky and has time to think upon and develop their ideas. The knowledge that space is vast, there is no stealth in space, orbits can be tracked easily and calculated months in advance, objects moving at orbital velocity have massive amounts of kinetic energy and there is no effective "terrain" in space can all be considered when designing space vehicles. Other technical considerations such as the need to carry reaction mass, heat management systems and so on also will constrain what the designers can and cannot do. Instead of the "cool" vehicles depicted in SF movies and TV shows, the vehicles will likely be very utilitarian in design; "Children of a Dead Earth" rather than "Star Wars"

enter image description here

Realistic space warship as depicted in Children of a Dead Earth

Of course supposition and even careful thinking is not a substitute for experience. First generation space warships may end up more like a weaponized ISS simply because there is no true experience to draw upon, and multiple iterations might be needed to find a truely workable system. Even then, if the enemy is making different assumptions, the space warships might discover they are totally unsuitable for the mission.

enter image description here

"Lock S Foils in Attack position"

So historical analogies will have no bearing on working in a different medium. This is why Armies, Navies and Air Forces in the modern world are different from each other (and indeed different nations use different doctrines and come up with different sorts of Armies, Navies and Air Forces based on starting with different assumptions). The Space Force will be in exactly the same position. and people who try to draw too heavily on Naval or Air Force historical examples will likely discover these cannot be effectively translated into Space without causing huge difficulties.

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    $\begingroup$ Sorry wrong history, good points +1 but I'm talking about the space warfare history of the civilisation doing the building not any history of planet bound combat they may have. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 8 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ If they have never had a space war or encountered aliens, then what "history" do they have to work with? $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Jul 8 at 19:51
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't say they'd never had a space war amongst themselves just not with anyone else in fact the question assumes they have fought internally otherwise why have any armed vessels at all. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 8 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Ash While using historical experience in other environments is only of limited help, some people have attempted to derive what space warfare would look like from first principle. You may be particularly interested by what the ToughSF blog says about particle beam weapons, much of which is conveniently regrouped on the always useful Atomic Rocket relevant page $\endgroup$ – Eth Jul 9 at 8:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Eth Thanks for the ToughSF link, I've read or skimmed Atomic Rocket's weapons pages a fair few times but somehow hadn't even heard of ToughSF before. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 9 at 13:02
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My question is what, if any, factors/events (aside from contact with another civilisation that uses different tactics and/or weapons) would lead to a military force building ships that use armour and/or hull shapes designed to defend against weapon systems that that force does not itself use?

Events That Trigger Innovation

Small, Far Away Conflicts Involving Others

In times of relative peace, very small scale conflicts far away and accidents that illustrate graphically military vulnerabilities can have a profound impact.

The fundamentals of trench warfare tactics, for example, were invented in New Zealand in what are now called the New Zealand Wars:

The New Zealand Wars were a series of armed conflicts that took place in New Zealand from 1845 to 1872 between the Colonial government and allied Māori on one side and Māori and Māori-allied settlers on the other. They were previously commonly referred to as the Land Wars or the Māori Wars, while Māori language names for the conflicts included Ngā pakanga o Aotearoa ("the great New Zealand wars") and Te riri Pākehā ("the white man's anger").

This conflict happened, literally, half a world away from Europe between factions utterly unfamiliar to most Europeans, and was on a tiny scale compared to WWI that would follow, but a few cutting edge military planners studied the tactics used then and those tactics soon became dominant in WWI in short order.

Similarly, the Falklands War, even though it occurred at the opposite end of the Earth from England, didn't last all that long and resulted in only 1000 deaths, did more to influence warship design and naval strategy, and the logistics of power projection, than any other post-WWII conflict. Most importantly, it illustrated the immense advantage that a single skilled submarine outfitted for war could have over a substantial fleet of surface ships.

At even smaller scale, civilian troublemakers who have targeted commercial aircraft with high powered laser pointers that could be used to blind pilots eyes have led to countermeasures against this threat in military aircraft even though this kind of attack on pilot sight has never actually been used in warfare.

Accidents And Natural Threats That Present Obvious Military Lessons

But, not all of the events that lead to radical innovation are actual conflicts. The Hindenburg disaster brought the use of hydrogen inflated airships in war to an end before it had even begun (even though the flammable material used for the sheath rather than the inflating gas was the main issue in reality).

The Titanic's collision with an iceberg led to a radical rethinking of the importance of adequate lifeboats and evacuation procedures for sinking ships that influenced civilian and naval ships alike and also commercial and military aircraft design precautions for water landings that followed.

Accidental collisions of U.S. Naval ships with civilian ships in peacetime have led to major changes in how crews are prepared for readiness.

Civilian commercial aircraft accidents have led to numerous innovations in how military aircraft operations are run and how military aircraft are designed.

In a space setting, deadly accidents, for example, from impacts with space debris or inattention of safety issues with solid rocket boosters, would alert planners to the same kind of potential risks.

As another space example, the fear that an asteroid or comet impact could caused massive harm to Earth as it has multiple times in the past could lead to the development of anti-ET object technologies with obvious military applications to new threats.

Motives That Trigger Innovation

what, if anything, would make taking measures "worth the effort" before you meet an organised military force

Necessity is the mother of invention and efforts to anticipate new military threats usually involve a perception that there will be a near term need to use military force. But, it is also important to recognize that this motive need not e widespread. It only needs to e widely shared among political and military decision makers who have considerable personal power.

A Strong Inclination Of Leaders To Use Military Force To Achieve Political Ends

Lots of the historical examples involve the sponsorship of military innovators by political leaders who anticipate being the aggressors to conquer previously insurmountable barriers to military success, or at least, are not so much pro-military as pro-use of military force (two very different things).

For example, the Third Reich invested in military innovation that revolutionized modern warfare, because they planned on using it well in advance, and at first in WWII, it gave them an edge.

Far earlier, the Hittites did something similar, developing innovative metallurgy techniques for their weapons and coming up with chariot warfare tactics, because they planned on conquering as much of Anatolia, Mesopotamia and the Levant as they could, while their opponents only started to innovate once the fighting began.

Military innovation by non-aggressors in the WWI, and WWII didn't have top leadership support and financial support until those wars were in progress. Neither side innovated much before combat began militarily before the U.S. Civil War because most people on both sides didn't think it would happen with any vigor. Vietnam was another war that was unanticipated for U.S. forces leading to military innovation only once the war began.

Widespread Anticipation Of Isolation In Foreseeable Future Conflicts

On the defensive side, military innovation is frequently triggered by a perception of a clear and present dangers that the defending military can't count on anyone else's help to protect them from.

After Hiroshima made the threat of nuclear weapon a widely anticipated one, both the U.S. and its allies and the U.S.S.R. and its allies innovated in earnest prepping for a widely anticipated nuclear war that never was.

Some of the countries that have contended "far about their weight class" so to speak in terms of military innovation have been Israel, which has faced ongoing rhetoric from its neighbors who say they want to drive it into the sea; South Africa, which lacked international allies during apartheid and also had good reason to fear an insurgency; Iran which has spent much of its recent history diplomatically isolated, with vocal threats from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and Switzerland, which has built a foreign policy around self-reliance and neutrality achieved by not entering into alliances.

What did this lead to?

Israel basically invented the anti-missile missile, invented military concepts that include large numbers of women as soldiers, devised several new kinds of anti-terrorism tactics, and did more to develop the art of the air to air fighter battle than any other country since WWII.

South Africa invented what the U.S. called when it adopted them for use in Iraq and Afghanistan, the MRAP (mine resistant, ambush protected vehicle), as it prepared for counterinsurgency fights that it anticipated.

Iran pretty much invented the concept of the small, fast, coastal, heavily armed, lightly crewed missile boat, and the widespread use of non-nuclear coastal submarines to effectively threaten much more powerful military surface warships.

Switzerland has developed dozens of defensive military systems and strategies found nowhere else in the world, with one of the world's largest citizen's militias, large underground bunkers with caches of weapons and supplies and room to evacuate citizens too, bicycle based anti-tank weapons, and all manner of other response to the threat of an invasion of its country with conventional military forces.

The tangible fear of conflicts that were widely anticipated and very specific led to innovations that countries with less clarity of mission and more promises of military support from allies did not.

Other Factors

Small, Non-Meritocratic, Non-Bureaucratic Political Organizations

If you're not actually fighting wars, you design your weapons systems to protect against the most dangerous stuff you can think of. This is what the US Navy has been doing for the last 80 years.

Not really. If you're not actually fighting wars, the norm is that you design your weapons systems to win the last war that you fought, whether or not it makes sense to do so. The U.S. Navy is a prime example. Only modest steps have been taken to respond to multiple post-WWII threats, and the predominant ship designs date to the 1980s, about 35 years ago. There have been minor upgrades but not major rethinking.

There is a sociological reason why this happens. The people who are promoted to make decisions going forward are the people who were most successful in the last war, whether or not those traits are valuable going forward, because people promote folks who are successful rather than people who weren't. But, the people who were most successful in the last war are the ones who are most wedded to old technologies and tactics. For example, in WWI millions of lives were lost when generals insisted on using cavalry charge tactics long after it became clear that the machine gun had made them obsolete.

In contrast, the U.S. Army has fought many wars since WWII and has radically remade itself as a result in response to what has and has not worked in recent conflicts, for example, replacing the heavy tracked tanks designed with WWII in mind, with lighter, air transportable wheeled vehicles, which in turn were supplanted by vehicles adapted to IEDs and ambushes with armor piercing bullets. Meanwhile, anti-aircraft guns and artillery that were prominent in WWII faded as the U.S. Army always had air superiority and as cruise missiles and aircraft based smart bombs made howitzers obsolete.

Also, in the absence of actual experience (personal or merely observed in others) with asymmetric warfare, military tech procurement planners unconstrained by the hard reality of actual war often fall into the mental trap of planning for "fair fights" against similar systems.

Tanks designers dream of tank v. tank wars, even thought tanks were invented as anti-infantry weapons. War ship designers dream of blue sea surface combatant duels, even though submarines, aircraft, mines and hypersonic missiles are the real threats. War plane designers dream of dog fights, even though one shot, one kill before the enemy knows you're there has been the leading approach in actual air warfare since Vietnam.

Enlightened military leadership is rare and usually comes down to a handful of innovators who are ignored and derided until they somehow secure power.

In these situations, overcoming the natural sociological and organizational instincts to fight the last war, and to prepare for "fair fights" with weapons facing off against opponents with similar weapons, you need to have some mechanism, almost a corrupt one, that overrides conventional uninspired bureaucratic conceptions of meritocracy.

Basically, the happens when some rare military innovator has a power base or political patron who can overcome the natural inclinations of a military bureaucracy.

Outside of times of actual war, this is something more prone to happen in a monarchy where people are promoted for reasons other than perceived talent, than in a democracy or any other technocratic state. For example, a powerful crown prince in a not very large country may have more of an ability to throw is support to a maverick military innovator than a senior civil servant or high ranking soldier in a large technocratically run, not particularly corrupt, highly bureaucratic military force.

It is more prone to happen when power is securely concentrated in a small number of key political leaders than when it is dispersed which requires more collective action to overcome barriers to innovation.

It is more prone to happen in countries with smaller military forces than it is with larger once, since bureaucratic inertia isn't as great and there are fewer senior official who must be won over to secure change, subject to the caveat that certain kinds of innovations are possible only with the huge military budgets only available to the largest and most economically powerful countries.

For example, military innovation in the early modern period was greater in independent micro-states with hereditary leaders in what became Germany and Northern Italy prior to the late 1800s, than it was in countries that had been large for a long time like France and England.

Innovation In Other Fields

Another way that military innovation against previous unanticipated threats can develop is as a side effect of health non-military innovation.

For example, a large civilian economy driven revolution in computers and electronic communications from about 1960 to the present, has given rise to technologies that have been easy to adapt to military ends once developed. These technologies also often trivially imply the need for new kinds of defenses (like cyber warfare defenses that evolved to a great extent out of criminal and accidental breaches of security in civilian systems).

The development of a standardized modern rifle in the 19th century (and innovations like the machine gun that this made possible) was largely a product of manufacturing technologies developed in the civilian sector that made it possible to mass produce goods made of interchangeable parts.

Going back much further, the naval superiority of the British, Spanish and Dutch fleets largely derived from innovations in ship building technologies developed initially for commercial applications.

A generally prosperous economy driven by civilian innovation also makes it much easier to raise tax funds that make it easier for politicians to budget for guns instead of butter, decisions which can free up the funds needed to finance expensive military innovations.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is really good and covers a lot of ground, I maintain that the comment you made about asymmetric warfare is still worth a separate, detailed, answer. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 9 at 12:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash Probably so. Maybe if I have time. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Jul 9 at 17:53
  • $\begingroup$ I think I think this answer is awesome, but I am not sure I agree with your comments about aircraft + dogfights. Before Vietnam the USA removed cannons from their aircraft because common wisdom told them that you only needed cannons for dogfights and dog fighting wasn't going to happen anymore because of air to air missiles. They soon learned that this was a major mistake, because bullets are light and cheap and very usefull against ground based targets. $\endgroup$ – Garret Gang Jul 9 at 20:26
  • $\begingroup$ @GarretGang In the last 28 years (since the end of the Gulf War) not more than 54 manned aircraft were shot down by other aircraft in the entire world. At least 2 were from a friendly fire incident. Many are downed helicopters. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Just 1 U.S. fixed wing aircraft has been shot down by another aircraft since the end of the Vietnam War (1975). Almost all of the fixed wing air to air kills since 1975 have been made with missiles. A key factor in this in the last 20 years or so has been the use of guided weapons. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Jul 9 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ A lot of fighters have cannons now so that they can engage soft, ground based targets that do not warrant the cost of a missile. This is especially useful in asynchronous warfare when your enemy doesn't have anti air. $\endgroup$ – Garret Gang Jul 10 at 20:17
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Civilization of fanboys.

1: Your civilization no longer actually makes war. It has not made war for generations.

2: Your civilization loves science fiction in which space aliens make war on each other.

3: Your military ships are art projects constructed by state-sponsored architects who are rabid fans of one SF or another. The ships are patterned after the fictional ships and crewed by like minded fans in costume.

4: Many aspects of these ships are impractical, but it is considered lame and cheesy to make ships that are just props. These ships have to actually replicate the performance of the fictional ships in so far as technology allows. These ships are capable of kicking ass in outlandish but awesome ways.

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  • $\begingroup$ Kooky but cool +1. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 9 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ This would be fun because of the variety of different ships, and the fact that the crew would conflate the actual doings in real life with events from their favorite SF. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 9 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ Is it bad that this just says "Galaxy Quest" to me? $\endgroup$ – Spitemaster Jul 9 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ This does make war basically one of those "who would win...?" arguments, which isn't a bad thing necessarily. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 10 at 11:30
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Well, form follows function, especially when it comes to weaponry. A space based battleship is a weapon, just like a club, a sword, a rifle....whatever. It's purpose is to project violent power. If you need to project that power on to a man in front of you, you take into account the weapons that man has. This grows in to Army tactics, Navy tactics and will inevitably into Space combat tactics.

So your armor, drives, and weapons will reflect this. Throughout history, the army with better tech had a decided advantage in battles. I include deployment strategies for troops in this as well.

When trying to prep for the unknown, that's where you run into a problem. If the potential enemy has a different method or weapon, YOU DON"T KNOW ABOUT IT. Of course you can't plan for it. At least not accurately.

You aren't exactly helpless here though. What you need is some creative people who are in to games and puzzles. Set up simulators. Invite them to penetrate, immobilize, or otherwise beat the defenses as best they can. These people will guide you to things you haven't thought of. We humans are a pretty clever lot. Then you have to decide how defenses against these new potential threats will work, or if they are worth the effort. If someone figures out how to beat your platform but it would take a ton of luck, maybe you don't worry about it.

Keep these creative in your back pocket, because you never know when you will need them. When you do get to the inevitable alien invasion, they may be able to spot enemy weaknesses or thought patterns faster than your generals (admirals, poo-bahs, whatever).

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  • $\begingroup$ Salient but what I'm really driving at is what, if anything, would make taking measures "worth the effort" before you meet an organised military force that they're designed to counter? $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 8 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ At that point it becomes a massive balancing act of budgets. If you have any threats at all on the local scale, you need to plan around that. Extending that effort to threats you haven't thought of, that might be "out there" somewhere, will only carry one so far before it descends into paranoia. Groups of people require "Evidence" to get behind that kind of expenditure. Even so, if you don't know what the threat is likely to be, you simply cannot prepare for it. There is no method to do so short of time travel or some reliable oracle. $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Jul 8 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ This seems like the ultimately wise strategy of the military in Ender's Game. Set the parameters and have young people untainted by prejudices about what should and shouldn't be done figure it out, soon making the guiding decisions even though they don't realize it. But, military leadership this enlightened is rare and usually comes down to a handful of innovators who are ignored and derided until they somehow secure power, something perhaps more prone to happen in a monarchy where people are promoted for reasons other than perceived talent, than in a democracy or any other technocratic state. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Jul 9 at 9:05
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RL case: the US does not use right now hypersonic missiles (that would require a highly expensive upgrade of their launching platforms just to accommodate bigger rockets, while the existing missiles are deadly enough). However, the US produced a small quantity of hypersonic missiles just to test their own defence systems.

I see one case in which an army should actually design to counter a different type of weapons:

No aliens detected => No aliens nearby => Any invader would have use ships with insane long range => Invader weapons would be optimised for long range ships => even though we don't have cruisers, we should invest in weapons that would be an overkill against our own ships

RL equivalent: even though in littoral combat diesel submarines offer much better value for money, if one expects being attacked by some distant power, then should expect to rather fight nuclear subs.

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As a frame challenge here, we as humans have a few space ships under our belt already.

None of them were warships. Some of them were adaptable to warships by bolting a bomb in place of the regular payload though. The story for all modern warfare is that the most powerful destructive force is the bomb or missile, and that can be fired from a very long way away.

I think this is the lesson for space too. The main thing a space ship will need will be probes. The missile system for probes can just as easily have a bomb attached. The same system could also deliver anti-missile missiles.

And the lesson so far from human history is that beam weapons don't work at a distance, I'm afraid. They're more useful for guiding that missile to a target.

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  • $\begingroup$ Sorry energy weapons weren't meant to be presented as the primary weapon simply an example of a possible weapon system, I agree that in general the current shape of warfare does tend to favour missiles for space combat. I'm not at all convinced that that will always be the case I think a lot will depend on how frequent combat is and the number of combatants involved, missiles are relatively bulky compared to mass driver slugs and without an atmosphere their damage is curtailed. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 9 at 11:45
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Defenses are against weapons that are not used because the defenses are too good

Imagine weaponry that is easy to defend against. For example, let's say you defend against lasers with a mirror and it's a highly effective defense, but other than that lasers would be highly practical weapons - they don't need a lot of mass, unlike bullets, and if a spaceship has no mirror surfaces it will be overheated quickly under laser assault. Everyone builds reflective surfaces - not 100% mirrors, but a good enough defense to render laser weaponry ineffective. So everyone CAN use lasers, but everyone defends against it. However, since it's reasonably cheap to retrofit a ship to carry laser weaponry, every ship requires a defense against it - otherwise their enemies will quickly attach a laser weapon to each ship and roast the crew alive.

A different civilization might not use this defense for various reasons. Maybe their offense is ineffective or too effective, maybe it comes with dangerous drawbacks. A reflective surface might make the spaceship too easy to be tracked by homing missiles, for example.

Defenses against non-military dangers specific to the civilization

Ballistic weaponry, particularly railguns with small projectiles, might be another type of weaponry. The ISS is actually armored against (tiny, as in sub-1cm) projectile weapons at the front. Since it is on a low-earth orbit, it moves at about 7km/s around earth. Simply put, anything it collides with that comes from the front will impact with a relative velocity of at least twice that speed. That makes those projectiles dangerous and it would also make them dangerous for your future ships. The ISS is protected by a Whipple Shield. There are some scenarios where one civilization might consider projectile weapons effective, while another doesn't because it requires natural protection against it. For example, if one civilization suffers the Kessler Syndrome with highly elliptical orbits it will defend against potentially larger projectiles from all sides, possibly with more than just whipple shields (think point-defense), whereas another civilization doesn't and thus might use them offensively instead.

Similar non-military dangers could include charged particles, for example from earth's Van Allen belt - we defend our spacecraft against those particles by radiation-hardening our hardware in various ways, but it's not 100% effective - it merely decreases the chance of hardware failures. Alien civilization XYZ with much higher risks of radiation damage might use extra protection, such as hulls that are impenetrable for charged particles (too costly for earth). So Earth civilization might happily use particle beams for attacks while the XYZ aliens already defend against it.

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I believe exploration will indirectly lead to some form of combat space ship.

We already have very advance means of detecting stuff. So our combat sensors already exist.

We now have the need to travel very far, very fast. When we accomplish this, the propulsion of the combat ship will exists. Perhaps ship durability is an issue here travelling at such speeds, so perhaps required alloys or some form of other (energy?) protection will also become researched and developed.

Ship offense means (and defense if not already developed above as protection from extreme velocities) will mostly come out of our interaction with resources. Mining i believe is the reason we develop effective weapons. Because in order to exploit an asteroid we will need a series of weapons, from energy beams to mines, missiles and even drill-and-explode bombs.

During exploration and interaction with the universe and its contents i believe we will get in time all the tech needed to build a combat starship.

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