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Let's say that I, like many other worldbuilders before me, want to have 'classical' (space-operatic) space fighters and carriers in a space setting.

However, I don't want to do it by fiat and handwaves. Instead, I would like to make such a military doctrine (of having classic space fighters) to emerge naturally out of the preconditions of the setting. When I say preconditions, I mean a combination of available technologies and perhaps even modest adjustments of the laws of nature - so long as either of the two can be logical, clearly stated, and follows firm, comprehensible and unbiased rules.

In other words, soft-sci adjustments are acceptable and welcome, but their consequences are meant to be handled in a science-respecting manner, leading to the desired outcome. For example, lack of light-speed beam weapons is a clear and unbiased precondition (despite being at odds with physics as we know them), and its consequences can be analysed logically; giving plot armour inversely proportional to ship mass isn't.

Natural emergence implies that if the setting used in an RPG campaign or tabletop wargame, and players given the ability to design their own ships, they would still tend to design fleets including fighters, carriers and perhaps other heavy ships, because those tactics should be effective based on the preconditions. Essentially, preconditions are deemed robust if they produce the classical meta, and deemed wrong if they lead to people finding a quick way to break the meta by designing ships in ways contrary to the classical meta.

I used the word 'classical', which is a perhaps awkward shorthand by which I mean similar to the way ships tend to be divided into space fighters and carriers (with or without the existence of intermediary classes), as depicted in operatic or operatic-leaning stories often deemed classics or trying to imitate them. My primary examples would be Star Wars (of course), Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica (re-imagined and probably original), Infinite Warfare, and to some extent Rogue Trader, but surely there are others that are going for a similar setup.

In terms of more specific parameters I'm looking for, here are ones that jump to the front of the mind:

  • Both fast, manoeuvrable one-man fighters and big heavy ships are important elements in any space battle, and victory without either would be hard. Essentially they're two major sides of a combined-arms doctrine.
  • Human or human-like reflexes and intelligence dominate the outcome of battles, closely followed by equipment quality, but equipment doesn't do everything for the humans. The droids/autopilots/aimbots haven't replaced captains, pilots and gunners.
  • Dogfights are a thing, though they don't necessarily need to follow the style of atmospheric dogfights. Newtonian or semi-newtonian dogfights are reasonable alternatives, so long as things like manoeuvring, tactics and positioning matter.
  • Fighters haven't been invalidated by missile buses, automated mass-fire point defence, nor by other saturation-oriented warfare methods.
  • Big ships and fighters are both capable of hurting and killing each other in the medium/long run, but not instantly when the combat just started. There's some attrition, but battles don't last forever, and no ship is so big as to be immune to the death of a thousand cuts.

So, what sorts of preconditions would lead to a natural emergence of the above situation when it comes to space battles and tactics?

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    $\begingroup$ What's wrong with the Honorverse? It is pretty much self-consistent (as much as space opera can be self-consistent), it does spare a thought to economy, and it even has a prequel series which sketches the early stages of space fleet development (Manticore Ascendant). The space battles are a joy to behold and the mechanics are quite well thought out. The basic conceit is that they have FTL travel and a reactionless drive (the "grav wedge"); without a reactionless drive the tyranny of the rocket equation forbids space-opera style space fleets. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 19 at 18:02
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    $\begingroup$ @M.A.Golding I thought he answered that question pretty clearly in his fourth paragraph. Are you just taking exception to his application of the word 'classical' to content from the '70s instead of the '50s? $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Aug 19 at 19:15
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    $\begingroup$ Seriously, read the series. The WP article I linked lists the books in cronological in-universe order. They do have large very powerful warships and missile pods and AI-driven point defence systems. But they also have the usual restrictions faced by real armed forces: international treaties banning certain kinds of weapons or attacks, economic constraints limiting the number and kinds of weapons platforms and personnel, non-uniform quality of personnel of all ranks, ideological and political limitations, the need to limit conflicts to what is tolerable by the local superpower and so on. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 19 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ The Honorverse "fighters" aren't really fighters in the sense meant by the OP: they're more equivalent to WW2 torpedo boats, and as of the last novels in the setting, no one else had an equivalent so there weren't things like dogfights. The primary means of combat between fleets (at least, those who have paid attention to the Haven-Manticore Wars) is still the Macross Missile Massacre. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Aug 19 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ The "organic" reason for capital ships and fighter planes on Earth is we are dealing with two different media. Add a third and you get the Marines. Space is a singular media, so large ships actually have the ability to move just as fast, or faster than smaller ships. They are more capable, have greater range, more volume for fuel, weapons and equipment $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Aug 20 at 1:21
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Let’s start by identifying the principles that brought the whole Carrier/Fighter system into existence in the first place:

1: You need diminishing returns in propulsion technology. E.g. the cost and weight of an engine increases at more than a 1:1 ratio with the power output. With rockets this isn’t really the case, but it absolutely is with almost any kind of internal combustion engine. In order for ‘classic’ carrier combat to work in space, your fighters need to be an order of magnitude(ish) faster than your carriers, and your munitions need to be an order of magnitude faster still.

In this case you can leverage a different physical rule to your benefit: The inverse square law.

If your propulsion system relies on (for example) creating an electromagnetic field around the ship to allow it to move, make your ship twice as large costs FOUR times as much energy to move it. A gravitic drive is the really classic answer to this problem going all the way back to Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.

2: You need a combat environment where the human making decisions about weapon targeting is close to the target you’re shooting at. In classical carrier air war this is provided primarily by the curvature of the earth blocking your targets from direct view by the attackers. In space this is almost never true, but if your electronic warfare environment is hazardous enough, you could replicate it.

The best example I can think of here is one where defending vessels are able to create decoy targets that long range detection equipment can’t distinguish from the actual target. In WW2 your fleets would maneuver based on very hazy ‘clouds’ of potential location where the enemy fleet might be. That cloud of potential would get smaller and smaller until you got physical eyes on the enemy ships and got that information back to the fleet. You need to replicate that mechanic in space, where a ship in orbit around the earth can tell where a ship in orbit around the moon MIGHT be, but not accurately enough to hit it with a projectile.

3: You need defenses that are much less effective against human-guided projectiles than against electronically guided ones.

This goes back to your “no missile trucks” requirement. Modern point-defenses can really only be defeated by saturating them with more threats than a given point defense network is able to shoot down in time. You can do this either by increasing the number of threats, or by increasing the speed of the threats. Either way it becomes a pretty simple math problem. Using WW2 models, you can improve your odds by having your fighters carry the munitions in through the point defenses to even further reduce their ability to engage them. This means that those defenses need to be less effective at engaging human-piloted fighters than they are against programmed missile behavior.

Here again, a really serious ECM environment may be the answer. Ultimately it’s very difficult to replicate the ENTIRE sensorium of a human being in electronic form. We can build things that do very SPECIFIC tasks a human can do, much more quickly than a human can do them. However, if you have defenses that are constantly saturating incoming projectiles with all kinds of different electromagnetic radiation designed to mess with their limited robot logic, a human being is still able to much more effectively determine which signals matter and which should be ignored.

Clearly your fighters need to have the same kind of electronic warfare systems in play to reduce their vulnerability to computerized point defenses. Essentially your fighters survive by being less predictable both in their movements, and in their response to electronic warfare systems than an artificial system is capable of.

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This answer will reach back into much older versions of space opera, back to the days of the super-scientific epics. When EE "Doc" Smith, Edmond "Worldwrecker" Hamiliton, and John W Campell, Jr ruled the roost.

Assume a super-scientific technology that combines both a field drive and a force-field. The effective power of the drive and force-field falls exponentially with increase in mass. Smaller faster, bigger slower. The weapons systems mounted on the space-fighters are also proportionally powerful to fighter mass. Again the lower the fighter mass, the more powerful its armaments.

As a result carriers will be slower, less defended, and less powerfully armed. Their advantage will lie in their range of travel. They consume energy more slowly which pushes their flight ranges way out. Fighters, on the other hand, consume power too fast with faster drives, stronger force-fields and more powerful weapons. They are short-range vehicles and depend on logistic support from their carriers.

This does assume weapons, drives and force-fields all run off the same power-source in both fighters and carriers.

The weapons can be assumed to have a relatively short-range. Say, by firing energy-bolts that dissipate over a modest distance. Then space-fighters will need to engage their targets at close range. They are also faster and better protected. Only other space-fighters have the necessary firepower to take them out.

The field-drives work by accelerating every particle in the vehicle at a uniform rate of acceleration. Space-fighters will be able to accelerate at large multiples of gee forces, while the fighter pilots and gunners will experience effectively no gee forces at all.

Either the force-field or the field-drive will have an inhibiting effect on electronic technology. Computers will be effectively useless. Human brains will be unaffected. Space-fighters will require, mostly, manual control. Mere humans will have to fly the things.

Saturation warfare won't work against space-fighters. Their force-fields will provide the necessary protection. Also, their rate of acceleration will enable them to dodge slower, mass attacks. Computer-controlled weapons and missiles won't be able to use field-drives as the drives or the force-fields will render them useless.

Space-fighters in this super-scientific paradigm will be faster, deadlier, almost invulnerable against other weapons, armed vessels, and even well-defended bases (though attrition can eventually take its toll). When it comes to other space-fighters they will be equally matched. Computer technology will be neutralized by the fields of either or both the drives or the force-fields. Space-fighters will need living human pilots to fly them.

Because space-fighters are only short-range vehicles carriers are essential to transport squadrons of space-fighters long-range and provide the logistic support they need. Such as fuel, energy, maintenance and repair, and somewhere for fighter pilots and crew to rest and recuperate.

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  • $\begingroup$ The shielding and firepower don't necessarily need to apply - look at Star Wars. TIE Fighters are small, nimble, and unshielded. Their weapons are weaker than the larger, less agile, shielded Star Destroyers, but because they fire at closer range they are harder to avoid. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, you have the lumbering brute that is the Death Star, nigh invincible and able to wipe out a planet in one shot - but planets can't dodge. Relatively slow moving blasts that actively glow aren't to hard too evade, but superior sensors require the "glowing" requirement. $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Aug 20 at 11:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal I doubt if TIE fighters would get close to Star Destroyers. My space-fighters would & pop them like soap bubbles. The OP wanted saturation warfare proof space-fighters. I have tried to meet the required parameters. $\endgroup$ – a4android Aug 20 at 12:42
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    $\begingroup$ I wasn't disagreeing with your answer, just mentioning that (based on other predicates such as available weapons & rate of fire) you can replace "strong shield, can't be destroyed" with "agile manoeuvring, can't be hit from long range", forcing dogfights. A key point in the original Star Wars is that light fighters (TIE Fighters and X-Wings) can get close to the larger ships, because their main effective defence against that is to launch their own fighters & close the range from "can't hit this" to "can't dodge this", while the inertia of large ships makes them easier to target. $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Aug 20 at 13:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal I didn't think you were disagreeing per se, I was simply expressing my doubts about the feasibility of Star Wars fighters. Actually mobile weapons platforms seem more probable than fighters, but that's a different question. Fighters have better reader/viewer identification. $\endgroup$ – a4android Aug 20 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal Many thanks. Your comments kickstarted my tired brain to think about other models for space-fighter & carrier warfare. This opened up other possibilities. Always nice to have alternatives. I am in your debt. $\endgroup$ – a4android Aug 21 at 1:55
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This sort of setup would work better in a setting with low-energy spaceflight. As it happens, such settings can hypothetically exist, in the form of a thoroughly colonized asteroid belt, or artificial habitats like O'Neill Cylinders along the same orbit. In those conditions, spacecraft can be much simpler than what is required to escape large gravity wells, or to achieve interplanetary or interstellar velocities. This seems a more likely situation where classic Fighters would develop, although they'd probably start out as increasing the defenses on personal or small business vehicles, and then be perfected by law enforcement and/or militaries.

On the opposite end, large ships for interplanetary or interstellar voyages will already be well-shielded and armed, for dealing with micrometeors and other space-debris. Their greater mass would make quick maneuvers more costly, though, and if the enemy ships are armed with laser weapons (which they would be, although the power of said weapons would depend on a variety of factors that could be adjusted based on the setting and its history), constant changes in direction would be crucial due to the lack of warning.

So bulky, powerful-but-sluggish ships, and small, weaker, more agile ships can easily exist in a sufficiently colonized system, so long as that colonizing does not limit itself to planets, and have a justification for threats to small spacecraft traveling between co-orbiting colonies. The smaller vehicles would lack the power to deliver effective laser damage at long range, and solid projectiles would be slow enough for large ships to intercept them, but there would still be dangerous shrapnel to deflect, so I would expect most engagements involving Fighters to be at comparatively close distances (still almost certainly much greater distances than in Star Wars, but it'd still be more like an acrobatic gun-duel than Carrier-to-Carrier).

A big issue is that big ships are still overpowered. If this is very early, and these ships are based on non-military spacecraft, they might have worse coverage from certain directions (point defenses are for things you might hit head-on, after all), but it'd be a bit odd if they can't aim backward or sideways. It would take longer to aim in those directions, and missiles could have enough automated maneuverability to jink enough to be nontrivial to intercept, but if this becomes a problem, people will start designing their Carriers with better guns, since that isn't hard. At that point, you only get the Star Wars style of engagement if a Carrier can get close enough to the enemy to deploy Fighters, or to just have an overwhelming number of Fighters, with the understanding that most of them will be picked off before they can get in range to threaten a Carrier.

The hardest part, imo, is the human element. If you can push the g-forces as high as the attacking Fighter / projectile can tolerate, it is much more likely to avoid interception. Humans are also bad at randomness, and even if you have humans throwing in additional randomness from time to time (if you're AI is using a PRNG that the enemy can recognize, or somesuch), this could be accomplished remotely, so long as the operators aren't so far that light-lag is an issue. Your Carriers would be human-operated, personal Fighters would be human-operated, but without a reliable counter to drones (unblockable, directed EMP?), I'm not sure why anyone who could afford to field drone-Fighters wouldn't. They could plausibly be part of a mass deployment, as cannon-fodder to protect your human-operated units, but that would make sense under very specific circumstances (boarding a Carrier in flight seems like a technical nightmare, but that's the kind of thing I'm imagining). It is worth noting that small, low-thrust Fighters can be extremely low-tech. This would make them far less combat-effective, but would make them less vulnerable to EMP-like anti-drone defenses, fwiw.

In summary: have lots of co-orbiting colonies, space-crime, and focus on the early days of personal defense vehicles being co-opted for military use. Flagrantly abuse institutional inertia to delay the upgrades that would render manned Fighters useless in conflicts involving Carriers.

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For a universe to have fighters:

Combat needs to mostly involve stored-energy weapons (generally that means missiles) vs directed-energy weapons (lasers and the like). A fighter simply can't mount much of an attack in a directed-energy world.

Missiles must not be too effective. If smaller craft can avoid them better (either by evasion or electronic warfare) this is a big help for fighters.

For fighters to be superior to missile trucks you need some guiding intelligence in the loop to help defeat the enemy defenses. Think of The Hunt for Red October--the book version, not the movie. There are multiple targets on the sonar, the Russian sub can see it's first torpedo was spoofed and thus figures out which target really is the Red October. Without a human in the loop the second torpedo would have gone for the same false target.

Or think of the previously mentioned Honorverse. Due to the interference of their own drives missiles have an incredible case of tunnel vision. Without a guiding intelligence (both computer and human) putting together all the bits seen by the missiles their performance drops considerably. In one sense they do have missile trucks--they have missile pods but they don't have drives. They would be basically unsurvivable if they had drives as their only defense is to lie doggo. Bringing up a drive would paint them on enemy sensors but they would have no ability to defend themselves.

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  • $\begingroup$ One thing that makes huge waves of missiles slightly less viable is nukes, or similar giant explosions. Under most conditions, everyone would prefer more precise targeting, for both defense and offense, and nukes would be in the same category as missiles-in-general are concerned if one wants to defend against them, so their primary use in a space-battle might be to clear a cloud of threats too numerous to intercept normally. $\endgroup$ – CAE Jones Aug 22 at 9:21
  • $\begingroup$ @CAEJones The Honorverse does use huge waves of missiles. Nukes have been tried against such with limited success, the problem is the ranges involved and the nature of the drive that leaves only a band around the middle in which they can be attacked by anything but another missile. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Aug 22 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ @CAEJones, nukes aren't actually that useful in space as a type of defensive flak because it isn't detonating in a medium that can carry force to hit an incoming missile. A nuclear explosion in atmosphere or under water creates a shockwave, one in a vacuum does not, so you can only depend on radiation heating of a target. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Aug 22 at 15:34
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I’m going to stick my neck out a bit here and make some people mad. There is a very pervasive attitude in military scifi that big capital ships are invincible and fighters are strategically irrelevant, mirroring the theory of “battleship supremacy” that permeated Naval thinking leading up to World War II. This theory had roots in the breakthrough of ironclads and their supremacy compared to wood and sail ships, then bigger and bigger ironclads leading to WWI Dreadnoughts and the final iteration of WWII Battleships and super-Battleships.

Actual World War II Battleships and Fighters

What changed in WWII was that technology left Battleships behind. Submarines became reliable and dangerous enough to attack battleships. Torpedo bombers and dive bombers could deliver their weapons with high accuracy to attack battleships with weapons that did significant damage and could sink them. Yes, there were countermeasures that could protect them from those new technologies: machine guns and depth charges, but in the end they were designed for a fundamentally different kind of war that was just not being fought any more. The wagons were slow and expensive and rarely got maneuvered into position to engage with their cannons. They never did so without being escorted by aircraft and other screening ships. It just stopped being economically viable given how cheap it was to launch a squadron of fighters or attack the same target with a Submarine. This is why unfinished battleships were converted to Aircraft Carriers by the US and Japan who were locked in the fiercest naval war in history.

Space Battleships and Space Fighters

1. Speed

In realspace (vs whatever hyperspace FTL you’re imagining, if you’re using FTL?) the constraints on pursuing and engaging any craft: a destroyer, a shuttle, a sensor probe, a missile, anything – as long as it’s using the same engine technology is that you have to close to weapons range. If you have more delta-v then the target does, you probably win. Heavy armor, heavy weapons and gargantuan size work against you in a race so like the WWII battle wagons, building a mega dreadnought may look cool but unless it can get close enough to engage then there’s no point to building it. If there’s a fixed point in space you need to defend then the strategic logic would support building a battlestation or even a minefield there. For any other situation it will have to choose which target is worth the precious fuel chasing and weather the risks are proportional to the gain. Just changing the position of a ship that big is risky. Maybe the enemy is trying to bait you into a more vulnerable position. At best you’re going to have to spend even more fuel to slow down and get back to wherever you were going. This is not a small amount of fuel, and there’s only so much that thing can carry. I invite you to do the math on how much force is needed to accelerate 1 million tons to say 750 m/s.

2. Weapons

Now, onto weapons. For any missile or projectile payload, delivering it by battleship means it only gets whatever speed boost the battleship had (it was probably trailing far behind to begin with, so much of the missile’s fuel will be wasted just trying to catch up). Deliver the same warhead by fighter and you can afford to burn some fuel, change course if needed much cheaper than the battlewagon can and maybe add a few KM/S before even releasing the weapon. Any payload moving fast enough can become an “anti-ship” weapon. There’s no terminal velocity in space, just the point of no return of your fuel. Get up to say a modest 15 km/s and it will just sail clean through, armor and all. Kudos for a payload of tungsten penetrators mounted on a shaped charge that will add even more velocity and spread out the damage at <1km from impact. Instead of 1 hole you get 1,000, good luck damage control crew! A fighter specialized for speeding up and launching this kind of attack kind of reminds me of a dive bomber in fact.

Ah, but “Cannons!” you say? Same problem with fuel and closing to range, only even closer range than missiles. Sure you can generate a lot of power for direct energy weapons or mass drivers or whatever, incinerate armor plating like butter, or melt a city into slag - but since they’re part of the ship you have to get the ship close enough to use it. That leaves you vulnerable to every surface battery, missile, fighter, sensor and other concievable weapon. One lucky shot by any of that to say the engines and that ideal firing position is now a decaying orbit. Abandon ship. Launch a few squadrons of fighters or even a handful of stealth fighters to take out the surface batteries and sensors and they may never even know they’re under attack until it’s too late.

3. Economics

Building a fighter is a complex undertaking, no doubt. Lots of precision engineering, integration, flight testing, support facilities, spare parts, etc. need to work together to put a new fighter into service. But that’s something that can be done on a planet’s surface. Once in service those craft can pound out flight hours until their frames literally crumble and fly apart. You could build ten thousand for the cost of a capital ship.

Building a mega-dreadnought is something only a highly specialized (aka strategically vunlerable) orbital shipyard could do and then only with breathtaking amounts of materials, expense and time. How much misery could you cause even raiding supply ships heading for that shipyard. Might delay delivery by a year. It might take decades to go from blueprint to in-service vessel and it will probably spend half its service life in drydock getting repaired, modified and prepared for operations.

Closing

All this is not to say that big nasty ships are useless in space combat. But they are vulnerable and strategic liabilities. Losing one would be expensive and traumatizing, certain to alter the strategic balance of the battle maybe even the war. Lose a fighter, or even a whole squadron of fighters and you’re still in the fight. Sure, engaging a big dreadnought with a fighter squadron is risky, like its WWII counterparts its probably blistering with point defense weapons but with speeds like this the engagement window may be only fractions of a second. It seems like David and Goliath. But David had a fast weapon that hit in just the right spot at incredible speed, which is what a space fighter can do but a space battleship can’t.

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