I realize that in space, battles will take place at ultra long ranges due to sensors and the absense of stealth. This makes missiles and or attack drones (remote controlled or AI controlled) the most feasible option. However, I am trying to make a realistic game which is centered around starfighter dog fights in close proximity, so I need a believable way to make missiles and AI non feasible.

When I say "realistic", I mean that ships move like actual spaceships as opposed to planes (they have actual inertia and stuff), players will have to manage waste heat (can't go full throttle guns blazing too much unless they want to start boiling in the cockpit), players need to refuel and get more ammo, warships will have point defense systems as opposed to handwavy force fields, etc.

Additionally, I want the tactics to make sense, which means that ship formations aren't super clustered, warships will probably stay out of visual range of each other, there will be logistics ships that players can attack, etc.

With this, the most obvious hole is the existence of starfighters in the first place. A missile would be lighter and more maneuverable and require much less fuel than a starfighter (missile only needs to accelerate towards the target and sometimes dodge, while a starfighter needs to accelerate toward the enemy, dodge, decelerate, accelerate back to the mothership, and decelerate again to land).

So far, I've decided that advanced signal jamming and electronic warfare will make all computer aided systems infeasible, forcing combat to take place in visual range with pilots flying "by the seat of their pants". However, my basic knowledge of EMPs tells me that they are easily rendered useless by Faraday cages, so I want some other believable way of explaining the lack of computers and remote control.

Would you guys happen to know about this or have any resources on it?

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Feb 13, 2020 at 11:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ To give an insights on how missle defense works today: Warships are equipped with either surface-to-air missles which can intercept far away targets (planes & missles) or close-in-weapon-systems like the Phalanx which fight incoming missles/grenades within a few hundret meter range. The faster the missles fly the harder it is to intercept them. About missles (except cuise missles): today all of them have homing heads the auonomous onces seek heat/sound/EM sources, the guided onces seek radio/laser reflections which could (in theory) be jammed $\endgroup$
    – Westranger
    Commented Feb 13, 2020 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ I'm rooting for you. I really am. But consider - if you do not have artificial gravity of some kind max survivable acceleration is limited. The 'dogfighter' that starts acceleration first can set it's heading and away it's payload like a bomber and just keep accelerating and it's opponent can literally never catch it because they wouldn't survive the acceleration they would need to close the gap. $\endgroup$
    – user8827
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 3:41
  • $\begingroup$ We see a lot of these "justify me using people instead of AI in this fight" questions. I assume it's because the author assumes AI cannot have internal dialog or drama, but they totally can. You just have to make them interesting to watch. $\endgroup$
    – Muuski
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 15:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ben yeah, I kinda wanted a feeling like "WW2 in space" but without sacrificing believability $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2020 at 23:54

34 Answers 34


Defense is lighter than offense

If you shoot a missile or drone you effectively lose its weight in space.
A 5 ton drone can be countered by a 2 ton suicide drone, a 2 ton drone can be shot down with a 10kg railgun projectile.
The closer drones fight to your ship the better chances you have of recovering the lost metals and fuel of both parties. Thus both ships want to be as close to the action as possible.


No Miniturization

Modern electronics depend on making electronics smaller and smaller and smaller. But what if that never happened? Or what if it did, but it's not applicable to space combat? You're left with bulky, slow, expensive, power hungry computers at capabilities somewhere around the 1970s or 80s.

Spaceships can still have computers for navigation and whatnot, and can even be crammed into a starfighter, but weapons are either too small or too expensive to be fully autonomous.

Realistic space combat is extraordinarily difficult for a human to manage, especially in orbit where things get really counter-intuitive, so you still need some computer-assistance. But again, no AI.

Why no miniturization? Radiation. Space is a hostile place for electronics and humans. Outside a protective atmosphere and magnetic field, everything is bombarded by cosmic rays and other harsh radiation. Miniturized electronics are vulnerable.

Real spacecraft work around this with redundant computers, shielding, and radiation hardening. This makes them very slow. For example, New Horizons launched in 2006 with four 12 Mhz radiation hardened CPUs; meanwhile you could buy a Pentium that would do 4 Ghz.

Even they don't like to spend too much time in high radiation areas such as near Jupiter or the Sun. Perhaps your setting has an even higher chance of computer scrambling radiation than ours... but somehow doesn't harm humans.

Then there's heat. Presumably your ships have plenty of power, but with no air dissipating heat is a huge problem in space. Fast, compact computers generate a lot of waste heat. Perhaps your computers are capable of running much faster, but only in short bursts, and at a high cost in heat.

The iPhone Failed

In our timeline, much of the miniturization push has been driven by smartphones. Smartphones provide incredible economies of scale to numerous miniture technologies such as cameras, sensors, wireless networking, batteries, and motion sensors. They've driven development of encryption, computer vision, text-to-speech, and other AI.

It's kind of bananas how cheap and powerful it's gotten.

If smartphones don't take off, all of that becomes far more expensive, less capable, bigger, and more power hungry.

The Fallout world is one where the transistor was invented, but wasn't turned into a consumer product. This explains Fallout's retro-future world.

AI Is Not Trusted

Others have brought this up, for whatever reason AI is not trusted. Either because it can be hacked and jammed, or because it went rogue.

Thw latter is why, In the Star Wars universe, capital ships require so many personnel. There was a droid uprising and now they are not trusted with weapons and other critical jobs.

Targeting Computers Suck

In the Star Wars universe, even a poor farm can afford to buy or build droids with human-like personalities far beyond what our computers are capable of. Yet they have organic pilots, organic soldiers, organic gunners, and capital ship fights at point blank range. Why?

One answer is their computers suck at targeting. Their computers are very good at hard AI problems, but terrible at basic math; the opposite of our own. Need to translate six million languages? No problem. Need to calculate aiming at a moving target? Hmm.

They could also suffer from poor sensors and interpretation of the sensor data.


A faraday cage works both ways! The missiles and drones need remote control.

You force them to keep their faraday cage closed.

Their own antennas are inside the faraday cage.

That blocks them from sending and receiving remote control commands.

The remote access is needed for visual confirmation of target identification.
Visual confirmation sounds like nonsense. It is, but an insurance contract requires it. The missiles come with "never miss guarantee", that pay some damages if they do miss.


Inertial dampeners

What makes drones and missiles so powerful is that they can easily withstand G-forces that would squash a human. So a drone or missile can completely out-maneuver a ship that has to restrain itself to forces that a human can survive.

The standard sci-fi solution to this problem is to use inertial dampeners -- gravity manipulation devices that let your starship pull 20 Gs while the pilot only ever has to feel 1 G. Give him a big enough engine and he can outmaneuver drones and missiles.


Your pilots are AIs

Just a thought. Maybe inertial dampeners were never invented. In your universe, drones did indeed dominate the battlefield, with AI becoming sentient and in fact this is exactly what your pilots are: sentient AI.

  • $\begingroup$ Well missiles also have the advantage of having much less mass and much higher deltav than fighter ships (AI or human) $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 21:51
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think that's necessarily true. It's all about mass to thrust ratio. A light missile with a high thrust is going to be vulnerable to point defense systems. Armor the missile up and you'll need to give it a larger engine. Eventually you're just ramming armored ships with armored ships, basically, and the one with the better intelligence probably wins. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 7:28
  • $\begingroup$ but an armored missile still requires much less delta-v than an armored ship, because a missile only needs to accelerate towards the target and sometimes dodge, while a fighter ship needs to accelerate, dodge, decelerate, accelerate back to it's own "carrier ship", and decelerate again. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 18:46
  • $\begingroup$ Sounds like you're talking about fuel consumption. If we're talking about science fiction, then "effectively or literally unlimited energy" solves that problem. In fact, if the energy generator is an expensive component, required to match the level of maneuvering a ship can do, then it might just be too expensive to put one in a missile and blow it up. And without this sci-fi energy source, the missiles can't compete. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 21:39

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