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I want to have a somewhat realistic setting where space fleets have to close in to short distances, probably around 1000 km or less, in order to inflict damage. This will be only a few hundred years into the future. Also, I don't want a direct translation of a naval fleet to space if it'll require too many justifications. I'm fine with doing away with fighters for example. What's important is that small and large ships have a reason to gather into a formation and engage at relatively short ranges.

I thought about what a setting would need to accomplish this and I've come up with the following

1) Armor, engines, and heat sinks are really efficient in this setting, made possible by unobtainium if need be

2) Lasers are out. Maybe diffraction is too high, or perhaps the armor mentioned in the first point deals with lasers very well. For whatever in-universe reason lasers are not effective

3) Missiles are the only way of striking at long range

With these 3 rules in effect what I envision would happen would be ships sticking close to one another. Small ships would protect capital ships with their overlapping point defense. With such an effective defense fleets will have to move close enough to use kinetic weapons like railguns, whose projectiles are too fast to intercept. Then, once enough of a fleet has been destroyed and their point defense compromised, the other fleet would seek to finish off their heavily armored capitals (which presumably are resistant to railguns) with nukes. All in all, a nice long fight with lots of opportunities for maneuvering.

So, what are the ramifications of my rules? Are my assumptions reasonable? Or would some other tactic be the standard? If the latter is true then what else would I have to change in order to make the premise realistic?

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    $\begingroup$ The only real difference between a fighter and a small ship on a planet is that one flies. In space, you may just as well call it a torpedo boat. $\endgroup$ – Clockwork-Muse Mar 4 at 23:52
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    $\begingroup$ Why are railguns only used at a short range? They won't encounter air resistance, so they should be just as effective at a long range. $\endgroup$ – Guest Mar 5 at 0:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Clockwork-Muse I think the main difference between a fighter and a small ship would be fighters are single-person. $\endgroup$ – Bill Mar 5 at 0:29
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    $\begingroup$ Short for space I mean. Let's say a railgun projectile is traveling at 10km/s. It'll take about a minute and a half to hit a target 1000km away. $\endgroup$ – Bill Mar 5 at 0:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Bill - Not all fighters are single-person - there are a large number of examples that have a second person (usually a radar or other special equipment operator). The number of people is something of a red herring, though - they have as few people as is practicable. If for some reason it became necessary to have a fighters have a 3rd person hold crystals up to sunlight, they would get that third seat. The real issue is combat role ; carrier groups became a thing because were an effective way to project power over the horizon $\endgroup$ – Clockwork-Muse Mar 5 at 0:49
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I think your arguments for naval battlegroups work fine in space. As for why the ships wouldn't be all of a similar size, the answer is gravity wells. Maybe your capital ships aren't structurally sound enough to actually make landfall on any planet. So if you want to land, you need smaller ships. Maybe the capital ships would collapse under the weight of their own armor, but smaller ships have less armor and can handle it. You need bigger ships than just surface-to-orbit ferries though, because you want to loiter over the target to provide air support. A hovering ship experiences just as much gravity as one on the ground, so the above argumentation still applies.

It's kinda like the difference between littoral warships and ocean-going warships in real life. Little gunboats can go up rivers which would be too shallow for a full-size destroyer, but the gunboats are no match for a full-size destroyer out on the open sea.

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    $\begingroup$ As for why the ships wouldn't be all of a similar size, the answer is gravity wells And cost. If the cost (resources + time to replace + cost to operate) would be the same between a capital ship and a fighter, I reckon we'd see the Rebel Fleet attacking the Death Star with thousands of capital ships (ummm... maybe not, doesn't make for a good movie) $\endgroup$ – Adrian Colomitchi Mar 5 at 10:37
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If the distances are really far in your universe, your excuse might be chain of comand and relativity.

If the distances between places are huge and you need multiple ships to a combat. I m imagining various types of especialized ships. You need to be really close to your allies to send messages that are useful.

So you have this clusters of vessels that have a chain of command and some level of autonomy. Let's say each one of them have a person from the goverment or some sort of general or leader, the battles will be taking place in more than light second distances between those clusters. But between each ship from the same cluster there will be a short distance

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  • $\begingroup$ OP wants < 1000km, which will result in no appreciable lightspeed delay. You're also not factoring in the usual human delay in implementing orders - a delay of 1 second in communication isn't going to noticeably change things. $\endgroup$ – Clockwork-Muse Mar 5 at 0:57
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Are my assumptions reasonable, or would some other tactic be the standard? I think that the capital ships might just be large railguns, not a typical capital ship, to maximize firepower with a low material cost. I don't see the reason for small ships when you can just mount an extra gun onto the capital ship.

If the latter is true then what else would I have to change in order to make the premise realistic? Make it very hard to mount point defences onto the ships. Maybe the armour could interfere with radio/electrical signals. Maybe the ships are primitive and are spun to generate gravity, but the outside shell spins with the ship, complicating controls.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking capitals would be armored railguns, so they would be quite comparable to our battleships which are also just guns and armor. The reasoning behind the smaller ships would be that the capitals need protection from nukes. $\endgroup$ – Bill Mar 5 at 18:51
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If weapons are traveling at significantly less than the speed of light, then the ability to calculate the other ships trajectories might play a part.

If computers aren't powerful enough to calculate trajectories - or if they are so powerful they can send their own ships on unpredictable paths - most shots would miss because they simply weren't aimed at a fleet's current position. These problems would get worse with distance, so maybe close range is the only way to reliably damage enemy ships.

If the ships are also able to survive multiple hits, I could see a complex game of chicken emerging, with each fleet trying to make the enemy misjudge their paths or maneuver into a bad position.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure you could calculate trajectories on a ten year old laptop. $\endgroup$ – Muuski Mar 5 at 22:59
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A reason for which close range combat may be absolutely necessary could be the existence of deflection/jamming technologies. A spaceship using space distortion for FTL travel (e.g. Alcubrierre drive) should be able to use this ability to jumble the geodesics of spacetime in such a way aiming from long range becomes totally unreliable (e.g. from large distances you see those ships like through the heat raising from a sealed road on a hot afternoon)

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