Usually "space battle" posts want to achieve some particular fantasy aim (like, realistic where fighters still exists), or they are focused on aliens and whatnot.

I am instead trying to figure out how space battles work when it is humans vs humans, sometimes even having friends on the other side, people DON'T want to wipe out the other side (but still want to win).

The goal of the battles, after breaking through enemy lines ("spheres, planes" ? since this is space...) is to land troops on the enemy planet and take it. (why not throw asteroids in it? Well, because you want the planet intact, including you want to live in it. Also people will object to you being a genocidal commander mass murdering your own species)

So far what I came up with:

Opening salvo with lasers, then you stop using these to avoid charged capacitors getting hit and exploding.

Then both sides do burns to approach each other while dodging kinetic projectiles, smaller lasers might be used (ones without big capacitors), missiles (with solid warheads, not explosives) too.

Eventually the fleets will be near each other enough that dodging kinetic projectiles is hard without splattering your crew with the acceleration, thus both sides start firing their cannons.

Then people might attempt boarding, to kill enemy commanders and keep their ships.

EDIT: Just to clarify, you can kill people on other side or even destroy a few ships, you just don't want every battle to turn into a complete bloodbath with one side 100% dead and the other side 95% dead.

  • $\begingroup$ You might want to check out some of the answers to this related question : worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/45641/… $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 1:43
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think you're actually going to see shots fired in this context at all. If two sides don't want to fight, they won't. A more realistic outcome is that as used by Cold War era thrillers like The Hunt for Red October or Thirteen Days, in which there aren't really shots fired between the two sides. Space weapons are too powerful to have limited conflict in the same fashion as Cold War era nuclear weapons. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 2:14
  • $\begingroup$ Rock, Paper, Scissors? This is less destructive than practically anything else. It's also cheap and quick. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 22:44
  • $\begingroup$ If it gets to boarding you have ether found yourself in an astonishingly unlikely situation or the laws of physics have been tossed aside. Its considered a challenge today to intercept and dock with a willing craft like the ISS. Doing so with someone who actively doesn't want to is going to be interesting, and going to involve blowing a ton of delta-V $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 4:51
  • $\begingroup$ sounds like a hacking contest. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 15:44

9 Answers 9


Spacecraft are fragile

Let's look at things that have imperiled real life space missions. I'm skipping a lot of detail here.

  • Apollo 1: Damaged wire caused spark in command module. Resulting fire killed all crew members. Rocket undamaged and used in later mission.
  • Apollo 8: Jim Lovell accidentally pushed the wrong button, which screwed up the guidance computer. After some tense troubleshooting, the computer was restored and the vehicle returned to Earth.
  • Apollo 10: Guidance computer problem caused loss of control. Astronauts took manual control.
  • Apollo 11: Misconfigured radar setting overworked the computer. Resulting error messages almost resulted in scrubbing moon landing.
  • Apollo 13: Oxygen tank explosion nearly killed the crew.
  • Soyuz 11: Mechanical problem resulted in depressurization of command module. Loss of crew.
  • STS-51-L: Launch in cold temperature contributed to failure of O-ring. Total loss of crew and vehicle.
  • STS-107: Damage to heat resistant tiles caused total loss of crew and vehicle on reentry.

I could make this list a lot longer. The point is that spacecraft have weaknesses through all of their systems. Even military craft will have critical systems. You could attack these systems. Following the examples of Apollos 8, 10, and 11, you could attack the computers or the sensors. If you wanted, you could even use a computer virus to effect a Stuxnet-style attack. Or you could fire a small laser or kinetic projectile at the sensors that the ships need to be able to navigate. That would knock them out of commission quickly without destroying them.


Two weapons systems come to mind:

Lasers, aimed at things like engines. If you can disable an enemy craft it drifts out of the battle area. If the other side prevails convention dictates that it surrender (as the alternative would be to drift on until it's life support was exhausted.)

Sand guns. Given normal battle speeds this hits hard enough to do serious damage to exposed things, but it's not enough to punch through the hull. Blind a ship and it's out of it and must surrender if it's side loses.

As for why these weapons are used--this is a universe where point defense trumps missiles and kinetic weapons. These are the sorts of weapons that get through point defense.

If you'll accept some handwaving, I'm thinking of the Langston Field from some of Jerry Pornelle's work (collaboration with Larry Niven??) Most incoming energy gets absorbed, but the field heats up in the process. The hotter it is the more of the ship's power must be used to keep that energy away from the ship. Convention is that a ship surrenders when it's field gets too hot--it has no combat options at that point but is likely unharmed. No surrender, the enemy can destroy the ship at will.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In the RPG Traveller, sandcasters are the standard anti-laser defensive weapon. Combined with your answer, they could do double duty, first weakening incoming laser fire, then blinding or destroying sensors at close range. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 9:47
  • $\begingroup$ @DaveSherohman The game gets it wrong, a sandcaster isn't going to do much against a laser weapon. You need too much sand to be effective. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 14:37


Both sides fight capital ships sit at very long way from the actual battle. They launch swarms of drones at each other and allow the drones to do the attacking. Once one sides drones are defeated they surrender as they are now defenseless to the remaining attackers drones. The human crews never get near enough to each other to be shoot at, while the drones are cheap and disposable and do the dirty work.

  • $\begingroup$ Yep. Robots vs robots. After success in space, the attacking robots have to then take out any ground based orbital defenses which will be tricky to do and leave the bakery next door intact. If this is successful, robots will then need to make a robotic beachhead on the ground to receive the occupying human troops / colonists. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 21:30


Getting rid of waste heat in space is hard. To radiate heat, spaceships need to have huge radiators. And combat-capable ship would need to have super-huge radiators. Possibly much bigger than ship itself. But those radiators are extreme weak spots. And they radiate away way too slowly to be used in combat.

At the same time, ships have such advanced defensive and evasive capabilities compared to attack capabilities of their oponents, that scoring hits is rare occurence. And during combat, both sides are constantly producing heat. But once spaceship is overheated, it needs to shut down it's systems not to damage itself or it's human crew.

So space battles are not about destroying the other side, but battles of attrition where each side is trying to cause the other side to overheat while staying 'chill' enough to function itself. Added bonus is that it is easy for your oponent to see if you have overheated from your infrared emmisions, so if they so wish, they will stop firing at you, knowing you won't be able to attack. And if you did try to attack, you will be retaliated against in a way you cannot defend against, because your defensive system is down due to overheating. So it would be suicidal to do anything funny while overheated.


Your ships have weapon systems mounted on modular pods outside of the vessel's main habitable areas for various reasons: easier to repair and replace depending on the enemy fleet's composition, lower risk of catastrophic damage from compromised weapons systems, and in an emergency (or once the weapons are expended) you can cut them loose to increase your thrust/weight ratio and boost away from trouble.

This means that it's relatively common for a ship to lose multiple, even all of its weapon systems, without its hull being compromised at all. In that case, it's considered honorable to allow that ship to withdraw, since it can't really hurt you anyway. Ships that lose their long-range weapons early on and are facing a completely hopeless rush to the target might disengage likewise.

Eventually, of course, you reach the point where the crew (via boarding) are the primary weapon, and at that point it's rather late to expect any mercy; ships have little choice but to go for the throat. Therefore, the closer you get to boarding range, the more serious the engagement: a probing attack or simple skirmish might be conducted entirely at long range, with ships only moving in closer when they're fully committed to an attack.

And, naturally, there's a "gentleman's agreement" aspect to it: if you don't target my ships' crews directly, and allow my damaged ships to withdraw in good order, I'll extend you the same courtesies. If you're constantly rushing to boarding range, focusing fire on my crews, or emplacing your weapons in your crew areas, then I have less obligation to let you escape.


Pirate tactics

First off you can send emps to fighters to disable controls for a little while. Then if the mothership can be docked easily enough if it can't you may want to create a ship that spears into a ships walls then air locks. this drill ship opens and your pirates run in start taking prisoners and taking out guards you pirates fight through the ship to a main control center capture the commander and by that time if the fighters radio come back on demand a surrender of you blow the command ship if they refuse just kill everyone inside and retreat with their main ship using more emps escaping with teleportation or whatever. If the enemy ships come back on before you're done infiltrating the command ship use guerilla tactics basically camp around the command ship shooting mines to make more difficult to get to you. That would be my strategy.

Landing on the opponent planet

If you want to land on a opposing planet if theres a single place in the skys of the planet with slightly less craft barge in there using mentioned tactics from earlier bomb only the artierly and land using the same hostage tactics to get them to surrender.

Tl;DR: use hostages



EMP shuts down electronic systems. While damaging all electronics, it leaves everything else intact. It can cause fires etc., but as this is a great concern anyway, it isn't a stretch to say the modern spacecraft in your story are well protected against an EMP strike causing fires. An EMP would just shut everything down, at which point a clock starts ticking for the inhabitants. Yet it can take hours before they die if the whole craft is disabled, depending on several factors.

As you can shield things from EMP, it requires sufficient damage of the protecting material, or simply an overwhelmingly large EMP strike to disable systems. This way battles can happen with more regular guns etc. as well. Tactically disabling your opponent is very well possible, after which you only need to replace the damaged systems.

  • $\begingroup$ Spacecraft are already well-protected from this due to solar storms and other forms of radiation. $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ True, they are protected against solar flares. But if I remember correctly, solar flares are mostly dangerous in bigger electronics, like powerlines across a country. EMP can be tuned to a wider range of frequencies, which I guess can overcome normal shielding against solar flares and other space anomalies. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 7:52

Target their Weapons and Jam their Targeting Signal

The goal is to take out your opponent's weapons. These are located on the extremities of the ship, so can usually be destroyed without killing everyone on board. Once the weapons are gone the enemy is harmless and you have won.

Some comments on your ideas:

Opening salvo with lasers, then you stop using these to avoid charged capacitors getting hit and exploding.

Okay but then why fire them in the first place? You might hit the capacitors with the opening salvo.

Then both sides do burns to approach each other while dodging kinetic projectiles

Okay but why are kinetic projectiles safer than lasers for not blowing up capacitors?

On a different note, the idea of dodging projectiles from short range is unrealistic. I don't believe real aircraft ever do this, except maybe by trying to outspeed the projectiles. In space it's MUCH MUCH harder to do precision movements since their is no air to push against.

Perhaps if the fight happens from light-minutes apart the ships could move around slightly to make them harder to target. You don't have to dodge per se. You just have to make sure you're somewhere else by the time the enemy laser arrives.

smaller lasers might be used (ones without big capacitors), missiles (with solid warheads, not explosives) too.

Solid warheads is a good idea. I believe some anti-ballistic missiles work this way.

Then people might attempt boarding, to kill enemy commanders and keep their ships.

Boarding also requires high precision movement.



Lasers are mostly always the solution for precision work. They move at the speed of light so they are impossible to dodge. Because they can be so precise you can target vital enemy systems such as weapons, engines and sensors leaving the opponent disabled and open to boarding or surrender. Children of a Dead Earth is a great example for these things and so it has a mission where a ships crew have mutinied but the captain is an important political figure and so you must disable it.

Anyway Children of a Dead Earth fanboying aside, lasers would be the most effective weapon to disable without killing an opponent in space.


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