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So I am thinking about space battles in my universe. The main weapons on my ships will be missiles/torpedos. Which of these would be the most effective warhead:

  1. Tungsten shotguns. The missile closes with the ships then releases 200, 250 gram slugs. These are unguided and serve to disable their PDCs, sensors, and thrusters.
  2. Fusion drive overload. Very simple the missile closes with the ship and detonates the reactor magnetic containment. This would have a 750 meter kill radius. The space where the warhead would go would be replaced by better countermeasures.
  3. Incendiary armor piercing. Aim this at their air tanks and BOOM.
  4. Any other warhead you can think of.

Which of these would be most effective?

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  • $\begingroup$ How can you ask what is the most effective when one of the options is Any other warhead you can think of.? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ Well if you have some sort of warhead that beats those 3. Then I want to know about it. $\endgroup$
    – 11Bravo
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ Sometimes a knife is deadlier than sword and other time pen is more effective than sword literally and of course figuratively ;D $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ @11Bravo: Effective at what? Weapons are typically designed with a specific use case in mind (You wouldn’t use an anti-tank rifle to shoot an airplane, for example). Do you want to disable a heavily armoured enemy or utterly destroy a light patrol skiff? How acceptable is collateral damage? $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ How "hard" and advanced is your space combat setting? Most "realistic" attempts at space combat typically involve ships facing off at thousands of kilometers. Also, for detonating missiles, you'd want a separate nuclear warhead as just driving a reactor past critical isn't all that dangerous in space. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 15:48

4 Answers 4

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#1 is unnecessarily expensive. Whether you use tungsten slugs or marshmallow pillows, a high-speed inertial impactor will cause damage based solely on its mass * velocity * velocity. And space intercept velocities tend to be huge.

#2 would require that a sizeable missile get past the passive and active defenses of a vigorously defended vessel. This is quite possible, but tricky and will have a very low chance for success. Needing to get to within 750m, when closing speeds are multi-digit kilometers per second, is difficult.

#3 Lighting a flame inside an Air or Oxygen tank makes.... virtually nothing. Air does not burn. Nor does oxygen. Both help a fire to burn, but are quite non-flammable by themselves.

#4 aHa!
option1: Low-tech.
From thousands of kilometers away, fly at the enemy's predicted intercept position as fast as you can. Now throw a bucket of sand out the window, and scarper. A few kilograms of sand, spread over a vast cloud, and approaching the enemy at 50km/s or so, is... a vast cloud of dynamite sticks, in the energy each grain carries. And it is difficult to detect a spread-out bucket of sand, very hard to evade it, and impossible to "shoot it down"

Option2: High tech.
Take that same intercepting missile of yours. Make it as tiny as you can, as fast as you can. Load the warhead as 0.1 grams of antimatter. If it hits, or when your missile gets destroyed (being shot down or by impacting the enemy), the containment fails and you get an instantaneous burst of 4kiloton nuclear explosion, nicely focused in the high Gamma spectrum, which vaporizes everything near it and destroys all life for a good distance around that and scrambles electronics at an even further range.

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#4: High explosives with metal butterflies

See these tiny little metal butterflies:

enter image description here

They were propelled by a small explosive charge at a speed of about Mach 2. This is the damage they did to a pressure vessel bulkhead:

enter image description here

Notice how it actually went through the rivets on the bulkhead? Notice how they tore the skin away to create big gaping holes? Notice how it actually goes through the main structural members too, not just the weaker skin?

Now see the damage it did to reinforced, laminated plexiglass that is basically bulletproof - note the multiple complete penetrations:

enter image description here

This is from the downing of Maylasia Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine by a Buk missile. This had 70kg of explosive in it to propel these butterflies.

One of the first butterflies was found at autopsy embedded in the pilots thigh, having already been slowed down by the laminated plexiglass windshield.

Crank up the explosives (500kg?) and use the acceleration of your missile / torpedo to add extra kinetic energy to these razors of death - it's reasonable to expect some micrometeor protection but an oversized bullet with razor edges travelling at 20km/s will cut right through. These things will depressurise an enemy ship several bulkheads deep, cut through thick metal shielding, shred every human in the way, and shred every conduit in the blast radius, crippling the ship until essentially every part was replaced.

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1: even civilian ships will have protection against micrometeorite impacts. Look into "Whipple shielding", a thin "bumper" turns small impactors into an expanding spray of molten metal and plasma that can easily be blocked by inner layers. You will likely not want to spread the missile's effect out in such a way.

2: realistically, the worst you're likely to do with a fusion drive is melt some bits of the fusion drive. As for damaging the target, the fusion drive's power output is going into increasing the missile's kinetic energy until it impacts (and impact won't be much more difficult than getting within hundreds of meters), the impact would be far more destructive than anything in the fusion drive. Maybe you could do something with the fusion fuel stores instead, but burning up all the fuel at once in a big explosion is very unlike anything else you want the drive to do (and very much something you don't want it to do at all until it gets a safe distance away)...more plausibly a separate device.

3: air tanks are a small target and aren't going to be any more vulnerable to incendiary effects than any other part of the ship. Fires in general will be quickly extinguished by venting to vacuum.

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  • $\begingroup$ While these are fine refutations, they don't really answer the OP's question. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ "the impact would be far more destructive than anything in the fusion drive." - yep, saved me a comment. @jdunlop - i translate - get up to speed and ram another ship with whole missile or its parts cloud - no warheads are needed at all. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 20:40
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Consider using nuclear bomb pumped X-ray lasers as the warheads for your missiles (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_pumped_laser). If the estimates at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Excalibur are taken at face value, damage to a target out to 1000km is possible.

Anything under 10 km in space would probably be one shot, one kill for anti-missile defenses even using near-future technology and the kill radius for the warhead types proposed need to get closer than that to damage the target ship.

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    $\begingroup$ I too like the works of David Weber! $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 5:06

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