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So lately I’ve been re-rereading (again) some of the articles on Atomic Rockets and I was metaphorically struck by the idea of orbital combat as presented on the site. To summarize, it involves using Hohmann orbits to do “drive by” attacks on enemy forces every few hours. Obviously, this would work just fine, but I’m not sure if this would be the tactic for large ships.

Consider two fleets. Fleet A is attacking a planet and Fleet B is defending it. Fleet A has made it through the outer layers of defenses and are closing in on the world itself. My thought is that they would attempt to enter orbit on the opposite side of the planet as Fleet B, thus making it very difficult for either fleet to shoot at the other (with the notable exceptions of missiles, mines, torpedos, etc). The tactic then would be to alter orbit just enough to present a direct firing solution on the enemy by kinetics or lasers, firing your weapons, and then accelerating/decelerating to put the planet between the two of you again.

The idea is that this would make orbital warfare a constant battle of managing and adjusting your orbit to compensate for your enemy’s maneuvers. Battle would go on like this until one side grows confident enough. At which point the cat and mouse game would end and the no-holds-barred slugfest would begin.

Once the Fleets decide to fully engage, the Fleet A would match orbits with Fleet B and enter a position where all their ships have a firing solution. Now, although these ships are moving incredibly quickly, if they matched orbits with each other they should appear to be stationary, relatively speaking. Basically this half of the question is just justifying large scale Star Wars-like ship to ship battles.

The question here is pretty simple: Does this two part orbital warfare work? Of course I’d like more concrete information than just yes or no. My knowledge of orbital mechanics and the like come from me enjoying the subject and reading on the internet so a more in depth prospective on the actual math involved would be greatly appreciated. If this doesn’t work then why not and of course any further suggestions or ideas will always be appreciated!


Edit: So the comments have pointed out a few things I should probably address. My universe has a bit of handwavium in regards to shields, FTL, more efficient propulsion, high density power sources, and heat radiation. FTL doesn’t allow a ship to drop into the atmosphere of a planet or anything like that, but it does allow the ship to get to the gravity well of the planet. As for the attackers being able to bomb the planet, I had thought it would be more of an agreed upon tactic to reduce civilian casualties. Otherwise the death toll from space warfare could reach the billions relatively quickly.

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  • $\begingroup$ Buy a copy of the game "Children of a Dead Earth" and play it. It simulates ship to ship space combat using realistic orbital mechanics and plausible near-future weapons and will help you flesh out your knowledge of what semi-realistic space combat would be like. $\endgroup$ Jan 15 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ The one and only one full-scale battle between big ships using long distance artillery as the main weapon was the Battle of Jutland (1916), in the First World War. Since this is the only practical example, all you can do is (1) retell the story of admirals Jellicoe and Beatty against Scheer and Hipper, or (2) make stuff up. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 15 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP That was the only major fleet engagement of WWI, but there were many large scale naval battles in other wars. From the sinking of the Spanish Armada to the mid-19th century, the main naval tactic was the deployment of ships-of-the-line, large artillery ships that would mass together and fire at maximum range. In this time period there were many battles involving > 50 total ships-of-the-line. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 15 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki: Long distance artillery. The battle of Jutland was the only full-scale battle ever between fleets which used (1) big armored ships and (2) long distance artillery. Battles between ships of the line happened at distances between 50 and maybe 200 meters, close enough to look the enemy in the eyes. (That's because they had no means of aiming their cannon.) The only honourable mentions go to the battles of the Japanese fleet against the Russian fleet in the Russo-Japanese war, but those were one-sided, with the Japanese having massive technological and professional advantage. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 15 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ The other aspect of this is that if the hostile fleet has already reached orbit, the defending fleet has already lost. The hostile fleet can simply do one orbit to map out targeting data, drop their bombardment on the planet, and boogie on out of there. $\endgroup$ Jan 15 at 16:58
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I would say at first glance, a hard no.

Because all the opposing fleet would need to do is drop munitions or even junk into the lower and faster orbit of the defending fleet and watch as it smacks into their ships at untold velocity shredding the fleet.

Another reason you don't want to fight a defender in orbital space is that you are now in range of planetary defenses. A defender can send a small truck mounted missile like a THAAD on a suborbital hop and watch as you crash right into the incoming warhead using your own orbital velocity to destroy you.

So defending fleets would be decimated from above by attacking fleets, and attacking fleets would be utterly destroyed by defending fleets. Therefore forces would probably attempt to avoid orbital space as much as possible as charging into orbital space would be suicidal.

Where battles would happen is just outside orbital space, a defending fleet would want to destroy the attacking fleet before they find a comfortable spot to begin a long range laser/kinetic bombardment from around a light second away to destroy the largest and most effective of those aforesaid defenses before they venture closer.

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you think it could work as an agreed upon method to mitigate casualties? So both fleets agree to poke each other around the planet to try and disable each other instead of complete destruction. $\endgroup$
    – Nick
    Jan 25 at 4:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Nick the attacking fleet needs to destroy the defending fleet so they can bombard the majority of surface defenses into submission from a standoff range without being intercepted and destroyed. So it's unlikely an attacker would want to agree. $\endgroup$
    – Efialtes
    Jan 25 at 4:21
  • $\begingroup$ thanks! I really needed some outside prospective on this, I’m trying to justify occasional close range tactics and fighter-like ships. $\endgroup$
    – Nick
    Jan 25 at 4:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Nick, a good way to maybe justify fighter style combat is to contrive a way to shorten combat ranges of weapons. Say perhaps your ships have actively cooled armor making lasers useless at all but the closest ranges and as point defense. And then perhaps look into lancers. They are ships that accelerate real fast, drop a munition and peel away real fast before it impacts the enemy. Because if you are maneuverable enough you can dodge kinetics, using computer assistance at extreme ranges, or shoot them down so you'd need to get somewhat closer than normal. $\endgroup$
    – Efialtes
    Jan 25 at 4:37

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