I am shooting for a futuristic image of fighter warfare (similar to the depiction in Star Wars). As jets and long-ranged targeting have developed, aerial “turn-fighting” and short-range dogfights between fighter planes have been obsolete for a while. These scenarios seem even less probable between spacecraft, given the difficulty of changing direction and sheer open space. Are there any realistic sets of conditions, on Earth, space, or an alien environment that would encourage a return to World War II-style dogfighting/maneuvering mechanics? The radar, long-ranged missiles, etc. could stay, but fighters themselves would need to be maneuverable at low speeds and engage in close-range dogfight tactics, as well as have tactical use, even if somewhat expendable. Fighters do not need to be planes (or even fly) as long as they maintain the plane-like, linear style of motion in three-dimensional space. All combatants would use the same type of vehicle.

I guess this scenario comes down to two restrictions: limiting the range of modern/futuristic firepower, and finding an environment with applicable technology to make fighters able to change direction quickly and relatively efficiently, probably by moving through a medium. Are there any general, vaguely realistic causes for this?

If this question is too broad, some specific possibilities I had in mind were that combat is restricted to tight, closed spaces (canyons, tunnels, etc.), the environment is too delicate for heavy weapons, or that advanced heat-cloaking technology or a harsh atmosphere make heat-seeking weapons obsolete. A dense atmosphere could also make planes more maneuverable. I have also considered using submarines, since this style of combat may be more realistic through a liquid medium. Would any of these scenarios realistically encourage these kinds of movement mechanics?

Side note: The future would likely see a rise in drones or automated piloting for this sort of task. While not a first priority, I would love an excuse to put pilots physically in the fighters again, in case that becomes a direct factor.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "Dune" has an interesting reason for the return of melee fighting as opposed to guns: energy shields that keep out strikes above a certain speed, making swords more effective than bullets. Maybe a similar technology could redirect the arms race toward short-range fighting? $\endgroup$
    – RLoopy
    Commented Dec 3, 2021 at 19:45
  • $\begingroup$ @RLuebke That could work, although the development of energy shields is still pretty alien. If possible, I’d prefer a mechanism more mechanically fleshed out. Laser point defense could work with a similar result, though, since it needs travel time to melt down a projectile. I can definitely use that. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Price
    Commented Dec 3, 2021 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ How about this: shield technology needs to dissipate energy from incoming fire over a long period. This means that at long range, shields are nearly impenetrable, but up close they don’t have enough time to dissipate the energy of the attack so they are useless $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 4, 2021 at 10:46

9 Answers 9


Why not? It's happened in the past.

In the 50s, US air combat doctrine was that missiles were great, and guns were virtually obsolete. It's easy to see where they were coming from, on paper: longer range, much greater firepower, lower weight. But when the resulting fighters (such as the F-4 Phantom) actually got to grips with the enemy, pilots realized almost immediately that they direly needed the guns and close-in maneuver fighting that they had been told was obsolete.

Part of the problem was that early air-to-air missiles weren't a particularly mature technology and they had problems locking on at close range or, in many cases, at all. But there was also a doctrinal aspect to the problem. The US didn't want to shoot down its own craft and it very especially didn't want to shoot down any unaffiliated, perhaps civilian, aircraft that happened to be in the area. (A circumstance that has, tragically, occurred from time to time.)

Therefore, Air Force doctrine was to always confirm the identity of the target before attacking. In most cases, this meant closing to within visual range of the potential enemy, and once that distance was closed, it very rarely opened again.

Whatever it is that you're driving or piloting, and whatever you're shooting at, you're not alone in the environment. There are many non-targets sharing it with you: civilians, neutral nations, third parties, friendly forces. You need to be able to confirm that you're engaging an enemy before shooting - and some enemies won't make that easy on you.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ In Desert Storm One, a pilot had visual confirmation but was denied because the AWACS was too far away. You have to confirm the conformation.... Desert Storm - The Air War, Day 1 - Animated @ 16m30s. This resulted in the enemy MIG getting a kill. Much like the USS Cole where two enemies killed 17 friendlies because you can't shoot unless shot at. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Dec 4, 2021 at 5:31

Possibly a cost-to-benefit strategy.

Capital ships, with all their power, armor and weapons are far too expensive to risk sending one in to slug it out with another capital ship.

Initially, these ships were small and not so expensive, due to the sheer difficulty of building large ships. As a result, these ships carried heavy weapons and little to no anti-aircraft defenses, as everyone had destroyers or larger in their fleets.

Over hundreds of years of development, these capital ships became colossal. Thick armor, powerful shields and devastating, large weapons. War got to a point where the first idiot got within range of the other ship would be destroyed by the equally powerful weapons of their opponent.

Then one day, someone strapped miniaturized heavy bombardment weapons to some small skiffs. All the sudden you are now approached by a swarm of mosquitoes. Since this kind of tactic hasn't really been used for 100's of years, modern warships do not have real defenses for such craft. Now, the ships' primary weapon can wipe out these fighter easy, but the targeting and recharge takes time, enough so that they cannot deal with thousands of these at a time. And if 1 of these ships got through the defensive fire, it can cause significant damage.

To combat this, rather than retrofit the whole fleet and possibly compromise the hull armor with weapon installment, the capital ships will then have thousands of small vessels, with light weapons to deter the use of these swarm attack tactics. That is, until sufficient ships are designed and built to act as screen ships.

Overall, it may cost ~$$1 billion to lose a fighter craft, but it would cost ~$100's of trillions or more to lose a capital ship. You could stand to lose thousands of fighters, which could be drones, rather than a capital ship that might have whole cities of people on board. It would be very advantageous to keep any battles far away, outside anyone's weapon range, from your fleet. Thus series of heavy bombers, fighter escorts, and interceptors may be designed to act as sacrificial pawns in a space battle. Basically, proxy battles.

  • $\begingroup$ That makes sense. Also, having a bunch of little guns shooting from all directions is harder to counter than a big gun in a single spot. Would this work as well with heavily limited firing range/speed? $\endgroup$
    – Mark Price
    Commented Dec 3, 2021 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ Missiles, APC's and other projectile weapons would definitely have a limited range and are relatively slow. Laser based weapons would lose effectiveness and power over great distances. as long as you had your swarm fleet engage their swarm fleet beyond their firing range, you should be good. Once your defense is breached, your capital ships would be in danger. $\endgroup$
    – Sonvar
    Commented Dec 3, 2021 at 22:17
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Drone fighter craft with AI will be even less expensive - no need to take special care about that special human snowflakes inside who faints every time they get a tight turn at 10g+. Unless, of course, one needs midichlorians into the picture. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 4, 2021 at 0:19
  • $\begingroup$ Small craft, sure, but would they fight anything like winged jets in atmosphere, trying to get on the other's tail? Or would they just get onto a vector that takes them close, and point the nose at the enemy? (Or wherever the weapons point relative to the craft's facing.) For example, David Weber's Honor Harrington series made space combat work somewhat like age-of-sail ships of the line by having impenetrable gravity "stress bands" as part of the propulsion system, so to line up a viable shot, you needed to go broadside to broadside, or better fire your broadside into their bow or stern. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 4, 2021 at 4:44
  • $\begingroup$ The fire fights in the Expanse would be a good representation. Basically, they would be small, cheap weapon platforms. The weapons would have wide attack angles, since they don't need to worry about aero drag and prevent having enemies in their blind spots. However, they would do everything they can to dip, Dodge and duck attacks. Like a pawn, you may sacrifice it for victory, but you don't want lose your pieces needlessly $\endgroup$
    – Sonvar
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 5:16



It is not dogfighting. It is wrestling. You are trying to overpower the other ship because you want the ship. It is a good ship and ships are scarce. It would be a shame to blow it up. If you can get the angle right, or hit the weak spot, or grapple with it and board it, you can take it intact and then it is yours. There is no way to do that from a distance.

Robot pilots will be deactivated (and later reprogrammed) in the process of capturing the ship. Sentient pilots might be pissed off but as much at themselves as the opponent. The losers know how the game is played, and that game does not include summarily killing the opposing pilot. Pilots of captures ships will be taken prisoner, treated well and dropped off at established places according to standard procedure.


Once the means for detecting and evading electronic countermeasures reach a critical point, visual recognition by a human can become the viable countermeasure, in a similar way to how human and computer perform better than any of them individually in chess.

Therefore, when in your scenario that point is reached and drones can evade computer only countermeasures, fighters piloted by humans can be a valuable countermeasure, because the human brain adds that pinch of unpredictability which send the AI ashtray.

  • $\begingroup$ This seems like a similar concept to why self driving cars are so difficult to program. Just to clarify, are electronic/computer-only countermeasures similar to cyberattacks? Fighters “hacking” each other would be a cool concept for a dogfight. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Price
    Commented Dec 3, 2021 at 19:39
  • $\begingroup$ "which send the AI ashtray." why do you want to clutter @Ash's tray with useless AI? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 4, 2021 at 0:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MarkPrice Conventionally, ECW is more about stealth and jamming technologies. Instead of inserting malicious code into an enemy craft, it would be something like giving off the exact visible, IR, and radio signature that will make it misidentify you as a friendly, or a flock of geese or something. (Aided by your knowledge of its sensors and image recognition software, and hampered by their side's innovations in same.) $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Commented Dec 4, 2021 at 0:32

Shotguns, Flashlights, and Lassos.

The later ''Battlestar Galactica'' fighters used some kind of caseless ammunition in a minigun. That's great if you can target your enemy reliably. But if they're moving around a lot, you could use guns that fire in a cone, like a shotgun. Improved chance of hitting, but the further away the target, the fewer shots that make contact. If you really want to do damage, you have to get closer.

Beam weapons in sci-fi typically stay in a tight beam, which has the same problem. You could have a beam technology that, on purpose or not, spreads into a wide beam like a flashlight. Again, the power drops off drastically with distance, so you need to be close.

Finally: Since space is so big, the only way to stay near your target is to grab him with a tractor beam. Of course, he's trying to do the same to you, and there's some reason that tractor beams work best when you're behind your target. So both of you are circling, trying to get behind each other like two dogs in a fight. (Which, IIRC, is where "dogfight" comes from.)


Inside a Gas Giant

The density of the atmosphere prevents long range visibility and targeting. In a near-term future where solar system colonization is nearly complete, gas giants would definitely be strategic resources, as sources of fuel, places of industry etc. Industrial stations (or military ones) would likely be hidden in orbits low enough to be obscured and protected. Their orbits are jealously guarded secrets. When they're detected or found accidentally, fighters might would be a realistic method of attack, and certainly for defense. More specifically, piloted fighters would be useful because the atmospheric interference might prevent reliable remote drone piloting. I'm not sure about autonomous drones...

  • $\begingroup$ Covered all the bases well. I’d imagine higher air pressure could work wonders for aerodynamic maneuvering as well. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Price
    Commented Dec 7, 2021 at 23:17

Have large ships with sturdy structure. Those ships in battles dont get destroyed but captured.

All battles then happen at short range inside each ship. Each ship is captured in parts, plot by plot, deck by deck.

Quick maneuvering wouldnt be hard because of readily available propellant available to be thrown in other direction, and because the technology of making sturdy structure is already found in this world.

Air wars will be happening at "close quarter". Entire airports will be on the ship. Supplying propellants not remain a big deal even in an altogether space war.

Reasons for having large ships:

  1. Space travel. Its long, years. It gets very boring because of monotony. Therefore each and every ship has to be large enough to have thousands of people if not hundreds of thousands living, have large areas, entire cities, lots of landscape features such as mini mountains, ponds big enough to look like sea from beach etc.

  2. Space travel. Its long, years. Lots of things tend to break down. Need not just spare parts but entire components, many copies of each. Need space for all that.

  3. Sea travel. In future due to over population entire small countries are just very large sea ships.

  4. Economics. Its always economical to build larger structure because of square cube law, and to run it. The limitation comes in management which in this case is how much stress the ship material can handle. Once technology to build sturdy materials, lets say nano tubes is achieved construction of large ships are a given.

Reasons for having sturdy (as in nearly unbreakable) structure:

  1. They are meant to last, for decades or centuries. Because space travel is just so damn long. And because sea-ships countries are obviously meant to last for long.

Reasons for striving to capture instead of destroying the ships:

  1. They are very, very expensive; because they are very large and very sturdy. Better have them than destroy them. Consider conquering state of texas instead of nuking it.

  2. They are hard to destruct. Therefore like a medieval fort its more realistic to capture than destroy. Medieval guns dont attempt to break down a fort in its entirety, just breach an opening. Missiles will be like canons, attempted to just breach an opening. The capturing work is done by air planes that go inside and attempt to spread soldiers around. The defense would then mostly be focused on dog-fighting those air planes. Its pretty hard to prevent a breach because attacker ships will be large too and thus have lots and lots of missiles which can be fired from many different places along the attacker ship. The attacker ships too will have sturdy structure and thus its unrealistic to attempt to destroy them.


There are a number of ways that have caused unwanted tech not to work or not to exist:

  • "Nobody knows it": The world where it happens has pre-1950s tech.

  • "Impossible due to advanced magic/technology": a God/all-mighty computer/... able to influence physics itself prohibits some things. That may stop (advanced) rockets/seeker technology, or space travel, or rocket engines, or whatever.

  • "Using it means death": A technology interdict exists (or honestly believed to exist), either autonomous, or controlled by a third party or by (possibly only the highest leadership) of the enemy. The enforcement might be more than powerful enough to flatten a continent ... and may have done so before.

  • "Forbidden by The Federation" (a variant of "Using it means death"): While you do have all the advanced technology, you are limited to a certain tech level in economic struggle against other entities. Break that and they'll all band up and rip you apart. Also, destroying the resources & population to exploit them is bad for business. You can always come later and take over ... unless it's glowing glass. (And you may want to recruit people who are actually experts in that technology, because that is the technology their planet is at.)

  • "Transported in time": You may have advanced technology but maintenance will kill it sooner or later. Or you may have been using clubs and now need to learn a new fighting technology. This new world has dogfighting.

  • "For honour": Like the single combat of knights of yore, many disputes are solved by single or small-group combat, plane-to-plane, in the air. First to touch the ground loses. If both are undamaged, both are sacrificed to the now offended gods of Courageous Combat. Or it's duels, often fought by (paid) champions, to settle questions of insults and honour. Or debt.

  • "It's all sports": Think Super Bowl. (Inter)national heroes. An industry making USD $trillions, bets where whole core planets pass ownership are normal. Planetwide transmissions (full virtual reality, though to look through the eyes of the pilot costs extra, so does feeling exactly what the pilot's body feels, and if you want to have the feelings and thoughts ... well, that needs the Platinum Membership), beamed over the local system and via courier to all core worlds and a good number more via flash 'jump. Those that live, get rich and famous. Those that go down in flames ... well, good thing that cloning most body parts is easy and lots of money is made. Though a hole in the head is no good news.

  • "In the cyberspace": It can kill you just as easily as real life, only faster, as the thought and not the slow body. For full speed you have to remove the safety that may protect you --- without, you will be p0wned by everyone else as they react faster. Your "environment", the one you are most comfortable with and how everything is 'described', 'displayed', 'shown', 'interpreted' in is planes dogfighting.

  • "The Meeting of Worlds": There are portals that lead to other Earths. They are very similar to this Earth, for example general geography is the same --- and so resources like coal, oil, iron, copper etc etc etc. are found at the same places. There are no humans, though.
    As the portals do not link to the same place --- you could end up in India from a portal that's on Manhattan Island, or near the south pole, or nearby the Aral sea ... so the first thing you want to do is find out where you are (and no GPS ...) and then find other portals to further worlds.
    Now, let us assume there are other Earths that do not quite like this one, that have their own civilisations. Another civilisation may not use the same magic like we do. Where we ride (fire spitting, preferably) dragons, they might use woollen carpets carried by Sylphs. Or levitation and repulser forces for movement. Or liftwood and harvested materials, which when dried and mixed with each other, produce generous amounts of heat --- used in a small tube it can cause movement, used in a bigger, sturdier tube in larger amounts can propel an stone or iron ball at speed ...
    Or imagine a large multi-screw gyrodyne/heliplane and a push-pull propulsion system (see Robur-le-Conquérant) but powered by "hamsters" in "hamster"-wheels.
    Or even some magic using fast airpaddles attached to some noisily humming, stinking gnome, which wants oil sacrifices, with 2, sometimes even 3 long fabric beds (which supposedly carry it) and some small ones in the back, which can flap but are not used for propulsion, for some reason ...
    Now, there is a long, long chain of Earths (and probably not just one) between any 2 civilisations. And of course, Sylphs will not work in our world, nor will liftwood, or that gnome thingie. And vice versa ... but over the chain this changes bit by bit, so bit by bit their technology works better and ours worse. So you can have almost any kind of flying thing versus flying thing, with as much down-toned technology/magic as you want.

This may also be an XY problem: the question is about some dog fighting action going and how to get it --- but I think you may want to pare down the requirements, not on the technical side ("plane-like, linear style of motion in three-dimensional space" and "close-range dogfight tactics") but on the emotional side.

What is it that dogfighting offers that you want/need?

  • How the pilot feels the plane, squeezed into the seat by pulling hard and nearly blacking out, the rumbling of the engine, the staccato of the MGs blazing and the basso ostinato of the canon's dry cough?
  • The danger, easily seen as the weapons rip apart another plane; you fearing for your life as you notice the plane diving on your 6 too late, escaping --- almost --- and later nursing the shredded plane back towards home, hoping the engine will not give out, the oil not completely obscure your view, the leaking fuel will not catch fire and last to touchdown, the bullet in your leg missed an artery ... hopefully, or the panic of trying to escape the burning plane, the exit jammed (no ejection seat invented yet!) and the parachute being licked at by flames ...
  • the majesty of flight, of soaring ... versus the instant death from flak or SAMs, the danger of an enemy sneaking up to you, obliterating you with one burst, the streams of bombers trying to flatten yet another city of your home?
  • an action movie in written form (yes, I've seen that done and it worked quite well on me)
  • a more technical/tactical tale of high scissors, 2 circle, overshoots, gyro-controlled reflector sights, self-extending slats, turn rates and boost pressures and roll rates?


I think that no sci-fi movie ever gave the idea of how would a war really go on in space. The real point is that space means a lot of space, a lot of room to accelerate and reach high speeds before meeting your enemy, that would compensate for the fact that actually nobody came out with a plausible idea for an energy shield. So, the best way to attack a planet would be to let your space ship accelerate for days then point to the target, shoot as much as possible during the fly by, run away and prepare for a new attack. If the defenders wanted to chase the attacker after the fly by they could not use a big, massive space ship, it would take too long to accelerate it to the necessary speed. Only lightweight fighters could accelerate quickly enough to give them a fight.

Let's add some spin

Imagine a space ship made by several smaller ones connected by a frame in a circle leaving the centre empty. Some long arms extend on the sides making the circle appear much bigger, on these arms there are lights, lasers and antennas that emit waves in many frequencies making the ship very visible. But the lasers are angled and overlapping to let the image appear blurry. Should such a ship start spinning it would appear even more blurry, a camera with a very fast shutters would not help because the lasers would neutralise it. Imagine such a ship attacking, the defenders would just see a big blurred disk approaching at very high speed, if they shoot at the centre the shots would go through. Only lightweight fighters could accelerate and maneuvre at a high speed to get on the side of the attacker. And they should be so much lightweight that their range would be very short, but in space if a fighter finishes the fuel it does not fall somewhere, provided it slowed down before ending the fuel it would have just to wait for the carrier to pick it up.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .