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The problem is that modern or especially futuristic warfare is inherently complex when compared with fantasy or historical warfare. Using modern warfare as an example for the sake of familiarity, you have a wide range of different arenas of combat that all have fundamentally different rules with little overlap but yet all are more or less required. Submarine warfare has almost nothing in common with mechanized infantry tactics which has almost nothing in common with an air campaign. While some systems might be made obsolete, it seems unlikely they could ever be replaced by something that would manage to truly simply warfare in the sense that it could become more like a fantasy setting in this respect.

Major franchise examples seem to mostly fall into one of two camps, as exemplified by two of the largest overall examples. Star Trek imagines a future in which space battles utterly dominate under the idea that ground battles don't matter if one has orbital superiority. Ground combat is limited to small groups in what is more accurately called a shootout than a battle. However, modern American police SWAT teams are better armed and equipped for a violent encounter (at least having stun grenades and body armor as well as rifles or SMGs as the standard). I’m not sure if this is more an indictment of American law enforcement or the military effectiveness of most military powers within the Star Trek galaxy. Most other science fiction settings fall into this same camp, as while examples like BSG or The Expanse seem to have somewhat more practical ground armies, they still largely seem to have adopted the model that ground warfare is mostly irrelevant beyond small scale operations.

The other prototypical example is given by Star Wars. While most groups have a fully equipped military force, it is one in which a simpler WW2 or earlier style of combat dominates. While they reference electronic warfare and do seem to use guided weapons, it is done to justify attacks that have more in common with visual range WW2 air battles and torpedo bombing runs(or the dam busters for the thing that was literally the direct inspiration). On the ground, we see proper combined arms occasionally but they still often find themselves in a mix of trench warfare and using massed infantry tactics a la Napoleon. When they do use armored vehicles they seem more akin to infantry tanks than true maneuver warfare given that their walking tanks generally move at a human walking speed. The only real modern element of their planetary warfare is a reliance on air mobility when there aren’t shields in the way. A similar reliance on air mobility with limited combined arms is seen in cases like HALO.

So are there any reasonable ways to simplify warfare in SF settings other than just ignoring the actual complexity?

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  • $\begingroup$ When you say simplify.... do you mean that it shrinks to only being in one arena, one field of war such as space-only or ground-only, or are you looking for something novel such as a doomsday-device that will destroy reality if anyone starts one for example? Could you clarify? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 5, 2022 at 2:03
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    $\begingroup$ It depends what your goal is. If this is for a role playing game people might dig complexity. If you are writing Old Man's War then warfare is simplified by virtue of the SF setting being one man's experience and not comprehensive. SF warfare is in the service of the fiction and the needs of your fiction will dictate how you simplify things. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Mar 5, 2022 at 2:20
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    $\begingroup$ I think it’s no surprise that this question is literally a debate on the entire WB:SE site function, and will not last long. Perhaps move this to META would do best. VTC $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Mar 5, 2022 at 5:06
  • $\begingroup$ You forgot Dune. In Dune people have swordfights because personal shields are worse than guns. And no one ever gets shot by a tank or bombed from orbit because I don't know why. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented May 7, 2022 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ Kinetic kill vehicles is why space operas with FTL technology are silly. When death can come for you at any time from any where, and it be in the form of a reasonably large rock, it's hard to keep the plot going for two hours, let alone develop an IP to sell toys and lease it for video games for forty plus years... Unless your name is Timothy Zahn. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented May 7, 2022 at 21:36

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There's no way to simplify modern or (worse) futuristic warfare, because there's no way to simplify warfare. Or, perhaps I should say, there's no way to simplify effective warfare.

Let me give you two examples from Medieval Europe. The first is a simple siege. What is a siege? People always assume it's the use of:

  • Ballista
  • Battering Ram
  • Catapult
  • Siege Tower
  • Trebuchet

That is imprecise. Siege warfare is cutting off all supplies and starving out those without a fort, town, or city. They can't grow food inside, so their stores will eventually run out. It's starving them into surrender. The above weapons are all used in sieges, but they are part of the assault on the settlement, not the siege itself.

In fact, they weapons described often are meant to force those being starved to surrender quicker. Whether by psychological warfare (the constant battering of their home and watching it be destroyed), often with the promise that surrendering means no one will be harmed. Or by more sinister means. Some would load rotten corpses (often cattle) and launch them into the city to spread disease.

Why would they do that? Because cities and forts were designed to withstand assaults. Committing to an assault meant risking the lives of your men. They are expensive and often impossible to replace. Remember, this is Medieval times. If you're on campaign? Your only hope is that your monarch sends reinforcements if you lose too many troops, and that takes time. Time that you are vulnerable to enemy attacks, and your camp falling victim to sickness from injury, cholera, dysentery, and--yes--ambushes and sieges depending on where you are.

And that's ignoring the reality of managing resources, supply lines, maintaining weapons in horrid conditions, keeping up morale.

Now, that's just sieges. And look how wrong people get that. Why? They simplify. Simplification means, almost per definition, compacting facts to make them more palatable, and thereby losing nuance.

Which then also ignores: weather, travel times, medical treatment, the illnesses troops can and likely will be subjected to, digging latrines, food rations and how to keep ingredients 'fresh' (or fresh enough to not make your troops sick).

Oh, and did I mention tactics used during battle? Were there shield walls? Pike formations? How did cavalry charges really work? Did those horses really impale themselves on enemy pikes? Could an arrow really pierce a horse's skull and kill it? Could arrows really pierce plate armour in the 15th century?

And guess what? I have yet to reach example two. How do you want to simplify modern warfare, when all of the above must be handled for warfare from 500+ years ago? And what about warfare from Alexander the Great's time? The man dominated and literally created the Hellenistic period by the use of nothing but tactics and training his men for absolute obedience of orders given. And that was... how long ago?

Yeah, example two. So how would Alexander the Great have fared if he had stealth fighter pilots at his command? And submarines with tactical nuclear warheads? And a robust spy network constantly engaging in intelligence and counter-intelligence missions? Let alone the armour available these days, and the marines with their high power snipers and assault rifles and tactical gear being airlifted well behind enemy lines.

The issue isn't that it needs to be simplified. The issue is that people oversimplify things. That's why you're apt to follow the marines in the helicopter as they're being inserted into a hot zone, and not the tactical centre where you see all the moving pieces at the same time, because who can keep track of that? So many moving pieces that need to do their jobs in order to achieve the totality of a war.

And, again, that's not even taking into consideration: peaceful negotiations via diplomacy, manufacturing the weapons, training new soldiers and pilots and medics and only the gods know what else.

You can explain something simply, and as a writer that is arguably your job. That doesn't mean it's simple. And simplifying it further often, though not always, does a disservice to your readers.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 this is the essence of the answer that came into my mind as soon as I read the first sentence of the question, put far more eloquently than I could. $\endgroup$ Commented May 7, 2022 at 15:35
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Submarine warfare is rather different; stealth and crush depth rather than height are important. Otherwise the overarching truth of modern warfare, since at least as early as the First World War, is that whoever holds the highest ground wins. Artillery on higher ridges dominated lowland trenches and drove the allies to build underground dugouts to protect the troops. During World War Two airpower became dominant and having the airforce with the highest operating ceiling became a decisive factor, if you were willing to use it. This is still more or less true. In a setting with weapon systems that are deployed from orbit those systems have the ultimate high ground advantage over everything below them. The great simplification of sci-fi warfare is that the side with the most spaceships on station over a planet wins if they're willing to use the kinetic megatonnage their position gives them.

You mentioned Halo in passing in your question as showing that air mobility and combined arms could be decisive in battle; this may appear to be true in the games but in the Halo setting as a whole planet bound conflicts are nearly irrelevant in the Human-Covenant war. Humans won every ground engagement against the Covenant but lost every battle for a star system because they were hopelessly outclassed in space and the Covenant simply destroyed the biosphere of all the human colony worlds they encountered with plasma bombardment. The only time this wasn't the immediate outcome was when the Covenant needed something on the planet in question intact, then they waited until they had whatever it was before they boiled the atmosphere off.

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Frank Herbert's Dune presents one option - the most powerful attack (lasers) and the most powerful defense (shields) both exist, but when they clash, it results in an explosion similar to a nuclear blast. Because of this, people revert to older weapons like swords in the hopes of avoiding disaster.

We also see more muted versions of this in the modern world - the technology exists to make land wars obsolete, but using it would bring an escalation in force that would result in mutually assured destruction, and so land invasions remain an option, no matter how tragic or ill informed.

So, as long the cost of using more complex weaponry is too high for either side, simpler warfare comes back onto the playing field. Of course, 'simplicity' is a sliding scale, and no war has ever truly been simple. But, if you want to bring back battles of attrition over plots of land, what you need is a reason why more efficient forms of conflict would lead to unacceptable losses on both sides. Two easy ways to create this - on one hand, you can have a cold war where two extremely powerful forces acting in opposition hold the rest of the world hostage as they fight their (comparatively) simple proxy wars; on the other hand, have a post ww1 vibe where the whole planet has just suffered a profound loss and the high grade weapons have been banned by treaty, knocking everyone back to more rudimentary means.

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  • $\begingroup$ In the Dune universe will a personal shield protect you from something like a missile? $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented May 7, 2022 at 16:13
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Theoretically (?)

You could boil it down to 3-4 areas of combat.

Water: navies and ships to dominate on liquid based combat areas.

Ground: infantry and artillery to take enemy fortifications

Air: planes (and maybe spaceships) to defend the water and ground forces.

Space(could be combined with air and/or water): prevent enemies from being able to control the area around you, and thus lay siege.

Essentially, you could have a Ground Force (like the grand army of the Republic in Star Wars) that covers everything planetside and a Space Force (like the Republic Navy in Star Wars) that provides logistics, transportation, and (of course) firepower/own theater of war.

These are my best ideas for the oversimplification combat theaters in a sci-fi scenario.

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Precision

I presume you want to write a story, say, about riflemen shooting other riflemen. And you want the story to rise and fall on the proficiency of these riflemen. You don't want all their effort to go up in smoke when an invincible tank pulls around the corner.

Precision

The tank does not defeat the riflemen if they are fighting in a city full of civilians, where the tank will cause too much collateral damage to use. Likewise the tank battle is not superseded by orbital bombardment, since the bombardment will hit the tanks on both sides, and also half the continent.

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