What would battle tactics look like outside the scientific research stations?

  • Year: 2100ish
  • Mars: Two 'surface,' permanent scientific research colonies with a little over 100 scientists and engineers in each with an additional support crew (geologist, psychologist & medical, etc.) to about 150 people each, with the common utilities, agrarian setups, etc.

The nerds in Colony NASA have just had it with Colony ESA, about 100km across Elysium plains, and are planning to go over there and burst their bubble (literally). The B nerds catch cosmic wind about this, and plan to do the same. It is understood that they're going to pretty much meet up with each other in about the middle. We thought the 'best of the best' scientists were of the utmost moral and mature stature, but we were wrong.

Using the types of tools and vehicles that we see frequently included in the typical trope-like sci-fi scientific missions; what would be the battle tactics look like out on the plains? I'm trying not to be too broad, so I'm focused on how it can play out creatively, and not on the logistics or descriptions of the bubble colonies themselves.

Example from Google Image Search

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Is there internet? if so they will most likely hack each other to bring down essential systems such as oxygen recycling, temperature control and power generators. Else both side then don spacesuit and start sabotaging the opponent's facilities, should they meet they can try to unplug each other breathing tube or whatever. I seriously doubt there will be phaser shooting but who knows😊 $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Aug 13, 2015 at 23:25
  • $\begingroup$ @user6760 I wanted to avoid including the facilities, because they're vague in my mind and would make the question far too broad for an absolute answer. But it is well noted. $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Aug 14, 2015 at 0:52
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Is this 'Scientists Behaving Badly' or state-backed warfare? $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Aug 14, 2015 at 2:30
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild your answer is Scientists Behaving Badly (not a likely scenario, yet it erupted in my story). $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Aug 14, 2015 at 7:18
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    $\begingroup$ Of course, the NASA base would be relying on the ESA for supplies because American's don't think a space program is important enough to fund. What we really need is another aircraft carrier... $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Aug 14, 2015 at 18:25

6 Answers 6


They would use drones.

The distance between the bases, 100 km, is a lot. If they had lunar rover type vehicles, it would take them over 7.5 hours of driving top speed to get there. If they have rovers like in Any Weir's The Martian (excellent book!), it will take four hours at top speed to get there.

Quite frankly, ain't nobody got time for that. Looking at bringing 10-16+ hours of oxygen, water, food, and tools that far it would probably cool the blood of those scientists and engineers.

Drones would be sent to attack the structures with their mining/repair equipment. Perhaps some with mining charges on kamikaze missions. Most likely, given the distance, the drones would not meet up while passing eachother. Once they got closer to the other habitat they would have more difficulty overcoming being jammed by the closer base. They might try to switch frequencies, but this would inevitably cause some delay in the control.

Ultimately, it would probably turn into a bunch of nerds sitting around computers complaining about their drone getting fragged because of some harsh lag or noob jammers. I guess this isn't much different than a LAN party.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It would be worth clarifying that when you say drones, you are not talking about the flying kind that we today associate with the word "drone". Flying on Mars is hard, close to impractical, for small and medium sized aircraft, because you need a large combination of thrust and lift: x-plane.com/adventures/mars.html $\endgroup$
    – Hackworth
    Aug 14, 2015 at 7:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Hackworth The flying kind are called UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). I didn't realize people associated "drone" with just UAVs. I think pointing that out would insult the intelligence of the average reader. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Aug 14, 2015 at 16:43

While the answer suggesting the nerds in the domes are busy hacking each other and their equipment is probably closest to reality, it fails to address the other resources they can call upon.

The NASA and ESA astronauts are probably conducting global surveillance and have vehicles and stations scattered across the entire Martian surface. To control all this equipment and to carry out large scale observation there will be a small fleet of communications and observation satellites in Martian orbit: a ready made supply of orbital bombardment munitions! If the stated goal is to destroy the domes and surface structures of the "enemy" camp, then deorbiting a satellite onto the dome will have a similar effect to a Kinetic energy projectile being deorbited onto a target on Earth.

While the absolute scale of the damage will be less due to the lower orbital velocity of Mars and the non optimal design of the satellite coming in from space, we are still talking about a hypervelocity impact against an unarmoured target (the hardest structure will most likely be the containment structure for the nuclear reactor, some distance from the main dome). Even if the satellite disintegrates in the atmosphere, a cloud of high velocity shrapnel will strike exposed structures, the parked Mars rovers, antenna farms and solar arrays that are scattered about the surface, causing damage and degrading, if not destroying the various pieces of equipment.

Going even "bigger", the two bases are not isolated on Mars, but in communication with Earth. The NASA astronauts can theoretically call on the power of the United States to defend them, ranging from NSA hacks transmitted from ground stations on Earth to cripple ESA computers to US Carrier battlegroups placing an interdict on ESA launch sites. The EU will have far fewer options, but could conceivably be able to broadcast their own malware at the NASA station on Mars.

If the war spreads, the various spacefaring nations might also pick sides. The Indians, Russians and Chinese will have to factor in complex interplays between their own national interests and what they could conceivably gain or lose by becoming allies with the US or EU over this conflict. The extra computer and communication resources can be deployed almost immediately, while these nations could also build spacecraft to bring supplies or munitions to Mars to reinforce "their" side.

Finally, the United States could simply end the conflict by hiring Elon Musk to build two dozen Falcon 9 Heavies with Bigelow inflatable hab modules attached to Dragon space capsules and launch a platoon of specially trained SoF operators or Marines to Mars to settle the problem once and for all. The Americans base might have to dig in for over a year while the expedition is mounted and makes its way to Mars, but they will be either rescued or avenged soon enough.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Given the way US politics have developed over the last few decades, it might well happen that, all of a sudden, they notice they don't have a single friend left. That might slow them down a bit... $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Aug 14, 2015 at 7:05
  • $\begingroup$ Finally, the United States could simply end the conflict by hiring Elon Musk and what makes you think the other side can't do the same? Or that he would comply? $\endgroup$
    – o0'.
    Aug 14, 2015 at 8:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Lohoris, that was probably an attempt at humour $\endgroup$
    – Mystra007
    Aug 14, 2015 at 20:46
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    $\begingroup$ Yes it was a bit humorous, but also indicates the sheer scale of resources that the United States has available. No other nation on Earth could call upon the entrepreneurial assets of their nation to the degree the United States can, and SpaceX is only one of the several American private companies outside of government contractors who could do this. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Aug 14, 2015 at 23:56
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    $\begingroup$ On the other hand, due to American insistence on using strange units, their bomb-turned satellites will miss the ESA station because of unit conversion issues. :-) $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Apr 20, 2017 at 12:18

Disclaimer: Since I am from Europe, I took ESA as my favourite

Trojan Horse Operation: Nerdy people come up with nerdy solutions. As stated in answer from Samuel, getting from one base to another is quite long and dangerous travel, so you need to get there safely.

It gave me hard time to hand-wave down that the scientists would have fight, because you have to communicate with the operations on Earth and they are packed with psychologists and therapists to help you cool down, since NASA and ESA are friends

But, even through all the talks, all the communications with Earth and all communications between NASA and ESA, the scientists up there hate each other. And they want to get physical. Sending down the drone is great idea, but I think, that they would like to provide "personal" treat, because those self-righteous Ammies are just bunch of *&#@!

So, being up there, I would use the therapists on Earth into my plan: Tell the Ammies that "we are cool now, bro" and lets solve our differences on one big Thanksgiving party at NASA science base. (Or just special "we are friends now" occasion. You get the idea)

Battle plan:

  • Step 1: Pack German Schnaps, Italian Grappa and Czech Slivovice
  • Step 2: Get to NASA place and show to stupid Earth command center that "we are friends"
  • Step 3: Get the Ammies drunk. (We all know Americans cannot drink because they are stupid)
  • Step 4: Unleash Hell!
  • Step 5: Steal shiny science equipment and get home.

Addendum: Honestly, I don't think that any scientist would like to destroy scientific equipment. It can be used for science! (Just better science than the bunch of ... from NASA is doing)


Since - according to the OP's comment - this is a case of Scientists Behaving Badly (and not state-sponsored warfare) on both sides, we can presume that neither side would want to involve Earth, as to do so would undoubtedly result in their being told in no uncertain terms to stop their foolish nonsense, and would probably then lead to their being removed, replaced and prosecuted if they persisted - and survived.

So, these badly-behaving scientist types must rely on the equipment and supplies that they have on hand. Being scientists and nerdy-types, they would most likely rely on any drones or other remote-controlled equipment before thinking of getting physical in person. If they didn't have explosives already (which is unlikely), the base chemists could undoubtedly brew some up, and from there, the engineers could build perfectly effective bombs, enhanced with spare metal items that would act as shrapnel. Given that we have engineer and physicist types, we could even expect crude Explosively-Formed-Penetrators, which are anything but crude in their ability to deliver damage at a fair distance. Drones could drop bombs if they can fly (not out of the question even if Mars' atmosphere is thinner than Earth's), or could fire rockets which may also be improvised.

On the defensive side, there are probably reconnaissance satellites, though they could be a two-edged sword. The scientists will know that they are behaving badly, and may want to hide the evidence of their wrongdoing, and deliberately operate in any gaps in the satellite coverage so that they won't have to make suspicious edits or deletions to the satellite feed recordings. On the other hand, they may also try to stage-manage being "surprised" by the other side's attack, but that would then beg the question as to how they were able to retaliate effectively on such short notice.

A likely possibility is for the scientists to make use of the reconnaissance satellites, and to cause "battle damage" to the satellite feed recording media themselves in the aftermath, providing that the satellites don't connect directly to Earth too - which it entirely likely. However, Line-of-Sight matters in interplanetary communications, and the attacks would likely be scheduled for a time when the links to Earth were down - i.e. local night-time.

However, reconnaissance satellites may not be that effective a tool. Without software to track the movement of manmade objects (which may not be included in an essentially non-military operation as anyone going out would likely file their travel plans and broadcast their location at all times), spotting something as small as a drone could be quite difficult. Given the amount of land area, spotting another drone using drone cameras would likely not happen except when an attacking drone came quite close to its objective.

Given the logistics of leaving their habitats and travelling to make war on their enemies, it is only more likely that both sides will try to conduct the battle remotely rather than in person.

Drones may be fitted with simple weaponry such as nail guns or shrapnel bombs in order to deal with other drones, but given the distances involved, it is likely that these will be of limited effectiveness, and that much of their ammunition will be expended to little effect, or they will be single-use items, destroying themselves along with their target.

Finally, given that Mars' surface is a hostile environment, we can expect that the scientists would all suit up before the fighting started, and if their habitats did suffer damage, many of them would survive, environment suits by necessity being quite tough, and likely only being fatally compromised by a direct hit or a unfortunate mischance.

All in all, with both sides attacking the other, and the difficulties of defending effectively as opposed to successfully attacking, we can expect that both sides will achieve their goal of causing damage to the other side's habitat, and for there to be relatively few human casualties or fatalities.

After the battle, the survivors will be pre-occupied with patching up their habitats, recovering any salvageable equipment, and treating the injured. They may try to hide it, but the authorities will probably figure out fairly soon that there has been an incident that neither side really wants to talk about, or is being evasive about, and a well-armed investigatory mission will be scrambled.

In the time before the investigatory mission arrives, there may be further attacks, probably of decreasing effectiveness as the scientists attempt to make use of their dwindling resources.

So, after the battle(s) and the reconstruction, there will likely be a lot of survivors on both sides who will then have to either hide the fact that they went to war against the other side without authorisation, or claim self-defence. All things considered, we can expect that the investigatory teams won't buy into the scientist's arguments against the other side, and for there to be prosecutions...


The drone suggestion has some merit, but the decision to build two separate Mars bases says to me that there is hands-on work to be done on Mars.

  • Each colony would have long-range expedition rovers with the endurance to reach, say, the pole caps or the Cydonia face for a close, personal look. Unload most of the provisions and there is a payload to carry arms and armour.
  • Does that town of 150 people have cops or did the mission planners back on Earth rely on their good sense? But those cops will probably be unarmed. There will be plenty of ex-military types, but those are more likely air force than commandos.
  • The engineering department will have plenty of explosives, for rock-busting and demolitions. The chemistry and life support people can produce more, but possibly less efficient mixtures. Drones are one way to deliver them, but a drone with payload will be more clumsy than a defensive drone without.

Take a look at Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, especially the chapter where Nadia where they build the initial base.


The battle would be a RTS game in reality.

Somebody mentioned battle drones, but biggest nerds wouldn't stop at that. They would quickly realize that just sending drones to directly attack isn't very effective because of jamming and stuff. They would need more elaborate tactics.

Having a lot of experience in StarCraft IX, they would quickly realize that they must construct additional... structures. So they would construction drones to build outposts, refineries, material processing facilities, drone factories and other buildings. Construction drones would have to be protected by defensive battle drones to protect them from enemy battle drones. They would also build some defensive turrets around strategically important places such as mines and secondary bases.

At first, there would be almost no direct confrontations. Instead, each side would go on to capture as much territory as possible and build a lot of units as fast as possible, preparing to confrontation. After having a lot of units and secured territory, some initial confrontations would start, and each side would try to undermine their enemy's production.

This would continue like a typical RTS game, although it would last considerably longer and with no replay value.


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