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The more I compare fictional military vehicles and tactics with real-life ones, the more it seems like aircraft are near-omnipotent in the battlefield (operating word here being near). As such, it's a particularly awful barrier for any sort of superweapon (say, a land battleship or a floating fortress) to be any credible; it's just that much of a game-breaker. It's hard to reliably make them imposing when you can just effortlessly kill them with a few well-placed bombing runs.

So seeing how bad this problem is, and how much we love seeing giant vehicles and the like, how do we prevent aircraft from being combat-viable (as in, being any significant threat to our superweapons). I'm currently thinking about enforcing a WW1-Interwar tech level (bombers were still quite inefficient at that time, if I'm correct), but I suppose there are other methods of pulling it off.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Worldbuilding Meta, or in Worldbuilding Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Apr 13, 2023 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ This question seems to be way too broad. You're sketching a (real-life) situation, take out one variable, and ask us to come up with a reason for it. $\endgroup$
    – Joachim
    Apr 14, 2023 at 8:00
  • $\begingroup$ You'll also need to protect against missiles, if the tech allows it. $\endgroup$ Apr 14, 2023 at 14:13

16 Answers 16

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In real life, aircraft haven't proven all that omnipotent. They have been used to great effect against nations advanced enough to have mechanized armies, but not integrated air defenses. However, once faced with several layers of radars and SAM, aircraft can suffer heavy losses, and they're expensive to replace.

Try playing or setting a fighter in DCS:World or Command:MO (they're games, but their game is modeling reality) against a modest but competent navy, and getting an airplane close through the barrage of missiles becomes next to impossible. Take off, climb, drop dead. In real life, one of the strongest air forces stays largely grounded due to air defenses they've built themselves.

Of course, their achilles' heel is missiles, which are themselves small single-use aircraft. You could speed up computer development ahead of aerospace engineering. If guided missiles arrive early enough, manned aircraft might never become a thing... but they'll kill your superweapons even more effectively.

To make aircraft less viable in a modern tech setting, you could do one or more of the following. These will all play together very well, with synergistic effect.

  1. No small guidance computers. Producing chips is challenging as it is - you need ultra-pure materials and perfect cleanrooms; only a few countries in the world can manage it. Without chips, ships will have targeting computers and advanced radars, but aircraft will be limited to analog technology. Analog guidance can also be powerful, but it requires you to see the target, at least on radar, and it's more vulnerable to jamming.

  2. Severe electromagnetic storms, a natural space phenomenon Earth's been spared thanks to our magnetosphere, or extreme lightning activity can also mess with avionics. This way you can build a world where chips do work, but only if encased in a solid and well-grounded case. Radios would have to stay basic and vacuum tubes required to survive the EMP storms. Aircraft can't ground themselves, and they fly at height and through the clouds. Cars will have to be less digital. But ships are grounded by the sea. You can even have home electronics, just with armored cables that look like shower hoses.

  3. Just in case, remove stealth. Let's say Ufimtsev never came up with his Theory of Edge Diffraction... Without that freak discovery, it's possible that stealth would've been believed impossible and never pursued. By the time someone else discovers it, non-RADAR sensors (IRST, LIDAR, spy sats) might evolve too far anyway to have a hope of hiding.

  4. Keep steel metallurgy well ahead of other alloys and composites. Steel is perhaps the most versatile engineering material, but aerospace isn't its strong suit. Jet engines run too hot for steel, and need nickel-based superalloys to advance far past early post-WWII state. Fast jet airframes need low-density materials to stay rigid, such as titanium and high-strength aluminum alloys. If these don't get developed, it becomes harder to build light high-performance airplanes. Steel honeycombs do work, but they're delicate and expensive.

  5. Improve guns. Modern guns are at a fraction of what they could have been, because missiles made them obsolete so early. Electrothermal guns can be more powerful than firearms. Modern tank guns run at twice the pressure of anything else, just because tanks need it. Combustion light gas guns, while they take lots of space, are something a battleship could use to shoot down aircraft at a longer range.

  6. Thin down the atmosphere. It's a big change, but thinner air requires larger wings to take off and land, hurting speed and payload. It also makes laser weapons much more viable - lasers can hurt aircraft much more than thick-skinned land and sea vehicles. This also helps optical sensors, high-velocity guns, and shell fragments retain their velocity. Unfortunately it also helps rocket-powered missiles, so you have to avoid computers.

  7. Pilot shortage. In our world, flying a jet fighter is the very definition of cool. Only space is cooler, but most get there through a pilot job. It's so cool that the USN gets to pick one out of 300 applicants to fly their jets. If people in your world don't want to fly... it's not an easy job, it takes high ability and extreme discipline and commitment to do it well.

All seven will let aircraft remain a useful tool, but more for recon than for directly attacking battleships. Three or four will let battleships defends themselves.

But really you should start with the superweapon in question. What makes it not work? It won't always be the threat of aircraft. For instance, a single space EMP blast can destroy electronics across a continent, but the presence of nuclear weapons makes big superweapons naturally vulnerable. And on the upside, ask yourself, what is it that the superweapon can do that nothing else can?

Electromagnetic and lightning storms are perhaps the least intrusive options, which can keep the world largely as it is, with the exception of aircraft that can't ground themselves. Making the flying profession less desirable is also a non-intrusive option - but beware unmanned missiles.

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    $\begingroup$ Guided missiles can be made without onboard computers. They're easier to fool, but they're perfectly possible. Early Sidewinders and Sparrows had analogue homing, and I'm pretty sure the Eagle missile had it too: fitting actual computers into missiles requires microprocessors, which didn't appear until the end of the 1960s. $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2023 at 21:50
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDallman EMP will screw up even analog computers, unless based on vacuum tubes or clockwork. The Eagle missile had a transistor guidance system. It's not necessary to absolutely remove guidance - if big ships get jamming by the time missiles get basic guidance, the ships win. The next step in this competition, computers that can resist jamming decoys and stay on the real target, is too complex to build without chips. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Apr 11, 2023 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDallman But good point. People will build guided missiles, there are ways to bypass every restriction. What matters is to make this guidance not as good in small projectiles, but to give big platforms some significant advantage. Fortunately it's a game that both sides can play. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Apr 11, 2023 at 22:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Therac, you'd be amazed at what you can do with clockwork. The Norden Bombsight may have been over-hyped, but it was still an impressive piece of machinery. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Apr 13, 2023 at 0:38
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    $\begingroup$ I like your list, but there is another point I would add: Lack of pilots: Your people are very prone to motion sickness and/or have very bad 3d spatial awareness and/or can't physically handle high and directionally changing G-forces . Makes piloting a combat fighter extremely problematic. $\endgroup$
    – Tonny
    Apr 13, 2023 at 13:16
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As a bit of an Aviation Nerd, this feels right in my wheelhouse.

Depending on how much you want to 'alter' your alternate world, you have a few options.

That said, you indicated the interwar period (1920s-1930s) but reading between the lines, it sounds like you want as modern as you can get away with, whilst rendering aircraft ineffective.

Before I answer - we need to lay out a few reasons why aircraft are so damn terrifying (this may give you other insights as to how to deal with them):

  • Humans can't hide in the sky. I know this seems trite, but aircraft can escape to somewhere a human cannot go. Tanks can be flanked and ambushed by infantry. A ship can be assaulted by frogmen swimming - but humans cannot get airborne without an aircraft.

  • Aircraft are fast. Partly due to the requirements of flight, partly due to friction - regardless - aircraft are faster than humans, ships and land vehicles. This means that if an aircraft finds itself against something it can't fight - it always has the option of disengaging and withdrawing.

  • Aircraft can use gravity and altitude to attack from far away and difficult to defend against directions. This is why dive bombers against the mighty battleship were effective, it's why the bunker buster in Desert Storm was effective.

  • Aircraft are nimble. This, combined with speed, means that dumb munitions (shells, bullets, unguided rockets) are relatively easy for an aircraft to dodge. A shot fired at an aircraft from a range of 1 km takes 3 seconds to get to target. Assuming for all scenarios the shot is seen via a muzzle flash: a human can dive to cover and live, a tank might be able to move a bit, going from a fatal hit to just a critical hit, a ship is dead, but an aircraft can just pull back on the stick and that shot misses.

  • Aircraft are relatively small - compared to a ship or even a tank - and their speed means that when they are close enough to spot them with the naked eye, your time to react is realistically measured in minutes or even seconds.

Potential solutions I'm not going to use:

  • Special material that would make superweapons more resilient - if it's light/strong/other - it can be used both on an aircraft or as the casing for a weapon.

  • Messing with physics or world parameters - e.g. making the air too dense for flight or making the gravity much stronger or making steel heavier.

That said, I am going to need a little (a lot of) artistic license.

1: Radar. We think of Radar as a modern technology and we might think of the crude systems of WW2 - however, successful experiments in finding aircraft were done in 1915. So let's use a little interpretation that in your world Radar was identified as a significant technology and was heavily researched and could reliably detect incoming aircraft at BVR (Beyond Visual Range) and accurately track their course, altitude and speed.

2: High velocity firearms/guns - by high velocity, I mean capable of firing a projectile at significantly higher speeds than current firearms. A .303 British round (the service round in WW1 and WW2) has an initial muzzle velocity of ~700 m/s - just over Mach 2 if I've done my head maths right. Even the high-velocity 88mm cannon was only doing ~900 m/s. We are going to need firearms capable of firing a projectile at around 3000 m/s. Not quite railgun territory - Mach 9 I think. How you achieve this - I'd suggest some special form of high-velocity gunpowder. You might have to break the rule about special material.

3: Computer controlled firing systems. 'Oh but I want interwar tech!' - I didn't say digital computer, did I? The Iowa-class battleship has a mechanical firing computer - there's an entire video on it here: It's seriously cool - go watch it Combine this with having the aforementioned radar system continuously feed targeting information (remember - vourse, altitude and speed) and with high-velocity guns - you now have the basis of an effective anti-aircraft firing system. Granted such a computer is big and bulky - but you want massive land superweapons, so they are going to have space for something like this.

4: Proximity/VT Fuzes - Okay, so this is a WW2 tech, but again - the experiments were done in the early 1930s - therefore artistic licence. This is what turned flak from an ineffective aerial denial weapon, requiring the firing of tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition to down an aircraft to something that was estimated to increase lethality by 5-10 times.

Stick those all together and you have a high velocity gun, that fires proximity fuzed ammunition, that is controlled by a fire control analog computer, slaved to a radar system. Such a system would be big and bulky - but again, you want super-weapons. This would provide a fairly significant deterrent to a range of about 4-5 KM around your superweapon - getting more and more dangerous the closer you get. It doesn't make aircraft completely ineffective - it does however mean that it's not a one-sided fight like it was at the start of WW2.

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    $\begingroup$ High-velocity gunpowder won't work due to speed of sound limits, it's as basic as the speed of light. You can break that limit by using hydrogen, however. Its drawback is taking a lot of space and either cryogenics of pressure vessels to store. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Apr 11, 2023 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ Fastest commercial rifle round muzzle velocity is 1422m/s or 4665ft/s. For a tank its about 1800m/s or 5906ft/s. This is about the top speed a chemical reaction (gunpowder) burn rates go. Hydrogen explosions can reach about 2000m/s. Technically, gunpowder is a low explosive that deflagrates and does not detonate. The primer is usually a high explosive. To reach 3000m/s you will be using a high-explosive propellent. Modern high-explosives can reach 10000m/s. To use high-explosive propellants, you need special bullets that can withstand the pressure and acceleration. $\endgroup$
    – David S
    Apr 12, 2023 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ High-explosive propellants have been experimented with, but not widely adopted due to the problems with using them as a propellent. They produce a much higher initial pressure spike which causes chamber pressers many times higher than a deflagration. This means the chamber, barrel, breach, and firing mechanisms would need to be built many times stronger (bulky and heavy) than for gunpowder. The parts will also wear out much more quickly. Additionally, the shockwave produced by a detonation is much more intense than a deflagration. This has the effect of trying to rip things apart. $\endgroup$
    – David S
    Apr 12, 2023 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ "A tank might be able to move a bit" - you underestimate tanks, they can dodge decently, a moving tank can engage brakes (as the dumb shot should be aimed ahead of the tank to hit) and its brakes are unusually strong, up to a dead stop in a second. A standing tank can accelerate to about 10 m/s in five seconds, thus can dodge about 9m in three seconds, and most of them are shorter (less barrel). Reaction time plays here, yet if not accounted for, a tank can dodge a dumb shot if it was seen at launch. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Apr 13, 2023 at 8:13
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidS Light gas guns and CLGG go higher. They use a normal propellant for energy, but hydrogen to propel the projectile. In a CLGG, you'll go very fuel-rich, i.e. make it so most hydrogen doesn't burn. RDX-based propellants do work if slowed down; simply blowing up the gun isn't a good idea. Gun propellant design is about getting the most you can out of given pressure. It can't really go significantly higher than it does today in tank guns - they run about 100 ksi already, close to steel's elastic limit. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Apr 13, 2023 at 12:54
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Wind

enter image description here

To nerf aircraft, add extra wind so it is hard to fly a plane. Takeoffs and landings are a nightmare, as well as hitting anything with your bombs.

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    $\begingroup$ Liked purely on the strength of the Doggo GIF $\endgroup$ Apr 12, 2023 at 20:32
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Here are ways to make aircraft less useful in combat during the 1920s and 1930s era that you specified:

  • More clouds.
  • More rain.
  • More night combat.
  • More below-freezing conditions in the air.
  • More atmospheric turbulence, more and stronger wind, more unexpected wind shear.
  • More magnetic anomalies (disrupt navigation).
  • Delay the introduction of on-board radio.
  • Treaties prohibiting armed aircraft.
  • Treaties prohibiting naval aircraft carriers.
  • Limited/much-higher-priced fuel.
  • Reduce range using heavier components or smaller fuel tanks.
  • Have a Pilots' Guild with influential pacifist leadership.
  • No parachutes.

Moving into the 1940s:

  • Delay radio advancements; make radios too heavy or too short-range for small aircraft use.
  • Have a chronic fuel shortage.
  • Let ground defenders have early forms of radar (and coordination) to prevent surprises from the air.
  • Have slower, lower, heavier military aircraft due to lack of earlier experience.
  • Pilot shortage.
  • Early, poorly-developed parachutes.
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  • $\begingroup$ A fuel shortage would impact land vehicles just as much or even more. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Apr 14, 2023 at 7:33
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Lasers

Aircraft are good because they can operate in a huge area and have some pretty high firepower. They can fly above your troops without them noticing, and can fly around a lot of traditional defences.

And that's where Lasers come in. Big freaking Lasers. If a plane comes in range of your Super Weapon, the Laser defence system activates and vaporises the aircraft. Coupled with an AI and some magical all powerful scanner, any airborne threats, including Missiles and Artillery bombardments are gone.

Even better, to counter a laser like this, you would need your own Super Weapon. Something that is large enough to absorb and dissipate the energy in the Laser beam and counter with its own attack.

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  • $\begingroup$ Lasers have one small flaw: they don't work over the horizon. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Apr 12, 2023 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Therac: while they might not work over the horizon, a "super weapon" can also be tall, which extends the visible distance to the horizon. I don't see how lasers not working over the horizon has any effect on the effectiveness of combat aircraft. $\endgroup$ Apr 12, 2023 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ @GregBurghardt SEAD or wild weasel missions are normally carried out without entering the SAM's line of sight. If you know where the target is, you don't have to look at it to lob a missile. Lasers will work well once such guided munitions are removed. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Apr 12, 2023 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ I did like the tactical implications of massed lasers described by John Ringo in the Polseen series, anything that pops up above the horizon gets targeted by thousands of lasers and dies pretty quickly making aircraft and missiles mostly ineffective $\endgroup$
    – mgh42
    Apr 13, 2023 at 7:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Therac I think at that point, though, the aircraft is no longer a "weapon" at all, but more like the first stage of a delivery system (which is often true enough already). Aircraft would launch cruise missiles but would never, themselves, be able to be in direct line of sight of any enemy. Lasers will also shoot down the munitions, though (we are already starting to do that). I think the days of "air superiority" are coming to a close very fast in real life. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Apr 17, 2023 at 22:03
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enter image description here

Coming in a bit late, so:

Space mounted weapons that negate aircraft

These things shoot a big beam of energy at planes.

Maybe they are an abandoned planetary defence system. The Altered Carbon series did this. The instant a plane goes too high, it's vaporised. This forces planes to stay lower and thus more vulnerable.

Or maybe big ground vehicles and bases are capable of generating powerful enough shields to protect them but aircraft are not. The Lensman series did various riffs on this, and featured 'bigger and heavier is often better'.

High Gravity

Set your world up to have 5 or 10g gravity. Lifeforms will fully adapt, ground vehicles will fully adapt, but planes will always be more niche.

Force shields in general

Providing they need big, heavy generators, it's going to skew all war machines towards big and heavy. These could be spliced into an otherwise lower tech setting by a good author.

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    $\begingroup$ But, space-based weapons would also be even more of a menace to the OP's ground-based super-vehicles than aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Apr 12, 2023 at 11:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Cadence I specified two different scenarios, each used in a successful sci fi series, where that is not the case. Either the weapons only attack things above certain altitudes, or ground based vehicles and structures can be built to withstand them, e g. using big, heavy shield generators. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Apr 12, 2023 at 22:32
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    $\begingroup$ An interesting point around the higher gravity.. It would necessarily go hand-in-hand with a denser atmosphere at sea-level. Assuming proportionally more atmosphere, you may find that lighter-than-air aircraft have an easier time of it since they can be substantially more bouyant for the same volume of displacement. A high-gravity world might counter-intuitively be a world of airships and ornithopters rather than ground all aircraft entirely. Conversely a planet with a thinner atmosphere (and people adapted to that) might struggle to create aircraft at all. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Apr 14, 2023 at 13:43
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Depending on how much you're willing to change about your world, you can do a lot to make combat aircraft implausible or even impossible. I'm talking about changing the gravity on the world or changing the atmosphere or changing the metallurgy and characteristics of the elements available. You can even invoke magic or deities to make aerial combat forbidden.

If you don't want to change the fundamentals of your world to stop bomber aircraft, other posters made some good answers here. If you want to make land battleships or floating fortresses viable however in a mostly realistic setting; they have far larger issues than being an aircraft target. Issues like costing a lot of time and money and manpower to use and operate, or not being able to travel over bridges, or being vulnerable to other weapons like artillery.

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Without wandering into science fiction, there are two developments that rendered aircraft much less of a menace:

  • Proximity fuzes: as already mentioned above, detonate automatically when nearing an aircraft. Practically destroyed the German Luftwaffe as seen in this video.
  • Flak towers: on the other side, the Nazis built these monsters which were practically impervious to aviation attacks. The areas around them were pretty much untouched. Plus they had super-cool computer-controlled artillery.

There is no reason why both could not have developed in the 30s. Together they would present a formidable enemy for aviation.

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  • $\begingroup$ Luftwaffe, or the Japanese? Proximity fuses were used in the Pacific as far as I know $\endgroup$
    – Tony Ennis
    Apr 13, 2023 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ Any references? My knowledge is not very deep, but the Wikipedia article speaks only once about Japan, and many times about Germans. The video linked in the response says "effect in battle both in the Pacific and Europe". $\endgroup$ Apr 14, 2023 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ not much of one, @alexfernandez. "Proximity fuzes were used effectively by both ground and naval antiaircraft batteries in the later stages of World War II. They were especially useful against the V-1 flying bombs sent over England by Germany and against Japanese aircraft attacking U.S. ships in the Pacific." Ency Brit $\endgroup$
    – Tony Ennis
    Apr 14, 2023 at 18:18
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Vortexes

The only advantage for giant vehicles that survives criticism here is stability. More mass means more energy required to move. Imagine a battleship and a tin boat entering hurricane waters.

I think your best bet is constant violent turbulence. It doesn't even need to be a storm per se. Just invisible, unpredictable and extremely common vortexes that never reach the ground but apply monumental stress to any vehicle 200m or higher. Small aircraft are ripped to shreds, so mankind had to build bigger.

enter image description here

The vortexes have the added benefit of preventing precision strikes on the giant airbourne fortresses. Shells fly into the air only to spin wildly off their intended path. The fortresses can strike the ground by lowering to below 200m and firing straight down, then elevating again when ground forces try to strike back. This advantage makes them extremely desirable, while making combat aircraft a useless counter.

The only way to take these things down is to use your own airbourne fortress and get really close, like old sail ships firing broadsides pointblank.

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If aircraft seem omnipotent, it's only because you're looking at recent, high profile wars where there was a huge technology asymmetry between the two sides. In contrast, if you look at the recent conflict in Ukraine, you have two sides with relatively equal technology capabilities. The aerial environment is so high risk that both sides effectively do not fly regular aircraft (not drones) unless they absolutely have to.

This trend is not restricted to aerial combat. In the Gulf War and in the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, the USA had similar technology superiority in their infantry and tank/armored formations as well. Tanks could make use of breakthrough technologies, most notably great optics and thermal optics, and were essentially invincible on the battlefield. The US forces destroyed close to 4,500 Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles, and lost a total of 9 tanks themselves. Of those nine, seven were destroyed by friendly fire and two were damaged and destroyed by their own crews to prevent capture by enemy forces. A further 16 US tanks were damaged.

It turns out that War is a lot more like Rock / Paper / Scissors than you would think. If you have a scissors, and your enemy has a rock, then they just win all of the time. As in Ukraine, it's dumb to throw anyone's life away, so you just don't do it, so they just don't fly airplanes.

To answer your question: look at modern air defense systems, such as IADS. You have radars and other active and passive sensors that detect aircraft well ahead of your superweapon. Then you have anti-aircraft missiles or artillery positioned after that. You can also dispatch your own aircraft to intercept. Any hostile aircraft are tracked, fired upon, and dead long before they even see the superweapon.

If you want WW1-level technology specifically, just use WW2-level technology a little ahead of schedule. The WW1-era biplanes and balloons were slow and flew extremely low. The weapons from WW2 would absolutely obliterate them, including WW2 aircraft. On the ground, something like the M45 quad mount .50 caliber would shred the low, slow flying aircraft of WW1, to say nothing of the proximity-fuzed flak cannons and autocannons. The Sopwith Camel had a max speed of 113 mph and a flight ceiling of 19,000 feet. The P-51 Mustang, a solidly mid-war fighter, had a max speed of 440 mph and a ceiling of 42,000 feet.

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Different technology boom

In 1832 the first (not yet practical) implementation of an electric vehicle was made. In 1886 the first patent for a gas powered was applied. Technology can be pushed for many reasons. It is thought the electric car had a good chance to rise when powered vehicles started to become popular, but got bought out by oil companies and intentionally failed. All for profit. The battery hasn't really changed until electric cars became popular again. All that time research in batteries was slow and uninteresting.

If the prospects of powered transport was already understood earlier, or the electric car was economically/politically favoured, the electric car could expand to the de-facto power of transport. The ramifications are huge. If oil isn't the prime source of energy, at least for vehicles, it would be much less profitable and relatively expensive to extract. It has a huge knockdown effect for many technologies. In return,manynother technologies for electricity would rise.

Practical planes could then be in danger. They can still be invented, but being powered by batteries would be difficult. They are too heavy. Not to mention being shot in a battery can be worse to your plane than being shot in one of yiur gas tanks. Because the research in oil and related engines would be lacking, things like kerosene and powerful engines are out of reach or simply too expensive and impractical. The advent of fast planes would be later, or be risky endeavours.

The battlefield would then be mostly electrically powered. Problems you and I see now with battery powered vehicles would be solved, mitigated or lived with. In many ways it can be better, as many old tanks were health hazards just because they used gas, as well as wasy to detect as they were loud. Planes would be non-existent, or impractical and relatively slow.

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  • $\begingroup$ i don't think it would that severely limit the development of oil technology just making electric cars dominant, most early oil development came from lamp oil, followed by oil fired ships, then industrial factory diesel engines. (with oil fired locomotives playing a small part) $\endgroup$
    – OT-64 SKOT
    Apr 14, 2023 at 2:05
  • $\begingroup$ @OT-64SKOT 1860 for the train and 1870 for the boat. Even if these were still developed, development of smaller engines and oil powerful enough to power planes might never take off. You need a lot of expensive research in both, which is simply not viable economically if electricity is the main power. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Apr 14, 2023 at 6:30
  • $\begingroup$ true but even then it'd be strange if for some reason development on all other kinds of cars to not exist just because of electric cars being more developed in the 1830s. Petrol power only really became dominant in the 1920s irl, less so due to politics & buisness & moreso due to the electric starter motor & improving road infrastructure between towns making the previously acceptable ranges of 50-65km & low speeds of 25-32kph & trips outside of cities via road vehicle became more popular. $\endgroup$
    – OT-64 SKOT
    Apr 14, 2023 at 6:50
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Frame challenge: crawlers aren't superweapons.

There's a slight frame challenge, because a giant land/sea/air cruiser is extremely useless in combat. There were ideas floating for giant tanks, giant boats, or giant planes, some were even prototyped, and they all proved impractical with no real use cases.

But it's okay, because your land cruiser doesn't have to be a "superweapon" by design. Instead, it can be the extreme logical conclusion to a nomadic lifestyle. Nomads use horses to move their tents around, from place to place, season after season. Instead of horses and tents, your nomadic tribes could use dieselpunk crawlers that carry shacks and the necessary infrastructure to mine and refine fuel.

And the side effect of a nomadic lifestyle is it limits development. You're limited to what your crawler can carry in terms of heavy industry, which makes the development of planes and other sophisticated war machines rather complicated. You can build makeshit buggies and gunships from scrap, which can be used to explore, trade, and fight other tribes, but you just can't make jet fighters.

Of course, if tribes were to stop, settle, and put their resources together, they could quickly develop an unstoppable army, so the simple answer there is just don't. Since time immemorial they've been nomads, and that's the only conceivable way of life for them.

Your crawlers aren't purpose-built superweapons, they're mobile villages that have become armed and armoured to defend themselves against hostile tribes. They wouldn't be overwhelmingly armed and armoured though, because that's weight you have to carry everywhere you go, but it would be enough to balance against the primitive aircraft they are able to build.

This would be very compatible with a WWI/Interwar sort of dieselpunk tech level.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd suggest that a crawler is essentially a mobile fortification, not so fundamentally dissimilar to medieval siege weapons (battering rams often moved around under covered frames to protect the crew from attack). If you park a city-block sized fortress studded with anti-air and artillery batteries outside a city, you have an incredible base of operations. Imagine a group of them surrounding a city and establishing a no-fly zone overhead. You'd have to contend with them in order to retake the city. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Apr 14, 2023 at 13:49
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All Radars are large and very very good - and there's no real viable way to detect them on an aircraft.

Basically devices too large to fit on an aircraft, but your land based ones could tell you the inseam size of the pilot, and your naval systems are just as good

You also have extremely well developed and low cost air defences.Even though you don't have active or semi active radar guided missile systems alternatives exist that work efficiently

Between extremely precise tracking of objects as small as a anti aircraft missile, and the development of extremely accurate wire guided and infrared anti aircraft missiles, the lifespan of any reasonably sized combat aircraft is measured in minutes or seconds rendering them unusable.

This also makes cruise missiles and rocketry less efficent. You're ending up either with mass barrages of rockets and 'classic' artillery and naval guns being more sensible. While CIWS type systems are impractical, you can still take down rockets and missiles with a wall of lead in the general direction

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We already have a suggestion of lowering atmospheric pressure to make flight harder. I'm going to propose the reverse--raise atmospheric pressure considerably: flight is easy, going fast is hard. Planes become very vulnerable to ground fire.

And a more general nerf: lower oxygen content. This influences all air-breathing combustion power sources but especially jets. Note that life does not care--our lungs care about the partial pressure of oxygen. Total pressure only matters at the ends--at very low pressures the vapor pressure of water evaporating in the lungs limits the minimum pressure and at high pressures it's the effects of the stuff other than oxygen. (And a critter that evolved to the world won't have this problem with high pressure.)

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You could use birds, imagine a world that has large flocks of birds similar to passenger pigeons but all the time. bird flocks so thick they blot out the sun, any plane trying to fly will see its engine wrecked in short order. You can still have planes but the tech will not advance as fast AND even when you have them you will find them hard to use.

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Your only real option is to simply declare aircraft impossible. Do so without any explanation of why this is. The explanation won't make any sense, so no good will come from drawing attention to it.

Now you can get on with telling your story.

The story isn't about the lack of aircraft, right?

Fun fact - in WWI, what we call tanks were originally called landships. The British developed them to cross no-man's land and assault German trenches.

edit - to the downvoter: Pick any change to physics you want to, but once you make it so the gravity is more, or the planet is covered in perpetual storms, or some alternate technology makes air defenses impenetrable, then you have similarly difficult questions about why other technologies haven't been improved/used/ etc etc.

The OP might as well start with "there are no aircraft" and never mention it again.

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