Missile combat can be immediate and intimate, requiring EW support and even escort, or distant and very impersonal, where you're lobbing yours immediately before running away from your enemies, depending on technological assumptions.

But how do you make one or the other work with internal consistency in your story? What details need to be hinted at for a softer audience or even explored for a harder one, or people seeking a space techno-thriller?

According to my research, what determines if one, the other, or both is effective ultimately comes down to the interplay of sensors, electronic warfare (EW), anti-EW, missile dv, if your target can accelerate, and how good your anti missile beams and anti-missile missiles are. Even if your missiles are "torch missiles" using nuclear drives, if they're favoring isp/dv or acceleration/impulse changes a lot!

Indeed, settings with different tech assumptions can lend themselves to lean one way or another, but I've found there's always room to tune and match the vibe and intensity of your story, or even contrast against it. Fleeing from a torch missile with a nuclear drive for days if not weeks while praying your beams shoot it down is exhausting and dreadful, while dodging at high gees and staring at a screen watching if your screen saved you or not creates a more prompt, intense stress for your characters - and your reader.

Likewise, "fire and forget" would create another attitude toward combat and leadership than "we are going in". Accordingly, an enemy an AU away diverting from a vector that would intercept would tell you cold missiles you can't yet detect are on the way in the first world, while in the second if they don't approach close enough you're probably safe - unless one of their few precious jamming missiles was used on a salvo, and you can't know until alarms start blaring in hours or days.

Another thing to consider is if a missile will be seen all the way in, or if you're dreading undetectable later stages can mix up your vibe. It's possible to have worlds that range from "space BVR" to "salvoes with 'wild weasel' ships" to "submarine duels in KSP", by assuming "amazing nuclear drives and sensors", "good drives and amazing electronic warfare," and "stealth beats sensors" respectively.

My answer explores what I've found so far. What else have people come across? Also, has anyone seen any glaring holes in what I've put together?

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    – L.Dutch
    Jul 18, 2023 at 16:19

5 Answers 5


Detection ranges VS missle velocities

The only technologies that really force your hand are how good your sensor and propulsion systems are.

Depending on the tech in your setting a missle could be anything like a modern chemical rocket that "slowly" accelerates to a few times faster than the speed of sound, or it could be an FTL kill vehicle that can strike a target from 100AU away in a fraction of a second.

Then you have "radar" which could be anything from our own EM detection systems that can only perceive a missile sized thing from a few hundred km away with a detection latency based on the speed of light, or you could have a "subspace scanner" that can instantly detect a missile launch from light years away. Adding Stealth to the mix is just an extra variable in the same relationship. Stealth + Good radars are equivalent to less good radars. Stealth gives you extra stuff to talk about, but it's still just a detection ranges VS missle velocity issue.

So, if your setting is established to have really good engines and really bad radars (or good stealth), then low-latency dogfights are pretty much the only option. However, if your setting has good radars and poor propulsion, then there is no fixed-in-stone reason that you have to pick what kind of fighting will be the default, because you as the author can justify a maximum effective weapons range however you wish from there.

Why Other Defensive Technologies Don't Matter

Any defensive ability (other than stealth) can be justified as a reason for either a long latency or short latency conflict; so, there is nothing inherent about any technology that will effect the kind of conflict you have. It all just comes down to what kind of conflict you are trying to justify.

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At the end of the day, all these things are just window dressing used to justify how close you have to get to be combat effective. If for narrative reasons you need long missile latencies, your ship could have all the same defensive systems as a ship in another setting that is trying to force short missile latencies. It's all just about how you describe them.

  • $\begingroup$ Do you mean detection at all or detection as in weapons quality tracking to counter them? The former lets you maneuver, the latter lets you shoot things down. $\endgroup$
    – cthon
    Jul 18, 2023 at 23:00
  • $\begingroup$ @cthon I mean detection at all. All other technologies are just window dressing. I've updated my answer to clarify this better. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 19, 2023 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ I like this approach and this breakdown for less technical writers and less technical stories, but can leave some writers a little confused and miss some nuance. Consider missiles you can see coming a great distance away that can be maneuver killed if you burn away from where you were, but that can be engaged up close if you've made it deplete so much propellant chasing you that the closing speed is low enough your defenses can reliably shoot it down. Now consider you have to protect something and need to eat the risk of attrition it imposed. Now you've got a short range problem! $\endgroup$
    – cthon
    Jul 19, 2023 at 16:16
  • $\begingroup$ @cthon Many authors make the mistake of assuming enemies are dumb and will waste thier shots, but if you can shoot down a long ranged missile either way, then an enemy will not bother to fire from a long range. If the enemy considers it a worth while investment to fire at a long range, then the assumption can also be made that your point defenses are not good enough to reliably stop a long range missile. There is of course the idea of layered defenses, but not matter how many layers you have, there will be a generally well known ideal distance to fire from that dictates military doctrines. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 19, 2023 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ IRL there are of course both fast interceptor missiles and long range cruise missiles if that is what you mean. So having both in 1 setting is reasonable, but only on the assumption that they are used against different kinds of targets with different defensive capabilities. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 19, 2023 at 16:32

"Electronic warfare" is the first thing to come to mind, but I can always have a missile carry a reactor and powerful sensors or jamming of its own! I also believe this is already done IRL, but I can't remember which model missile by which military does this. There is also NukeDar, which might well just be a feature of most missiles in many settings.

"Beams and anti missiles" also comes to mind: you'd need to attrit enemy beam weapons, sensors, and anti-missile stocks before missiles could close in enough for even long ranged warheads like Casaba Howitzers, or SNAK warheads to work, and you might need your own beams to do this. Edit: Sensor quality determines your beam effectiveness quite a lot, as too does jitter, or how low you can minimize inaccuracy. If you're shooting something a light second away and where you'll actually hit is wiggling around in 50 nanoradian cone, you'll miss a lot of your shots!

"Variable acceleration performance" seems to be the most nuanced answer. If your setting is hard enough that isp matters, optimizing for high isp vs high thrust or impulse can create a lot of nuance, and the same can be applied to your missiles, particularly stages or a 'bus' used to ferry them around - or, indeed, if a proper ship that is carrying them.

Consider a 'carrier' optimized for high isp that carries the lion's share of a task force's propellant, fuel, ammo, spare parts and repair personnel, fully leveraging economy of scale. It deploys higher accelerating, high impulse 'fighters' or escorts that have less endurance and total dV, but can change direction much faster.

Also consider the no escape range, which is roughly $ \text{{Missile's starting closing velocity}} \times \left(\frac{{\text{{missile remaining delta v}}}}{{\text{{target's sustainable acceleration}}}}\right) $ , assuming the missile starts out on a vector that will intersect the target.

Catching up with something that can flee quickly, like a 'fighter' or 'escort' requires performant missiles that have both the range and acceleration to reach their target. Add in effective anti missile defenses, and you'll want to maneuver so vectors help maximize the initial closing velocity and minimize time in range of anti-missile beams anti-missiles.

A carrier will likely always be far away and very well protected, and of course have very long legs; attacking that would require another missile design or strike package escort.

Finally, something that can't move from its orbit is another beast entirely, but is likely armored and actively protected enough that defeating both armor and active defenses drives design another way entirely.

  • $\begingroup$ You gotta think about what the effective engagement range of different weapons could be, considering enemy armor thickness and that the enemy is thrusting in random directions so you don't know where he'll be when your attack gets there. At ranges of a few hundred thousand km that probably rules out any unguided weapons. What you want is a missile that will merely get close because that's all you can hope for, and will then shoot a secondary attack at the enemy ship (fission pumped laser?) once it's within a few hundred km. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Jul 18, 2023 at 0:56
  • $\begingroup$ I'm assuming guided missiles and ranges measured in light seconds to AU here. $\endgroup$
    – cthon
    Jul 18, 2023 at 1:07
  • $\begingroup$ I'm also using warheads that would all but obviate almost any armor except something on par with a heighliner or a fortified, mobile asteroid of some sort. SNAK and Casaba Howitzer warheads are basically a sizable fraction of a nuke's power directed in a small area, you're not shrugging that off without significant investment. $\endgroup$
    – cthon
    Jul 18, 2023 at 1:32
  • $\begingroup$ Armor won't stop a point blank nuclear explosion, but say 10m of steel plating will greatly decrease the effective range. A casaba howitzer fires in a cone. Your source suggests a 5.7 degree cone is the smallest it can get. How close would it then have to be, for the cone to punch through 10m of steel? Very close. 10km maybe? Depends on the yield, of course. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Jul 18, 2023 at 3:35
  • $\begingroup$ Also, the range will be determined by a cost/benefit calculation, and I think an AU is probably way too far. The closer the range, the greater the chance each ship will actually hit the other and do damage. The attacker will therefore want to get close enough so that 1 dollar worth of munition deals at least 1 dollar worth of damage to the enemy. A battle could technically be conducted at AU range, but so many shots would be wasted that the attacker wouldn't consider it cost effective. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Jul 18, 2023 at 3:40

I think something like the honour harrington approach, late in the series makes the most sense.

You treat boxes of missiles almost like mines. You drop sensors, mine an area with linked boxes of mines and try to harass/drive/trick the enemy into going into sensor range.

You'd be using fighters or drones to detect and disable sensors, larger ships as jammers and try to protect your capital ships from salvos of these missiles before your point defence weapons come into play.

Missile combat can be immediate and intimate, requiring EW support and even escort, or distant and very impersonal, where you're lobbing yours immediately before running away from your enemies, depending on technological assumptions.

So essentially - you have a combination of either side harassing and trying to move enemy ships into range of prepositioned missile batteries and sensors, small and medium craft jamming and trying to essentially do mine, missile array and sensor clearance and providing data back to the capital ships and once missiles are launched intercepting them and the enemy's screening counterparts.

While weapons on a ship can be devastating prepositioned weapons systems give a significantly better amount of throw weight and have its own ECM, sensor and other systems to overwhelm active and passive defences. Its pretty much two parties having a fencing match surrounded by a moat filled with hungry tigers.


Look, it all comes down to tech, ya see? Sensors, drives, defenses - it's all about the balance, get me?

If you got sensors that are crap, you gotta get reeeal close to make sure your torpedoes hit pay dirt. Get in a good knife fight! Duck and weave, spray and pray baby!

But if you're rocking kickass drives and targeting suites, you can just hang back at a cozy AU and snipe all day. "Fire and forget, woo!"

Point defense matters too. Got laser cannons on lock? Missiles laughable. No cover from the pepper? Better get intimate with those warheads real fast or you'll be space dust.

Stealthy missiles sneak up on ya? Won't know what hit ya till you're debris. But faster-than-light torpedoes, those give you a thrill ride before they explode you to kingdom come!

In the end, you just gotta build your world and stick to it,. Make all the tech hang together or your readers will riot faster than a Wookiee losing at space chess.

So what'll it be - quick draws at 50 paces or long-range beam spam? The heart wants what the heart wants! Best make sure your missiles satisfy that longing, eh? To sum this up:

  • Defenses matter enormously - the viability of close-range "knife fight" missile tactics depends heavily on the effectiveness of point defenses like lasers, missiles, and ECM. If defenses are poor, long range attacks dominate.
  • Sensor technology plays a huge role. If stealth is viable, knives fights become risky as you may not detect an incoming salvo until too late. Good remote sensing favors stand-off attacks.
  • Speed is life. Missile velocity and ship maneuverability interacts with sensing ranges. Can you dodge a detected incoming missile?
  • Numbers game - having overwhelming missile salvos ("missile spam") could saturate defenses. But requires industrial capacity.
  • Crew tolerance for g-forces influences acceptable engagement ranges. High-g knife fights require augmented crews.
  • Effective Battle Damage Assessment is crucial. Did our attack succeed? Do we re-engage?
  • Communications lags from distances affect tactics - hard to coordinate at AU ranges.

One single piece of tech changes the balance: The Ansible

An Ansible is a faster than light communicator, normally using entangled bits, or some similar quirk of quantum stuff.

The balance shifts because of light speed - without the Ansible, at any reasonable engagement range (a few light seconds or more), the defender is much better at swatting away controlled missiles than the attacker is at delivering them. The time delay means the defender will react before the attacker.

The answer in this scenario for the attacker is to produce fire and forget missiles, with some intelligence for targetting. You might even shoot AI hubs at the target, which control a large number of missiles.

You also, under this scenario, want as long a reaction time as possible - so you probably offload everything you can, then start running away, which buys you the most time.

With a faster than light communicator, however, this lag goes out the window - you can keep adjusting missile velocity and direction. You'd end up in a scenario where screens and missile control become incredibly important, and heavily controlled by the ship, which would have massive AI modelling of the battlefield. However, you'd still want to dump your missiles, and accelerate away - it gives you more time to respond to the enemy

  • $\begingroup$ How does FTL help exactly? OP said they're dealing with light-second to light-minute ranges. Getting enemy ship positions a few minutes (though more likely a few seconds) in advance isn't going to mean much, esp. when dealing with interplanetary speeds and low lateral velocities. And that assumes you have some sort of sensor array somehow already close to the enemy relaying tactical data FTL. I don't see it. $\endgroup$
    – BMF
    Jul 20, 2023 at 0:33
  • $\begingroup$ @BMF FTL detection can do quite a lot if employed properly. Say you send a set of radars with a FTL AI CC ahead of your fleet/ship, that's armed with kinetic impactors, they provide you with exact orbital position of targets, so you can aim for their predicted location from a good AU away. This also allows a large detector network, being able to detect an impactor/missile fire about a year before it would arrive (depending on where are your and their bases) really breaks up any surprise movement by your enemy. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Jul 23, 2023 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ @lupe FTL breaks all existing space combat paradigms, but they are very brittle as quantum effects require highly controlled environment. I dare your enemy to occasionally EMP-blast their vicinity to break the quantum entanglement on your ships' Ansibles, or the amount of high energy particles in space could require heavy shielding for them, rendering them less useful for standalone devices - heavy shields mean energy consumption, means heat dissipation, means cosmic flare in FIR, detectable by existence. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Jul 23, 2023 at 20:10

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