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The society that I am developing is reminiscent on Early Medieval Society, and I want a version of the cavalry charge (and the cavalry cycle) to exist in my universe as well.

Essentially I want plausible reasons why Spacefaring destroyers --similar in size to modern Naval submarines but obviously much faster and with far less crew-- would choose to employ ramming as their primary means of combat (or at least some sort of ultra close range burst attack) as their preferred strategy against troop transports and cargo ships when ballistics --early 21st century level-- are available.

I am currently thinking armor or some kind of magnetic fielding can nullify the effects of bullets, but I'm not entirely sure on the science.

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  • $\begingroup$ You could try to argue along the lines of superior momentum (ship mass times ship speed > missile mass times missile speed) if your ships can be fast enough, but in my eyes it seems a bit too risky to try to force a hull breach on an enemy while endangering oneself to the same result (unless it's a suicide attack ofc) $\endgroup$ – hoffmale Jun 28 '16 at 23:25
  • $\begingroup$ Can the destroyers be unmanned? I would suggest loading them with high explosives and/or a mix of hydrogen and oxygen, making it quite easy to destroy their targets. Nuclear weapons are also good, but 1) Failed launches would be devastating, 2) That's currently illegal, and 3) Folks aren't likely comfortable with that plan, for a variety of reasons. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jun 28 '16 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ If you mean suicide ships no. That's not the intended effect as a ship is meant to be recoverable from the ram. $\endgroup$ – knowads Jun 28 '16 at 23:39
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    $\begingroup$ Does the ramming have to be for the purposes of destroying the enemy ship? If not, how about "Ram so you can get inside the energy shield in order to board and capture" $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Jun 29 '16 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ The CSS Virginia was equipped with a ram to attempt to deal with the Union ironclad Monitor. This was due to the high level of defensive technology compared to offensive. $\endgroup$ – Kys Jun 29 '16 at 17:00

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As @JohnDallman pointed out, Collisions at star-spanning speeds are suicidal, but that doesn't mean that close in combat would be.

Start with star ships that are so expensive to create, that destroying an enemy vessel is considered a crime to both sides. Capture is the name of the game, so if you destroy an enemy's ship either on purpose or by accident, you can expect to face a firing squad.

To support this approach to war, a strong code of honor is needed among the commanding ranks on both sides. Any captain who loses his ship in a fair fight is guaranteed to be treated with dignity. Crews and command should be imprisoned comfortably and without malice, until the end of the current war.

Further, ships' weaponry should be designed to reduce or eliminate the enemy's mobility. Once crippled, an enemy's ship can be boarded by armed marines and once the hand-to-hand combat concludes, the victor can tow the crippled boat home for repairs. The fun part of this type of warfare is that the victorious ship is sometimes sailed home by the crippled ship's crew. Once engaged, the hand to hand combat can go either way.

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    $\begingroup$ This would be my answer as well. Basically ramming forces hand to hand combat. By modern standards, hand to hand combat is the least effective and efficient form of combat. A people still doing it despite being able to build starships must do it due to cultural reasons. Note though, that if they ever meet another people (say aliens), who do not subscribe to the same belief and have superior stand off weapons, they'd be wiped out. $\endgroup$ – WarPorcus Jun 29 '16 at 12:23
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    $\begingroup$ Related: Prize Money: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prize_money#Royal_Navy_prize_money -- capturing an enemy ship could make you (and your crew) rich beyond the dreams of avarice. You'd want to disable and board the enemy ship, which might involve ramming, but would certainly involve plenty of "away boarders" and hand-to-hand fighting. $\endgroup$ – Roger Lipscombe Jun 29 '16 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps the entire ship does not need to ram, but they use boarding torpedoes (which is a Warhammer 40K thing, IIRC). The two ships get close and entangle each other, then use smaller boarding ships or tubes to get assault crew across. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Jun 29 '16 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ This is a highly romanticized form of war. Denying the enemy your starship would be paramount, even if it meant scuttling your own ship. $\endgroup$ – Kys Jun 29 '16 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Kys, What is wrong with a little romance? Jim Butler's Cinder Spire series works on this basic premise and is very believable. There may be a few veterans among his readership who complain that war isn't honorable and civilized, but the first book is still a very entertaining read. The reason I made the ships expensive was to discourage scuttling, but I obviously didn't go far enough. To get the effect I wanted, I should have stressed that the post-war survival of humanity will require the combined fleets to provide supplies or rescue to the war-torn colony worlds of both sides. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jun 29 '16 at 14:12
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This is tricky. If ships can move at the speeds necessary to travel between planets in a reasonable time (let alone between stars), then collisions at full speed will reduce them to hot gas. Armour doesn't help: the energy levels involved are way beyond the strength of any real material. Magnetic fields don't help: the energy transferred to the magnets vaporises them. And if you want a science-based answer, that's pretty much the end of the story.

If you're willing to switch to Space-Opera conventions, rather than SF with some degree of hardness, then it gets a bit more possible. Methods include:

E E "Doc" Smith's inertialess drive, where the lack of inertia means collisions do no actual damage.

Some kind of state change between "travel" speed and "fighting" speed, whereby you simply can't ram at travel speed, because you're forced down to fighting speed by something about your propulsion system. One of the simplest and neatest versions of this came from the old AD&D setting Spelljammer, but many kinds of hyperspace concepts can be made to accommodate this idea.

Simply ignoring the problem, "the Firefly solution", and having travel times between worlds be a few weeks, but collisions at those speeds risk doing cosmetic or structural damage according to the demands of the plot.

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  • $\begingroup$ The combat ships for my purposes are not interstellar. They are interplanetary in the same way modern ships are intercontinental, so they are way below light-speed. Nevertheless damage is good. I want the ships to damage each other in collision, just not be vaporized $\endgroup$ – knowads Jun 28 '16 at 23:44
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I'm going to expand on Renan's answer because I don't think he's fleshed out all the implications.

In a nutshell: If you have an Alcubierre Drive you also have a perfect deflector for any energy or kinetic based attack. The ONLY means of attacking a ship with an Alcubierre Drive would be to ram or grapple it with another ship with an Alcubierre Drive.

The A-drive works by warping space itself, any matter or energy entering the warp follows the lines of the warp just as it were flat space but goes around the ship and comes out with more or less the same trajectory it went in with. Used defensively, an A-drive wrap field can deflect ANY energy or kinetic matter attack. Even detonating massive nukes against the warp would be pointless as all the radiation and plasma would just flow harmlessly around the ship.

The only way to defeat a space warping field would be to use another space warping field to counter-act the first field which would allow attacks to go through, although the warp itself would likely be the more effective and dangerous weapon, which would turn it into a space "ram" for thematic purposes. Even better in my opinion, it would make boarding actions possible again.

Expanded answer i.e.TL;DR (unless you have a free weekend)

An A-drive works by creating a gravity well in front of the ship, basically a gravitational simulation of high gravity object like a black hole, which the ship "falls" into but since the ship generates and moves the gravity well, it keeps falling until the drive is turned off. Creating a reversed gravity well, essentially a hill, behind the ship makes it go even faster (helps the math somehow as well.) By putting wells around the ship to make tunnels, the interstellar gasses and radiation get routed around the ship.

Since technically, it's the space that moves and not the ship, relativity does not apply e.g. no time dilation, the ship doesn't go E=MC^2 and become a planet cracking bomb, it plow up a plasma shockwave that can sterilize an entire planetary system etc.

By bending space itself, the ship can deflect or reroute any type of attack. Directed energy weapons can just be bent around the ship. By creating gravity shears, any material weapon can be destroyed and the debris routed around the ship. Gigaton nuke? Same answer, the plasma and radiation will follow the bent space and never touch the ship.

(As a bonus, the warp field can act like a cloaking device making the ship hard to detect as all light and other forms of radiation bend around the ship. Probably leave a detectable ripple of light or particles that get bent around the ship but come out with altered trajectories. But you won't be fighting in a fish bowl wherein a ship can be detect light hours away just by infrared. In a planetary system, the ripple would be even harder to detect. Cloaking allows for ambushes, sneaking past sentinels, submarine vs destroyer scenarios etc)

An A-drive makes a ship invulnerable to weapons save another contending warp field. The only way to attack an A-drive ship (Ship-X), would be to use another ship's (Z-ship), A-drive to "unwarp" the space around ship-X so that an attack could get through. "Ramming" would actually be projecting Z-ship's warp through ship-x's warp. Once through, Z-ship could warp the space inside ship-X and rip it apart.

(In the classical era, ramming developed as a tactic pretty much for the same reason i.e. no ship borne weapon of the age could seriously damage another ship, and grappling put attacker and defender on equal footing, so turning the entire ship into a weapon was the only option. Note that as ships got larger and stronger, ramming by oar powered ships stopped working. In the Byzantine era, ramming the hull no longer worked so the Byzantine dromon ship's had rams used for scraping down the side of an enemy galley and destroying their oars. Conversely, in the early ironclad era, ships guns could just barely penetrate enemy armor, or so it was thought, so ramming came back for a while, until the torpedo.)

But unless the Z-ship has a much more powerful warp, ramming would be dangerous. The Z-ship places itself in danger of being warp rammed itself during the attack. (Ships in space, especially those with a warp drive, can spin on any axis fairly quickly. It's not like ships on the water or even aircraft as they have no medium to push against. It's possible the warp field itself can be positioned arbitrarily around the ship in any configuration without changing the orientation of the ship at all.)

Also, as the two warp fields merge, with each ship constantly altering its own field to try to penetrate the other (kinda like gravity fencing) they will likely create an utterly chaotic gravity field between the ships which will itself prevent a single piercing warp from hitting the other.

Instead, the attacking Z-ship, will not try to stab a warp through but will adopt a purely defensive shield arraignment and try to merge its warp field with ship-Xs warp such that both ships end up inside the same bubble of flat space and both standing still relative to the other.

Of course, at this point, powerful ranged weapons become suicidal, it would be like fighting with AK-47s in a broom closet. Instead, time for knife work. Z-ship has to attack ship-X with a small scale weapon whose collateral effects won't be severe enough to wreck Z-ship itself.

So... prepare to repel boarders!

The most precise and lowest energy attack would be to board the target ship, defeat or avoid any anti-boarding defenses, cut inside the ship and take control.

Now you have a plausible scenario that replicates the romance of the Age of Sail. Maneuvering in interstellar space would be like maneuvering in open ocean and maneuvering inside a star's planetary system would induce all kinds of gravity complications, as happened with sailing ships maneuvering near the shore.

A fight would go something like: Z-ship detects the ripple of ship-X and moves to intercept. Ship-X might be largely blind if heavily cloaked because its warping all the light around it (like a sub without sonar.) However, when Z-ship gets close enough that the warp fields touch, ship-X will know its under attack. (One twist might be that exactly what class of ship a clocked ship is might be very hard to determine. A "destroyer" might end up attacking a "battleship.")

Z-ship distorts ship-X's warp (spilling the sails in old days) bringing the ship to stop relative or at least slowing it down. The the ships start "fencing" with their warps trying to damage or destroy the other ship at the far range of their warps but this will seldom work unless one ship is much more powerful than the other.

Z-ship then concentrates on simply pushing itself through ship-X's field until the ships are so close the warps become useless or to self-dangerous. Now the ships have to either engage with low power weapons, essentially trying to peck each other to death, or they attack with boarders.

(Boarders might be more plausible if the chaotic warp field remains at lower power between but not on or inside either ship but is strong enough to randomize the trajectory of any directed energy attacks or small kinetic attacks. As well, warp fields might be used internally to brace material components making lower power attacks less effective. If ship-X self-destructed, its warp would collapse instantly leaving Z-ship's field suddenly unopposed and able to deflect any blast effects automatically.)

If the warp fields could be generated/projected and then manipulated at the human scale, then boarders would be in same situation as ships i.e. energy and kinetic weapons wouldn't be effective against them, they could only be fought with another warp field. At the human scale and close range, this would be a return to melee fighting. Weapons would be warp manipulators and would likely take forms similar to weapons of the pre-gundpowder age. Although, I wouldn't recommend holding such a weapon in one's teeth while you board the enemy ship.

For fans of the Battlestar Galactica, aircraft-carrier-in-space scenarios: Small warp fields would also allow for small aircraft-like fighters that also can only be attacked by other warp fields. They would fight each other more like dueling raptor birds, at close range slashing at each other's fields. Against larger ships, their function would be to slash at the ship's warp field, slowing it down and randomizing its field to enable the attack by the main ship.

Stationary installations could have a warp dome over them but projecting the warp field into solid ground might be to destructive, energy intensive, randomize the warp field etc, so you could scenarios in which the ground installation, either in vacuum or atmosphere, where invulnerable to air attack but would always have a gap around the bottom edge where ground forces could slip under the dome. Again, big melee fight until the attacks reached the warp projector and shut it down. This would be akin to the Age of Sail fortress high up on a sea cliff that ships couldn't hit, so they land ground forces to take in reverse.

I think the Alcubierre Drive space warping opens ups a lot human scale drama potential while requiring only the one "magic wand" of the drive itself.

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  • $\begingroup$ A well thought out and interesting answer. +1. Love it. $\endgroup$ – Miller86 Jun 30 '16 at 11:27
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Religion.

If an interstellar civilization gets overswept by religious fundamentalism and dogmatism, science and research might be banned heresy since it in the past lead to people questioning the Holy Word of God.

Technology would then be restricted to the specific solutions approved by the Church. And it would be entirely plausible, even likely, the Church would ban all ship-to-ship or orbital bombardment capable weapons. This would make ramming the enemy ship and then assaulting it with marines armed with the personal weapons still allowed for the nobility the only practical form of ship-to-ship combat.

Such a society would also have the early medieval structure you wanted.

One caveat: While such scenarios have been common (probably due to the real-world friction between science and religious fundamentalism), it seems to be very difficult for people used to modern society to really understand the mind set properly. So it might be difficult for you to use. YMMV, obviously.

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  • $\begingroup$ Religious fundamentalism is good concept. The science is meant to be advanced but focused on maintaining rather than improving. I'm not a religious expert though so what are some examples I can use to issue a ban on space-projectile weaponry? $\endgroup$ – knowads Jun 28 '16 at 23:42
  • $\begingroup$ @knowads Sorry, but I do not understand the question in a way that would make sense. Perhaps you could look into the way medieval church imposed rules on warfare or how islam (and early church) made restrictions some financial activity. But in general most religions see killing people in large groups and destroying major infrastructure (such as spaceships) as bad and would need no more reason to ban such. The rationale might extend to high powered rifles, missiles, artillery, aerial bombardment and any other things that make war more lethal. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Jun 28 '16 at 23:56
  • $\begingroup$ That's actually close to what I was looking for. Basically I wanted a practical reason that a theological body would originally issue a ban on this (most current religious rules stem from once practical rules, and are applied long after they become irrelevant because they are holy now) $\endgroup$ – knowads Jun 29 '16 at 0:02
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    $\begingroup$ @knowads Do not worry abut it too much. Dogmatic religions ban things not because there is a need, but because there there is plausible risk and no strong reason not to. And weapons powerful enough to damage spaceships would fit almost any definition of plausible risk. So unless there is an external threat that needs to be fought ship-to-ship... $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Jun 29 '16 at 0:10
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    $\begingroup$ have you read the Dune series by Frank Herbert? a different aspect of technology entirely, but in that universe Computers are banned because the "thinking machines" once enslaved humanity. A similar reason for banning high powered ship-ship weapons seems entirely plausible, ie "that way madness lies, we looked into that abyss and stepped back once already". $\endgroup$ – Joseph Rogers Jun 29 '16 at 13:16
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There is a faster-than-light travel method called the Alcubierre Drive. It is currently hypothetical, which means it may or may not come true one day according to our current understanding of physics. This means that, with some doses of handwaving, you could include the Drive in your world as something achieved with late 21st century technology.

As for how it works TL;DR it warps a spacetime bubble around the ship. The ship travels at slower than light speeds within the bubble, but since space is compressed in front of the ship, it takes a shorter path to its destination. To outside observers, the ship will have traveled faster than light for all practical purposes.

I am bringing this FTL travel method into the game because Wikipedia has this cute piece of information on Alcubierre's:

Damaging effect on destination

Brendan McMonigal, Geraint F. Lewis, and Philip O'Byrne have argued that when an Alcubierre-driven ship decelerates from superluminal speed, the particles that its bubble has gathered in transit would be released in energetic outbursts akin to a sonic boom shockwave; in the case of forward-facing particles, energetic enough to destroy anything at the destination directly in front of the ship.

Which means that you could ram an enemy ship by alcubierredriving (I love neologisms) to a point right next to it (set the controls to one millimeter away from their hull!). You don't even have to go faster than light, just run in their general direction and watch the fireworks. Or run them through and watch what happens when a section of an enemy ship is spatially compressed into a singularity.

As a bonus this doubles as a means to go anywhere really fast. Just be careful not to ram a space station docking port ;)

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In martial arts it takes less energy to block or deflect attacks than to successfully hit someone in a damaging way, assuming you have fast reflexes and can anticipate your enemy's actions. In space combat much the same could be true, effective point defences could make ranged combat possible but inefficient, so instead ships charge each other head on, jousting with plasma lances and magnetic shields.

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The anime Outlaw Star has a similar ship-to-ship combat premise. Defensive technology in the form of energy shields and point defense systems has outstripped offensive technology to the point where ranged attacks are almost completely ineffective. Missiles and lasers are still used since not everyone can afford a shield generator, but the only way to a hardened target with them is to first close to melee range and destroy the enemy shield generator. To that end, all ships in the show are fitted with giant grapple arms which they use to arm wrestle. The arms are probably not necessary for your case, but the rest of the premise may be useful.

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Ramming is roughly the worst primary form of attack possible. You risk your hull breaching and you'd need to maneuver a largeish mass precisely enough to hit another largish mass.

I could think of a few things that would make it necessary though. You want to hurt the other guy as badly as possible without getting hurt yourself

  1. Desperation aka nothing at all works Your ship's out of weapons, and you're out of options. "No weapons Ivan? BECOME THE WEAPON!". This might also work when you have a small manned projectile hitting a small part (say a bridge) of a large high value target. As someone who spent his teenage years as a battletech fan, I suggest looking up the miraborg menuver.

  2. Nothing else works. Lets assume a universe where you have near perfect point defence. Lasers can be shielded off. Physical missiles picked off at range. Essentially you need a very large, guided missile to get through the enemy. In fact the one way I see this working is you're crossing the T and using the nose of your spacecraft to either stab the enemy spacecraft (ala a trieme, or the nautilus of 20,000 leagues) or attempt to throw the enemy space craft off orbit.

  3. You're MUCH bigger and better able to take damage than your enemy. And this didn't always end well. Alternately your ships were designed with vast amounts of ablative armour in addition to one of the other points. Something like the battleglobes of troy rising, or the pykrete missiles in frontlines used as armour on a battleship

  4. Part of your ship is invulnerable - say something like a scaled down version of the impeller wedges in the honor harrington saga. You'd use the wedges as your 'battering ram' or 'hammer head*

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Ramming can come in handy tactics-wise: a ramming operation could break the enemy's formation, much like a cavalry charge would, given the right circumnstances. A successful ram can and most likely will move the hit ship, causing it to turn, maybe exposing a more vulnerable side to friendly fire, or cause an enemy ship to crash into another, causing panic among the enemies.

One possible reason for ramming would be ship preservation: ramming, boarding and commandeering an enemy vessel yelds more salvageable materials than blasting it to pieces and then trying to gather and transport those.

Soldiers come plenty and cheap, while ships don't.

I'm thinking of Warhammer 40k, specifically the Imperial Navy and the Orks.

The Imperium and the Orks have huge numbers on their side. Servitors (read: slaves) and Ork Boyz come aplenty and are relatively cheap to arm (the orks in particular) while a spaceship is an extremely valuable asset: it takes a long time to build, and a huge amount of resources.

Also, try and see this from a crew member point of view: you're happily following orders, firing your ship's guns, or operating the engines, when suddenly you hear your captain telling everyone to brace for impact and prepare for "ground" fight. You don't know where they will hit, nor when, and, being a crewman, you are far more proficient in doing ship work (firing the weapon systems, performing maintenance and so on) rather than fighting. Even worse, the ramming could occur unannounced. You hear a crashing noise and you lose your balance. The officer reports an hull breach and orders everyone to take up arms and defend the ship.

Your culture might have developed specialized shock infantry to deal with enemy crews, and ramming is a great way to deploy those troops: get in close, firing your ship's front mounted weapons, while the enemy struggle to get past your shield and heavily armoured prow. Upon impact you deploy your shock infantry via the hull breach and start pouring in soldiers to take the ship.

EDIT

I've completely missed the crew requirements.

Other than boarding, and outmanuvering the enemy, you could want to get very close to an enemy vessel in order to fire slow but very powerful rounds: being slow, they're easier to neutralize before they reach their target, so the closer your ship gets, the less likely it is for the projectiles to be intercepted. Being closer also allows the weapons to be more accurate, so the crew can focus fire on a specific part of the enemy vessel.

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Make ships too dangerous to destroy outright. If the ships are violently disrupted (read exploded) they could spew dangerous material (antimatter, radiation etc.) or just massively explode, rendering the area of space and nearby planets unusable. As long as both sides are fighting over something valuable then both sides have an incentive to prevent ships from being destroyed, leaving ramming and boarding as the best forms of combat. The attackers want to capture something and the defenders want to protect, neither side will want to destroy ships. The only issue comes from fanatics who do not care what happens to the region.

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Balistically inserted boarding parties

As already mentioned, at interplanetary speeds ships tend to turn into high energy particles on collision. Given that the cost of capital ships tends to be significant, as are the build times, it's well worth capturing rather than destroying the vessels in question. Boarding parties behind an armoured ram/clamp/drill nose and it's all about hand to hand combat in the corridors of the ship.

Problems:

The last time ramming was considered a viable option was in the days of triremes. These vessels couldn't accelerate much and only had one plane of freedom of movement. It's quite easy to hit a large slow moving object that can't really get out of your way, supported by the fact that two ships near each other at sea will tend to collide anyway due to wave effects. It's much harder to collide with something actively avoiding you with powerful engines and total freedom of movement.

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Metal Scarcity

If your civilization lives on metal-poor worlds, then ships could simply be the most expensive investment of rare metals that they can muster. This would make them effectively flying treasure chests. This eliminates metal-based missiles (let alone ballistics), which would also be too expensive to fire disposably, and also explains why ships aren't humongous (or interstellar, if you also want that limitation).

The ships could use chemical propulsion using the abundant gases of their solar systems, and could be manned by biological marines who are also cheap and plentiful relative to the scarce metals. The ships themselves could utilize as much biological materials as possible to minimize the usage of their [literally] precious metals. Many lasers require crystals made of metals (e.g., ruby, semiconductor, etc.). Gas lasers (e.g., CO2) do not require metal per se, but it might be the case that focusing optics are too metal-expensive to make them worthwhile, or the power requirements are too high given the power density available. Or, they may be used, but are only powerful enough for limited point-defense.

Solar Origin

While we take it for granted that rocky planets and asteroids/comets are abundant, this is not true for all stars and all times. Small stars would not be capable of creating heavy elements, and early stars would not benefit from prior supernovae seeding heavy elements. Just take a look at the nucleosynthesis article on Wikipedia. Your star system(s) could be first- or second-generation small-to-medium stars, and thus very metal-poor.

Tactics

Thus, nuclear weapons may simply be infeasible, if the societies lack radionuclides, or the power densities required to ignite fusion (which on earth currently requires heavy radionuclides like U and Pu). Explosives are possible, but the delivery mechanisms would be fragile, as nobody could afford metal-shielded missiles. Electronics would also be rare, expensive, and valuable (until they got to carbon nanotubes). Even if a large missile were possible, the last thing any side would want to do is obliterate and disperse a flying gold box to the four winds. The best possible outcome is to capture a ship as intact as possible, minus the crew, of course.

Thus, the battles would revolve around crew combat and possibly bio/chem warfare. And, of course, the easiest way to disable a ship without guns, torpedoes or missiles is to use the sturdiest object available: your own ship, hence, ramming. In fact, ships may not even bother with ramming. The recognition of the intrinsic value of each ship may lead to near-ceremonial warfare where the ships come alongside each other, and the crews disembark and fight in space, with the winner laying claim to both ships. Perhaps ramming is a tactic used by ships with inferior/understaffed crews, to compensate for weaker crew combat, or by pirates/privateers.

Of course, each captain would have to decide whether the other side is willing to fight crew-to-crew or would rather take chances with ramming. Ramming would probably require a smaller crew complement for ships designed to do so, and there is a rich space of trade-offs for speed, maneuverability, crew size, cargo size, and armor. It's very possible that navies would field ships covering many points in this design space to accommodate multiple strategies, depending on the current warfare meta-game.

Conclusion

Note that this setting does not require religion or special culture to enforce the rules. Mutual self-interest will dictate behavior. The only difficulty with this setting is the plausibility of intelligent life from population II or III stars. Even if you wish to set the story near our current time, there are plenty of places to find a contemporary population II star, such as out by the galactic halo.

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The videogame Homeworld: Catacylsm involves a mining based clan (Kiith Somtaaw) which used a Ramming Frigate with a small laser to push and break up larger asteroids.

When Kiith Somtaaw are attacked, they are forced to use their mining vessels in a combat role:

When the mining fleet was attacked by an Attack Carrier it became obvious that they would not stand a chance against it. At that moment, despite of order to retreat, two crews of Minions moved their ships to the broadside of aggressors and, using full power of their fusion drives, they pushed the carrier straight into area of fast moving asteroids which one by one hit the ship, finally destroying it.

Edit: As per your comment, the ships use an energy absorbing ram at the front of the ship to ensure the Frigate survives the impact. Rather than destroying the target with the force of the blow, the Frigate pushes the ship away from its fleet, potentially into a hazardous area like the example above.

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Are you able to build better contact weapons than point defences, on the same budget? If so, there's your answer.

If you have any kind of shield, all you need is the ability to momentarily form it (or something else) into a piercing form at a point of your choosing (ram tip) more easily than you can focus it defensively at a point of the ramming enemy's choosing (flank, etc). I'd say that's very likely, just need to survive it.

Also, shields might be unable to deflect slower-moving objects, and to cause damage, momentum is still needed.

I have no knowledge of the topic, but assume that reactive armour isn't very good if the projectile has the momentum of a ship behind it.

A different approach: boarding. The exterior isn't the target. The inside is. Get a friendly force inside to sabotage... and to claim.

Yet another: the ramming ship essentially carries a large boulder in front of it, as shielding / camouflage / weapon. Wanna play chicken? If effective enough, a culture could rise from that, making improvements which replace the rock with something better.

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Instead of ramming, firing broadsides would be a good reason to come in close. Particularly if entering close enough that any anti measures that can be taken against the volley will respond too late.

To be able to survive this, you would either need high speed and agilty to avoid incoming fire, or heavy armour to defend against point blank barrages of projectiles.

An additional reason can be, if you have missile-based space combat that it is unsafe to fire missiles at such short range, which means that a ship specced to not use missiles can fire while the other party cannot fire back effectively.

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Many other responses are awesome, but this is the way I'm thinking about it:

Something in-universe prevents the use of traditional weapons (very strong shields that deflect anything smaller than another ship, for example) so the effective tactic was to turn your vessel into a very large torpedo.

To do this, you reinforce the front hull to an insane degree, and mount a large amount of charges on the front of the vessel. When you ram an enemy ship, you penetrate their shields (because the shields can't deflect a vessel of your size and mass) and deliver the payload directly to the enemy vessel, badly damaging it, or at least ripping open a vulnerability for boarding action.

You could "improve" this design by jettisoning the "torpedo" portion prior to detonation. Maybe having it attach to the enemy ship and allow you to egress a little before the explosion, lessening the damage to your vessel.

The best part about it? You don't need to be going at "ramming" speeds to deal your damage, but you are undeniably ramming the enemy (ramming them full of torpedo).

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@Henry Taylor's response is the best generically. For a specific mechanical reason though its simple. Troop transports and cargo ships are large, slow, and under armored. Ships moving at relatively the same vector/velocity (compared to each other not the planets) have plenty of opportunity for the heavily reinforced prow of a combat naval vessel to insert itself through the side of an under armored cargo ship.

An prow designed to survive interstellar impacts at interstellar velocities would have no problem piecing the side of another ship. This is true of any interstellar ship, so the cargo tugs could technically do it too. They just tent to have less acceleration and maneuverability.

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There is not a large amount of friction in space. This means that when you fire a projectile, your ship is nudged off course with the same amount of force in the opposite direction to how you fire your projectile. There are ways to mitigate some of this effect (like ejecting particles in both directions and such) but ultimately if you want/need to be more precise in your maneuvers and you don't want the expense of the latest and greatest omnidirectional thrusters, you can't have your crew firing off high energy projectile weapons as they please. You either need well coordinated volleys, or you can use ramming and the inertia of your ship as your primary weapon. Just be prepared to adjust your coordinates when you bounce off the enemies rubber hull unexpectedly.

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i'm late to the party, but...

your society evolved too from the ancient space greeks, and took great influence of their architecture and ways of war thanks to not having romans at all and them being the prevalent civilization. that's why since early space travel, all your ships have a reinforced Vetron steel spike on the front, and are designed to be highly maneubreable and to resist almost any kind of frontal impact. enter image description here enter image description here The form of the ship would be similar in shape of those ancient trirremes (hey, they're also highly aerodinamic so that helps in atmospherical maneuvring) and , once the enemy sides are pierced, high-speed capsules containing the boarding parties would launch from the sides of the spike directly onto the damaged hull.

Ofcourse, that would mean that weaker ships from other civilizations would... uhm... break apart if hit on the center of mass.

If i had time i would draw you the whole range of spaceships, from the merchant Drommon class freighter to the admirable and costly Herakleon class Dreadnought.

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A collision will involve a lot of momentum and potential damage to your ship. It is better to just toss an object with a decent bit or mass (say, an asteroid) at the opposing ship to do similar damage with less of a risk. This would enable you to take out an enemy ship easily, and you could also use it as a shield. To accelerate it you could strap an engine to the asteroid and also perhaps embed a nuclear warhead after the hull is breached.

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So many fantastic responses, I'm sure my thoughts will repeat many of them.

If close proximity favors the attacker

  • The attacker wants to board (possibly in a piercing fashion) the defending ship, and the ram-ship is designed for that. Perhaps something like a wasp stinger.
  • Defensive technology blocks energy and small-mass-projectile attacks. Ramming is one of the few options remaining. Or, the attack must be carefully controlled, as in the stiletto through the shields in Dune.
  • The attacker's technology only operates at close range. Think the EMP bomb on the Nebuchadnezzar in The Matrix.
  • The defender's heavy weaponry may be long-range. If it's powerful enough, the attacker has to get close in order to survive, and do what it can up close. Like two boxers, the one with shorter arms will duck in to bring the fight close-range.
  • The attacker exposes itself with its attack, making itself known/visible, or dropping its shields

If destruction is not the goal

  • If the attacker's weaponry is over-powered, or the defender's shields are under-powered, the engagement may be so imbalanced that a primary attack would destroy the victim. The attacker may not wish this, so like a police officer doing a tackle, or using a close-range taser, the gun stays holstered.

If the two factions have different tech stacks

  • The defender is immune to energy attacks, and that's all the attacker has for long range engagement.
  • The defender has exceptionally quick dodging ability, like a very near-range hyperspace jump, rendering the attacker's ranged weapons useless.

If environmental factors are at play

  • Gas cloud making visibility and targeting difficult.
  • Black whole, neutron start, wormhole affecting targeting precision
  • Traditional weapons would ignite the surrounding Hydrogen cloud, destroying both ships
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