Everyone loves Big Space Battles of the likes found in Star Wars or Halo, and with good reason; they take what we're familiar with in terms of warfare, like ships of old pulling up against one another to deliver volleys of cannon fire, and dogfights between smaller (usually one or two man) craft.

It's a paradigm we all love but breaks down almost immediately when considering the implications, so I'm curious of the sorts of requirements (primarily limitations) that lead to this sort of warfare becoming standard practice, as opposed to a couple of civilisations simply RKVing each other from lightyears away.

Handwaving to a reasonable sci-fi degree is accepted - FTL, force fields, AI and similar are all allowed in this scenario. I just want to explain this sort of combat!

Why would large fleets of warships engage in close range combat, deploying both capital-class and lots of small fighters?

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    $\begingroup$ There are plenty of space opera novels that have plausible back-stories for this, from Piper's Space Viking to Weber's Honor Harrington novels. You may find some inspiration there. $\endgroup$
    – John Feltz
    Aug 25, 2016 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ David Weber made sure that the technology of his ships MANDATED the Napoleonic naval warfare style he wanted. This is a key element. Without the drive field protecting the dorsal and ventral surfaces of his ships, the "give 'em a broadside!" style combat doesn't work. $\endgroup$
    – Jason K
    Aug 25, 2016 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ If you want to see how "realistic" space fighters can work, check out Mark Kalina's "Hegemony" His space fighters ride out on laser beams projected by the carrier. He also has digital personalities so the pilots can download into the ships, thus they can survive the 80+ gee accelerations necessary to get anywhere in space in a reasonable amount of time. Not the "air in space" style of space flight seen in Star Wars, but a very cool way to make space fighters actually be feasible in the depths of space. $\endgroup$
    – Jason K
    Aug 25, 2016 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of How would space battles alter combat tactics? $\endgroup$
    – James
    Aug 25, 2016 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ @James it's not dup of that question. He do not asks how realistically they could be. He asks about circumstances where they do what he have described instead more practical approaches, as we might think as such about them now. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Aug 26, 2016 at 12:56

6 Answers 6


You don't actually need to justify anything, MANY settings have what you describe with no justification, explanation, or rationalization. It just is, and most readers accept it because it fits what they have seen in print and on screen for decades. Plus it is hella cool :)

But, if you want to set up your world to force this type of combat, there are a few technological conditions you will want to meet:

1) Anti-gravity: This is the fundamental technology. Ocean ship layouts on space ships can't work without anti-gravity to allow for 1 gee floors perpendicular to the thrust produced by the engines. This is so accepted in media that you really don't need to do anything to explain it.

2) No fuel engines: Look at almost every space ship. Where is the fuel!?! Sure, there are big engines and sometimes even a power plant, but there is all the reaction mass? Doesn't exist! So you can have space ships with way more interior space devoted to crew rather than vast amounts of re-mass tanks. Your engines produce a lot of thrust with no need for fuel, so they can zip around space with ease and dip into gravity wells to land without concern.

3) Slower than light weaponry: Phasers, blasters, photon torpedoes, etc are all slower than light weapons. Plus they probably fizzle out pretty quickly. So to have any chance at hitting anything you have to get close, REAL close. Like, can see them outside a viewport close.

4) Poor electronic targeting: The best sensor is the old Mark I eyeball. No seeking warheads (or they are very limited), computer based aiming systems, or A.I. driven counter-battery fire/CIWS to swat those fighters out of space. So you have to get close with a human in order to aim and fire, so no drones, A.I. gunboats, or the like.

These are conflicting technological stipulations. Any society that has anti-gravity and ultra cheap FTL ought to have advanced electronics and computational capability. So what happened?

-Fall from grace: What folks have NOW is just a fraction of what we used to have. Sure, we know how to make (or we have some machines that can make for us) FTL engines and anti-grav generators but we don't have basic circuit boards. Maybe we are even scavenging ships we can barely keep running, much less build new. So a return to old battle tactics is because we just can't do any better.

-We are lazy: Perhaps these things require very basic fundamental theories that we (21st century earth) somehow have just overlooked but are actually pretty easy to build and maintain. Same with our weapons. The blaster is just so damn cheap and easy to use we can't be bothered to figure out rail-guns, lasers, guided missiles, and drone fighters. So this space society leap-frogged right past the tech trees (particularly advanced computing) we have on Earth now to the technologies I describe above.

-Play by the rules: A superior alien entity limits us to certain tech that ensures we can't wipe out entire solar systems. Tech advancement is either suppressed or sabotaged to the point that folks just accept that "this is the way it is" and carry on. This can explain a fairly static technology level for long periods of time. The controlling entity can be overt or (much more likely) very covert. Should someone create a planet destroying device, well, the entity ensures it will get blown up (once, twice, three times the charm :P

  • $\begingroup$ lazy, for weapon it do not work that way, those who wish it, wish deadliest and devastating as possibly, best as it can be and they ready to pay - even if they can't use it. Just possessing is a pleasure, and potential threat which might have practical usage. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Aug 26, 2016 at 13:09
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg If I can parse your comment correctly, you think that folks won't just accept the "status quo" of the blaster if there are better options? I think a "good enough" axiom will suffice, especially if, in general, technological advancement across the spectrum is pretty limited. In Star Wars, for example, there is very little evidence of advancement across THOUSANDS of years, nor to they seem to really exploit tech they do have to the fullest, but when they go big, they just scale up what they already have (build a bigger SSD versus some new type of space ship, for example). $\endgroup$
    – Jason K
    Aug 26, 2016 at 13:17
  • $\begingroup$ U parsing is almost correct. It is not just abut good enough, when there is a probability to die, nothing is good enough when there is better option, faster enemy destruction, or them not messing at all because of ultimate weapon, or any another way to gain a little superiority over them. SW or human history what to choose to argue hmmm, let me think about that. (only jedi are thing in sw, sry). When things are about unmanned crafts then we just looking for most efficient way that guarantee good result - that's all. As recent enterprise destruction happened - that's good, simple, cheap, fast. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Aug 26, 2016 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg but there are examples of humans deliberately choosing to forego more destructive or effective weapons for social reasons. Take nukes for example. We could easily use sub-kiloton warheads in tanks and artillery but we CHOOSE not to, because nukes have a greater social impact. Same with biological or chemical warfare, or even the use of the crossbow in medieval Europe. So in this Star Wars like universe, high powered lasers, robotic drone fighters, gamma radiation bombs and the like may be rare because folks CHOOSE not to use them, not because they can't make them. $\endgroup$
    – Jason K
    Aug 26, 2016 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ lol. Mk-54 warhead if it would be usual, as weapon, on the field, in case I'm just wonder, how fast they will get some of them. Small compact, enough light for one man carrying, at lowest 10-20 tonne yield - have I continue? Smaller warhead is less efficiency of the blast, more dirty it is. It just creates more problem of different kind, it's about consequences. No one said we will not use. Others who tried are forced to not have - with money or with force. NFU NATO is cool dude here. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Aug 26, 2016 at 15:35

I suggest highly advanced computer defence systems that detect missiles and use weapons to block them at a distance. This prevents fleets damaging each other at range. At close quarters the computers don't have time to destroy incoming missiles so close quarters combat is the only way to destroy enemy ships.

If lasers exist then have laser blocking forcefields. These shields can only be used on lasers that have travelled a reasonable distance as lasers fired from under a mile away have too much strength to be deflected. Alternatively lasers are inaccurate over long distances so can only be used at close quarters.

In close quarters combat smaller ships are needed to defend the larger ships and to do strafing runs of large enemy ships while large ships are there to destroy any long range missiles fired at the ships.

  • $\begingroup$ What about lasers? $\endgroup$
    – rek
    Aug 25, 2016 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ Are we talking about Star Wars lasers or real Lasers? $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2016 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ Real lasers of course. Star Wars lasers can be dodged. $\endgroup$
    – rek
    Aug 25, 2016 at 16:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Rek I think my new paragraph should cover both laser types. $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2016 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ @UIDAlexD automatic targeting is in a constant arms race with its countermeasures. in that universe the countermeasures won. Boom, missiles are useless and fighters a valid choice once again $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Sep 28, 2018 at 12:12

FTL/Jumpdrives make long-range combat pointless

For this, let's come up with a point-to-point jumpdrive. In the presence of high local spatial curvature (Planets, ships at very close range, ect) the jumpdrive failsafes and drops you back into realspace. Use whatever handwavium you desire to make it fit, point is that it can't be used for ramming attacks.

So now we have a fantastic FTL drive, but what does this mean for combat? For one, any long-range attack is going to miss, if it was even fired in the first place. As soon as you open up on an enemy at range they'll just jump away, so why bother? However, close range is still an option - if you get within failsafe range of their jumpdrive, they (And you) are now committed to the fight since you can't escape. You're now close up, with low relative speeds, so instead of orbital mechanics and speeds dominating the engagement you're now back to good old fashioned guns and metal. Instead of long-range missile platforms, your ships are now built to pull the enemy out of jump and engage in a brutal close-up slugfest.

Note: This kind of FTL removes the problem of planetary RKV strikes indirectly. Building an RKV is currently far beyond our technology, and with cheap-and-easy FTL there's no demand to research STL engines. It's possible they'll still use chemical rockets for close-in maneuvers.

Alternatively, a complete lack of automation

Why did World War 2 have such cool naval and aerial battles? Simple; they didn't have computers. Weapons were aimed by human operators, the only sensor system planes had was the pilots eyes, and guided missiles just flat out didn't exist. Humans were in-the-loop at almost every level, so battles were as much a test of skill as equipment.

How does this work in-universe? Well, imagine a world where computer technology was on the backburner. Space travel is certainly possible with primitive tech; after all, we went to the moon with a glorified pocket calculator.

  • $\begingroup$ Couldn't you still blow up enemy planets at range? $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2016 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Bellerophon You're not gonna be able to blow up planets with a railgun. Also, since your FTL drives are a fantastic means of getting around nobody is going to research the kind of realspace engines that would make a RKV possible. $\endgroup$
    – UIDAlexD
    Aug 25, 2016 at 17:18
  • $\begingroup$ They must have decent real space engines for close quarters fighting. $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2016 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Bellerophon There's still leagues of difference between engines for close-quarters maneuvering and engines that get you to considerable fractions the speed of light. The space shuttle might make a half-decent weapons platform if it wasn't for the fact it spent all its fuel getting to orbit. On launch it accelerates at 3G for a few minutes, and that's dealing with drag and the massive dead-weight of a heat-shield and wings. Chemical engines should work just fine once you're in space. $\endgroup$
    – UIDAlexD
    Aug 25, 2016 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ nitpick, they did have computers in WW2. They were largely mechanical in nature, but US battleships did indeed have firing computers to calculate how to lay the various guns. Not to mention some codebreaking equipment was computerized. $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2016 at 18:46

There are a few ways to make this happen, but one I've been looking at recently is allowing FTL travel but not FTL sensors.

One of the things that made WW2 era battles what they were was not knowing where the enemy was. In space, you can reasonably see where everyone is and where they are going given enough time. This makes long-range firefights more likely, with range really only limited by the speed of the weapon vs the reaction time and maneuverability of the enemy (fleets will engage at the point they can get kills, which depends on a lot of factors, as laid out in other answers).

If you have a scenario where ships can move rapidly, but cannot be detected easily (or at least not their current position) your engagement windows shrink. By the time you spot a ship at the edge of the "system" it has already appeared next to you and opened up. This would lend itself to ship designs that involved overwhelming alpha strike capabilities on the offensive side and strong defenses on the defending side. Combine this idea with "jump points" or "hyperspace channels" that system to system travel has to be done through, and you have something more akin to what you are looking for.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this answer a lot, it could certainly explain an awful lot of things about how the star wars universe works. $\endgroup$
    – ktyldev
    Aug 25, 2016 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ Star Wars does seem to have FTL sensors though. They seem to know what happens immediately. $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2016 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ A lack of FTL sensors, but FTL vehicles, would result in just FTL missiles for unblockable, unavoidable, insta-kill first-strike attacks. $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2016 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ only if the FTL technology was able to be miniaturized properly. Or was cheap enough to spend in that way. It also depends on the physics. What if the FTL isn't operable within x distance of a planet? Well, now all ships stay in that safe harbor and can't be hit by the FTL missiles. $\endgroup$ Aug 29, 2016 at 13:30

Much of what you desire depends on the mechanics of the space travel system. If you can simply "appear" over a planet unannounced, then space fleets are rather pointless (they don't serve to protect you in any meaningful way) and space warfare would consist of raids by space pirates or attacks by the equivalent of ICBM's.

Restricting space travel to the familiar space-time we know and disallowing FTL means space combat is in a different medium than naval combat, so naval tropes don't apply. Space war is going to be much closer to the sorts of things discussed in Atomic Rockets, or Rocketpunk Manifesto.

The only realistic way to invoke space fleets seems to be some sort of point to point FTL system which only operates in free space. Modern fiction invokes wormholes, but similar systems exist (for example the Alderson Drive in The Mote in God's Eye). Since ships are tightly restricted in how they reach other solar systems, the wormholes/jump points or whatever act in a similar manner to naval choke points like the Panama Canal or the Straight of Malacca.

enter image description here

Since there is a very narrow window for ships to reach your solar system, control of these points becomes of the utmost strategic importance. You will have the need for the equivalent of coastal batteries, patrol ships and even battleships to enforce control of the point. Reserve squadrons deeper in the solar system provide defense in depth and the ability to rotate ships and crews to and from the point.

The second part of simulating naval battles is going to be difficult. All ships operate in the same medium, so having small "fighters" isn't going to provide much of an advantage. Indeed, larger and more capable ships make much more sense in this environment. Overwhelming defences with mass firepower also is the best means of dealing with space combat, so ships will conceptually resemble something like the OHIO class boomer or the Soviet OSCAR class cruise missile attack submarine, hulls packed with missiles. Laserstars or Kineticstars packing massive laser weapons or banks of railgun type weapons are also plausible in this environment.

enter image description here

In order to have ship to ship combat become more than salvos of weapons, some sort of shield technology has to be hand waved into the equation as well. The Mote in God's Eye actually did this as well with the "Langston Field", but shields have been a feature of space opera for ages (Star Trek is perhaps the best known example). As a writer, you will need to work out and calibrate "how" the shields work, and then ensure this is consistent throughout the story. This is going to be more difficult than it sounds, since threats vary from high energy lasers (Ravening Beams of Death [RBoD's] can reach out and vaporize metals, ceramics and glass in milliseconds from a light second away; almost the distance from the Earth to the Moon), to particle beams, or plasmas, metal jets and even "shotgun charges" accelerated by nuclear explosives at speeds ranging from 10% of the speed of light to @ 100km/sec. it is difficult to visualize any sort of technology which would be effective against all the various threats (and these are with known and understood technologies).

The final factor is going to be the propulsion system of the spacecraft. The sorts of high ISP/low thrust drives possible with today's technology would make combat manoeuvres very slow and difficult, almost like combat between sailships on a day with very little wind (or maybe barges drifting in the current). High thrust/high ISP drives like the ORION nuclear pulse drive or derivatives provide the potential for more "aircraft" like manoeuvres, but since all ships work in the same medium, once again there is no real advantage to having "fighters", and indeed ORION type ships scale up rather than down.

Unless this is very important to your story somehow, it may be more interesting to work out the mechanisms of "real" space combat for your story instead.

  • $\begingroup$ There's no story, I'm just playing with ideas! It does seem that the hardest parts to root in reality are the gravity parts - fleets of ships hovering, apparently motionless above the surface of a planet. $\endgroup$
    – ktyldev
    Aug 25, 2016 at 19:07
  • $\begingroup$ Ships can orbit over a planet and "hover" if they are in geosynchronous orbit, but when you see the ISS "hovering" on TV the relative motion is simply not great enough to give you the sense of how fast the ISS is really moving. Movie makers generally don't give a toss. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Aug 25, 2016 at 22:14

There are several reasons that WW2 Naval / Aerial style combat isn't likely in a sci-fi space setting. There are a number of per-requisites that are necessary or likely before space travel is commonplace that would cause combat to be long periods of waiting followed by burst of action too fast for humans to comprehend.

Space combat would take place at ranges and speeds that make human interaction almost irrelevant, and humans become little more than payload.

Additionally, with the amount of kinetic energy projectiles traveling at orbital (much less near-relativistic) velocities armor is mostly meaningless and a larger ship just means a larger target.

So let's break down each of the things that make space combat happen this fast, and ways to ignore or invalidate them.

Sensors / Stealth - One key to any space combat is that, in space, there's nowhere to hide. It's a big empty place that making it hard for a camouflaged ship to hide itself and ambush another ship or fleet of ships.

While a ship could possibly mask itself behind the other side of a planet, as soon as it comes into view it'll be quickly detected by the heat it gives off relative to the emptiness of space. Complicating matters even more is the potential for surveillance drones that scout ahead and around possible terrain - something we'll need to address later.

Pretty much right off the bat you'll need to find some reason to make ships invisible to one another until they are in close proximity. Some sort of countermeasures like ECM that makes radar / lidar / other active sensors ineffective, and some sort of 'cloaking device' (which could be as simple as coolant that lowers the temperature of ships skin to the cold of space) that makes passive IR sensors ineffective.

One additional thing is you can crib from submarine warfare where using active sensors gives away your own position. Of course, there's again little reason that drones / scout ship pickets couldn't do the sensing / jamming rather than the bulk of the combat fleet.

Distance Space is vast. It could be days, weeks, months, even years after detection where two combat fleets would jockey for position in interplanetary combat. Cutting this down would require vastly improved propulsion systems - some sort of jump / warp / relativistic drive to cover large distances quickly. This becomes less of an issue if you're talking about combat around a single planet, but it still takes days for the most powerful rockets even get from the earth to the moon.

Of course, if you're using vastly more powerful drives, you need a way to slow combat back down when the fleets close. I'd suggest jump drives aren't accurate enough (possibly imprecise, sensors blinded while jumping, etc) that forces fleets to jump near each other but regroup rather than jump directly into combat using slower drives.

Speed - The other side of the distance coin.

Stuff in space moves fast. Super, almost incomprehensibly fast. A spacecraft in earth's orbit is moving an order of magnitude faster than a bullet fired by a powerful gun, making it nearly impossible for a human to identify and react to inbound missiles. Energy weapons move even faster.

Once you've used your jump drives to close into 'combat' range, you are still going to have fleets closing on one another at thousands of miles an hour. You aren't going to have dogfights, you're going to have bullets blasting past bullets.

The only thing possibly fast enough to react is going to be machines, basically missiles crashing into missiles. There needs to be some incentive to put people in these missiles rather than making them computer controlled fire-and-forget weapons.

Computers - Computers can do everything people can do faster than people can do it. Why bother with people who take up space, need life support, and are little use in combat? There absolutely needs to be a reason that powerful computers don't work in combat, otherwise everything is robots fighting robots. Human reaction speeds need to be meaningful.

Armor - Armor is meaningless when you're talking about the speeds above. A kinetic projectile fired impacting at the closing velocities above will have enough energy to devastate a capital ship. Even more importantly, that capital ship won't have any time or opportunity to maneuver and avoid that projectile.

Gotta have some sort of shield to absorb those projectiles and the high power energy of lasers.

Shields - There needs to be some sort of shielding to dissipate energy weapons. Of course, there can be consequences of this like only large ships can power shields, and powering shields either takes so much power or it renders the shielded ship impossible to maneuver.

So anyway, to sum this up:

Ships can't detect each other at great distance due to jamming / not wanting to reveal their positions. Stealth systems multiply this factor. Ships close to close distance at high speeds, but slow down relative to each other for combat because they can't see each other while warping / jumping (shielding themselves from crashing into debris).

Once combat is engaged the large manned ships engage shields to protect themselves from instant annihilation with the side effect of being unable to maneuver. Shields work two ways, so they can't just fry anything outside the shields without risking the instant annihilation above which gives a reason for fighters / bombers / torpedo bombers.

Large amounts of EM radiation / jamming (possibly from shields?) makes powerful computers useless so targeting needs to be done by EM resistant humans. This prevents fire and forget robotic missiles.

Carriers close, launch fighters, turn on shields, dogfight ensues. Bombers take down capital ship shields. Everything's done at relatively slow speeds with iron sights.

Alternatively, humans don't do the actual fighting - they jockey for position, set their pieces, then the actual combat happens almost instantly. See submarine warfare for an example where - once everyone has gotten into position and the torpedoes are fired it's basically wait to see if you live or die.

Or, as an easy cheat, mutually ensured destruction means combat is restrained with careful rules. Combat basically becomes a ritualized sport based on WW2 in space. Using computers in combat is a war crime, everything needs to happen at human reaction speeds, limits to velocity / destructive power keep everything from getting destroyed immediately.

  • $\begingroup$ Stuff in space moves fast. Super, almost incomprehensibly fast. doubt if something relatively massive moves faster then 100 km/s near by at the moment. Would not call it incomprehensibly fast. So which speeds we talk about then. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Aug 26, 2016 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ At 100 km/s closure speed an object the size of an aircraft carrier will go from outside the range of human visual acuity to impact in about three seconds. At that velocity, a smaller object like a projectile or missile will impact before a person would be able to comprehend what was happening. At those velocities, for the sake of the discussion here, our frame of reference is 'practically instantaneous'. $\endgroup$
    – zagdrob
    Aug 26, 2016 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ your personal frame of reference maybe, not our, and that is why I'm asking for clarification. And as fast as you found comprehensive examples, easy to imagine situations and use cases, probably you mean faster then that. I'm just asking for number, as I believe it helps me to sort with my frame of references. WB is special. here ppl calculate how much nuclear bombs it is needed to destroy a planet, so you never guess, u know. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Aug 26, 2016 at 15:55

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