Long-range naval warfare with missile and carrier are popular in human modern warfare, since the later world war 2 when carriers are overpower battleship.

However, I wonder why in many space-fiction, people prefer close range combat.

I define long-range space warfare mean sending attack craft (drone, starfighter) and missile at enemy fleet while our fleet stay at safe distance, outside enemy firing range.

For example, in Starwar, especially, The Clone War saga, most of the time, we see space combat involve many big ship from both sides. Although the Republic and separatists have their own starfighter. The starfighters are rarely used to carry out the attack on enemy fleet why the carrier sit back at safe distance, but rather join the battle with their carrier. Fighter role is more defensive. However, starfighter have enough firepower and mobility (with its own hyperdrive) to carry out an attack without any big ship, (the attack on Malevolence) is a proof.

More example, Mass Effect 3, many space battle also involve big ship and capital ship in each side.

In Ender game (movies and novel), although bug overnumber human with their fighter, but they send their carrier into firing range of human fleet rather than stay back. Result in one-shot of MD can chain effect both fighter and carrier.

closed as primarily opinion-based by Hohmannfan, James, Green, TrEs-2b, Rob Watts Sep 26 '16 at 21:39

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • Let's face it space is VAST! Sorry that's probably an understatement, most filmmakers tend to capture as much details and explosion as budget can afford and squeeze everything into say 2 hours including end credit. In reality nobody would declare attack and bring an entire battalion to cheer, usually sabotage or any covert mission that leaves little evidence on scene to avoid embarrassing diplomatic issues usually take place often. Don't underestimate the power of harassment in war those who remains clear headed wins. – user6760 Sep 26 '16 at 7:32
  • Hm. Now that I think about it, this is more of an opinion-type question. There are some straightforward, reference-able answers, but they all relate to tendencies, rather than facts. I had interpreted it as a question to do with cinematography, but I may have misunderstood. An interesting, if unrelated, discussion, I suppose. :v – Augusta Sep 28 '16 at 19:52
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    Perhaps it would work better with the title, "Why do long-range and long-range carrier engagements seem less common in science-fiction?" although this doesn't have a particularly factual-type answer, either..? – Augusta Sep 28 '16 at 19:54
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Battles are much more exciting when you can see both sides at once.

The answer much of the time is probably simply that long- and standoff-range combat just is not flashy enough when it occurs at the distances spacecraft are liable to engage each other at. Even in popular media, naval battles tend to take place in flashy spates of gunfire exchanged between aircraft strafing ships and being pursued by other jets only seconds behind. This sort of combat is much more exciting-- much "sexier"-- than what is more liable to be the case: missiles being fired from tens, hundreds, or thousands of kilometers away, travelling-- probably drifting most of the time, save for course corrections-- for minutes or hours, then exploding near their targets, hoping to strike them with high-velocity shrapnel, if they aren't defeated mid-flight, which they very likely could be.

Space is huge.

In space, this dawdling is made much worse by the fact that ranges are liable to be on the order of thousands (solid munitions) to hundreds of thousands (laser weapons) of kilometers, orbit-to-surface bombardment aside. This would either involve a lot of travel time on the part of craft and munitions to their targets, or would be extremely difficult to frame in any cinematic way because only one side is properly visible. Conversely, the amount of time it would take a laser to realistically strike its target at that range makes cuts difficult and unwieldy, which is why you see "slow lasers" in franchises like Star Wars so often: a narrow ray shining across an entire battlefield at once for a short moment doesn't have the same cinematic energy that a glowing bolt of death careening (that is, slow enough to have perceptible motion) through space does. Also, it's more riveting if they miss sometimes.

More exotic sorts of weapons like transwarp munitions or FTL missiles can bridge this 'cinematographic gap' by cutting the weapons' flight time down and adding an element of unpredictability to their appearance on the battlefield, but are still difficult to depict correctly due to their speed, to say nothing of their physical practicality. Alternatively, consider this somewhat spoilery example from the "Gateway Shuffle" episode of Cowboy Bebop, or the Starkiller shot from Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Having things to look at matters.

Sometimes long-range battles can be shown somewhat realistically by exchanging white-knuckle dogfighting for volume of fire. The animated adaptation of Legend of the Galactic Heroes does this fairly elegantly, but a pitched battle with thousands of ships in geometric formations doesn't generally have the same visual appeal as a stomach turning race through an asteroid field.

Quick, twitchy skirmishes between ships only a few dozen lengths apart are by far more visually engaging than slow tactical battles fought over light-seconds.

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    Most of the time in Star Wars energy weapons are not LASER. LASERs are just light they dont explode, they don't have a knockback power so you will not make fly stormtroopers with a laser. Most of the time they use bolt of plasma. Its form is unstable and it fade in the distance. Also it is matter so it is slower than the speed of light (even if it should go a lot faster than in the movies). – Rigop Sep 26 '16 at 12:32
  • @Rigop Fair point! My point was that there are weapons called "turbolasers" firing energy shots that are clearly not doing what a laser ought to. – Augusta Sep 26 '16 at 17:00

Disclaimer: Sci-Fi spoilers full ahead


Picking out one example: In Enders Game (at least the book), the carriers do actually stay comparatively far from the battle theatre. Unless they're used as a strategic bait. Other than that, in the predecessor books that recently came out, the only real fights between formics and humans are close-range because the defensive measures of the formics blast every threat out of the sky from a safe distance, thus only close approach allows actually attacking their superior ship.
Disclaimer: That is how I remember it from reading the book(s)

Other than that: Close range space battles look Way More Awesome! and People have a hard time relating to something more abstract, such as long-range-fighting (would you pay money to watch this for 240min on the big screen?)

Augusta is right about why it's done, but there are really only 4 options which are;

  • Super long range, no one seeing anything. We're talking full planet wipe out from the other side of the galaxy. Obviously 1 shot and takes a really long time.
  • Trade lane sniping, where the attackers just wait for you and target as you come in since they know roughly where you're coming in and the targeted ship knows this so it's 1 or 2 shots from either side and the battle is finished which is shown in Heinlein's work.
  • Bombing runs. Usually one shot and then the bomber flies away. Not really interesting.
  • Close range fleet battles are considered by many something that will be pure fiction, but imo, they won't be because there is no point wasting the fuel to park far out an then send in a swarm which also lowers your overall fire power.

So the reality is that either you're not going to have much combat that is flashy or dramatic or you're going to have swarm and hive battles which we see. Being that the other 3 are boring when over used and there aren't many ways to alternate them and you need to build drama for them to work... and swarms you can generate plenty of stories in one battle, the obvious choice will always be swarm and hive battles...especially when you realize that the stories tellable from the first 3 are tellable in the shorter range battles much quicker.

There's also the fact that people generally probably can't relate to the other 3 well. First is the scale of what we're talking about. People won't be able to connect to someone shot a laser that is so powerful it can vaporize the world which will be here in a few thousand years. There's no real understanding there. Trade lane sniping isn't really a thing any more, because there are other ways to get places so you can't just set up in one place and even when it was there was always the ability to turn around, where as in space there wouldn't be. You no choice but to continue on this known deadly route and while it's realistic the mind rejects its reality because we're not used to that. And bombing runs are almost always related to villains or desperation. In film, you generally don't want that perception for your heroes nor to end on that note so it's best to avoid this battle type for the most part.


Also if you want to see how boring it is to be in combat, let alone watch combat, with the scales we're talking about take a look at EVE Online's combat. It's horrendously boring.

Very long range missile alone will be highly ineffective and easy to counter if you know that's the only threat. Space is vast and it's 3D very different from naval combat. They can be used in full out attack so they won't be the only targets.

As for sending only fighters, they will be in huge disadvantage because the enemy carrier will have AA and Flak cannons + they will send their own interceptors.

PS. One more thing to consider. Ships are slow and with air carriers, battleships will have a hard time approaching them because of the hundreds of km range of planes. While a spaceship can jump out of hyperspace/FTL in firing range.

I thought about this my self, i asked earlier a question about the precision of a jump, as it is related to this question.

It appears that even with the ultra precise tools that we have today, traveling over large distances, with the imperfection there is, one could easily end up in either side of the solar system.

Imagine that you have to move in a carrier group somewhere, and you cannot see exact where you are going to end up. Because your accuracy is about a light-hour.

Either you can land your smaller ships near the enemy and your capital ship somewhere else or the risk of ending up at the same place crashing in to each other.

  • A lot of that has to do with the fact that we don't know where stars actually are, they're fast moving, and they're far away. Once we have a good measure of where they actually are and travel quick enough that this matters accuracy won't actually be an issue. If you know all that you'll just input the values and set course. The system will handle all the corrections. If you do this with a whole fleet, the entire fleet uses the same headings because they're relative to the ship itself who's position is relative to the main ship and would remain the same, thus no probs crashing into each other. – Durakken Sep 26 '16 at 8:46
  • @Durakken my answer was mostly related to jumping or trancendance travel. Not FTL or gate travel. – Magic-Mouse Sep 26 '16 at 11:53

Carriers float on the water. Fighters fly using jet engines. Missiles fly using rocket engines.

That means a missile is faster but shorter-ranged than a fighter, and a fighter is faster but shorter-ranged than a carrier. Then there are subs, which can dive under the water and launch missiles, but not planes.

In a space setting, either you explain why a similar difference exists or you accept that carriers can outrun fighters. That would change the tone of the setting.

  • "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" Fighters are fast and agile, carriers are slow and ponderous, and the setting does not really try to justify it. Star Wars.
  • "Fighters pay for their agility with low endurance." Slightly more reasonable. Some of that can be found in Star Wars, or Battlestar Galactica.
  • "Carriers are faster than fighters." I can't recall any movie settings with that premise right now, only books.
  • In most sci-fi smaller ships are more agile and maybe faster at sublight, but have no or limited FTL. This isn't really something that needs to be explained because massive ships take a lot of practical thrusting to move and maneuver but have a lot of space for energy and drives to do FTL. And this automatically creates this difference. Same applies for real world too along with a few other traits. – Durakken Sep 26 '16 at 16:08
  • @Durakken, the thrust should scale with the weight of the drive unless there are scale efficiencies. And both X-Wings and Raptors have FTL drives. – o.m. Sep 26 '16 at 17:04

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