The majority of sci-fi set in space falls to some degree into the trap of operating as though space is 2-D (standard tropes and conditions apply).

I don't want to.

What are good tactics to use in a setting in order to maximize the effect of space's 3 dimensional properties?

Some setting info

  • The ships used in combat are mainly fielded by major empires, and consist of heavily armed capital ships, lighter but faster escorts, and fighters for close combat.
  • Weapons in use are railguns/coilguns, antimatter missiles, self-propelled kinetic impactors
  • Ships have hundreds to thousands of airtight bulkheads to survive breaches, and electromagnetic shields as rudimentary protection
  • All major battles, by pan-galactic treaty, take place outside of populated systems, either in deep space or uninhabited systems. This is done based on honor and agreement, with both parties choosing a time and place for battle.
  • ftl travel exists, and is handwaved away as generic warp-drive tech
  • you can assume that most relevant combat takes place far enough away from stars, and that ships are mobile enough to neglect serious orbital mechanics issues
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    $\begingroup$ Can these "Warp Drives" allow a ship considerable control over their sub-FTL speeds, or is it more of an FTL-Only drive? $\endgroup$ – Andon Mar 12 '17 at 0:23
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    $\begingroup$ How to do realistic space combat, Lesson 1: You don't. It's way too sticky and messy. $\endgroup$ – Z.Schroeder Mar 12 '17 at 0:23
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    $\begingroup$ There are a lot of components to realistic space combat, engagement distance, space fighters, stealth, recoil, and more. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Mar 12 '17 at 0:42
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    $\begingroup$ I was researching a possible duplicate; however, seeing as how your single question encompasses so many different other good questions, I have to conclude that it is too broad. Please peruse our spaceships tag (also, space and warfare) for existing questions and pick a narrower topic. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Mar 12 '17 at 0:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Molot has a point. There would have to be a very compelling reason that the fleets have to follow these rules. If your antimatter nukes are really so dangerous that they would ruin the planet you want to capture, then they'd lead with that threat and blockade the planet until they got what they wanted, which threat has no effect unless the planet is so overpopulated or so barren that it requires supplies from elsewhere. Your situation requires a much more dangerous superpower enforcing the rules, which seems unlikely. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Mar 12 '17 at 15:17

The problem with 3d battles by humans is that we are so tuned to gravity and 2d. One approach would be fighter ships manned by the brains of birds.

Anyone who has watched swallows or swifts in flight has been impressed by their command of the 3d dimension, their contempt for gravity and the fact that their brains and sensory apparatus must be a lot faster than ours. For your application falcons might be cooler - there is a long history of man - falcon interaction. The falcon brain would recognize the ship as its body and sally out to fight, just like a falcon takes off from the arm of the falconer.

To be clear: I do not propose giant robot falcons pecking each other in space (not that there is anything wrong with that). The falcon brain would think it was a falcon and would perceive its environment translated into falcon terms. The actions that the falcon brain considered appropriate would be translated into actions by the machine housing it, with feedback translated back into sensory stimuli appropriate for the falcon.

Once this scifi premise is established one could introduce different brains. A bat might be the equal of a falcon. A robber fly could probably outfly either. A dolphin might also do very well in a 3d fight and would be smarter, as well as having some concept of projectile weaponry (sonar blasts).

This approach also leavens the very much been done space battle scenario with color from the biological world.

  • $\begingroup$ Sounds like a Power Rangers reboot! +1 $\endgroup$ – Fayth85 Mar 12 '17 at 0:38
  • $\begingroup$ Given sufficient ship and sensor speeds (FTL in both cases), this would make things really interesting. Bio-ships are neat. $\endgroup$ – Andon Mar 12 '17 at 0:54
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the concept of giant robot falcons pecking each other in space! $\endgroup$ – user535733 Mar 12 '17 at 1:28
  • $\begingroup$ Great, I can't get the idea of falcon drones and sonic dolphin cannons out of my head now... $\endgroup$ – Samwise Mar 12 '17 at 7:17
  • $\begingroup$ A problem with falcon brains is that falcons do not cooperate and do not take orders, and if the history of warfare teaches anything it is that cooperation and discipline are the key to success. Falcons, furthermore, are not accustomed to prey which fight back. Defensive weaponry would go unused, and this does not bode well for the falcon. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Mar 12 '17 at 12:09


Actually 2-D representation is not that bad, because the problem is axially symmetric, and actually 1-D at great distances as being both in their own star systems there are not that many meaningful trajectories they can take to meet in some volume in the galaxy to start the engagement.

You can take look a the game "Children of a Dead Earth" which tries to simulate combat in space. Scott Manly did some gameplays, and you can get an impression what is happening there by watching those videos.

What is interesting is evolutions of strategies in the game itself, as I heard from people who played it, because of changes in tech or physics.(do not know how big those changes were, I guess not that big, as the game tried to be simulator from the start). And that kinda proves for me that tactics are sensitive to small changes in tech and environment.

Again the tech used in the game is good enough for combats across all the stellar system, so it does not have to be around planets. The tech has good delta-v around 100-200 km/s, is capable of staging so for some projectiles it can be even more. But I heard most of the people do orbital combats. I guess that is the result of troubles manage particular types of actions because you have to make to many maneuvers by yourself without combat computer assistance, and that makes certain tactics hard to implement, and that could be translated to your question as for how advanced are technologies supporting the combat mechanics in you possible setting.

Would be a programming of guidance systems and tech be possible in the game, including orbit planning and maneuvering - it would open in the game different tactics which would nullify previous tactics, and use the full potential of current tech. The same had a place in the real world in different times last 300 years, especially in the least 100+ years. Same will be in the future.

So you have not enough information to answer your own question because answering is sensitive to details of available tech. The FTL alone is the cat in the bag and what it may bring to the table is not clear at all.

Notes about the setting

The ships used in combat are mainly fielded by major empires, and consist of heavily armed capital ships, lighter but faster escorts, and fighters for close combat.

  • dump fighters, it is a common trope and it is flawed as a rotten apple.
  • Mass and accelerations - bigger mass does not mean lower acceleration or less delta-v, it easy can be opposite to that. In general acceleration rates are similar. As an example, 1m sphere, with engine and shell of 1mm tick, being scaled to the 1km sphere and the shell with thickness 31'600mm will be the same percentage of mass for the bigger ship as it was for small one with 1mm thick shell. And they can have the same acceleration rates with no problems.
  • you do not have to be a big empire to build a big ship, you just have to have the technology and a place where to build it freely.(a star system). Steal the technology, buy the technology or actually develop it. Ships are built not with humans labor - welders or who else, but by machines.

Weapons in use are railguns/coilguns, antimatter missiles, self-propelled kinetic impactors

  • stick to missiles, they seem to be a good deal

Ships have hundreds to thousands of airtight bulkheads to survive breaches and electromagnetic shields as rudimentary protection

  • airtight bulkheads - you do not need that, use space suits, the rest the equipment have to be capable of working in the vacuum.


Just stick to some game you like the most, they are simulators of possible combats with technologies given by the game rules. And by their own rules, they are pretty accurate about possible tactics. Eve online, children of death earth - are pretty ok. They have their own flaws which do make them not valid as a representation of possible reality in general, but they contain elements which could be valid at certain epochs of developing the space combat.


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