# Comparing space combat to naval combat - Helicopters? [closed]

Although I realize it is technically wrong, I often draw comparisons to naval combat when thinking about potential combat in space between starships.

While you can compare a capital ship in space with a capital ship in the seas and the same can be said for fighters/starfighters, I find it difficult to imagine something similar to a chopper or a helicopter, which has a great many applications in modern times, even on sea.

As far as I'm concerned, a fighter/bomber/interceptor is a rapid reaction force that by virtue of its engine excels in any situation where speed or time is of the essence, and/or the terrain is wide open.

A helicopter, in general, is far more maneuverable and flexible (at the cost of speed) compared to a jet. This is most important in urban combat, but even on the wide sea a chopper can hold its position for an extended time, whereas a plane can't.

On the other, space is literally as open as it gets, so urban combat, unless we talk about "urban" being a huge starship, does not exist.

Now, with regards to comparing it to space combat: Would there ever be the need for a force that, like a helicopter, excels in maneuvering and holding its position, yet is more agile and speedy than any starship ever is, while being more flexible than a starfighter?

Do you see something like a space-helicopter having a role in space combat?

EDIT: ship maneuverability contrary to apparently popular opinion, fighters are more agile and speedy than capital ships, both in acceleration, deceleration as well as turning into either axis.

EDIT: in regards to tech - no individual FTL, but static in-system jumpgates. - laser, railgun, missiles are live - scenario comparable to Babylon 5 + BSG in regards to maneuverability and shiptech, FTL aside.

EDIT: To be more specific regarding the spaceships and starfighters

Imagine either a Babylon 5 Omega Destroyer or a Battlestar (Galactica) or a Venator SD as the capital ship and either a Starfury, X-Wing / TIE-Fighter or a Viper as the fighter/interceptor. Would there be a need or role for a unit slightly more massive than the fighter, but way, way less fast and more maneuverable.

• I think you need to define starship and starfighter more precisely. There are many examples that you could draw upon when thinking about these and you are asking for a comparison to these two. Plus I am not sure this won't be categorised as "opinion-based"/"too-broad" as you are basically asking us to come up with ideas for a new starship-design. It would be easier to give an example of a space-chopper and then ask us if we see any flaws in the design, but that would probably the wrong way around... – Secespitus Mar 24 '17 at 11:52
• Helicopter = Shuttlecraft – user535733 Mar 24 '17 at 12:49
• So speed is completely dependent on engine size, thanks. – Mormacil Mar 24 '17 at 13:17
• A helicopter is a flying vessel with a spinny on top. A chopper is a bike. Unless you are Arnold. – kingledion Mar 24 '17 at 13:20
• Chopper is a customized motorcycle or a helicopter. A regular factory default motorcycle isn't a chopper :P – Mormacil Mar 24 '17 at 13:30

A helicopter's utility does not only lie in its ability to hover and take off vertically, but also in its versatility. A present-day warplane is basically a pair of engines (or sometimes just one engine) with a cockpit and wings glued on. They're super specialised pieces of equipment, with a very limited set of jobs, and they're more or less useless at anything else.

Military helicopters, on the other hand, tend to fill a wide variety of roles. They can transport troops and stores, function as gunships, they can carry airborne radar, sonar, or EW equipment, can perform SAR operations, etc... Your space fleet will likely still need a craft to fill these roles.

In a space fleet, your starfighters would be like Babylon 5's Starfuries - uncompromisingly optimised for combat. A set of the biggest engines you can reasonably carry, a cockpit, and a weapons system, and nothing else. Your capital ships would likely be self-sufficient cities, too massive for fine manoeuvring (it would be possible, but expensive on reaction mass). Your 'helicopters', then, will be the equivalent of shuttles or ships boats - small, probably modular utility craft for transporting cargo and personnel, easily customised for different missions. They'd also likely be your primary air support for planet-side operations.

Some examples:

## Battlestar Galactica

In the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, the titular Battlestar predominantly operates two spacecraft. The Viper is a classic starfighter - single man cockpit, tiny wings, huge engines, and a pair of guns. Powerful, but inflexible.

When the fleet needs ECM support, or transport of passengers or cargo, FTL scouting, SAR, or any other utility function, they call on the Raptor. It has a wider body, lighter engines, and a significant interior volume, enabling a wide range of missions.

## Babylon 5

The Starfury is iconic, of course, but like any starfighter it's very limited in the roles it can fill. It's a pure war-fighter - no cargo capacity, no passenger capacity. For those jobs, the EA has shuttles - both space-only and atmospheric versions.

## Star Wars

Look at an X-wing - it's a beautiful ship, but where off earth could you put a passenger?? There's apparently some light cargo storage on the underside for the pilot's personal effects and survival gear, but there's no way you could use this ship for hauling ammo or food back and forth across vacuum.

Instead, the Alliance has access to some U-wings. These are a much more practical utility vessel, with a roomy cargo/passenger space, and mountable guns to provide support fire, as well as being capable combatants themselves.

These, then, are your helicopter analogues - the Raptor, the shuttles, the U-wing. They're versatile, efficient, and allow starfighters to do what they do best (presumably, fight stars).

• +1 You raise a very good non-technical reason for why a helicopter analogue might exist. – Joe Bloggs Mar 24 '17 at 17:03

Not really

For starters: There is no such concept as 'holding position'. If you want to stop accelerating then you stop accelerating, other than that there is only motion relative to other bodies in space. The whole idea of 'I need to do something active to stay still' doesn't apply.

Secondly: Any 'star fighter' in space is already going to be more like a helicopter than a plane. Building star fighters like planes makes no sense, as there is no need to bank, no need to be streamlined and turning is done using thrusters, not by changing the angle of a control surface relative to the air. Any star fighter should already be able to aim directly at an enemy while engaging in evasive manoeuvres.

Thirdly: You can probably get to where you need to be faster using a capital ship. In space the most important thing to bear in mind when working out how fast you can get from A to B is how much you can change your velocity (delta-V), which generally improves as engines get bigger.

Depending on exactly what your engines are like you'll probably find that large monolithic starships are more efficient in terms of acceleration and deceleration and can therefore get to targets better, while star fighters need to be used in a similar manner to escorts for larger ships in naval combat (removing smaller threats that the main capital ship isn't designed to deal with). In that scenario your 'helicopter' class fighter is redundant: You've already got a capital ship.

EDIT: As there's some disagreement in the comments and the OP has edited the original post, let me make my meaning absolutely clear here: I'm not trying to say that a capital ship will necessarily be more agile than a starfighter, I'm saying that unlike a naval carrier group/plane combo you will be able to get to your effective engagement distance faster in a well designed carrier than by relying on fighters alone. This is fundamentally down to the design constraints on a fighter vs those on a capital ship, notably that if the designers of a capital ship chose to they could simply increase the amount of fuel available to the capital ship, where a fighter would not have that luxury without sacrificing the manoeuvrability that it needs to perform it's role. This removes a potential use case for the helicopter as it's role is already being fulfilled by the carrier that was used to deliver a group of fighters (which must be short range in order to stay agile) to a target as fast as possible.

Of course, all of this depends on exactly what your technology is like, what weapons you're using, where you're fighting and a hundred other historical or sociological reasons beside. So if you want to differentiate 'copter' class of starship from 'fighter' class of starship, go nuts. An example might be that star fighters use projectile weapons and engage in fairly close quarters combat where starcopters sit at a distance and use missiles.

But fundamentally there isn't any real difference other than the names you give them.

• "If you want to stop accelerating then you stop accelerating" - Or set your reference frame to be some other ship that's accelerating at the same rate as you. Then you're stationary and it's everyone else's problem instead. – aroth Mar 24 '17 at 15:42
• "In space the most important thing to bear in mind is power-weight ratios, which generally improve as engines get bigger." Dead wrong. The mass of a capital ship increases as a function of its volume, whereas the maximum amount of engines you can use are tied to the surface area you can allocate to them. The bigger the ship, the slower it is to accelerate, just like it is on earth. – UIDAlexD Mar 24 '17 at 15:44
• @JoeBloggs Yes and no. Delta-V Isn't a function of a crafts raw mass, but rather the ratio of mass-to-fuel. A 100,000 ton ship that's 50% fuel tank has the exact same Delta-V as a 1 kilogram toy rocket that's 50% fuel. To my way of thinking, a fighter-craft would actually have more Delta-V than a capital ship, because it doesn't have to carry around crew quarters, spare parts, hangars, medical bays, and enough weapons & ammo to last a complete deployment. – UIDAlexD Mar 24 '17 at 16:31
• Everything in your third point is the exact opposite of the truth. – Shane Mar 24 '17 at 16:46
• The second thing that might be considered 'holding position' is landing on planets. It isn't exactly the same thing as hovering in place, but the space navy/sea navy comparison isn't great to begin with, so that isn't a surprise. With the tech levels described, you aren't capable of building your capital ships with the ability to land and take off from planets. You could add that capacity to your fighters. But any pure space superiority fighter will wipe the floor a fighter weighed down by landing equipment. – Shane Mar 24 '17 at 16:56

# What are helicopters useful for today?

Today, they are used to hunt submarines and engage small surface craft.

'Sub hunting' or anything like it, doesn't exist in space. So thats out.

I you are a hostile (to the US) nation in the Perisan Gulf, and you want to take out an American warship, your best option (that isn't a submarine) is to swarm it with small ships. These small ships will either shoot large missiles (especially large relative to the size of the ship) at it, or just ram it while filled with explosives.

For various reasons, a surface ship isn't great at combating these threats. Mostly, the angles of fire and visibility are constricted by both the horizon and the need for the ship's deck to be elevated several meters above sea level. This means that naval guns have to depress (i.e. elevation below 0) to hit small boats at close range.

Helicopters, by virtue of their altitude, avoid this problem. A helicopter gunship, like a Cobra or Apache, can ruin whole fleet of small boats with a 30mm autocannon.

# This doesn't work in space

The problem is, in space the same limitations on surface ships don't apply. There is no simliar problem of constraint with either 'horizon' or a 'deck'. Capital ships in space should be able to deploy weapons in any direction in 3-d space. Given that they can mount more powerful weapons, and that these weapons have travel speeds of close to or at the speed of light (particle beams or lasers or similar), they should not need any help combating small craft, whether small boats or starfighters or anything. In fact, given advancements in computerized aim, I would suspect that starfighters would be nothing by shrapnel in a fight with a capital ship.

In conclusion, there is no need for anything helicopter-like in a deep space battle.

• "Today, they are used to hunt submarines and engage small surface craft." -1 Black Hawk Down – Shane Mar 24 '17 at 17:00
• Actually, in today's modern military, they are primarily used as a quick troop transport due to their maneuverability and ability to drop troops off at specific locations. Since moving troops vertically up and down isn't necessarily the greatest challenge in Space, this role may be somewhat limited. – bhilgert Mar 24 '17 at 17:12
• @Shane This question is about comparing deep space combat to open ocean combat. Did Blackhawk Down happen in the open ocean? This is a bad comment. – kingledion Mar 24 '17 at 19:05
• Whoosh! The point you weren't able to wrap your head around is that whether land or sea based, helicopters aren't limited to mainly "hunt submarines and engage small surface craft". Hell, right now there are thousands of helicopters in service and NONE of them are hunting down submarines or sinking small surface craft. Outside of training, at least. – Shane Mar 24 '17 at 20:09

## The problem with fighters

You will not have manned starfighters. In space size doesn't dictate maneuverability. A 2-person fighter can be as agile as a 2000-men starship. Taking maneuverability out of the equation it makes no sense to make small manned crafts.

A Note On Space Combat In depicting combat in space, science fiction (movies in particular) long have conveyed rather simplistic models of WWI and WWII fighting. Tiny craft, for instance, are normally depicted as faster than large ("lumbering" is frequently the adjective) ships; this is indeed true, or can be true, on Earth, where conditions force trade-offs between mass/heavy weapons and speed/maneuverability. But conditions in space are not egalitarian.

For general expectations, sub-light ship speed would be limited by the size of the engine, if the types involved are equal, and by the mechanics of relativity which demand (at near-light speeds) great increments of mass/energy for tiny increments of speed. (There is also the problem of interstellar particles at high speeds turning the noses of ships into little atomic battlefields, to the misfortune of hull and crew.)

In space, ranges are unlimited by terrain or earth curvature, visibility is absolute, and surprise probably only strategically. In such conditions, the faster ship will be the one also with bigger and better weapons; engine performance will tie directly to range and breath of energy and field weapons. Evasive maneuvers carried out by necessarily shallow curves at even 0.1c speeds will hardly challenge sophisticated fire control and titanic-aperture lasers (free of planetary weight deformations, lasers theoretically can be of any size). The next time you watch Battlestar Galactica, ask yourself how well an F-16 would fare against an energy beam with a diameter of 2000 kilometers: in space, given quality, bigger is better. Lynn Willis (1979)

You can't hide your heat signature in space. So you'll need to either kill the enemy faster, evade enemy fire or withstand it. As maneuverability isn't linked to size, fighters have no advantage here. Neither do they have the space for heavy armor or large armaments. A larger ship will do better.

Now if you want to overwhelm your enemy point defense missiles could be augmented with a drone force. Drones can be more maneuverable than manned starships because they have no problems with sudden acceleration.

## Roles of a chopper

So your chopper alternative is gonna be put against (large) starships and small drones. What does a chopper do? It moves material and personnel around the battlefield, quickly engages enemy targets like armor or is used to scout ahead.

So lets look at those roles. Movement of material and personnel? Everything will have autonomous propulsion or it's ammunition. There isn't much to move around. Ships will move at high relative speeds dodging enemy attacks. There won't be any lone spaceman out there. Perhaps you could do rescue missions. But saving stranded spacemen would be something you do after the battle. Not a combat mission and any spaceship that can maneuver careful enough to not hit our guys will do.

Quickly engage the enemy. Bigger ships have room for bigger engines and thus can do faster. It's not gonna be there faster then one of the larger ships. Perhaps you'd have a relatively smaller ship to be a smaller target but it's still gonna be a large craft, or a drone.

Scouting? Well, given that there is barely anything to hide in space you can't hide your heat signature. Ships, unless inside something like a warpfield, are going to be detected well before weapon range and much before visual range. For this a drone would be more useful. It happens to be more expendable and can be more maneuverable.

## Summary

No, unless you make it a drone. It still won't shift cargo during a battle but it will bring superior maneuverability. Smaller means smaller engines = slower. Mass has no relation to maneuverability in the vacuum of space. Thus a smaller craft loses another advantage.

• I don't know what you are getting at when you say "A 2 person fighter can be as agile as a 2000 men starship." Acceleration is still force over mass. As mass goes up, you need a lot more force to change direction. More force from engines means more stress, and eventually the structural materials of your ship can't take it. That is why smaller will be more maneuverable. – kingledion Mar 24 '17 at 13:15
• In terms of forward thrust, it is likely that a small ship will accelerate the same as a large one, but in terms of rotational speed, the smaller ship will have a HUGE advantage in how fast it could turn since the crew will be small and presumably more centrally located, so the gee forces exerted on the ends of the ship can be greater. In a long capital ship the crew at the ends will experience much higher gee forces if the ship tried to turn at the same rate as a much smaller ship. Assuming there isn't some sort of anti-gravity, of course. – Jason K Mar 24 '17 at 13:43
• You assume a lot - unless you have anti gravity, a small shit may very well be more maneuverable than a a large one. Design the fighter right, and the pilot is in the center of mass = low centrfugal force. A large ship - I would not want to be 50 meters in front of the center of mass when the ship decides to just spin around. That is "me soup on a bulkhead" then. SO, for your statement to be true you must have physics breaking technology. – TomTom Mar 24 '17 at 15:27
• Extending what @JasonK said, another major limitation on turning will be the maximum forces that the structure of the vehicle can withstand. This applies both for G-forces near the extremities of a large ship, and for inertial forces. Moment of inertial is proportional to $mr^2$, which in turn will be proportional to the stresses experienced by the ship while turning. – ckersch Mar 24 '17 at 15:28
• You assume people during combat are not huddled in the center deep in the ship. – Mormacil Mar 24 '17 at 15:28

Consider what uses helicopters and what uses fixed wing aircraft. You can deploy a helicopter off a small pad on the back of a destroyer or frigate, while fixed wing aircraft need a much larger launch/recovery platform. So in your space analogy a helicopter equivalent would be a small manned shuttle type craft that can be deployed by smaller ships, while fighters would be larger (possibly due to more remass, weapon systems, more life support for longer patrols?) and need a much larger base spacecraft.

As for roles, the shuttle is what you use when you want to ferry personnel or supplies between ships, perform short ranged missions, etc. Sort of merging the helicopter and small boat roles in the wet navy.

But also realize that 95% of these tasks will be better suited to remotely piloted drones/AI machines.

Close engagement and boarding, getting around to the other side of the behemoth, inserting boots into command centers, engine rooms, rescue, delivering medics, O2?

• Why would you need to deliver footwear? – Mark Gardner Mar 24 '17 at 14:54
• Space Marines = "boots". : ) – Neal Mar 24 '17 at 18:58
• ah. Ok. I understand the sentence, but why are space marines footwear? – Mark Gardner Mar 28 '17 at 17:18
• It is a figure of speech. "Boots on the ground." – Neal Mar 28 '17 at 17:56

After reading several answers I think I might have a solution. It is based on several assumptions, but here goes.

Let's say (as others have pointed out) you want to put the biggest engines and thrusters on your fighters, and also big guns. That doesn't leave much room for shields, and perhaps your fighters are better at outmaneuvering fire than absorbing it (assuming speed-of-light weapons aren't being used or aren't practical for some reason).

Perhaps you want to protect your fancy capital ship with more than just its own shield, and this assumes it can't have several layered and/or decentralized shields.

### Shield Craft

Well then a smaller craft at a distance from your capital ship could be precisely designed to have a powerful shield, and be only as maneuverable as your capital ship.

Assuming a "Helicopter Pendant" is some kind of award for a human pilot, the question of whether it takes a human pilot or an automated system to implement shield craft might be another discussion.

### Side Note

Theoretically your capital ship could come upon planets with atmospheres, and in this case it could be useful to deploy VTOL craft to explore it, or do other activities within an atmosphere where helicopter-type craft would be incredibly versatile.

• The idea of this VTOL craft exploring or engaging in different atmospheres but still being able to maneuver back out/through to space might be the most useful aspect of a craft of this nature. – bhilgert Mar 24 '17 at 17:21

While not an exactly equivalent spot to an actual helicopter, a subgroup of military helicopters (and aircraft) is actually featured in many science fiction universes.

They are called Gunship. With helicopters specifically, they mostly fill two roles, with fixed-wing aircraft one: Heavy fire support (Heli&Fixed) or troop transport (heli).

While not all of the helicopter gunships can transport troops, one of the more prominent gunships of the soviet and modern era is the Mil Mi-24 Hind, bearing a mind-boggling rocket- and missile armament as well as machine cannons, it can also transport a medium contigent of special forces or regular troops into battle.

The probably most-known fixed-wing gunship is the AC-130 Spectre, which bears different armaments of cannon up to howitzer calibre.

The main similarity is the relative fire power to other support or even attack craft when air superiority is held.

Similarly, I would see the role of Gunships in space battles, assuming that your universe sees this as feasible. Gunships would be less manouverable than fighters, but would carry a heavier weaponry as well as a potential small bording party. To get the most of these craft, you would have to, just as in the real world, take air control (or space superiority perhaps?) or at least be dominant enough so that the enemies fighter craft cannot intercept the more sluggish gunships before they can bring their armament to bear/get close enough to board the enemy vessel.

Some Science-Fiction universes have done this to different degrees.

Battlestar Galactica

Two major vessels: The Colonial Raptor and the Cylon Heavy Raider. Both serve support roles in the battle, albeit they differ a bit from each other. However, in that sense, both serve the roles of something akin to helicopter gunships very well.

Star Wars

The old Republic used the LAAT as a Gunship with Troop transport capability. It was used to land troops and provice air-to-air and air-to-ground support. Since its essentially a space ship, it could be used in support roles too due to its rather heavy armament, if air/space superiority has been taken.

Star Citizen

The Redeemer is a gunship much similar to the way both star wars and the real world handles them: A less manouverable weapons platform with many heavier weapons than pure fighter counterparts, it is also a boarding platform as well as a landing craft for ground assaults like the LAAT.

Ideas

Like other answers before mine, I can think of many other support roles a "helicopter equivalent" space vessel could assume. Some would overlap with AWACS and Bomber roles, some with pure transport roles. Some would have EWAR capabilities.

I would say however that in this kind of setting, it is almost impossible to distinguish helicopter-like roles from those of other support craft. I mean, since everything is moving in space, "helicopters" would be the same as "assault boats", "gunboats", "Torpedo boats", "submarines", etc.

There is no reasonable distinction to make here. I would therefore abandon this thought and just refer to "gunship", as you could group all of these together in one word without losing their meaning.

Side Notes

My examples assume you would have space battles like you would planet-based naval battles, which may not be realistic, but fun, at least from the perspective of characters in novels and games.

The usefulness of each of these vessels depend on the state of your sides space superiority in the area of operation. the less control you have, the less effective your gunships will be. However, if you hold control, your gunships can bring much more firepower to bear.

## Helicopter-like spacecraft would be useful in constricted environments.

These may not be common in space, but there's no reason to think that they couldn't exist. Mostly, constricted environments will be those that surround large, man-made structures such as space stations, industrial installations, or exceptionally large ships. For example, a highly maneuverable spacecraft could be useful in an environment like this:

With multiple sources of cover, having a vehicle that can move around and exploit that cover, as well as effectively target enemies using that cover, could be very useful. That vehicle would effectively be your "space-helicopter".

Space-helicopters wouldn't be used if the goal of the attacker was to destroy the space station/city/etc, just as helicopters aren't used to level a city to the ground, but if the goal of the attackers was to destroy pockets of resistance in a structure that they'd prefer to leave intact, something that can move effectively and hold its position in a congested environment would be incredibly useful.

As it was pointed out in previous answers, there is no direct analogue. But one can theorize tasks, which would be some way similar to those, which are solved by helicopters by the wet navy:

1) In a sufficiently low-tech setting kinetic missiles launched from ground on the other side of the planet, and placed on a retrograde intercept orbit could pose a serious threat to the spaceships due to their sheer orbital velocity of many km/s and because in the intercept phase they are only pieces of metal, hard to detect or stop. Therefore, military spaceships entering orbit around a possibly hostile planet would place some satellites to high (possibly synchronous) orbit, to have the full planetary surface observed, and provide early warning in the case of enemy missile launch (so they can change course in time.) These satellites would be a bit similar to submarine-hunting and sensor-carrying helicopters.

2 ) The other main use of helicopters is troop insertion and rescue.

After the battle is over, and the starships have gunned the life out of each other, there are a lot of large pieces of debris on orbit. Whole ships, structurally largely intact, but disabled and their crew killed, are acting as space trash. But the victor's starships are unwilling to approach these. Which admiral would risk to loose his flagship in debris collision, or because of a reactor explosion on a nearby, wrecked enemy vessel.

Instead they launch smaller crafts. These recovery tugs are propelled around by small thrusters. (Velocities were mached before the battle started) They carry medical equipment, plasma cutters, magnetic grappling hooks, light (pont-defense grade) weaponry, and xenon lances (fictional equipment to shut down reactors from outside.) They carefully approach floating debris, and cut the survivors out from the deformed hab modules (before they run out of oxygen) and accept the surrender of the enemy survivors (or murder them, depending on their ethics.)

After the people were evacuated, they scavenge everything usable: fission, fusion, and annihilation ammunition, fusion control magnets, laser crystals, computer cores, nanostructural hull plating, hydroponics tanks, robots.. or whatever is considered valuable equipment in your setting. They also collect intelligence information: sample enemy armor and fuel tanks, record the holes made by allied weaponry, (to fine-tune the phasers for the next battle or to correct the targeting computers) copy the logs and memory units, remove the identification transponders, and collect trophies of the victory.

In the last phase all the remaining debris is pushed off-orbit and left to burn up in the atmosphere, or (if necessary equipment is available, and the metals worth the extra propellant usage) is collected and compressed for recycling.

2B) Theoretically, the rule of planetary dropships (like First Order landing craft or LAAT/i in Star Wars) is also a bit similar to helicopters, and in some films, these are actually used as attack helicopters in the atmosphere, but I don't think, that in a more hard sci-fi setting, this is possible, since reentry capable troop transports would be designed to quickly deploy the units and evade enemy fire, not for hovering and close support, since they would be easy prey for ground based missiles.