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Assuming a world where starships don't use missiles and bullets in combat much. They only carry those as a final strike or for convenience. Their arsenal is almost entirely composed of electricity-based weaponry and tools: Arc generators to scar opponent ships with lightning bolts, field generators to deflect and reallocate incoming discharges and objects, voltage adjustment, gas emitters to produce plasma blobs, the works.

This could invalidate certain tactics - small craft might be too easy to destroy because once they enter the range of a large cruiser, they don't even have to be targeted - they're just struck by a discharge due to voltage difference. They can try to match surface potential, but the cruiser is already varying its own based on some unpredictable sequence, making it unfeasible. Missiles suffer the same fate, so they're out of the question.

Assuming power isn't hard to carry, how would this arsenal further change known tactics that are used in naval and air battles? Could it possibly invalidate certain kinds of corps and produce new ones?

Specifics on the technology available:

  • Gas emitters to create a medium for discharges and possibly shielding
  • Field generators that produce radial EM fields
  • Voltage adjustments to modulate surface voltages on plating and in the fields and plasma
  • Heavy disposable plating, with insulation, to protect from enemy attacks and protect the inside from overheating of the plating itself
  • Arc generators to allow arcing through the generated medium

  • Power striking the plating and shields can be absorbed if it isn't directly disruptive; enemy weapons that don't immediately cause damage have the power redirected into batteries.

edit - sorry about these changes, it's an old idea and I don't have my notes at hand

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    $\begingroup$ You need to address why they don't use ballistic weaponry as well, it would be the perfect counter to what you are suggesting. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 2 '14 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ What about nukes? $\endgroup$ – Euphoric Oct 2 '14 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ Explosives (up to and including nukes) wouldn't be particularly effective (unless delivered as a warhead that punches into the ship then explodes internally) as there is no atmosphere in space to carry the shockwave. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 2 '14 at 15:42
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    $\begingroup$ For anyone interested in both points let's take this to chat - it's getting way too long for comments. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 2 '14 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ Thought of the idea last night...what about 'missiles' that do the emissions of Gas for the medium for electrical attacks? The missile wouldn't have to strike a target to be effective, just draw a line of particles for the charge to travel through? It almost becomes targeting based on missile tracers. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Oct 3 '14 at 18:03
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The US Army has dabbled in this field recently, producing a prototype of something called a Laser Induced Plasma Channel (LIPC). Unfortunately, this weapon, like any weapon that relies on electrical arcs, requires some element in its path to conduct the charge. In the case of the LIPC, for instance, it turns a straight line of air into plasma. This provides the lightning with an easily aimable path of least resistance to a target.

So let's assume that you do have a means of providing a conductive element for your weaponry (This is sci-fi, after all. We can always handwave a little). What are some of the issues your ships might run into?

Friendly Fire

Your weapons, as you say:

small craft might be too easy to destroy because once they enter the range of a large cruiser, they don't even have to be targeted - they're just struck by a discharge due to voltage difference.

You run a very real risk of zapping friendly targets at all times, requiring any formation of vessels to keep out of range of each other's weapons as well as the enemy's. This prevents formations from easily concentrating fire on targets, devolving a battle into a series of duels between ships. (Note that this can involve a lot of drama for your story, so this may be a plus)

Stealth

A vessel at any state of combat readiness is going to be a massive glowing beacon to any ship in the same system, because it is going to be constantly dumping power into space around it via its weapon systems. Its also going to glow, visually, by constantly zapping stellar debris and dust. Ships ready for a fight in your universe cannot be stealthy.

Access

While under combat readiness, your ships are unapproachable. Shuttles, eva, repair drones, anything that's even slightly conductive, is going to get zapped indiscriminately whether it be friend or foe. In order to receive anything from outside the hull of the ship, the vessel will need to power down both defenses and weapons, leaving it vulnerable.

Other Weapons

Maintaining suspension of disbelief requires, in part, that your reader/player/etc not think to himself: "But why don't they just _____". In the case of these lighting weapons, why don't ships just arm themselves with more conventional weapons such as rockets, missiles, railguns, lasers, etc.? All of these weapons require lower tech levels, are cheaper to produce, and are more difficult to defend against.

The most important thing to remember though, this is your world, and if you really want there to be vast conflicts full of lightning throwing ships dancing in and out of clouds of gas, you can make that happen. However, you need to address "why". What makes lightning throwers so effective (or other weapons so ineffective) that they would be the only weapons used? This will only make your world that much more engaging and intriguing to your audience, and and can flesh out your backstory immensely.

tl/dr: Do it, and make it awesome. But also make it logical.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding, good answer :) $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 3 '14 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ Great answer - no offense to the other answers, the question is kind of crappy, but this one I liked the most so far. However, I did mention that they supposedly regulate their surface voltage through a sequence, to specifically prevent friendly fire. Obviously the regulation would maintain friendly ships close to the voltage level of the weapon, but if distances are taken into account and easier paths, couldn't that work? $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 3 '14 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ @ivy_lynx It definitely could! You could use the army's idea for blazing easiest paths for offensive purposes, helping to cut down on friendly fire. Defenses still present a problem if you intend for them to zap any nearby object, but keeping ships out of each other's defensive envelopes is not too constraining. As to surface voltage regulation, while I suspect the science doesn't work like you think it does, it would allow for exciting use of intrigue and espionage. Imagine if a fleet managed to get ahold of the voltage sequence their enemy was using! $\endgroup$ – Danny Reagan Oct 3 '14 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ @DannyReagan that last part is what I was thinking of. The ultimate point of the whole idea is to make space combat more unusual and a lot less linear for a reader/player/whatever. If it has tiny 3rd-4th level details that don't make complete sense, it's probably ok. Unless something is actually real I don't think you can get a completely flawless imaginary setting. The biggest sin is being boring, not being non-sensical :P $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 3 '14 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ @ivy_lynx Then by all means go for it, just don't forget to answer the obvious objections or you'll lose your readers as they try to come up with ways around arbitrary restrictions. Even a simple handwave can be sufficient if the thing is cool enough. i.e: "Projectile weapons were quickly rendered obsolete before the awesome power of the Arc Caster." $\endgroup$ – Danny Reagan Oct 3 '14 at 14:05
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The major problem if this weapon system would be range. I can only imagine your "medium emmiters" being able to bridge area of mere meters. In this case, it would be easier to just run few bullets from few kilometers away.

And if ships have so much power to be able to deflect extremely fast bullets and maintain plasma shields, then it could easily be used to power huge lasers. Lasers are generally better ways to deliver energy to enemy in vacuum than electrons.

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  • $\begingroup$ But lasers are light - what if you absorb it or reflect it? In one case you could be helping your enemy, in the other you're handing them a new weapon. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 2 '14 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ @ivy_lynx "what if you absorb" thats exactly what we want. " reflect it", for that, you would need way to reflect most of wavelengths, from visible to gamma radiation. Not really possible with current materials. $\endgroup$ – Euphoric Oct 2 '14 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ What about absorbing a range of wavelengths with a gas, funneling the extra heat through heatsinks into a generator and reflecting a different range with solid materials? Are the ranges too broad to combine multiple solutions effectively? $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 2 '14 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ @ivy_lynx I recommend reading projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/thermodynamics.php . And just a hint: heat generators work on difference in temperature, not on heat itself. $\endgroup$ – Euphoric Oct 2 '14 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ Read it - here's a link and a quote from it "Prigogine is best known for his definition of dissipative structures and their role in thermodynamic systems far from equilibrium, a discovery that won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977. In summary, Ilya Prigogine discovered that importation and dissipation of energy into chemical systems could reverse the maximization of entropy rule imposed by the second law of thermodynamics." (emphasis mine). Just because it's popular amongst experts doesn't make it true. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 2 '14 at 16:43
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I can imagine a special kind of gas emitter to extend the range of a ship's electrical weapons: a particle accelerator. While the quantity of mass involved would be slight, perhaps particles projected in a beam would allow a jolt of electrical energy to leap the gap of vacuum and hit a target outside normal range.

These would need to be aimed, so you would still have the concepts of marksmanship, small targets being hard to but, and evasive maneuvering. To whatever extent you wanted to, you could combine conventional space opera "blasters" with your refreshingly original arcing weapons.

This is utter handwaving, mind, I'm no physicist.

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For any scientific military advancement another always comes along to knock it out of the way. That's just a constantly proven rule that will apparently go on forever.

But. Electricity...in space. Electricity requires an atmosphere to separate the electric potential and then let it come crashing back together. So, unless you drastically alter the physical rules in your universe no electrical fun for you.

On the other hand...that would be some cool cgi battles if you didn't care about the science behind it.

Edit: So to address your technologies well only one of them really. If this one works the rest are good to go.

  • Gas emitters: Now you would have to emit ALOT of gas and utilize it fairly rapidly as gas will diffuse very quickly in space...I would think in the end this is entirely impractical. The volume of gas required for an electrical battle to take place would be so massive you couldn't reasonably carry it. Now if you had a field generator that could sort of keep those molecules in place then sure but this seems so complicated that the rules of simplicity make it seem terribly unlikely. Now. If you are willing (know your audience) to just say "you know what it works in my universe so deal with it" then ok.

The great thing about world building is you can choose to do that. Hell it was done in Star Trek recently and it worked for me, I am admittedly not a physics purist when it comes to movies.

So in our reality...no, this is not practical without totally outlandish tech that seems contrived and impractical in its own right, just to make it work. If you want to do it, go for it knowing that it breaches physical rules.

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  • $\begingroup$ Would it be reasonable to have emitters, as I suggest, to produce enough of a medium? Assuming it's in the best interests of everyone since most weaponry is electrical (or at least the best weaponry). $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 2 '14 at 15:36
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There are certain tactical questions to answer:

Can weapons miss?

Although a lightning arc is basically targeting on its own, and a sophisticated computer is able to predict and aim way beyond the capabilities of human beings, that doesn't necessarily mean that all shots are an automate hit.

  • Weapons require time to align. An especially big weapon is still bound to inertia and might not be able to align vs a ship that is simply flying too fast.

  • Weapons might not have a 360° attack radius. A ship could maneuver into a dead-zone of such weapon and be safe from attacks.

  • The target could be out of range, or even worse: could out-range the enemy with its own weapons. In this case speed will again be the factor that determines the winner.

  • A weapon can probably not target or do damage at all, because certain materials and/or technical properties prevent that. A lightning attack would not be attracted to a ship made out of plastic (or other non-conductive materials). And - no pun intended - putting a solid object into the muzzle would be a very effective way to stop that weapon from doing any harm.

If none of the above is true and all weapons will always hit the enemy, then tactics are reduced to: Who can deal fatal damage first?

In this case most attacks will be a simple hit-and-run tactic by either surprising the enemy at a point where it cannot fire back, or just out-gunning it and soak the incoming damage till the enemy has lost. The general rule would be: win a battle by killing first, or living longer than the opponent.

Tactics would also shift to prevent battles from even happening, for example through diplomatic channels, boarding, or sabotage.

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    $\begingroup$ I always thought of arc generators as being spheres that don't move - targeting is implicit or directed through voltage manipulation. With enough of these on a properly shaped craft, radius shouldn't be an issue. Range is limited, but this is a setting where missiles etc. are not very effective unless a ship is severely damaged. I thought of insulating materials, but from what I understand about weather lightning, with a sufficient voltage difference, you can still get an arc - in fact, you might prefer conductors in order to avoid higher voltages and cause more dissipation. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 2 '14 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ Think about an airplane that is hit by lightning: usually nothing happens, because the lightning travels along the outer hull, then continues to another target. Having lightning pierce through isolation is possible, but highly unlikely/very difficult. Lightning arcs basically travel the easiest path, and if that is supposed to be an enemy spaceship, either the strength (and therefore the range) needs to be sufficiently low to not hit your own ship, or it needs to be directed by some means. $\endgroup$ – TwoThe Oct 2 '14 at 17:55

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