A thought occurred to me while watching Ender's Game.

Why are these two fleets in space lining up like two armies during the revolutionary war (or pick your war of the musket/volley era)?

Thinking about it further it occurs to me that in basically all sci-fi movies with space combat going on the two sides are lined up on the same plane. (if you have viewing suggestions to the contrary I'd love to watch)

I understand why this happens. It is what we are familiar with. Even when you are talking about aerial combat on earth you still have gravity and the ground as an anchor point for battle but not so much in space.

How would the ability to function equally well in 3 dimensions affect combat tactics?

  • Assume modern weapons technology (specialized to space as needed)
  • Any required mobility tech can be included in answers
  • Defensive technologies that utilize modern tech levels
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    $\begingroup$ there's a trope for that $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Feb 5 '15 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ The Battle over Coruscant was all over the place from what I recall $\endgroup$ – mjr Feb 5 '15 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ The enemy's gate is down. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Feb 5 '15 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ In Ender's Game the book, the battles were very much three-dimensional -- and in fact, the ability to think in three dimensions and change your mental orientation to suit the situation was a major theme. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 5 '15 at 23:37
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    $\begingroup$ In Ender's Shadow, Bean remarks that 3D combat - in particular defending Earth - would be unachievable against an invading army: you can't defend 360 degrees. In other words, attacking was the only winning option for Earth. $\endgroup$ – Ansible Feb 6 '15 at 14:21

20 Answers 20


Having not seen Ender's Game, I can only comment on the way 3d would affect combat.

The answer (at least the way I see it) is that it really depends on the opposing armies and their technology. Currently, if humans went to war in space, we would likely be launching extreme-precision missiles at each other from a long way away, while attempting to shoot down the opposing missiles with point-defense. The reason for this is because "shields" don't exist and our hulls are so thin even small explosions would destroy a craft.

In the future, unless science comes up with true energy shields, I can't imagine it being much different. It is so expensive to do anything in space that you would focus everything you had on offense, intelligence, and first-strike capabilities, leaving very little for defense.

All that said, if you had defenses such as energy shields that took minutes or longer to break through, even pounding on it with nukes or something, I can see ships easily lining up in formation to help focus fire and minimize their susceptibility to being surrounded and hit from all sides.

The line formation (or block formation in space) is really only suited for situations where firepower isn't sufficient to destroy the target immediately. As soon as we started developing, for instance, guns that could reliably and quickly kill enemy soldiers, we abandoned the line formation in favor of more maneuverability. Hence, if our weapons stay more advanced than our defenses, it stands to reason we wouldn't ever go back to using the line formation.

All that said, true space combat will likely look nothing like we see in movies.

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    $\begingroup$ You need also to read the book - seeing will give you wrong impression. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Feb 6 '15 at 0:40
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    $\begingroup$ Ender's game the book is way better. Just pretend the movie never happened (not necassarily bad, but drifts from the themes in the book imo) $\endgroup$ – Anubian Noob Feb 6 '15 at 2:41
  • $\begingroup$ I would add that the current likely combat (long range missles and defense limited to shooting down incoming missles), and the way you described shields would both lend themselves towards 'globs' instead of lines. In 3d space you can arrange your crafts in a circle, so every craft can fire at the enemy but the distance between you and your enemy is less. This allows point defenses of one craft to better defend other crafts from missles if necessary, or better focusing of your fire on your a single enemy for shields. Placing then in a line is 2D thinking that only considers one plane $\endgroup$ – dsollen Aug 3 '17 at 19:29

Well we do have airplane tactics that do require all 3 dimensions. I also think Kirk used Khan's 2 dimensional search pattern against him.

Ender's Game not so much in the movie but in the book, he makes great use of the fact of both 3d and no gravity to win his games. One thing about the last scene where they were lined up, part of the problem was, all the alien ships were trying to protect the planet from the invading fleet. The invading fleet didn't split up because they needed to drive a wedge through the fleet as close as possible to the planet surface.

The biggest issue of 3d in combat is you have a larger front to monitor and protect and thus need more 'troops' to build a better net.

  • $\begingroup$ Also see segerman.org/diamond and segerman.org/diamond/diamgames.html about 3 dimensional Go-games and the resulting strategies. $\endgroup$ – Kasper van den Berg Feb 5 '15 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ +1. The book Ender's Game goes into quite a bit of detail about how 3D and no gravity affect battle. $\endgroup$ – Ben Miller - Reinstate Monica Feb 6 '15 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ they needed to drive a wedge - definitely, if they had been able to, they would have multiple "Doctors" (or whatever that ship was called) and surround the planet. But they had only one. It was the only threat, and therefore the only thing worth attacking and protecting. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Feb 6 '15 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ @DoubleDouble: Actually, all or at least most ships seem to have had that weapon, the problem was getting at least one of them through. $\endgroup$ – Deduplicator Feb 7 '15 at 17:39

Ships? What?


  1. You wish to obliterate an enemies planet
  2. You're capable of (near) superlunary travel

You accelerate mass (or a number of masses) towards the target planet at near light speed from outside the system.

Your target will have very little to no (depending on how close to light speed) chance to detect (by conventional means) these superluminal masses.

As soon as these masses hit the atmosphere they will turn it into super heated plasma, or worse.


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relativistic_kill_vehicle
  2. http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/spacegunexotic.php

... and a quote from the latter link ...

A starship weighing in at 1,500 tons (approximately the weight of a fully fueled space shuttle sitting on the launchpad) impacting an earthlike planet at "only" 30 percent of lightspeed will release 1.5 million megatons of energy -- an explosive force equivalent to 150 times today's global nuclear arsenal


You're not going to be able to defend against that.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't know if your assumptions are fair. if you can get masses up to nearly C then yes it works, but due to the exponential energy to accelerate masses getting multuple masses so close to C is pretty expensive. Even if you have a high energy budget there may be cheaper options at such a expense for masses. if you drop lower, like .3C then they will light themselves up as they travel through background radiation making them easier to spot, and with enough time (assuming you fired from a ways away) for counter measures to be deployed. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Nov 19 '15 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ If you're capable of faster-than-light interstellar travel, 0.3c shouldn't really be a huge problem. - Also what kind of countermeasures would be possible to stop that? $\endgroup$ – oPless Aug 12 '17 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ Let's also not forget this: "The estimated energy at impact when the largest fragment of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 struck Jupiter is equivalent to six million megatons (six trillion tons) of TNT." and that was only going 60km/s. $\endgroup$ – oPless Aug 12 '17 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ Reminds me of a weapon called the C-Plus Cannon, from one of Saberhagen's Berserker books. The idea is that you accelerate a chunk of metal to above light-speed (exactly how was handwaved, except for an enigmatic comment about the projectile "being more mathematics than matter"). The cool thing was when there was a camera nearby the impact site. The camera replay showed the projectile moving backward. Hard to intercept, that! $\endgroup$ – akaioi Sep 3 '17 at 18:43

Well, considering how communication in space would be pretty difficult, I can imagine one great reason for sticking in a line-ish formation.

Nowadays, military operations are undertaken with most of the supporting intelligence members, thousands of miles away. Unfortunately, in space, thousands of miles away may only be a few space battleships apart, as they would do well to space themselves well enough so that both powerful enemy weapons and themselves do not do too much damage to them.

Because of that, it is possible for the fleet to cluster around a flagship, within which contains all of the supporting members for the fleet. Because the flagship has all of the fleet's command and control, the fleet may then decide to form a semi sphere formation in front of the flagship to best protect it.

Another thing to note is that in Ender's Game, the aliens were trying to simply defend their home planet, while the human fleet simply needed to break through and get to the alien planet. As such, that formation sort of makes sense, although a giant rectangular prism formation may have worked better in that scenario

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    $\begingroup$ Seems worth noting that, regarding the first 3/4 of your answer, the Ender universe has ansible communication. It's instantaneous. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Feb 5 '15 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel for the first 3/4 of my answer, I was assuming that there is no FTL communication in that setting, but yes, I am aware that the Ender universe does has FTL $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Feb 5 '15 at 22:40
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    $\begingroup$ I don't buy that a lack of FTL comms means you have to fight in simple formations. Light travels at 300,000 km per second, about the distance from the Earth to the Moon. I'd say one second is an acceptable communication delay. There's a lot of flexibility of formations in 300,000 km. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Feb 6 '15 at 22:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Schwern I might argue 2 things, firstly it is not necessary that they have light speed communication, considering the need for encryption in this military context. Secondly, even if it was light speed communication, you would want the least amount of ping possible. In a future space war, where ships are traveling pretty darned fast, possibly firing actually light-speed laser and other assorted advanced weaponry, 1 second of ping would be unacceptable. Imagine a game of starcraft, where ping above 16ms would be pretty bad. $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Feb 7 '15 at 1:11
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    $\begingroup$ @grimmsdottir I don't understand how encryption changes the situation. And space battle might be "twitchy" but each ship has its own computer and crew to take care of that millisecond to millisecond. Communications are for sharing plans, situation reports and spreading intelligence, none of which require millisecond latency. Trying to remotely command a fleet in combat is just begging to be hacked or jammed... which US drones operators are learning the hard way. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Feb 7 '15 at 5:56

They would be decided by computers, in completely automated (no tripulation) ships. And the shoting phase would last a few seconds (at most). Then it would take a little while to verify the results.

Speeds in space are high (they need to be, if you want to get to anywhere).

1) Imagine you can detect an enemy ship at 10 lightminute distance, that is travelling towards you at half the speed of light.

  • This means that the enemy is, right now, just 5 minutes light from you!

  • The Gs needed to change this speed in any significative amount in this time, would be far more destructive to your ship than anything the enemy could launch at you.

2) As soon as you detect him, he detects you (let's say technology levels are equivalent). If he decides at this moment to launch an attack, you won't notice anything until the enemy (and his missiles) are 2.5 minutelight away from you1! When you see the enemy launching a missile against you, it is already almost at your door.

3) Now your defense are evasive maneuvers, after all, the enemy ship probably shot towards your estimated position in 2.5 minutes. Or perhaps the enemy computer acknowledged that and shot towards your more likely escape route... In any case, if your ship is handicapped because it cannot accelerate too much due to the stinky meatbags doing PLOP! at high Gs, then things look grim for you. If your ship has the luck of being fully automated so it has not meatbags in it, it can squeeze all of the power from the engines, and then it may have a chance of survival.

Of course, in the immensity of the space the enemy cannot just launch a "rock" and hope that it hits you. The projectile will have thrusters; not to the back to keep its speed but to the sides to steer towards you and counter your evasive maneuvers2. There will be a need to chose the right projectile for the situation (a heavier one will probably ensure a kill on impact, but a lighter one will be way more maneuverable). Also, probably the enemy send you not one but a swarm of projectiles.

Due to scattering, lasers could work only as a close range defense. A possible exception would be ultra heavy, extra powered and carefully calibrated laser station in asteroids (or moons) around some strategic point.

As for the strategies, if your sensor stations detected a fleet passing by Uranus 3 days ago, and then the fleet was detected again by Jupiter yesterday, you can try to predict the enemy route and, before getting in range, "blind fire" your missiles towards the zone they will pass through. Or sending a load of nuclear weapons so the EMPs disable their electronics.

Alternatively, another defense would be seeding zones of space with nanobots that attack enemy ships sensors or hulls, working as minefields.

1 Given that their missile will be smaller than their ships and (probably) harder to detect, that is only an optimistic estimation.

2 A possible point defense would be using lasers to disable the missiles control centers, but that would be operated by computer too.

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    $\begingroup$ A few novels leaning towards this approach: Stanislaw Lem's Fiasco and Joe Haldeman's The Forever War $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Feb 5 '15 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Brythan by the time you detect them 10 light minutes away, you are detecting them at the position they were 10 minutes ago (v.g., when you look up at the Sun, you see it as and where it was eight minutes ago). $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Feb 7 '15 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ and Cherryh's Merchanter series - space battles fought at vast distances by probability (ie guesses where the enemy would be once you've managed to detect where they were). I guess space battles would be more like submarine warfare than anything else, and that's only a tiny approximation. $\endgroup$ – gbjbaanb Jun 7 '16 at 7:20

Modern air to air combat already occurs beyond the range of sight. The lack of resistance of an atmosphere would allow for combat at extraordinary distances. Armor would be impractical and is already unable to deal with the destructive power of modern weapons. Furthermore there would be little penalty for use of nuclear warheads in deep space. Combat would likely revolve around stealth and the ability to detect your opponent. Whoever detects their opponent first will likely win. In this regard it may be similar to submarine combat

  • $\begingroup$ At large distances, physical weapons can be dodged or shot down. As for energy weapons, it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to hold a laser on target at a large distance. It's largely a matter of eliminating all sources of vibration, difficult to do in a craft that does anything but sit very still and very slowly rotate. An effective long range weapon would have more in common with the Hubble Space Telescope. Perhaps they would be deployed as stationary drones. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Feb 7 '15 at 6:01
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps small projectiles accelerated close to the speed of light would find preference for the reasons you mentioned. The projectiles would be nearly undetectable, almost as fast as a laser, and less susceptible to the sustained focus requirements of a laser. Missed shots might also remain hard to detect depending on just how small the projectile is. $\endgroup$ – Stephen Lujan Mar 30 '15 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ It takes some time for a laser to burn through, which is why it needs to be held on target. With your plan all your energy is transferred in one solid shot, so that solves that. Even tiny things moving at high fractions of c have a lot of energy, so a single hit can be devastating. Recoil would be a serious problem, you might have to make the system like a recoilless rifle else you'll go flying off in the opposite direction. Any slight miscalculation in the recoil system will throw you off course and probably spinning. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Mar 30 '15 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Schwern Well this is a bit late, but momentum and kinetic energy scale differently. So a 1/2 milligram projectile fired at 98% the speed of light, would impart 738 kgm/s of momentum, adjusting for relativistic effects. That's less than an american football players tackle, not too much for a large vehicle to deal with. Yet it would deliver 108 million kilojoules of energy, equivalent to about 26,000 kilograms of TNT. I got inspired to revisit this by a fun tool I made. run.plnkr.co/FlpZFpjWdvrh1N0j $\endgroup$ – Stephen Lujan Oct 25 '17 at 14:32

This happens in media because it's simply what the artists (be they writers, modelers, film-makers, etc) know. Adding the third dimension to combat is a "game-changer" before that phrase became trite from overuse. As we are generally constrained to a flat plain in our daily lives, we get very little experience thinking otherwise.

Take a look at air power from WWI-WWII, this very topic comes up. Those who were able to think in three dimensions--from pilots to generals--gained a significant advantage. Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers had to use 3D thinking as a matter of course: Their P-40 Warhawk was heavily armored (for a plane) but not as nimble as their Japanese counterpart Zeros (as well as the Nates and Oscars to some degree). They had much better dive characteristics, however, so the standard tactic was to use early warning to give the responding squadron time to climb above the approaching Japanese, then dive down upon them relying on the high speed thereby gained to obtain the element of surprise. Also leveraging my Air Force background, Curtis LeMay helped develop the Combat Box formation, a 3D bomber formation.

Urban warfare is similar, and the Soviets used it in a gruesome manner (by necessity, in some cases): In Stalingrad, for example, Conscripts were hastily armed and sent into urban combat essentially untrained. Those who survived displayed an innate talent for urban warfare. This includes understanding and use of the 3D battlespace created by cities: Higher floors give a vertical element to attack and defence against troops outside, while stairways and damaged floors provide a vertical element to combat indoors.

Much of this is aided by the advent of rapid-fire, highly accurate firearms. Until the advent of cartridge weapons in the mid-1800s, reloading a firearm was a time-consuming operation. Cartridge weapons began regular adoption in the latter 1800s, along with the ability to machine weapons capable of withstanding higher pressures--thus higher velocities, providing greater accuracy. That gives us about 150 years of experience with this sort of combat. Prior to this, relatively short-ranged, low-accuracy, slow-loading firearms had prevailed for around 600 years--with bows and crossbows for centuries before them being similarly slow and inaccurate in all but the hands of trained specialists or in the same volley formations as the black powder weapons required.

So coming full circle: For millennia, artwork and warfare has involved relatively flat, planar combat due to the difficulty of engaging an opponent beyond touch range before they (or more importantly, their comrades) could engage you even with the ranged weaponry of the period. Call it 3000 years, for simplicity's sake. Suddenly, over 150 years--5% of 3000 years!--we've come into the capability of engaging targets in all directions for more than a brief moment. This is part of what even allows air (and thereby, later, space) combat... and we've ran face-first into it as a wall.

Is it any wonder that few beyond those dedicated to 3D warfare have much understanding of it? Few and far between are warriors and fans of such a topic--fewer still are those who can also be counted as artists.

TL;DR Version:

Why are these two fleets in space lining up like two armies during the revolutionary war (or pick your war of the musket/volley era)? Because that's what the artsits providing you with this view have experience with.

How would the ability to function equally well in 3 dimensions affect combat tactics? Look at air, urban, and (to a lesser degree) submarine warfare, and you'll start to get an idea.

  • $\begingroup$ Aerial dog-fighting was a bit different, because in the WWII era, when it was the norm, you would quickly stall if you pointed your aircraft at a very high angle. Dog fights are unlikely in modern air to air combat, but few planes even today are capable of flying straight up continuously. In ground combat it is harder to find cover against an opponent at a very high elevation. None of this seems very relevant in space. I would actually argue that the 3rd dimension has a lot less impact in space. $\endgroup$ – Stephen Lujan Oct 25 '17 at 14:54

A principal of naval and air battles is no reserve.

This is because in a bland environment, the one who shoots the most wins.

On earth, clouds, storms, fog, land (as a boundary for air and sea) make it a little complex though usually still very bland. While space has planets, and battles are likely to fought near them (as naval battles generally are to ports), it also is extremely bland. There is a role for maneuver hiding behind moons etc to set traps perhaps.

Imagine 6 ships (Red) v's 10 ships (Blue). Assume 50% kill.

Round 1

Red kills 3 Blue ships. Blue kills 5 Red ships.

Red = 1 and Blue = 7

Round 2

Red 50% chance of killing a Blue ship. Blue destroys the Red fleet.

Red = 0 and Blue = 6.5

Tank tacticians use such calculations as well for frontal battles.

You would need to keep your fleet together, and at full strength.

Asa general rule there is no hiding so kills are going to follow rules of maths. If technology is the same then battles can be predicted.

The 3D part is irrelevent (unless the environment becomes complex by being near planets and moons). You can see equally well in all directions, fire equally well in all diections. Attacking from multiple directions will split your fleet, it doesn't help your attack, but if there is mutual assistance with the defensive technology, then it reduces your defence.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think this is necessarily true, if the balance of weapon systems strongly favors attack. You send 10 ships to the same region. I send 1. If we're using missiles that have travel time, and I manage to detect your ships, can target more than one, and it's hard to shoot down my missiles, the most I can lose is one, while you might have just exposed 10 ships to a ship that may be able to disable several of yours at once. Or if it's difficult to detect enemy ships, my one ship may be able to tell the rest of my ships where 10 of your ships are before my one is destroyed. $\endgroup$ – Dronz Feb 6 '15 at 7:55
  • $\begingroup$ Possibly fleets will be based on asteroids so to be large ships as resources will limit size and number of capital ships if built. Then tactics may revert to boarding and space to surface support fires as the prize is too great to pass up. Then the aircraft carrier/amphib ship/fort makes sense. Usually the purpose of battle is to control something, not to exterminate things. There not much point having death stars, except for MAD, so ships will project power. Planatary assault for instance. $\endgroup$ – user6991 Feb 6 '15 at 8:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Dronz: You made a very good point. For a less extreme example: 6 Red ships vs 10 Blue ships, assume 200% kill. Round one: Red kills 12 blue ships, limited to 10. Blue kills 20 red ships, limited to 6. Red is in tinier pieces, but lost less ships. Fragmenting the fleet seems like a good idea. In fact, for anything higher than 100% kill, lone ships are best. They'll take down at least one with them, with odds for more. $\endgroup$ – Emilio M Bumachar Feb 8 '15 at 9:12

I can do some viewer suggestions,Babylon 5 and New Battlestar Galactic, if you like anime then the Gundam series are place to watch some three dimensional space combat. I think that most space combat in films and television operates on a mixture of air and naval rules, due to a combination of familiarity and laziness. We on earth are accustom to the imagery, the visual dictionary of air and naval engagements, true three dimensional combat with ships spinning on their axis to attack pursuers or making flat turns. Would look utterly foreign to us. Modeling space combat on naval and air combat,especially WWII is a developmental short cut.


It depends a lot on the situation and the technologies.

Near-future would probably look a little like the film Gravity, but without the wrong physics. That is, lots of useful satellites and a few manned things are all in Earth orbit, and they can all be pretty easily destroyed by getting hit with anything, including fragments from impacts.

At a higher level of technology and military development, where there are actual fleets of maneuverable military ships, but still we only have missiles, projectiles, and beam weapons, then it depends on the balance of abilities between detection, identification, communication, jamming, targeting, effective weapon range, unit acceleration, and interception or other defensive systems (e.g. decoys). So:

  • First you want to detect your enemy and know where and what they are while misleading your enemy about the same things.

  • Then you want to mislead your enemy into wasting their resources and making theirs vulnerable, while avoiding exposing yours, and accurately deploying your own offensive resources to eliminate theirs as soon as possible.

  • Part of that will involve maintaining your communications with your own units, while not giving away their locations or what you are communicating, while possibly interfering with or locating or even decoding enemy communications. This could get quite complex and involve decoys, relays, jamming broadcasts, encryption, false messages, and non-broadcast communications such as directed (e.g. laser) signals, as well as pre-arranged plans, and discovery/espionage/study/deception around those plans.

  • Defensive deployments can involve keeping your forces out of range, in undetected locations, constantly on changing trajectories, and the choice of whether to group them for mutual support inside screening units/devices, or to keep them widely distributed so they can't all be surprised or engaged at once. Concentration of force may need to be balanced against exposure, particularly when it's easier to destroy targets than to protect them, and when near misses or fragments from hits endanger other nearby ships.

  • A major difference with space maneuvers as opposed to Earth maneuvers is that the vacuum of space allows great velocities to be built up, which can be used for high-speed attacks, or luring enemy forces far out of position, and generally results in a trade-off between high velocities and over-commitment to a certain vector.

  • With current or near-future technology, there are also major trade-offs between speed, thrust, fuel carried, and inertia. I.e. there's no particular limit on the amount of fuel that can be carried by one unit, but the mass of the fuel itself adds to its inertia, slowing it down, but there is also the possibility of jettisoning part of it, or even other parts of a unit to reduce inertia.

So, there are many possible answers, but those are some of the domains that are different.


One answer to the question would be for Capital Ships:

Supportive ECCM and CM's and PD in a missile heavy environment.

The ECCM (Electronic Counter-Countermeasures) and CM (Counter Missile) and PD (Point Defense) functions could be augmented by more line-abreast kind of formation (or spatially grouped) such the coverage could be allocated between ships as opposed to one ship. Meaning, the ships could offer up a mutual defense system -- so instead of Ship A needing to coordinate trying to dispatch ALL the missiles fired at it, it could coordinate with Ship B to allocate a portion to Ship B who might have a better chance to kill the missiles. Plus, assuming you're down to Point Defense ranges -- the more Point Defense batteries firing the better.

For fighters/small ships, maybe not so much...they're better dispersed. Unless it's to hide from missile attacks -- shelter under the big boys and let their anti-missile coverage do the work.

Technically, I think assuming it'd be a mix of Aerial and Naval tactics is not so far fetched -- for larger ships, I'd assume the standard 'convention' of weapons could be mounted either forward firing only, rear firing only, or broadside (internally mounted) and thrust elements in the stern -- this being the case, it'd be analogous to naval tactics of the age of sail...I mean, you'd want to Cross the Enemy's T (have your ships able to fire a broadside up the stern of the enemy) or Broadside them.

The only Aerial wrinkle to this is you'd be maneuvering in 3 dimensional space vs a wet navies 2D space and need to account for celestial navigation issues and orbital interception vectors.

A good 'interpretation' of this might be David Weber's Honorverse, which goes into more detail ... assuming you'll accept that version of cannons, missiles, armor, and shields at relativistic velocities.


I'd think that with anything near today's technology space battles would revolve around drones and decoys. With the devastating capabilities of our weapons on what would need to be weak hulls I see that as the only real option to limit casualties. I'd also point out that a drone would be far more resistant to G forces than a human pilot.

Ecm would have to be compensated for, but any ECM likely to completely shut down your opponents communications will tend to do the same to your forces.

In essence the idea would be to interweave the ships containing pilots with drones and decoys similar enough to make targeting the pilots difficult. These drone "armadas" would operate in clusters measured in "tens" of miles to limit control lag.

Such a combat structure would be susceptible to nuclear/emp attacks....... but there is little that isn't susceptible to such attacks...... short of burying yourself in an asteroid.

Ice shields for the equivalent of carrier/battleship sized craft are an interesting concept, but the idea of compensating drift caused by thermal weapons vaporizing the shielding would be..... "problematic".


Reading through all the answers it is apparent that the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that it will mostly depend on the current tech.

If you were to place the battle in early Space Age, where, say, humanity would colonise its solar system and battle each other for assets in the space system, and assume no huge leaps of tech, then the main components of an effective fleet would be:

*Carriers *Frigates *Fighters *Drones

The main focuspiece of any fleet would be its carrier. The carrier would host and deploy its fighters and most drones.

The Drones themselves would form a type of 'sphere' around the carrier and they would be mostly tasked with intercepting missiles, and cause havoc to fighters. They would be armed with thin lasers, that pre-detonate any missiles. They wouldn't be as effective against agile fighters, and assuming some armour to them, would not cause that must damage anyway.

Frigates would be mostly armed with conventional balistic weapons and have two uses: close quarters brawlers, flinging small bits of metal or shells at enemy ships, that are hard or impposible to intercept, and, at larger distances, would aid the 'missile defence grid' and act as better decoys, trying to draw some fire from the carrier. They would also be the best defence against fighters, given their close range capabilities (think minigun-armed hedgehogs). Frigates would also encircle the carrier, or be arranged in a sort of 'wall', with the side facing the enemy. They would also host their own drones.

Fighters, most obviously, would be the main attack force. They would have to be numerous and agile, but small enough so that they are difficult to detect. They would be tasked with reliably getting through the wall of drones and planting missiles in the enemy carrier (or frigates). However, they would mostly be stealth bombers. They could have something to use against drones, such as miniguns, but speed would be their main asset.

Fighter dogfights would probably only errupt in deep space, if the squadrons met each other before reaching the enemy fleets. However they would either last too long or too not long at all, given the extreme speed and range. My guess would be that engaging in dogfights near fleets equipped with these armies of drones would be unfeasible for the attacking party, and it would retreat and retry after it out-manevoured its enemy.

Smart admirals could potentially make use of large gravitational masses, such as Jupiter, to fling projectiles around, basically making certain areas a 'shooting gallery', and then try to manouver his/her enemy in those galleries.

Asteroid fields would be perfect ambush locations, assuming ships can lower their power output and float around the fields like rocks.

I'm also guessing that how the fleet is positioned in regards to the sun/star of the system would also affect targeting/spoting/systems.

Other space anomalies, such as some glass clouds/nebulas might also create hazards that are either impassible or highly dangerous, but can also be used as hiding spots/ways to lose enemies.

Another idea would be to use frigates to do high-speed drive-by's at effective cannon range from the enemy fleet, however trying to drive a wedge through the enemy fleet would probably be a bad idea, since your whole fleet would have limited evasion capabilities, while being subjected to the full firepower of the enemy broadsides. Also, the lack of active drones would leave it vulnerable to nukes.

In any case, the way I imagine space fleet battles would work at the momment would be two blobs trying to shoot at each other from large distances, trying to find weak spots in the enemy's drone shield. Flanking would work if the enemy has their drones arranged in a directional cone, in order to better soak up damage from a known fleet.

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    $\begingroup$ For a first answer, that was pretty good. Congratulations! When you have a moment, please visit our tour and help for more about what our site is about. Cheers! $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 1 '18 at 22:32

Knowing where the Star Wars are going to occur and how to get from where you are to over there would be the first hurdle to overcome when launching Armageddon somewhere in the void. Calculating the location of "your" army in relation to that of your enemy in two dimensions requires two numbers. Length and width, or Longitude and Latitude. With those two numbers you can plot a course and navigate to any point on the surface of whatever rock you happen to be on when the messy work begins. In space, knowing how to plot your location and set a navigation course requires 3 numbers. Height, Width and Length. With those three numbers you can plot any point in space from the tip of your nose to the furthest galaxy. Now that you know how to navigate, your gonna need a ship. Your ship must have a way of crossing the unimaginable distances between the stars, not mention the galaxies. So, what's the most likely way of getting from here to there in time to partake in the great battle that others will only dream about. A "slipspace" generator fills that order quite well. Einsteins theory of General Relativity predicts, among other things, the possible existence of wormholes. Wormholes are tunnels through space. It's the difference between poking two holes in opposite ends of the same piece of paper then connecting those two holes by drawing a straight line and seeing how long it takes the slowest microbe on the planet to traverse the entire distance. Or you could fold the paper in half so that the two holes come so close together they are literally touching. Now how long would your slowest microbe need to traverse the distance? That is essentially how Einsteins wormholes would allow ships to get into the fight very fast, if not instantly. And you wouldn't even have to break natures incredibly slow speed limit (186,000 miles per second) in order to make it to the shindig on time. The speed of light may seem incredibly fast, and using our primitive technology it is, but when you realize just how large the universe is, even the speed of like is snail pace slow. At the speed of light, (300,000 km per second) it would take 100,000 years just to cross the expanse of our own Milky Way Galaxy. As Galaxies go, we are the small frye in a universe so large it is truly beyond comprehension. So, if you can navigate in 3 dimensions and plot a course to the show, and you have the ability to build ships with slipspace generators that are capable of generating enough power to artificially create a hole in space so you can reach "NOWHERE" in time to enter the middle before the lasers and photon torpedo's stop flying. Yeah, fighting in space is possible. But I think the engineering involved with the development of the Shaw - Fujikawa slipspace generator will be so convoluted and difficult, that if we do succeed, fighting amongst ourselves or against evil aliens won't really be a priority. Cause, no matter how warlike you may be, development of the technology to make it all do-able will require that "we all just, get along" & cooperate with one another in ways that are even more unimaginable than the size of the 9 realms, heaven and hell combined. I hope we succeed. Space Battles are only fun when Luke, Spock and The Master Chief team up to take on...

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to World Building Stack Exchange! Your comments about navigation in 3D are good, but your lack of formatting makes this hard to read. The last part comes across as a rant about interstellar travel, which isn't really related to the question. If you reformat your thoughts and tighten then up, then I think you'd have a good answer on your hands. $\endgroup$ – Nick2253 Feb 9 '15 at 15:27

Accelerating a rock to a high speed is a planet-killing attack. The only defense is to teleport it somewhere else - attacking it with bombs or beams will only marginally change the outcome (unless done long in advance of d-day). As far as ships of the line, it would only make sense if there was defense in numbers which counteracted the capability of the enemy to, say, launch a nuke/emp swarm and kill all of your eggs you put in that basket. What I'm saying is that given any feasible defense, the only real defense is Mutual Assured Destruction.


Honestly, I think it comes down to the fact that it makes more sense to have the weapons along the port and starport side of the spacecraft recessed into the ship. This would grant protection to the launch bay and the cargo inside while also allowing for the weapon bay to be easily serviced and reloaded. As for the issue of armour on the craft if humans right now went to space to fight a war the armour on the ship would be dismal due to the cost of putting billions of tonnes of metal and other materials to create massive battleships in space but as time progressed and the infrastructure in orbit progressed ship would become capable of very thick armour not to mention undiscovered metal alloys

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Alex. Your post, while a valid insight does not answer the question being asked, namely How would space battles alter combat tactics. Please rework your post to answer the question, the additional insight could still be useful but the question still needs to be addressed $\endgroup$ – James Jun 29 '16 at 19:19
  • $\begingroup$ For more info on the site and how it works, check out the help center and once you hit 20 rep feel free to join us in Worldbuilding Chat $\endgroup$ – James Jun 29 '16 at 19:20

This requires 3d thinking and 3d math involved in space warfare. The question which formula will solved this problem?

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site John. This isn't really a fully fleshed out answer to the question, thought concept is intriguing. Please try to expand and try to address the specific question. $\endgroup$ – James Jul 28 '16 at 16:14

There are quite a few assumptions that need to be made to answer the question - largely based on 'assume modern tech'. Space is a relatively new field, and weaponry is currently forbidden by UN treaty - so experience here is non-existent.

Currently limited rocketry can only provide small payloads over interplanetary distances, with enormous economic investment. There are no manned ships other than LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and the early Apollo missions that are manned are little more than a few cubic metres of air with almost no fuel, limited instrumentation, with no or very limited ability to manoeuvre. Every action had to be meticulously worked out prior to manufacture and launch - with no 'ad hoc' diversions from pre-arranged mission parameters often worked out years in advance.

Battle in such a limited environment is difficult to fathom - but nuclear warheads mounted on interplanetary rockets would be the only currently possible means, however even then often our current exploratory probes into space lose contact, miss their targets, or fail on launch due to the massive amount of fuel required combined with limited technical experience. Such engagement would be very hit and miss, and quite dysfunctional.

Let's say however that in your scenario enough technology exists to travel interstellar as in the movie you mention, one needs to take into several key aspects of our current understanding of cosmological science:

a) The tyranny of interstellar distance

b) The tyranny of time

c) Fuel and speed

Interstellar distances are so vast, more than most people can comprehend in their minds, and mathematics are the only way to deal with most issues in interstellar space. The movie also sidesteps this issue neatly.

In terms of distance even 4 light years to the nearest star system is unfathomable. Sending a ship or missile this far will require tremendous fuel depending on what time scale you would like it to arrive. Say you would like to arrive in 100 years, the fuel you require may be several cubic kilometres for constant acceleration depending on mass, with speeds nearing relativistic limits. Even then, accuracy must be unbelievably precise, and there is such a high chance of failure you may not even know if the mission is successful or not.

If however you were ok with 10,000 years, then you could get a ship there with limited fuel and mass, however would there still be a 'war' on or would your civilisation actually even still exist to defend?

Such a 'battle' would simply not even be worth the effort of conducting it when you consider the timescales or distance involved. Many movies still base their stories on old WWII strategies and tactics. Such thinking is unrealistic when dealing with the tyrannies of interstellar distance and time. Thinking 3-dimensionally is the least important issue to consider.


Two considerations:

A: If I have a friend next to me, his point defence can help me with my point defence. It means that the enemy has to concentrate a lot of firepower on one point to overwhelm my defense. That means he too will stay grouped to minimize delays in syncronizing attacks.

I suspect that you can get a first model of this using swarm simulation models.

B: It's not three dimensional but six. This doesn't come out in the Enderverse much, but it really comes out in Weber's Honorverse In addition to 3 spacial dimensions you have 3 velocity (or momentum) dimensions. If you and your enemy pass each other at .3 c targeting starts to become, 'interesting'.

In days of sail, your velocity was dependent solely on the wind. In times of steam, on your power to mass ratio. In space the dependents are acceleration. velocity depends of acceleration and time.

Consider you are breezing along a 1000 km/s You have the capability of doing 10 g. It takes 100 seconds to change your velocity by 1 km/s It takes over a full day to either stop or to double your speed. At any given time you possible future locations are exponential horn in front of your current velocity.

Cutting across that are pairs of surfaces representing the limits of where you can be at some future time given your present acceleration capability, and present velocity.

Now, that day's travel at 10 G. That's 5 * 10^8 km Something like half a light hour. If you're using radar, your information about where the enemy is is almost an hour out of date.

Fleet tactical officer is a daunting job.

And while you can't hide in space. you can easily make things that look like you. Ever notice how bright road reflectors are. So you have a bunch of very light drones in front of you with corner reflectors that are sized to have the same radar reflection you do. If you are a capital ship you may have bucket fulls of drones. If I can use a 1 million dollar drone to lure your 20 million buck missle into turning it into confetti, I come out ahead.

Maybe you can hide.

Suppose you use surplus energy to make ice. You start into a battle with all your reserve water as a few swimming pools of ice shards. Turn off your engines. Go dark. Reactor is on standby. Life support is running. All unnecessary power is shut down. You coast. You listen hard with your radar ears. Passive radiators on the back side of the ship glow red, to stretch out the ice. If your ship is painted black, and has an radar absorbing coating, you are going to be harder to see than Nelson's HMS Victory on a foggy day off Ushant. If you can absorb a couple day's waste heat you can be a very nasty surprise.

Weapons include chaf. Send out a small nuclear bomb. Around it is wrapped a ton of carbon. Wrapped around the bomb is super conducting coil of wire with a big magnetic field Blow up the bomb. The bomb explodes. It destroys the coil and forces the magnetic field to be much larger. The field is trapped in the plasma. the plasma pins the field. You now have a ball of radar absorbing plasma several miles across. move a conductor across that field. voltage is generated. burn out non-hardened circuits. Carbon can lose 6 electrons. So in addition to neutral carbon (not much) you have a soup of electrons and 1 to 6 times ionize carbon. As long as that carbon is ionized, it's trapped in the plasma. Oh it disipates after a while from collisions. Bet it takes days.


I suggest having a look at a video of some fights in EVE Online. People tend to cluster together to benefit from shielding, while they surround themselves with cannon fodder in the form of small ships and drones. There are small 'elite' packs that fly alone and focus key targets like long range ships or Titans.

Overall, it really depends on what kind of technology is available in the setting at hand.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm highly skeptical that Eve is a good example of tactics for realistic 3D space combat. Ignoring all the crazy technology, the largest issue in terms of strategy for positioning is that there is no friendly fire and no worry of ship-to-ship collisions. The two positioning "tactics" for pvp is to "kite"(run away), or to "tackle"(get close enough to "tackle" the enemy and prevent running). Advanced fleets have support ships kiting, and other ships tackling the people trying to take out the support ships. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Feb 6 '15 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ Eve is still a great strategy game, but most of the strategy comes in the form of preparations (personal and fleet setup), target-calling, and knowing what your fleet can and cannot take on. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Feb 6 '15 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding "knowing what your fleet can and cannot take on", I'll refer you to the Wikipedia write-up on the 'Battle off Samar'. $\endgroup$ – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Feb 6 '15 at 19:15
  • $\begingroup$ @DoubleDouble I wouldn't call EVE particularly realistic either, but I don't think ship-to-ship collisions would be common in many real settings because of the likely large distances involved. In films and games, ships go slow and views zoom in so we can be entertained by pretty views of ship models. $\endgroup$ – Dronz Feb 6 '15 at 21:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Dronz The reason I bring up collisions is more because of the strategies that exist in EVE due to the fact that there aren't ship-to-ship collisions. I agree that in real settings this wouldn't be happening. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Feb 6 '15 at 22:56

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