Friday, January 29, 2010

Space Warfare X: Moving Targets

An Orbital Missile Fight (Analog cover, 1972)
At the start of this ongoing series, my intent was to survey the current informed conventional wisdom, as it has evolved over the last decade at places like SFConsim-l, and presented at the invaluable Atomic Rockets website.

This conventional wisdom is rather ... austere. The cold black depths of space, far from being concealing, merely cause spaceships, inevitably bright in the infrared if not visible light, to stand out against the darkness. Plausible weapon ranges are so great as to make even space speeds seem sluggish, and render anything like classical tactical maneuver impossible or irrelevant.

The tactical problems posed by open space combat under these conditions are ideally suited to automated and remote systems, without calling for any remarkable advances in AI - and leaving little reason to put human crews aboard combat spacecraft.

Hardly the stuff from which good schlock adventure is made, but the logic of physics and non-magitech engineering pushes relentlessly in that direction.

Then along come Somali teenagers with not much to lose, and Somali businessmen (in loose but accurate usage) with a good deal to gain, and suddenly future conflict looks more complicated. Here on Earth, naval planners find themselves concerned about the ability of 21st century warships to deploy boarding parties.

Outer space does not much resemble the waters off Somalia, but there is a lesson here: Solutions depend on the problem you are solving. The ability to detect a spaceship a billion kilometers away does not mean you know who is aboard, and while you know where they are going you don't know what they mean to do when they get there. There are times when simply zapping or whacking a ship from Stupendous Range won't do, and you'll need to look for an opportunity to try something else.

There are still constraints. Hijackings and boarding parties belong to that ambiguous zone where combat meets police work. In game terms these sound more like RPG scenarios than classic board wargames. If you want World War II in SPAAACE !!! - constellations of laser stars battling it out - you are pushed back toward engagements of mostly robotic forces at Stupendous Range.

Which still has its own problems. In our last exciting episode, commenter Z suggested that 'this isn't a fight anyone would show up for.' I'm not entirely sure of that. People in the 18th century built and besieged Vauban forts, even though the 'art of fortification' in that era was almost Newtonian in its determinism.

What no one does is write stories about sieges of Vauban forts. Instead people write stories about a different 18th century war technology, the frigate.

Now let's go a bit meta. This blog straddles two quite distinct projects: the human future in space, and Romance concerning the human future in space (AKA space oriented SF). Straddling them - however uneasily - is nothing new; they are almost inextricably entangled.

Most of us got our ideas about the space future from SF, and has it shaped what we expect or hope for. Take for example colonization. We explored Earth's poles, and conquered the slopes of Everest - environments that, in solar system perspective, are nearly indistinguishable from Tahiti - without any thought of colonizing them. In fact we have established a thriving permanent presence in Antarctica without 'colonizing' it.

Last year I proposed a sort of alt-future in space, one in which resource extraction and colonization (if they happen at all) are incidental byproducts of a human space presence, not its central thrust. This would be as vibrant a space future to live in as the traditional one - but like robotic space battles it is not much to write stories about. No one writes adventure schlock about the Antarctic Patrol.

Truth to be told, no matter how much we tart up our stories with Realistic [TM] scientific and tech speculation, they are all space opera at heart. And so we will go on trying to come up with plausible sounding scenarios for people in space to bash away at each other in various dramatic ways.

Related posts: A Solar System for this century, and - from the earliest days of this blog - thoughts on the genre with no name.


Z said...

I got quoted! Woo!

You make a fair point- I'm not sure whether anyone shows up either. The main model I was using in my head was of course nuclear deterrence- though it can be endlessly debated whether MAD was, indeed, madness, placing the power to exterminate the biosphere under the control of a handful of men, or a finally successful instance of both sides of a conflict accurately broadcasting their capabilities and estimating the outcome of a conflict such that no one bothers to actually "run" the war. (Scary answer: both)

As for the boarding parties, that been a discussion that has amused and horrified me in equal measure. By now it seems a pretty reliable cycle: Military spends decades on a wantonly overpriced gold-plated weapon system for head-to-head combat with the deployed force of an industrialized power -generally one whose economic fortunes are by now tied to our own and pretty publicly states they have zero interest in a scrap- actual threat emerge in form of pissed off poor people with stuff they got at Walmart, the Imperial turbolasers can't track the Rebel snubfighters, someone in the military finally throws together a off-the-shelf solution, expensive weapon system production is prematurely ended, but its technologies are repackaged and retitled and the cycle begins again...

VonMalcolm said...

Possible solution to automated interstellar war at stupendous range?

In history there have been different 'rules' applied to different wars. For instance: Samurai Warriors, as I understand, though storming a battlefield at the same time would pick out a Samurai from the opposing force and those two would duel (unimpeded?) as the surrounding warriors would do the same. Perhaps future wars could be like this. Okay, you can blow the hell out of us (country or planet included) we can blow the hell out of you (country or planet included), but negotiations are getting us nowhere so our two sides go into a kind of 'War with Rules' with NASCAR like restrictions: so many ships of so many different classes having so many weapons per side: perhaps my 20 single man fighters versus your 20 single man fighters with no outside (Battlestar, Death Star, Lone Star, etc.) help. But I guess that still begs the question: Why have humans aboard when we can play an automated war game? Also, would a single man fighter have an advantage over an automated fighter in a one on one situation? And, what happens some 'Murricans decide not to play by the rules?

ElAntonius said...

First off, I've been fascinated by this blog and Atomic Rockets for a bit now. Thanks for that!

I think the trouble here is that people ignore the effects of settings...everyone wants these huge Death Star Gamma Ray Lasers but want to mount them on dogfighting fighters...that wouldn't make sense in this world either.

So we state that the Gamma Ray Death Beam has to be on a very big ship (and it does), but as this blog has alluded to before, it ignores cost and practicality.

I think that if you appropriately pick a setting that encourages limited engagement, where sides potentially have that Death Beam but are afraid to commit it lest the other side bring theirs to the party, we can see a plausible scenario for smaller ships (read, not space fighters) to be out there fighting each other from time to time, while the big guns that would hopelessly demolish them just kinda sit around in parade formation shows of force.

I mean, really this stuff will probably be unmanned. But we can create societal handwaves that are more plausible than "the warp fields require a person to hand calculate"...wasn't a drone satellite exposed as a vulnerability recently? Hackers, improved MMI, and setting could all contribute to a desire to keep "boots on the ground" so to speak.

In my ideal setting? I'd probably have smaller (by spacecraft standards) ~5 man ships armed with missiles directly controlled by a pilot. I never liked this sort of submarine style barking orders around...seems antiquated in this age of computers.

Large laserstars exist, can't penetrate atmosphere (so as to keep some balkanized orbital combat scenarios possible), and each side is afraid to commit them because they are massively expensive and the loss of even one would be catastrophic strategically (presuming that in an eyeball frying contest, between equal ships, numbers will win)

MAD makes a pretty good case for the sort of manned conflict between relatively agile targets, and to me the interplay between missiles and countermeasures can be very interesting.

Native Jovian said...

I can certainly see a future where the most powerful warships in space are too expensive to risk in actual combat if it's at all possible to avoid it -- but I don't think that the workhorses will be 5-man crew "tanks in space" with a pilot, a gunner, a comms/sensor officer, an engineer, and a commander, or any such set of sharply defined duties. First of all, I'm not certain a crew that small is capable of traveling through space for long periods of time -- even the space shuttle has a crew of 7, and they're not up there for particularly long. And deploying them from other ships effectively makes them unusually large fighters, with all the drawbacks thereof.

No, the workhorses of the space fleet will have whatever weapon is most cost effective -- while the big bad battleships (or whatever) will have the most effective, period. What these actually end up being depends entirely on advancements in technology that are impossible to predict -- it may become the case that directed energy weapons are cheap so everyone uses them, but missiles controlled by sophisticated on-board AIs are the real shipkillers in space. At which point workhorses will be laserstars, but the "too badass to risk in combat" ships are glorified missile buses. Or it might be the other way around. Or it might be that both lasers and missiles are workhorses and it's near-speed-of-light-muzzle-velocity railguns that are the big dog on the block.

We can't really predict which will be the case in reality -- but you can manipulate a fictional setting to favor one or the other pretty easily, depending on whether you like the idea of ships blazing out with CIWS vs. missiles swarms better than boom-headshot laser strikes or vice versa.

Sabersonic said...

Might as well put my two cents in this little discussion....

The idea of a Five-man Guncraft/Patrol Shuttle/whatever they'll call em at the time proposed by ElAntonius is an interesting idea for the heavy settled and traffic laden Earth Orbit or even Cislunar Orbit in addition to the Adventure schlock it offers. The main problem with the idea as it has been noted is its longevity, that is the Guncraft won't be able to patrol the "space lanes" for more then a few days at the most and not all the stations will be manned by the crew with fatigue and such. But, as I have mentioned in my reply in the Spacefighters, Not blog post, the Guncraft may not have to stay in orbit for any amount of time longer then it needs to complete its mission. It may not even need to be deployed in a patrol mission with provisions to last longer then a day. The rest of its downtime and that of its crew will be spent at their home base, weather that would be planetside or at a military space station/fort/whatever. The Guncraft may even be used as escort for a more purpouse-built Boarding Craft filled with Espaciers and whatever equivalent of space soldiers for Cargo Inspection of a suspicious craft that would probably flee at the first signs that the craft is hostile and crazy enough to open fire.

Then there's the idea of the Q-Ship (or Q-Craft if you really want to pick at it). Not really sure I remember where I read this though I have a feeling that it was the aforementioned Blog Post, but someone posted the idea of a Q-Craft to be used by aggressors to sneak up upon unsuspecting victims with the outward appearance of a friendly, unarmed transport craft long enough to spring the trap. If I remember correctly, Q-Ships were historically used by the defenders as bait for raiders. Perhaps the Q-Craft would be used in both an aggressive and defensive roles in which Orbital Guard Craft attract potential "pirates" and "raiders" for lack of a better term into a set up in which the participants are arrested and questioned about the greater organization that they work for since such an operation isn't very possible easily without larger support.

However, judging from this possible scenario of the development of Earth Orbit, the most common and effective weapon isn't some spacecraft or weapon system, but rather the people who control them. To be exact the Private Military Companies and Private Security Companies, i.e. Hired Mercenaries, that would potentially see the most action in orbital space especially when orbital battle constellations and task constellations ever present to remind all that a war in space isn't the best of ideas. Sponsored, supported, and supplied through unofficial channels that are ideally hard to trace to the original financier and using dummy accounts and the like to increase plausible deniability in case these PMC Mercs do get caught alive instead of escaping or potentially dying when on the job, these proxy forces could be utilized to undermine the productivity of a rival nation-state, corporation, or other such organization without having to declare all out war or even be blamed for the act in the first place.

Not exactly the dashing, romantic vision of future warfare that many of us are accustomed to and expect, but then again war rarely is such.

- Sabersonic
Gmail Address

ElAntonius said...

Well, I'd point out that I didn't necessarily mean that the 'gunship' was small.

Rather, I agree with the general sentiment that it would be rather 'naval' in size.

But I tend to have a problem with these massive crews in space. You can handwave putting butts in the pilot chair...but I don't think crews of 30-50 start to make sense in a scenario where the ship can largely loiter in an automated manner.

I mean, every butt in the chair is supplies, right? That affects things.

And as it stands right now, we've had spacecraft with anywhere from 1-7 people. Apollo went to the moon with 3, and that was with vastly less computer assistance than the shuttle has today.

My whole point is that a battlestar is a huge sword to wave around...a few incursions here and there with your gunships, especially against proxies...that becomes more interesting than the all out war that ends in one fight.

Thucydides said...

I suspect the reality will indeed be very different from what we are used to, or at least used to reading (watching on the big screen etc.)

Most tropes of space war recall ironclad warfare and revolve around Dreadnought's or similar capital ships (the "Honourverse" is pretty explicit about the Ships of the Line trope), but as pointed out, quinquiremes, First Rates or SSN's are quite specialized for one type of conflict, but not so much use when conditions change. While the response in the past was to introduce or emphasize a different platform (liburnians, Frigates, "Littoral Combat Ships"), we should look at modularity as today's solution.

A modern aircraft carrier is quite capable of interdicting pirates along the East African coast; it can stay on station for months at a time, can track the pirate motherships with E-2 "Hawkeyes", attack them or their shore bases with F/A-18's and land SEAL teams by helicopter on or near hijacked ships to deal with the hijackers one on one. While that hasn't happened yet, it is only a matter of time before increasing pirate attacks makes the cost/benefit ratio of using these valuable assets tips to net benefit.

Similar modularity will be even easier in space (especially if we use the various tropes identified already).

The Space Navy "Viper" is a 1000 meter long Xaser battlestar, with the accelerator in the center of a large truss structure which also houses the fusion reactors, rocket engines, fuel and reaction mass tanks, radiators etc. Hordes of KKV busses, sensor drones, independent megawatt laser carriers and relay diffraction devices are mounted on external cradles, and tucked in one cradle is the 40m diameter "Galactica" housing the C3I staff, maintenance crew and a platoon of Marines. At this scale, the Galactica looks a bit like a set of truck tires suspended from a railway trestle bridge, but it can launch and control one or more of the battle rider vehicles mounted on the "Viper", detach and carry out inspections or port of call visits, or pull away from the Viper under a cover of swarms of KKV's and deployed diffraction devices as the Xaser swings into battle.

Since the core of the Xaser has the drive and huge reserves of fuel and reaction mass, it is only sensible that it is the core of a constellation. If conditions change to the point that lots of manned vehicles are needed, the structure of the Xaser still is capable of acting as a support base for a larger or smaller number of manned patrol ships depending on what the owning power considers sufficient or necessary. Even in a scenario limited to Cis Lunar space, the Xaser in the high guard position can support the manned craft needed to deal with "littoral space" in the lower orbits by supplying life support and energy for sustained patrols as well as tracking and firepower support. The extreme range and precision of the laser battlestar in the distance should be enough to persuade most people to comply with the boarding party (or be polite to the visiting shore parties).

Anonymous said...

I'm nitpicking here - "No one writes adventure schlock about the Antarctic Patrol."

Whiteout. Actually, it's a good match for some of our discussions regarding law enforcement and ambiguous legal situations.


CitySide said...

"people write stories about a different 18th century war technology, the frigate."

True. Although add a boarding party to ElAntonius' five-man combatant and you've almost got a frigate (okay, more like a sloop or cutter...)

In fact, a lot of the action described in the earlier orbital space thread had the vague feel of that old frigate-tale standby, the "cutting out" expedition.

Thucydides said...

While not quite on target, here is a link to a series of web pages that outline a relatively low cost means of getting around in space, and the basis of an orbital and deep space economy.

So far we have talked a lot about having orbital guards and Space Navies, here is a possible reason for having this in the first place:

Boarding parties to ensure nothing untoward is hidden in the ice, customs inspectors to ensure it is 99.99% pure, tax assessors and people who are not too keen on being taxed and regulated makes the basis of a fine set of scenarios. The fact that deep space ships are made of ice means they can be cheap and plentiful, and also they have a huge thermal mass to absorb laser fire (and physical mass to soak up KKV impacts).

Space opera, here we come!

Anonymous said...

Well, you know that any military vehicle design requires that you first define the role: what do you need it to do? I believe that deep-space combat/security/law-and-customs-inforcement spacecraft would fall into just a few categories. 1: patrol/escort (very long crew duration, lots of Delta-V, modest acceleration, light weapons, massive sensor suite), 2: space control (Massive crew duration, lots of armed drones and small manned patrol craft, low acceleration, modest Delta-V), 3: interception (high acceleration, short mission duration, one-shot heavy weapons load), 4: interdiction (long crew duration, massive weapons load and/or landing troopers, moderate acceleration, lots of Delta-V), 5: asteroid deflector (long crew endurance, lots of Delta-V, good acceleration, varied weapons/equipment/drones storage), 6:RRAS (Rescue, Recovery and Salvage), and 7: logistics (extended crew endurance, good acceleration, lots of Delta-V, huge cargo and/or passenger capasity). Several of these missions could be embodied in a single type of spacecraft; For example: RRAS and astroid deflection could be a secondary mission for intercepters, interdition, and logistics spacecraft; logistics spacecraft could be armed and used for patrol/escort mission, or an intercepter could have its propulsion section and weapons section modified to make it suitable for the patrol/escort role.

Orbital control could be performed by just one or two types of spacecraft: the armed/trooper-carrying OTV, and the aerospace-fighter that pops up from the surface into orbit, performs its mission, then dipps back into the atmosphere.

Then, of course, there is the matter of combat between two competing off-world colonies using cobbled-together combat spacecraft to bash each other...and perhaps endangering other colonies and third-party spacecraft, thus forcing spacefaring nations to come up with an armed response.


Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter!

But we can create societal handwaves that are more plausible than "the warp fields require a person to hand calculate"

Yes yes yes - I hate that gimmick, because it is such obvious authorial special pleading.

Other than that, jeez, I'm hard put to add much to this discussion! But yes, frigates and cutting-out expeditions, along with the current Somalia experience, have been on my mind in speculating about possibilities for orbital combat.

Anonymous said...

Ok, so what would an orbital customs cutter be like? and how would it be different from an armed orbital corvette? Well, both would have a robust life support system, a powerful sensor suite, and a rather agile manuvering system. The cutter, however, would had some method of boarding troopers/inspectors onto a suspect spacecraft, while the corvette would have the means to disable/mission-kill/vaporize that same suspect spacecraft. They may well work in tandum during a mission. The only real difference between the two might be that the cutter has a troop bay and the corvette has a weapons bay, instead. Because both would operate in orbit and wouldn't nessisarily be required to reenter the atmoshpere, it could simply be a large tincan, or two connected by a tressel (perhaps where the radiator panels are mounted), with the engine, fuel, and powerplant in one, and the control, life-support, and electronics bay in the other; the connecting tressel would contain not just the power/command/control conduits and radiator panels; it would also contain either a troop-bay or a weapons-bay. Both the cutter and the corvette would dock with an orbital 'service station'. Shuttles would dock with the station to transfer crews and supplies, so that the corvettes and cutters could be operated like submarines; i.e. with blue and gold crews...half of the little ships would be docked and the other half would be 'on patrol'.

Meanwhile, halfway across the Solar System, the colonists on Callisto Main Complex East(MCE) are agitated about the coloniests of Smith's Valley Cluster (SVC) on the other side of the moon building a cargo-rocket; threatening the monopoly on space launch that MCE has on Callisto. MCE modifies one of its cargo-rockets to shoot down the competing cargo-rocket, so SVC builds another cargo-rocket...only this one is armed. Things escalate to the point where Earth has to send some troops and armed spacecraft to keep the peace...only the Earth forces are rapidly being outnumbered by the 'home-grown' space forces. And things get ugly, quickly.


Ferrard Carson said...

Stuff on the solar system level and nowhere larger adds an additional layer of stress for anyone outside of the inner planets - it'll take months, if not years for reinforcements to arrive (presumably it would actually be weeks to a month just to keep things from being too staid)

Invokes that old Frigate model once again, in that your ((Insert Generic Frigate-analogous Spaceship here)) is likely to be the only force for your country / organization anywhere within several light-minutes. Or to paraphrase an awesome movie, "This ship is England!"

Lose it, and suddenly your organization has virtually no influence over that area for at least a month.

This does, of course, advocate the deployment of a single large ship (the 18th century frigate) to perform show-the-flag operations, with dedicated ground-pounders (Space Marines!) and boarding parties enough to quell moderately large groups of colonists. The alternative would be a small detachment of maybe four Corvette-equivalent ships, able to work both separately and in consort.

~ Ferrard

ElAntonius said...

Actually, I would think long travel times would rather discourage the sort of super-weapon class battleships.

See, cost on those things would probably be each party in a conflict might be able to afford no more than a few.

I liken such a battleship to something like the Queen in chess...individually, it can dance around and capture any piece on the board, but you only have one of them so its usage has to be carefully considered.

I think conflict in the solar system would look a lot like chess: your opponent can see every move you make, and you know you're going to lose some pieces you sacrifice your Queen (Battleship) to maybe get some of those unmanned missiles (Knights) a shot at their orbital shipyard (King)?

Those pawns (Gunships) will have a hell of a time capturing their Queen...but under protection of some knights they might be able to enforce a favorable position on the board for you.

As for boarding parties...the idea of space marines in power armor duking it out in zero-g is almost too cool of an idea to not handwave in, but so far I'm kind of at a loss in creating situations where this might really happen.

There's just too much the host can do to a boarding any such action might be completely one sided, where the host ship has already surrendered and the power armor is just a formality...or the host ship hasn't and they don't bother boarding anyway.

Anonymous said...

I think it's been pointed out before, but the travel times within the solar system will be similar to the travel times for sailing ships to get from Europe to the Americas or Australia. Anyone who wants to write stories about such a setting should look at stories set in the 1500 to 1850 era for how to have long travel times & still have an exciting story.

Of course the major difference is that messages get anywhere in the solar system in less than a day. Perhaps the era after the telegraph is common but before common air travel would be a better analogy.

Ferrel's conflict on Callisto might have analogies with the conflicts between the French & English colonies in N. America in the 17th & 18th centuries. The people there had to operate on their own with roughly annual arrivals of new supplies & people from the home country.

Ferrard Carson said...

Well I don't advocate for a super-battleship to be deployed on something so basic as a “show-the-flag” op. I would almost think those would simply not be built except by someone with a huge amount of disposable income who wants to do it for the sheer sake of doing it.

Instead, I think it would encourage a medium-tonnage ship with a moderate armament - enough to deal with up to three or four ships one class below it in an even match.

More importantly, this ship would have the stores to stay "on patrol" for a very lengthy period of time, analogous in durability of stores to today's submarines and the frigates of the Age of Sail. This would necessitate a good-sized ship for those stores (unless we use an algae-ecosystem) and a moderate sized crew (20th century submarines seem to indicate a crew between 50 and 150 as both sustainable and capable of extended multi-month tours of duty).

The comparison of a cruiser of this sort to a knight in chess is very very apt in my opinion. The rooks might simply be large flotillas of these cruisers kept at central bases as rapid-response teams, and queens, the uber-battleships would be very very rare indeed, just like the Seawolf-level uber-subs of today.

In regards to space marines, I split them into two separate ideas: Boarding parties (really more like coast-guard inspection teams) and actual soldiers. The boarding parties are meant to inspect cargo and enforce regs aboard merchant vessels, science and mining stations, etc.

The real space marines (powered-armor optional, but awesome) wouldn’t fight in space, or board enemy ships – rather they would be used for occupation or ground-ops purposes that require heavier firepower than a pistol, similar to SEAL teams if we continue the submarine analogy.

And that huge delay between a warning message and the reinforcements is certainly an opportunity to introduce tension and plots and intrigue. If the rebels can sabotage that "Gubament" ship, then it'll be a month before anyone can interfere with their plans. For certain, supplies and additional equipment would be stuck to a very strict schedule (possibly transported by a cycler-ship?) and in the meantime the habitats are left to what they have left over, what they can scavenge or produce, and whatever else they can beg, borrow, or steal from around them.

~ Ferrard

Rick said...

I like the idea of a single basic spaceframe doing double duty for patrol or inspection, simply by swapping loadout modules. I can also see 2-4 such craft (individually fairly small) as rider ships carried by a deep space bus, which can be regarded as a frigate or cruiser.

Good point that prolonged travel times do not favor giant battlestars, or at least do not favor their deployment, since you cannot quickly call them back. Such craft, if built at all, are more likely to be 'orbit queens' (speaking of queens!) that rarely leave local space.

Further on travel times, an idea that keeps crossing my mind is a setting where various regions of local space (Earth or Mars orbital space, outer planet moons, or Ceres and environs) are the equivalent in story terms of planetary systems in an FTL setting, with interplanetary travel thus equivalent to FTL travel.

After all, most FTL conceptions essentially mean that starships are just interplanetary ships with special gizmo to whisk away 99.999 percent of the trip.

Regarding boarding, I see interesting boarding situations as happening in situations where a confrontation that was expected to be tense but nonviolent suddenly goes pear shaped.

Or where not even a tense encounter was expected, as if someone boards a ship under false pretenses, or with motives not known to the intended victim.

Ferrard Carson said...

To expand on that interesting idea, Rick:

Five-ship constellation. Four small patrol-boat equivalents and one heavy cruiser. The patrol-boats have RCS and a small engine with enough reaction mass to skirmish with or chase a pirate or a rogue merchant ship. The Cruiser is the one that really moves and supports everything, and tends to stay back, providing fire support like a big-brother-bear-with-a-laser. The real reaction mass for inter-planetary movement is aboard the cruiser.

In operations, the cruiser performs a decel burn to put it into orbit around... let's say, Saturn. Then it detaches the four patrol boats. Three of them zip off to perform inspections of the installations owned by Lightspeed Inc., while snapping recon photos of Darkside Corp.'s base on the far side of Titan, and the fourth patrol boat stays behind and rides shotgun for the cruiser as it stays in high orbit over Saturn watching over the other three patrol boats.

If a patrol boat is ambushed, it performs a lot of radical burns to get it out of lethal range while trying to bracket its offender with KKV shots to keep it steady, at which point the cruiser toasts the sucker's weapons and engines with long range laser fire.

If the cruiser comes under attack, the PBs form a screen and the same close-range/long-range split happens as they try to protect their ride back home from being fried.

And to me, the idea of Planetary systems being the main focus, with interplanetary journeys from Earth to Jupiter being akin to FTL travel, makes a lot more sense. After all, traveling from Earth to the Moon is already really really expensive and requires a lot of effort. Why minimize that cost when you can already play it up for drama? There's ample story opportunity just within this solar system, and it keeps us from having to figure out the messy complications that evolve from the creation of FTL capability.

Anyway - that's been my four cents worth.

~ Ferrard

Rick said...

Dammit, I meant to hit edit, not publish!

The hardest thing to get (alas) is a straight out boarding fight, with everyone buttoned up and ready to go at it. But then, classic boarding actions went by the boards in the steam age. (Not least because industrial age ships usually are sunk if they lose, whereas sinking in battle was uncommon in the age of sail.)

The Brits carried a ship by boarding in WW II, but it was more like the scenarios we've been discussing here, a POW rescue in neutral waters.

Imagine a prisoner or hostage rescue involving ships in rendezvous with a neutral station, probably in technical violation of space law, being well inside the station's authority radius. Count me the ways things could get complicated.

Native Jovian said...

The problem with the idea of a cruiser supported by patrol boats is that the cruiser can't "stay back, providing fire support like a big-brother-bear-with-a-laser" unless it's so far back that it's not involved in the battle at all. In space warfare, if the enemy's within your weapon range, then you're within theirs as well.

What it seems to me that you're trying to do is justify space fighters, only writ large. Instead of modern single-man fighter jets, you're arguing for something more like the long-range bombers of the WWII era. While I certainly won't argue that it's not a cool idea (I've always loved large combat aircraft with multiple crewmen), in space it falls into many of the same pitfalls as the standard one-man fighter does.

I don't mean to pick on Ferrard, but since he's spoken about it with the most depth....

The only way I could see the sort of situation you describe was if the "cruiser" was actually an armed cargo ship of some kind (a merchant marine vessel?) delivering the orbital patrol craft to Saturn. It does make sense to have different ships for orbital and interplanetary combat; what doesn't make sense is for the latter to deploy and recover the former. Why would the cruiser need to investigate three or four different areas simultaneously? It doesn't make sense to split your forces when you could just park yourself in a high orbit (where you can see almost everything at once) and dare any combatants in the area to come out, come out, wherever they are.

The way I see such things being organized would be to have local forces being orbital-only ships with enough firepower to take on unruly civilian ship drivers, but not anything more powerful. After all, we arm our cops with pistols, but not anti-tank missiles -- why wouldn't it be the same in space? The next step up -- the metaphorical SWAT team -- would be some sort of rapid-reaction unit ("rapid" being a relative term when considering interplanetary distances). I imagine something light in military terms but still much heavier than our orbital cops, which enough remass to get from its home port to the trouble spot and back again without refueling, plus enough spare juice to conduct operations while they're there. That would allow them to, say, conduct a minor campaign against a group of pirate/terrorist/rebels who have taken over (or destroyed!) the government's orbital habitat/police office/military base/refueling station in a particular area (whether that's the whole of the Jovian system or some backwoods cluster in the asteroid belt) without having to worry about how they're getting home if things go south.

The next step up from that, naturally, would be a full-on military armada, possibly (or possibly not) including those so-awesome-we-hate-to-use-them uberships we've been discussing. The "cops" can't be expected to handle everything, given that they're probably more focused on cost-effective day to day operations than they are on actual heavy-hitting combat, but if your "SWAT team" can't handle the problem either, then you're probably looking at something along the lines of a full-scale armed rebellion or an enemy invasion or something similarly catastrophic.

Anonymous said...

Ferrard, your crusier-and-patrol boat combo sounds like a smaller version of my 'space control' ship concept...I like it! Maybe your space-control crusier would also have extra weapon-pods to swapout for the PB's troop/inspectors docking bays. Of, course, loing the crusier would escalate a 'merely' tense situation into a possible shooting war...


Thucydides said...

High speed travel over planetary distances isn't impossible or even hard.

ORION ships were conceptually able to reach Jupiter in under a year (using 1950 era technology), and modern day high power VASMIR drives are proposed with transit times to Mars of only 39 days. Other forms of propulsion are possible, and if Poylwell IEC fusion works, we could expect factor of 1000 improvements in performance ( Another figure of merit calculation for fusion cruisers is:
Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to Mars: 33 days, more or less, for high performance designs,or 6 weeks for economical freight-hauling variations. The craft are
single-stage, with a 15-20% payload fraction.
LEO to Saturn's Moons: as low as two months, with a short coasting period.
Again, the craft is single-stage, and has a 14% payload fraction

Even various forms of "sail" like magnetic sails or electrostatic sails can provide short transit times for modest payloads due to continous acceleration. A missile bus propelled by an electrostatic or magnetic sail would be very difficult to detect as well.

So help might not be minutes or hours away like Tac air, but it also won't be years away either.

If we are looking for a trope to describe larger manned spacecraft, coal powered steam ships are probably the closest analogy in terms of transit time, and also the need for fueling and docking facilities. If anyone wants to create a system wide "empire", then ships will be stationed across the solar system in such a fashion that no place will be more than a few months away (the Cis Lunar division is responsible out to Mars, the Jupiter Division covers from Mars to Saturn and the Uranus Division has squadrons reaching out to the Kuiper belt.)

Of course no analogy can be exact, we are looking at coal fired speeds coupled to SSN or aircraft carrier class ship technology.

Ferrard Carson said...

Hey, no offense taken Jovian. I recognize that the difficulty is the maxim of the American military: "If I can see it, I can hit it. If I can hit it, it's dead."

My concept is that this wouldn't be used for warfare, but more on par with enforcing regulations, so these would be more like heavily armed Coast Guard cutters as opposed to a warship. (This all, of course, presumes that there is enough intra- and inter-planetary traffic to merit patrolling). The Cruiser stays out of trouble by not getting into it in the first place - avoiding any obvious warships and staying far enough away that it costs a lot to outfit a Q-ship to take it out. Obviously if someone hangs the expense and deploys a Q-ship armed with a similarly sized or larger laser to mess things up, the cruiser would be hit (though if the Q-ship concentrates on the cruiser long enough to blow it up, the closest PB will have ample time to pump the sucker full of KKVs).

This is all, of course, assuming the modular-type ships that Rick brought up (which seem to be all the rage in the U.S. Navy at the moment, and make perfect sense to me when considering assembly in space) - swapping out four combat modules out of maybe seven on a cruiser for PB launch bays turns the cruiser from a warship to a maritime inspection vessel. You'd probably swap out a fifth module to simply serve as a fuel tank to hold extra re-mass for the PBs.

I'm well aware that there are probably still plenty of logic holes, but it seems a workable enough model to spin a yarn from. The key thing is that this model is meant for cost-effectiveness. You can justify an embarrassing number of utterly stupid decisions by saying the project was running over-budget and Lightspeed Inc. isn't quite as profligate with its shareholder money as the U.S. Navy.

Still, keep poking holes - this is fun =)

And yes, Ferrell, that Space Control Ship was a fascinating idea when I saw it. And yes, the cruiser would be very valuable, especially since it's being deployed at least a month's travel time from its home base. At this distance, it would seem more cost effective to me to build the cruiser and four patrol-boat modules instead of three independently operating destroyers, each with stores for extended ops, each with remass to get to and from the patrol zone, each with duplicate life-support, food, and engine mass. If a military does decide to jump in on the action, I'd think they would hang the expense and deploy a bunch of straight-up laser/missile cruisers so that the entire presence in-system doesn't depend on a single ship, but this is Lightspeed Inc. (or the Titan Colonial Patrol) I'm talking about, not the Earth Defense Fleet.

Not to mention, I'm pretty sure that the destroyer level ship is largely useless in the strategic sense; its attack power, survivability, and most importantly, range, are all severely outclassed by the Rook-level (or possibly Queen) forces that would be brought to bear in space warfare. Compare the cost of a trio of strategically impotent destroyers with the cost of a quartet of equally impotent PBs and a Cruiser that can alter the balance...

~ Ferrard

CitySide said...

"sinking in battle was uncommon in the age of sail."

Spaceships don't sink, either.

And it's worth noting that, other than the occasional bit of subterfuge and trickery (which often included the aforementioned cutting out), most boarding actions only occurred after the ships involved had pretty well beat the snot out of one another, often with the boarder taking advantage of a temporary immobilization and/or chain of command breakdown in the boardee.

So the question is, what happens when a ship has been bested in ranged fight, but hasn't been blown to em-see-square? What becomes of the hulk, which may house survivors and may be repairable? (weapons, sensors and possibly drives are likely "surface fixtures" so a ship might be hors de combat, but remain reasonably intact) Would space fights have an equivalent of "striking the colors?" (Attack Vector actually addresses that very possibility). And how would the winner take possession? Suddenly you've got a potentially tense, close-quarter situation on your hands.

Regarding analogs of interplanetary travel, it's also worth noting that transfer orbits seem like a counter-intuitive way to travel for the modern layman, used to pointing himself towards his destination and pushing "go" But would they seem all that odd to a windjammer used to the circuitous, calendar-dependent ways of the trade winds and westerlies?

Oh, and for a deep spacer, inured to drudgery of interplanetary travel, LEO might well be as dreaded as any "lee shore."

ElAntonius said...

I'd agree that depending on how you mix defenses vs weapon lethality, most engagements needn't be totally fatal.

But there is one difference: a boarding action is really technically only possible on a ship that's already surrendered. Exciting, yes. Power-Armor-drill-through-the-hull-and-secure-the-bridge awesome? Not quite.

RE: Gunships supported by other craft.

It's going to depend on your setting. I tend to think most of the action will happen in planetary orbit.

That means that most of the fighting will be between forces already in place. Even if we can cut travel time to Mars to 30 or so days, a month is a long time to be without your Battlestar.

Oooh, I can almost see it now.

Power A controls a colony on Mars, replete with orbital station, gunships for enforcement and protection of their local interests (mostly from this brewing dissident movement)

Well, Power B finances said dissident movement, and manages to covertly retrofit a few of their merchant carriers with some crude weapons. They blow a gunship or two away, and a full out rebellion erupts on Mars.

Power A could send in their Death Star to quell the rebellion...or they could hope that their gunships on station are enough to protect their orbital interests from the retrofitted merchants to secure a path for the SPAAAACE marines to make a landing about a month from now.

If they send in their Death Star, all of a sudden they leave the fledgling station near Io unprotected, and B's Death Star is stationed nearby...

Jean Remy said...

"What no one does is write stories about sieges of Vauban forts."

La Guerre des Forts - Driant.

Technically it's about a fictitious war between the 1880 invasion of Alsace by the Prussians and WW I, but it's about a Maginot line-style fortification under siege.

I would contend people will write about everything.

Also there has been a lot of talk about how war would be unlikely because of costs or strategic risks involved. Sadly every new weapon advances has had people standing up and declaring war to be unlikely and uneconomical now that this new weapon is in play, probably starting as early as the roman catapults. "La Petite Histoire des Armes a Feu" (A Little History of Firearms) lampoons this: every time a radical new firearm is developed someone quips: With such a weapon, war becomes impossible. The book ends with that quote at the introduction of missiles. The intent is clear: There is no such thing as a weapon making war impossible. A cost-benefit analysis of the recent Iraq war will not look good on the balance sheet, so the economical unviability of war is a false argument. Someone will always think it makes sense. That person will be wrong. The war will happen anyway, and once it has been proven wrong the parties in question will be too far involved to withdraw cleanly. I wonder if there has ever been a war with a positive balance sheet. I rather doubt it. Most Empires are created in the hope of acquiring wealth, and are forced to expand because it requires more wealth to sustain itself or collapse... until it collapses from over extension. Maybe the 'Murricans are learning that lesson now.

No matter how expensive a laserstar is, someone will throw it at another laserstar at some point, even if it makes absolutely no economic sense to use it.

Thucydides said...

Depending on just what sort of help you want, torch missile performance is quite possible with current technology (ORION nuclear pulse drive with a stripped down ship and no shock absorbers). Next Big Future quantified it a while ago:

A 100 G interceptor can launch from Earth and hit an incoming asteroid 15 million kilometres away in 5 hours. The 3 ton bus (all pulse units expended) would have about a gigaton of Ke for impact. Cranking things up even further, an unmanned torch accelerating at 100 G could go from Eart to Mars in a day (when the planets are at closest approach), 300 G is overnight service and 1000 G is literally in several hours. (An interesting design problem is how many pulse units do we retain for terminal manouevres?)

The high end figures require some advances in material science, and none of these devices can be considered for "manned" missions. They would really be planet-busters (or continent busters), and the drive flare of one of these things starting off is the signal of Armageddon. If anyone in the solar system is building ORION torch missiles then everyone needs to build Xasers to defend themselves.

Carla said...

"What no one does is write stories about sieges of Vauban forts"
A couple of the Sharpe novels centre around the siege and capture of Badajoz (historical) and a coastal fort near Bordeaux (fictional). Though one could argue that the story is about our hero defeating his enemies/ defending his reputation/ getting the girl, and the siege is more in the way of background.

Citizen Joe said...

Much like spies and soldiers are treated to different codes of war, and that is the primary reason that soldiers wear uniforms, space combat may have similar rules. Combat ships would need to have provisions made for being captured, perhaps standardized docking ports or suitable locations for docking. The idea is that soldiers are just doing their job and it is very likely that they may get into a capture situation. Spies, pirates, rogue traders do not follow that code and as such would simply be destroyed as a navigational hazard. Space is a very hostile environment ant it takes pretty much complete control in order to successfully and safely dock two objects.

It seems more likely that a surrendered ship would either have some sort of electronic lock placed on its navigation or some manner of limitation placed on its power generation (like shooting off excess radiators). Then the surrendered ship would be held at gunpoint until a salvage vessel arrives, potentially months later.

Rick said...

I should have known that asserting 'no one writes' was a positive invitation to counterexamples!

But exceptions that prove the rule, and all that. Stories find their way into all sorts of settings, but sailing frigates are such a suitable platform for Romance that they have spawned a whole subgenre of Romance, from Hornblower to Aubrey and Maturin.

Note that ships of the line play a very secondary role in this genre, because (like Vauban forts) their missions were usually less picturesque. Sail to and fro blockading Brest or Toulon for a few years, then spend one day winning a Glorious Victory, then more to and fro for the rest of the war.

Note also that Sharpe's setting is the Peninsular War - the theater that gave us the word guerilla - rather than the central 'big battalions' theaters. In strategic terms, the Peninsular War was the equivalent of a frigate cutting-out expedition.

(Also, to be sure, Napoleon was wiping the central theater floor with everyone till the Russia thing - not much scope there for fun British Army adventures!)

In general, it is very common for war adventures to be set in 'secondary' theaters and light forces, where things are more fluid and there is more scope for individual derring-do.

The result is a subtle tension between wanting to display the sheer coolness power of gigantic ships of the line / battleships / laser stars, and story imperatives that tend to favor frigates / destroyers / patrol craft.

Rick said...

On space speeds, even fast interplanetary travel ('fast' for non magitech drives) still involves travel times of weeks to months, comparable to sail era travel times.

The problem isn't just acceleration, but peak speed and total delta v. Orion is good for dozens of km/s, perhaps 100 km/s, but that is still weeks to Mars, months to Jupiter.

Whereas, once industrialization took fair hold, even the longest possible terrestrial journey was 'Around the world in 80 days.'

I've always loved large combat aircraft with multiple crewmen

I assume that would make you a fan of the Peacemaker.

Regarding deep space deployments and their missions, if the expectation is for a straight shootout you could just send your deep space ship with a pure weapon package. The reason for carrying 2-4 orbital 'corvettes' would be to deal with trickier, more ambiguous situations (see my previous reply!) where you need some close-in presence and orbital operating flexibility.

The deep space carrier ship in this scenario might well have more similarity to a transport type. Though if you have an electric drive, you probably have a substantial onboard power supply, and can use it to pump a high power laser.

Spaceships don't sink, either.

True! And yes, Attack Vector has a quite elegant 'striking colors' convention: Crippled ships extend their (highly vulnerable) radiators to signal surrender.

ElAntonius said...

There's an analogy here between the F-22 and a drone aircraft, though.

The drone aircraft are the gunships in this scenario...numerous, capable, 'relatively' cheap, and able to perform surgical operations relatively well.

The F-22 is the battlestar: it would mop the floor with even multiple drones, it's expensive, and it is really well suited to conventional war but falls a bit flat in support of the guerilla wars we find ourselves in today.

If we go through enough cycles of guerilla warfare, where the drones are particularly suited, eventually aircraft like the F-22 will be but a tiny part of the Air Force.

The same goes for battlestars...they may be extremely capable combatants, but if open space warfare is not the normal MO (and that's just setting really), then they simply won't be numerous...I could imagine future debates about the USSF James Bond and how it simply doesn't have a place in the modern military landscape (much as how people debate the F-22 now).

Nations always prepare for the last war they fought and will always fight the current war with what they got...

Gridley said...

I have one nit to pick - I know at least two stories about Napoleonic era siege warfare, both written by CS Forester.

In "Commodore Hornblower" our hero participates in the siege of Riga, and greatly delays the attacking force by using his control of the adjoining waters.

In "The Gun" a group of Spanish guerillas find an abandoned seige cannon and use it as the centerpiece of a major uprising; several sieges are depicted in the book.

All this relates to the reason I think there will ALWAYS be humans on board properly designed warships, be they space or wet navy: automated systems work fine until your opponent breaks the rules.

The objective of a warship is not to destroy other warships. Its objective is to control the sea for the safe passage of friendly commerce or deny the sea to the passage of hostile commerce (or both, as the situation demands).

If your awesome, automated laser star can't board and inspect merchant ships to make sure they haven't been hijacked by pirates, it has failed. If enemy merchant ships can get past it by hacking their transponders to mimic friendly ships, it has failed.

Citizen Joe said...

The humans can be back at the base, be it on Earth or where ever. You just put up a sensor picket and have your automated laserstars on call. Incoming vessels get hailed and verify all the data. Any problems and they get shunted to quarantine orbit. If they disobey, then the call goes to the laser star, which then destroys it as if it were just another asteroid.

You still need your customs ships to inspect vessels at the quarantine orbits though.

You can't get away from the automation with laserstars. There isn't some guy standing there at the end of a long rifle, staring down the barrel, finger on the trigger. It is a bunch of communications back and forth for finding target solutions with computer controlled activation. All captain Dunsel can do pull the power if the computer goes berserk.

I suspect the need for people is more of a maintenance issue rather than command and control.

Jean Remy said...

"The humans can be back at the base, be it on Earth or where ever."

I disagree. Two words:

Light lag.

You don't have twenty minutes to decide whether that transport is legit or aimed at a space station. You don't have five minutes. Laserstars, because of the amount of firepower they represent, will never be fully automated. I don't see crews in the hundreds or anything, maybe 20 crew, with 5 on duty, 5 on standby, 5 getting sack time and 5 eating and playing cards, one ranking officer per watch and the captain ready to be ousted from bed at a second's notice.

That's not even considering that even in the future IN SPACE. I don't really see people entrusting a weapon of mass destruction into the hands of a computers. I'd also point out that hackers have managed to hit the databases of the pentagon. Sad thing is that military computer technology, because of development lag, is usually five to ten years out of date when it hits the battlefield. Do you want an obsolete, government-funded computer in charge of a WMD? I personally would rather not. Frigates or missile bus platforms, sure, but not something like a giant spaceborne death xaser.

Native Jovian said...

The talk of laserstars vs customs boats is reminding me of Mass Effect.

Mass Effect space fleets are organized around dreadnoughts -- huge, expensive, and powerful ships that would win any fight against anything other than another dreadnought, but are too expensive to risk in most circumstances. The most powerful race in the galaxy has less than 40 dreadnoughts in their fleet, total. Humanity has precisely six.

Next in line are cruisers. Essentially mini-dreadnoughts, less capable but less expensive, and therefore far more numerous. Cruisers form the backbone of space forces, acting as the ships of the line, as it were.

After cruisers are frigates. Small, fast, and cheap, they're the scouts, patrol boats, and rapid-reaction units of the space forces. In fleet battles, frigates operate in "wolf packs" to overwhelm larger ships, since they lack the firepower to take out anything but other frigates on their own.

There are also carriers, which deploy fighters. Presumably the reason why they don't simply automate them and turn them into unmanned missile buses is so they can cement the analogy to the post-WWI-pre-WWII era, where the number of battleships was sharply limited by treaty (as, indeed, the number of dreadnoughts are in Mass Effect) and the resultant upswing in development of aircraft carriers.

With the exception of the carriers, that arrangement strikes me as a fairly logical arrangement. Dreadnoughts defend key strategic points and are able to, by themselves, deter anything but an all-out attack. Cruisers are the workhorses of the fleet, used for defending anything that doesn't rate a dreadnought and for serious power projection. Frigates are the customs boats we've been talking about -- capable of blowing up anything but another warship, they'd be your choice for inspecting merchant cargo or blowing up some pirate/rebel/terrorists using civilian ships with some guns welded onto the hull.

Native Jovian said...

Re: Military computers, I know that it's the cool thing to mock the government for being an inefficient bureaucracy and all, but the idea that military computers are shoddy or obsolete is simply untrue.

Military software is some of the most rigorously quality-tested product in the world, period. I've seen estimates that the average programming rate in military projects is one line of code per programming per day because of how much scrutiny it's subjected to. That software is coded, tested, re-tested, fixed, the fixes are tested, those are fixed, then re-tested again, etc etc ad nauseam. It's also worth noting that it's much easier to update/improve software and even computer hardware than it is to update anything else of note in a military craft. Compare doing a software update to replacing a jet engine or turbine powerplant and you'll see what I mean.

Does this mean that military computers are perfect? No, of course not. Does it mean that people would be any more willing to leave things entirely in the hands of autonomous drones instead of flesh-and-blood soldier? Definitely not. But the idea of military computers -- especially those controlling autonomous craft -- being unreliable or out of date is entirely absurd.

Jean Remy said...

It's precisely this rigorous over-testing that delays the production and release of military hard and software. To be usable in the field the computers have to be field-tested repeatedly, have to have undergone their baptism under fire so to speak, because more than advanced they need to be durable and reliable. I wholeheartedly agree with this.

Unfortunately this battle-tested and re-tested ruggedness is also what makes them obsolete when they finally reach the battlefield. Computer technology advances by leaps and bounds. What was state-of-the-art last year, or in the last couple of years, has been outpaced. Civilian computers do not undergo the same rigorous treatment and schedule of inspection and checking. Products are released buggy and defective, to be out faster than the competitor. A kid in a basement can have a computer with more computing power and memory than an entire Navy vessel. Military computers do the job they were designed for, and do it well, under very tough circumstances. They are still at least 5 years out of date because they spent 5 years in testing to make sure they work.

In the past 5 years computer main chips have doubled in power, memory has known a quantum leap that now places an entire library in a chip the size of a nickle, and the thirty-to-forty year old programmers that developed the software are being matched by 15 year old kids who were born with a mouse in one hand and a flash drive in the other, who are churning viruses out faster than the opposing team can write anti-viruses for, especially since they have to be thoroughly debugged. The anti-virus must not interfere with the operation of the system, after all, while the virus, well, is designed to mess stuff up, so who cares if it is not debugged?

This is for a system freshly on the battlefield. I am assuming the lifetime of a laserstar is going to be counted in decades, they will be too expensive to be useful for less. If the computers on board were five years old when the ship was launched, how old will they be when it reaches midlife? 15? 20 year old computers? You want someone in charge up there, and not separated by several minutes, hell not even several seconds of light-lag.

Jean Remy said...

About Mass Effect: The Codex entries about fleet battles (those not full of Element-Zero-related technomancy of course) are actually some of the most rigorous and scientifically viable descriptions I've seen in popular media. I was very impressed with the emphasis on heat management and the fact that heat makes stealth-in-space impossible.

On-screen of course none of the codex is respected, and even the stealth-in-space becomes possible (enters element-zero technomancy) but on the whole there was a definite attempt at introducing hard SF into space opera... if you went and looked for it.

They do get quite a bit wrong too, though. Still, a good attempt for a popular space opera.

Citizen Joe said...

That brings up an interesting point in how long vessels/computers last compared to humans. Humans take about 18 years to build and then have a productive life of about 40 years. After that, physical and mental decay make them unreliable. Computers get replaced every 5 years or so. 10 years is pretty good for a car although antiques are still around with lots of maintenance. Humans are self reproducing and repairing machines. If there is a place for humans in space it is because of our repair abilities and longevity and not for our decision making.

Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter!

The objective of a warship is not to destroy other warships. Its objective is to control the sea ....

Excellent point that encapsulates a broader one. Physics and engineering constrain the design of space warcraft, but they are not built to solve physics or engineering problems. They are built to solve political problems (by coercing people).

As a further expansion, a point that a couple of people have made in earlier discussion. Huge, goldplated, prestige platforms, of little real combat value, may still pay for themselves by dissuading perspective enemies.

Your laser star may well have a human crew because the true primary mission is to welcome foreign dignitaries aboard and show off your gleaming uber lasers.

If it ever has to zap anything, from strategic perspective it is in failure recovery mode - an important mode, but hardly the primary design consideration.

BTW, there was a movie version of 'The Gun,' called The Pride and the Passion. The cannon in the film was big enough to go back in time and batter down the walls of Constantinople.

Sophia Loren was the love interest, and naturally met her end in the final reel. Ladies, never fall in love with the rugged hero of a continuing series. He won't marry you, and you'll never make it to the closing credits.

Matt Edens said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cityside said...

"That brings up an interesting point in how long vessels/computers last compared to humans."

Ah, but the vessels themselves are essentially rack systems holding a bundle of components in place - particularly true for deep space vessels that never deal with the stresses of entering atmo. Weapons, avionics, even drives might be swapped out repeatedly in the same "hull".

In the real world, the Discovery - due to fly the last shuttle mission this year - is 26 years old. And naval vessels can be surprisingly long-lived. The attack sub USS Los Angeles was just decommissioned after 34 years of service. And the carrier USS Enterprise remains in service after 49 years in commission. The Peruvian Cruiser Almirante Grau was originally the Dutch e Ruyter, commissioned in 1953 (and laid down in 1939!).

Overall, there are a surprising amount of 70s - and a handful of 60s - vintage hulls still in service, and not all in 2nd or 3rd tier navies.

Cityside said...

"Next in line are cruisers. Essentially mini-dreadnoughts, less capable but less expensive, and therefore far more numerous. Cruisers form the backbone of space forces, acting as the ships of the line, as it were."

A 74-gun third rate, in other words?

Citizen Joe said...

Shuttles get overhauled after every flight. The military ships have constant maintenance plus time in dock for refits.

While space vessels may not endure atmospheric damage, they do suffer from constant barrage of micro particles. They are also bathed in radiation continuously.

Jean Remy said...

On the role of laserstars (to continue the appellation originated in this blog). I think it will be overall very similar to the battleship pre-WW II and the supercarrier post same, and the third-rank ship o' the wall for previous eras: power projection.

Like Teddy's Great White Fleet tour, you send it around the solar system to rattle your saber, as Rick pointed out. The laserstar is the kind of ship you'd need if you didn't have laserstars, in other words. Like the modern carrier, it is a symbol of military power (read: supremacy) and it is meant to "convince" other nations that war isn't such a good idea. That said it is still a viable weapons platform, probably able to multi-role as the command center for small-scale conflicts. From time to time it will have to fire its main gun at a low-value target (nuking a ten dollar tent with a million-dollar missile) just to show that, yes, it does work, and quite well, thank you, and we hope you enjoyed the demonstration. But like the battleships and the modern carrier, you'll rarely see laserstars going toe-to-toe, and when they do it probably means someone screwed up.

However, all due respect to Citizen, I do very much think humans in space will be there for the express purpose of decision-making. The laserstar as stated above is not a weapon of war, it is a weapon of politics. As long as we don't surrender our society to the machines entirely, the decisions will be made by humans, and that means a human on the scene (with the proper political connections) to decide whether or not to push the little red button. A computer can only operate on pre-programmed parameter (short of an AI, and do you really want a sentient machine in charge of a hundred billion dollars worth of WMD?) The old adage "no plan survives contact with the enemy" is fully at work there. You simply cannot plan for every contingency because humans can do some damn foolish illogical things that you never saw coming. A computer can react in nanoseconds to something it was told how to handle. A human can react in seconds to things they never thought of before.

Rick said...

'Laserstar' is very marginally original; I adapted it from 'battlestar' (even though I never watched the modern era BSG).

I agree with you about human decision making - in fact, really that is the only functional reason to put humans in space at all. Yes there are not infrequent cases where humans can kick a balky piece of equipment into action, but that is not why you go to the expense of sending a crew.

Thucydides said...

Some equipment is evergreen.

DC-3 aircraft are still used in profitable service in northern Canada (and I mean real DC-3's with radial piston engines), the C-130 Hercules has outlasted several generations of aircraft designed to "replace" it and when the last B-2 lands in Arizona to be mothballed, a B-52 will be waiting to pick up the crew and take them home.

While it is hard to make a "one on one" analogy between this sort of equipment and spacecraft, I will venture some broad parameters,

1. The design is simple and robust
2. The design is flexible and adaptable
3. It is produced in large numbers
4. It is used by a large and varied body of users, who discover how to tweak the design for a multitude of special purposes.

The space DC-3 might resemble a design posted here: a pair of drums joined by a truss. The front drum can house the hamster wheel for a crew or cargo (or weapons and sensors) while the rear drum houses the engine and power apparatus. Fuel, reaction mass, lighters or auxiliary spacecraft and other equipment is attached to the truss as needed.

The basic architecture can be adapted for many different purposes, and the difference between a warship and a cargo ship might be a matter of what sensor suite and software is installed, and what exactly is carried in the cargo pod or on the trusses. Space polities will certainly welcome something that can be used as a "Liberty ship" or a cruiser depending on what the political situation is between it and its neighbours. A few specialized military ships are still needed, especially sensor ships and command and control vessels (your scenario can be tweaked to include Xaser battlestations, ORION torch missiles or the HMJS (His Majesty's Jovian Ship) "Surprise" to taste), but unless there is some sort of compelling political backstory, large military fleets are probably going to be a rarity.

Jean Remy said...

Although I agree on Thucydides' main point, I do think most warships will be purpose-built.

Reason 1: Guns. Warship/crafts will follow the A-10 Warthog's design philosophy: Take a gun, and build a ship around it. Whether it is a laser or a rail gun, the weapon's characteristics will be dictated by "barrel length". This is not a situation where you can grab an off-the-shelf transport and strap a gun to it, but you'll want to build the ship from the "gun" out.

Reason 2: Engines. Commercial vehicles use the most economical engines, military use the most powerful, and damn the fuel/remass costs. In a world where VASMIR and torch drives exist a nice lumbering merchant ship will use a VASMIR, the frigate will use a torch.

Reason 3: Crew. Nowadays a massive container carrier or supertanker operates with a fraction of the crew of a frigate. Military vessels need to be ready to fight at the drop of the hat, the hardware requires daily maintenance, and the crews require daily drills. Maybe it's just a question of strapping a bigger hamster wheel, but I think the problem might be a greater engineering issue than simply adding an extra ring or making it bigger. This will add a lot more mass and cause a lot more stress, when the standard civilian designs will be designed with as narrow margins as the government administration will allow.

The opposite, refitting frigates into transports, might be doable, however. I can see a market for demilitarized surplus vessels.

The size of the fleet (or constellation) will be dictated by the amount of space that needs to be controlled, a few extra for emergency purposes, and a few more for maintenance, overhaul and refit rotation. Ideally one large ship (laserstar) for each major orbital space, a frigate at or near smaller targets (asteroids, moons, Lagrange space station) under the control or protection of said polity, a few extra at tension points (Ganymede and Europa belonging to opposing factions? Might want a larger presence.) Earth orbit will always have the lion's share, especially since the "shipyards" will most likely be in the Earth Sphere.

Thucydides said...

I agree that purpose built space warships will be different from the DC-3/Liberty ship model, I'm thinking more in terms of most polities not having big enough economies to sustain large numbers of purpose built warships.

On the other hand, if the commercial ships can carry weapons, then they will bulk up the fleet with "auxiliary cruisers", probably carrying racks of KKVs and a secure link to the military cruiser that is running the show.

If the ruling power is particularly cold blooded, the auxiliary cruisers run in the first wave of the attack and launch waves of KKV's to overwhelm any possible defense and saturate the enemy Xaser's targeting system, while the warship selects and concentrates on high value targets.

A follow on wave of auxiliary cruisers provides waves of KKV's for follow up attacks or to cover a retreat.

Of course wealth and your position in space can change everything. Earth has enough solar energy that huge solar collectors in the Earth-Sun L1 point could power a squadron or division of Xaser battlestations, forcing a potential attacker to think in terms of tens or hundreds of thousands of KKV's to mount a successful attack. Since the Xasers will be mutually supporting and have clear fields of fire over cis-lunar space and the inner solar system, Earth will be a difficult nut to crack.

Jupiter could have a similar strategic position, powering multiple Xasers by tapping into the planetary magnetosphere, and sheltering the Jovian moons under the rule of a single polity (you can decide if this will be a Republic, Dictatorship, Feudal overlord or something different).

Uranus can pull off the same trick using abundant 3He to run fusion powerplants for it's Xaser battery.

The rebels, not having access to large amounts of electrical energy, are busy squirreling atomic bombs away in the asteroid belt for their fleet of ORION torch missile buses...

Rick said...

The similarity or difference of civil and military craft depends on a bunch of factors.

Some classes of warships will be 'built around a weapon,' such as laser stars. On the other hand, the design of deep space 'frigates,' intended largely for presence, may be more dominated by their space-keeping requirements, which are not unlike civil transport types. For example their ability to deliver espatiers in healthy, alert fighting trim may be as or more important than laser zapping power.

Especially if the civil drive produces ample electric power as a byproduct, thus a power supply for a laser, etc. Then it may be a (relatively!) simple matter of modifying the drive to supply plug power, and mounting a weapon platform.

High combat acceleration or uber coilguns pretty much require a structure built around them, but lasers are a lot more forgiving when it comes to space architecture. Especially if the laser armament is an important but not overwhelming design consideration.

ElAntonius said...

I'd agree with Rick here, but with some further nuance that hasn't been discussed in this context here yet: Jon's Law, and an unnamed corollary that pops up quite a bit:

1) Any sufficiently powerful drive is also a weapon.
1a) Civilian ships are likely to carry devices that can be adapted as weapons.

1a is easy to envision for asteroid mining, for example. The only civilian ship I can picture that won't have a 'weapon' is the passenger liner, and potentially the cargo liner. But even they have drives.

Rick said...

Exploratory craft might be particularly well suited to war conversion for frigate-cruiser type missions. They have extensive sensor suites, long-endurance fuel tankage and life support, and launching racks, service bays, and control stations for probes, readily adaptable for kinetics or other remote weapons.

'Conversion' here may mean not just rebuilding existing ships for a scratch force, but as the basis for a design, MILSPECed as required.

But I'm not sure that there's an in-system counterpart to the general purpose exploratory 'survey ship.' Exploration in practice goes by stages, starting with probes, with human missions only when you already have fairly specific objectives.

ElAntonius said...

I'm reminded of the old game Independence War. For those unfamiliar, it was a "more realistic" space combat game that featured largely Newtonian physics and performance. (IE, cut the engines and you would coast forever, though I think it still had upper limits on speed. It's been a while). It had the usual bad science for a video game though: hollywood combat ranges, slower than light energy projectiles (particle cannon), and shields (although the shields had interesting limitations)

But, in that game, at the outset there are basically three kinds of combat ships: PATCOMs, which are the lightest class, and largely cannon fodder for the player class, which was the Corvette. Then large capital battleships rounded it off, but most interesting fights were Corvette vs. Corvette (IE, a battleship would hopelessly outgun the Corvette, and the Corvette would demolish a PATCOM)

4-5 man bridge crew, IIRC, with another 10-20 in habitable modules that were detachable.

Basic storyline follows imperial vs. rebellion plot, with players on the imperial side. Early on, the rebels are limited to the cannon fodder PATCOMs, but eventually acquire Corvettes and the fights get tougher.

Then an interesting little bit happens: the rebels develop a space fighter (bear with me for a bit). The game makes a point to declare space fighters useless, being hopelessly outgunned by even PATCOMs. They're the game's basic energy weapon, an engine, and a cockpit, and cannot be shielded due to size (unlike the PATCOM).

Why do I go into this?

Because the game unveils the fighter in a curious way: the rebels take over a cargo ship surreptitiously (at a port, no less), load it with fighters, and go to dock with some high value target. At very close range, they blow open the cargo containers, and a swarm of fighters starts a fight at extremely close range, where the player has trouble tracking them.

Now, I didn't necessarily posit this as a pro-fighter post (and in fact, the game then defocuses on fighters by turning them into unmanned drones from the player POV (IE, the player pilots them remotely or lets the ship computer fly them).

But it got me thinking about hollywood ranges and fighters again, as per an earlier post in this blog.

You know a ship is coming, but you don't know what's inside it...

Rick said...

Exactamundo. In a politically sterile environment - the classic battlefield, where everyone not a friendly is a threat/target - space forces can hit at Stupendous Range, and would surely fight at that range.

But once you mix in civilians or neutrals, the picture in the plotting holotank suddenly gets a lot more complicated. Physics and geometry become only the starting point, not the whole story. And to know who is who, you may have to get up close and personal.

Anonymous said...

on boarding and combat in general...

The first and foremost objective of any ship equipped with DEWs will be to blind/dazzle sensors and/or scramble computer controls.

I don't think anyone in their right mind would try boarding a ship that hadn't had at least one of those things done to it.

As for the feasibility, I'd think sensors will be many orders of magnitude MORE vulnerable to DEW than most other portions of a spaceship.


Jim2B said...

follow-up to my earlier post and a synthesis of what I've read in this post.

The laser equipped craft would be the work horse of the fleet. A laser can be used offensively, defensively, non-lethally (knock out essential subsystems, and even in a non-damaging way (dazzle the opponent's sensors).

Before boarding a boarding or inspection action a patrol craft (or it's big brother laser star) would perhaps dazzle the ship to be boarded so they can't take aim at the boarders.

In fact due to the delta V requirements, only when there's a substantial difference in delta V available (in favor of the boarder) would a boarding action ever take place. Meaning that Han Solo would never have been boarded by the "Evil Empire" unless he willing submitted to the action. Of course that cooperation could have been extended only as an acknowledgment of the 10 GW Graser pointed figuratively at his head.

KKV and missiles would only exist as weapons on makeshift warships (merchant cum warship) and dedicated strike craft (designed specifically kill other craft). Really they can only be used for one purpose and they leave an awful mess behind if they're successful (or they do not have sufficient V to clear the solar system).

So any defense of near Earth space would necessarily consist of a lot of laser equipped craft. ASAT/KKV might be used as trajectory denial weapons but should always be boosted with lots of V above escape velocity.

Which brings me to another thought. Among aircraft fighter jocks there's a saying, "speed is life." Among the space fighting force it would become "delta V" is life. Every aspect of space would revolve around delta V.

An argument might be made for high-g acceleration during the heat of battle, but anyone jinking with high-g accelerations will rapidly run out of delta V - killing them. There's an added expense to high-g drives too - the weight of the drive. In most cases this would be dead weight - further cutting into your delta V.

The only real use I can think of for high-g drives would be for missiles. Unfortunately an Orion project type missile STILL suffers from a minimum drive size and that is HUGE (like 800 tons!).

Turbo10k said...

800 tons to take out a whole orbit (if loaded with frag) is economic if considered with the alternative of sending Trillions of worth in Laserstars to do the same.


Jim2B said...

>> 800 tons to take out a whole orbit

Just remember that frag isn't selective. When you take out that orbit, you deny it to yourself too.

The special case is very low orbits will clean themselves out in a relatively short period of time - but even medium Earth orbits can last for many decades.

Люси Сорью said...

Necroposting here, but I can't help to note.

Merchant ships would probably carry a lidar mount or a laser for meteor defense, which makes refitting them into hand-me-down laserstars rather easy.

Tsar-railguns, for another matter... well, it generally depends, but an auxiliary kinetic cruiser would, as stated, carry kinetics in the form of rocket charges/torpedoes/missiles, while dedicated kinetic cruisers would be built around a tsar-railgun, launching both hypervelocity slugs and missiles equally well.

Rick said...

The thread isn't 'necro' if someone is still posting on it!

I'm doubtful that merchant craft would carry anti-meteor lasers, unless we're talking about ships with Incredible Speed. At ordinary interplanetary speeds the chance of a dangerous impact is exceedingly low.

For that matter, if you can detect it, a short thruster burn will sidestep it.

Military craft, of course, are a very different matter. I have to say that the expression 'Tsar-railgun' is wonderfully evocative! Shades of the False Dmitri!

Люси Сорью said...

Merchants would still carry a lidar mount as per the standard avionics package, one pulling double-duty as a communications laser. For that matter, how much power would a communications laser need? It hardly needs to hold a beam onto something for long, and I suppose diffraction hardly matters, or else lasers would be unfeasible in that regard.

The point is, there ain't much difference between weapon lasers, lidars and comms lasers, given that they have to use roughly the same output if they are to work effectively. Something nudges me to call this arrangement a Swiss Army Laser of sorts.

Oh. Not to forget that lasers make interesting countermeasures to those pesky thermal sensors, working like a stroboscope.

For that matter, would masers work as weapons at all, besides the obvious applications?

Rick said...

I forgot to say welcome to the comment threads!

The difference between weapon lasers and comm/lidar/whatever lasers is that weapons need a beaucoup power output (and all the secondary features that implies). The difference in power is orders of magnitude, so I can't see civil lasers being very relevant.

Kinetics seem much more suited to jury-rigging, since anything with thrusters and a control package can be steered onto collision course with a target. There are some devils in the details, but it seems a better prospect than adapting civil lasers as weapons.

Ferrard Carson said...

Why would civilian ships mount something against meteors? They can just use maneuvering thrusters to get out of the way, unless they're in a Star Wars asteroid thicket.

Kinetics could probably be hidden much more easily too, if we want to take this a little further - just a shroud or fake hull of some sort, as opposed to the much more difficult task of hiding a weapons-grade mirror or the radiators necessary to make a weapons-grade laser more than just a one-shot deal.

This wouldn't, in my plebeian brain, preclude someone from secretly modifying a comm / lidar laser for sufficient power to blind another ship's sensors though...

~ Ferrard

Люси Сорью said...

Rick - My idea was that you could power one laser differently whether it is used as a comms laser, or a lidar, or a weapon. Not to mention that it kind of comes presupposed that laser weapons are their own lidars. However, weapon lasers require larger mirror apertures(or not, possibly, but I'm not too keen on long narrow telescopes) and handle heat better, so... yes, maybe civilian lasers won't be so useful.

Just how much power a comms laser shining over interplanetary distances needs, anyway? I supposed those would be well in the weapon laser power range, especially if we talk about all those tight beams and all. It seemed kind of logical to shunt all laser-related duties on a warship to the same set of laser turrets it uses for combat and just switch the power on differently.

And if those turrets are shot off, well, you can always stick a stroboscope out of the airlock, or revert to plain old semaphore with hull lights.

Rick said...

You might be able to use powered-down weapon lasers for comms, or at least components of the system, but I suspect that purpose-built comm lasers would turn out more convenient.

I don't know the power requirements for multi-AU comm lasers, but I suspect they are rather modest.

Having said all this, I can imagine that in special circumstances, warcraft might find weapon lasers useful for comms. And not just for sending an 'unmistakable message.' :-)

Anonymous said...

Much of the discussion here blends nicely with some other concepts discussed in earlier threads here; namely, the idea of a drone fleet (the term "constellation" is gradually growing on me) controlled by a handful of manned ships. USSS Phoenix, the US Space Navy's newest Laserstar, might be flagship if the Jupiter Constellation. It might have a handful of cruisers that could also take command of all or part of the constellation, which also carry a laser (though not as powerful as the burner on the Phoenix) along with medium-to-light kinetics for messier jobs. Much of the combat power that would counter a full-scale movement by those Chinese ships out near Ganymede would be laser platforms, nukes with engines, kinetic-kill buses, and bomb-pumped Xrasers. However, the dozen or so corvettes (modify the number to suit your tastes) would be the real workhorses; they may even have more people aboard than the cruisers. I see a laser, definitely (I'm also gradually moving more to the Laser side of the laser vs kinetics debate), and probably a defensive kinetic--clouds of ball-bearings to...discourage pursuit. These would be the customs ships, as well as those sent to initially deter minor uprisings and such.

If, on the other hand, there is one (manned) ship on station as a rule, long transit times make wonderful storytelling opportunities. It'll be a month before the Laserstar Constellation from Earth can get here, but we can't build our heavy surface to space mass drivers and high-frequency lasers we'll need to defend our (former) colony with that frigate breathing down our necks. Okay...get everything we can together...and nail the frigate. Well, we've crossed the Rubicon now. Que frantic building by the rebels to prepare for the inevitable counterattack and make it costly enough that Earth will leave them alone, and the Imperial captain shouting at his unfortunate pilot to "fly her apart, damn it!"

Merchant vessels would make great "auxiliary cruisers" armed with KKVs. They're already designed to carry heavy masses long distances, and they look like..well... merchant vessels. They could either plug into the net of the Laserstar, or be the prelude to an fleet gets into motion at about the same time as those "merchants" scour your orbital facilities from the sky...

Related (kind of): there's been a lot of discussion about kinetics vs lasers, but it seems nukes have gone by the wayside. I understand that you get more bang if you let the missile smack into the enemy craft than you would out of any nuke, but if nukes are less massive than kinetics and still able to disable a ship reliably, they may still be used because more can be carried for the same mass. Then, you also get the side benefit of standoff range, especially with a Casabwa-Howitzer.

A few (somewhat) related thoughts; take them or leave them.


Rick said...

A very belated reply!

Merchant craft are indeed handily suited to carry kinetic weapons, since as you say carrying loads through space is what they are all about.

There is a counter-argument that merchant cruisers have historically stood up poorly to 'real' warships. The question then becomes, where does logistics leave off and tactics begin?

My feeling about nukes is that in space their advantages are so reduced that the political problems they pose could outweigh any military use.

For comparison, think of gas warfare in WW II ... at least against anyone in a position to shoot back.