The Universe is filled with sights of awe and wonder, but what we really want to do - at least for story purposes - is encounter the ships of some remarkable civilization, and blow them up. Or at least zap them to a fare thee well.
Hollywood's favorite implement for this purpose is the space fighter, for the very good meta reason that the core audience relates more to studly/babelicious fighter jocks than middle aged starship commanders. Unfortunately, as readers of this blog (especially the thread that refuses to die) and Atomic Rockets know, it is very hard to justify single- or two-seat 'fighter' types in deep space combat under Realistic [TM] constraints of physics and technology.
But in fact under these constraints it is difficult to model any form of deep space combat that justifies the expenditure of electrons to write it, much less expensive CGI to film it. The vastness and emptiness of the battlefield push inexorably toward a Lanchesterian engagement at Stupendous Range, featuring all the senseless destruction of war and none of the excitement. A commenter noted that it is a fight no one will show up for. In real life this would be a feature, not a bug, but for our purpose it's a bug and we want to zap it.
As regular readers here know, a solution that I have been looking more and more at involves rethinking where combat happens, and under what circumstances. People fight over things of value, either natural bodies with Valuable Space Stuff, or human infrastructure. These will tend to be concentrated in certain areas, such as the orbital space of planets and large moons.
Such regions might have multiple large habs and stations, with hundreds or thousands of smaller spacecraft forming constellations around them. Travel times in these regions are typically hours to days, not the weeks and months of deep space travel.
A second consideration is that once you have true space politics, the 'natural' political unit is the individual station or hab. Its inhabitants are bound together by shared life support, while the hab itself can change orbit, even perhaps head off across deep space to some other region.
So, instead of the traditional rocketpunk era scenarios, say Mars against Venus, a conflict might break out between two hab in Mars orbital space, while other habs remain neutral. 'Clutter' in space is a very relative thing - we are still talking about thousands of kilometers, but this is a far more complex operating environment than the empty vastness in which must discussion of space combat takes place.
Both the physical and political environments are cluttered. Space taxis or inter-orbit shuttles will keep up a steady flow of traffic: between hostile and neutral stations, and between neutral and friendly stations. 'Everyone sees everything' is no longer so simple, because you don't see who or what might be aboard.
The first class of military craft this environment invites is not space fighters, but a type for which there is no obvious name, although the bland 'patrol craft' and the perhaps overly nautical 'corvette' convey something of the idea. In its basic form it is simply a space taxi carrying a boarding and inspection team, and some armament to encourage compliance.
Such craft are the basis of space control, but they are not ideal platforms if shooting breaks out. They have to be large enough for a proper cabin, with airlock and perhaps a holding cell for detainees. Bulk it up with armament and it becomes a decent sized vehicle, roughly the size of a transport plane.
For actual shooting we want something more compact and frankly cheaper, at least in human if not monetary terms. Often it need not be manned, and indeed whenever practical you'll operate it under robotic or remote control, cheaper operationally and much cheaper in 'we deeply regret' letters to families. But in particularly critical situations the rules of engagement will be too ambiguous to be trusted to robotics (short of 'true' high level AI, which currently is magitech).
This does still leave the (preferred) option of remote piloting. In 'cluttered' space, ranges will generally be less than a light second, often much less, so light lag is not a real problem. On the other hand, the closer you get, the better the chance of communications interference. In the Vastness of Space, the prospects of jamming a tightbeam are close to nil. But in a close-in confrontation, something as simple as a puff of opaque smoke might block a tightbeam for a few critical seconds.
I'm not quite sure, to be honest, how this bit plays out, and Step Two should probably be a bit more explicit. But in general, the more un-pristine the environment, the more human level intelligence has to be on the spot, not acting from a distance, whether the spatial distance of remotes or the temporal distance of robotics.
The basic fighter concept that emerges from this line of thought could be remarkably low tech. The cockpit might resemble the EVA pods in 2001; we are looking at one day habitability. Propulsion is probably chemfuel, with plenty of short term oompf and enough delta v for the sorts of missions we are undertaking.
Laser armament will also be chemfuel powered, whether a chemical laser or plain old turbogenerator; I will leave that issue to the laser geeks among us. For kinetics, a couple of target seekers with solid boosters to kick them on their way, much like 'katies' in Ad Astra's AV:T. And for the missions I have in mind, there may even be a place for a plain old gun.
Configurations may depend on particular tactical requirements, and design doctrine. If you need to move quickly, is it better to pivot and go, with a single main thruster, or perhaps have multiple gimballed thrusters so you can kick yourself laterally? This latter approach is often proposed; in the traditional assumption framework it is questionable, but here we are in a very different operating environment.
On the whole, I imagine that the graphics crowd and Hollywood could work with these craft.
They are not exactly 'fighters' in the sense analogous to the kind von Richtoven flew. At least in the three original Star Wars movies, none of the fighter missions shown could not have been done just or well or better by automated or remote-piloted craft. (Okay, I'm ignoring the part about just use the Force.)
If what you really want is Midway in SPAAACE !!! then you have read this far in vain. In environments where there is no one on the game board but Your Side and Their Side, there is no excuse to monkey around with this stuff - just zap away with your biggest mirror or let fly with your baddest kinetics. Or if you are fighting a racial war of extermination, just exterminate: no need to risk your race's precious bodily fluids aboard space fighters.
Space fighters, like the patrol craft / corvettes they often escort, are in fact not primarily weapons of destruction. They are weapons of coercion. If they open fire, things have already gone pear shaped, and you're in a scramble to keep them from getting entirely out of hand.
But isn't that pretty much always the case, anyway?
Related post: My original take from the early days of this blog, Space Fighters, Not.
Update: Here is the space fighters commentary at Atomic Rockets, which represents the current informed consensus, at least in one corner of geekdom. (The link in the post also now points there, not just at the main page.)
The image was swiped from a page at Stardestroyer.net.