Thursday, March 29, 2012

Space Warfare XVI: Origins and Scratch Forces

TS Golden BearNo, the configuration shown above is not proposed for any type of spacecraft. With sufficient stretching, I suppose you might justify it in a setting where ships have a magic drive, land on water, and their sea performance is the main design consideration. (If you'll buy that, which bridge do you want to purchase? The pretty one to Marin, or the massive one to Oakland?)

The vessel is the training ship Golden Bear, originally built for the Navy as an oceanographic survey ship. Her relevance to our topic comes from her oddly hybrid appearance: She looks like a not-quite-warship.

Let us suppose, for purposes of story, that some future era has space warfare, and space warcraft to do the fighting.

For the record, this is by no means an inevitable or even likely prospect, at least through the plausible midfuture, with the exception of mostly ground-based weapons intended to engage targets in Earth orbit. Not because of human moral improvement, but for the same reason Antarctica was untouched by the world wars and cold war: lack of strategic objectives.

But let us suppose it anyway. The question then becomes how these forces are developed in the first place. If they are built by existing or future terrestrial Great Powers the origin question hardly arises. Space forces then take form already fully developed, like Athena from Zeus's headache.

We can imagine Pentagon planners, or their counterparts, drawing up specifications for the spacecraft, while the service branches slug it out politically and bureaucratically to determine whether combat constellations have admirals, generals, or Space Marshals in overall command.

But what if space forces do not develop as simple outward projections of existing military establishments? A variety of scenarios might produce this result. The original international regime in space might be demilitarized, as (apart from ASATs) it is today. And when the apple of discord gets thrown it might not be contested for by terrestrial powers.

These might have more immediate concerns, namely each other. If Brazil and Nigeria are on such bad terms as to duke it out, the theater of operations is much more likely to be the South Atlantic than the asteroid belt.

Or the Earth of 2300 or 2500 may be so balkanized as to have no global Great Powers that would even daydream of space fleets. Or, on the other hand, there may be a world state, or demi-state international regime, with a blue-helmet constabulary but no force configured for major combat. Or if all else fails, the Fall of the Terran Empire could leave a welter of rising colonies, a few centuries later, to improvise their ships and military institutions.

In these scenarios the trouble in space may well begin in space. See hints along these lines (and links to further hints) in an earlier post in this series. But even without delving too deeply into the scenarios we can speculate about zero-generation space forces.

Kinetics, rather than beams, are probably (but not inevitably) the dominant weapon. Extensive space travel is pretty much a precondition here, and space travel is all about throwing weight around, fast and accurately. If you can guide a spacecraft to a destination you have at least a fair shot at steering it on collision course into a target. The basic prerequisites of a target seeker: thrusters, sensors, and guidance package, are available from every space operations boneyard.

They won't compare to the milspec'd version, but they don't have to: Their targets are also jury-rigged.

Multimegawatt laser installations combined with observatory-grade optics are less likely to be sitting around handy. Of course, if you really want lasers you can get around this. Laser-triggered fusion, or laser-boosted cargo propulsion, could make high powered lasers readily available, to be weaponized with an array of oscillating hands. But kinetics are the car bombs of space warfare, available by default.

For much the same reason, a wide variety of civil spacecraft can be pressed into war service. If cargo operations are modular, target seekers can ride on standard cargo clamps. Transport/liner types can carry espatiers, or for that matter the service techs needed to keep all sorts of space hardware in operating conditions.

But - here, finally, is the connection to the Golden Bear - survey ships are particularly well suited to wartime conversion. They presumably have a much more extensive sensor suite than most civilian types - and in space, everyone doesn't see everything unless they have appropriate sensors. They have an onboard mission control suited to managing probes, and, in interstellar setting at least, landing shuttles suitable for planets lacking - or not making available - runways and other surface facilities.

None of this makes survey ships the equivalent of purpose-built cruiser types. They have no specifically defensive features, and while they probably have extended range/endurance they have no provision for combat maneuvers. But with semi-demi-realistic space technology both of these are extremely iffy even for purpose-built warcraft.

Human factor also work neatly. Survey ships have relatively large crews, trained and accustomed to dealing with unknowns and uncertainty. Indeed, at least in principle Trek's Enterprise was a survey ship ... exploring new worlds, new civilizations, boldly going where no man has gone before. In practice, to be sure, she was hardly 'zero generation,' with an armament able to engage Klingon battlecruisers on equal terms, and plenty of redshirts to boot.

The availability of survey ships for war conversion depends on whether they exist. This is by no means inevitable (even given extensive human space travel). The chancy work of exploration may still be assigned to robotic probes, with mission control and the research team staying safely in Pasadena. (Or at least San Francisco's Presidio.)

Survey ships in something like the classic sense work best in settings that - conveniently for authors, if not for the inhabitants - have FTL travel but no FTL radio. Which means that to do any serious exploring, mission control must go with the mission, not stay back on Earth.

Stepping back, other considerations come into play. If the fighting breaks out in a single planet's orbital space - rather than the classic scenario of deep space war, interplanetary or interstellar - providing armament remains much the same, but the focus is likely to be on much smaller craft and much shorter missions.

Survey ships are pretty much irrelevant to such a fight. Indeed, quite apart from the specific topic of this post, combat between local forces in orbital space has a lot of 'air force' characteristics, in contrast to the traditional maritime image of deep space.


Related Links:

Atomic Rockets, of course - especially, but not exclusively, the pages on space warfare.

And previously in the Space Warfare series:

I: The Gravity Well
II: Stealth Reconsidered
III: 'Warships' in Space
IV: Mobility
V: Laser Weapons
VI: Kinetics, Part 1
VII: Kinetics, Part 2 - The Killer Bus
VIII: Orbital Combat
IX: Could Everything We Know Be Wrong?
X: Moving Targets
XI: La Zona Fronteriza
XII: Surface Warfare
XIII: The Human Factor
XIV: Things As They Ought To Be
XV: Further Reflections on Laserstars

Also ...

Battle of the Spherical War Cows: Purple v Green
Further Battles of the Spherical War Cows


Space Fighters, Not
Space Fighters, Reconsidered?

And, indulging in heresy -

Give Peace a Chance

The image of the Golden Bear comes from its Wikipedia page.


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Saint Michael said...

Added, military grade software and the architecture to run it might be the defining difference between a freighter with guns and a warship. Expect that to be tightly regulated and Beyond Top Secret. Also expect bootleg wares of varying degrees of quality to be readily available, as no one likes bringing a butter knife to a gunfight.

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