RocketCat sez

Aw fer cryin' out loud! When he was making his first "Star Wars" movie George Lucas thought it would be cute to add scenes inspired by old World War 2 dogfighting movies. And ever since then sci-fi fans have lost their freaking minds.

I've got new for you: in the real world combat spacecraft based on one-man fighter planes is just about the greatest military invention since the rubber spear. The concept stinks on ice scientifically, militarily, and economically.

While you are at it you might as well have your starship troopers wear bright red coats with no armor, firmly resisting the urge to take cover, and fighting out in the open in broad ranks like rows of targets in a carnaval shooting gallery.

Not like that's gonna to stop you. There are idiotic space fighter planes in both Battlestar Galacticas, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Babylon 5, Space Above And Beyond, and many many others. Not to mention the fact that it is forty freaking years after the first Star Wars movie came out and they are still making new ones jam packed with space fighters.


Small, fast, highly maneuverable COMBAT SPACECRAFT. They have very limited range (never FTL), and no crew habitability to speak of; they can only operate for at most a few hours at a time. The crew is limited to one person, or occasionally two. At least among EARTH HUMANS and ALIENS WTH FOREHEAD RIDGES, these are usually males in their early twenties, known for their swagger, coolness, and fast moves on any attractive female of an INTERBREEDABLE species. (Who REALLY ALIENS use to crew their Space Fighters is not known.)

     Because of their short range, Space Fighters usually must be carried into action by TRANSPORTER ships, though in some cases they will be carried piggyback on other, larger Combat Spacecraft. Their tactical value is unclear, since the are really just small spacecraft themselves. Since they don't operate in an essentially different medium, the way aircraft operate in a different medium from surface ships, there is no fundamental reason why they should be all that much faster. In naval terms they are more analogous to motor gunboats than to airplanes. 

     Mostly Space Fighters fight each other, which is logical enough in itself but doesn't explain why they are used in the first place. Only two other missions can be identified for them:

     1) To destroy gargantuan BATTLE STATIONS, which are vulnerable only to attack by Space Fighters.

     2) To give prominent roles to young males in their early twenties, so they can display their swagger, coolness, and fast moves on any attractive female of an Interbreedable species.


Why Fighters Are Worthless

I know all you Battlestar Galactica fans are not going to want to hear it, but looking from a cost/benefit analysis, space fighter craft do not make any sense. Go to the Future War Stories blog and read the post Hard Science Space Fighters.

And before you rage at me for taking away your cherised X-Wing you might want to review the section on Respecting Science.

Ken Burnside tells it like it is:


The other deciding factor is this: A "fighter" needs to be recovered (ed note: Otherwise it is some kind of manned kamikaze missile).

That means you need delta v to get to the objective, then delta v to cancel out your inbound vector, then delta v to get to a rendezvous point, plus delta v for maneuvering in the thick of things.

A rough estimate was that you needed delta v equal to about four times that of a comparable mass missile that just needs to do a drive-by shooting.

Four times the delta v means that your fuel fraction just went up by a factor of something around four (depends on your Isp).

Now put in the life support compartment, and the payload mass, and it gets even worse; rocket performance is the red queen's race, and you rapidly hit declining efficiencies.

If you could build a TLAM that had the operational range of an F-18, you could probably get more of them packed onto a comparable size ship than a comparable mass of F-18s.

TLAMs require lots of data on the target and the terrain and have to fly "over the horizon". A lot of opposition to the TLAM was that it took away the offensive strike mission from carrier aviation.

In space, there's no horizon to hide behind.


The basic argument for fighters is that people think they're fun and cool.

The basic argument against fighters is horizon distance.

Fighters make sense in surface naval operations because a fighter can go to places where the carrier or cruiser can't. The fighter can also go to places where the big ships can't see, because of the curvature of the earth.

Unfortunately, there's no horizon for targets to hide behind in space. Even if you have something short of everyone sees everyone, it's hard(er) to justify fighters seeing things their carriers can't, just because carriers can carry bigger sensors, and space is a very sensor friendly environment.

Fighters do make sense in an orbital reference frame context, where, well, curvature of the earth matters, and where going into atmosphere matters. But this turns fighter carriers into "brown water" vessels that work in the tide pools of planetary gravity wells, which isn't the role you see them doing in fiction, which tends to take WWII carrier ops or modern USN carrier ops and apply an SFnal veneer.

Note that that's all mission specific, and only mildly tech related.

What do fighters do better than, or exclusively related to, larger ships? Answer this, and you get a reason for fighters in a setting. (the problem is in the real world the answer appears to be "Nothing")

In terms of pure offensive firepower, there's very little you can do with a fighter that a cruise missile can't do better in a space game context.

Of course, the best reason to have fighters is because they make your game more funnerer. But it does kind of help to figure out what mission they're doing.


Isaac Kuo:

That is NOT the main problem (that all combat spacecraft with be huge ships with lots of crew) with "space fighters". Depending on your technological assumptions, it's rather easy to justify small "fighter" ships. What's hard to justify is why it's better to burden the "fighter" with a human occupant rather than using remote and/or automated operation.

In other words, the crux of the matter isn't fighters vs ships—it's manned fighters vs unmanned drones.

One point in favor of drones—no one dies if the system fails.

Another point in favor of drones—lose a couple tons of life support equipment and human, and you've got that much more resources to put into other equipment.
From a thread FIIIGHTERS - WIITHOUT HANDWAVIIUM on SFConSim-l (2007)

Space Fighter: Averted. Due to fairly inexorable laws of physics, ships that don’t have to contain meat and meat-support systems always outperform ships that do – which means the classic notion of a space fighter inevitably loses to the autonomous kill vehicle (AKV), which combines a cross between a missile and an attack drone with an AI – naturally-evolved brains also aren’t good at handling three-dimensional, relativistically-distorted combat environments in which microseconds count. Further kicking the trope in the teeth, they don’t look anything like space fighters – rather than an aerodynamic form-factor, except in very specialized aerospace machines with air-to-orbit capabilities – they’re unstreamlined roughly-tetrahedral machines with thruster clusters at each vertex for maximal maneuverability.

There are military starship classes called, as a set, starfighters, but they’re nothing like space fighters. Rather, they’re a tiny, sub-frigate-sized class of carrier, hosting four to eight of the above-mentioned AKVs clamped on to their outer hull – and after they get the AKVs to the fight, they hang back as a mobile command post, their own fitting being close to purely defensive. And they’re mostly used by the Shadow Fleet, scouting units, commerce raiders, and mercenaries – never on the wall of battle.


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas added Space Fighters to the standard arsenal of SF warfare tropes. For Hollywood it was love at first flight, partly for the cool special effects, partly for the reason I gave here. At SFConsim-l the consensus has been trying to stuff the things back in the toy box for the last eight years … but no one listens to us.

Lucas did not invent space fighters, of course. I don't specifically recall any in the SF I read growing up, but I vividly remember one in an animated series I used to watch in grade school. (That was also a long, long time ago, and alas I have no idea what show it was.) Space fighters didn't really catch on till Lucas, though — the clearest evidence being that Trek had nothing of the sort.

So ... what exactly is a space fighter, and what does SFConsim-l have against them? If Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and Babylon 5 are anything to go by, a space fighter is exactly what you would imagine: the spacegoing equivalent of a DeHavilland DH-4 or an F-16. It is a small spacecraft, about the size — and, oddly, roughly the shape — of a present-day fighter jet. It has a single pilot or at most a two-man crew, strapped into a cockpit with minimal habitability, clearly intended for short missions of only a day or so at most. We see them whooshing and gyrating across the screen, zapping away at each other. Now and then they also destroy the odd stray Death Star, which with typical bad-guy carelessness is designed to obliterate whole planets but cannot defend itself effectively against killer gnats.

(Credit to Babylon 5: not only did its Starfuries have less overt similarity to atmospheric jet fighters, they sometimes even maneuvered like spacecraft instead of airplanes — an all but unique Hollywood tribute to Sir Isaac Newton.)

So what, you may ask, do some of us have against space fighters? The atmospheric kind have been with us for more than 90 years — a shade longer than tanks — so they're no passing fad. What works in one environment, however, isn't automatically suited to a very different one, and fighter planes don't fight in space any more than tanks do. (Yes, the same false-analogy critique can be laid against the analogy of space warcraft to naval ships — but that's an issue for another post.)

Space, first of all, is the same environment for small ships and big ones alike. This immediately knocks the stuffing out of the implicit contrast between small, fast fighters and big, slow space dreadnoughts. Fighter planes are airplanes; battleships are ships: They operate in two entirely different fluid mediums with very different properties. Battleships can't fly, and fighter jets can't cut power and drift while making repairs. There's no such essential difference between space fighters and larger ships — and no inherent reason for the fighter to be faster or more maneuverable.

"Fast" is in fact a bit of a slippery concept when it comes to spacecraft. Speed in space is all relative to begin with; the more useful measure for a spaceship is delta v, "change in velocity" — especially, how much you can change your velocity before you run out of gas. For any given propulsion technology, the way to get more delta v isn't a more powerful engine but a bigger fuel tank. What a powerful engine does give you is higher acceleration — so you can achieve any given delta v more quickly.

"Bigger fuel tank" and "more powerful engine" are also relative — to the size of the ship, more specifically its mass, since that's what you've got to push around. They are also contradictory in a sense — a big propellant supply means more the engine has to push around, so it is hard to get both sprightly maneuver performance (high acceleration) and extended maneuver capability (ample delta v) in the same ship.

Which does suggest that a small, somewhat fighter-like spacecraft, designed for tactical operations with limited endurance, could be a good deal handier than big ships designed for long voyages. The short-range tactical ship — presumably transported to the battle zone by a "carrier," or operating from a nearby base — can carry a smaller and lighter fuel load relative to its size. It doesn't need the supplies, provisions, and life support of long-voyage ships — not even a proper zero-g toilet, let alone bunkrooms and a galley. (Also no crew of techs to keep it running: just a pilot.) The mass saved by leaving all of this out translates directly into higher acceleration: in tactical terms a more agile, "faster" ship.

So isn't this our fighter, even if it doesn't look much like the Star Wars kind?

If it's going to be a useful fighter, however, it should probably have an armament. It can't carry a very heavy one, or you lose the maneuver performance that is the fighter's reason for being. Nor can it carry much armor or other protection, for the same reason. Whatever armament and protection it does carry, however, should be sufficient to fight its enemy counterparts. If successful it destroys them or chases them off, after which it can attack bigger, slower enemy ships ... how?

Broadly speaking, space warcraft in SF use two kinds of weapons. The more familiar are beam weapons — once called ray guns; now usually imagined as lasers or something similar. The hitch here is that our small fighter can't carry a very big one, especially since the weapon needs a power supply. Big, sluggish ships, by virtue of being big and sluggish, can carry a much heavier armament — heavy enough to zap a swarm of fighters out of the sky before the fighters can do much more than scratch the big ship's paint.

Yes, the fighter is fast and maneuverable — but not faster than a laser beam. Nor is there much chance of jinking around to dodging one, at least at any range much less than Earth-Moon distance. Light travels that distance in one and a quarter seconds. Aiming is limited by the round trip (because the gunner depends on light, or a radar beam, etc., to see the target), so at Earth-Moon distance our fighter has two and a half seconds to dodge. That might be enough. But at a tenth of Earth-Moon distance — a piddly 40,000 kilometers — the fighter only has a quarter-second of dodge time.

Dodging "bullets" that come at the speed of light is no way to live long and prosper. So if fortune favors the big battalions, combat between laser-armed warcraft favors big ships that can lay down powerful zaps. Maneuver hardly enters into it.

Lasers and similar beam weapons, however, are not the only plausible space weapons. A throw pillow will wreck a space dreadnought, if you throw it fast enough, and spacecraft do go fast. Thus kinetic weapons, as described in this snippet back in April. The weapon itself is nothing more or less than a slug (or spray of slugs, like buckshot). It does, however, have to be thrown — fast and hard.

One way to throw it is to shoot it out of a gun — probably electrical, a railgun or coilgun. This, however, requires a heavy, high-power installation. As with lasers, coilguns with serious hitting power thus require big ships to carry them and their power supply. Another way to throw a slug, however, is to put it on the front end of a missile. The launching ship has to carry the missile, but this requires nothing more than a launching box, or even a clamp on the side. The third way to deliver a kinetic slug is the simplest of all: Head toward the target, fast, release the slug — then veer aside before it hits.

This last tactic has a lot in common with World War II dive bombing. In practice you would probably combine "bomb" and "missile" - the slug having a guidance motor to steer it into the target and counter any evasive moves on the target's part. Henry Cobb on SFConsim-l came up with the term lancer for this tactic and the ships used to execute it.

In contrast to zapping with lasers or similar weapons, lancer tactics favor small, agile ships. You need good maneuver performance, first to line up on collision course with your target, then to veer clear of the target — and its defensive fire envelope — after releasing your ordnance. Large size is no advantage, because the lancer ship needs no powerful on-board equipment, and because several small lancer ships are preferable to one big one. They can engage several different targets — or come at one target from several directions, boxing it in.

Now things start to look interesting, because it has probably already occurred to you that lancer ships can engage each other. In fact, if lancers are technically and tactically viable at all, the best way to protect your big ships from them might be to send your own lancers out to engage them. A battle between lancers even looks quite a bit like a dogfight, though on a vastly larger physical scale. We can imagine small, handy ships, hurtling along complex curved trajectories, trying to line up for clean shots at their enemies while avoiding getting lined up on — especially getting boxed in, where evading one enemy sends you right into the path of another.

It's taken us long enough - I've been working on this post, off and on, for about three weeks (which is why this blog has looked like a dead zone lately) — but here at last we seem to have our space fighters.

Not so fast: There are complications. In space, if I've lined up a good shot at you, you also have a good shot at me. We're heading straight at each other in a game of interplanetary chicken — given equal-performance ships, if one of us veers aside in time neither of us scores a hit; if not, we both score hits. In lancer combat you're either a live chicken or a dead duck. So much for swaggering lancer jocks knocking back green fuming Rigellian brandy and hitting on the bar girls.

The simple if unromantic solution is to leave out the pilots, or at least put them back somewhere safe, "flying" the lancers by remote control. That way you're not throwing away pilots, just some expensive hardware. There's not much reason to have a pilot in any case. Outer space is a tactically "clean" environment, without much clutter — ideal for automated systems. A lancer ship would have to be flown mostly by computer anyway; there's really not much place for silk scarf and goggles. Save the mass of pilot, cockpit, and even minimal life support and your lancer-turned-drone becomes that much more agile.

One type of decision that can't be left to an ordinary computer is a rules-of-engagement decision: shoot or don't shoot. In contemporary terms only a human being — or an artificial intelligence as sophisticated as a human being — can decide whether a car speeding toward a checkpoint carries a suicide bomber or a terrified Iraqi family. A tactical space battle, however, is very unlikely to pose that sort of question, at least in a form so immediate that it can't be decided by a human remote operator a few light-seconds away.

You could find ways around all of these complications, but at some point it becomes special pleading — like contriving a world where people have radar and guided missiles, but fight their sea battles with ironclads, really just because it would be cool. A more robust contrivance is to have your ships fight in Z-space (or whatever you choose to call it), where the local laws of physics favor spaceships that fly like airplanes. It's still contrived, but not so baroque.

For "normal" space, however — the kind with stars and planets — space fighters are a pretty dubious proposition, and you're better off without them.

Of course, if Hollywood calls and waves some money in front of me ... space fighters you want, space fighters you get.

From ROCKETPUNK MANIFESTO by Rick Robinson (2007)

An interesting discussion of the physics of space battles brings up a lot of good points — those science-fantasy movies with spaceships flitting about ignore a lot of basic physics. Star Wars was basically WWI biplanes whirling around at speeds under 60kph, which is kind of ridiculous. But fun.

This article points out that that’s not how things would play out if ever there were a real space battle. The ships would have to obey physics and orbital mechanics, and there would be a priority on speed and acceleration and rapid maneuvers; also, explosions are kind of useless in a vacuum. So he talks about using big gyroscopes to whip mostly spherical ships around, and they’d be zooming about in complex spirals to take advantage of gravity wells.

But then he talks about crews.

I’m assuming that we’d have some intrepid members of the United Earth Space Force crewing these combat vessels. Or, at least, crewing some of them – robotic drone fighters would be a tremendous boon to space soldiers, but the communication lag between planets and vessels in orbit would make the split-second judgments of humans necessary at times.

Nah, I don’t believe it. In space battles, you’re talking about tremendous velocities, where maneuvers would slam the pilots with huge g forces. Even our atmosphere-bound fighter aircraft have problems with the limitations of the human body. How can you equip your Star Destroyer with massive gyroscopes that can flip it end over end in seconds, and not realize that using it would snap necks and turn your crew into bloody slime splattered over their cockpits?

I also don’t buy the stuff about needing the “split-second judgments of humans”. Human brains are slow. It takes us milliseconds to seconds to just absorb simple sensory output — we’re operating with a built-in lag that we don’t notice because your consciousness can’t notice that something already happened until your consciousness notices. So if the outcome of your battle depends on things only happening fast enough for human brains to process them, you’ll be dead when the ruthless cybernetic death machine swivels 10 times faster than a gooey animal body can handle, and decides to fire in microseconds, long before you perceive the new situation.

If our technology ever gets to the point where space battles can become a reality, it will also have reached a point where humans are no longer able to compete on the battle field.


Point Defenseless:

Utterly averted. The automated point-defense systems – usually plasma lasers or other Energy Weapons, for their speed and reaction time, gridded across the hull – will rip to pieces just about anything that gets within their range in an colorful orgy of photonic destruction, unless it’s extremely fast, capable of turning on a dime, and very smart about doing both. (This is another reason why meat-piloted Space Fighters don’t exist, since AKVs can at least try to be competitive in this close-combat environment.)

Even then, defeating them is a matter of wearing them down (until heat buildup, primarily, lessens their efficacy) and swamping them with sheer volume of incoming fire.

Why Fans Cling So Desperately

Why do spacefighter fans cling so determinedly? The simple answer is that at a young age fans imprinted on space fighters. In other words it is a case of computer baby duck syndrome.

Why is there a constant stream of media science fiction featuring space fighters, readily available for new fans to imprint on? I suspect what Charles Stross calls "Second Artist Effect." The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist's work and paints that, instead of a real landscape. In this case the first artist is George Lucas in 1977 with his World War 2 X-Wings and T.I.E. Fighters.

But it might be a bit more complicated. Here's my reasoning:

It seems to me that the space fighter is nothing more that people taking a dramatic and comfortable metaphor (sea-going aircraft carriers and combat fighter aircraft) and transporting it intact into the outer space environment. But if you think about it, interplanetary combat is highly unlikely to be like anything that has occurred before.

Here's an analogy: Imagine a speculative fiction writer back in the Victorian era, such as Jules Verne. Say they wanted to write a novel about the far future, when heavier than air flight had been invented, and the age of Aerial Combat had arrived.

They might take the dramatic and comfortable metaphor of sea-going frigates and battleships and transporting it intact into the aerial environment. Held aloft by dozens of helicopter blades, the battleships of the air would ponderously maneuver, trying to "cross the T" with the enemy aerial dreadnoughts.

See how silly it sounds? Well, combat spacecraft behaving like fighter aircraft is just as silly. In both cases a metaphor is being forced into a situation where it does not work.

In reality, when the Wright brothers invented heavier-than-air flight and Fokker Triplanes started dog-fighting Sopwith Camels, it was totally unlike anything that had occurred before. Biplanes never ever tried to cross the T, and a sea-going battleship had never ever performed an Immelmann turn.

Therefore, by analogy, when interplanetary combat arrives, it too will be totally unlike anything that has occurred before.

As Ken Burnside puts it:


On the other hand — Winch's analogy to victorian era fiction about flying dreadnoughts and the "Who the hell thought of an Immelmann turn?" question sort of underscores why I want to model how space combat works using known physics as a gameable experience.

It won't be WWII in space. It won't be the Iraq war in space, it won't be subs in the North Atlantic in space. It will be its own unique thing.

To figure out what that unique thing is, you need to understand the environment of space, how it differs from a planetary environment, and once you have those differences modeled, you need to work out the tactics for this new environment, much the same way WWI biplane pilots had to work out the tactics of air to air combat.

Now, it's certain that I've got things wrong with the Attack Vector: Tactical model. When they get pointed out, I fix them. On the other hand, to the best of my knowledge and belief, it's the first serious attempt at trying to model what the tactical environment looks like.

World War II/Battleships/Fighters in space is about as likely to be an accurate model of space combat as, modeling jet air-to-air combat with pike square formations. Attack Vector: Tactical is probably akin to saying that jet fighters behave like World War I biplanes, only faster. It's still likely wrong, but it's probably much LESS wrong.


In space, fighters seem to have no performance advantage over missiles by our current understanding.

In atmosphere, missiles have better straight line acceleration, but much worse ability to change direction of travel; they don't have the big airfoils to generate lift or to turn off of. Kinematic kills of missiles are ones where the fighter maneuvers to a vector inside the missile's turning radius. Doing so requires recognition of the tactical environment and knowing the right degree of thrust/turning G to apply.

Many of the people who cling to fighters for space combat have internalized that difference and don't think about why it would (or would not) be true in space.

Ken Burnside (2014)

Justifications For Fighters

While space fighters in general are pretty worthless, it is possible for an author to establish a specialized situation making them practical.

As Ken Burnside said: "What do fighters do better than, or exclusively related to, larger ships? Answer this, and you get a reason for fighters in a setting."

If the author has already allowed handwaving faster-than-light travel into their literary universe, it should be straightforward enough to tweak it such to allow the existence of spacefighters. TV Tropes says just use Applied Phlebotinum or Minovsky Physics.

One example using handwaving faster-than-light starships is the Traveller Battle-Rider.

Another example are the fighter starship of William H. Keith's Star Carrier series. They use a handwaving carrot-on-a-stick drive, accelerating at 50,000 g and reaching relativistic velocity in about ten minutes flat. So sorry, huge capital ships and carriers cannot use this marvelous propulsion system, so they cannot act like fighters. Sadly while the carrot drive's gravity gradient across a twenty meter fighter is negligible, it will rip apart a one kilometer battleship with tidal forces.


The best justification for fighters is the Zeroeth Law:

Players (and readers) want characters they can identify with. Buzz Starbuck, Ace Fighter pilot, drinker, womanizer and general cad with a heart of gold is far more empathetic than Autonomous Remote Combat Drone Operations Reusable Kinematics Systems (ARCDORKS) when writing fiction or playing a game.

(ed note: you gotta have crew)

This may change over time...but it will require something that makes manned fighters seem as quaint as Nelson's signal flags in an era of persistent networks and GPS-guided bombs.

Ken Burnside (2014)

Rick Robinson:

I see a hierarchy of decision-making levels, roughly as follows from "lowest" to "highest:"

  1. Weapon manipulator (gun crew member)
  2. Weapon controller (gun crew chief)
  3. Platform controller (fire control officer, CO in fleet formation)
  4. Tactical decision-maker (CO in independent ops / melee)
  5. Operational/strategic decision-maker (admiral)
  6. Policy decision-maker (CINC, Chief of Staff, king)

Obviously these often blur together. Moreover, the higher functions aren't necessarily confined to high ranks. In a counterinsurgency war, for example, the individual grunt often has to make rules-of-engagement decisions that are essentially political: "Is that car speeding toward my checkpoint a suicide bomber or a terrified family that took a wrong turn?"

In space war, however, there will probably be less intermixing of levels — fewer situations where the guy behind the gun has to make a snap decision on rules of engagement. (Presuming that space yachts won't often blunder into the middle of a battle.)

Level 1 seems almost certain to be automated. I just can't see guys spinning wheels to slew a laser cannon around, let alone shoving photons into the breech. :>

Levels 2 and 3 may be automated at a cybertech level not much above what we already have — depending on how many ambiguities arise in combat, and at what scale. I can easily see all human decision making confined to the bridge and CIC, with turrets operated by some mix of automation and remote control. And — depending on range, light lag, and other comms factors — the turrets might well detach from the ship and maneuver in formation, still controlled from bridge and CIC. (In other words, combat drones at least partly controlled from a mother ship.)

Levels 4 and 5 are a much taller order. I have speculated, though, on what I call the "legate" concept, in which the only human decision-makers are essentially policy representatives of the government. The only military orders a legate gives are, in effect "authorized to fire" and "cease firing." Everything in between is automated.

Level 6 can only be automated if you have fully sentient AI that not only can vote, but be elected (or functional equivalent).

Levels 4+ can only be automated at a cybertech level that is not only way above what we have, but (so far as I know) beyond what we can even speculate about in any informed way. We do not know how human judgment and intuition — "the Force" — work, so we haven't the first clue of how to replicate it. I don't rule it out in the future (i.e., I'm not ready to fall back on semi-mystical assumptions about the human mind), but I don't see it as a "foreseeable" tech in the way that, say, fusion torches are.

Level 3 is also pretty dicey — however, depending on your specific tech assumptions, remote control may well be viable at this level. For example, in my setting combat is at ranges on order of 100,000 km, but unfolds as a slow pavane, with maneuver and firing taking place on a scale of hours. In that environment, it's quite plausible to have uncrewed weapon platforms whose Level 1 and 2 functions are automated, while their Level 3 functions are performed by operators in safer positions a few light seconds away.

Now, how does all this relate to "space fighters" in the usual sense? I take that sense to imply small tactical spacecraft with a small crew (usually one or two) and limited habitability/endurance — the crew is in a cockpit, not a cabin.

Whether space fighters are viable depends on two things: First, are vest-pocket space warcraft of any value at all, and if so, do they benefit substantially from having humans on board, rather than being either automated or controlled by remote operators (or some combination).

I'll further note that "fighter" is — at least in the WW II naval analogy — a misleading term; fighters (and all aircraft) operated in an entirely separate environment from ships, and had radically different performance characters: They could go ten times faster than any ship, though they could not heave-to even for a moment. :> "Space fighters" are, in most techs, much more analogous to torpedo boats.

If beam weapons are dominant, miniature space warcraft seem pretty useless whether crewed or uncrewed — their small size must limit their weapon installations to peashooters, useless against large ships. (Two exceptions: compact but enormously powerful beam weapons, or beam combat ranges near 1 light second, so that small craft can jink while larger ones cannot.)

If kinetics are dominant, small warcraft may be viable if useful missiles are even smaller (so that they can carry a few) — and especially if one hit one kill is the rule, so that a bigger ship is merely a richer target.

However, then the question is whether these small platforms need an onboard crew, or can be handled by a combination of remote control and onboard expert-system AI. My own take is that for most Plausible [TM] tech and tactical scenarios, there's little reason for putting humans aboard small platforms, especially since putting the human-in-the-loop elsewhere allows them to be cheaper and semi-expendable.

From a thread VALUE OF 'FIGHTERS' IN SPACE COMBAT on SFConSim-l (2007)

TV Tropes Analysis


When might Space Fighters be practical?

Note: Majority of arguments below are based on a realistic hard scifi setting. In softer settings you can probably invent any Applied Phlebotinum or Minovsky Physics needed to support or refute the plausibility of starfighters.

Also, per Standard Sci-Fi Fleet, we are using "space fighters"/"starfighters"/"strikecraft" as a shorthand for all combat-capable Small Craft. There is no need to wrangle over the differences between bombers, fighters and other subtypes.

A1. Glass Cannons. Glass Cannons everywhere.

While an inductive argument is not foolproof, there is some evidence in military history that defense will often lag behind offense. Armor Is Useless, in other words. Look at, say, how infantry armor was abandoned for quite a while due to the impracticality of the thickness needed to protect against advanced guns, or how modern carriers need to use active defenses to intercept incoming missiles rather than being able to just weather them.

Extending from this, future space combat scenarios may involve spacecraft firing at each other with weapons they cannot survive. If relatively small starfighter weapons can continue to lay the hurt on capital craft, it may be more practical to let relatively expendable strikecraft sortie than risk capital spacecraft whose loss will cost heavily in money and manpower.

There have been times throughout history when defense did outpace offense, however, at least for a while. Arguments B4 and B6, below, address potential problems with this idea.

A2. The Tech Level is low, and orbital combat is a top priority.

Quite simply, space fighters are easier and cheaper to build than large ships. If the setting has a tech level close to what we currently have in Real Life, building a Standard Sci-Fi Fleet of capital ships may simply be impossible, or at least prohibitively difficult and expensive, but small, single-person spacecraft could be realistic enough. In such a setting, fighters would be launched directly from a planet, and combat would take place in orbit or otherwise in nearby space. Space fighters may be the most practical way — or the only practical way — to get any combat capability into space at all in such circumstances. This is the alternative that has come closest to becoming Truth in Television so far.

On the other hand, if the tech level is a bit higher — high enough to allow for a Space Elevator or other comparatively low-cost means of getting into orbit, for example, and to allow manufacturing and resource gathering to take place directly in space — then the construction of larger ships becomes much more feasible. In a setting with such a tech level, it is possible for one large warship to be more economical than an equivalent squadron of fighters.

A3. Weapons are projectile-based and slow/ungainly.

If the dominant weapons are solid projectiles, interceptors would be useful as a complement to the point defense screen, thinning out incoming fire so the PD on capitals would have an easier job. Obviously, you can't do the same with energy weapons. This would also be contingent on the projectiles not being too fast, else the interceptors would have difficulty running them down.

An easy way to make this happen is to create something like a smoke screen yourself. By firing a specially designed projectile which will be inflated and/or spread out small particles that are magnetically attracted to a centre zone, one can form an area that can block incoming DEW for a short while (similar to whats being used in Starship Operators). Smaller ships (i.e. space fighters) can use smaller versions to shorten the distance and use solid projectile weapons, or simply move to another angle to attack.

See B5 for the opposite.

A4. The maneuverability of space fighters versus larger ships makes them worthwhile.

Space is not an ocean, but space fighters would still be more maneuverable than larger spacecraft thanks to the Square/Cube Law. The larger a spacecraft is, the harder it is for its structure to handle the stress of rapid acceleration during maneuvers — see this web-page for more on this. In this case, rather than being a space version of an aircraft fighter, the space fighter would be more analogous to a PT boat or other "fast attack craft". The main question is whether this added maneuverability would be enough of an advantage to make space fighters sensible — missiles and robotic drones would have the same strength, after all, and likely even more when you take out the mass of the pilot or life-support gear. Still, some critics of space fighters do occasionally argue that larger ships have no disadvantage at all when compared to space fighters in a realistic setting, and this is one plausible counter-argument.

A5. There is significant electronic warfare in the setting.

Retaining human pilots for Space Fighters can provide survivability in works with significant electronic and information warfare — a robotic drone is of little use if the enemy can control it with a software hack, and missiles can be led off-course with decoys of one sort or another. Human pilots may prove more resilient against such threats. There is some real-life precedent for this; notably, there have been actual cases where militaries have claimed the ability to bring down sophisticated remote-controlled and AI-equipped spy drones with nothing but radio signals and hacking. Of course, space is the sort of environment where even a human pilot will likely need to rely on computers and electronic equipment to a significant extent — but still, keeping a human in the loop may give a significant advantage. Another, related problem with drones (and possibly, though not necessarily, missiles) could be the absence of an AI capable of doing the job of a human pilot — see point B3 below for more on this.

A6. Cost.

Moving and utilizing a large ship is expensive. All the fuel spent is not free in a realistic setting. If sending in a smaller ship or a set of smaller ships can do the job, real life militaries will not send the big guns. A fleet with a carrier can indeed send out a few space fighters to perform smaller tasks rather than sending out the smallest possible ship like a frigate. The smaller ships may not be able to survive a long journey by themselves, but the mother ship can. This is particularly the case if there are any FTL systems that requires really big ships to perform, so the fighters cannot travel at FTL themselves, but require a larger ship to bring them to a closer range where they can then perform a small task with their mobility where the big ship cannot.

B7 arguments are only true when space fighters are used against large ships, but this is not always the case in real life. You have smaller or weaker targets, like transport or civilian ships, patrol ships if there are pirate behaviour, and as long as you need to take care of those, you always have some sort of space fighters that are easy and cheap to launch, and the fighters that can fight against this kind of small enemy ships.

Another thing about cost, is economy. You cannot support a fleet that is above your economical capabilities — if you only have an income of X, you cannot support a fleet that spends 2X. In a fictional or ideal world, yes, the bigger the better, build the largest ship your technology can give you, and build zillions of it, and you have the strongest fleet. In the real world, physics is not the only limiting factor to the ships — your political concerns, your enemy, your economic strength, your ability to gather troops, etc. are also limiting factors. To give a historical example, at the turn of the 20th century, France was only a minor player in the "dreadnought race" that many world powers (particularly its neighbors, the UK and Germany) were undergoing at the time, instead focusing on building its army and a fleet of smaller ships capable of defending its holdings in the Mediterranean and North Africa. The Entente Cordiale with the UK removed that nation as a naval rival to France, while the nation's greatest geostrategic threat was a land invasion by Germany that naval forces would be of little use deterring. As such, military planners saw little use in supporting a large, modern fleet when they could be using that money to support a large, modern land army.

A7. Because there are planets.

If you enter the gravity well of a planet, it is hard to get out with a big ship or the big ship simply doesn't have the power to fly in the atmosphere, but the small fighters can enter it and be back. Arguably not space fighters, but if the enemy intercepts in space, than these need to have space combat ability as well.

Also arguably that the big ship can perform orbital bombardments, but it will be hard to aim a few hundred km away, with clouds and with orbital defence shooting at you while you are zooming through your target at 7.8km/s.

A8. Stealth.

There is no Stealth in Space, for large and long operating ships. But the same may not apply to smaller and short operating vessels. If a vessel operates with cold propellant, has an onboard system that cools down its exterior, and traps the heat inside for only a few hours, it will be much harder to detect than any big ships that inevitably heat up faster.

A9. If large ships became man-operable with small crews.

You cannot really distinguish a space fighter and a space frigate if it is operational with a 2 man crew, or even less than 10 like the heavy bombers of WW2, while having much larger ships in your fleet.

A10. When you are cheap or poor and space is huge, 1 single capital ship is rather useless in defending all your bases.

No matter how big your enemy's ship is, there is almost always a slightly smaller design that can still damage it, but is a cheaper alternative when you don't have enough money to build and constantly send out such a large ship.

If against a similar enemy, both will then build smaller ships to increase strategical mobility of the ships for better fleet management.

At a certain point, only small ships can be mobile enough for your needs, and space fighters might be able to damage them, so sending out skirmishing fighters may become a good way to stall your enemy, and protection against this kind of enemy is necessary.

A11. If you don't have Deflector Shields.

A1 will still be valid countering B4 as long as no force field technology is developed. Physics tells us that no matter how thick your armour is, each attack is still going to chip away the armour bit by bit. Also, Hyper Velocity Impact tests( shows that a thick armour is not an ideal defense against KEW at really high speeds.

Countering B4, a capital ship with too much armour (i.e. mass) will be a sitting duck under super long range sieges that are slower but are also massive (e.g. asteroid bombs) since it is hard to turn and change course.

A12. Becasue there are the celestials

No cover, no hiding place, no horizont, entirely true in deep space, not if you want to capture something. If you want to capture an asteroid mine for example, mobile defender units can move behind the asteroid, or even hide in a shaft, missiles are a waste against them. Fighters can attack behind cover, and one don't have to bring the big ones close — the later sacrifices the advantage of superior laser range, and make the big ships also quite vulnerable.

A13. Prolonged war

The arguments are strong, that missiles are superior for a single fleet battle. How about a dozen fleet battle, maybe maintain peace and order on captured colonies? It does matter, whether an attack craft can be only used at once, or multiple times. Especially, if smaller rockets can also have advanced hardware, nuclear heat engines for example. Unlike missiles, fighters can return, if you can gather resources in space, refueling is much cheaper than getting new missiles.

Also if the attack fleet already has a high closing speed (at the magnitude of 100 km/s) then it doesn't count much, whether a missile add a further 10 km/s, or a fighter only add 4 km/s, and save the rest of the fuel for return.

A14. Time Lag

As noted in B9, space combat may take place at extreme ranges measuring in light seconds or even minutes. At such ranges, even lasers have to lead and predict the movements of their targets, making lasers more akin to naval artillery shells, and the overall battle much like an old fashioned battleship duel. A large craft like a battleship or even a cruiser would have its ability to maneuver and change course limited by its mass and volume. However, small craft could use its size to its advantage to make it significantly harder to lead. Thus, space fighters could get much closer to the enemy than its larger companions while maintaining the same relative ability to evade incoming fire, while having an advantage in their own accuracy due to the decreased range.

When might Space Fighters NOT be practical?

B1. Reliable point defenses exist.

If the universe has PD that can mow down far more aggressively-manoeuvring missiles like cavalry before Gatlings, only blatant Plot Armor can protect sluggish strikecraft from getting torn to pieces even more easily. If there is no Stealth in Space, and if combat takes place over large distances, it could give the defenders plenty of time to detect incoming fighters and try to take them out from afar.

A9 above might be a way through this.

B2. Long-range missiles are a viable alternative.

In real life, long-range missiles are an increasingly important part of warfare; the same may be true in space. Instead of fighters, large spacecraft could simply launch robotic missiles at each other from great range. These would have a few advantages over fighters. For starters, a missile doesn't need to make a return trip (or indeed decelerate relative to its target at all), which means it can either carry much less fuel (making it smaller and lighter) or it can carry the same amount of fuel, but use it for manoeuvres that a fighter could not afford to make. The missile could also accelerate more rapidly, both for this reason and because it wouldn't carry a pilot that could lose consciousness from excessive G-forces. All this can combine to make the missile harder for point defenses to hit — it could give the enemy less time to react as it approaches, evade point-defense fire more effectively, and present a smaller target. Unlike an Attack Drone (see below), a missile would not necessarily need advanced AI or remote control. It would simply have to track a target, accelerate towards it, and perhaps make some randomized evasive manoeuvres to try and dodge point-defense fire. A missile could also be cheaper than a fighter or an Attack Drone, meaning that more could be deployed — also making the job harder for point-defense systems. It may still be much easier for the enemy to shoot down missiles in space than it would be on Earth — greater distances mean more warning and more time to react, and no horizon or real limit on the range of point defense weapons means more chances to take the missile out. However, depending on the way Space Fighters would be used in the setting, they may suffer from the same weaknesses to an even greater extent (see above) — their one advantage would be if they could engage the enemy from a range great enough to make dodging defensive fire possible, while missiles obviously would not have this option.

One might be tempted to say that there's no rule that says space fighters can't simply carry missiles. Today, most airborne missiles are carried by fighters (some of which are in turn launched from carriers). Depending on how technology advances, this approach might work in space, as well. Then again, defenses may be such that fighters and fighter-launched missiles don't have the punch to damage capitals; see B4 below. It's also possible that the same lack-of-horizon that will make missiles easier to shoot down in space will also reduce the need to have fighters carry missiles into action, instead of having them launch directly from larger ships — and a missile launched from a fighter is effectively the same as a multistage missile, with the key difference that the "first stage" is manned in the former case.

B3. Reliable and inexpensive drones exist.

This depends on a variety of circumstances, including the range at which space combat in the universe takes place, the quality of AI available in the universe, and whether faster-than-light communication is possible, among other factors. Unmanned robotic fighters would need either decent AI or some means of remote control, and the possibility of the latter depends on either combat taking place at fairly close range, or the availability of a Subspace Ansible. However, some combination of AI and remote control could be practical — remote control (with a light-speed delay) could instruct the fighter as to its overall goals and priorities, and an on-board AI would handle moment-to-moment decisions that depend on "reflexes" and adapting to quickly changing circumstances. If these problems could be solved, drones would have several advantages over fighters, mainly not needing to carry a pilot. If computing technology is miniaturized enough, the pilot and life support could be replaced with a much lighter computer system — and in space, every gram of mass counts for fuel use and manoeuvrability; also, as with missiles, there would be no need to worry about a pilot blacking out from G-forces. Of course, no pilot also means not putting human lives at risk, and possibly faster reaction times.

The main unknown variable here is the weight and cost of the pilot-replacing technology. A future can be imagined in which it is cheaper to train a pilot and build a piloted craft than it is to install fighters with advanced AI (indeed, several sci-fi writers, including Isaac Asimov, have imagined such scenarios). Some evidence for both sides of the debate can be taken from real life. On the one hand, human labor still turns out to be cheaper than automation in many applications, including industrial tasks that could be automated with present-day technology — using a human being instead of a machine is by no means always the more expensive option. On the other hand, looking at present-day space technology, robotic craft have certainly turned out to be far cheaper and more practical than manned vessels for a variety of scientific and commercial applications — though admittedly, there's no way to know whether this would still apply in the chaotic environment of combat. Then there's the fact that computers are still getting smaller and more powerful every year — but then again, many experts already foresee the end of Moore's Law and rapid advancement in computer power in the not-too-distant future. Looking at present-day military forces, robots and drones are certainly being used more and more — but so far it looks like they will work alongside human fighters, rather than replace them outright. The same balanced approach may prove viable in space combat. As for the Subspace Ansible, it is, of course, totally impossible to know how much such a hypothetical device would weigh or cost.

Another potential problem with drone fighters is that they may fall prey to information warfare — hacking, fake radio signals, and the like. Piloted fighters would still likely need lots of computer equipment, and so may not be immune to information attacks either — but they may still be less susceptible than a fully robotic drone. See point A5 above.

B4. Highly resilient capital craft.

Modern fighters and bombers are a threat to wet navy capital ships and land fortifications because they can carry weapons that effectively damage them. However, even in space where they do not have to fight against gravity to launch, engineering limits would prevent a relatively small fighter from carrying too big a weapon. As a counterpoint to A1 though, you can probably imagine a world where torpedoes and air-launched munitions never gained the punch to be useful against battleships or land fortifications, leaving battleship cannon as the kings of the battlefield. Alternately, future defenses such as Deflector Shields might scale with size such that even the heaviest strikecraft weapons barely damage capital craft, or not even that. Either way, strikecraft would be effectively useless in the offensive role. While a larger projectile would have more mass, it would also have more space for propulsion, fuel, payload, all the useful jazz. A good existing example of this is the Honor Harrington series, where until recently the aversion of Armor Is Useless meant that subcapital weapons lacked the punch to usefully damage (super)dreadnoughts.

A12 is a reason to counter this.

B5. Weapons are energy-based or fast and agile.

You can shoot down a projectile. You cannot do the same for directed energy; if it's already on-target, one can only attempt to absorb or deflect it. Sending interceptors out to aid PD would be worthless in this case.

Furthermore, if missiles are sufficiently agile and fast that strikecraft cannot easily catch them either - reference the currently-in-development BRAHMOS II that does over Mach 6, impossible for any current Western air-launched missile, much less the carrying fighter, to catch in a tail-on chase - that would also eliminate their defensive role as a supplement to the point defense screen.

B6. Everything Space Fighters can do something else can do better.

While there are advantages as well as disadvantages to space fighters when directly compared to larger ships, a good look at the concept from the very base upwards is necessary. The first question shouldn't be "What advantage does a fighter have over a big ship?" but "What can a space fighter do?". Because we're talking about military ships here, the answer is generally to bring some sort of weapon payload (bullets, lasers, blaster bolts, missiles, bombs) in contact with a target. But the conditions of combat in space make fighters pointless for that. On planet, fighters are needed to extend the range of whatever deploys them (an airforce base or a carrier). If the base were to shoot the guns or the missiles that a fighter carries directly, it wouldn't have nearly the range that a fighter can achieve. The horizon on planet prevents direct targeting beyond a limited range. The friction of the air slows down bullets and missiles so they drop to the ground short of the target when they have been slowed down enough or their fuel has run out respectively. The engines and shape of an fighter allow far more efficient travel in atmosphere than those of a missile (or bomb or bullet).

Not so in space. There is no horizon, so everything can be targeted directly. There is no friction, so ranges are not limited. There is no need for aerodynamic design, so missiles are far more effective than fighters. For comparison: if one were to use a missile that is the same size as the fighter i.e. using the same engine and same amount of fuel, it would have four times the range of a fighter, because the fighters needs a lot of fuel to brake and return to base again (and this is before you take into account the fact that using a missile instead of a fighter also frees up space that would be otherwise taken by the pilot and whatever equipment he needs to both stay alive and control his craft). So, unlike in an atmosphere, where mounting missiles on a fighter extends the effective range of the warheads, in space it would seriously limit it.

As for guns, those are even less effective. Unless there is some sort of magical technology at play that makes 5 tons of gun components, propellant and bullets somehow capable of more destruction than just 5 tons of warhead (not the case with real physics) then carrying a small gun close to a target to shoot it is a colossal waste of time.

Targeting is another thing that potentially looks like a reason for fighters to exist. But it is again not the case. Getting closer to the target does exactly the same thing as using a bigger lens (because there is no horizon) so the bigger lens wins. (does not get closer to danger, doesn't need refuelling, etc.)

Intercepting incoming missiles works pretty much the same as launching attacking missiles, and attaching a space fighter makes it worse, not better. For that matter, anything that can destroy an incoming missile will probably be just as effective against a fighter, too.

In the end, while one can point out plenty of advantages that a space fighter has over a larger ship (in a universe with real physics), there just is no task that a space fighter is best suited to perform. Either a bigger ship will outperform several small fighters, or one or several missiles will outperform one fighter.

B7 Cost is not an issue

This comes in two flavors. The first being the high-end SF post-scarcity society where construction resources are not an issue. Assuming some other kind of limiting factor (without at least one, offensive war itself makes no sense) that will be what determines ship sizes. For example if resources are infinite but the number of pilots is limited, ships will be designed in a way to capitalize on that i.e. the most powerful ships operated by the least crew.

The second flavor being the erroneous but still perpetuated assumption that space fighters being cheaper than bigger ships is an advantage. Yes, a space fighter is cheaper than a space battleship. No, that does not necessarily translate into an advantage for space fighters. A single space fighter may be cheaper, but would not stand a chance in a fight alone, or else no one would build battleships. For space fighters to be a viable alternative to big ships, one needs to have enough of them to win against the bigger ships, so the question becomes what that whole swarm of fighters costs compared to the single big ship. And there is no reason why a whole group of fighters would be inherently cheaper than a single bigger ship. Maybe economics of scale make fighters cheaper. Maybe the greater efficiency of larger systems make big ships cheaper. There's no hard answer for which will be the case at the moment.

What matters in the end is not so much cost, as cost efficiency. So: yes, small fighters cheaper. No, that doesn't mean anything by itself.

A6 and A11 address the counter arguments.

B8. Space travel is slow.

For combat over distances greater than, say, the Earth-Moon system, fighters lack the extended life-support and large fuel capacity needed to make the journey. If your pilot has to spend more than a week sitting in his cockpit just to reach the battlespace, he's not going to be performing at 100% effectiveness when he gets there. Which means either fighters are limited to action in planetary orbit, or they require large carrier spacecraft , which can provide all these needs, while not engage in combat directly — but that then brings us back to the question of why not use missiles instead.

Another way to counter this is a dispensible living quarter, you bring it along for the travel, but separate it before combat like a stage in a dispensible rocket. If you win, go and pick it back and reattach it. If you lose, you don't really need to care about it anymore since you are dead.

Another issue related to B8 is acceleration. Inertial Dampening aside, a small space fighter may be able to reach a higher acceleration than, say, a capital ship but the former having small fuel reserves will be stuck at a certain velocity (you'd better save fuel to brake or maneuver in both cases), while the larger ship even if it had a far worse acceleration could maintain it for a longer time as it has far more fuel, eventually overtaking the fighter.

B9. Space combat occurs at extended range.

A sufficiently powerful and focused energy weapon travels at c while mass accelerators can propel projectiles at a significant fraction thereof. Coupled with powerful sensors, space combat in this setting will be closer to submarine combat rather than surface navy engagements. Weapons strike at enemy capital ships light seconds away as predictive algorithms try to lead an enemy into a successful shot. The time taken to deploy strikecraft under such circumstances would render them moot, most engagements are settled in seconds by powerful capital ship grade weapons, and more importantly, computers and sensors. If the strikecraft require telemetry from their carrier to tell them where to fire, it is probably too late to hit anything.

B10. If even "small ships" need large crews.

Approaching A9 from the other side, depending on how the technology pans out, the different roles a spacecraft's crew has to handle may get more complex, such that the traditional fighter's pilot-weapon systems officer two-man crew may no longer be adequate and larger crews are needed. For example, sensors could get more advanced and complex without data-analysis AI or software keeping up, resulting in the need to spin off a dedicated sensor officer to keep track of what's going on in the fight. In such a situation, crew complements could balloon to the point where they more closely resemble fast attack craft or patrol boats'. As such, although they might still technically count as "fighters" by virtue of being short-legged and reliant on carriers for operating away from friendly ports, their doctrine would necessarily differ from traditional fighters'. Once again, see the Honorverse's light attack craft for an existing example.

B11. Exactly because there are planets and celestials.

All the so-called weaknesses mentioned in A7 and A12 apply equally to fighters. If a missile can't do the acrobatics needed for close quarter combat in an Asteroid Thicket, neither will it be possible with a larger, less agile fighter unless there is blatant Plot Armor. And complaining about the speed of a larger warship while playing up an even faster fighter is silly.

By simple physics, a small fighter just can't carry as much fuel and ammo as a larger warship. And unlike naval gun fire support, where targets can be far enough inland that a fighter can reach but a ship's guns cannot, almost everything planetside can be hit with the right orbit. Maybe for some reason you can't or don't want to dedicate an all-up battleship to fire support, but some kind of corvette or gunboat equivalent would still be able to remain on station longer than a fighter squadron, which would have to more frequently return to the safely-distant carrier for refuelling and rearming.

As for the cloud thing, you don't need fighters to overcome. You can send recon drones or infantry spotters. If defences are so strong that even those can't get through, you should still be working on orbital superiority and destroying orbit-to-surface defences rather than whatever else you need more precise aiming for.

Anything you need to capture intact, or is placed somewhere you can't bombard from air or orbit a la The Guns of Navarone, you should be sending in the Space Marines anyway. Precision guided munitions can only be so precise after all, so if it's something that precious, you should be using boots on the ground, not fire support.

B12. A13 is not actually an argument for or against fighters, merely against missiles. And not a very strong one either.

Yes, you can refuel a fighter. But what about its ammo? Unless it's purely armed with energy weapons and unguided, non self-propelled cannon, the Mobile Factory converting Asteroid Mined resources into munitions will also need to produce complicated electronics for drives/engines and sensors. And from there it's a stone's throw to producing missiles.

Back on topic, if said Mobile Factory can produce fuel and ammo for fighters, it would merely be a matter of scaling up to produce supplies for larger warships too. Unless, of course, there are arbitrary restrictions on this.


Jack Staik makes the case for space fighters existing due to sheer inertia and entrenched cultural bias. Cue Tevye singing the song "Tradition".

It is true that in a universe governed by hard-headed practicality and realism, a missile bus or an Honorverse-style missile pod would make more sense. However, there is one factor that would allow manned space fighters to proliferate and even prosper — Cultural Bias!

Practical and realistic concerns have often been swept aside in real life by cultural conditioning —look at Japan's centuries of refusal to modernize or adapt until the fact of their utter vulnerability was shoved down their throats by Admiral Perry.

An aristocratic culture with a leaning toward individual heroism (i.e. Arthurian or Samurai theme) would love the idea of manned space-fighters. Noble warriors with the blood of kings firing up their fighters to challenge the Evil Alien Hordes, one man's courage and missiles against the onslaught … it's a primal image. The fighters themselves would probably be very individualistic, instead of mass-produced identical, to reflect their aristocratic pilot. And since the space-fighter would be the provenance of only the high-caste persons, the cultural conditioning could keep manned space-fighter a viable concept for generations in even a hyper-realistic scenario.

Of course, in time raw practicality will sweep aside the manned space-fighter, much as it did the armored knight on horseback, but the fighters will still be the emblem of a bygone age of chivalry and romance. And a Don Quixote-type character, pulling an ancestor's old space-fighter out of storage, to take up arms against a threat from the heavens, has lots of storytelling potential.

Jack Staik

Rick Robinson:

It suddenly strikes me that this whole very interesting thread is not really quite about "space fighters" in the usual sense, though it is very much about space fighters in the sense of "people who fight in space." Your (Mr. Meieimatai) observations (about how human beings have mystical powers that computers will never ever duplicate, trust the Force Luke!) are essentially about the role of the human in the loop of tactical space combat.

Winchell Chung:

That is a key observation, and for me it gets to the heart of the argument "you can take my space fighters when you pry them out of my cold dead hands."

I would suspect that people who embrace that fighter argument will also have an aversion to "push-button warfare" in general (e.g., fighting a war not with soldiers but rather by pushing a button and launching a nuclear strike).
From a thread VALUE OF 'FIGHTERS' IN SPACE COMBAT on SFConSim-l (2007)

However, culture only goes so far. Currently (2012) in Afghanistan, the US Air Force is used to attack partisan forces. But more and more the attacks are carried out by remotely piloted drones, not by valiant Top Gun piloted fighter aircraft.

The Air Force pilots are quite angry about this. They are angry that their role is shrinking, they are angry that their chances of flying exciting missions grow slim, they are angry that fat-bottomed desk-jockys controlling a drone from an office in New Mexico are called "fighter pilots" just like them, they are just angry.

But culture or no, in 2011 the Air Force said it trained more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined.


Until recently, most drone operators were regular Air Force pilots. Now, the service is reaching out to people who've never even flown before. And that has caused friction within the Air Force as it tries to redefine what it means to be a pilot.

"There's a cultural divide," says Kelly, a 46-year-old Air Force reservist from Texas who is now a student at Holloman. Kelly grew up wanting to be a fighter pilot, but his vision is not good enough for that job. But he can fly drones. And he says that irks fighter pilots who see themselves at the top of the Air Force pyramid.

"Part of it is an ego ... I hate to say an ego trip, but it is," he says.

The Air Force has been working to bridge the divide between these two groups of fliers. First off, drone operators are called pilots, and they wear the same green flight suits as fighter pilots, even though they never get in a plane. Their operating stations look like dashboards in a cockpit.

But all of that has made tensions worse. Aaron is another Holloman student. He used to fix military communications equipment; now he's training to operate drones.

"There's still a lot of animosity. You see people in a conventional aircrew that wonder why we get to wear the flight suits even though we don't leave the ground, why do we need flight physicals, why do we get incentive pay — stuff like that," he says.

In 2016 things got worse for human fighter pilots. Researchers developed software that (in computer simulations) reliably defeated human pilots. So instead of being replace by a fat-bottomed desk-jocky, they are being replaced by a computer.


Artificial intelligence (AI) developed by a University of Cincinnati doctoral graduate was recently assessed by subject-matter expert and retired United States Air Force Colonel Gene Lee — who holds extensive aerial combat experience as an instructor and Air Battle Manager with considerable fighter aircraft expertise — in a high-fidelity air combat simulator.

The artificial intelligence, dubbed ALPHA, was the victor in that simulated scenario, and according to Lee, is “the most aggressive, responsive, dynamic and credible AI I’ve seen to date.”

Details on ALPHA – a significant breakthrough in the application of what’s called genetic-fuzzy systems are published in the most-recent issue of the Journal of Defense Management, as this application is specifically designed for use with Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) in simulated air-combat missions for research purposes...

High pressure and fast pace: An artificial intelligence sparring partner

ALPHA is currently viewed as a research tool for manned and unmanned teaming in a simulation environment. In its earliest iterations, ALPHA consistently outperformed a baseline computer program previously used by the Air Force Research Lab for research.  In other words, it defeated other AI opponents.

In fact, it was only after early iterations of ALPHA bested other computer program opponents that Lee then took to manual controls against a more mature version of ALPHA last October. Not only was Lee not able to score a kill against ALPHA after repeated attempts, he was shot out of the air every time during protracted engagements in the simulator.

Since that first human vs. ALPHA encounter in the simulator, this AI has repeatedly bested other experts as well, and is even able to win out against these human experts when its (the ALPHA-controlled) aircraft are deliberately handicapped in terms of speed, turning, missile capability and sensors.

Lee, who has been flying in simulators against AI opponents since the early 1980s, said of that first encounter against ALPHA, “I was surprised at how aware and reactive it was. It seemed to be aware of my intentions and reacting instantly to my changes in flight and my missile deployment. It knew how to defeat the shot I was taking. It moved instantly between defensive and offensive actions as needed.”

He added that with most AIs, “an experienced pilot can beat up on it (the AI) if you know what you’re doing. Sure, you might have gotten shot down once in a while by an AI program when you, as a pilot, were trying something new, but, until now, an AI opponent simply could not keep up with anything like the real pressure and pace of combat-like scenarios.”

But, now, it’s been Lee, who has trained with thousands of U.S. Air Force pilots, flown in several fighter aircraft and graduated from the U.S. Fighter Weapons School (the equivalent of earning an advanced degree in air combat tactics and strategy), as well as other pilots who have been feeling pressured by ALPHA.

And, anymore, when Lee flies against ALPHA in hours-long sessions that mimic real missions, “I go home feeling washed out. I’m tired, drained and mentally exhausted. This may be artificial intelligence, but it represents a real challenge.”

An artificial intelligence wingman: How an AI combat role might develop

Explained Ernest, “ALPHA is already a deadly opponent to face in these simulated environments. The goal is to continue developing ALPHA, to push and extend its capabilities, and perform additional testing against other trained pilots. Fidelity also needs to be increased, which will come in the form of even more realistic aerodynamic and sensor models. ALPHA is fully able to accommodate these additions, and we at Psibernetix look forward to continuing development."

In the long term, teaming artificial intelligence with U.S. air capabilities will represent a revolutionary leap. Air combat as it is performed today by human pilots is a highly dynamic application of aerospace physics, skill, art, and intuition to maneuver a fighter aircraft and missiles against adversaries, all moving at very high speeds. After all, today’s fighters close in on each other at speeds in excess of 1,500 miles per hour while flying at altitudes above 40,000 feet. Microseconds matter, and the cost for a mistake is very high.

Eventually, ALPHA aims to lessen the likelihood of mistakes since its operations already occur significantly faster than do those of other language-based consumer product programming. In fact, ALPHA can take in the entirety of sensor data, organize it, create a complete mapping of a combat scenario and make or change combat decisions for a flight of four fighter aircraft in less than a millisecond. Basically, the AI is so fast that it could consider and coordinate the best tactical plan and precise responses, within a dynamic environment, over 250 times faster than ALPHA’s human opponents could blink.

So it’s likely that future air combat, requiring reaction times that surpass human capabilities, will integrate AI wingmen – Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) – capable of performing air combat and teamed with manned aircraft wherein an onboard battle management system would be able to process situational awareness, determine reactions, select tactics, manage weapons use and more. So, AI like ALPHA could simultaneously evade dozens of hostile missiles, take accurate shots at multiple targets, coordinate actions of squad mates, and record and learn from observations of enemy tactics and capabilities.

UC’s Cohen added, “ALPHA would be an extremely easy AI to cooperate with and have as a teammate. ALPHA could continuously determine the optimal ways to perform tasks commanded by its manned wingman, as well as provide tactical and situational advice to the rest of its flight.”

A programming victory: Low computing power, high-performance results

It would normally be expected that an artificial intelligence with the learning and performance capabilities of ALPHA, applicable to incredibly complex problems, would require a super computer in order to operate.

However, ALPHA and its algorithms require no more than the computing power available in a low-budget PC in order to run in real time and quickly react and respond to uncertainty and random events or scenarios.

According to a lead engineer for autonomy at AFRL, "ALPHA shows incredible potential, with a combination of high performance and low computational cost that is a critical enabling capability for complex coordinated operations by teams of unmanned aircraft."

(ed note: for the software details, refer to the report)

But If You Must They Act Like This

If you just can't live without your T.I.E. fighter (or if you are an author pandering to your audience) you might as well get the rest of the science correct anyway. Think up some justification to allow space fighters to exist, then try to live within the draconian constraints.

Keep in mind that even if you have space fighters, they are not going to fly like winged fighters in an atmosphere. I don't care how the X-wing and Viper space fighters maneuvered. It is impossible to make swooping maneuvers without an atmosphere and wings.

No such thing as space dog fighting with banking turns. Not yours.

You also cannot turn on a dime. The faster the ship is moving, the wider your turns will be. Your spacecraft will NOT move like an airplane, it will act more like a heavily loaded 18-wheeler truck moving at high speed on a huge sheet of black ice.


Old-School Dogfighting: No. Just no, except for specialized orbit-to-atmosphere interceptor craft that would more properly be described as “fighter-interceptor aircraft with limited suborbital capability”. Ain’t no air in space. Ain’t no space fighters, either – hanging the mass of a meatbody and its life support, including acceleration limits, off your combat craft ruins its performance envelope compared to more sensible designs. Namely, proper AKVs with a digital pilot, tetrahedral thrusters for maximal all-vectors maneuverability in vacuum and microgravity, and all the ability to handle three dimensions, multiple reference frames, and relativistic effects that primate tree-swinging instinct does not provide.

As a side note: anyone who banks their ship in a vacuum anyway is just showing off and wasting RCS reserves, and/or thinks far too well of their paint job.

And another thing: if you maneuver, you are NOT going to be slammed into walls by high gee forces like a NASCAR race car driver. It doesn't work that way unless you have an atmosphere and wings. The only thing you will feel is a force in the same direction that the rocket exhaust is shooting, which will be equal to magnitude to the acceleration the engine is producing. Since Rockets Are Not Boats, the force generally be in the direction the crew considers as "down", as defined by the rocket's design. It will never be "sideways" (except under silly situations, like occupying a spinning centrifugal gravity ring while the rocket is accelerating).

It doesn't matter if you are thrusting in some other direction that the rocket's direction of travel (see Rockets Are Not Arrows) nor does it matter the rocket's current velocity (relative to what?). If the rocket engine cannot provide more than 0.5 gs of acceleration, the crew is never going to feel more than 0.5 gs of acceleration. Even if the ship is moving at a large fraction of the speed of light.


Let me try to explain one aspect of this: specifically, the motion of space fighters.

Don’t get me wrong. Star Wars is a great movie, one of my all-time favorites. It’s even still a pretty good movie if Han doesn’t shoot first, even though that’s an absurd change on so many levels. But Star Wars wrecked the popular perception of how space fighters would move in space for a long time. The basic problem is, they move like airplanes.

There are two things about an airplane’s motion that the Star Wars fighters do, even though they shouldn’t have to. First, an airplane is always moving in the direction it is pointing. if you know Newton’s laws, you will ask, “moving relative to what?” Well, relative to the air that it’s moving through, of course! If they didn’t, they’d fall out of the sky, for they are aerodynamically designed to fly by pushing up off of the air. But there’s no air in space; the density of gas even in high earth orbit is lower than the density of gas in the hardest vacuum we can create in the lab on Earth. If your space fighter only has reaction engines that point in one direction (as is the case, at least, with the X-wing fighters of Star Wars), then they have to point in the direction that they are accelerating… but not in the direction they are moving. All those Y-wing pilots who died attacking the Death Star because they had TIE fighters on their tails whom they couldn’t shake? A tragedy of misunderstood physics. They didn’t have to loop around to fire at the TIE fighters, the way airplanes do; they could have just turned around in place!

The second thing Star Wars routinely gets wrong is that fighters in space do not have to bank. When an airplane turns, it banks. Think about being in a car going quickly around a curve. You’re more likely to maintain control of your car if the road is banked. Look at a high-speed racetrack sometime, and you’ll notice that the curves are banked. What’s going on is that to turn to the left, a vehicle needs some acceleration pointing to the left of its current direction of motion. With a car on a flat road, that acceleration is provided entirely by friction between the road and the tires. On a banked road, some of that acceleration is now provided by the road pushing up on the car. Similarly, with an airplane, the main force of the air on the plane is the air pushing up on the wings, generating lift. If an airplane wants to turn left, it banks so that the bottom of its wings are pointing to the right. This, combined (crucially!) with the plane’s motion, gives it some acceleration to the left, allowing it to turn.

In space, there is no air to bank off of! Once again, things work differently. First of all, these space fighters are all (approximately) in freefall. They’re either in deep space, or they’re in orbit about a planet, so there is (effectively) no gravity to fight. Second, without air, they can’t bank off of it. Want to go in a different direction? Point your engines in the direction such that the acceleration applied to your current velocity vector (relative to whatever you’re measuring your velocity relative to) will give you a velocity in the direction you want.

What would this look like? It would look weird to those of us who are used to things flying like airplanes or, alas, flying like the fighters in the worlds most popular space movie epics (where the space fighters fly like airplanes). But sometimes it’s done right. The new Battlestar Galactica series tends to do it pretty well. Before that, though, back in the early-mid 1990’s, the TV show Babylon 5 (still my favorite) explicitly had space fighters obeying Newton’s laws. It was a rare gem to see, and it warmed my physics nerd heart. (I’m the kind of guy who gets a warm and fuzzy feeling to hear the pilot of a science fiction fighter say “coordinating vectors for grapple.” Look! Technobabble that actually means something and makes sense!)

The very first episode of the series (after the pilot) was “Midnight on the Firing Line,” and it showed a space combat between a group of raiders and a squadron of Starfuries (which are well designed space fighters; whereas X-wings look cool, Starfuries are cool and look like they were designed for Newtons-laws-obeying space!). At one point, Commander Sinclair has a raider (in a little potato chip ship) on his tail:

If he was in a Y-wing, I guess he’d just have to die. (Indeed, he does take some fire— you can see it happening there— but he was hoping for a surrender.) Instead, though, what does he do?

In the picture above, you see him just starting to turn around. The asymmetric firing of the engines makes sense given the direction he wants to turn. Does he have to bank or loop around or anything like that? No. He just points in the other direction. His fighter continues to move in the same direction relative to the larger ship as it had been, but now he’s got his guns pointing in the right direction:

much to the dismay of the raider:

Here, also, you can see that Sinclair is accelerating away from the exploding raider ship. Probably not a bad idea; there will be debris coming away from it. Also, a line he said before turning around suggested that he was slowing himself down relative to the raider, so it was probably approaching him at this point; he’ll want to get away to avoid a collision.

There are other great tidbits of space fighters qualitatively getting Newton’s Laws right in that scene, and in other scenes from Babylon 5. Indeed, the fact that the Raiders have ships that look like flying wings is explained; Sinclair says that they are designed for both space and atmosphere, and as such the wings are good vulnerable points to shoot for.

More often, though, when you see something with ships flying about in space, not only do they make sound (which happens even in B5), but they fly like airplanes. Very few people realize the degree to which this is a violation of Newton’s Laws. Kudos to Babylon 5 for trying to get it right.


      1A) Purple/Green debate — a debate that starts from fundamentally different tech assumptions, like missiles versus beams.

     1C) The Rule of 10% — it seems unlikely that you'll have beam weapons with less than 10% of the output of your fusion torch.

     1D) Robinson's First Law: Objects impacting at a smidge under 3 km/sec deliver kinetic impacts comparable to their mass in TNT.

     3D) Lasers can fry sensors at about 10 to 100x the ranges that they can burn through armor.

     4) Space combat (arguably) looks like this:

     4A) It may not be mobile. Laterla thrust versus closing velocity and the trumpet bell of future positions. (When closing velocity is high enough relative to lateral thrust, you have no real maneuver — you have a minimum separation at closest approach, but everything flashes by.

     4B) It may not involve ships at all. Discuss cruise missiles, AIs, and graxing incidence mirror X ray battle stations. This is where a discussion of solar system scale GPS systems are. Similar to this are beamed power stations and disposable focusing mirrors.

     4C) There may or may not be countermeasures, both as sensor messer uppers and as "debris fields" to let things plow through.

     4D) Unless your drives are puny, expect about 20% of your delta v to get you to the fight, 20% to get you "back on orbit" if you're done (i.e., back home to base), about 20-40% for maneuver reserves while in the fight, and 20% to be your margin in setting up the fight.

from a post by Ken Burnside to SFConSim-l (2008)

In the 1970's, DARPA was looking into a crude spacecraft called the "High Performance Spaceplane" that looked suspiciously like a space fighter, you can read about the details here and here. However, it was more like a manned missile than it was a Viper from Battlestar Galactica.

Four things have triggered a growing interest in the real possibility of a space fighter:

  • The NASA Space Transportation System, otherwise popularly known as the space shuttle, proved once and for all that it was possible to orbit a manned winged space vehicle and return it safely to an aircraft-type landing for re-use.
  • The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird Mach-3 high-altitude spy plane has since 1962 shown that such high-speed high-altitude manned reconnaissance vehicles had utility beyond what could be accomplished by unmanned orbiting recon satellites.
  • The Soviet Union began testing a small winged reuseable "spaceplane" in about 1976. (ed note: the MiG-105 "Spiral". Cancelled in 1978)
  • The development of the simple "space cruiser" concept by Fred W. "Bud" Redding, an aerospace designer with the DCS Corporation, caught the eye of the United States Air Force because of an article about it by this author in the November 1983 issue of Omni magazine. (ed note: the DARPA "High Performance Spaceplane" mentioned above)

These things are leading to the impending birth of the space fighter. Quite apart from the utility of a space fighter in outer space itself, the vehicle has a definite series of missions it can perform in close proximity to the Earth. Students of aviation history as well as military history knew that early airplanes co-opted the role of the horse cavalry in scouting as well as general harassment of the enemy's rear because of mobility and use of the principle of surprise. Only later did aircraft also assume the role of load-carriers, vehicles capable of delivering either cargoes or bombs over ranges far beyond those of ground vehicles or artillery guns. Helicopters have taken over the tactical scouting and harassment roles today on the battlefields of Earth, but aircraft have kept the art of scouting, harassment, and load delivery alive by doing these things at higher and higher altitudes and faster and faster speeds. The space fighter concept extends them into space itself, but a space fighter must not be considered a load-carrier like the space shuttle orbiter.

The operational requirements for a space fighter, especially the ones we're likely to see in the next 25 years, are simple to set forth and not technically as difficult to achieve as might be assumed. A space fighter should be capable of being launched on a few minutes' notice from the surface of Earth, from an airborne platform, or from a space facility such as the space shuttle or a space base. It should be capable of entering any orbit and making several changes of orbital altitude and inclination. It should have suitable aerodynamic characteristics—primarily a high ratio between lift and drag—so that it can maneuver in the upper atmosphere of the Earth by means of aerodynamic controls, primarily stubby delta wings.

Thus, the space fighter should be able to appear suddenly in the high atmosphere over any nation at any time moving in any direction at a wide variety of speeds. A system of defense against such a space fighter will be extremely expensive in comparison to the cost of the space fighter. In fact, even the detection system necessary to find one and track it will be costly. For operations in the near-Earth orbital region, a capability to change its velocity ("delta-vee") of about 2,500 feet per second (760 m/s) is necessary. For operation in the Earth-Moon system, a delta-vee of 20,000 feet per second (6000 m/s) would be more than adequate.

The space fighter should be a completely self-contained manned vehicle with a life support capability of at least 24 hours. Finally, the space fighter should be able to return to a number of bases or landing sites and terminate its mission in a reusable condition.

In 1965, these requirements were technologically difficult if not impossible. Now they are "state of the art" if clever engineering is used. It looks as though the Soviet Union has already embarked on a "spaceplane" if not a space fighter program with its small shuttle. France is considering the development of the "Hermes," a delta-winged mini-shuttle intended to be launched into low Earth orbit by the Eurospace "Ariane" rocket. And the United States Department of Defense has embarked upon at least two admitted spaceplane or space fighter programs.

An excellent example of this is Fred W. "Bud" Redding's space cruiser or spaceplane, which is being funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as a research vehicle. The Redding space cruiser is delightfully simple and brings out the machismo in hot fighter pilots. A slender cone about 24 feet long with a base diameter of about five feet, the vehicle is a scaled-up version of the proven Mark 12 Minuteman re-entry vehicle. The aerodynamic characteristics of this shape are very well known and understood. It's a hypersonic and supersonic airframe shape with good lift-to-drag ratio and therefore good maneuverability. And small delta wings, and it becomes highly maneuverable. It's large enough that a single pilot clad in a pressure suit can sit in an unpressurized cockpit in the aft end just ahead of a ring of rocket motors. A hatch that can be opened allows him to stand up in the cockpit to look around. In this "open cockpit" space vehicle, the pilot "owns space" around him.

The nose of the conical spaceplane can be folded back to permit it to become a "pusher" or space tug for shifting larger loads in orbit. With a Centaur underneath it as a lower stage, it is capable of taking its pilot around the Moon and back.

The simplicity of the Redding spaceplane comes from its lack of design compromises. One of the things that makes the space shuttle orbiter so complex is the requirement that it fly well at subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic speeds. This was a difficult and expensive technological feat requiring many compromises that didn't contribute to low cost and design simplicity. If a spaceplane is designed to fly at only supersonic and hypersonic speeds, it can be greatly simplified. But how can it be landed if it won't fly at subsonic speeds?

The Mark 12 re-entry vehicle is a fine supersonic and hypersonic airframe but a streamlined anvil at subsonic speeds. The Redding spaceplane is the same. But rather than compromise the design by giving it a good subsonic lift-to-drag ratio to permit a horizontal landing, Bud Redding opted to use another simple and straightforward method: a parachute. Not the simple circular parachute used on early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space capsules that dropped the capsule into the ocean in an uncontrolled fashion. Instead, Redding suggests the use of the steerable, flyable "parasail" used by thousands of sports parachutists every weekend. Once the spaceplane gets into the atmosphere and its speed slows to subsonic where it becomes a brick, a parasail chute is deployed, allowing the pilot to steer the slender cone to a soft landing inside a fifty-foot circle. It could be landed even on the deck of a ship at sea.

The Redding DARPA spaceplane is almost a technological reality today. But coming down the line very quickly is something the United States Air Force calls the "transatmospheric vehicle" (TAV). This is not a space fighter or a space cruiser. It's conceived as a vehicle larger and more complex than the Redding spaceplane but smaller and simpler than the NASA space shuttle. The TAV would take off horizonally from the runway of any Air Force base, fly into orbit using wings for lift and a combination of turbo-ramjet and rocket engines for propulsion, operate in low Earth orbit, and return at will to land horizonally on the runway of any Air Force base. The TAV may be operation in the 1990s. The Redding spaceplane could be flying in the 1980 decade. Neither of these space fighter-like vehicles will look anything like what anyone thought a space ship would in the annals of science fiction. They won't look like X-wings, Y-wings, TIE fighters. Vipers, Starfighters, or anything else conceived to date in the minds of authors or illustrators. There is one thing for certain: When their appearances become unclassified (like the appearance of the Redding spaceplane already is), artistic interpretations based upon their designs will quickly come to grace not only science fiction book and magazine covers, but also the beautiful full-color institutional ads of aerospace companies—product ads proudly announcing that "HyperTech's Mark Three Solar Powered Laser Gizmoscope was chosen above all others to provide essential on-board services," and numerous backgrounds for national newsmagazine covers.

Beyond the 1999 space fighter, however, the technological crystal ball becomes cloudy. This is not to say that the wildest hallucinations of a Hollywood art director are a better indication of what futuristic space fighters would look like. Probably not, because such concepts are based solely on what looks good and appears to be futuristic. The actual space fighters of the twenty-first century will not only look "right," they will be beautiful in their own way because they'll be designed with a full understanding of the mission requirements of a space fighter based upon realistic military doctrines of space. They will be difficult to operate, dangerous to life and limb, and push human capabilities to their utmost limits just as has every scouting and fighting vehicle (including the horse) throughout history. Far more important in the long run is the inevitable spin-off of space fighter technology into the technology of civilian and commercial spacecraft. Just as the airliners and general aviation aircraft of 1984 use the engines, electronics, aerodynamics, and other technologies pioneered for military aircraft, so the military spacecraft will also contribute toward the accompanying commercial and private use of space. And that possibility is perhaps far more exciting than space fighters themselves. Move over, science fiction. Another of your dreams is about to become reality!

from AFTERWORD: SPACE FIGHERS by G. Harry Stine (1985)

The above was written in 1985. Alas no "space fighters" have made an appearance. And unfortunately with current technological advances, it seems more likely that a space fighter developed today will be an unmanned drone, not a Starfury.


     Basic Assumptions:
     This paper was written using the following assumptions as a baseline.
     1. Physical laws:
     The laws of physics as we know them still apply. This means that spacecraft move in a Newtonian (or Einsteinian, though this realm is outside the scope of the paper) manner, using reaction drives or other physically-plausible systems (such as solar sails) for propulsion. Thermodynamics dictate that all spacecraft must radiate waste heat, and lasers obey diffraction. The only exception is FTL, which will be included in some scenarios.
     2. Technology:
     The technological background is less constrained. If a system is physically plausible, the engineering details can be ignored, or at most subject to only minor scrutiny. The paper will examine a spectrum of technology backgrounds, but will focus on near to mid-future scenarios, where the general performance and operation of the technology can be predicted with at least a little accuracy. A common term used to describe this era is PMF, which stands for Plausible Mid-Future. This term (coined by Rick Robinson) is difficult to define, but it assumes significant improvements in technologies we have today, such as nuclear-electric drives, fading into those we don’t, such as fusion torches.
     3. Environment:
     This paper will attempt to examine a wide variety of environments in which space combat might occur. However, it will make no attempt to examine all of them, and the scenarios described will conform to several principles.
     First, this is a general theory. Any scenario that is dependent on a one-shot tactic or highly specific circumstance will likely not be included, except during the discussion of the beginnings of space warfare, or to demonstrate why it is impractical in the long run. The recommendations made are not optimal for all circumstances, nor is such a thing possible. They are instead what the author believes would be best for a realistic military based on the likely missions and constraints. Picking highly unlikely and specific sets of circumstances under which they are not optimal is best answered with a quote from the author about one such scenario, posting on the Rocketpunk Manifesto topic Space Warfare XIII: “You need a blockade, a hijacking (innocents aboard a vessel trying to break the blockade), and a high-thrust booster on the hijacked ship. Two stretch the limits of plausibility. The third is ridiculous. Claiming that this justifies humans [onboard warships, see Section 2] is like claiming that because warships sometimes run aground, we should install huge external tires on all of them to help get them off.”
     Second, no attempt will be made to include the effects of aliens or alien technology, because to do so would be sheer uninformed speculation.
     Third, the default scenario, unless otherwise noted, is deep-space combat between two fleets. Other scenarios will be addressed, but will be clearly noted as such.

Space fighters are a controversial topic in hard sci-fi space warfare discussions.  The consensus among the community is that they are not practical in the way they are depicted by Hollywood, nor in most other ways imagined, and that is a view the author shares.  However, this consensus is continually challenged, and the purpose of this section is to collect most of the rebuttals to those objections.

What exactly is a space fighter?  That varies depending on the context of the discussion, but the average person would probably point at an X-wing or TIE fighter.  A 10-20 m long spacecraft with a one or two man crew and a few hours of endurance.  In other words, something much like an atmospheric fighter, but in space.  Others would expand the definition to include any small, low-endurance combat craft, particularly those carried by other vessels.  Some would broaden the definition even more, to the point where it bears no resemblance at all to a classical space fighter.  Many of these proposals for “fighters” suffer problems which render them marginally effective or ineffective, and those that don’t are the ones that bear the least resemblance to the visions of Hollywood.  In the interest of accuracy, any vessel carried and deployed (that is to say, not merely shipped to a destination) by another vessel will be referred to as a parasite, leaving fighter to describe Hollywood-type combat parasites.

The origin of the space fighter is obvious.  It was developed out of an analogy to wet navy combat, specifically the aircraft carrier and its fighters.  Even the serious space warfare community often engages in wet navy analogies, so it appears to make sense to expand it to include carriers and fighters.  This suffers one critical flaw.  Aircraft carriers are effective primarily because aircraft work in a different environment then do ships.  A carrier can stay on station for months, but can only go at around 30 knots, while a fighter can make Mach 2, but only has a few hours endurance.  In space, a fighter will have no environmental advantage over its carrier.  Both obey the same rules, so any advantage must come from size and design.  A much better analogy is that of large and small warships, such as destroyers and Fast Attack Craft.

The naval analogies that underlie the basic concept of the space fighter deserve closer examination.  Before the late 1800s, small craft did not have the ability to threaten larger ones while the larger ship was not at anchor.  This changed with the invention of the torpedo.  For a time, many, most prominently the French Jeune Ecole, believed that the torpedo boat spelled the end of the battleship.  While this obviously did not happen, many navies experimented with various ways to use torpedo boats, including building torpedo boat carriers.  During the Russo-Turkish war of 1877, the Russians converted several vessels to carry torpedo boats, and a torpedo boat operating from the tender Veliky Knyaz Konstantin became the first vessel to sink another with a self-propelled torpedo.  In the 1880s, the Royal Navy built HMS Vulcan, while the French Navy produced Foudre, both cruiser-type vessels, meant to travel with the fleet and deploy 8 or 10 small torpedo boats against the enemy.  Both remained in service for about two decades, before being converted to other roles.  There has been occasional discussion by various powers about building more such ships, including by the US in WWII, but nothing came of it.  In fact, despite the presence of LSDs (Land Ship Dock) in the fleet, including for carrying PT boats to the front lines, there are no records of PT boats being launched into action from LSDs.  The total failure of this idea renders dubious the prospect of a similar vessel in space.

These are the next major issues.  One often-noted advantage is that a fighter only has to carry a few people and a few days’ worth of life support, which gives it superior performance to a larger ship.  This makes sense at first glance, but several factors conspire to defeat it.  First, how much of that performance is really useful?  Second, how does the fighter in question actually kill its target?  Third, how much money is being spent on all of this, anyway?  Fourth, do we need people aboard at all?

Maneuverability is a common explanation for fighters.  The logic is that a ship that has a higher acceleration is better, so cutting out as much dead weight as possible is good.  However, to what extent is this statement true when balanced against other factors.  A fighter by definition is of limited operating endurance.  Most proposals run from hours to a week or two.  Within that time, it must return to its base, generally a carrier, to restock.  A ship’s maneuverability is furthermore defined by two factors, delta-V and acceleration.  While a fighter would have superior acceleration, that must be balanced against its generally more limited delta-V.  

One salient fact to keep in mind is that ships that maneuver in combat using the same drive they cruise under are not maneuverable in combat.  Given the amount of time spent under thrust, generally measured in days if not weeks, ships will be unable to change the tactical geometry in a meaningful way during a few hours, let alone a few minutes.  This does not apply if the ship fights under a different engine then it maneuvers with.  Attack Vector: Tactical uses this approach, with engines having a high-efficiency, low-thrust cruise mode and a high-thrust low-efficiency combat mode.  However, this seems somewhat unlikely given currently foreseeable technology.  Mass-injected fusion drives could work this way (as they do in AV:T), but they are at the limits of the technology under consideration in this paper.

The limited endurance of a fighter presents two problems.  The first is that, as mentioned above, a ship that uses the same, or even a similar (within about an order of magnitude in terms of thrust/delta-V) drive in combat as in cruise will not be able to change the tactical geometry in a meaningful way during combat.  This applies to parasites as well.  The parasite’s cruise drive is that of the carrier, which means that it must have a significantly higher-thrust drive then the carrier does.  However, given that both operate in the same environment, the parasite will likely have to mount an entirely different type of drive.  This is a common fictional explanation, but there is no reason to believe that a small ship will be able to use drives that a larger ship could not also mount.  One could install a chemical or nuclear-thermal engine, which are not likely to be used by interplanetary vessels, but both of those have limited delta-V, which, when combined with the next issue, renders that proposal extremely questionable for deep-space combat.

An interesting solution to the different drive problem is an “antimatter afterburner”.  This involves the use of small amounts of antimatter in a fighter engine of some type as the name implies.  The originator of the idea suggested that expense and danger would prevent similar technology from being used on larger vessels.  The use of antimatter in large quantities removes the idea from the realm of the PMF, and the author believes that danger can be handled with proper engineering.  Expense is an open question, but the other problems with fighters are likely significant enough to torpedo the idea.

A parasite must return to its carrier before its endurance is exhausted.  While that statement is obvious, it places severe limitations on tactical flexibility.  First and foremost, a parasite will need four times its average transit velocity relative to the carrier in delta-V.  To state it another way, a parasite will have an average transit velocity of at best one-fourth of delta-V.  Maneuvering the fighter will reduce the transit velocity available.  If a parasite is using a high-thrust, low-ISP drive, the low delta-V achievable will limit transit velocity, and maximum range from the carrier (assuming the carrier does not accelerate during the mission) can be defined as transit velocity times one-half of endurance.  For any reasonable ranges, endurance will have to be large, or transit velocity very high, implying fusion drives or similar technology, and raising the question of the advantage of fighters over conventional ships again.  

Note that the maximum range for a given endurance and delta-V will only occur when the delta-V used for the outbound and return legs is equal.  Any other distribution will result in a lower average transit velocity, and thus reduced range. This distribution also corresponds to the highest average transit velocity possible for a mission of a given range, which could be of great importance if the fighter is to be recovered and reused during a given battle.  Table 1 shows how the distribution of delta-V affects transit velocity for a given endurance and total transit time for a given range.  Note that these numbers only apply in flat space and if the carrier is not accelerating during the mission.  Because the fighters start at rest relative to the carrier, and must return to it, any velocity the carrier initially possesses is irrelevant.  Flat space should be a reasonable approximation for deep-space engagements, and near-orbital space will be dealt with later.  Also, it is assumed that the burns are short relative to the total transit time, which is a good approximation for most cases, although not necessarily high-end ones.

Table 1
High Leg
Low Leg

If the carrier maneuvers during the mission, it sets off a complex interplay of carrier delta-V expenditure, fighter delta-V expenditure, and transit time changes, leaving aside the tactical effects of the carrier’s maneuvers, which fall outside the scope of this section.  In the most extreme case, a fighter might expend its entire transit delta-V in a single burn to intercept the target, and then allow the carrier to match velocities and catch it.  This would require massive delta-V from the carrier, and significant time, particularly if the carrier’s drive is low-thrust.  Also, the tactical and orbital effects are likely to be severe.  A more practical situation might be for the fighters to expend all of their delta-V on the outbound leg, and wait for the carrier to reach them at the target.  This takes less delta-V from the carrier, and significantly less time, but does leave the fighters vulnerable if things go wrong.  Moving the carrier towards the target is also potentially problematic.  If the carrier simply accelerates and decelerates to rest relative to its initial velocity, the transit time is reduced somewhat at a cost in delta-V.  If it does not decelerate, the fighters will have to expend additional delta-V to match velocities.  Likewise, after reaching the target, the fighters could expend all of their delta-V on start of the return leg, and the carrier could match velocities.  The effect of all of these must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, although the analysis itself is quite simple once the parameters are established.

Once the fighter has reached the target, it must still kill it.  Plausible space warfare weapons break down into three main categories: beams, projectors, and missiles.  Beams, which include both EM and particle beams, travel at close to the speed of light, but fall off with distance.  Projectors cover any weapon that fires mass at a target, where most of the velocity is imparted by a device on the ship itself.  Cannon, railguns, and coilguns are all examples of this.  Velocities achievable are likely to be limited to less than 100 km/s.  Missiles are any kinetic weapons released from a vessel which gain their velocity from some combination of the velocity of the launching ship and an internal engine.

Beams and cannon are not good candidates for fighter weapons.  Lasers scale significantly with size (see Section 7), which generally means that the vessel with the largest laser wins.  Particle beams and launchers also scale with size, though probably not as strongly, which puts any fighter mounting them at a disadvantage.  That leaves missiles.

Missiles make sense.  Put some missiles on a fighter, send it to within range of the enemy, and shoot them off.  The problem is that, in space, missiles don’t have range.  A missile will likely coast for much of its flight anyway.  There is no reason to use a fighter to launch a missile.  Put on another stage, and remove the fighter entirely.  More of these missiles can be fit into the space formerly occupied by the fighters, which increases firepower, and probably cuts costs in the long run, as a fighter has to decelerate to a stop, then come back, burning remass the whole way, not to mention the cost of support facilities for the fighter.  

But what if money can be saved by using the fighter for all of the missile’s primary delta-V?  The fighter simply tosses them out, leaving them to guide their way in.  This vessel is generally referred to as a Lancer.  The problem is, again, delta-V.  A lancer would have to stop, and return to its carrier after launching the missiles.  It might not have to have four times the projectile velocity in delta-V, as it can return to the carrier at a lower velocity then it launched from, but something on the order of three times launch velocity is probably the minimum practical delta-V.  If the lancer and a self-propelled missile are using broadly similar engines (similar ISP) the lancer would have to have at least three times the fuel fraction for the same impact velocity, if not significantly more.


The only situation where this would be a generally viable tactic is if, for some reason, the missile cannot use a drive that is within the same ISP range as the lancer’s, probably for cost reasons.  This might be the case when, say, fusion drives are new.  The cost of the drive is high enough that it is a requirement to reuse it.  Conventional missiles are impractical, because chemfuel simply can’t generate enough delta-V to be viable against fusion-powered vessels.  Thus, a lancer is developed.  This is a fairly specific set of circumstances, and should not be generalized to most situations.

Note that the rejection of beam-armed fighters is based upon the beam weapons in question scaling with size.  If this is not the case, (Dr. Device from Ender’s Game is the only example which springs to mind here, although the description in Ender’s Shadow casts doubt on if this is actually what’s going on) there are advantages to having as many platforms in action as possible, and fighters become an option again.  Another case in which fighters (or combat parasites in general) might become practical, also illustrated by Ender’s Game, involves an interplanetary propulsion system that for some reason cannot be fitted to individual combat craft.  This could be for any number of reasons, including expense, minimum size of the systems, or simple rarity of the drive.  In any of these cases, it would be logical to use parasites to fight, and leaving the drive spacecraft in the role of command ship.

One option for parasites is a type of missile defense drone.  The purpose of this drone is to bypass the armor of incoming missiles.  It is not armed with conventional weapons, but instead contains a pair of linked telescopes.  One of these receives a beam from a larger vessel in the main fleet, while the other redirects it to a missile.  Conventional missiles are only armored on the front, so a laser from beside or behind them would be highly effective.  While this tactic is not impossible to counter, mostly by spreading the armor more evenly across the missile, doing so will reduce the armor thickness or increase the mass, and thus the cost of the missile.  Either means is a win for the defender, which makes this category of parasite potentially quite useful.  One thing should be noted about this type of craft, though.  It operates at short ranges from the fleet, and can use a rather low transit delta-V, which removes a lot of the problems of other parasites.

One common claim for the superiority of fighters is that they are cheaper than an equivalent amount of firepower in larger vessels.  On the surface, this claim is true.  Fighters, not being required to have long-term living quarters and the like, do seem to deliver high firepower per dollar (or credit or yuan or what have you).  The economics become much less robust, however, when the cost of the carrier is factored in.  Before delving into that, a discussion of carriers themselves is in order.

Carriers can be of several different types.  The simplest is to strap parasites to the hull of a ship, and detach them for battle.  This design promises low cost, but limits the utility of fighters, as they likely can’t be rearmed or refueled, and maintenance is very difficult.  More complex designs have specialized docks, which allow easy rearming and refueling, but limit access to the outside of the parasite in question.  This works better with gunboat-type parasites, which have significant capability for independent operation, and should be capable of being serviced from the inside.  They would also provide some living quarters and support for the crew.  The final step is a full carrier with pressurized fighter bays, which is the type usually seen on TV.  These are mass-intensive, but allow classical fighter operations, with external maintenance and the like.  The crews are housed onboard, and all support gear is on the carrier.

The first option is obviously the cheapest, but suffers from the fact that it more resembles the British Catapult-Armed Merchant ships of World War II then a proper carrier.  The fighters are one-use, and probably can’t be maintained terribly well.  While they can be recovered after battle, they are helpless until a tender of some sort is reached.  The second option requires a dedicated ship, but, apart from magazines and remass tanks, is not terribly mass-intensive, and probably no more than 25% of the mass of the carried craft is required in clamps and docking systems and such.  The full carrier is, however, highly mass-intensive.  At best, a ratio of 100% of parasite mass to docking facility mass might be achievable.  However, this is probably optimistic.  All quarters and such must be duplicated, and the bays themselves are going to be large, if mostly empty when unoccupied.  There are actually two options for hangar arrangement.  The first, and most obvious, is to dock each fighter in individual bays, or place a few fighters in each bay.  The alternative involves a large central hangar and the use of airlocks to move fighters in and out.  This approach is probably more efficient in terms of mass, volume, and ease of maintenance, particularly for large numbers of parasites, but will launch and recover its parasites more slowly than if they were in individual bays.

Why is mass so important to determine cost?  It’s not weapons and electronics, which are expensive, is it?  The problem is that for a given vessel performance (delta-V and acceleration), cost will tend to scale with mass.  More mass means bigger fuel tanks, bigger engine, and more structure.  A conventional vessel of the same weapons cost as a carrier and fighters will almost certainly be considerably cheaper overall.  It does not require duplicate engines, duplicate quarters, pressurized fighter bays, extra remass tanks, or any of the other sundries that a fighter squadron would require.  

The actual mechanics of carrier operations is an interesting issue as well.  Numerous different methods for operating small craft off of bigger craft have been proposed, some more viable than others.  For the first two types of carriers, the chosen method of recovery, namely simple docking, is quite obvious.  This is also a potential method for a hangar-type carrier.  In that case, the fighter would probably dock on some form of movable attachment, and then be moved inside.  This attachment could range from a simple extendable arm for a bay-style carrier to a “tractor” for a lock-style carrier.  An alternative is the use of an arm to recover (and launch) fighters.  This draws on the experience with the Candararm on the Space Shuttle and ISS.  The advantage is that it requires less skill on the part of the pilot, and is generally more versatile, as well as potentially simplifying handling.  

One interesting alternative is the use of an actual deck, probably on a lock-style carrier.  This is most useful with aerospace fighters, which have landing gear that might simplify handling and operations.  The biggest problem is that there is no gravity to keep the fighter on the deck, necessitating either some sort of physical hold-down, or the use of magnets to keep the fighter on the deck.  The use of a deck was originally proposed in conjunction with the use of arrestor wires, much like how aircraft are recovered by aircraft carriers.  There are, however, numerous problems with this approach.  The dynamics of recovery are significantly different from those of a naval carrier, mostly due to the fact that the wire must both stop the fighter and hold it on the deck.  Even at the proposed approach speed of somewhere below 1 m/s, there are serious questions about the actual viability of hitting such a small target with a hook without snagging one of the wheels, or bouncing off the deck into space.  More problems would be caused in handling the aircraft on the deck, as the original proposal involved using the wires and a magnetically-attached tractor to move the fighter onto the elevator before strapping it down.  In total, this is not a viable solution to the problem, and would not be seriously considered by any competent aerospace engineer.  A better alternative if a proper deck must be used is based on the Canadian Beartrap system for helicopter recovery.  In this, a cable attaches the fighter to the carrier, and the fighter is simply winched down at low speed.  This is more space-efficient, safer, and easier to implement.  The biggest problem with it, and a serious problem with the wires, is the need to open holes in the heat shield of the fighter.  While the conventional landing gear would indeed need such holes, opening them unnecessarily increases the chances of something going wrong, as does cutting extra holes for the hook or beartrap system.  All in all, it appears that either a probe or an arm system would be the most effective.

The only situation in which a fighter-like vessel would be useful as a major combat craft is during planetary defense.  This scenario plays to the advantage of short-endurance craft (low cost per unit firepower).  However, there is no reason to suppose that conventional fighters will dominate this field.  It is entirely possible that full-sized warships could be constructed with limited endurance specifically for planetary defense missions.  The best analog for these vessels are the coastal defense ships of the first half of the 20th century.  This concept is covered in more detail in Section 6.

The last question is the one that nobody wants to ask.  Do we even need people aboard these things?  As Rick Robinson points out, there are only three missions for space fighters:

  1. Fighting each other, which is not a reason to exist.
  2. Destroying battle stations, which are only vulnerable to fighters for some reason.
  3. “To give prominent roles to young males in their early twenties, so they can display their swagger, coolness, and fast moves on any attractive female of an Interbreedable species.”

To seriously look at this, we first need to establish one principle of spaceflight.  Spacecraft are the ultimate in fly-by-wire controls.  There is no need to have people stuffing photons into the lasers, or laying the coilguns by hand.  There are no stokers throwing uranium into the reactor, and no lookouts in the crow’s nest watching for the enemy.  Almost all roles aboard a ship are those of bridge crew, or maintenance.  Why is this important?  The computer doesn’t care if it gets its orders from onboard control stations or by tight-beam laser from a mothership a light-second away.  This makes automation very easy.  Fighters almost by definition have no maintenance onboard, leaving only the pilot.  But why have a pilot onboard?  He only adds mass, and lots of it.  For a few hours to a day or so, he can probably get by on a ton or two.  After that, habitation demands start to render the “fighter” indistinguishable from a normal ship.  This neglects the added costs of the hab itself.  That mass can be a significant fraction of the total vessel mass, which will either drive up vessel mass and cost for equal performance, or reduce performance.  All of this indicates that any form of fighter, or combat parasite in general, is likely to be unmanned.  

All of the above discusses the usefulness (or lack therof) of fighters to a deep-space fleet engagement, and combat will obviously not be limited to that environment.  Orbital combat is often suggested as an ideal environment for fighters, and on the surface, it has much to recommend it.  The superior acceleration of the fighter allows it to change orbit more quickly than a larger vessel, and the fact that it’s in orbit keeps it close to the carrier.  At the same time, a larger vessel is more vulnerable to surface-based defenses and less maneuverable.  The problem is lack of role.  There is no particular reason that a vessel would need to venture into low orbit for battle.  A laserstar should be able to stay well out of range and fire into low orbit, and the fact that the vessel in question is the attacker allows it to force the faster opponent to give battle.  While some sort of spotting drone might be required, there is no reason for it to be manned or armed.  

The most likely use of manned parasite craft is for carrying people, either for landing or boarding missions.  These are not terribly common during battle, but occur more frequently on patrol missions.  Patrol missions are where parasites are likely to come into their own.  First, patrol is not used to speak of a ship making a loop to check on a colony.  The concept involved is more akin to the Asiatic Stations of the beginning of the 20th century.  The proposed “Patrol Carrier” would be semi-permanently stationed at a potential crisis area, most likely a gas giant, and carry a variety of small craft.  The carrier has the responsibility of dealing with any minor crises in the area, similar to the manner in which carrier battlegroups are deployed by the US today.  The technological imbalance involved makes several things feasible, including lancers.  The lancers operate in a low-threat environment, but might be used regularly.  One problem with lancers that most people miss is the fact that they require frequent use to be cost-effective.  Given the expected rarity of major battles, lancers make little sense for the main fleet.  However, a patrol carrier in an active region would need to make frequent use of them, making them more useful.

An interesting suggestion for such a vessel is to make use of the same drives for both lancers and manned patrol/inspection missions.  This would have advantages in logistics, but might require significant design compromises.  First off, the payload sizes are likely to be somewhat dissimilar.  A manned inspection pod is likely to be somewhere above 10 tons, which is quite large for a typical lancer payload.  It is possible that multiple sizes would be used, but that reduces the logistical advantages.

Another type of fighter that has been suggested is the aerospace fighter.  It, as the name suggests, operates both in the atmosphere and in space.  This is somewhat more plausible, as deep-space craft will almost certainly be incapable of atmospheric flight.  Aerospace fighters can be divided into four categories: dual-role, ground-launch space, space-launch air, and space-drop air.

Dual-role aerospace fighters are designed to fight both in the atmosphere and in space.  This type is actually the classic Hollywood “Space Fighter”, but is extremely unlikely in reality.  Both aircraft and spacecraft suffer significant performance penalties for excess mass.  The requirements of combat in the air and in space are vastly different, which means that the mass penalties pile up quickly.  Add to that the fact that the dual-role has to cross a third environment (atmosphere-to-orbit and back) and the resulting design will be expensive, underperforming, and probably a maintenance nightmare to boot.  There is virtually no commonality between the requirements of the different roles.  The only common weapon would be some form of gun, and a conventional gun is unlikely to be of much use in space due to its low muzzle velocity, while high-velocity guns used in space might well have problems functioning in an atmosphere.  Missiles for the two environments will be completely different (although it might be possible to make a dual-purpose missile at a moderate penalty in size/cost/performance), and the use of lasers on an atmospheric fighter is dubious at best, particularly lasers with sufficient range for space use.  Theoretically, two sets of optics could be used, one for space and the other for atmospheric combat, but mass again dictates against this.  The airframe and atmospheric engine are virtually useless in space, and the fact that it must also have a heat shield and be an SSTO seal the verdict.  The only situation in which one of these might see use would be for overawing primitive natives, particularly those that understand the design tradeoffs involved.

Ground-launched space fighters are entirely different.  As the name suggests, they only fight in space. Besides not having to deal with the mass of the atmospheric combat systems, this has other advantages.  It does not strictly have to be an SSTO, and for very early space combat could be the dominant warcraft.  An example of this would be the Dyna-Soar spaceplane, which was to be launched by a Titan III.  The weapons fit would probably be limited, and on-orbit time minimized, possibly to the point of taking the SpaceShip One approach and not going into orbit at all.  The biggest question for this design is operational.  What advantage does it have over putting another stage on a missile?  Basing is non-trivial unless one accepts the design headaches of VTOL, and there is probably only a small marginal cost savings, easily erased if the opponent destroys the fighter on even a small proportion of missions.  The only advantage the author can think of is the ability to use vacuum-frequency lasers.  Aerodynamic limitations would restrict mirror size, and mass would restrict both that and laser generator mass, which then raises the option of making a bigger ground-based laser instead.

Space-launch air fighters are the opposite of ground-launches.  They have the advantage over dual-roles of not needing space combat capability, and would in fact probably be designed with the minimum possible space operational capability in mind, only barely getting into orbit after a mission, and relying on the carrier for pickup.  This would of course restrict their use when the opponent still has significant orbital defense capability due to the risk to the carriers.  However, the need to have SSTO capability would still place them at a significant disadvantage compared to conventional atmospheric fighters.  The question again is operational.  It has been suggested that this type of fighter could be used to destroy heavily-defended targets during a planetary invasion.  The author is skeptical of that for a variety of reasons.  To begin with, kinetic bombardment should be more than adequate for almost any target.  The author cannot see any situation in which an airstrike is superior to a kinetic bombardment for a given target.  If for some reason, an airstrike is an absolute necessity, cruise missiles are a far better option.  While they might cost more than a fighter’s payload, they are expendable and do not face the design constraints of having to return to orbit.  Secondly, defending against an in-atmosphere assault is quite easy.  The fighters entering the atmosphere are vulnerable to ABM-type defenses (discussed in Section 4).  These weapons will probably have ranges on the order of 1000 km, giving the opponent plenty of warning, or inflicting heavy casualties on the attackers.  Not only that, the fighters are in fact more vulnerable than kinetics because they must be almost at rest at the end of atmospheric entry, instead of trying to maintain speed.  After reaching the lower atmosphere, fighters are vulnerable to the diverse array of anti-air weapons that have been developed, many of which are quite cheap compared to spacecraft and planetary defenses.  Thirdly, the cost of the fighters is likely to be quite high, as is attrition.  None of the points above suggest that losses per mission will be low, but low losses are required for the reusability touted by proponents of this concept to give significant savings.  The added vulnerability of the fighter returning to orbit is another significant problem.  The defender will keep shooting if for no other reason than to prevent it being sent back tomorrow.  The only situation in which this concept would be practical is one of overwhelming technological advantage, which is mostly outside the scope of this paper.

In fairness, it would be a fairly trivial matter to equip a missile-armed space-launched air fighter to serve as a dual-role fighter.  While the missiles would have to be different, only minor changes would be required to the rest of the vessel.  The problem is that the air mission mass would be a significant penalty, and the expense of the fighters, not to mention the general lack of utility of fighters in orbital combat, renders operational use of the concept dubious.

The last concept, space-dropped air fighters, is the most practical.  Instead of launching a fighter capable of returning to orbit, an invading power fits a more-or-less conventional atmospheric fighter with a heat shield and some modifications to allow air-starting, and drops it into the atmosphere in support of an invasion.  The practicality of planetary invasions aside, the main problems are logistical.  There is only a minor performance penalty, and air cover would be quite useful for a beachhead.  Fuel and (to a lesser extent) ordinance are likely to be the killers here.  A nuclear-powered laser-armed fighter, though a bit far-out, would be the most logical way of solving this problem.  Though undoubtedly more expensive than a conventional fighter, the logistical savings might make up for it.  It is even conceivable that such a craft might be capable of SSTO performance, although the penalties for doing so would be significant.  VTOL offers another option, combined with lots of planning to ensure availability of supplies and weapons.  

Another application of this general concept is expendable drone fighters.  In this case, the fighter is written off after use, but avoids the need to return to orbit.  The practicality of this approach depends on how the debate over manned combat aircraft turns out, a subject which lies outside the scope of this paper.

by Byron Coffey

Space Fighters In Fiction


Night Killer II was not a beautiful vessel. Satarii fighters are sleek, polished for planetary re-entry, but a space-based interceptor need not be aesthetic. Had I attempted to land on Lot I would have reached the surface in ashes. Night Killer carried her missiles outside the hull in two cylindrical bundles. Radar sweeps and communication aerials were all exposed. Her drive was set on un-streamlined pylons spaced about her stern while the cockpit glass bulged beyond the curvature of her skin, ostensibly for wider vision with less distortion; the effect on the casual observer was that of a mutated hornet's head. And added to this were bundles of thrusters placed strategically about the hull to aid maneuvering. But regardless of her ungainliness, she remained an effective fighting unit, equal and in some ways more than equal to the darting black war craft of the Satarii.

From COMMON DENOMINATOR by David Lewis (1972)

"Pursuit fighters," I told the Ship. "Easily fast enough to catch one of our boats, if they can do it within their limited range. It's limited because they're the only kind of craft designed for dogfight tactics.

They're just enormous multidirectional motors in a spheroid hull with one pilot in the centre and a few missile tubes scattered between the motor vents. Fast maneuvering in space means killing momentum one way as well as building it up in another, so there's murderous acceleration and deceleration every few seconds, with the motor blasting in all directions, eating up hydrogen and putting incredible stress on the pilots. Even with all the aids — liquid suspension cocoons, special suits, body reinforcement, field-shields, the lot — it takes years of training to stand it for more than a few minutes at a time.

The American call fighter pilots Globetrotters, for some old game where you had to bounce a ball all the time. I've been in a fighter simulator once — I came out black and blue, and they say the real thing's worse.

And that's our hope — that Liang can hold them off, make them maneuver so much they'll have to give up, or just outrun them. That's what he's trying to do now, but he's got to be careful. They mustn't box him in and stop him maneuvering, that'd let them swarm over him like hornets, killing the boat or crippling it till the gunships catch up —"

From RUN TO THE STARS by Michael Scott Rohan (1982)


A one man fighter spacecraft would be a more effective weapon if you removed the fighter pilot, their life support, and their acceleration limits, and then replaced them with a computer. You would basically be converting the fighter spacecraft into a roving missile bus, and removing the logical justification for the existence of fighter spacecraft altogether. But it would be overwhelmingly more effective. Even over and above the fact you can send them on the equivalent of a suicide mission, since nobody living is onboard.

In other words, hard-science stories are far more likely to have drones in lieu of manned fighters.

If you are an author, try not to think about Burnside's Zeroth Law.


A major consideration behind constructing a spacecraft that is often glossed over is the brain of the spacecraft. In most cases, this is a crew module, or a remote control module relaying orders from somewhere.

But before we discuss crews, what about alternatives? Crew provide decision making, the brains of the spacecraft, as well as providing fine grained manipulation of equipment and tools for repairs, maintenance, and so on.

The fine grained manipulation could be accomplished by minidrones, automated repair bots and the like, though handling unexpected situations is rather tricky without a human or artificial intelligence.

Brains of the spacecraft can be replaced with remote control, or with an artificial intelligence.

Remote control can be spoofed or jammed, but there are countermeasures and counter-countermeasure. The main issue with remote control is the speed of light lag. Beyond high orbit of a moon, for example, the speed of light lag is too great for combat. Additionally, long term journeys have much greater potential for unexpected failure.

This means remote control is restricted to drones and missiles, remotely operated and ordered by the nearest capital ship or celestial body.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an interesting solution to the problem of having crews. Crews are expensive to train, take up precious mass and volume, and require power. On top of that, the heat they need to dump out can be a problem if you want to talk Stealth in Space.

However, AI is more than a series of algorithms running on a laptop. Currently, certain problems of space warfare are best solved with algorithms (see Misconceptions about Space Warfare), such as leading targets hundreds of kilometers away moving at multiple kilometers per second.

On the other hand, other classes of problems are best solved with intelligence and creativity. In particular, how to see through enemy deceptions, laying deceptions, handling unexpected scenarios and failures, and so on are all problems that algorithms would fail badly at. Anything creative or anything an algorithm is not explicitly designed for would throw it for a loop.

That means full blown Artificial General Intelligence is needed for actually commanding a military spacecraft if you want to go without crew. Additionally, it needs to be able to very carefully and precisely control minidrones to repair and maintain a spacecraft.

The field of AI today is nowhere near that sort of capability. However, even if it does progress to being usable in military scenarios, it is unclear if it would be less massive, voluminous, or require less power than humans. The first AIs will likely be extremely massive and require huge amounts of power, and it’s not clear how far they could be miniaturized.

Even when feasible AIs are developed, space militaries would be very hesitant to deploy AI-controlled spacecrafts without at least some human oversight or failsafe.


     Basic Assumptions:
     This paper was written using the following assumptions as a baseline.
     1. Physical laws:
     The laws of physics as we know them still apply. This means that spacecraft move in a Newtonian (or Einsteinian, though this realm is outside the scope of the paper) manner, using reaction drives or other physically-plausible systems (such as solar sails) for propulsion. Thermodynamics dictate that all spacecraft must radiate waste heat, and lasers obey diffraction. The only exception is FTL, which will be included in some scenarios.
     2. Technology:
     The technological background is less constrained. If a system is physically plausible, the engineering details can be ignored, or at most subject to only minor scrutiny. The paper will examine a spectrum of technology backgrounds, but will focus on near to mid-future scenarios, where the general performance and operation of the technology can be predicted with at least a little accuracy. A common term used to describe this era is PMF, which stands for Plausible Mid-Future. This term (coined by Rick Robinson) is difficult to define, but it assumes significant improvements in technologies we have today, such as nuclear-electric drives, fading into those we don’t, such as fusion torches.
     3. Environment:
     This paper will attempt to examine a wide variety of environments in which space combat might occur. However, it will make no attempt to examine all of them, and the scenarios described will conform to several principles.
     First, this is a general theory. Any scenario that is dependent on a one-shot tactic or highly specific circumstance will likely not be included, except during the discussion of the beginnings of space warfare, or to demonstrate why it is impractical in the long run. The recommendations made are not optimal for all circumstances, nor is such a thing possible. They are instead what the author believes would be best for a realistic military based on the likely missions and constraints. Picking highly unlikely and specific sets of circumstances under which they are not optimal is best answered with a quote from the author about one such scenario, posting on the Rocketpunk Manifesto topic Space Warfare XIII: “You need a blockade, a hijacking (innocents aboard a vessel trying to break the blockade), and a high-thrust booster on the hijacked ship. Two stretch the limits of plausibility. The third is ridiculous. Claiming that this justifies humans [onboard warships, see Section 2] is like claiming that because warships sometimes run aground, we should install huge external tires on all of them to help get them off.”
     Second, no attempt will be made to include the effects of aliens or alien technology, because to do so would be sheer uninformed speculation.
     Third, the default scenario, unless otherwise noted, is deep-space combat between two fleets. Other scenarios will be addressed, but will be clearly noted as such.

Nomenclature Note: For the following section, use of the word “drone” should be interpreted, unless otherwise noted, to refer to a full-size vessel that is remotely controlled from within a few light-seconds.  It is not a parasite, nor is it autonomous.  The author is not responsible for his actions if anyone attempts a rebuttal while ignoring the contents of this note.

Much debate has occurred over the subject of unmanned space warcraft, and their advantages and disadvantages vis a vis manned vessels.  While, as in all of these debates, it is sensitive to tech assumptions, analysis of the relative merits makes a very strong case for having the primary battle constellation composed of drones.

Most of the reasons raised for using manned spacecraft over drones break down into three categories: decision-making, maintenance, and flexibility.

Decision-making is based upon the theory that light lag is a significant factor in the effectiveness of a drone, and that putting humans onboard will therefore increase combat effectiveness significantly.  This might be true if the controller is far away, but for the scenario being described here, where the control ship is within a few light-seconds, it is entirely false.  This is because most events in space combat occur over timescales that are entirely different from those upon which human reaction times and light lag work.  Tasks such as kinetic defense will be automated, whether or not the vessel is manned.  Exchanges of long-range laser fire, on the other hand, will occur over much longer timescales then humans react at, while point-blank laser battles will be over in incredibly short times.  Particularly in deep-space combat, much of the decision-making can be executed by computers, subject to human-set rules, faster and just as effectively as if the humans themselves were doing so.  

Maintenance is the issue that is most open for debate.  Online, the divide occurs mostly based on past experience.  Those who have naval service almost always argue that it is impossible to remove humans from this task, while those who do not have such service believe it is.  If as an author, one desired humans onboard ships to fulfill Burnside’s Zeroeth Law (Science fiction fans relate more to human beings than to silicon chips) then maintenance is probably the best reason to give for the presence of humans.

That said, the author believes it is possible to overcome the issue with proper engineering.  Modern naval practice is not necessarily indicative of the limits of technology.  Warships have large crews for damage-control purposes (see below), and there is no particular reason to automate equipment when a large pool of labor is available.  Merchant practice is more relevant, and modern merchant ships have very small crews and low-maintenance equipment.  Spacecraft designers go even farther, with 10 to 15-year lifetimes before failure not uncommon.  During cruise, most of the ship’s systems are not going to be operational.  Those that are include the reactor and drive, upon which all maintenance will be conducted robotically anyway, the thruster system, which is unlikely to require much in the way of maintenance, and the computer systems, which are even less likely to require regular maintenance.  Most of the in-flight maintenance effort aboard a crewed ship will be devoted to the life support.  For those occasions when repairs are necessary aboard a drone, a crew from the tender can transfer over and conduct them.  The drone would be designed with minimal pressurized facilities for exactly that kind of repair.  Depending on the failure rates, there would come a point at which it makes sense for a crew to be permanently stationed aboard.  If the vessel requires an average of 80 man-hours a day, then a crew begins to be viable.  However, that is likely to be a very large ship, at which point the small crew necessary is almost an afterthought.

One thing that must be kept in mind when discussing this is that most thinking on this issue is entirely binary, as influenced by the current situation.  Spacecraft are either assumed to be continuously manned when in use, or to operate with no human assistance whatsoever.  While this is generally the case today, there are exceptions, most notably the Hubble Space Telescope.  The term used to describe such things today is On-Orbit Servicing, and it is a topic that is being closely studied.  

Flexibility really amounts to damage control.  The common use of damage control, though, rests upon a misconception about the nature of that task.  Damage control is not there to put the ship back together after it gets blown apart. That is the job of the shipyard. The damage control crews are there to make sure it gets to the shipyard. (This is not to say that damage control crews never fix anything. Just that they don't do what most SF authors seem to think.) Spaceships don't sink or catch fire. Almost all damage will come from direct hits and the immediate aftereffects, so there is no need for an onboard damage control team.  For more information on the mechanisms of damage in spacecraft, see Section 10.

There might be a small amount that humans can do in the way of damage control, but not all that much. "Humans can keep working when the computers fail" is another red herring. Humans will be giving orders to the computers. If the computers go down, it doesn't matter if the humans are still alive.  They might be able to bring the computers back online, but if the computer system is properly designed, the ship will have to be virtually destroyed before it goes down.  Humans, on the other hand, cannot be distributed throughout the ship in a redundant manner.  In fact, a drone is likely to be capable of continuing to operate with considerably more systems damage than is a manned vessel.

Some commentators on space warfare have imbued humans with a near-mystical and ill-described power to make decisions and do things better than a computer.  They always fail to mention exactly what said things are, and ignore the fact that the decision lag for drones as described here is actually quite minimal, as explained above.  Despite issuing many challenges to advocates of manned space warcraft, the author has never received a single concrete example of this ability that couldn’t be easily picked apart.  This idea has likely grown, as has much else, out of confusion between space flight and traditional air/naval combat.  The author does not wish to become involved in the debate over the relative merits of manned and unmanned aerial combat vehicles, but this seems to be of a type with the claims of the advantage to a man in the cockpit, but the grounds for it are far less firm.

If all else is equal, then a ship with a human crew will likely beat a remote-controlled one, although the vulnerability of the crew to hostile fire should not be underestimated. However, this only applies to the almost preposterous case of two identical ships, each designed for human crew, with one under remote control instead.

However, all else would not be equal in any realistic scenario.  Humans bring large penalties to the table.  The biggest of all is simply mass.  The amount required depends on the duration, ranging from somewhere around a ton per man for a few hours, to an estimated five tons per man for a long-term mission.  For a Plausible Mid-Future (PMF) vessel, the mass penalty of the crew would be highly significant, easily reaching a third of payload mass (weapons, reactors, drives, sensors, etc.) for a typical ‘naval’ crew.  This either significantly hinders the performance of the vessel in question, or drives up the price as bigger power systems, drives, and tankage are required to reach the desired level of performance.

An obvious suggestion is to go with a smaller crew.  If only one person is required to maintain the vessel, why not put him aboard alone?

The simplest reason is human factors.  There are very few people who could stand a six-month tour with no human contact without going insane.  Also, assuming that the single person in question also functions as command crew, the ship has sharply limited endurance at battle stations.  Naval experience has shown that efficiency declines sharply after more than six hours on watch, to say nothing of actual combat.  For a vessel capable of long-term independent operations, the minimum crew is probably somewhere between 16 and 30.  This includes multiple watches of officers, sensor operators, and helmsmen, technicians, and support staff.  While it would be entirely possible to make a vessel with a human crew that is not capable of independent operations, said vessel would sacrifice much of the operational flexibility touted by advocates of manned vessels.  A good example of this is the Russian Project 705 (Alfa-class) submarine, which was initially planned with a crew of 13 officers and one cook, and was eventually placed in service with a crew of 31.  Some of this growth is due to the primitive state of Soviet automation technology, but it shows that these numbers are somewhere in the ballpark for the minimum crew of a warship.  The Project 705 was designed as an interceptor submarine, kept in port until it was needed, and then sent towards the target, so the crew was not sized for long-term operations.  

A drone and tender model would allow significant reductions in the overall personnel requirements of the constellation.  One might point out that the same decisions would have to be made regardless of the location of the crew.  This is entirely true, but the actual number of decisions required to fight a laserstars (combat spacecraft built around a large laser weapon) is quite small.  Facing, thrust, and assigning targets are all that is required.  These decisions can easily be made by one or two men.  Most of the other crew is required due to the need for independent operations (such as sensor operators or second and third watches) or serves as support staff for the crew.  The marginal crew required for each drone is probably between four and six people, less than half of that required by the manned laserstar.

Large crews hold costs beyond the obvious.  Particularly for a space colony, technologically adept humans might be at a premium.  Any reduction in requirements to put said humans in dangerous jobs will be welcome, as, for that matter, would be a reduction in the number of people in the fleet in general.  At the same time, the reduction in the total number of people in harm’s way, and centralization of said people in a few ships, could reduce the human cost of war significantly.  As explained below, it is quite difficult to destroy a properly-used command ship.  It is entirely possible that if a command ship were to be trapped, it would surrender, and that such surrenders would be taken as a matter of course.  In such a scenario, human casualties from space battles would be almost unheard of.

It has been argued that a war with no human risk is inherently less moral, and the lack of casualties would increase the incentive to go to war, and that drones should thus be avoided.  The technical problem with this argument is that it is entirely based on wishful thinking, regardless of one’s moral position on the issue.  To quote Milo, posting in the Rocketpunk Manifesto thread The Last Battleship: “You want warfare (or "predation") to always require putting humans at risk, because that makes war more moral by giving people an extra incentive to avoid it. However, that does not mean that war (or "predation") will always require putting humans at risk. If the technology turns out such that this isn't necessary then, well, tough luck. The laws of physics don't exist to support your moral notions.”

The logistical costs of crews should not be underestimated either.  Supply rates will be a few kg/day/person.  The cost of shipping several tons per year for each crewmember in the fleet will likely be significant, particularly if the fleet is deployed far from home.

Another factor that pushes towards centralization of the humans in the constellation onto a few command ships is the strong economies of scale in crew quarters for a given level of comfort.  Things like exercise equipment and laundry facilities have the same mass for forty people as they do for one person.  While those amenities could be skipped for a single person, quality of life would drop dramatically, compounding the psychological problems mentioned above.

Two more criticisms are usually raised at this point.  First, the vulnerability of drones to hacking and electronic warfare.  Second, the vulnerability of a centralized command ship to a decapitating strike.

The difficulties of creating a reliable command net for the drones are highly overstated.  First, the drones will be using classified custom software, not the latest version of Microsoft Windows.  That alone will make seizing control from the outside much more difficult, although the enemy acquiring a copy of the code through espionage cannot be ruled out, and the possibility should be kept in mind by any user of drones.  In this respect, drones in space are no different than drones used by the military today.

Second, the communication system will be using the best encryptions available.  Cracking high-level modern cryptosystems generally takes lots of supercomputer time, far more then would be available in battle.  The keys would be changed between battles, which would render post-battle cryptography irrelevant.

Third, the communication system would be based on tight-beam lasers, with the drone programmed to automatically reject any signals that do not come from a vessel that was designated as a friendly before battle.  Those same lasers protect against jamming.  Each receiver would have a filter which only allows the laser frequency in question to pass.  The exact frequencies used would be highly classified, leaving broad-spectrum jamming as the only option.  Successful interference would require jammers along the line of sight between the drone and all friendly vessels (the entire constellation would be networked, allowing vessels to bounce commands even if the enemy were to block the direct laser) and very high power levels.  To give some idea of the power levels required, modern laser communications with narrowband filters can be used with the sun directly behind the transmitter.  The use of a particle cloud has been suggested (see Section 7 for more details), but this is impractical, as the particles would have to be deployed directly between the two vessels with a velocity that keeps them there for an extended period of time.  Furthermore, the networking mentioned above would easily defeat this approach, as control would shift to another ship with the only consequence being increased light lag.  Small communications drones deployed around the command ship could complicate this type of attack even more.  The lasers also complicate interception and decryption of the enemy’s transmissions.

Despite these, the possibility of drones being hacked cannot be totally ruled out, and cybersecurity will be an important concern for any user of drones.  Various measures can be implemented to prevent or mitigate the damage done by a hacker, including onboard one-time codes and clever hardware design.  While none of these are totally foolproof, they can reduce the chance of compromise to the point where it would probably be considered an acceptable risk.

Another step that could be taken to mitigate the effects of cyberwar is the use of human overseers aboard drones.  While this may sound like a reversion to normal manning, there are several important distinctions.  First, the crew is likely to be one or two people who have the primary responsibility of making sure the drone is not compromised in battle, instead of being concerned with the job of actually fighting the drone.  Second, they are normally carried onboard the tender, and only transferred to the drone for a maximum of a few days at a time.  This allows facilities aboard the drone to be very primitive, and thus low-mass.  If the drone is compromised, the overseer(s) push a button to switch to a backup set of computers which are not connected to the outside world in any way.  They would then take command, receiving orders from the tender through audio circuits which have no connection to the rest of the ship.  This approach sidesteps the operational problems of small crews while maintaining human control when necessary.

The size and presence of these crews would vary depending on the mentality of the operating power.  A single overseer would be effective at stopping hacking, but he also has the power to take control of the drone on a whim.  It is possible that the risk of an overseer turning traitor would be judged greater than the risk of a ship being hacked, in which case either a 2-man rule might be implemented, or the overseer simply not used.  The single-man solution would probably be used by states that have a high regard for honor and a great deal of trust in their personnel, such as Japan.  The US would be more likely to use a 2-man overseer crew, while the Soviet Union might well decide that it trusts computers more than men, and not even bother.

The vulnerability of a properly handled command ship is also highly overstated.  It is entirely feasible to keep the command ship out of range of the enemy without suffering serious light lag.  This is because weapon ranges in PMF scenarios are quite short compared to the size of space.  Lasers will likely have effective ranges measured in tenths of light-seconds at the outside (see Section 7).  If so, it is entirely possible to place the command ship a light-second or so away from the drones, completely out of range of the enemy’s lasers.  Kinetics do not have a specific range, but the large amount of time they would require to reach the command ship is a serious problem.  Launch velocities are quite low, and even velocities at the outer edge of what we expect to be practical are of little use against vessels at light-second ranges.  A projectile moving at 100 km/s, at the very outside of what might be called plausible on a tactical scale, will still take 50 minutes to cross one light-second.  Incorporating sufficient fuel, not to mention sensors, into such a projectile, is a significant challenge.  Even if it is not detected and destroyed before it takes out the command ship, it might well arrive too late to affect the battle.

The chance of an enemy being able to get to closer range with a well-handled command ship is minimal.  It would require them to make a pass through the constellation’s drones at close range, which is a form of mutual suicide.  For that reason alone, vessels will probably make oblique passes to reduce the risk of the enemy throwing stuff out the airlocks and into their path.  This precludes breaking past the enemy to attack his command ship.  The command ship itself will be on a different trajectory, one designed to give it the best chance of survival if the battle should go poorly.

An interesting point raised during discussion of drones is the potential psychological consequences to the drone operators.  Modern drone pilots apparently suffer more psychological problems than do front-line infantrymen.  It is possible that the same could apply to the operators of drones in space.  There are two things that might mitigate this, however.  The first is that, from the point of view of the operator, there is virtually no difference in the setting between being aboard the combat vessel and the command ship.  The drone will be controlled from a very similar interface to that on a manned vessel.  The second is that, particularly in a general war, the target is likely to be unmanned as well.  The exact effect of these factors on the psychological consequences is unknown, but the concept has story potential. However, authors like Grossman suggest that the problems of modern drone operators are not due to the inherent psychological stresses of killing, and are caused by some other mechanism.  Other research suggests that the mechanism in question is the fact that a drone pilot spends more time over the target and has a far better view than the pilot of a conventional aircraft, exposing them more intimately to combat.  It is obvious that such exposure will not occur with drone space warcraft.

Another suggestion made is that the use of drones is likely to result in better decisionmaking on the part of the operators, as their lives are not in immediate danger if things go wrong suddenly.  An example is a vessel approaching a freighter which suddenly sweeps it with its comm laser.  An onboard crew is significantly more likely to react hastily, due to the added stress caused by the danger to themselves.  This could make drones the vehicle of choice for virtually all missions where no face-to-face interaction is required.  Comm lags during orbital inspection-type missions are likely to be minimal, under 1 second round-trip.

All of the above might be rendered moot by political considerations, as can virtually any military decision.  As Rick Robinson put it, “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.”  Do note, however, that the laserstar under discussion was the equivalent of an aircraft carrier today, rare and mostly used for deterrence.  For more common battle laserstars, the same considerations are unlikely to apply.

by Byron Coffey

3D artist Scott Halls has made an amazing website illustrating technical information about Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy. Above are the "Combat Wasps", which are a sort of armed drone. Left to right are the Kinetic Harpoon, Electronic Warfare, Fusion Torpedo, and Particle Beam Cannon Wasps. You can read all the details here.


(ed note: this is about atmospheric aircraft drones, but the same principle can be applied to space drones)

For decades, U.S. military air operations have relied on increasingly capable multi-function manned aircraft to execute critical combat and non-combat missions. Adversaries’ abilities to detect and engage those aircraft from longer ranges have improved over time as well, however, driving up the costs for vehicle design, operation and replacement. An ability to send large numbers of small unmanned air systems (UAS) with coordinated, distributed capabilities could provide U.S. forces with improved operational flexibility at much lower cost than is possible with today’s expensive, all-in-one platforms—especially if those unmanned systems could be retrieved for reuse while airborne. So far, however, the technology to project volleys of low-cost, reusable systems over great distances and retrieve them in mid-air has remained out of reach.

To help make that technology a reality, DARPA has launched the Gremlins program. Named for the imaginary, mischievous imps that became the good luck charms of many British pilots during World War II, the program seeks to show the feasibility of conducting safe, reliable operations involving multiple air-launched, air-recoverable unmanned systems. The program also aims to prove that such systems, or “gremlins,” could provide significant cost advantages over expendable systems, spreading out payload and airframe costs over multiple uses instead of just one.

“Our goal is to conduct a compelling proof-of-concept flight demonstration that could employ intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other modular, non-kinetic payloads in a robust, responsive and affordable manner,” said Dan Patt, DARPA program manager.

The Gremlins program seeks to expand upon DARPA’s Request for Information (RFI) last year, which invited novel concepts for distributed airborne capabilities. It also aims to leverage DARPA’s prior success in developing automated aerial refueling capabilities, as well the Agency’s current efforts to create advanced UAS capture systems for ships.

The program envisions launching groups of gremlins from large aircraft such as bombers or transport aircraft, as well as from fighters and other small, fixed-wing platforms while those planes are out of range of adversary defenses. When the gremlins complete their mission, a C-130 transport aircraft would retrieve them in the air and carry them home, where ground crews would prepare them for their next use within 24 hours.

DARPA plans to focus primarily on the technical challenges associated with safe, reliable aerial launch and recovery of multiple unmanned air vehicles. Additionally, the program will address new operational capabilities and air operations architectures as well as the potential cost advantages.

With an expected lifetime of about 20 uses, Gremlins could fill an advantageous design-and-use space between existing models of missiles and conventional aircraft, Patt said. “We wouldn't be discarding the entire airframe, engine, avionics and payload with every mission, as is done with missiles, but we also wouldn't have to carry the maintainability and operational cost burdens of today's reusable systems, which are meant to stay in service for decades,” he said. Moreover, gremlin systems could be relatively cost-efficient if, as expected, they leverage existing technology and require only modest modifications to current aircraft.

The Gremlins program plans to explore numerous technical areas, including:

  • Launch and recovery techniques, equipment and aircraft integration concepts
  • Low-cost, limited-life airframe designs
  • High-fidelity analysis, precision digital flight control, relative navigation and station keeping

They'll bite through your aileron wires. They'll insert toasting forks in your tyres. That is the tale of the Gremlins.

Imagine a pilot in an expensive fighter jet flying over contested airspace somewhere in the Pacific. A series of blips of appears on the radar: drones staging a coordinated assault. But they’re far out to sea for attack drones — too far, it seems, to make it back to any safe landing spot. How did they get out here?

Like a team of silver-suited circus performers, they encircle the jet in a precise and choreographed dance and begin a series of electromagnetic attacks, jamming the radar and the communications. The jet’s instruments begin to behave strangely. The pilot takes aim but there are too many of them. He’s been swarmed. As quickly as they appear, the drones are gone, vanished into the underbelly of a low-flying bomber that’s now climbing away. With his communications and targeting equipment fried, the pilot must return to base. He’s been effectively neutralized and the culprits are nowhere to be seen.

In what some might regard as a swipe at certain high-priced fighter jets, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, today announced a new program to develop distributed drones that can be recovered in the air via a C-130 transport plane, and then prepped for re-use 24 hours later. They’re calling them Gremlins.

“An ability to send large numbers of small unmanned air systems (UAS) with coordinated, distributed capabilities could provide U.S. forces with improved operational flexibility at much lower cost than is possible with today’s expensive, all-in-one platforms—especially if those unmanned systems could be retrieved for reuse while airborne,” DARPA program manager Dan Pratt said in a statement. “So far, however, the technology to project volleys of low-cost, reusable systems over great distances and retrieve them in mid-air has remained out of reach.”

Hear that expensive, all-in-one platforms? The Gremlins are coming for you.

The agency is looking for some sort of drone system that’s smarter than a missile but cheaper than a jet, good for about 20 uses. “We wouldn’t be discarding the entire airframe, engine, avionics and payload with every mission, as is done with missiles, but we also wouldn’t have to carry the maintainability and operational cost burdens of today’s reusable systems, which are meant to stay in service for decades,” Pratt said.

The term Gremlin refers to a mischievous, technologically-inclined goblin, taken to snipping wires on Royal Air Force, or RAF, planes. It came into popular usage in Britain during World War II, when RAF poets like Hubert Griffith turned the Gremlins into subjects of verse.

When you're seven miles up in the heavens,
(That's a hell of a lonely spot)
And it's fifty degrees below zero
Which isn't exactly hot.
When you're frozen blue like your Spitfire
And you're scared a Mosquito pink,
When you're thousands of miles from nowhere
And there's nothing below but the drink
It's then you will see the Gremlins,
Green and gamboge and gold,
Male and female and neuter
Gremlins both young and old.
It's no good trying to dodge them,
The lessons you learned on the Link
Won't help you evade a Gremlin,
Though you boost and you dive and you fink.
White ones will wiggle your wingtips,
Male ones will muddle your maps,
Green ones will guzzle your Glycol,
Females will flutter your flaps.
Pink ones will perch on your perspex,
And dance pirouettes on your prop;
There's a spherical, middle-aged Gremlin
who'll spin on your stick like a top.
They'll freeze up your camera shutters,
They'll bite through your aileron wires,
They'll bend and they'll break and they'll batter,
They'll insert toasting forks in your tyres.
That is the tale of the Gremlins,
Told by the P.R.U.,
(P)retty (R)uddy (U)nlikely to many
But fact, none the less, to the few."

Legendary author and 80 Squadron RAF pilot Roald Dahl is credited with bringing the concept to the United States, in the form of a children’s book, The Gremlins, published in 1943.

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