This section is for attacking a planet from orbit. The next section is for attacking a planet by ground assault.
After all the interplanetary battles are over, and the defender's space fleets have been reduced to ionized plasma or fled in panic, the pendultimate stage is entered. The defenders orbital and planetary fortresses have to be neutralized, or at least neutralized enough so that ground troops can be inserted to set up a beachhead.
But please understand that bombing a planet back into the stone age is something that makes more sense in simplistic space operas, not in realpolitik.
Ken does have a good point. The motivation of the invaders puts limits on the allowed invasion techniques. If the invaders want slaves, it is counterproductive to kill every living thing on the defending planet. If the invaders want real estate, it is counterproductive to dust the planet with enough radioactive material to render it uninhabitable for the next ten thousand years. And so on.
The lack of a logical reason for invasion is up to the author to devise a solution for. Some of the motivational questions can be side-stepped by assuming the invasion is not an alien one, but instead a hypothetical human interstellar empire attempting to invade a human colony world. The motivation of the empire can be something stupidly human like "gotta collect 'em all!". This is actually the motivation in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's The Mote In God's Eye. In that novel, there once was a loosely allied human interstellar empire that collapsed in a bloody secession war. The new imperium rose from the ashes, grimly determined that such wars will not happen ever again, and all human worlds must be incorporated into the empire with no exceptions.
If one must have aliens invading because they want some crucial resource, I like to use an analogy. Ordinary resources are not worth it. I don't care what you saw in the TV show V, Markus Baur points out that aliens invading Terra to steal our water makes about as much sense as Eskimos invading Central America to steal their ice. The same goes for gold, uranium, or our women. But what if we hand-wave an unknown resource, something that our scientists have not even discovered yet? (Wow, Zzazel! Their planet is incredibly rich in polka-dotted quarks!)
Then us poor humans will find ourselves in the same spot as a primitive African tribe who does not understand why these Western stranger want to bulldoze their village in order to dig up the dirt. The westerners tell the tribesmen that the dirt is called "Coltain", from which they can extract something called "Tantalum", which is absolutely vital for something called a "Cell Phone." But to the tribesmen, it looks just like the same dirt that is everywhere else, and more specifically, in places that are not under their beloved village. This causes hard feelings, but unfortunately the westerners have something else called "automatic rifles".
For an in-depth look at the topic, go to the indispensable Future War Stories.
If the concept of a huge cannon indirectly attacking targets over the horizon is "artillery", the concept of attacking planetary ground targets from orbit is "ortillery." (term was invented by Game Designer's Workshop)
Two people throwing rocks at each other is pretty much a fair fight. If one person is on a hill, they have an advantage. And if one person is at the bottom of a well, that's not fair at all. By analogy, it is beyond unfair if one person is in orbit. The lucky one in orbit does not need to use bullets, missiles or nuclear weapons; a nice selection of rocks and boulders will do. Nudge a rock hard enough to de-orbit it, and it will strike with most of the kinetic energy difference between orbit and the ground. The poor slob on the ground, however, has to use huge rockets just to boost weapons up to the level of orbital person. This is called the gravity gauge.
Please note that "unfair" does NOT mean "impossible".
While it is possible to target the enemy even if the only friendly observers are in orbit, accuracy will be much improved if there is a human or robot on the ground close to the target giving target coordinates. These are called artillery observers, spotters, forward observer, fire support specialist, or fister. Though I suppose in this case they will be called ortillery observers instead.
Of course ortillery shares with artillery the ever-present danger of "friendly fire. If your army units are on the planet battling enemy units, and you have ortillery assets in orbit, often you will need to call down ortillery strikes on hostile positions. But there are many assorted failure modes that will result in the strike hitting your units instead. Weapon malfunctions, ortillery operator mistakes, inaccurate target coordinates, there are many opportunities for things to go badly wrong.
Orbiting a string of nuclear weapons aimed at Earth would be an easy way of conquering the world. Or a Lunar missile base. This was why it was outlawed in the SALT II treaty of 1979. Robert Heinlein wrote about this in his novel Space Cadet and the short story "The Long Watch".
Or maybe it wasn't such a good idea in the first place. The blog Tales Of Future Past points out that neither the Moon nor Earth orbital bases turned out to offer any sort of advantage over surface-based missiles. Lunar bases are easy to target, require missiles with huge amounts of delta-V to deliver the nuclear weapon to the target on Earth, and will take days of transit time. Orbital bombs have utterly predictable orbits and can be seen by everybody (unlike ground based missiles), can only be sent to their target at infrequent intervals (unlike ground based missiles), and will require a deorbiting rocket with pretty much the same delta-V as a ground base missile. So what is the advantage? Please note that not all of these drawbacks apply to enemy spacecraft laying siege to Terra.
Attacking spacecraft dropping nuclear weapons would be somewhat like the situation faced by nations threatened by enemy intercontinental ballistic missiles except that in this case the weapons have no boost phase. The discredited Strategic Defense Initiative had all sorts of ideas of how to deal with the problem. For our purposes, ignore any solution that depends upon the boost phase (since there isn't any), space-based programs are "orbital fortresses", and ground-based programs are "planetary fortresses".
Ah, Luke Campbell points out that I'm wrong, there will be a boost phase.
Back before he was a science fiction author, Dr. Jerry Pournelle was working in operations research at Boeing. There he came up with the concept for Project Thor, aka "Rods from God". The USAF calls them "hypervelocity rod bundles.
(so it is not true that Project Thor was "invented by a science fiction writer", Dr. Pournelle had not yet started his writing career when he created it)
The weapons are rods of tungsten, ranging in size from that of a crowbar to that of a telephone pole (about 12 meters for all you young whipper snappers who have never seen a land-line phone). Each one has a small computer in the rear and control fins on the nose, i.e., they are dirt cheap and can be mass produced. Boost them into orbit, and each one can be deorbited to strike a specific target anywhere on Earth in a few minutes, striking it at about 3 to 9 kilometers per second. This is equal to 1 to 3 Ricks worth of damage, which means the unfortunate target will be on the receiving end of the equivalent of 3 kilograms of TNT for each kilogram of tungsten rod from god. Not bad for a crowbar. Especially since they are not covered under the SALT II treaty.
A 2003 USAF report describes rods that are 6.1 m × 0.3 m tungsten cylinder The report says that while orbital velocity is 9 kilometers pre second, the design under consideration would have slowed down to about 3 kilometers per second by the time it hit the target. The report estimates that the rod will impact with a force of 11.5 tons of TNT. The back of my envelope says that a cylinder that size composed of pure tungsten will have a mass of 8.3 metric tons, but the figures in the USAF report imply that the rod has a mass of 8.9 metric tons. Which is close enough for government work.
11.5 tons of TNT per rod is pretty pathetic, you might as well use a conventional bomb. This is because 3 kilometers per second is 1 Rick, which means each kilogram of rod is equal to one kilogram of TNT, so why not just drop TNT from a conventional bomber?
An article in Popular Science breathlessly suggests that the rods will strike the target at 11 kilometers per second. This is 13.4 Ricks, which will give the rod an impact of 120 metric tons of TNT. That's more like it, now we are getting into tactical nuclear weapons levels of damage. But the article does not explain how the rod is suppose to start at 9 km/s and strike at 11 km/s after being slowed by atmospheric friction. Popular Science left that as an exercise for the reader. Or as proof of questionable research.
The rod is admittedly quite difficult for the enemy to defend against. It is moving like a bat out of hell, er, ah, has a very high closing velocity, and it has a tiny radar cross section.
The trouble is, the "plasma sheath" created by atmospheric re-entry prevents remote control of the rod. Radio cannot pass through the plasma, so the bar has to be inertially guided. Or not. A Russian scientist thinks they have found the key to allowing radio signals to pass through the plasma sheath. A related problem is that anything on the rod that is not made of tungsten is going to want to burn up in re-entry. Things like the guidance computer, sensors, and hypothetical remote control radio.
The main drawback to Project Thor is the prohibitive cost of boosting the rods into their patrol orbits. Of course if you have a space-faring civilization, the rods can be manufactured already in orbit, thus eliminating the boost cost. Which means any planetary nation without a presence in space is going to be at a severe disadvantage, but that is always true.
Another problem is maintaining the rods in orbit. Things are going to break down, so you either have to have a budget to boost replacements or have assets in orbit that can do maintenance.
Finally, no, this is not the same as the Magnetic Accelerator Cannon from the Halo games. That is a coil gun, Project Thor is more like a weaponized version of dropping a penny from the top of the Empire State building.
Predictably, some maniac made a "Rods from God" mod for the game Kerbal Space Program.
As mentioned in the Space War section, nuclear weapons behave quite differently in airless space (and airless planets) than they do in a planetary atmosphere.
On a planet with an atmosphere the x-rays are absorbed by the atmosphere and become thermal radiation and atmospheric blast. The duration of thermal pulse increases with yield from about 1 second for 10 kilotons to 10 seconds for 1 megaton.
In space it is just x-rays and neutrons.
|Percentage of total energy|
|Blast||40% to 50%|
|Thermal Radiation||30% to 50%|
(unless this is a neutron bomb)
|5% to 10%|
In the tables below the range between the detonation point and the affected target is called the "slant range." If the weapon detonates on the ground this is just the ground distance between the target and the explosion. However, nuclear weapons are commonly detonated at some height above the ground to increase their effect. Given the ground range and the detonation height, the slant range can be calculated by using the Pythagorean theorem:
Thermal Radiation Graph
- Explosion Yield is the yield of the nuclear weapon in kilotons. 1,000 kilotons = 1 megaton
- Slant Range is the distance between the target and the detonation point of the weapon, in miles.
- Curves are thermal flux in calories per square centimeters.
The vertical red line is for 1 megaton (1,000 kilotons). Remember these have a pulse duration of 10 seconds.
- 5 to 6 cal/cm2 for 10 seconds will cause second degree burns. (green line)
- 8 to 10 cal/cm2 for 10 seconds will cause third degree burns. (blue line)
- 20 to 25 cal/cm2 for 10 seconds will ignite clothing. (violet line)
The equation is:
Q ≈ 3000 * ( ƒ * τ * Y / D2 )
Q = thermal flux (cal/cm2)
ƒ = thermal energy fraction ( from 0.35 to 0.40 for air bursts, 0.18 for ground bursts)
τ = atmospheric transmission factor (0.6 to 0.7 at 5 miles, 0.05 to 0.1 at 40 miles. Even lower if foggy)
Y = nuclear weapon yield (megatons). Please note the graph above uses kilotons, not megatons
D = slant range (miles)
|Effects||Explosive yield / detonation height|
|1 kt / 200 m||20 kt / 540 m||1 Mt / 2.0 km||20 Mt / 5.4 km|
|Thermal radiation—ground range (km)|
|Third degree burns||0.6||2.5||12||38|
|Second degree burns||0.8||3.2||15||44|
|First degree burns||1.1||4.2||19||53|
A bit less than half the nuclear weapon's energy becomes atmospheric blast. This has two effects: a sharp increase in atmospheric pressure ("overpressure"), and incredibly strong winds. The overpressure crushes objects and collapses buildings. The wind turns lightweight objects into dangerous projectiles.
In the complicated equations for figuring the area that suffers from a given overpressure, the area is proportional to Y2/3 (where Y is the weapon's yield). This is called the "equivalent megatonnage" of a nuclear weapon. Why do we care? The point is that the combined equivalent megatonnage of several low-yield weapons is greater than that of a single weapon with the same total yield. In other words five warheads (2 megatons each) will do more damage to a city than a single warhead (10 megatons).
|20 psi||Heavily built concrete buildings are severely damaged or demolished.|
|10 psi||Reinforced concrete buildings are severely damaged or demolished.|
Small wood and brick residences destroyed.
Most people are killed.
|5 psi||Unreinforced brick and wood houses destroyed.|
Heavier construction severely damaged.
Injuries are universal, fatalities are widespread.
|3 psi||Residential structures collapse.|
Serious injuries are common, fatalities may occur.
|1 psi||Light damage to commercial structures|
Moderate damage to residences.
Window glass shatters
Light injuries from fragments occur.
Note that the same source says you need 40 psi before lethal effects are noted on people, which contradicts the 10 psi entry above. I don't know which to believe.
|Peak overpressure||Maximum Wind Velocity|
|50 psi||934 mph|
|20 psi||502 mph|
|10 psi||294 mph|
|5 psi||163 mph|
|2 psi||70 mph|
The x-axis is the slant range in feet, divided by the weapon yield in megatons rasied to the 1/3 power. Trace upward to intersect the curve, then to the left to find the peak overpressure in PSI.
The curve can be traced approximately by the formula:
z = Y1/3 / D
p = (22.4 * z3) + (15.8 * z3/2)
z = scaled yield (megatons1/3/mile)
Y = weapon yield (megatons)
D = slant distance (miles)
p = overpressure (lb/in2 or PSI)
|Effects||Explosive yield / detonation height|
|1 kt / 200 m||20 kt / 540 m||1 Mt / 2.0 km||20 Mt / 5.4 km|
|Blast—ground range (km)|
|Urban areas completely levelled|
(20 psi or 140 kPa)
|Destruction of most civilian buildings|
(5 psi or 34 kPa)
|Moderate damage to civilian buildings|
(1 psi or 6.9 kPa)
|Railway cars thrown from tracks and crushed|
(values for other than 20 kt are extrapolated
using the cube-root scaling)
Things are more complicated when the detonation point is some distance above ground level.
The primary shock wave expands outward as a sphere from the weapon detonation point. If this is not a ground-burst, at some point the sphere will expand until it hits the ground. The shock wave is reflected upward from the ground. Since the shocked region inside the sphere is hotter and denser than the rest of the atmosphere, the reflected shock wave travels faster than the primary shock wave. For certain geometries, the reflected shock wave catches up with the primary shock wave and the two shock fronts merge. This is called the Mach Stem. The overpressure at the stem is typically twice that of the primary shock wave.
The area the Mach stem passes over is called the Mach reflection region. The area from ground zero to the start of the Mach reflection region is called the Regular reflection region. It only suffers from the passage of two separate shock waves with the standard overpressure. The Mach reflection region suffers the double overpressure caused by the Mach stem.
The chart below plots the regular reflection region and Mach reflection region, given the detonation distance from the ground. To use, you divide the burst height and the distance from ground zero by weapon kilotons raised to the 1/3 power.
For instance, if the weapon had a yield of 1,000 kilotons (1 megaton) and the weapon burst 2,000 feet above ground level, 2000 / (10001/3)
Scaled Height of Burst = burstHeight / yield1/3
Scaled Height of Burst = 2000 / 10001/3
Scaled Height of Burst = 2000 / 10
Scaled Height of Burst = 200
so on the plot for the vertical scale you would use the tick-mark at 200. By the same token, for the horizontal scale, the tick mark for 800 corresponds to 800 * 10 = 8,000 feet (where 10 = 10001/3).
The dotted line shows where the regular reflection region stops and the Mach reflection region begins.
The bulges in the overpressure curves show where you can optimize the height of burst for a given overpressure. For instance, look at the 15 lb/in2 curve. Find the point on the curve that gets the farthest to the right. Trace a line horizontally to the vertical scale and you'll see this happens at a scaled height of burst of 650 feet. For a 1,000 kiloton weapon this is a burst height of 6,500 feet.
In other words, a weapon bursting at 650 scaled feet of altitude will throw 15 PSI of overpressure out to 1,200 scaled feet from ground zero. But a weapon doing a ground burst with 0 scaled feet of altitude will only throw 15 PSI out to 800 scaled feet from ground zero.
|Effects||Explosive yield / detonation height|
|1 kt / 200 m||20 kt / 540 m||1 Mt / 2.0 km||20 Mt / 5.4 km|
|Effects of instant nuclear radiation—slant range (km)|
|Lethal total dose (neutrons and gamma rays)||0.8||1.4||2.3||4.7|
|Total dose for acute radiation syndrome||1.2||1.8||2.9||5.4|
This is the radioactive fallout, radioactive dust that falls from the sky in a long plume extending downwind.
As a general rule, the fallout is dangerous for about one to six months after the bomb blast.
Unless it was a salted bomb, then you are probabably looking at a hundred years or so. A salted bomb whose fallout emitted a dosage of 10 sieverts per hour would need about 25 half-lives to decay to safe levels (i.e., to a dosage below natural background radiation). For example, a salted bomb producing Cobalt-60 would have fallout with a half life of 5.2714 years. 25 half-lives would be 131.785 years. Tantalum-182 has a half-life of only 114.4 days, it would be safe in about 7.8 years.
Air bursts tend to produce lesser amounts of fallout, but which travel at high altitudes and can scatter itself all over the entire planet.
Ground bursts tend to produce more severe levels of fallout, but which only travel relatively short distances from the detonation site (several hundred kilometers). The Castle Bravo 15 megaton nuclear test made a plume about 500 kilometers downwind with a maximum width of 100 kilometers.
Water surface bursts are sort of in-between.
The Wikipedia article stated that the crater of a ground burst would have fallout emitting radiation at a dosage rate of 30 grays per hour, but failed to specify the yield of the weapon.
Details are classified but the best I've found is the theoretical maximum for a neutron bomb is 80% of the energy is neutrons and 20% x-rays. For conventional nuclear weapons it is 80% soft X-rays, 10% gamma rays, 10% neutrons.
This is done by encasing the weapon in a jacket composed of some element that will easily be transmuted into a radioactive isotope by the weapon's neutron flux. Proposed elements for the jacket include cobalt-59, gold-198, tantalum-182, zinc-65, and sodium-24.
A conventional nuclear weapon typically generates fallout that will decay to safe levels in one to six months. A cobalt bomb whose fallout caused a dose rate of 10 sieverts per hour would take about 130 years (25 half-lives) to decay to safe levels (safe levels being defined as "less than natural background radiation").
The name "salted" comes from the expression "sowing the earth with salt".
A dirty bomb might spread a bit of mildly radioactive dust over a building or two.
A salted bomb will spread highly radioactive fallout across half a continent.
The linked Wikipedia article has an overview of the convoluted details, including a useful quote from a 2010 Oak Ridge National Laboratory report on common EMP misconceptions.
This is an old favorite among fans of nuclear weapons, the one everybody shakes their head over and says WHAT THE FLAMING FRACK WERE THEY THINKING??!? You often see it under such names as Project Pluto, Flying Chernobyl, S.L.A.M., The Flying Crowbar, Nightmare Missile, Flying Death Factory, and Armageddon Cruise Missile From Hell.
The original idea was a 1955 version of what we now call a cruise missile. Seeing that this was going to be a part of mutually assured destruction, perhaps even a possible replacement for the Strategic Air Command, the designers wanted SLAM to be long ranged. Very long ranged. Circle-The-Globe-Four-And-A-Half-Times long ranged.
Chemical fuel couldn't possibly fill the bill, the only thing with enough power was nuclear energy. Alas, cruise missiles share the same problem that aircraft and spacecraft have with atomic drives. The three vehicles all suffer from the Every Gram Counts limit so they want to be as light as possible. But anti-radiation shields are the opposite: the heavier the better. If the crew cabin was located far enough away from the reactor, you might be able to get away with using an anti-radiation shadow shield light enough so that the aircraft could actually get off the ground. It is a pity that anybody on the ground the aircraft flew over would be bathed in deadly radiation.
Then some cold-hearted genius in the research department saw how to turn the liability into an asset.
Understand that the SLAM reactor, like all reactors, are not very radioactive. Until the first time they are powered up, then they will emit torrents of radioactive death for centuries.
If the nation goes to DEFCON 1 you launch the SLAM using non-radioactive chemical rockets. These get the nightmare missile out to sea far enough so that no (United States) person was endangered. Then the totally unshielded reactor was powered up. Since the monster had a range of 182,000 km (x4.5 the circumference of Terra) it wasn't going to run out of fuel anytime soon. Especially since it didn't have to lug around a heavy radiation shield. It could fly in a circular holding pattern until nuclear war was initiated or called off, killing nobody with radiation except sea life and any fishermen unfortunate to be underneath.
Somebody figured that radiation in the defense of liberty is no vice. Somebody on Twitter remarked: "So it does fly without core containment, that is some serious Reaver sh*t."
If the war was called off, the SLAM(s) would abort by quenching their reactors and ditching into the (hopefully) deep ocean. Anybody with bright ideas about salvaging US weapons from the sunken SLAMs will have to deal with the radiation from its neutron-activated structure. The SLAM designers might deliberately incorporate cobalt or something similar into the structure as a rude surprise.
But if war is declared, the SLAMs will drop to a stealth wave-hugging altitude and proceed at supersonic velocity toward their designated Soviet targets, with a weapons loadout of 1 to 42 thermonuclear bombs (1@26 megatons, 42@5 kilotons each). 25 megatons is considered to be a "city-killer", though a single bomb that big tends to be a waste of nuclear energy. Since there are no skyscrapers a mile in the air or a mile underground, the most of the spherical nuclear fireball is wasted. It is more efficient to use a pattern of kiloton devices with a fireball about one skyscraper-height in radius.
The SLAM will cross the ocean at an altitude of 35,000 feet, but when it approached the Soviet air detection system it would drop below "radar detection altitude". One source said that was 500 to 1,000 feet, another said 50 feet.
Traveling at Mach 3 at treetop level (15 meters or 50 feet) means that any person standing underneath will be instantly killed by the sonic shockwave alone (they will also be made deaf by the 150 dB sound and given cancer, but these things matter not to a dead person). The thing is also white-hot so there will be a bit of thermal pulse as well, to add insult to injury.
The same cold-hearted genius also figured that after a given SLAM had dropped all its H-bombs it could still do damage by leisurely flying a criss-cross pattern over Soviet territory, irradiating the croplands and people with deadly radiation from the totally unshielded reactor (sowing the ground with salt, radioactive-style). This also meant that the SLAM designers didn't have to worry about preventing radioactive fission fragments from escaping out the exhaust, since it would give you bonus enemy fatalities out of each gram of fission fuel. Which means they didn't bother putting any cladding on the nuclear fuel elements, they are in direct contact with the air.
And if the Soviets managed to shoot down a SLAM, it would auger into the ground at Mach 3, pulverizing the entire reactor and spreading a plume of radioactive fallout rendering the impact region uninhabitable for about the next ten-thousand years. If they fail to shoot it down, it is programmed to crash anyway. Only after it has finished its sterilization criss-cross. The hot reactor elements will mix with the white hot vaporized forward vehicle structure to create a very fine smoke of radioactive uranium oxides. That is, of a fineness to extend the length of the fallout plume. As Scott Lowther puts it: "It'd make Chernobyl look like Three Mile Island."
The mechanical designer faces a challenge. The pressure drop in the direction of the air stream creates a force of several hundreds of thousands of kilograms trying to suck the reactor out the nozzle, which is a bad thing. The materials available to make supporting structures are limited in volume and nature because of neutronic requirements (too much structural metal and the reactor can go critical while it is being assembled) and high temperatures (standard metals will melt).
|Payload compartment dia (in)||55||58|
|Payload compartment len (in)||213||300|
|Total Vehicle Length (ft)||84||88|
|Hot reactor dia (in)||57||46|
|Hot day design Mach|
1,000 ft above sea level
|Hot day design Mach|
30,000 ft above sea level
|Reactor wall temp (°F)||25,000||3,000|
|Max number of warheads||18-24||26|
|Payload weight (lb)||14,000||15,000|
|Missile weight (lb)||55,800||60,779|
|Booster weight (lb)||61,380||67,465|
|Expected missile range (nm)|
1,000 ft above sea level
|Expected missile range (nm)|
30,000 ft above sea level
It is unclear if the expected range is limited by the nuclear fuel elements becoming clogged with neutron poisons, or because the ceramic reactor core crumbled. If the former, there are modern ways around that problem.
I was curious about the radiation dose the SLAM would inflict upon a person on the ground. It was traveling at 50 feet (15 meters) above the ground, near where the lethal dose was absorbed in about 5.76 seconds. But on the other hand the SLAM is traveling at about 1,000 meters per second (Mach 3) so exposure time is very short. I could not intuit whether the person would get a lethal dose or not. This calls for higher math, probably calculus. Unfortunately I failed to learn calculus (Bad Winchell! No rocket for you!). Therefore I used the old Tom Sawyer Whitewash technique.
On Google Plus I poised the question (please pardon the Imperial units):
For lack of a better source, the word problem below was created by me, unqualified though I am. Be told that it may contain unwarrented assumptions and misunderstood numerical values for which I take sole responsibility. Particularly I am assuming that the diagram above is accurate. Use the analysis below at your own risk.
Say there is a Project Pluto nuclear ramjet cruise missile in the area.
Say that forty feet away from it's center the radiation dose is 5×108 Röntgen/hour of gamma rays. Say that 35 feet away from the center the radiation dose is 5×106 Röntgen equivalent physical/hour of neutrons. The radiation falls off as per the inverse square law. Figure that the maximum range that the radiation has effect is about 15,300 feet, or the distance to the horizon.
It is traveling along line A-B where the line is at a constant altitude of 50 feet (tree-top level), at a speed of Mach 3 (which I think is about 3,350 feet per second since that altitude is practically sea level).
Somewhere near that line is point X, on the ground directly underneath line A-B. A poor hapless person is standing there.
At some point the Project Pluto nightmare missile will appear on the horizon, flash overhead at 3,350 ft/s, and vanish on the far horizon. Emitting deadly gamma-rays and neutrons all the while.
Question: What radiation dosage will the poor person at point X suffer?
Remember neutrons Röntgens equivalent physical have an average quality factor of 10.0 so equals an average of 0.096 Sievert. Gamma rays Röntgens have a quality factor of 1.0 so each equals 0.0096 Sievert (one-tenth that of neutrons).
Thank you very much, Peter Schmidt and Simon Smith! Even if the figures and assumptions I supplied you with were incorrect, the technique revealed will be useful elsewhere. I really have to buckle down and learn calculus, and master Wolfram Alpha.
The Acute Radiation Chart says that 5.8 Grays is at the "Death probable within 3 weeks" level, 16 Gy is "Certain death in one week or less" along with the cruel Walking Ghost period, and 2,440 Gy is about thirty times the 80 Gy "Instant coma and certain death in 24 hours".
Peter Schmidt's formula is:
integrate 1/(x-35)^2 * 5*10^6 from x=50 to x=15300, then multiply by 2
35 = distance from SLAM of the reference dosage rate
5*10^6 = Röntgen/hour reference dosage rate value
x=50 = closest distance SLAM comes to person (altitude from ground)
x=15300 = farthest distance SLAM recedes from person (vanishes over horizon)
1/(x-35)^2 = inverse-square law, how radiation intensity varies with distance
which was derived from the word problem stating: Say that 35 feet away from the center the radiation dose is 5×106 Röntgen equivalent physical/hour of neutrons and Figure that the maximum range that the radiation has effect is about 15,300 feet, or the distance to the horizon and at a constant altitude of 50 feet. The units used for distance do not matter, as long as you use the same units for all three variables. The units used for absorbed dose do not matter, the answer will be in the same units.
This is fed into WolframAlpha as value of integral of 1/(x-35)^2 * 5 * 10^6 from x=50 to x=15300, times 2
Let's try it out. For gamma-rays it was 40 feet away from the center of radiation had a dose of 5×108 Röntgen/hour. So we feed into WolframAlpha value of integral of 1/(x-40)^2 * 5 * 10^8 from x=50 to x=15300, times 2 and it returns 1.0 * 10^8 Röntgen/hr.
1.0 * 10^8 Röntgen/hr / 3600 sec/hr * 9.13 sec = dose of 254,000 Röntgen. Which is the figure Simon Smith calculated, so we are golden.
The above figures are for a SLAM flying at 50 foot tree-top level altitude. Other sources suggest it may fly at up to 1,000 foot altitude. This will drastically reduce the radiation dosage on the ground, but how much?
I used Mr. Schmidt's handy formula, substituting "1000" for "50".
It reduces the neutron dose from a death-in-minutes 163 Gy (1,700 R) to a fighting-chance 50%-fatality 2.5 Gy (26 R).
Sadly for the person on the ground the gamma dose went from an instant-death 2,440 Gy (2.54×105 R) only to a death-in-two-days 25 Gy (2,642 R). Immediate disorientation, coma in seconds to minutes, convulsions, and certain death within 48 hours.
Using Ms. Smith's technique if you adopt a certain death dosage of 10 Gy (394,300 R/hr for 9.13 seconds) as your trigger level, this means the SLAM kills pretty much everybody within a half mile (790 meters) radius of the flight path (15,300 ft ⇒ 2,600 ft ⇒ 15,300 ft). And doesn't do the topsoil any good either. Yes, this is narrower than 3/4 of a mile, but it is only a 30% reduction. After all a half mile radius means the SLAM is laying down a path of scorched dead earth one mile wide and thousands of miles long.
The SLAM may fly at a 500 foot altitude instead of 1,000 feet, which will just increase the dosage. I leave the math as an exercise for the reader.
Hold everything. A gentleman named Giorgio Tiburzi contacted me, and has noted some flaws in the above analysis. Please note that the error appears to be me mis-reading the diagrams, it is not the fault of Mr. Schmidt and Ms. Smith. Apparently I gave them incorrect data and incorrect assumptions. Mr. Tiburzi's analysis is below:
|Fissionable Core||47.24 in.|
|Core Length||50.70 in.|
|Critical Mass of Uranium||59.90 kg.|
|Avg. Power Density||10 MW/cubic foot|
|Total Power||600 MW|
|Avg. Element Temperature||2,330° F|
If the attacker wants to just destroy the defender's civilization but does not want to necessarily make the defenders extinct or render the planet uninhabitable, asteroid bombardment might be just the thing. Now there is the chance of disrupting the ecosystem and rendering the planet temporarily uninhabitable, but at least it won't be radioactive.
Most solar systems have enough asteroids so the ammo is mostly free. All you have to supply is the delta-V to send them at the besieged planet at high velocity.
In a balkanized solar system, this is the reason for each space-faring nation to have their own Spaceguard. The idea is to prevent unauthorized changes in asteroid orbits. The idea for several independant national spaceguards is to keep all the spaceguards honest. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? and all that.
First off, laser weapons used for ship-to-ship combat in the vacuum of space can use whatever laser wavelength they feel like. But things change if you are using laser cannons on ground targets of a planet with an atmosphere.
Wavelengths shorter than 200 nanometers (ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays) are absorbed by Terra's atmospheric gases (so they are sometimes called "Vacuum frequencies"). Note that once a section of atmosphere has been heated into a plasma by the laser (or whatever) things change. Plasma is transparent to vacuum frequencies while non-vacuum frequences are absorbed.
Understand that a tunnel of plasma is only going to last for a fraction of a section so if you want to put a second laser bolt down it you'd better hurry.
And some wavelengths of infrared are absorbed by water vapor in the air. On Terran type habitable planets, moist air is everywhere. Naturally once the water vapor has been heated into plasma, it isn't water vapor any more. Just oxygen and hydrogen ions. Sadly plasma also absorbs infrared.
The US Navy is exploring the feasibility of using a high energy laser weapon as a ship-borne self-defense system against sea-skimming cruise missile attacks. Since the attenuation of laser energy by the atmosphere is the highest at low altitudes and varies with frequency, the selection of appropriate wavelengths becomes critical for a laser weapon to be effective. A high energy free electron laser (FEL) is suitable for employment in the envisaged role because it can be designed to operate at any desired frequency and, to a degree, is tunable in operation. This study aims to determine the optimal atmospheric windows for high energy, pico second, short pulse lasers.
Suitable wavelength windows were selected from either the Jan 1 or July 1, 2004 spectra for the date with a narrower transmittance window by meeting the following two criteria:
- Transmittance value of at least 90%, 95% and 99% respectively over a 10 km long, 10 m high horizontal path.
- Absorption coefficient value of less than 0.02 per km.
Table 5 summarizes the suitable wavelengths. The first four bands from 0.95 μm to 2.5 μm were able to meet the criteria of at least 90% transmittance and absorption coefficient of not more than 0.02 per km. However, there are no wavelengths in the 3.45 to 4.16 μm band that can meet the two specified criteria. The best wavelength window for this band is chosen for 70% transmission and absorption coefficient less than 0.04 per km.
From Table 5, the optimal wavelength windows for molecular atmospheric absorption are between 1.03 μm and 1.06 μm, and around 1.241 and 1.624 μm. This band provides a transmittance of more than 99%. However, as noted earlier, the main drawback of operating in a lower wavelength band is the strong extinction of energy from aerosol scattering.
Table 5. Suitable wavelength windows for various values of T(z) in μm Wavelength
T(z) > 90%
αabs < 0.01/km
T(z) > 95%
αabs < 0.005/km
T(z) > 99%
αabs < 0.001/km
T(z) > 70% 0.95 to 1.11 μm 0.990 - 1.075 0.992 - 0.998
1.002 - 1.006
1.01 - 1.067
1.030 - 1.060 N/A 1.11 to 1.33 μm 1.230 - 1.260
1.271 - 1.283
1.235 - 1.256 1.241 N/A 1.47 to 1.82 μm 1.530 - 1.680 1.535 - 1.565
1.58 - 1.595
1.610 - 1.660
1.624 N/A 2 to 2.5 μm 2.125 - 2.140
2.220 - 2.245
N/A N/A N/A 3.45 to 4.16 μm N/A N/A N/A 3.91 - 3.94
Summary of suitable wavelength bands for FEL operation for a 10 km horizontal path, 10 m above the ocean with no aerosol extinction.
(ed note: 400 nm equals 0.4 μm)
The possibility of using a laser beam as a ship-borne self-defense weapon has become more feasible with recent advancements in laser technology. The advantages of a high energy laser as a weapon are its key attributes of speed-of-light response, ability to handle fast maneuvering and crossing targets, deep magazine capacity, minimal collateral damage, target identification and adaptability for lethal to non-lethal employment. The attenuation of laser energy by the atmosphere is a result of molecular attenuation and scattering. Atmospheric scattering mainly disperses the energy of the laser beam but molecular absorption heats the atmosphere, reducing the index of refraction and thereby creating thermal blooming. The FEL has potential as a shipborne weapon system because it can be designed to operate at any desired frequency and, to a degree, is tunable in operation. The ability to select an operating frequency greatly enhances the successful propagation of the laser beam through the relatively dense air at low altitudes.
The objective of this thesis was to determine optimal operating wavelength bands for a high energy FEL weapon between 0.6 μm and 4.2 μm using the US Air Force PLEXUS Release 3 Version 2 program to set up MODTRAN 4 Version 2 and FASCODE 3 atmospheric transmission programs. Since PLEXUS and its user interface are export limited, this thesis was restricted to processing the MODTRAN and FASCODE output files. These codes allow for complex atmospheric transmittance and radiance calculations based on absorption and scattering phenomena for a variety of path geometries. The input parameters chosen for the simulation runs are meant to represent likely operational scenarios for ship self defense against a cruise missile attack. The main consideration was a 10 m altitude horizontal transmission path. Korea, Taiwan and the Persian Gulf were the three geographical areas chosen for the study. The effect of a short FEL laser pulse was modeled by convolving a normalized Gaussian frequency spectrum with the MODTRAN and FASCODE transmission and absorption coefficient spectra. The result of the convolution operation averages the transmittance values over a number of wavenumbers. The amount of averaging increases as the length of the FEL pulse decrease.
2. FASCODE Results
The higher resolution 0.1 cm-1 FASCODE was used to conduct further analysis on five selected bands or “windows” found from the MODTRAN results. Using the FASCODE aerosol extinction output file results, absorption coefficients for each wavenumber (or spectral frequency) were calculated. The molecular absorption coefficient is a key parameter for thermal blooming calculations. Data for the absorption coefficient were also used to compute the transmission spectrum for molecular absorption only. Using the transmission spectrum and absorption coefficient graphs, the optimal wavelength bands for employment of FEL at low altitudes were identified and summarized in Table 5. The four main bands of 0.95 to 1.11 μm, 1.11 to 1.33 μm, 1.47 to 1.82 μm, and 2 to 2.5 μm contain quite a number of suitable wavelengths that allow transmittance of at least 90% for a 10 km path and have absorption coefficient values of 0.02 per km or less. For a more stringent requirement of at least 99% transmittance, the suitable wavelength windows are between 1.03 to 1.06 μm and around 1.241 and 1.624 μm. However, the main concern for laser transmission through the atmosphere in the 1 μm region is the strong aerosol extinction.
This is a ludicrous orbital bombardment weapon popular in science fiction in the early previous century. Presumably some cruel little boy incinerated some ants on a sunny day using their magnifying glass, and when they grew up to write science fiction they figured scaling it up would be a good idea. Upscale the ants into enemy cities, and upscale the magnifying glass into a titanic parabolic mirror. In space.
TV Tropes calls it the Solar-Powered Magnifying Glass
The main drawback is the mirror would be a hard-to-miss kilometer wide target possessing all the tensile strength of aluminium foil. One nuclear missile and months of work instantly frizzles up like, well, ants under a magnifying glass.
This material is presented here mostly for its entertainment value.
If the invaders are attacking the planet using relativistic weapons, it is more or less game over. There really is no realistic defense, unless the defenders are a Kardashev type II civilization. The problem is light-speed lag. Since the r-bombs are traveling so near the speed of light, they are only a little bit behind the wave of photons announcing their presence. In other words, you only see where they were, not where they are now. From the target's point of view, they would suffer from the optical illusion of the r-bomb apparently moving faster than light. Before you had time to react, the r-bombs would hit with all their devastating effects.
The thing to keep in mind is that all the energy the r-bomb releases has to be put into it in the first place. It takes an astronomical amount of energy to accelerate an object up to 92% lightspeed. If your civilization has managed to anger another civilization who has access to that much energy, you already know you are in deep trouble.
In the novel, the lunar colony is fed up with the yoke of Terran oppression and stages their very own war of independence. Among their assets is a large mass driver (called a "catapult") ordinarily used to send shipments of grain back to Terra. The colonists weaponize it, firing cannisters of steel-belted solid rock as orbital bombardment weapons.
If the interstellar conflict in question is all about extermination, with none of that realpolitik nonsense, there is no point in a limited orbital bombardment. Assuming you do not want the planet as a possible colony site, then you might as well nuke the place until it is a black glassy sphere that will glow radioactive blue for the next million years or so. The result will be a cemetery planet object lesson for future alien civilizations to come that the inhabitants really pissed you off (or were some hideous species that was far too dangerous to live).
Have your interstellar bomber dump a hellburner, a planet-wrecker nuclear bomb, a planet-sterilizing torch warhead, a planet-cracker antimatter warhead, or a planet-buster neutronium-antimatter warhead. Or take a bit more time to simply carpet-bomb the planet with old-school nuclear warheads.
You take a sizeable planet which you can spare, somehow transport it into the enemy's solar system, then fly the planet on a collision course with the enemy world. If you really want to splatter the enemy homeworld, you fly in two planets on diametrically opposed courses with the enemy in the middle. Sort of like a hammer and anvil. A cosmic-scale sledge-o-matic.
This is a strictly handwavium space-opera style weapon. Very cinematic but nohow nowhere scientifically possible.
(ed note: in the far future of space opera, all nine worlds of the solar system have been colonized. But one fine day the sun starts to cool off. To avoid a frozen death, the planets resolve to place gigantic atom-blasts on each world, fly the planets out of the solar system, and find a warm young star.
They pass several unsuitable stars, but disaster strikes at the star Antolia. The star is going to go nova. And the natives are rather upset at that. The Antolians attempt to capture the passing Solar planets but are beaten off. However, the copy-cat Antolians put atom-blasts on their planets and set off in hot pursuit. The Solar planets finally find a new home star, but the Antolian planets are coming to invade. What to do?)WE STARED, our triumph frozen. In the telescopes the four Antolian planets were plainly visible, passing Walaz and moving on with mounting speed toward us.
"We must do something!” Hurg cried. "If those Antolian worlds reach this sun and take up orbits around it, it means endless war with them, war that may result in our destruction!”
"We can not stop them from coming on,” Julud said sadly. "I had hoped they would stop their worlds at Walaz, but they are coming on.”
"If there were only some way to stop them before they get here!” Runnal exclaimed.
An idea seared across my brain. "There is a way of stopping them!” I cried. "I can stop them with my world, with Mercury!
"Don’t you understand?” I said. "All of Mercury’s inhabitants can be transferred to other of our worlds and then I’ll take Mercury out and crash it head-on into those four oncoming worlds!”
"Good, and I’ll go with you, Lonnat!” cried Hurg.
"And I too!” said Tolarg, eyes gleaming.
Immediately Julud ordered the transfer of Mercury’s people to other worlds as I requested. All our worlds’ ships swarmed to Mercury and engaged in transporting Mercury’s people to the other planets. It was so tremendous a task that by the time Tolarg and Hurg and I with my assistants in the control-tower were the only people left on Mercury, the four oncoming worlds of the Antolians had almost reached Vira.
Quickly I opened up Mercury’s propulsion-blasts and sent the little planet hurtling out from Vira, back along the way we had come toward the four nearing worlds. Tensely I and Tolarg and Hurg held it toward them. Outside the control-tower were our waiting ships.
Toward each other, booming through space with immense speed, thundered Mercury and the four oncoming worlds. The Antolian worlds loomed larger and larger before us. Then they veered to one side.
"They’re veering! 'They’re trying to escape the collision!” cried Hurg. "It’ll do them no good!” I exclaimed. I swung Mercury aside in the same direction to meet them.
Again the column of four planets veered as they rushed closer, seeking desperately to escape the oncoming doom. Again I swung Mercury to meet them. Then the foremost of the oncoming Antolian worlds loomed immense in the heavens before our rushing planet.
"They’re going to crash!" I cried. "Up and away before they meet!”
"Up and away!” yelled Tolarg and Hurg as we threw ourselves from the control-tower into the ships.
Our ships darted up like lightning. The rushing globe of Mercury was almost to the oncoming sphere of the first Antolian world. And then as we shot away from them into space, they met!
There was no sound in the soundless void, but there was a blinding, dazing glare of light that darkened even the great sun behind us for the moment, and then the two worlds became glowing red, molten, blazing with doom! A wave of force struck through space that rocked our fleeing ships.
And behind the first Antolian world the other three of the column came on and crashed into that glowing mass! One by one they crashed and were destroyed; and then the four worlds were one white hot mass that veered oflF into space at right-angles to Vira and away from it. The four colliding worlds had become a new small sun!
I stared after that receding, dazzling mass. There were tears in my eyes as I watched it move away, with the remains of Mercury in it. Mercury, my world, that I had piloted across the great void through the suns only to hurl it at the last into doom.
Hurg was grasping my arm excitedly. "We’ve won, Lonnat!” he cried. "The Antolians and their worlds destroyed, and Vira ours now for our eight remaining worlds!”
Tolarg held out his hand to me, all mockery gone from his face now. "What you said was right, Lonnat,” he said. "It’s not the size of a planet that measures its importance. Yours has saved us all.”
if your budding "Weakly Godlike civilization" wants to graduate to Kardashev Type II, they have to harness all of the power available from a single star. Presumably the primary around which their homeworld orbits. The obvious technique is to surround the entire blasted star with solar power collectors so not a single solar photon wastefully escapes into deep space. The concept was invented by Olaf Stapledon in Star Maker (1937) and later popularized by Freeman Dyson in his 1960 paper "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation" (abstract). Due to the second law of thermodynamics some of the power is going to show up as waste heat, making the "Dyson Sphere" resemble a red giant star. If astronomers do not look closely they may dismiss an observation of an alien megastructure as "just another boring red giant." Naturally science fiction authors fell in love with the concept so there is no shortage of examples in the literature.
But now that your ultra-civilization has access to around 400 yottawatts of power, what are you going to do with it?
Noted science fiction personage James Davis Nicoll had the answer. He brainstormed the concept of the dreaded Nicoll-Dyson Laser. Take the most practical variant, the so-called Dyson Swarm. Equip each of the swarm satellites with a phased array laser. Now you can emit a planet-frying death ray capable of ending all life on any world within a range of anywhere in the Local Group of Galaxies. Timelag is going to be a huge issue, but anyone who can build a Dyson swarm ought to be able to deal with it.
Naturally, as is always the case with any arms race, things get complicated if a second civilization builds one of these planet-pasteurizers. Or several thousand for that matter. Here on Terra we reacted to a similar situation with the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. I'm sure the ultra-civilizations will cosmically sophisticated interlocking strategies far beyond our mental keen.
III. Blast Modeling
We investigate the activity and immediate aftermath of a planet-destroying laser blast with a series of approximations. We consider our target to be an Earth-analog, and so we use the properties in Table 1 for this planet, with values from Kite et al. (2009). We additionally use approximations of the average temperature of the core and mantle as 6000K and 1270K, respectively. Previous work has already examined the question of the energy needed to destroy a planet in this way, and we use their value of 2 × 1032 J in order to destroy an Earth-like planet (Boulderstone et al., 2011). However, it would not be realistic to treat the superweapon as fully efficient, and so we use values based off of nuclear explosions, where 50% of the energy goes into the kinetic energy of the planet, 35% into thermal radiation that raises the temperature of the planetary material, and 15% into an immediate, short-duration flash of electromagnetic radiation2. The observable energy from the explosion then comes from two components, the immediate release of energy during the explosion (what we refer to as the ’flash’) and the long-term thermal radiation from the debris of the planet (what we refer to as the ’remnant’). For the flash, we treat this as a blackbody with a surface of the Earth that will release all of the energy of this component in 2 seconds, or the equivalent of blackbody radiation for a surface at 106 K. We consider the debris of the planet to be well-mixed and be of a single temperature, and when this is calculated for the total energy, we find it to be a blackbody with a temperature of 29,000K. As this is occurring while the planet is being destroyed, the radius will be increasing, however as the escape velocity is 11 km/s we treat this object as consistent with earth-sized for the immediate aftermath. A more time-dependent examination would require accounting for the debris cloud growing in size, as well as the cooling of the debris (a time scale on order of 100 days if approximated as linear cooling) and changes to the optical depth of the debris cloud.
Table 1: Earth Properties Parameter Value Units Earth mass 5.97 × 1024 kg Earth radius 6.37 × 106 m Core mass fraction 0.325 Specific heat capacity, mantle 914 J K-1 kg-1 Specific heat capacity, core 800 J K-1 kg-1
We show the blackbody curves for the flash and the remnant in Figure 2. We also include a blackbody curve for a Sun-like star at 5800K for comparison. We then convolve each of these blackbody curves with the filter throughputs for LSST. Unsurprisingly considering the high temperatures involved, we see that the most significant contributions from both the flash and the remnant will occur in the bluer bands. We treat the solar-mass star as our reference for calibrating the absolute magnitudes by using the method for determining the absolute magnitude in each band using the method that was outlined in Lund et al. (2015). We then compare the total flux in each bandpass for the Sun and for the flash and remnant in order to get relative magnitudes, followed by absolute magnitudes. An important consideration here is that the radius of the planet must be included in these calculations, and so the remnant is a close analogue of a white dwarf in radius and temperature. The absolute magnitudes that we determine are listed in Table 2. It becomes readily apparent that the remnant is generally no more than 1% of the brightness of a solar-mass star, and the flash is only brighter than a solar-mass star in the u band.
Table 2: Absolute Magnitudes Band Sun Flash Remnant u 7.23 6.53 11.16 g 5.86 6.56 11.00 r 4.49 6.23 10.52 i 4.33 6.67 10.87 z 4.29 6.98 11.13 y 3.70 6.62 10.73
These results are even more constraining than they may appear at first glance. The simulated flash duration is 2 seconds, however LSST will have exposures that are 15 seconds in duration. To correctly get the measured apparent magnitude, this difference in duration has to be accounted for, and the flash will look on order of 2 magnitudes fainter in the 15-second exposures of LSST, meaning that it will be slightly fainter than the star. As an inhabited Earth-analog planet (and, therefore, any planet likely worth destroying) would be expected to be around a solar-mass star, the light from the flash and remnant would have to be of considerable brightness with respect to the host star to be observed, and it does not appear that this is the case.
There are, however, three scenarios that may result in the destruction event still being detectable. The first is if the star and planet are close enough to our Solar System that the planet’s destruction can be angularly resolved. Given that LSST will saturate at 16th magnitude, however, it seems extremely unlikely that any geometry exists where this would be possible. The second is if the planet is orbiting a smaller star. A red dwarf, for example, will be several magnitudes fainter, particularly on the bluer end of the LSST filter set. In this case, the flash, and possibly the remnant, will be brighter than the host star. While red dwarfs have not been the typical stars searched for planets in the past, there is no reason to think that an inhabited planet could not orbit around a red dwarf. Finally, the flash in the u band is still brighter than a solar mass star if it is observed instantaneously. In the case of LSST or other survey, this could also be accomplished by having a shorter exposure time, and so an exposure of 2-3 seconds would mean that any flash from a planetary explosion will be significantly brighter than the host star. In the case of LSST, however, the costs of this change to the observing schedule greatly outweigh this benefit as it would significantly curtail the observations that LSST will be able to make of fainter objects.
When merely burning off a planet is not violent enough, pulp science fiction loves to turn the volume up to 11 with the Nova Bomb. None of this fooling around carpet bombing with nuclear weapons, just induce the primary star to explode and incinerate the entire enemy solar system. Use this when the alien species is so horribly dangerous that it absolutely, positively has to be exterminated 100% overnight. You will be sure none of the enemy species escapes (unless they have one of those pesky "jump-type" faster-than-light starships that are immune to your military blocade).
Orbital fortresses have far more punch than the equivalent combat spacecraft, kilogram for kilogram. This is because the spacecraft has to use part of its mass for propulsion, while the orbital fortress can use that mass allocation for more weapons instead. However orbital fortresses do have problems with heat radiators and supply.
Supporting the fortresses, the planet's orbit will probably be full of defensive assets such as small but deadly weapons designed to mission-kill invading spacecraft and any ortillery they drop. In the Strategic Defense Initiative, two concepts looked into were "Space-Based Interceptor" and "Brilliant Pebbles" (the latter were the heirs to "smart rocks")
When it comes to defending a space colony instead of a planet, you can attach weapons and defenses so the thing becomes sort of an orbital fortress that people live inside. On Babylon 5 this was called the "defense grid".
In Long Shot for Rosinante, Alexis Gilliland points out there are military implications. If you have several unarmed space colonies you will need a fleet of warships roving around to defend the colonies. If the colonies are then retrofitted with weapons so they can defend themselves, oh my! You suddenly have a spare fleet of warships that can be repurposed to military adventurism! Enemy colonies will become alarmed.
However the politicians of the nation which established the colonies may be unenthusiastic about the idea. For one thing it makes it harder to collect taxes from the colonies, since they can shoot at the tax collectors. It also makes it harder for the politicans to control the military, since the latter will be eager for some delicious military adventurism. Regardless of what those cowardly civilian politicans back home have to say.
The indispensable Future War Stories blog makes the point that there is a big difference between a Battle Station (orbital fortress) and a Military Space Station.
A battle station, mobile assault platform, or orbital fortress is basically a huge warship armed to the teeth that has no engine. It has lots of offensive weapons. Much like the Death Star from Star Wars, but used more to defend planets instead of blowing them up.
A military space station is a military base that just happens to be in orbit instead of on the ground. It is used to support troops, house spacecraft, administer logistical aid, and the like. Generally it only has defensive weapons, but may be protected by a space navy task force. They are much like the U.S. military bases located in the continental United States.
A variant on the orbital fortress is the Space Superiority Platform. Instead of defending the planet from invading spacefleets, this is an armed military station keeping an eye on the planet it is orbiting.
If a planet is balkanized, the platform will watch military ground units belonging to hostile nations, and bombard them if required. Militarily they have the high ground.
If the planet is a conquered one, or the government is oppressing the inhabitants, the platform will try to maintain government control and deal with revolts. By bombarding them if required.
- A planet might be invested, meaning that the planet is under siege from whoever owns the space station. The station does not want planetary inhabitants escaping, nor does it want blockade runners entering.
- A planet might be interdicted because they contain something very dangerous (Xenomorphs, thionite, the City on the Edge of Forever, replicators, or 100% lethal plagues).
- A planet might be interdicted because it has something very valuable and the station owner does not want poachers sneaking in and stealing any.
After the invaders have neutralized the defenders orbital fortresses, the only thing left stopping the invaders from carpet-bombing the vulnerable planet are the defending planetary fortresses. Orbital fortresses do have problems with heat radiators and supply. Planetary fortresses on the other hand have practically no radiator or supply problems, since they have an entire planet for support. In the Strategic Defense Initiative, concepts looked into included "Extended Range Interceptor", "Homing Overlay Experiment ", and "Exoatmospheric Reentry-vehicle Interception System"
In space opera, "force fields" are generally spherical. So a planetary fortress (or civilian city) protected by such a field will have a circular boarder. Anything outside of the circle will also be outside of the force field, and thus vulnerable to bombardment. If the force field prevents defending weapons from firing out along with preventing attacking weapons from firing in, the fortress might have weapon emplacements outside of the boundary of the force field. In many space operas, invaders will deal with planetary fortresses under a force field by constantly using weapons on the ground around the fort. The land will eventually become a sea of lava, which will put the fort at a disadvantage.
In Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's classic The Mote In God's Eye, some times Imperial task forces would find the Langston Field defense over the cities on a rebel planet too difficult to crack. If the task force was under a severe time limit, they would be forced into the draconian option of using nuclear weapons to take out all the agriculture on the planet, then leaving. The rebels would then mostly starve to death, since it is impossible to ship food for millions of people over insterstellar distances. The imperials would have fullfilled their mission, since the rebels would cease to be a threat, eventually.
If the inhabitants of the planet lack handwavium force fields, and the besiegers have no shortage of bombardment weapons, sooner or later the planet people are going to have to resort to living underground. The more frightful the bombardment, the deeper they will have to dig.
This is why in the real world the US NORAD Cheyenne Mountain Complex is built under six hundred meters of solid granite. Proof against EMP, and the blast doors are rated to withstand a 30 megaton thermonuclear explosion as close as two kilometers.
In the 1955 movie This Island Earth, the planets Metaluna and Zagon are at war. Metaluna's surface has been laid to waste by Zagonian asteroid bombardment. The Metaluna's cities are now all underground, but even then they are planning to seize and relocate to Planet Terra before Metaluna becomes totally uninhabitable.
In the 1974 anime series Space Battleship Yamato the warlike Gamilas have devastated Terra by a continual asteroid bombardment. But these asteroids are radioactive. Even though the people of Terra have retreated underground, the radiation is slowly seeping downward. The people of Terra have about one year left to live before the radiation kills them. Lucky for them they receive help from a certain Queen Starsha of the planet Iscandar in the Greater Magellanic Cloud.
The queen offers a wonderful machine that will cleanse Terra of all the radiation. The catch is that the Terrans have to travel to the GMC go fetch it. Starsha hopefully gives them blueprints for a faster-than-light-drive/unreasonably-powerful-Kzinti-Lesson, but the Terrans have to build the drive and the ship to house it.
Lucky for them, the asteroid bombardment has conveniently evaporated the seven seas, exposing all the historical shipwrecks in general, and the wreck of the 1940 battleship Yamato in particular. There is not enough underground space to build a huge spacecraft, but the Yamato is reasonably large and strong enough to be converted. The Terran secretly tunnel underneath it and covertly rebuilt it, so as to not tip off the Gamilas.
In addition to large planetary forts, there may be scattered anti-spacecraft weapons sited all over the planet. The main difference is these have no real protection except being very good at hiding. Instead of armor or magic force fields, they are either one-shot sacrificial weapons or capable of frantically scuttling away after they give away their position. Or they are weaponized spacecraft launching facilities that the enemy wants or needs to capture intact so they are loath to damage it.
Because as soon as a ground (or sea) based gun opens fire on an enemy ship in orbit, the enemy is going to plaster the entire area with ortillery.
If you have sufficient stealth technology, it might be a good idea to put some planetary defensive weapons inside submarines. This made good sense back in the days of Mutual Assured Destruction, but nowadays orbital observation satellites have made it much harder for submarines to hide. Be aware though that their stealth is destroyed the instant they fire their weapons, and the attackers in orbit will lob a nuclear depth-charge that will crush the submarine like an eggshell. US Navy Ohio-class submarines carry 24 missiles, a planetary defense submarine would probably be carrying a similar amount. The PD sub would be well-advised to launch all of its missiles at once, and preferably the sub should be a remotely controlled drone.
In the 1955 Operation Wigwam test, the US military discovered that a 30 kiloton nuclear depth charge could kill a modern submarine with a radius of a bit more than a mile.
Like planetary fortresses, surface defences are at a disadvantage with respect to hostile spacecraft in orbit due to the gravity gauge.
Rick Robinson is of the opinion that the gravity gauge is not quite as one-sided as it appears. In an essay entitled Space Warfare I - The Gravity Well he makes his case. The main point is that the orbiting invading spacecraft have nowhere to hide, while the defending ground units can hide in the underbrush.
Of course it is a bit easier to inflict damage on orbital person now that lasers have been invented. Keep in mind that if the planet in question has an atmosphere similar to Terra some laser wavelengths should be avoided.
And keep in mind that the defender's anti-orbit rocket also does not need a warhead, a bursting charge surrounded by nails and other shrapnel will do. The relative velocity between the more or less stationary cloud of shrapnel and the orbital speed of orbital person will do the rest. Orbit person will be riddled by shrapnel traveling at about 27,500 kilometers per hour (7,640 m/s) relative.
Traditionally, spacecraft attacking targets on a planetary surface are assumed to have a high-ground advantage, referred to by Heinlein as the “gravity gauge”. This assumption, like many about space warfare is wrong for several reasons. Firstly, a spacecraft in orbit is very vulnerable to ground-launched kinetics, which only need to intercept it to do lethal damage, as described in Section 8. Second, the ground-based defenders are able to use the clutter of the planetary surface to hide their actions, while the attackers are clearly visible. Lastly, the planet itself offers advantages in the construction of defenses that serve as a very powerful force multiplier for the defender.
The thought experiment that underlies the gravity gauge is two men, one at the bottom of a well, the other at the top, having a fight with rocks. The man at the top has an obvious advantage. However, like many analogies, this one has deep flaws. The largest is a misunderstanding of orbital mechanics. Because of the motion of the orbital craft, any projectiles that it launches must slow down before they can leave orbit, and in low orbit, the delta-V requirement can be significantly higher than is required for a defender’s projectile to reach the attacker. The requirement depends heavily on the geometry of the situation, but it is outside the scope of this section. For more details, see
Section 12and Space Weapons, Earth Wars. A warhead is unnecessary for the defender’s weapons, as the target’s orbital velocity provides all the kinetic energy required for the job. Another issue is that the rocket necessary for this type of mission is quite small. An R-17 Scud-B can reach a maximum altitude of approximately 150 km with a warhead of 985 kg and a launch weight of 5,900 kg, providing a marginal capability against targets in very low orbit. Another version, the Scud-C, is capable of reaching about 275 km, with a warhead of 600 kg, and a total launch weight of 6,400 kg. The MGM-31A Pershing has an apogee of about 370 km, a warhead of 190 kg, and a launch weight of 4,655 kg. All of these missiles date back to the 1960s or before, but, with the proper seeker systems, should be capable of engaging targets in low orbit. Their warheads are rather heavier than would be optimal for engaging orbiting vessels, and lighter warheads could result in somewhat higher altitudes. For higher-orbit engagements, something like the Pershing II (altitude ~885 km, warhead 400 kg, launch weight 7,490 kg) is probably called for. Above that, the various ICBM-type systems would take over, with apogees in the range of 5,000 km.
Note that all of these missiles have warheads which are far heavier than are required for direct-hit kill on any practical spacecraft. There are two ways this fact can be exploited. First, the warhead could be replaced by another stage carrying a smaller warhead and achieving a greater altitude. This should be good for another few hundred kilometers altitude, depending on the size of the warhead available and the previous burnout velocity. Second, the unitary warhead could be replaced by a bursting warhead,
as described in Section 8. A detailed treatment of this concept with regards to planetary defense can be found in the Appendix to Section 12 of Physics of Space Security.
The two extant missiles that most closely approximate what would be required of a low-altitude surface-to-orbit missile (SOM) are the THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) and the SM-3. The current model of THAAD, the block 4, has a launch weight of 640 kg, a warhead of approximately 40 kg, and a maximum altitude between 150 and 200 km. Later (and presumably heavier) models could improve the maximum altitude to as much as 500 km. The SM-3, which is currently ship-launched, has a launch weight of 1500 kg, a warhead of 23 kg, and a maximum altitude of as much as 500 km. Later versions are reported to be capable of 1000 km, and have launch weights of approximately 2600 kg. Both missiles use the same sensor system, which is reportedly able to acquire targets (presumably ballistic missile warheads) at ranges above 300 km.
The above missiles are listed to demonstrate that the basic physical requirements for an SOM are quite simple, and well within the grasp of current technology. All of the listed missiles are fired off of trucks of some sort or another (with the exception of the SM-3, which does have a fixed land-based version). THAAD itself is launched from a vehicle the size of a semi. If a system was designed explicitly for the SOM role, it should be very easy to conceal the missiles in trucks until the time of launch, preventing the attackers from detecting and destroying them. Even if the attackers can see everything clearly, if the trailer is self-contained and built to look like an ordinary semi-trailer, the attacker won’t be able to tell it apart from the millions of others in use.
Extensive tracking and control stations will be unnecessary, as the ship in question will be moving in a more-or-less predictable orbit, and the missile will have enough homing capability to compensate for the imprecision. Orbit determination is a well-established science. All that is needed are a few measurements of time, observer’s position, and target bearing. These sensors are even easier to hide then the missiles themselves, as they could be as simple as a sextant at dusk or dawn. At night, it should be possible to detect the vessel, probably through radiator glow. During the day, it is somewhat more difficult. This suggests that a sun-synchronous orbit might be ideal for an attacking spacecraft, as dawn and dusk occur over the poles which are (presumably) largely uninhabited. However, the same could be said of any polar orbit, and other conditions are likely to play a large part in attack orbit selection. The advantage of a sun-synchronous orbit is that the illumination angle beneath the spacecraft is nearly constant, but for a long-period orbit, the inclination is likely to be fairly low, potentially placing dawn over an inhabited area. Geographical conditions are as likely to dictate the orbit as astrodynamical conditions, although the astrodynamic effects of attacking a non-Earth planet should not be discounted. In some cases a sun-synchronous orbit will place the attacker over territory that he would rather avoid. For example, a 24-hour sun-synchronous attack orbit aimed at a target in North America will spend a large amount of time over South America, a situation that is hardly idea. For optimal results, attacks would be made in daylight, which gives the best conditions for the attacker’s sensors and the worst for those of the defender.
The obvious counter to the visibility of spacecraft is for the spacecraft to maneuver regularly, hopefully spoiling any shots the defender may take. A burn of approximately 3 m/s in the prograde or retrograde direction in a 150 km Earth orbit will change the period of the orbit by 2 seconds and the semi-major axis by about 5 km. What this means is that the spacecraft will arrive on the opposite side of the orbit either a second late or early respectively, and will be either 10 km above or 10 km below where it was supposed to be depending on which direction the burn was made in. However, this is unlikely to be enough to spoil the attack. If the missile seeker locks on 30 seconds out, a 330 m/s delta-V would be sufficient to compensate for the divergence, and it is quite likely that SOMs will be designed to frustrate such tactics. So long as the change remains relatively small, the results above can be linearized, with a 12 m/s delta-V producing a 4-second change in arrival time, and a 40 km change in altitude. Note that the divergence in position only occurs in the orbital plane. The plane itself can be changed by a burn half an orbit away, but the spacecraft will still pass through a point opposite the location of the burn. For out-of-plane dodging, it is best to burn a quarter-orbit away (three-quarters of an orbit will produce identical results). Moving the ground-track 10 km in our 150 km Earth reference orbit will require 12.25 m/s of delta-V, significantly more than an equivalent amount of in-plane dodging. To a first approximation, the dodge delta-V for a quarter-orbit burn will be approximately twice that required for a half-orbit burn. All of this assumes the initial orbit is circular, and the delta-V is fairly small. Finding values for larger burns will require elaborate computations, which are beyond the scope of available data. The requirements for a given amount of miss distance will be somewhat lower at higher altitudes, but this must be balanced against the fact that at higher altitudes, the missile will probably have significantly more time between lock-on and impact, reducing the delta-V required to compensate.
Of course, this does not address the practicality of using regular maneuvers to frustrate missile attacks. For a ship with a high-thrust drive, the limiting factor is delta-V, and this dodging scheme will require something like 0.4 m/s/km/hr. for half-orbit burns, or 0.8 m/s/km/hr. for quarter-orbit burns. Over the long term, this would add up, needing 10 to 20 m/s/km/day. This is vaguely practical for small miss generation, but small miss generation is easily compensated for by the missile. Even a minimal estimate of a required miss distance of 10 km would need 100 to 200 m/s/day, which will get expensive if the siege drags on more than a few days. Low-thrust systems might be more effective, although the achievable miss distance will be limited by the acceleration of the spacecraft.
The exact altitude requirements for an SOM are actually quite difficult to figure out. A missile will only be able to attack a target at its maximum altitude if the target in question passes directly over the launch site. All of the numbers posted above are estimated maximum altitudes, and in practice the maximum altitudes will be some fraction of those listed. The one use of the SM-3 for ASAT purposes was at an intercept altitude of about 250 km, and used an early model, putting the interception at about half of the theoretical maximum. The missile used in the Chinese ASAT test has a theoretical altitude of somewhere between 1350 km and 1500 km, and was used against a target at an altitude of approximately 860 km. All of these indicate that the maximum practical altitude for a missile is probably not much more than half of the maximum theoretically achievable, though 75% might be possible for a battery positioned close to an important target, where the enemy will pass almost directly overhead. Air-launched ASAT systems, such as the ASM-135, are theoretically capable of achieving much more nearly 100% due to better positioning of the launching platform, although the only known air-launched ASAT test, the ASM-135 shot at the Solwind P78-1, occurred at an altitude of 555 km out of an apogee altitude of 1000 km. The question then becomes what sort of altitudes will be required of an SOM system. The ISS orbits at approximately 400 km, while most recon satellites orbit between 250 and 600 km. These put the requirements clearly into the SM-3 category. Seapower and Space contained an interesting note on ASAT envelopes. The Thor of Program 437 was apparently capable of engaging targets at 200 nm (370 km) at slant rages of up to 1,500 nm (2,778 km) (and higher targets at shorter ranges), while the Nike-Zeus was demonstrated up to 150 nm (278 km). Encyclopedia Astronautica credits the Thor in question with an apogee of 500 km, and the Nike-Zeus with somewhere between 200 and 280 km, depending on the variant. It therefore seems prudent to assume that the altitude given for Nike-Zeus was in fact the maximum altitude the weapon could reach.
Another factor controlling the altitude requirements of missiles is the necessity to hold down flight time. Table 2 gives values for times of flight and view times for missiles fired at spacecraft at various altitudes, with the missiles having an apogee equal to the spacecraft altitude. The missiles were assumed to be ballistic throughout, which is not a good assumption, but one that must be accepted for purposes of analysis. Clear view was assumed to begin at 75 km, to account for the fact that defensive fire and sensors may not be fully effective through the atmosphere. In this case, view time and rise time are very similar, and neither is likely to be strictly dominant. The fact that view time is normally very close to rise time actually means that given the slowing a missile would experience during passage through the atmosphere, the target might not be able to see it during its burn, or would only be able to see it through a great deal of atmosphere. If the missile is relatively stealthy during the unpowered portion of the ascent, the spacecraft might not have a good track until it is quite close.
Table 2 Altitude (km) 100 150 200 250 300 500 750 1000 Rise Time (sec) 142.8 174.9 201.9 225.8 247.3 319.3 391.0 451.5 View Range (km) 1,122.1 1,369.9 1,576.8 1,757.3 1,919.0 2,447.0 2,952.1 3,359.4 View Time (sec) 145.3 179.4 208.9 235.5 260.1 346.6 441.2 528.7 Clear Rise Time (sec) 71.4 123.7 159.6 188.9 214.2 294.4 371.0 434.3 Clear View Range (km) 567.1 979.1 1,260.0 1,486.2 1,679.9 2,280.4 2,831.0 3,266.1 Clear View Time (sec) 72.6 126.8 165.0 196.8 225.0 319.3 418.2 508.1
It is obvious that even at the lowest altitudes, the missiles are vulnerable for a considerable period before impact. The obvious solution is to fire a missile that has an apogee considerably above the altitude of the target, minimizing this vulnerability. Table 3 shows the effects of apogee above that of the target.
Table 3 Altitude (km) 100 100 100 150 150 150 200 200 Missile Apogee (km) 150 200 250 200 300 500 400 800 Rise Time (sec) 73.9 59.1 50.9 101.0 72.4 52.2 83.6 54.1 View Range (km) 1,122.1 1,122.1 1,122.1 1,369.9 1,369.9 1,369.9 1,576.8 1,576.8 View Time (sec) 145.3 145.3 145.3 179.4 179.4 179.4 208.9 208.9 Clear Rise Time (sec) 22.7 16.9 14.0 58.7 39.3 27.2 55.5 34.7 Clear View Range (km) 567.1 567.1 567.1 979.1 979.1 979.1 1,260.0 1,260.0 Clear View Time (sec) 72.3 72.3 72.3 125.3 125.3 125.3 161.9 161.9 Vertical Velocity (km/s) 0.990 1.401 1.716 0.990 1.716 2.620 1.981 3.431 Impact Energy Factor 1.02 1.03 1.05 1.02 1.05 1.11 1.06 1.19 Altitude (km) 300 300 500 500 750 750 1000 1000 Missile Apogee (km) 400 600 750 1000 1000 1500 1500 2500 Rise Time (sec) 142.8 102.4 165.3 132.2 225.8 162.0 233.7 160.9 View Range (km) 1,919.0 1,919.0 2,447.0 2,447.0 2,952.1 2,952.1 3,359.4 3,359.4 View Time (sec) 260.1 260.1 346.6 346.6 441.2 441.2 528.7 528.7 Clear Rise Time (sec) 114.6 79.9 145.2 115.0 208.5 148.0 219.7 150.1 Clear View Range (km) 1,679.9 1,679.9 2,280.4 2,280.4 2,831.0 2,831.0 3,266.1 3,266.1 Clear View Time (sec) 217.4 217.4 299.6 299.6 378.6 378.6 444.4 444.4 Vertical Velocity (km/s) 1.401 2.426 2.215 3.132 2.215 3.836 3.132 5.425 Impact Energy Factor 1.03 1.10 1.08 1.17 1.09 1.26 1.18 1.54
In most cases, the rise times and particularly clear rise times have been dramatically reduced, meaning shorter engagement times for the target. The vertical velocity at impact will also increase the damage the warhead does (although the impact energy is not increased significantly unless the excess apogee is very large). The impact energy factor is the KE of the warhead with the vertical velocity divided by the KE the warhead would have if it were stationary in front of the target. The biggest drawback is that it is likely to make the missile and launch site easier for the target to locate. This may not be a major concern if the attacker has a large number of deployed sensors, which could accurately locate the launch site and ascending missile no matter when it is fired. Another potential problem is that it obviously requires a significantly larger missile to engage a given target with a given warhead.
ICBM-class weapons are less likely to be useful, due to the longer flight times involved. This gives the target significantly more time to dodge the missile or shoot it down, moving the warhead into the realms
described in Section 8. The size of the weapon is also a serious hindrance to its operational use. Even the Midgetman mobile ICBM’s launcher was an incredibly large vehicle, which would make it difficult to camouflage as a civilian vehicle. Even if it could be successfully camouflaged, the number of vehicles of such size is relatively small, and it might be possible to simply destroy all of them. A more plausible alternative would be to use immobile camouflaged silos.
Other launch platforms are possible as well. THAAD is somewhat smaller than a BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile, which is launched from a variety of platforms, including submarines. Early SM-3s are of a very similar size and shape to the Tomahawk. Submarines have the advantage of being able to hide and maneuver in the sea, and are quite difficult to attack from orbit, even if an initial location is known. The Ohio-class ballistic/guided missile submarines make excellent candidates for this analysis. Originally built with 24 tubes for the Trident missile, four of them have been modified since the end of the Cold War to carry 7 Tomahawks each in 22 of those tubes, the other 2 being reserved for special operations equipment. With a dedicated SOM submarine, it would likely be possible to switch out THAAD-class missiles, SM-3-class missiles, and ICBM-class missiles at the dock, giving the vessel capability against various types of targets.
The single largest issue with submarine-based missiles is targeting. A submerged submarine obviously cannot use most sensors, and it is unlikely that it will be capable of independently targeting, launching, submerging, and escaping, all before it is destroyed, either by nuclear depth charge or homing torpedo. Transmissions to submerged submarines are usually made on the ELF (Extremely Low Frequency) and VLF (Very Low Frequency) bands. The practical issues are the large size of the antennas required to transmit the signals, and the low bandwidth (a few minutes per character to a few characters per second). The low bandwidth renders it virtually impossible to transmit the targeting data to a submerged submarine, while the size of the antenna sites makes them very vulnerable to attack from orbit. It might be possible to harden one of these sites, as the US Navy proposed to do with Project Sanguine, or to use an airborne transmitter, such as the E-6B Mercury. Both present practical difficulties. The E-6 must orbit such that the trailing antenna is near vertical, while the expense of hardening is considerable, and can be defeated with a sufficiently large number of hits. In both cases, the problems of bandwidth still remain. The VLF/ELF systems are usually used to order the submarine to the surface for further orders. That remains the most likely solution, but hardly the only one. VLF communication might be able to provide rough orbit parameters, and a sufficiently advanced guidance/sensor system would be able to take that information and home in independently. Another option is to make a burst transmission to the missiles as they clear the water. This has the advantage of not requiring the submarine to come close to the surface. Coming to the surface (which is not the same thing as surfacing) is quite likely anyway, given that most submarine-launched missiles are fired at periscope depth, around 18 m (depth of keel). The Tridents on the Ohio, however, can be fired from at least 40 m.
The effectiveness of the entire submarine-based system assumes that, as is the current situation, it is very difficult to detect submarines from orbit unless they are very close to or on the surface. This may be changing, most likely due to blue-green lidar, which has been reported to have depth capabilities of 200 m. The US has used similar systems to detect mines, starting with the Kaman Magic Lantern of the mid-90s, and continuing to the current AN/AES-1 Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (ALMDS). A system of that type would significantly hinder if not defeat the operation of SOM-carrying submarines. However, recent blue-green lidar systems have proven ineffective at finding submarines, due to the required dwell time. They are excellent for searching a confined area for targets that do not move, but less effective as a wide-area search sensor.
Nor is lidar the only option for orbital detection of submarines. There have been rumors about programs involving the use of orbital radar platforms to detect submarines since the early demise of Seasat, which many allege was because it was detecting US submarines. In theory, submarines produce several distinct features on the surface, including a Bernoulli Hump (a bulge in the sea surface) and a Kelvin Wake with a characteristic angle that distinguishes it from that of surface ships. It also changes the surface wave spectrum, an effect the Soviets attempted to detect with a laser shortly before the end of the Cold War, along with other attempts involving detecting changes in the ocean structure as a result of the submarine’s passage.
A submarine should produce a detectable thermal wake, both because of the onboard heat and because of the disturbance in the ocean’s structure. The Soviets attempted energetically to exploit this effect, but their IR detectors proved best suited to distinguishing between land and water. Another possibility is the detection of the chemical wake, either the chemicals that come from the submarine’s hull or possible transmutation products produced by the radiation from the submarine’s reactor. Attempts were even made to detect the electromagnetic effects caused by the submarine and its wake. This involved using a laser to detect certain changes in atomic structure that should be caused by the submarine. Bioluminescence was also investigated, but absorption of light by water appears to have frustrated this in most places. There are, however, a few places where it is reportedly an effective means of submarine detection.
Unclassified accounts indicate that all of the concepts have been difficult to put into practice, because the signals are very weak unless the submarine is moving very fast very close to the surface, and because there are lots of objects that tend to produce signatures similar to submarines. In theory, increased computational power and improved sensors should make detecting these features easier, but improved knowledge of the oceans will also be required. This might be a problem when working with different planets. The author is not an oceanographer, and does not know how much of the knowledge will be generalizable to other planets, and thus available to an invader, and how much will not. 1
If nonacoustic methods are infeasible, then the attacker must fall back on the old standby, sonar. This would probably involve the use of what are essentially very large passive sonobuoys, which listen for submarines, and report back to the ships in orbit. It might be wise to give them some mobility and the ability to submerge temporarily as well. They would obviously have to run the gauntlet of the existing defenses to make it down, but once down, they would be extraordinarily difficult for the defender to deal with. Provided that they landed a reasonable distance away from any defenders, they would have to be hunted like mines, and minesweeping in the open ocean is nearly impossible. (Minelaying in the open ocean is nearly futile, so this is not something the Navy spends a lot of time worrying about). How effective such a system would be is a matter of conjecture, made worse by the fact that anything to do with sonar performance is highly classified.
As depth increases, launching missiles becomes more difficult, and the communications problems increase. A towed buoy would solve the communications problem, but it also runs the risk of revealing the submarine’s position. There are several systems currently in service that use this principle, but all of them impose serious limitations on the depth and speed of the submarine, and most are intended to communicate with satellites, a possibility not available to the defender in this scenario.
In fact, the lack of satellite communications for the defender raises a serious problem. Direction-finding on radio traffic was and is a major concern for military forces the world over, particularly navies. One of the solutions to this has been the use of satellite communications, because the uplink from the ground to the satellite is very difficult to direction-find unless a satellite is directly in the uplink beam. The downlink can be intercepted, but the satellite can be detected by other means as well, and a sufficiently wide beam means that the intercept gives no information on the location of the recipient. With this capability denied, the defender would be forced to return to older means of communication, which are less reliable, slower, and vulnerable to direction-finding. Obviously, the use of wired communications would eliminate this vulnerability, but that imposes restrictions on the location of the units, and is totally unsuitable for submarines.
One solution to the communications issues proposed today is a blue-green laser on a satellite. The problem with that solution is twofold. First, the defender can be assumed to no longer have any satellites. Secondly, the defender must be tracking the submarine to a fair degree of accuracy, which is very difficult by definition, and any steps taken to make it easier would probably also make it easier for the attacker to detect the submarine. It might be possible to avoid this problem by limiting the amount of information transmitted by the laser, and sweeping it over a vast area of the sea instead, to ensure that the target submarine receives it. While the laser could be mounted on an airplane, communicating with a submarine by that method could give away the submarine’s general location.
Another option is the perennial darling of submarine communications, sonar. There have been dozens of attempts over the years to use sonar to allow submarines to talk like surface ships. All have failed for a variety of reasons, including limited range or bandwidth, and multipath scrambling, although the biggest problem has always been that a submarine is inherently stealthy, and announcing its presence to communicate defeats this. It has been suggested that computers can deal with the multipath problem, and careful system design might allow adequate bandwidth. The link can probably be made one-way, removing the problem of the submarine announcing its presence. For that matter, if the attacker has not constructed a sonar net on the planet (as described above), the submarine could talk back without fear of being detected. This alone might be a reason to deploy some form of sonar system, even if it is not capable of locating the submarines passively.
Attacking a submarine from orbit is likely to be just as difficult as finding it. Proposed options for this task include homing torpedoes, nuclear depth charges, and dropping minisubmarines. All of these weapons have issues. Homing torpedoes suffer from short ranges, somewhere under 15 km for modern air-launched torpedoes. At a submarine speed of 30 knots, from detection, it will take the vessel a little over 15 minutes to clear that radius. The minimum time for a kinetic weapon drop, per Space Weapons, Earth Wars, is 12 minutes, although this requires between 40 and 150 satellites for constant worldwide coverage. This is not as big of a problem as it seems at first. Submarines are only likely to be detected when a ship is overhead, and the 12-minute time is for a projectile dropped straight down (which does require a large amount of delta-V). The actual practical range of the homing torpedo is likely to be considerably shorter, as it has to acquire the target and chase it down. This might also be less of a problem than it appears on the surface, as the projectile would probably be able to be steered after it is dropped. While the projectile will be blinded by plasma for long periods during the drop
(see Section 12), it must slow down to enter the water, giving a window during which it can receive commands. The logical extension of this idea is fitting the torpedo into a miniature UAV, remotely steered onto the target in a manner similar to the Australian Ikara system. This assumes, of course, that the target is still in sight, which depends on the altitude of the launching spacecraft and the technology used to detect the submarine. While the physical range of the torpedo might be improved by advances in technology, the difficulty of the torpedo’s own seeker acquiring a target is unlikely to decrease by a significant amount. Nuclear depth charges have radii that are likely to be on the order of 10 km, which means that the attacking spacecraft has to be in low orbit for them to reach the target in time to be effective, or the above-mentioned mini-UAV must be used. Dropping a manned minisubmarine requires a fairly large gap in the defenses, and once it is in the water, it must deal with defensive submarines. UUVs commanded by blue-green lasers are a better option, although they would likely suffer from limited armament and the possibility of being killed by the defender. Both of these can be dealt with by making the UUV expendable, which would also eliminate the need for a nuclear power plant. At the extreme, an expendable UUV would look quite similar to a long-range torpedo taking command guidance from orbit. Some combination of those and orbital weapons would be the best way to deal with the submarine problem.
One practical issue with submarines is deployment time. Modern US SSBNs patrol for 90 days at a time, and this seems to be a fairly hard limit based on human factors. It might be stretched slightly in wartime, but submarine bases would be a priority target for any attacker. On the other hand, it is also possible that the human factors issues will have been solved due to the demands of long-term spaceflight, which has many similarities to submarine operations. Other operational issues would then limit the deployment time, such as food (although this could probably be resupplied by boat when there is cloud cover) and maintenance (which is the ultimate limiter in any case).
Another major option for planetary defense is lasers. These lasers differ from those for deep-space use, both in the fact that they do not have to deal with the weight and heat restrictions of space-based systems, but they (and any bombardment lasers) must be of wavelengths that can penetrate the atmosphere. This limits the range that said lasers can achieve due to diffraction. Adaptive optics and other techniques can compensate for most of the various phenomena that occur when a high-powered laser is fired through an atmosphere, as can siting the laser at high altitude. The largest weakness of ground-based lasers is that they are immobile, and thus can be targeted by high-velocity kinetics. This is compounded by the fact that when a laser is fired it immediately reveals its position to the target. The attacker can then pull back to an orbit out of reach of the laser and bombard it at his leisure.
There are numerous factors involved in determining the viability of such an installation, including the vulnerability of such installations to bombardment, the effectiveness of the laser, the cost of the laser, and the difficulty of intercepting the bombardment projectiles. The first is a difficult question to answer. How effective is a deep bunker against kinetic bombardment? While the projectile is unlikely to penetrate deep enough to be a threat to a Cheyenne Mountain-type installation (unless the projectile is very large), the shock wave from the impact could damage the laser machinery. Shock mounting might mitigate this, although a full treatment of such matters is outside the scope of this discussion. However, the main mirrors themselves must be located near the surface, and would be the points attacked anyway. It would be entirely feasible to have one generator feeding multiple mirrors, but that tactic is unlikely to be used unless the mirror in question costs significantly less than the generator. Such a ratio is significantly below the theoretically optimum ratio for mirrors and generators,
as shown in Section 7. The effectiveness of the laser is another question. It has been suggested that a ground-based laser might be capable of attacking targets as far out as geosynchronous orbit, and could also be used to detect incoming kinetics, giving the laser as much as 12 hours to attack them. If this is the case (which assumes a 10 meter mirror) the laser system might be intended for use in the defense of the higher orbits, the lower orbits being defended by missiles.
There is also the potential for submarine-based lasers. It is theoretically possible to create a laser that can be mounted and fired from a submarine, probably using some combination of superhydrophobic surfaces and high-strength windows in front of the mirror that can take the shock of water on them being vaporized. The problem is that the submarine itself does not make a good laser platform. Modern submarines are optimized for underwater operation, which tends to mean poor stability on the surface, and mounting the mirror is not a trivial task when one remembers that the submarine as a whole has to be waterproof. However, such a submarine is not entirely unprecedented. The USS Triton (SSRN-586) was designed as a radar picket, and built to perform well on the surface. This had significant drawbacks, most notably in making the submarine very noisy underwater. On one hand, Triton was designed before the beginning of serious emphasis on submarine silencing. On the other, a large portion of the noise problem is likely to be inherent in the hull form required for surfaced performance. On the gripping hand, sonar detection is likely to be somewhat less important in planetary defense.
A laser launch system would also serve as an effective planetary defense station, provided with the proper targeting systems. The drawback is that the laser itself is in a known location, denying it the element of surprise even for its first shot. Depending on the geometry of a planetary invasion
(discussed in section 12)it might or might not be capable of firing on incoming enemies before it is destroyed.
Other means of intercepting the bombardment projectiles have been proposed, as well. Most of these rely on the fact that a kinetic projectile is vulnerable to disruption during its entry into the atmosphere. These proposals have ranged from nearby explosions to barrage balloons to some form of hit-to-kill CIWS. All would disrupt the projectile enough for it to disintegrate, dumping almost all of its kinetic energy into the atmosphere. The presence of effective defenses of some sort would greatly reduce the vulnerability of ground targets, particularly dug-in ones. A similar concept was the ‘Dust Defense’ proposed during SDI, which involved using buried nuclear weapons to throw dust high into the atmosphere to destroy incoming warheads. However, only limited information on the concept is available, precluding further analysis.
A potential use for smaller, portable lasers is a dazzle system. Smaller, lower-powered lasers are used to blind the attackers, allowing the defender to escape observation for a short time. However, this is easily defeated by the use of multiple networked sensors, some of them on small, unmanned satellites that are essentially impossible to detect passively from the ground. In some ways the best use of such lasers might be as a distraction from something important going on elsewhere. Both optics and processing power make it impossible to monitor an entire hemisphere in high detail and in real time.
The last option the defender has is cannon of some kind. When first proposed, this solution was questioned, as firing a cannon up a couple hundred kilometers runs into the problem of firing through the atmosphere. It was later realized that Project HARP had done exactly that in the early 1960s. Using a modified 16-inch gun, sub-caliber projectiles were fired to altitudes of up to 180 kilometers. Obviously the HARP launcher would be unsuited to planetary defense roles, but it has been proved possible to fire ballistic projectiles from sea level (the HARP test site was on a beach in Bermuda) to significant altitudes. However, these altitudes alone are insufficient to reach a target in most orbits. The muzzle velocity for the high-altitude tests was approximately 2100 m/s. This can be compared to 2500 m/s for the Navy’s railgun project. For comparison, the early models of the SM-3 had a delta-V of about 4 km/s, while the later models are about 6 km/s. If increases in velocity due to a switch to electromagnetic launching prove insufficient, then there is the option of using a rocket-boosted projectile. This would require significantly less delta-V than a conventional rocket, preserving many of the advantages of the purely ballistic system.
Ballistic defense shares advantages and disadvantages with both lasers and missiles. Any installation will almost certainly be fixed, as it requires a long barrel, though advanced coil/railguns might not have to be. However, unlike lasers, a ballistic system does not by definition give away its position with each shot. It is likely that the enemy could spot the muzzle flash if a chemical cannon is used, but railguns and coilguns do not have this problem. The projectile would have to be guided, but it is possible to acceleration-harden a projectile, and aerodynamic effects could be used for minor course changes while low in the atmosphere, reducing required delta-V and preventing backtracking to the launch site. At the same time, intense surveillance and intelligence efforts could probably locate the launch site eventually, and unlike lasers, all of the machinery must be close to the surface.
One advantage of cannons over missiles is that the projectile is much harder to detect during the climb. The projectile lacks the exhaust signature of the missile, and is also smaller, both contributing to lower detection ranges and engagement times. Also, it can be presumed that shells are cheaper than missiles. There have been some real-world investigations of electromagnetic suborbital launch systems, most notably by the ESA 2. Their investigation concluded that it would indeed be possible to use a railgun to replace sounding rockets, firing a 3 kg payload through a 22 m barrel at a velocity of 2,158 m/s. The maximum altitude of the system was expected to be 120 km. While this is a bit lower than would be necessary in a planetary-defense system, it does show the feasibility of such a system, and there is even the potential that it could be truck-mounted. The largest problem with such a mounting would probably be power, although ultracapacitors could be used to store and transport power generated by deeply-buried reactors to the launch trucks.
In the absence of effective laser bombardment capability, aircraft become a viable defensive platform. They are nearly impossible to target with kinetics, although some form of autonomous antiaircraft missile might be effective. The use of aircraft for planetary defense has some precedent. The US ASM-135 ASAT missile was air launched, and had a ceiling of approximately 560 km. The greatest advantage of air launch is that the launch platform can rapidly move to cover a vulnerable area. The greatest disadvantage is the facilities required to base a conventional aircraft, which are immobile and vulnerable to bombardment. VTOL aircraft would make this more practical, but the support facilities (and landed aircraft) would still be capable of being targeted. However, it might be possible to use point defenses to secure an aircraft base, and deploy the aircraft as mobile missile platforms at need.
Lasers could also be mounted on aircraft, much like the YAL-1. Aerodynamic limitations on the size of the mirror make it doubtful that an aircraft could successfully duel a spacecraft, and it is hard to see a set of technical assumptions under which aircraft-mounted lasers are practical but spacecraft-mounted ones are not. Among other things, the physical environment of an aircraft is rather less well-suited to precise control of a laser than is a properly-designed spacecraft. The aerodynamic forces on the aircraft will tend to produce vibration, which is undesirable when using lasers, and absent in spacecraft. Crew, fluids, and thrust will also contribute, and are likely to be larger in magnitude than those found on spacecraft. The atmosphere does provide a slight advantage in terms of cooling, and the fact that an aircraft can be presumed to be operating near a base increases the practicality of chemical lasers. On the other hand, aircraft can successfully use clouds to protect themselves against lasers, which require gigawatt levels of power to burn through fast enough to track an aircraft.
While not technically surface defenses in the conventional sense, fortifications on moons could be vital for planetary defense. Luna is a bit far out from earth for it to make a really effective fortress, but Phobos and Deimos would make excellent bases for large lasers. The mass of the moon gives lots of places to dump vibration and heat to, and Phobos orbits in 7 hours 40 minutes, while Deimos takes 30.3 hours. Even Luna could be strategically important, depending on the scenario. Ignoring possible infrastructure present on Luna that would make it worth defending in its own right, there are several reasons that a defender would desire to deny it to an attacker.
The most likely reason to land on Luna would be remass, although the practicality of that depends on the remass used by the fleet. That in turn depends on the type of thruster used. The standard cases used throughout this paper are chemfuel, nuclear-thermal, and electric of some kind. Availability of remass for chemfuel and nuclear-thermal engines obviously depends upon the type of remass. Some chemful mixtures, like aluminum-oxygen, are readily available anywhere on the lunar surface. Others require much scarcer and more valuable elements, particularly hydrogen. While the LCROSS mission did confirm the presence of large amounts of water at the poles, this water is likely to be too valuable for life-support purposes to be used as remass feedstock during normal times. A potential attacker, however, might not care. An NTR can theoretically use just about anything as remass, with exhaust velocity varying based on temperature, it is incredibly difficult to build one that will run with both oxidizing remass, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide and water, and reducing remass, such as hydrogen, ammonia, and methane
(See Section 14 for more details on this). Of these, only oxygen is truly readily available from lunar sources. While there is water, the quantity is limited enough that using it for remass is questionable. Also, the high molecular mass of the water makes it a less-than-ideal candidate for NTR usage.
Electric thrusters are less likely to be able to get remass from Lunar sources (due to lack of information about both thruster propellants and body composition, the author refuses to speculate about other celestial bodies). On the other hand, electric thrusters have much higher exhaust velocities, so less remass in total is required for a campaign. In fact, the availability of a given remass is likely to play a significant factor in its selection for use on a vessel. Most modern Hall Thrusters and other ion thrusters use Xenon for remass. While Xenon is basically ideal for use as remass, it is far too rare to support the level of interplanetary trade that would be a prerequisite for any sort of serious war. Krypton is the next best choice, but it is also too rare. Argon is less effective, but probably the best among the noble gasses from an operational and engineering standpoint. Some early ion thrusters were tested with Cadmium and Mercury, but both of these have had serious operational issues during tests, and are not notably abundant on or off Earth. Possibly the best option is colloidal thrusters. These use some form of hydrocarbon fuel, which has the advantage of being no less abundant than the other options throughout the solar system, and significantly more abundant on Earth. However, the technical advantages of one of the other designs might well outweigh the logistical ones of the colloidal thruster, and the author does not know enough about the issue to be sure one way or the other.
1 Seapower and Space by Norman Friedman provided most of the information on attempts to detect submarines from space, along with information on the importance of satellite communications. It also pointed out that some stories of US nonacoustic detection might have been the result of deceptions intended to trick the Soviets into spending money in an attempt to match them."
2 Electromagnetic Railgun Technology for the Deployment of Small Sub-Orbital Payloads.