Misconceptions about Space Warfare

(ed note: this is a commentary about the computer game Children of a Dead Earth)

I see a lot of misconceptions about space in general, and space warfare in specific, so today I’ll go ahead and debunk some. In the process, we’ll go through the moment to moment of space warfare itself.

Zeroth misconception, no, there won’t be stealth in space, let alone in combat. It is possible through a series of hypothetical technologies or techniques, but it won’t be possible for any reasonable spacecraft under reasonable mass and cost restraints.

Now then, on to the first real misconception. Wouldn’t missiles dominate the battle space, being fired from hundreds of thousands of kilometers away? Wouldn’t actual exchange of projectile weapons never happen in reality?

The answer is no, actually. There is a prevailing hypothesis that missiles will soon be the only relevant weapon on the battle space, and it is likely borne out of current trends in modern warfare. ATGWs are already starting to upend tank warfare, and Anti-ship missiles are doing something similar to naval warfare. Indefinitely extrapolating this trend would lead one to conclude warfare will soon be nothing but people sitting in their spacecrafts launching missiles at one another.

But this is not true. CIWS point defense systems are already starting to shift the balance away from missile strikes. As suggested in an earlier blog post, military strategists are even beginning to suggest the development of CIWS systems may bring naval warfare full circle, all the way back to World War I battleship warfare. This isn’t to suggest that missiles are useless. Indeed, enormous salvos of missiles are effective at overwhelming CIWS systems, and they are in game as well.

Yet we begin to see the limitations of each system. Point defense systems, railguns, coilguns, conventional guns, or even lasers, are power limited in this exchange. There is a finite amount of power to use when firing, except for conventional guns. Conventional guns suffer from low muzzle velocities, and high muzzle velocities are crucial to intercepting missiles coming at you at greater than 1 km/s. This power limitation is what prevents these point defense systems from being impervious to missile salvos. Power consumption is limited by radiator mass actually, as simply slapping down more nuclear reactors is easy, but trying to deal with the added mass of all the radiators needed to cool those reactors is much more difficult.

Missiles, on the other hand, are also limited by mass. A hundred-missile salvo is sure to overwhelm any point defense system, but the amount of mass this requires the launching ship to take on is enormous, and will kill its mass ratio. In the end, it turns out the Rocket Equation governs just how effective missiles and point defense systems are. In game, the systems ended up surprisingly balanced, with neither being a dominant strategy, with either being more effective in certain situations, and weaker in others.

Next misconception, wouldn’t lasers dominate the battle space? Lasers do not suffer from many of the inaccuracy problems that projectile weapons do, and move at the speed of light, so they are literally impossible to dodge. So lasers are the king of the battle space, right?

Wrong. Lasers suffer from diffraction. Badly. The power of lasers in space drops painfully fast with distance, and frequency doubling only ameliorates the issue slightly. Lasers are notoriously low efficiency compared to projectile weapons. But that’s not the main issue. When comparing hypervelocity projectile impact research with laser ablation research, one discovers a stark contrast in their efficacy. Laser ablation is simply less effective at causing damage than projectile impacts. Whereas hypervelocity projectiles cause spallations and cave in armor effectively, laser ablation is poor, with energy wasted to vaporization, radiation, and heat conduction to surrounding armor. On the other hand, at very close ranges, where diffraction is not an issue, lasers outperform projectiles easily. Unfortunately, nothing aside from missiles will likely ever get that close, and even then, they will likely be within close focus ranges for milliseconds at most.

Lasers still useful at long ranges, though. Lasers fill a very specific niche in space warfare, and that is of precision destruction of weakly armored systems at long distances. Lasers are very good at melting down exposed enemy weapons, knocking out their rocket exhaust nozzles, and most importantly, killing drones. While missiles have very few weak points, and can shrug off laser damage with thick plating, drones have exposed weapons and radiators, which makes them very vulnerable to lasers.

In terms of actually destroying enemy capital ships, however, lasers can cut into the enemy bulkhead all day with basically zero effect (I measured the ablation of a monolithic armor plate at one point, and found that the ablation was happening at micrometers per second).

Final, misconception, wouldn’t computers just control everything in combat?

Yes and no, but mostly no. CIWS systems are already computer controlled, and all weapon aiming is similarly already controlled by the computer in game. Anything that has easily computable maxima are solved by computers in game. But there are numerous choices in combat which have no obvious local maxima, and these require human decisions. In other words, you the player and commander need to make these choices. As it turns out, the right or wrong decision can mean the difference between victory and failure.

In game, you won’t be aiming any weapons and firing them, nor will you be flying drones around. The computer can do both better than you, and so the computer will be in control of these things (besides, do you really think you could effectively aim at a speck of light 50 km away moving at 1 km/s at you?).

What you will have control of are the higher level strategic decisions. The orders you give your missiles, drones, and capital ships are crucial decisions you must make in combat. Will you send your missiles in a beeline at your enemy, or perhaps order them to spend valuable delta-v dodging enemy point defense fire? Should you retract your radiators to reduce your heat signature to avoid enemy missiles, and risk the loss of your firepower for the precious few seconds? Should you hold your drones in reserve, close to your carrier, or send them guns blazing as the enemy capital ships approach?

Also as well, one of the critical choices you can make is what to target of the enemy. Each subsystem of every enemy spacecraft is simulated in real time. The reactors draw power, the radiators expel heat, the turrets and guns drain power, all in real time. If you want to disable the enemy’s ability to harm you, the obvious choice is to go for the weapons. But weapons are small, hard to hit unless you have a laser. Going for the enemy’s radiators might be an alternative strategy, with radiators being large, easy targets, although radiators, once armored, are surprisingly sturdy. Not remotely as strong as monolithic armor, but still able to take a reasonable beating of projectile and laser hits. Of course, maybe taking out of the enemy’s engines is more your style, the rocket nozzles being flimsy and poorly armored to allow them to gimbal easier. Plus, a ship that can’t move or dodge is a much easier target.

But most importantly, orbital mechanics are king in Children of a Dead Earth. Indeed, orbital mechanics are the core mechanic of the game, even, counterintuitively, in combat. Once you reach weapon range, orbital mechanics lose most of their relevance, but everything up to that point hinges on orbital mechanics.

Your incoming speed and angle of attack entering combat, two critical attributes which govern how the combat unfolds, are determined entirely by your ability to use orbital mechanics to your advantage. How near or far you are from the nearest gravity well (planet, moon, or asteroid) has a huge effect on combat speeds. Additionally, evading the enemy before even entering combat is a big part of the game. If you can drain the enemy’s delta-v through effective orbital mechanics, they may fight at reduced effectiveness in combat. If you’re good enough, you might be able to run them out of delta-v entirely, and never even have to enter combat at all!

From Misconceptions about Space Warfare by Zane Mankowski (2016)

Weapon Mounts

As a general rule, a space warship is basically a "weapons platform." It is just a way to move some weapons that you control into a strategic position.

Single weapons and multi-weapon turrets are mounted on "hardpoints" or "weapon stations." These are positions on the spacecraft's hull that are designed to carry the mass of the weapon. One only hangs a heavy picture frame on a nail in a wall stud, not just the wall board. For the same reason only mount a heavy turret on a hardpoint, not on a flimsy stretch of hull. Some hulls are about as strong as the skin on a beer can.

Turrets pivot to allow aiming the weapon(s). Homing missiles are often mounted in "vertical launch systems" or "missile cells", because they do not have to be aimed. Fire and forget, they'll automatically find the target.

Naturally some people who are into hyper-optimization and min-maxing will quickly switch from mounting weapons on a ship to building the ship around a weapon. A monstrously huge weapon, with a fixed forward facing.

Of course you probably have to turn the entire spacecraft in order to aim the weapon, but the ship is going to smite the target with the most bang for your buck. It certainly will be the sort of ship that will blast the snot out of you if you are stupid enough to turn around and try running away. The ship will also have a similar outline as the weapon, probably long and skinny. Popular spinal mount weapons are coil guns, rail guns, and particle beam weapons, since those weapons inflict more damage the longer the weapon is.

The weapon can be mounted on the ship's nose, along the ship's side ("dorsally" or "ventrally", but RocketCat will rip your lips off if you use those terms), or along the ship's spine.

In extreme cases the weapon is the ship's spine, this is what the Traveller RPG calls a "spinal mount". A good example is the "Wave motion gun" that forms the spine of Space Battleship Yamato. In the real world the A-10 Warthog ground-attack aircraft is pretty much built around its 30 mm GAU-8/A Avenger Gatling-type cannon. And Matthew Marden pointed out to me that in 1890 the USS Vesuvius was virtually a spinal mount, with "dynamite guns" fixed in both traverse and elevation.

Isaac Kuo has some interesting observations on the placement of laser turrets:

There's an interesting question of what the ideal number of turrets is. One thing that's counterintuitive is that the number of turrets has little effect on total firepower. Your laser engine(s) can fire the beam down a central corridor, with mirrors to select a branch toward any of the laser turrets. No matter how many turrets you have, you can concentrate all laser firepower through one turret.

I tend to favor two turrets on opposite sides. Besides providing all around coverage and some redundancy, it also allows use of a "hunter-killer" tactic. While one turret fires the laser to kill a target, the other turret can be scanning to "hunt" for the next target. This allows a near instantaneous switch from one target to the next, minimizing down time for the laser engine.

More importantly, this has a big tactical effect on the enemy's options. Suppose each of your ships only had one laser turret, and the enemy knows this. Then the enemy knows it takes some time for you to switch from the current targets to new targets. If the enemy notices that all of your ships are firing on particular targets, he can take advantage of this to open up sensitive sensors or radiators onboard the non-targeted ships. He knows that if you want to fire on a different target, he's got enough time to close protective "shutters". In contrast, with two turrets per ship nowhere is safe from being targeted.

This depends on the type of laser, of course. With typical IR-UV wavelength lasers, the availability of efficient mirrors generally makes this a compelling option. You only need one or two turrets for full coverage (or practically full coverage), but you might still include more turrets for redundancy and/or "hunter-killer" tactics (one turret hunts for the next target while the current turret kills the current target).

Other types of laser work differently. In particular, an X-ray free electron laser requires pointing the entire ship at the target - particularly if a widely spaced zone plate is used to focus it (the zone plate may be light seconds away, placed between the beam generating ship and the target).

And yet, even in that case the electron beam accelerator might be multi-purpose. The electron beam can be diverted to turreted wigglers for short range lasers, and the electron beam might even be used directly for various purposes. In particular, the electron beam could be used for ablative propulsion of dumb defensive drones (just dumb rocks vaguely near the ship), as well as ablative propulsion for the ship itself.

I'd say a "spinal mount" is fixed with respect to the long axis of a spacecraft, but the main direction of thrust could be some other direction. In fact, it makes more sense for the direction of thrust to be sideways to the long axis of a warship, or for the main thrusters to be turreted.

It generally makes sense to try and present a narrow profile to the enemy. This may actually be generally impossible when the enemy has more than one warship, so the ideal shape might actually be a reversed cone (a teardrop shape). But when you need a kilometer long X-ray wiggler, such a compact shape may be out of the question.

If you are pointing toward the enemy, having main thrusters pointing directly away from the enemy basically eliminates all maneuver capability. You have one degree of freedom, along a direction which is entirely dependent upon the enemy's maneuvers. Basically, you give up both maneuver capability and forward planning capability.

But having main thrusters pointed "broadside" gives you two degrees of freedom, and gives you the flexibility to maneuver freely perpendicular to the enemy. Even better is if the main thrusters can rotate a bit in one dimension. That basically gives you complete flexibility to thrust in practically any direction regardless of the enemy's maneuvers.

That's assuming you have something that looks like traditional thrusters. If your main thrust comes from pulsed ablation/spallation of the ship's main armor/hull, things may look very different anyway.

Isaac Kuo
Spinal, Broadside, and Turreted Weapons

Wherever nerds Science Fiction fans gather to debate the future of space warfare there are several debates that almost always pop up sooner or later, and which  seldom generate a consensus.    One of the most popular is the debate over fixed Vs turreted weapon mounts, with the fixed weapons divided into spinal mounts, and less commonly broadside mounts.  Related is the discussion over which of the three main direct fire weapons likely to be used in space combat - Laser, Particle Beam, and Kinetic - are most suited to each of the three mounting options.  In this blogpost I'm going to attempt a analysis of the specific strengths and weaknesses of each type of mounting, which weapon fits them best, and the tactical scenarios in which they offer the biggest advantages.  I'll also cover the worldbuilding needed to justify each option in your 'Verse.

The Spinal Mount

Definition: A weapon firing in a fixed forward arc, parallel to the direction of thrust, with limited elevation or traverse, and typically running through a significant portion of the spacecraft's length.

   Spinal or Keel mounted weapons are interesting because, unlike turrets or fixed weapons, they have no current real-world counterpart aside from fighter aircraft.  The sea going battleships that provide inspiration for many SF works used broadsides during the age of sail, and turrets in the era of Big Gun battleships, but a single forward firing weapon has never been used to my knowledge aside from a few submarines like the Surcouf, and that was neither common nor in line with the spinal mounts of SF.  If anything their closest analogy is the main gun of a turretless tank hunter.  Even that is a poor comparison given the role stealth plays in tank warfare, and the degree to which it is impossible in space.

   The rational behind the Spinal Mount is straightforward and pretty logical; the bigger the gun the better, right?  Most 'guns' in SF are in fact accelerators of some kind; railguns, coil-guns or gauss cannon, ram accelerators, and particle beams.  What this means is that muzzle velocity scales directly with the length of the weapon, rather than their being a optimum barrel length as their is with conventional firearms.  There are engineering limits, or those imposed by material science, but the highest theoretical velocity is as close to the speed of light as you can get.  A Spinal mount also translates the power of the weapon to the audience quite easily, especially when coupled with long recharge times and/or cool down.  The MAC guns of HALO and the Wave Motion Cannon of Space Battleship Yamato are pretty typical of this trope.

   There are a few disadvantages with the spinal mount, most of which revolve around the fact that the spacecraft must manoeuvre to aim the weapon.  Even if the finer adjustments are done internally rather than by the spacecraft's alignment it will still limit the speed that the spacecraft can edge widely separated targets.  It also means that if a enemy emerged unexpectedly from hyperspace the spinal mount might not have time to be oriented before it is destroyed.  Most spacecraft armed in this way are shown with only one main gun, with is a disadvantage if it breaks down or is disabled by enemy fire.  The spinal mount might well be a glass cannon, extremely dangerous, but needing other ships to contribute to its defence, especially if under attack by multiple enemy.

   While the time needed to aim, and the disadvantage of only being able to engage targets in the same direction at once are inescapable the problem of manoeuvrability may not be an issue.  A spacecraft equipped with a powerful gauss cannon, railgun, particle beam, or laser, will have plentiful electric power.  This can be used to power multiple thrusters distributed all over the spacecraft, rather than having them clumped together, and allowing acceleration in any direction.  With many fictional spacecraft the main drives are to large, expensive, or radioactive to allow this, but for more realistic low accelerations electrothermal or plasma based drives may do fine.

   The advantages are many.  A spacecraft can fit a larger spinal weapon than it could hope to fit into a turret, something likely to hold true for any size of spacecraft.  This is partially due to the fact that a turret has to turn, and so has limits on the mass and size of the weapon, and partially to the fact that recoil forces along the line of thrust can be absorbed by the thrust structure instead of by a complicated system of articulation.  This can also make the weapon more accurate as it will not have to cope with the vibration of turret articulation, or the fox in a unsupported barrel.  Greater muzzle velocity has the advantage of imparting a longer effective range on particle beam and kinetic weapons, helping to negate their inherent weakness.  Even if the energy they output is the same as a physically smaller weapon, the increased range will make them more effective at ranged combat, something there is likely to be a lot of in space.  And they do not need the cool down time shown in SF.  The most powerful might, but it should not be a surprise to find MAC gun like weapon with rapid fire capabilities. 

   Kinetic weapons benefit the most from a spinal mount as opposed to a turret or broadside since it helps to overcome their greatest weakness - low velocity.  Particle beams may also be common in this role since the long skinny shape of a particle accelerator fits the bill nicely.  Lasers on the other hand do not seem to be a good candidate.  Lasers do not benefit from having a longer physical shape, it is the diameter of the emitter that counts.  While there is an analogue — a spacecraft with a single massive mirror at the front — it has its own advantages and disadvantages, and does not really fit the description of a classic spinal mount.  Operationally it would be employed the same however, and have the advantage in rage over smaller turreted counterparts.

   It is this range benefit coupled with the low turning rate that define the use of spinal weapons.  They are the long ranged artillery of space.  If they can maintain range from the enemy the extra range might make them well right invulnerable, while if used in a defensive role that extra reach will fore the enemy to run a gauntlet of fire.  A battle between two of these spacecraft would be like a sniper duel — few tactics, with the one with the greatest accuracy coming out on top.  They would be at a disadvantage in any battle where there are multiple vectors of attack, or one that starts at close range. In a battlefield dominated by missiles they might not fare to well, but one that focuses on direct fire is likely to see them.

   The 'Verse that features spinal weapon can fall anywhere on the spectrum of scientific realism.  Given their long range and potential firepower it seems likely that any space force will have some in its ranks, and that they will form an important part of tactical doctrine.  One thing to note is that they become less attractive as the number and acceleration of ships increases as this brings out their weakness.  A jump drive that allows enemy to 'slip under the guns' as it were will also compromise them.  In any battle where missiles are unviable, massive firepower is needed from smaller ships, or the enemy will be engaged at extreme range a spinal mount is justified.  Another thing to remember is that a magnetic accelerator could be developed as a civilian cargo launcher on the moon, and repurposed as a weapon during a war, similar to in Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Even particle beams or lasers that fit the design requirements might be developed as part of beamed power stations.

The Turret

Definition:  A weapon or weapons mounted on or in an articulation that provides extreme ranges of traverse and elevation, as well as commonly housing the firing/loading mechanism and gun crew.

   The turret is one of the most common styles of weapon mounting in SF, and for good reason.  Nearly all wet navy guns are mounted in turrets, as are point defence weapons, and the main gun of tanks.  It was the invention and adoption of turreted main guns, along with the invention of the steam engine, that changed the face of ocean warfare forever.  A spacecraft armed with turrets can bring more of its weapons to bare on any enemy craft, and can do so regardless of its heading.  This is obviously important in a battle involving many spacecraft in close proximity, especially those capable of fairly pronounced manoeuvres and high acceleration.  Point defence weapons are far far more effective will a turret mount than without, allowing them to track incoming.

   There are two common mistakes with the representation of turrets in SF.  The first is the idea of a turret as a bolt on unit.  While this may be the case for smaller point defence units, it is almost never true of larger weapons.  Even the small gun turrets wet navy ships still use extend below the deck level, and old battleship turrets had more concealed than exposed.  The second issue is when turrets are placed in a position where the firing arc is limited by other turrets or by the hull of the spacecraft.  While the latter is to an extent unavoidable the former defeats the purpose of having a turret to begin with.  Yes, I'm looking at you Star Wars.

   Disadvantages of the turret are simple.  For any given weapon a turret to carry it will add complexity, mass, and power requirements to the design of the combat spacecraft, reducing the overall number that can be carried and increasing the cost.  Reduced accuracy can also be a problem due to vibration from the traverse motors, increased vibration in the flexible bearings, and flex in a unsupported barrel.  There amy also be a limit to the ammo that can fit in the turret, decreasing the overall firing rate.  Unique to spacecraft is the problem that recoil forces imparted on the spacecraft are not going to be constant, and will thus be harder to account for as they impact the trajectory of the whole craft.  

   Fundamentally turrets have a single advantage; they can be aimed independently of the spacecraft's orientation.  All the other advantages - reduction in number of guns needed to provide coverage in terms of point defence, ability to engage multiple targets in different directions etc are all derived from the former.  The advantage is most pronounced with point defence weapons, as they will face threats from many angles, and need to be able to track fast and close targets.

   Kinetic weapons are ideal for turrets given that unguided kinetics have short ranges, and it is in this envelope that turrets offer the biggest advantage.  Lasers also have a lot going for them.  Since the laser itself is likely to be in the main hull rather than the turret itself, with the beam reflected through a series of mirrors, there can actually be more turrets than the spacecraft can generate laser light for.  Whichever turrets are needed have laser directed into them, and the loss of a few to enemy fire is not such a disadvantage since the total energy output does not decrease.  Particle beams benefit the least.  This is both due tho their long skinny shape in most designs, and to the fact that bending a particle beam at any kind of angle will produce synchrotron radiation.  Tis could of course be overcome by having truely massive turrets or miniaturised particle beams.  In terms of point defence lasers are likely to be dominant given their accuracy at range, and the fact that a missile probably won't be too well armoured compared to a spacecraft.  Adaptive optics can also give point defence turrets quicker focusing and greater accuracy.  Kinetic point defence will be regulated to slower firing 'flak guns' that throw up a wall of shrapnel rather than targeting individual threats.

   Unlike broadside and spinal mounts turrets have the best chance of dominance in a softer SF 'Verse.  This is because they are best suited to short ranged, high relative speed combat where aim will have to be shifted quickly, and the spacecraft will be changing direction often.  They are also suited to battles where enemy spacecraft can emerge unexpectedly from hyperspace in any direction, and in which the spacecraft of both sides end up occupying the same volume of space.  Obviously force fields or shields help in this regard as they encourage ships to close to kinetic range where they can output more damage.  In a hard science 'Verse close quarters battles are unlikely as everyone will be seen long before they get into range, and with the ranges that are more realistic decrease the disadvantage of fixed weapons and emphasise range and accuracy.  Turrets will always be used as point defence installations however, so they will never be absent.  A lot of works also feature turret mounted kinetic guns as secondary weapons, like the Sulaco from Aliens; this is quite likly considering the relatively small size that kinetic weapons can have while remaining potent enough to be included.

The Broadside

Definition:  Weapons mounted at right angles to the direction of thrust, usually within the main hull of the spacecraft, and with limited traverse and elevation. 

   A fixed broadside battery is one of the most uncommon arrangements to be seen in SF, with turrets being far more common.  The only one that I can think of in visual SF is the gun deck aboard the Separatist ship at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith.  In written works the Black Fleet Trilogy by Joshua Dalzelle had what sounded like a fixed battery of laser weapons on the ship that acts as the setting for most of the first book, but it was never implicitly stated.  In the Honor Harrington books the beam weapons were, by memory, in broadside arrangement; a necessity imposed by the gravity drives used.  There are also the quite common examples in visual media where turrets are shown that would be unable to fire in any arc except that of a broadside.  Most of the turreted guns seen in the Star Wars movies fall into this category, with the Venator Class being a prime example.

   The scarcity of this arrangement is not unexpected.  With the prevalence of the 'Space is a Ocean' trope it is to be expected that a design philosophy that long ago gave way to turret armament should find little traction.  Where it is found it is most often for the visual effect, or because the work is intentionally trying to mimic the battles of the Napoleonic War transposed into space.

   There are not so many advantages to this type of design, and the conditions under which it become practicable are quite specific.  The main advantages are those shared by any fixed weapon mount.  Each weapon will mass less than an equivalent turret, and be simpler in construction.  It may be more accurate since it can be mounts straight to the spacecraft's structure via recoil absorbing mechanisms, reducing vibration.  Ease of access would also be a big factor, especially with advanced and perhaps temperamental weapons since turrets have never been known as spacious.  The weapon itself might also be more massive than a turret could cope with, or have a larger recoil force.

   Disadvantages are pretty obvious.  Limited traverse and elevation impose a greater need for manoeuvrability on the spacecraft, and run the risk that at close range or high traverse speed a more manoeuvrable target could stay out of the fire arc entirely.  This is partially avoided with lasers, since with adaptive optics they can have quite a good arc of fire without the actual emitter being articulated.  Since they cannot fire forward the spacecraft is at a disadvantage accelerating toward or away from a target, although this may not be a problem depending on the technology level of the 'Verse.  The broadside, and all fixed weapons, are at a disadvantage in a 'Verse where FTL can allow a enemy spacecraft to appear unexpectedly in any direction.  The need to rotate the entire spacecraft is going to slow down response times significantly compared to a turreted vessel.  Conversely the broadside is more attractive in a hard science 'Verse where you will always see the enemy coming.

   A broadside thus falls best into a 'Verse with fairly low accelerations and long engagement ranges.  It also becomes a lot more practical if the main offensive weapon is a missile attack from standoff range, especially if it is one involving tens or hundreds of missiles, and possible submunitions.  The ability to carry more weapons for the same mass than in turrets, coupled with the greater accuracy and potentially greater effective range would give the broadside ship a very good defence against missile spam attacks.  Against such an attack it is the volume, range, and accuracy of defensive fire that will stop your spacecraft from being ventilated by a hypervelocity penetrator, and in this regard the broadside holds the advantage.  Also, the greater the number of weapons, the more incoming can be targeted at once.

   Lasers or kinetic weapons would be the most practical.  Lasers would benefit from having many emitters, allowing more incoming to be targeted at once, and for kinetics it allows a greater overall rate of fire, important given their inaccuracy.  With kinetics it could also extend their offensive range by filling more space with metal than would be possible with fewer weapons and making it difficult to evade with low thrust levels; range would still be terrible compared to other weapons however.   Charged particle beams could interfere with each other, but a neutral beam wouldn't ave that issue.  The soft-kill ability of a particle beam might also prove handy against missile attacks; the beams could even be defocused to fill a huge volume of space with relativistic plasma, providing a potent radiation hazard for any incoming missiles.  But without exact numbers it seems impossible to give any of the three weapon types a clear advantage for broadside use; it depends doll on the details of the setting.

   Some of you might object to the idea that lasers are better with many emitters, and it is a common debate.  Do you use one emitter with longer range, or many smaller?  My reasoning is that in a 'Verse where missiles are a viable main offensive weapon they will broadly be able to fire enough missiles with enough submunitions that the extra range is not such a great advantage, more so since a accelerating missile at a half a light second or so is going to be phenomenally hard to hit, and could be travelling at a huge speed by that time.  In any case, a computer controlled array of smaller emitters can act as a single larger emitter to some extent, in the same way as many modern telescopes use mirrors composed of multiple segments.

   Although not strictly a 'broadside' a missile armed spacecraft might have its storage silos arranged in the same configuration to allow more rapid deployment.  With warfare based on missile spam the ability to unleash more missiles in less time might be the best chance at victory, and having the equivalent of a current VLS(Vertical Launch System) might be the ideal.  This could also look pretty cool visually while maintaining realism, so take notice Hollywood!

Nukes In Space

As you should know, there are two types of nuclear weapons. An "atomic bomb" is a weapon with a war-head powered by nuclear fission. An "H-bomb" or "hydrogen bomb" is a weapon with more powerful warhead powered by nuclear fusion.

You can read all about the (unclassified) details of their internal construction and mechanism here.

Occasionally you will find a fusion weapon referred to as a "Solar-Phoenix" or a "Bethe-cycle" weapon. This is a reference to the nuclear scientist Hans Bethe and the Bethe-Weizsäcker or carbon-nitrogen cycle which powers the fusion reaction in the heart of stars heavier than Sol.

A "neutron bomb" is what you call an "enhanced radiation bomb". They are specially constructed so more of the bomb's energy is emitted as neutrons instead of x-rays. This means there is far less blast to damage the buildings, but far more lethal neutron radiation to kill the enemy troops.

You will also occasionally find references to a nasty weapon called a "cobalt bomb". This is technically termed a "salted bomb". It is not used for spacecraft to spacecraft combat, it is only used for planetary bombardment. They are enhanced-fallout weapons, with blankets of cobalt or zinc to generate large quantities of deadly radioactive cobalt or zinc isotope dust.

Please note the difference between a "salted bomb" and a "dirty bomb".

A dirty bomb is an ordinary chemical explosive in a bag of ground-up radioactive material. The chemical explosion merely sprays the powdered plutonium or whatever all over the city block. Strictly a terrorist weapon, it is pretty worthless as a military weapon.

A salted bomb is a nuclear warhead designed to make a nuclear explosion that will spread fallout that is thousands of times more radioactive that mere powdered plutonium over a quarter of a continent.


As far as warhead mass goes, Anthony Jackson says the theoretical limit on mass for a fusion warhead is about 1 kilogram per megaton. No real-world system will come anywhere close to that, The US W87 thermonuclear warhead has a density of about 500 kilograms per megaton. Presumably a futuristic warhead would have a density between 500 and 1 kg/Mt. Calculating the explosive yield of a weapon is a little tricky.

For missiles, consider the US Trident missile. Approximately a cylinder 13.41 m in length by 1.055 m in radius, which makes it about 47 cubic meters. Mass of 58,500 kg, giving it a density of 1250 kg/m3. The mass includes eight warheads of approximately 160 kg each.

Wildly extrapolating far beyond the available data, one could naively divide the missile mass by the number of warheads, and divide the result by the mass of an individual warhead. The bottom line would be that a warhead of mass X kilograms would require a missile of mass 45 * X kilograms, and a volume of 0.036 * X cubic meters (0.036 = 45 / 1250). Again futuristic technology would reduce this somewhat.

Nuclear weapons will destroy a ship if they detonate exceedingly close to it. But if it is further away than about a kilometer, it won't do much more than singe the paint job and blind a few sensors. And in space a kilometer is pretty close range.

Please understand: I am NOT saying that nuclear warheads are ineffective. I am saying that the amount of damage they inflict falls off very rapidly with increasing range. At least much more rapidly than with the same sized warhead detonated in an atmosphere.

But if the nuke goes off one meter from your ship, your ship will probably be vaporized. Atmosphere or no.

George William Herbert says a nuke going off on Terra has most of the x-ray emission is absorbed by the atmosphere, and is transformed into the first fireball and the blast wave. There ain't no atmosphere in space so the nuclear explosion is light on blast and heavy on x-rays. In fact, almost 90% of the bomb energy will appear as x-rays behaving as if they are from a point source (specifically 80% soft X-rays and 10% gamma), and subject to the good old inverse square law (i.e., the intensity will fall off very quickly with range). The remaining 10% will be neutrons.

For an enhanced radiation weapon (AKA "Neutron Bomb") figures are harder to come by. The best guess figure I've managed to find was up to a maximum of 80% neutrons and 20% x-rays.

The fireball and blast wave is why nuclear warheads detonating in the atmosphere will flatten buildings for tens of kilometers, but detonations in space have a damage range under one kilometer.

If you want to get more bang for your buck, there is a possibility of making nuclear shaped charges. Instead of wasting their blast on a spherical surface, it can be directed at the target spacecraft. This will reduce the surface area of the blast, thus increasing the value for kiloJoules per square meter.

According to John Schilling, with current technology, the smallest nuclear warhead would probably be under a kiloton, and mass about twenty kilograms. A one-megaton warhead would be about a metric ton, though that could be reduced by about half with advanced technology.

Eric Rozier has an on-line calculator for nuclear weapons. Eric Henry has a spreadsheet that does nuclear blast calculations, including shaped charges, on his website. For bomb blasts on the surface of the Earth or other planet with an atmosphere, you can use the handy-dandy Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer. But if you really want to do it in 1950's Atomic Rocket Retro style, make your own do-it-yourself Nuclear Bomb Slide Rule!

Kilotons per Kilogram

(ed note: this is a historical look at the kiloton per kilogram alphas of actual nuclear weapons. Also see his interactive Yield To Weight explorer)

What makes nuclear weapons impressive and terrible is that their default yield-to-weight ratio — that is, the amount of bang per mass, usually expressed in terms of kilotons per kilogram (kt/kg) — is much, much higher than conventional explosives. Take TNT for example. A ton of TNT weighs, well, a ton. By definition. So that’s 0.001 kilotons per 1,000 kilograms; or 0.000001 kt/kg. By comparison, even a crude weapon like the Little Boy bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons in a 4,400 kg package: 0.003 kt/kg. That means that the Little Boy bomb had an energy density three orders of magnitude higher than a regular TNT bomb would. Now, TNT isn’t the be-all and end-all of conventional explosives, but no conventional explosive gets that much boom for its buck compared to a nuke.

The Little Boy yield is much lower than the hypothetical energy density of uranium-235. For every kilogram of uranium-235 that completely fissions, it releases about 17 kt/kg. That means that less than a kilogram of uranium-235 fissioned in the Little Boy bomb to release its 15 kilotons of energy. Knowing that there was 64 kg of uranium in the bomb, that means that something like 1.3% of the uranium in the weapon actually underwent fission. So right off the bat, one could intuit that this is something that could probably be improved upon.

The Fat Man bomb had a much better use of fissile material than Little Boy. Its yield wasn’t that much better (around 20 kilotons), but it managed to squeeze that (literally) out of only 6.2 kilograms of plutonium-239. Pu-239 releases around 19 kilotons per kilogram that completely fissions, so that means that around 15% of the Fat Man core (a little under 1 kg of plutonium) underwent fission. But the bomb itself still weighed 4,700 kg, making its yield-to-weight ratio a mere 0.004 kt/kg. Why, despite the improve efficiency and more advanced design of Fat Man, was the yield ratio almost identical to Little Boy? Because in order to get that 1 kg of fissioning, it required a very heavy apparatus. The explosive lenses weighed something like 2,400 kilograms just by themselves. The depleted uranium tamper that held the core together and reflected neutrons added another 120 kilograms. The aluminum sphere that held the whole apparatus together weighed 520 kilograms. The ballistic case (a necessary thing for any actual weapon!) weighed another 1,400 kg or so. All of these things were necessary to make the bomb either work, or be a droppable bomb.

So it’s unsurprising to learn that improving yield-to-weight ratios was a high order of business in the postwar nuclear program. Thermonuclear fusion ups the ante quite a bit. Lithium-deuteride (LiD), the most common and usable fusion fuel, yields 50 kilotons for every kilogram that undergoes fusion — so fusion is nearly 3 times more energetic per weight than fission. So the more fusion you add to a weapon, the better the yield-to-weight ratio, excepting for the fact that all fusion weapons require a fission primary and usually also have very heavy tampers.

I took all of the reported American nuclear weapon weights and yields from Carey Sublette’s always-useful website, put them into the statistical analysis program R, and created this semi-crazy-looking graph of American yield-to-weight ratios:

The horizontal (x) axis is the yield in kilotons (on a logarithmic scale), the vertical (y) axis is the weight in kilograms (also on a log scale). In choosing which of the weights and yields to use, I’ve always picked the lowest listed weights and the highest listed yields — because I’m interested in the optimal state of the art. The individual scatter points represent models of weapons. The size of each point represents how many of them were produced; the color of them represents when they were first deployed. Those with crosses over them are still in the stockpile. The diagonal lines indicate specific yield-to-weight ratio regions.

A few points of interest here. You can see Little Boy (Mk-1), Fat Man (Mk-3), and the postwar Fat Man improvements (Mk-4 — same weight, bigger yield) at the upper left, between 0.01 kt/kg and 0.001 kt/kg. This is a nice benchmark for fairly inefficient fission weapons. At upper right, you can see the cluster of the first H-bomb designs (TX-16, EC-17, Mk-17, EC-24, Mk-24) — high yield (hence far to the right), but very heavy (hence very high). Again, a good benchmark for first generation high-yield thermonuclear weapons.

What a chart like this lets you do, then, is start to think in a really visual and somewhat quantitative way about the sophistication of late nuclear weapon designs. You can see quite readily, for example, that radical reductions in weight, like the sort required to make small tactical nuclear weapons, generally results in a real decrease in efficiency. Those are the weapons in the lower left corner, pretty much the only weapons in the Little Boy/Fat Man efficiency range (or worse). One can also see that there are a few general trends in design development over time if one looks at how the colors trend.

First there is a movement down and to the right (less weight, more yield — improved fission bombs); there is also a movement sharply up and to the right (high weight, very high yield — thermonuclear weapons) which then moves down and to the left again (high yield, lower weight — improved thermonuclear weapons). There is also the splinter of low-weight, low-yield tactical weapons as well that jots off to the lower left. In the middle-right is what appears to be a sophisticated “sweet spot,” the place where all US weapons currently in the stockpile end up, in the 0.1-3 kt/kg range, especially the 2-3 kt/kg range:

These are the bombs like the W-76 or the B-61 — bombs with “medium” yield warheads (100s rather than 1,000s of kilotons) in relatively low weight packages (100s rather than 1000s of kilograms). These are the weapons take advantage of the fact that they are expected to be relatively accurate (and thus don’t need to be in the multi-megaton range to have strategic implications), along with what are apparently sophisticated thermonuclear design tricks (like spherical secondaries) to squeeze a lot of energy out of what is a relatively small amount of material. Take the W-76 for example: its manages to get 100 kilotons of yield out of 164 kilograms. If we assume that it is a 50/50 fission to fusion ratio, that means that it manages to fully fission about 5 kilograms of fissionable material, and to fully fuse about 2 kilograms of fusionable material. And it takes just 157 kg of other apparatus (and unfissioned or unfused material) to produce that result — which is just a little more than Shaquille O’Neal weighs.

Such weapons aren’t the most efficient. Weapon designer Theodore Taylor wrote in 1987 that 6 kiloton/kilogram had been pretty much the upper limit of what had even been achieved. Only a handful of weapons got close to that. The most efficient weapon in the US stockpile was the Mk-41, a ridiculously high yield weapon (25 megatons) that made up for its weight with a lot of fusion energy.

But given that high efficiency is tied to high yields — and relatively high weights — it’s clear that the innovations that allowed for the placing of warheads on MIRVed, submarine-launched platforms are still pretty impressive. The really magical range seems to be for weapons that in the hundred kiloton range (more than 100 kilotons but under a megaton), yet under 1,000 kilograms. Every one of those dates from after 1962, and probably involves the real breakthroughs in warhead design that were first used with the Operation Dominic test series (1962). This is the kind of strategic miniaturization that makes war planners happy.

What’s the payoff of thinking about these kinds of numbers? One is that it allows you to see where innovations have been made, even if you know nothing about how the weapon works. In other words, yield-to-weight ratios can provide a heuristic for making sense of nuclear design sophistication, comparing developments over time without caring about the guts of the weapon itself. It also allows you to make cross-national comparisons in the same fashion. The French nuclear arsenal apparently developed weapons in that same miniaturized yield-to-weight range of the United States by the 1970s — apparently with some help from the United States — and so we can probably assume that they know whatever the United States figured out about miniaturized H-bomb design in the 1960s.

Or, to take another tack, and returning to the initial impetus for me looking at this topic, we know that the famous “Tsar Bomba” of the Soviet Union weighed 27,000 kilograms and had a maximum yield of 100 Mt, giving it a yield-to-weight ratio of “only” 3.43 kilotons/kilograms. That’s pretty high, but not for a weapon that used so much fusion energy. It was clear to the Atomic Energy Commission that the Soviets had just scaled up a traditional H-bomb design and had not developed any new tricks. By contrast, the US was confident in 1961 that they could make a 100 Mt weapon that weighed around 13,600 kg (30,000 lb) — an impressive 7.35 kiloton/kilogram ratio, something well above the 6 kt/kg achieved maximum. By 1962, after the Dominic series, they thought they might be able to pull off 50 Mt in only a 4,500 kg (10,000 lb) package — a kind of ridiculous 11 kt/kg ratio. (In this estimate, they noted that the weapon might have an impractically large diameter as a result, perhaps because the secondary was spherical as opposed to cylindrical.) So we can see, without really knowing much about the US had in mind, that it was planning something very, very different from what the Soviets set off.

From Kilotons per Kilogram by Alex Wellerstein (2013)


When it comes to the dreaded EMP created by nuclear detonations, matters become somewhat complicated. Please, do NOT confuse EMP (electromagnetic Pulse) with EM (electromagnetic Radiation).

Most SF fans have a somewhat superficial understanding of EMP: an evil foreign nation launches an ICBM at the United States, the nuke detonates in the upper atmosphere over the Midwest, an EMP is generated, the EMP causes all stateside computers to explode, all the TVs melt, all the automobile electrical systems short out, all the cell phones catch fire, basically anything that uses electricity is destroyed.

This is true as far as it goes, but when you start talking about deep space warfare, certain things change. Thanks to Andrew Presby for setting me straight on this matter.

First off, the EMP I just described is High Altitude EMP (HEMP). This EMP can only be generated if there is a Terra strength magnetic field and a tenuous atmosphere present. A nuke going off in deep space will not generate HEMP. Please be aware, however, if a nuke over Iowa generates a HEMP event, the EMP will travel through the airless vacuum of space just fine and fry any spacecraft that are too close.

Secondly, EMP can also be generated in airless space by an e-Bomb, which uses chemical explosives and an armature. No magnetic field nor atmosphere required. This is called a Non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NNEMP). As with all EMPs, once generated they will travel through space and kill spacecraft.

Thirdly, there is System Generated EMP (SGEMP) to consider. HEMP is created when the gamma rays from the nuclear detonation produce Compton electrons in air molecules, and the electrons interact with a magnetic field to produce EMP. But with SGEMP, gamma rays penetrating the body of the spacecraft accelerated electrons, creating electromagnetic transients.

SGEMP impacts space system electronics in three ways. First, x-rays arriving at the spacecraft skin cause an accumulation of electrons there. The electron charge, which is not uniformly distributed on the skin, causes current to flow on the outside of the system. These currents can penetrate into the interior through various apertures, as well as into and through the solar cell power transmission system. Secondly, x-rays can also penetrate the skin to produce electrons on the interior walls of the various compartments. The resulting interior electron currents generate cavity electromagnetic fields that induce voltages on the associated electronics which produce spurious currents that can cause upset or burnout of these systems. Finally, x-rays can produce electrons that find their way directly into signal and power cables to cause extraneous cable currents. These currents are also propagated through the satellite wiring harness.

Dr. George W. Ullrich

Impulsive Shock

A one kiloton nuclear detonation produces 4.19e12 joules of energy. One kilometer away from the detonation point defines a sphere with a surface area of about 12,600,000 square meters (the increase in surface area with the radius of the sphere is another way of stating the Inverse Square law). Dividing reveals that at this range the energy density is approximately 300 kilojoules per square meter. Under ideal conditions this would be enough energy to vaporize 25 grams or 10 cubic centimeters of aluminum (in reality it won't be this much due to conduction and other factors).

1e8 watts per square centimeter for about a microsecond will melt part of the surface of a sheet of aluminum. 1e9 W/cm2 for a microsecond will vaporize the surface, and 1e11 W/cm2 for a microsecond will cause enough vaporization to create impulsive shock damage (i.e., the surface layer of the material is vaporized at a rate exceeding the speed of sound). The one kiloton bomb at one kilometer only does about 3.3e7 W/cm2 for a microsecond.

One megaton at one kilometer will do 3.3e10 W/cm2, enough to vaporize but not quite enough for impulsive shock. At 100 meters our one meg bomb will do 3.3e12 W/cm2, or about 33 times more energy than is required for impulsive shock. The maximum range for impulsive shock is about 570 meters.

Luke Campbell wonders if 1e11 W/cm2 is a bit high as the minimum irradiation to create impulsive shock damage. With lasers in the visible light and infrared range, 1e9 W/cm2 to 1e10 W/cm2 is enough. But he allows that matters might be different for x-rays and gamma rays due to their extra penetration.

As to the effects of impulsive damage, Luke Campbell had this to say:

First, consider a uniform slab of material subject to uniform irradiation sufficient to cause an impulsive shock. A thin layer will be vaporized and a planar shock will propagate into the material. Assuming that the shock is not too intense (i.e., not enough heat is dumped into the slab to vaporize or melt it) there will be no material damage because of the planar symmetry. However, as the shock reaches the back side of the slab, it will be reflected. This will set up stresses on the rear surface, which tends to cause pieces of the rear surface to break off and fly away at velocities close to the shock wave velocity (somewhat reduced, of course, due to the binding energy of all those chemical bonds you need to break in order to spall off that piece). This spallation can cause significant problems to objects that don't have anything separating them from the hull. Modern combat vehicles take pains to protect against spallation for just this reason (using an inner layer of Kevlar or some such).

Now, if the material or irradiance is non-uniform, there will be stresses set up inside the hull material. If these exceed the strength of the material, the hull will deform or crack. This can cause crumpling, rupturing, denting (really big dents), or shattering depending on the material and the shock intensity.

For a sufficiently intense shock, shock heating will melt or vaporize the hull material, with obvious catastrophic results. At higher intensities, the speed of radiation diffusion of the nuke x-rays can exceed the shock speed, and the x-rays will vaporize the hull before the shock can even start. Roughly speaking, any parts of the hull within the diameter of an atmospheric fireball will be subject to this effect.

In any event, visually you would see a bright flash from the surface material that is heated to incandescence. The flash would be sudden, only if the shock is so intense as to cause significant heating would you see any extra light for more than one frame of the animation (if the hull material is heated, you can show it glowing cherry red or yellow hot or what have you). The nuke itself would create a similar instant flash. There would probably be something of an afterglow from the vaporized remains of the nuke and delivery system, but it will be expanding in a spherical cloud so quickly I doubt you would be able to see it. Shocks in rigid materials tend to travel at something like 10 km/s, shock induced damage would likewise be immediate. Slower effects could occur as the air pressure inside blasts apart the weakened hull or blows out the shattered chunks, or as transient waves propagate through the ship's structure, or when structural elements are loaded so as to shatter normally rather than through the shock. Escaping air could cause faintly visible jets as moisture condenses/freezes out - these would form streamers shooting away from the spacecraft at close to the speed of sound in air - NO billowing clouds.

Luke Campbell

Nuke vs. Spacecraft

Dr. John Schilling describes the visual appearance of a nuclear strike on a spacecraft.

First off, the weapon itself. A nuclear explosion in space, will look pretty much like a Very Very Bright flashbulb going off. The effects are instantaneous or nearly so. There is no fireball. The gaseous remains of the weapon may be incandescent, but they are also expanding at about a thousand kilometers per second, so one frame after detonation they will have dissipated to the point of invisibility. Just a flash.

The effects on the ship itself, those are a bit more visible. If you're getting impulsive shock damage, you will by definition see hot gas boiling off from the surface. Again, the effect is instantaneous, but this time the vapor will expand at maybe one kilometer per second, so depending on the scale you might be able to see some of this action. But don't blink; it will be quick.

Next is spallation - shocks will bounce back and forth through the skin of the target, probably tearing chunks off both sides. Some of these may come off at mere hundreds of meters per second. And they will be hot, red- or maybe even white-hot depending on the material.

To envision the appearance of this part, a thought experiment. Or, heck, go ahead and actually perform it. Start with a big piece of sheet metal, covered in a fine layer of flour and glitter. Shine a spotlight on it, in an otherwise-dark room. Then whack the thing with a sledgehammer, hard enough for the recoil to knock the flour and glitter into the air.

The haze of brightly-lit flour is your vaporized hull material, and the bits of glitter are the spallation. Scale up the velocities as needed, and ignore the bit where air resistance and gravity brings everything to a halt.

Next, the exposed hull is going to be quite hot, probably close to the melting point. So, dull red even for aluminum, brilliant white for steel or titanium or most ceramics or composites. The seriously hot layer will only be a millimeter or so thick, so it can cool fairly quickly - a second or two for a thick metallic hull that can cool by internal conduction, possibly as long as a minute for something thin and/or insulating that has to cool by radiation.

After this, if the shock is strong enough, the hull is going to be materially deformed. For this, take the sledgehammer from your last thought experiment and give a whack to some tin cans. Depending on how hard you hit them, and whether they are full or empty, you can get effects ranging from mild denting at weak points, crushing and tearing, all the way to complete obliteration with bits of tin-can remnant and tin-can contents splattered across the landscape.

Again, this will be much faster in reality than in the thought experiment. And note that a spacecraft will have many weak points to be dented, fragile bits to be torn off, and they all get hit at once. If the hull is of isogrid construction, which is pretty common, you might see an intact triangular lattice with shallow dents in between. Bits of antenna and whatnot, tumbling away.

Finally, secondary effects. Part of your ship is likely to be pressurized, either habitat space or propellant tank. Coolant and drinking water and whatnot, as well. With serious damage, that stuff is going to vent to space. You can probably see this happening (air and water and some propellants will freeze into snow as they escape, BTW). You'll also see the reaction force try to tumble the spacecraft, and if the spacecraft's attitude control systems are working you'll see them try to fight back.

You might see fires, if reactive materials are escaping. But not convection flames, of course. Diffuse jets of flame, or possibly surface reactions. Maybe secondary explosions if concentrations of reactive gasses are building up in enclosed (more or less) spaces.

Dr. John Schilling

Radiation Flux

Crew members are not as durable as spacecraft, since they are vulnerable to neutron radiation. A one megaton Enhanced-Radiation warhead (AKA "neutron bomb") will deliver a threshold fatal neutron dose to an unshielded human at 300 kilometers. There are also reports that ER warheads can transmute the structure of the spacecraft into deadly radioactive isotopes by the toxic magic of neutron activation. Details are hard to come by, but it was mentioned that a main battle tank irradiated by an ER weapon would be transmuted into isotopes that would inflict lethal radiation doses for up to 48 hours after the irradiation. So if you want to re-crew a spacecraft depopulated by a neutron bomb, better let it cool off for a week or so.

For a conventional nuclear weapon (i.e., NOT a neutron bomb), the x-ray and neutron flux is approximately:

Fx = 2.6 x 1027 * (Y/R2)

Fn = 1.8 x 1023 * (Y/R2)


  • Fx = X-ray fluence (x-rays/m2)
  • Fn = Neutron fluence (neutrons/m2)
  • Y = weapon yield (kilotons TNT)
  • R = range from ground zero (meters)

There are notes on the effects of radiation on crew and electronics here.

Nuclear Shaped Charges

Back in the 1960's, rocket scientist came up with the infamous "Orion Drive." This was basically a firecracker under a tin can. Except the tin can is a spacecraft, and the firecracker is a nuclear warhead.

Anyway, they realized that about 90% of the nuclear energy of an unmodified nuclear device would be wasted. The blast is radiated isotropically, only a small amount actually hits the pusher-plate and does useful work. So they tried to figure out how to channel all the blast in the desired direction. A nuclear shaped charge.

Remember that in the vacuum of space, most of the energy of a nuclear warhead is in the form of x-rays. The nuclear device is encased in a radiation case of x-ray opaque material (uranium) with a hole in the top. This forces the x-rays to to exit only from the hole. Whereupon they run full tilt into a large mass of beryllium oxide (channel filler).

The beryllium transforms the nuclear fury of x-rays into a nuclear fury of heat. Perched on top of the beryllium is the propellant: a thick plate of tungsten. The nuclear fury of heat turns the tungsten plate into a star-core-hot spindle-shaped-plume of ionized tungsten plasma. The x-ray opaque material and the beryllium oxide also vaporize a few microseconds later, but that's OK, their job is done.

The tungsten plasma jet hits square on the Orion drive pusher plate, said plate is designed to be large enough to catch all of the plasma. With the reference design of nuclear pulse unit, the plume is confined to a cone of about 22.5 degrees. About 85% of the nuclear device's energy is directed into the desired direction, which I think you'd agree is a vast improvement over 10%.

About this time the representatives of the military (who were funding this project) noticed that if you could make the plume a little faster and with a narrower cone, it would no longer be a propulsion system component. It would be a nuclear directed energy weapon. Thus was born project Casaba-Howitzer.

Details are scarce since the project is still classified after all these years. Tungsten has an atomic number (Z) of 74. When the tungsten plate is vaporized, the resulting plasma jet has a relatively low velocity and diverges at a wide angle (22.5 degrees). Now, if you replace the tungsten with a material with a low Z, the plasma jet will instead have a high velocity at a narrow angle ("high velocity" meaning "a recognizable fraction of the speed of light"). The jet angle also grows narrower as the thickness of the plate is reduced. This is undesirable for a propulsion system component (because it will destroy the pusher plate), but just perfect for a weapon (because it will destroy the enemy ship).

The report below suggests that the practical minimum half angle the jet can be focused to is 5.7° (0.1 radians).

They would also be perfect as an anti-ballistic missile defence. One hit by a Casaba Howitzer and a Soviet ICBM would be instantly vaporized. Which is why project Casaba-Howitzer's name came up a few times in the 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative.

Casaba Howitzers fired from orbit at ground targets on Terra would be inefficient, which is not the same as "does no damage." A nuclear warhead fired at a ground target would do far more damage, but the Casaba Howitzer bolt is instantaneous, non-interceptable, and would still do massive damage to an aircraft carrier.

Scott Lowther has done some research into a 1960's design for an Orion-drive battleship. It was to be armed with naval gun turrets, minuteman missiles with city-killing 20 megatons warheads, and Casaba-Howitzer weapons. It appears that the Casaba-Howitzer charges would be from subkiloton to several kilotons in yield, be launched on pancake booster rockets until they were far enough from the battleship to prevent damage (several hundred yards), whereupon they would explode and skewer the hapless target with a spear of nuclear flame. The battleship would probably carry a stockpile of Casaba-Howitzer weapons in the low hundreds.

Mr. Lowther estimates that each Casaba-Howitzer round would have a yield "up to a few kilotons" and could deliver close to 50% of that energy in the spear of nuclear flame. Three kiltons is 1.256 × 1013 joules, 50% of that is 6.276 × 1012 joules per bolt.

This is thirty-five times as powerful as a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, the second most powerful non-nuclear weapon ever designed. Per bolt.

Get a copy of the report for more details, including a reconstruction of a Casaba-Howitzer charge.

What is the mass and volume of a Casaba-Howitzer charge? Apparently this also is still classified. An Orion Drive nuclear pulse unit would be about 1,150 kg, have a blast yield of about 29 kilotons, and be a cylinder with a radius of 0.4 meters and a height of 0.87 meters. The volume would therefore be about 0.4 cubic meters. As previously mentioned a Casaba-Howitzer charge would have a yield ranging from sub-kiloton to a few kilotons, so presumably it would be smaller and of lower mass than a pulse unit.


Another device being investigated by both SDI architects and weapon designers is "a kind of nuclear shotgun with little pellets" named Prometheus. According to a Congressional report that was otherwise quite pessimistic about SDI, Prometheus "may have nearer-term applications for picking out warheads from decoys" (in the midcourse phase of ballistic-missile flight) than the Neutral Particle Beam (NPB), a leading contender for that role. Encouraged by experiments already conducted, SDI officials in 1987 ordered an acceleration of the Prometheus project for "concept verification," using funds from that year's $500 million supplemental SDI request.

One research engineer familiar with the project described the device as operating much like a rifle, using a polystyrene-filled barrel to help couple a plate to the "gunpowder-like" blast of a directed nuclear charge. After the impulse from the explosion generates an intense shock wave, the plate "fractionates" into millions of tiny particles. Of course, these would vaporize if in direct contact with the bomb, but as configured, the pellets have reportedly achieved speeds of 100 kilometers per second without vaporization.

Thermonuclear shaped charges, one of the better understood third-generation concepts§, have much in common with conventional shaped-charge explosives already used extensively in military and commercial applications. Both conventional and thermonuclear shaped charges tailor an explosive burn-wave using a detonation front that releases energy along a prescribed path. Both can produce jets of molten metal having velocities greatly in excess of the detonation velocity.*

For thermonuclear fuels such as deuterium plus tritium, the burn-wave can be directed by placing hollow bubbles or inert solids in the path of the detonation front in order to alter its velocity. Of course, ignition of a thermonuclear burn in a warhead requires a fission trigger to achieve the necessary compression and temperature (about 100 million K), but even with such a (nondirected) trigger, the overall directivity of a thermonuclear shaped charge can still be significant.

Velocities achievable with thermonuclear shaped charges are impressive. Unlike molten jets produced by conventional shaped charges, which are limited to about 10 kilometers per second (about four times the velocities of the gases resulting from chemical explosions), thermonuclear shaped charges can in principle propel matter more than two orders of magnitude faster. Since fusion temperatures reach 100 million K, the detonation front of a thermonuclear explosive travels at speeds in excess of 1,000 kilometers per second. Using a convergent conical thermonuclear bum-wave with a suitable liner, one could theoretically create a jet traveling at 10,000 kilometers per second, or 3 percent of the speed of light.

Up to 5 percent of the energy of a small nuclear device reportedly can be converted into kinetic energy of a plate, presumably by employing some combination of explosive wave-shaping and "gun-barrel" design, and produce velocities of 100 kilometers per second and beam angles of 10-3 radians*. (The Chamita test of 17 August 1985, reportedly accelerated a 1-kilogram tungsten/molybdenum plate to 70 kilometers per second. ) If one chooses to power 10 beams by a single explosion, engaging targets at a range of 2,000 kilometers with a kill energy of 40 kilojoules per pellet (one pellet per square meter), then such a device would require an 8-kiloton explosive and could tolerate random accelerations in the target, such as a maneuvering RV or satellite, of up to 0.5 g (5 m/s2).

The initial plate for each beam in this Casaba-like device would weigh only 32 kilograms but would have to fractionate into tiny particles to be an effective weapon—4 million evenly spaced pellets to produce one per square meter at 2,000 kilometers range. If such pellets could be created uniformly, which is highly questionable, then, at a velocity of 100 kilometers per second, they would each weigh 8 milligrams, carry 40 kilojoules of energy (the amount of energy in 10 grams of high explosive), and travel 2,000 kilometers in 20 seconds. Such hypervelocity fragments could easily punch through and vaporize a thin metal plate and could cause structural damage in large soft targets such as satellites and space-based sensors, but they would have little probability of striking a smaller RV, or even disabling it if a collision did occur.§

10-kiloton ASAT
Nuclear yield10 kilotons
Number of beams10
Mass per plate32 kg
Mechanism50 kilojoules per pellet impact kill
Assumptions4 × 106 particles per beam
uniformly spaced 1 per m2
at 2,000 kilometers
Range2,000 kilometers

‡ SPARTA, Inc., Workshop on Interactive Discrimination, 1986, unclassified. The velocity of 100 kilometers per second falls between the goal of 50 kilometers per second in the 1960s, only a fraction of which was achieved, and the 1,000 kilometers per second velocities possible with the plasma howitzer concept. The latter allegedly operates at 10 percent efficiency up to about 1 megaton, although with only about 10-2 radian beam directivity. Speeds of 1,000 kilometers per second are inevitably accompanied by ionization, and because charged particles curve in the earth's magnetic field, they would not be useful for long-range applications. Velocities up to 200 kilometers per second, however, are believed possible without vaporization.

§ See, for example, the detailed analysis of nuclear shaped-charges by R. Schall, "Detonation Physics," in P. Caldirola and H. Knoepfel, eds., Physics of High Energy Density, (New York: Academic Press, 1971), pp.230-244.

* Friedwardt Winterberg, The Physical Principles of Thermonuclear Explosive Devices, (New York: Fusion Energy Foundation, 1981), p.117. Conventional shaped charges have been applied to demolition, antisubmarine weapons, and advanced ordnance antitank munitions—all being further developed at Livermore—as well as for igniting the fission triggers in thermonuclear warheads. Cf. Energy & Technology Review, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, (June-July 1986), pp.I4-15.

† Devices based on this principle were pursued in the 1960s. Project Orion examined their potential for space propulsion. Casaba and "nuclear howitzer" were names for weapon applications.

‡ The detonation front shock-wave velocity is (32 kT/3M)½, where M is the average mass per ion of the thermonuclear fuel. Suitable geometries can propel matter at many times the detonation front velocity. Using cone geometry, the jet speed is v/sinθ, where v is the detonation-front velocity and θ is the cone's half-angle. A practical minimum for θ has reportedly been found to be θ ≈ 0.1. See Winterberg, Thermonuclear Physics, p.41,122

* SPARTA Workshop, 1986. This scaling presumably holds up to about 50 kilotons but, due to blackbody x-ray emission, decreases to about 1 percent for larger yields.

† Robert S. Norris, Thomas B. Cochran, and William M. Arkin, "Known U.S. Nuclear Tests July 1945 to 31 December 1987," Nuclear Weapons Databook Working Paper NWD 86-2, Natural Resources Defense Council, September 1988.

‡ The energy fluence per beam, E in J/m2, is approximately ηY/(NbR2θ2), where η is the fraction of overall yield transferred to the pellets, Y is the bomb yield (1 kiloton is equivalent to 4.2 × 1012 joules), Nb is the number of individual beams being driven by one bomb, R is the distance to the target, and θ is the individual full-beam divergence angle. A maneuvering target could accelerate out of the path of the beam if amR/vf2 > θ, where am is the magnitude of the target's average acceleration, vf is the particle velocity, and τ = R/vf is the particle fly-out time. (For comparison, the average acceleration of ICBMs is about 40 m/s2.) To deliver this energy requires a total mass per beam of Mb = 2E(Rθ)2/vf2.

§ For instance, even if an RV were coated with aluminum, a more volatile material than might be expected, the resulting vapor blow-off would only push a 350-kilogram RV off course by about 15 meters in 20 minutes of flight (about five times the amount if there were no ablation), thus failing to degrade significantly the ≈150 meter accuracy of a modern ICBM. Of course, if the collision caused the RV to tumble upon re-entry, the results would be less predictable

From The Effects of Nuclear Test-ban Regimes on Third-generation-weapon Innovation by Dan L. Fenstermacher. Science & Global Security 1990, Volume 1, pp. 187-223

There are a few more crumbs of information in the report Fourth Generation Nuclear Weapons: Military effectiveness and collateral effects. They note that harnessing the x-rays from a nuclear blast is not only good for making deadly jets of atomic fire, but can also be used to pump x-ray lasers and energize EMP weapons. Not to mention accelerating projectiles to very high velocities by means of x-ray ablation, or by means of neutrons from the nuclear explosion (see report for cites on this).

So the report points out that the x-rays and neutrons can be used to drive or self-forge several projectiles or fragments (a "nuclear gun" or "nuclear grenade"). X-rays and neutrons can also be used to heat a working fluid and form hot jets (the above-described "nuclear shaped charge").

(It might be worth while to review the difference between a shaped charge and a self-forging projectile, they are similar enough to be confused together, but are quite different in end result.)

Thirdly, the forwards and backwards flux of x-rays and neutrons from a single nuclear device can be used to drive a multi-warhead weapon, e.g., a single weapon that fires a self-forging penetrator followed a few microseconds later by a jet of hot plasma. Talk about a one-two punch! The penetrator cracks the armor, allowing the hot jet to enter the target's interior and vaporize the soft chewy center.

The report also estimates, that for the use in military conflicts on the surface of the Earth, these weapons will probably be powered by nuclear devices in the 1 to 100 tons of TNT range (subkiloton range). Whether this will also hold true in the space environment is a question above my pay grade.

Freeman's analysis of nuclear explosions in a vacuum, resulting in a series of three short papers titled Free Expansion of a Gas, was central to the feasibility of Orion. It was also central to the feasibility of directed-energy nuclear weapons, and led directly from Orion to a project code-named "Casaba-Howitzer," described as "a one-shot version of Orion, like Orion except without any ship." Casaba-Howitzer, conceived by Moe Scharff while still at Livermore, would be resurrected many years later as the basis for the "Star Wars" space-weapons program, known as the Strategic Defense Initiative or SDI. "Whereas Orion directed a dense plasma at relatively low velocity at a wide angle, this was to direct a lower-density plasma at a higher velocity and a narrower angle," Scharff explains. "Orion was a space vehicle. Casaba-Howitzer could be consid­ered space weaponry. It could even have been things carried aboard an Orion, for example, if Orion was a battleship."

Casaba-Howitzer's descendants remain under active investigation and Scharff is unable to give any further details beyond the origins of the name. "They had been naming things after melons and the good ones were gone already. They were on a melon kick that year. The one con­nection was seeds—many of those melons have seeds, like the particles we were projecting." Casaba-Howitzer was derived directly from Orion, and later versions of Orion drew heavily on Casaba-Howitzer's experi­mental and theoretical results. Funding for Casaba-Howitzer kept the Orion team going after funding for Orion dwindled out. But there was a costly side to the bargain—a shroud of secrecy that has lingered long after any plans for battleship Orion were shelved. Conversely, if we ever decide to build something like Orion, it will be the continued work on directed-energy weapons—and how to protect surfaces against them— that will allow us to pick up where Project Orion left off.

Anything in the near vicinity of a nuclear explosion gets vaporized into a plasma—a cloud of material so hot that its atoms are stripped of their electrons—that cools as it expands. It was a simple mathematical problem to draw some conclusions relating the shape and density of the initial object that gets vaporized to the shape and density of the result­ing cloud of gas. "The model should be simple enough so that the hydro-dynamical equations can be integrated exactly," Freeman explained. "A real cloud of gas will not have precisely the density-distribution ot the model, but still one may expect the behavior of a real cloud to be quali­tatively similar to that of the model." Freeman set up the equations and the numbers were run on General Atomic's IBM 650 card-programmed calculator, one of the workhorse machines that had handled many of the early bomb and blast-wave calculations at Los Alamos and had not yet been superseded by the IBM 704 that General Atomic acquired in 1959.

According to Freeman's model, something originally in the shape of a cigar expands into the shape of a pancake, and something originally in the shape of a pancake expands into the shape of a cigar. This was "very directly relevant to the expansion of a bomb," he explains. "If you have something that starts in the form of a pancake and you heat it up to a very high temperature it will expand more sideways along the axis, and less at the edges. The pressure gradient is highest along the axis, so then after a while, since the velocity is highest along the axis, it becomes cigar-shaped. So you get inversion, something that begins like a pan­cake becomes like a cigar, and something that begins as a cigar becomes a pancake, if you just let it expand freely. It goes roughly with the square root, if you start with a pancake where the ratio of the diameter to thick­ness is ten, then it will end up as a cigar where the ratio of the length to the diameter is square root of ten, roughly speaking. That would be quite helpful, of course, if you had a real Orion, to start out with a pan­cake and it will produce then a jet that is collimated within 20 degrees or so quite nicely. The fact that it's so easy to make an asymmetrical explosion may still be classified, for all I know."

The right pancake in the right place can focus a significant fraction of the bomb's output into a narrow jet of kinetic energy, directed construc­tively at the pusher plate of a nearby spaceship—or destructively at something else. The thinner the pancake, the narrower the jet. In the early days of Orion, with a huge pusher plate as the target, the propellant was assumed to be a thick slab of something light and cheap like polyeth­ylene; later versions of Orion, with smaller pusher plates, required a thin­ner slab of higher-density material, such as tungsten, to focus the bomb's energy into a narrower cone. Exactly how narrow remains a secret, though a look at the later configurations of Orion permits a guess. This is one of the reasons that detailed design information about Orion, such as the exact standoff distance between the pulse unit and the pusher plate, remains classified, even after forty years have passed.

As the jet of propellant is targeted more narrowly in space, its impact against the pusher plate is spread out more widely in time. The result is more effective horsepower and a softer ride. "In the end we did come up with some designs that were very tight in their angular distribution of momentum," says Bud Pyatt, without mentioning specific numbers, but revealing that "you had to have it pointing at the center of the pusher plate, it couldn't even be five degrees off without stressing the shock absorber too much."

Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship by George Dyson

A propellant plate in the form of a pancake expands into a plume shaped like a cigar. And the reverse is true: a propellant plate in the form of a cigar/cylinder would expand into a plume shaped like a pancake. Specifically:

(Dplume / Lplume) = 1 / sqrt(Dplate / Lplate)


  • Dplume = plume diameter (perpendicular to direction of travel)
  • Lplume = plume length (in direction of travel)
  • Dplate = plate diameter (perpendicular to direction of travel)
  • Lplate = plate length (in direction of travel)

So if the plate had a diameter of 4 and a length of 1 (diameter to length ratio of 4/1 or 4), the plume would have a diameter to length ratio of 1/2, or a diameter of 1 and a length of 2. Equation is from Nuclear and Plasma Space Propulsion by M. Ragheb.

A Little Humor

From the bizarre experimental weapons files:

Assume for a moment that those nuclear bullets — the ones using a barely subcritical mass of some volatile element like californium, say, squished into the critical geometry for a fission explosion by the squish of impact — actually work.

Then add the encasement, beryllium channel-filler, and tungsten plate needed to focus the explosion into a searing beam of front-focused tungsten plasma.

Gentlesophs, I give you Project Casaba-Derringer.

by Alistair Young (2015)

Boom Table

The Boom Table has been moved here.

Laser Cannon

There is a great summary of the various issues of directed-energy weapons. Luke Campbell has an in depth analysis of laser weapons for science fiction on his website, don't miss the on-line calculator for laser weapon pulse parameters. Eric Rozier has another on-line calculator for laser weapons. Rick Robinson's analysis Space Warfare V: Laser Weapons is also quite good. You also might want to look over this 1979 NASA report on using nuclear reactions to directly power a laser beam. (Thanks to Andrew for suggesting this link.)

Before we get to all the boring equations, lets have some juicy details. Say that the habitat module of your combat starship gets penetrated by an enemy laser beam. What happens? Luke Campbell and Anthony Jackson have the straight dope:

That depends on the parameters of the beam.

A single pulse with a total energy of 100 MJ would have the effect of the detonation of 25 kg of TNT. Everyone in the compartment who is not shredded by the shrapnel will have their lungs pulverized by the blast.

That same 100 MJ delivered as 1,000,000 pulses of 100 J each could very well drill a hole. The crew see a dazzling flash and flying sparks. Some may be blinded by the beam-flash. Anyone in the path of the beam has a hole through them (and the shock from the drilling of that personal hole could scatter the rest of them around the crew compartment). Everyone else would still be alive and would now be worrying about patching the hole.

Although it occurs to me that the jet of supersonic plasma escaping from the hole being drilled could have the combined effect of a blowtorch and grenade on anyone standing too close to the point of incidence, even if they are not directly in the beam. The effect would probably be similar to the arc flash you can get in high power, high voltage electrical systems, where jets of superheated plasma can cause severe burns from contact with the plasma, blast damage from the shock waves, blindness from the intense light produced, and flash burns from the radiated heat.

A continuous beam could have enough scattered and radiant heat to cause flash burns to those near the point of incidence, along with blinding those who are looking at the point of incidence when the beam burns through. If it burns a wide hole, people die quickly when the compartment explosively decompresses, throwing everyone into deep space. If it burns a narrow hole, the survivors who can see can just slap a patch over the hole to prevent the escape of their air.

Luke Campbell

Luke Campbell said: "Although it occurs to me that the jet of supersonic plasma escaping from the hole being drilled could have the combined effect of a blowtorch and grenade..."

Well, it really depends on what you're standing next to, and on how wide the beam is. The energy release at any point along the beam path will be equal to the energy required to drill through the object (so you'll get pulses of heat from each object hit), and it won't really be explosive. Flash burns is the most likely consequence.

Flash burns start at about 5 J/cm2 on exposed skin, and can go above 100 J/cm2 with reasonable protection. At a range of 1 meter, that requires an energy release of 0.63MJ, and once the beam is substantially inside the object, most of the flash will be deposited on the rest of the inside of the object, so it's really only object shells we need to worry about.

If the beam has an area of 50 square centimeters ( AV:T scale) to emit a total of 630 kJ it must be emitting 12.6 kJ/cm2. About the same amount is probably consumed drilling through the object. 1mm of steel requires about 6 kJ/cm2, so anything with a casing of at least 2mm steel, or anything comparable, will cause flash burns within 1 meter.

This is not particularly terrifying, unless of course the beam drills through something like a high pressure steam line, at which point it's suddenly very exciting, though not because of the laser per se.

Anthony Jackson

Anthony Jackson said: "so you'll get pulses of heat from each object hit, and it won't really be explosive"

My thought was that the shocks could coalesce. All shocks are supersonic to the material they have not gone through, and subsonic to the material they have traveled through. As a consequence, a second shock will catch up to a previous shock until they merge into a single, stronger shock. If the beam is pulsed at a high rate (say, a MHz or so) a good number of the individual blasts could coalesce within a short distance to create a more potent blast that might cause significant problems.

The physics of shocks is tricky, and for spherically expanding shocks you get into issues of rarefaction and backflow, which should limit the number of shocks that can coalesce. While I have a highly recommended text on shock physics, I've not had the time to look through it yet, so I don't have a good idea yet on the limits and possibilities of this mechanism.

There's also the issue that iron heated to 10,000 K, for example, will expand in volume about 150,000 times from its solid phase. So burning a 10 cm wide hole through a 1 cm steel bulkhead would produce a cloud of iron vapor with a volume of about a cubic meter if the final temperature was 10,000 K (note that if the iron was converted to a singly ionized plasma, the temperature would be ten times that much, and you would get ten times the volume). Getting caught in that incandescent cloud simply cannot be healthy.

There's also the ozone and nitrogen oxides and reactive chemicals produced as a consequence of incomplete combustion, which will not be healthy to breathe, but I expect that would be secondary.

Luke Campbell

Luke Campbell said: "My thought was that the shocks could coalesce."

They could if the drilling speed is supersonic. Usually it won't be.

Anthony Jackson


Now for the dull equations.

"Laser" is an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. A laser beam can cut through steel while a flashlight cannot due to the fact that laser light is coherent. This means all the photons in the beam are "in step" with each other. By analogy, a unit of army troops marching in step can inadvertently cause a bridge to collapse, while the same number of people using the bridge in a random fashion have no effect. Laser light at amazingly low energies can still cause permanent blindness by destroying the retina.

Maximum range will be a few hundred thousand kilometers, otherwise almost every shot will miss due to light-speed lag. You can find more details about light-speed lag here.

Laser beams are not subject to the inverse-square law, but they are subject to diffraction. The radius of the beam will spread as the distance from the laser cannon increases.

RT = 0.61 * D * L / RL


  • RT = beam radius at target (m)
  • D = distance from laser emitter to target (m)
  • L = wavelength of laser beam (m, see table below)
  • RL = radius of laser lens or reflector (m)
BandWavelength (m)
Far Infrared1e-3 to 5e-5 m (1,000,000 to 50,000 nanometers)
Mid Infrared5e-5 to 2.5e-6 m (50,000 to 2,500 nanometers)
Near Infrared2.5e-6 to 7.5e-7 m (2,500 to 750 nanometers)
Red7.5e-7 to 6.2e-7 m (750 to 620 nanometers)
Orange6.2e-7 to 5.9e-7 m (620 to 590 nanometers)
Yellow5.9e-7 to 5.7e-7 m (590 to 570 nanometers)
Green5.7e-7 to 4.95e-7 m (570 to 495 nanometers)
Blue4.95e-7 to 4.5e-7 m (495 to 450 nanometers)
Indigo4.5e-7 to 4.2e-7 m (450 to 420 nanometers)
Violet4.2e-7 to 3.8e-7 m (420 to 380 nanometers)
Ultraviolet A4e-7 to 3.15e-7 m (400 to 315 nanometers)
Ultraviolet B3.15e-7 to 2.8e-7 m (315 to 280 nanometers)
Start of
Vacuum Frequencies
2.e-7 m (200 nanometers)
Ultraviolet C2.8e-7 to 1e-7 m (280 to 100 nanometers)
Extreme Ultraviolet1e-7 to 1e-8 m (100 to 10 nanometers)
Start of
Ionizing Radiation
1e-8 m (10 nanometers)
Soft X-Ray1e-8 to 2e-10 m (10 to 2e-1 nanometers)
Hard X-Ray2e-10 to 2e-11 m (2e-1 to 2e-2 nanometers)
Gamma-Ray2e-11 to 1e-13 m (2e-2 to 1e-4 nanometer)
Cosmic-Ray1e-13 to 1e-17 m (1e-4 to 1e-8 nanometers)

Note that wavelengths shorter than 200 nanometers are absorbed by Terra's atmosphere (so they are sometimes called "Vacuum frequencies") and anything shorter than 10 nanometers is considered "ionizing radiation" (i.e., what the an average person on the street calls "atomic radiation"). Vacuum frequencies will be worthless for a laser in orbit attempting to shoot at ground targets protected by the atmosphere.

Sometimes wavelengths are expressed in Ångström units, 1.0 Ångström = 0.1 nanometer.

More to the point is the intensity of the beam at the target. First we calculate the beam divergence angle θ

θ = 1.22 L/RL


  • θ = beam divergence angle (radians)
  • L = wavelength of laser beam (m, see table above)
  • RL = radius of laser lens or reflector (m)

Note that this is the theoretical minimum size of the divergence angle, it will be larger with inferior lasers.

Next we decide upon the beam power BP, then calculate the beam intensity at the target (the beam "brightness"):

BPT = BP/(π * (D * tan(θ/2))2)


  • BPT = Beam intensity at target (megawatts per square meter)
  • BP = Beam Power at laser aperture (megawatts)
  • D = range to target (meters)
  • θ = Theta = Beam divergence angle (radians or degrees depending on your Tan() function)
  • π = Pi = 3.14159...

There are a few notes on laser firing rates and power requirements here.

In the US military, the minimum threshold for a tactical weapons-grade laser is 100 kilowatts.

In the US military, the minimum threshold for a strategic weapons-grade laser is 1 megawatt.

When figuring the tangent, remember that θ from the beam divergence angle equation is in radians, not degrees (Divide radians by 0.0174532925 to get degrees).

What this means is if you are calculating the Beam Intensity equation with a pocket calculator or the Windows calculator program, the calculator is generally set to degrees and it expects you to punch in the angle in degrees before you hit the TAN key. If you punch in the angle in radians you will get the wrong answer.

If instead you are calculating the Beam Intensity equation with a computer spreadsheet or with a computer program you are writing from scratch, the TAN() function wants the input angle to be in radians.

For comparison purposes, the average beam intensity of sunlight on your skin is about 0.0014 MW/m2.

Please note that the amount of beam power deposited on the target is still BP, the intensity just measures how tightly it is focused. It's like using sunlight through a magnifying glass to burn a hole in a piece of paper (or to incinerate ants if you were one of those evil children). The amount of beam power hitting the paper does not change, it is always BP. But if the magnifying glass is so close that the spot size is large, the paper will just get warm. If you move the glass so the spot focuses down to a tiny dot, the intensity increases and the paper spot starts to burn.

Also note that a laser cannon might have lens/mirror which is larger than strictly required for the desired spot size, due to the fact that otherwise the mirror would melt. The larger the mirror, the more surface area to dilute the beam across, and the less the thermal stress on the mirror.


The good ship Collateral Damage becomes aware of an incoming hostile missile. Collateral Damage has a laser cannon with a ten meter radius mirror operating on a mid-infrared wavelength of 2700 nanometers (0.0000027 meters). The divergence angle is (1.22 * 0.0000027) / 10 = 0.00000033 radians or 0.000019 degrees.

The laser cannon has an aperture power of 20 megawatts, and the missile is at a range of four megameters (4,000,000 meters). The beam brightness at the missile is 20 / (π * (4,000,000 * tan(0.000019/2))2) = 15 MW/m2 or 1.5 kW/cm2.

If the missile has a "hardness" of 10 kilojoules/cm2, the laser will have to dwell on the same spot on the missile for 10/1.5 = 6.6 seconds in order to kill it.

Figured another way, at four megameters the laser will have a spot size of 0.66 meters in radius, which has an area of 1.36 square meters. The missile's skin has a hardness of 10 kilojoules/cm2 so 13,600 kilojoules will be required to burn a hole of 0.66 meters radius. 20 megawatts for 6.9 seconds is 13,600 kilojoules. 6.9 seconds is close enough for government work to 6.6 seconds.

Eric Henry has a spreadsheet that does most of this calculation for you here.

In the game Attack Vector: Tactical, the smallest laser lens is three meters in diameter, the frequency of various models of cannon is from 0.0000024 meters (2400 nanometer) to 0.0000002 meters (200 nanometer) and the efficiency varies from 20% down to 1.5%.


Say you have an ultraviolet (20 nanometer) laser cannon with a 3.2 meter lens. Your hapless target spacecraft is at a range of 12,900 kilometers (12,900,000 meters). The Beam Radius equation says that the beam radius at the target will be about 4 centimeters (0.04 meters), so the beam will be irradiating about 50 cm2 of the target's skin (area of circle with radius of 4 centimeters). If the hapless target spacecraft had a hull of steel armor, the armor has a heat of vaporization of about 60 kiloJoules/cm3. Say the armor is 12.5 cm thick. So for the laser cannon to punch a hole in the armor it will have to remove about 625 cm3 of steel (volume of cylinder with radius of 4 cm and height of 12.5 cm). 625 * 60 = 37,500 kiloJoules. If the laser pulse is one second, this means the beam requires a power level of 37,500 watts or 38 megawatts at the target.

In practice, a series of small pulses might be more efficient, causing a shattering effect and driving chips of armor out of the hole, which of course requires less energy than actually vaporizing the armor.


Note that laser cannon are notoriously inefficient. Free-electron lasers have a theoretical maximum efficiency of 65%, while others are lucky to get a third of that. This means if your beam power is 5,000 megawatts (five gigawatts), and your cannon has an efficiency of 20%, the cannon is producing 25,000 megawatts, of which 5,000 is laser beam and 20,000 is waste heat! Ken Burnside describes weapon lasers as blast furnaces that produce coherent light as a byproduct. Rick Robinson describes them as an observatory telescope with a jet engine at the eyepiece. Laser cannons are going to need seriously huge heat radiators. And don't forget that heat radiators really cannot be armored.

The messy alternative is to use open-cycle cooling, where the lasing gas is vented to dispose of the waste heat. Not only does this endanger anything in the path of the exhaust, it limits the number of laser shots to the amount of gas carried.

But Troy Winchester Campbell brings to my attention a recent news item. In 2004, a company named Alfalight, Inc. demonstrated a 970 nm diode laser with a total power conversion efficiency of 65%. They are working in the DARPA Super High Efficiency Diode Sources program. The goal is 80% electrical-to-optical efficiency in the generation of light from stacks of semiconductor diode laser bars, and a power level of 500W/cm2 per diode bar operating continuously.

W = (1.0 / Ce)


  • We = Waste power percentage
  • Ce = Efficiency of Laser Cannon


CP = BP * We


  • CP = Laser Cannon total power (megawatts)
  • BP = Beam Power at laser aperture (megawatts)
  • We = Waste power percentage

WP = CP - BP


  • WP = Waste Power (megawatts)
  • CP = Laser Cannon total power (megawatts)
  • BP = Beam Power at laser aperture (megawatts)

Getting rid of the waste heat from a laser is a problem if you don't dare extend your heat radiators because you are afraid they will be shot off. A strictly limited solution is storing the waste in a heat sink, like a huge block of ice. "Limited" because the ice can only absorb so much until it melts and starts to boil. If your radiator is retracted and your heat sink is full, firing your laser will do more damage to you than to the target.

Eric Rozier has this analysis of heat sink mass:

One common mistake people make is assuming that lasers are infinite fire weapons. With proper radiators extended, this is true, but with them drawn in, to avoid being shot off, we're limited by the heat capacity of our sinking material, as you well know.

An interesting question to ask is: "Without radiators, how many shots can I get off for some mass of coolant and some sort of laser?"

Given single laser of Bp megawatts at aperture, and an efficiency of eff, duty cycle of dc, and firing time of Tf, we get the waste heat Wh (in MWseconds) as:

Wh = Tf * (Bp/eff * dc) * (1 - eff)

Wh is then the waste heat generated by a single blast from our lasers. To figure out how many times we can fire our lasers we need to perform some calculations based on our coolant, the data of interest is:

  • Mass of coolant dedicated to lasers (Mc) in kg
  • Atomic mass of coolant (Ma) in g/mol
  • Heat capacity of coolant (Hc) in J/(mol * K)
  • Melting point of coolant (Km) in K
  • Boiling point of coolant (Kb) in K

Given this, we can find the number of shots we can fire (S) as follows:

S = ((Mc / Ma) * Hc * (Km - Kb)) / 1000 / Wh

If you do not have the atomic mass of coolant or heat capacity of coolant, you can instead use the specific Heat capacity of coolant. This is useful if the coolant is a compound instead of an element in the periodic table.

  • Specific Heat capacity of coolant (Hck) in J/(kg K)
  • Energy Capacity of coolant in MW seconds (or MegaJoules if you prefer)

Ec = (Mc * HcK * (Km - Kb)) / 1000000

S = Ec / Wh

There is an online calculator for this here.

This assumes the coolant is just melted before firing the laser, and just boiling after firing all available shots. In reality, you want to set Kb at some level below the real boiling point, and Km at some level above the melting point.

As a worked example, a 100MW laser with efficiency of 0.2, 0.5 duty cycle, and 0.1s firing time generates 20 MWseconds of waste heat each time it fires. 1000kg of Lithium, (with about 1140K between melting and boiling) can contain enough heat to fire the laser roughly 204 times.

This, I think, helps show some of the heat limitations of lasers, and constrains them (especially as point defense weapons). You end up having to lug a lot of lithium around if you want to fire them often.

I think this is most interesting when thinking about point defense. Lasers fielded as a CIWS are pretty scary, and if you could fire them infinitely often, they probably keep missiles from hitting you. So in order to constrain you from using lasers for point defense, I simply pull into laser range, threatening your radiators, and forcing you to withdraw them. As such, you can no longer afford to use a laser CIWS, and have to switch to something projectile/missile based, which is liable to be less effective.

Eric Rozier
Laser Weapon Mass

Winchell Chung:

Luke Campbell, a question occurred to me, and you are currently the only laser scientist I know. If this question is the equivalent to a graduate thesis, just forget it.

Occasionally science fiction authors try to figure the mass and volume of their spacecraft. Especially warships. So what is the average mass and volume of an anti-ship laser weapon? Does is scale with beam output power?

Luke Campbell:

At this point, there is no good way to estimate the mass and volume of an anti-ship laser. To do so requires knowing two things: the beam power or beam energy needed to defeat a target ship, and the specific power or specific energy (power divided by mass or energy divided by mass, respectively) of the laser.

(ed note: Energy is joules, Power is joules-per-second or watts)

The beam power or energy requires could in principle be determined for a given engagement scenario — engagement time and distance; target size and armor. This will, of course, depend on the tech choices made elsewhere in the setting, so no single value can be quoted. Using modern ocean-going warships as a proxy and the sorts of heat ray lasers that are currently being built and fielded, many tens of kilowatts to disable sensors, communications, and soft surface targets seems reasonable, while tens of megawatts could burn through the hull to kill propulsion, power generators, or explode on-board magazines. Longer ranges, shorter engagement times, or more massive or more heavily armored ships all tilt you toward needing more beam power.

The specific power of modern war fighting lasers has been rising rapidly, and there is no reason it shouldn't keep dropping in the foreseeable future. Some recent advances have got the specific power down to better than 0.25 kW/kg


(better because the listed performance also includes the batteries to power the laser for a number of seconds). The specific energy of pulsed lasers has also been increasing, although none are now a reasonable candidate for weaponization.

You can expect the laser mass to scale with beam power for heat rays, and pulse energy for blasters with an extra helping of other equipment scaling with beam power for power handling and control and heat rejection. The minimum area of the focal array will be set by the beam power and beam energy, but in practice you will probably find that you want a larger aperture than this minimum area in order to get a reasonable range. How the mass of the beam pointer telescope scales with the aperture's area I will leave to mechanical engineers.

From a thread on Google Plus (2015)

Attack Vector: Tactical Lasers

Ken Burnside's masterful tabletop wargame Attack Vector: Tactical is fictional, but it was prepared with expert help from real live physicists and other scientists. More to the point, design choices were made to make an interesting game. Which means they would also be design choices that would make an interesting science fiction novel.

In the game, there are various types of lasers of increasingly shorter wavelengths, which due to the diffraction equation have increasingly longer range (by which I mean the spot intensity decreases more slowly). These lasers also have a decreasing level of efficiency of converting power into laser beam, I am unsure if this is due to a physical limit or it is an arbitrary thing used to balance the game.

Short Range Laser2400 nmNear Infrared20%
Close Range Laser1600 nmNear Infrared16.6%
Medium Range Laser1200 nmNear Infrared12.5%
Extended Range Laser800 nmNear Infrared9%
Long Range Laser600 nmOrange6%
Extreme Range Laser400 nmIndigo3%
Ultraviolet Laser200 nmUltraviolet1.5%

In addition, each laser type comes in seven sizes (with focusing mirrors ranging in size from 3 meters radius to 6 meters radius) and assorted energy requirements. The basic game only has short range and medium range lasers:

Short Range
Laser 2
3 m3 GW20%0.6 GW80 km300 km
Short Range
Laser 3
3.5 m4.5 GW20%0.9 GW100 km440 km
Short Range
Laser 4
4 m6 GW20%1.2 GW120 km560 km
Short Range
Laser 5
4.5 m7.5 GW20%1.5 GW140 km740 km
Short Range
Laser 6
5 m9 GW20%1.8 GW160 km900 km
Short Range
Laser 7
5.5 m10.5 GW20%2.1 GW160 km1,040 km
Short Range
Laser 8
6 m12 GW20%2.4 GW180 km1,200 km
Medium Range
Laser 2
3 m2 GW12.5%0.25 GW180 km400 km
Medium Range
Laser 3
3.5 m3 GW12.5%0.375 GW200 km600 km
Medium Range
Laser 4
4 m4 GW12.5%0.5 GW240 km800 km
Medium Range
Laser 5
4.5 m5 GW12.5%0.625 GW280 km1,000 km
Medium Range
Laser 6
5 m6 GW12.5%0.75 GW300 km1,200 km
Medium Range
Laser 7
5.5 m7 GW12.5%0.875 GW340 km1,400 km
Medium Range
Laser 8
6 m8 GW12.5%1 GW360 km1,800 km

The mirror radius is the size of the lens or reflector (RL in the diffraction equation). The input energy is fed as power into the laser, after suffering the horrific effects of typical abysmal laser efficiency the laser beam emerges from the business end containing the aperture energy and leaps out to impale the hapless target. The gigawatts of waste heat are absorbed by the internal heat sink, because extending your heat radiator is just asking for it to get shot off.

The effective range and maximum range are not directly applicable, they are artifacts of the beam damage model used by the Attack Vector: Tactical game. But they do provide some basis of comparison. In the game each "damage point" inflicted upon an enemy ship represents 50 megajoules in an eight centimeter diameter circle inflicted in 1/100th of a second. The effective range is the farthest range that the laser can inflict its full damage. The maximum range is the farthest range that the laser can inflict at least one point of damage. This is all required because Attack Vector is not a computer game, it is an incredible paper and cardboard wargame where all the scientific accuracy and scary mathematics are handled painlessly with cunning player aides.

I would hazard a guess this is the reason for the values chosen for input energy and ranges, to calibrate each laser to 50 megajoules in an eight centimeter spot size.

For our purposes, it might make more sense to use the Brightness equation. Then you can assign hardness values for the target's armor.

Short Range Laser 2
80 km7.8 cm1.55×109 J/m2
100 km9.8 cm9.9×108 J/m2
140 km13.7 cm5.05×108 J/m2
180 km17.6 cm3.06×108 J/m2
220 km21.5 cm2.05×108 J/m2
300 km29.3 cm1.1×108 J/m2
Short Range Laser 8
180 km8.8 cm3.06×108 J/m2
200 km9.8 cm2.48×108 J/m2
240 km11.7 cm1.72×108 J/m2
300 km14.6 cm1.10×108 J/m2
380 km18.5 cm6.86×107 J/m2
520 km25.4 cm3.66×107 J/m2
840 km41.0 cm1.40×107 J/m2
1,200 km58.6 cm6.88×106 J/m2
Medium Range Laser 2
180 km8.8 cm5.09×108 J/m2
240 km11.7 cm2.86×108 J/m2
300 km14.6 cm1.83×108 J/m2
400 km19.5 cm1.03×108 J/m2
Medium Range Laser 8
360 km8.8 cm1.27×108 J/m2
420 km10.2 cm9.35×107 J/m2
500 km12.2 cm6.60×107 J/m2
620 km15.1 cm4.29×107 J/m2
860 km21.0 cm2.23×107 J/m2
1,220 km29.8 cm1.11×107 J/m2
1,600 km39.0 cm6.45×106 J/m2

Combat Mirror

A more scientifically plausible but much less dramatic laser weapon is the combat mirror. In this scheme, the spacecraft doesn't have a laser, just a large parabolic mirror. The laser is several million miles away, on a freaking huge solar power array orbiting your home planet. You angle the mirror so it will do a bank shot from the distant laser off the mirror and into your target, then radio the laser station to let'er rip. About fifteen minutes later the diffuse laser beam arrives, and your parabolic mirror focuses it down to a megaJoule pinpoint on your target.

The advantage is that the spacecraft does not have to lug around the laser, the power supply, the heat radiators, and other massive elements of the laser weapon. The spacecraft can have a higher acceleration or increased payload. The beam can also be of a power level associated with laser equipment that is not considered "portable by spacecraft", if the laser generator is a few miles in diameter your spacecraft could care less.

Disadvantages include the lag time between ordering a shot and its arrival, and the vulnerable nature of the combat mirror (generally little more than a large Mylar balloon).

Mirror Armor

Now I know all you older science fiction fans still remember Johnny Quest and The Mystery Of The Lizard Men where Dr. Quest demonstrates that one can defend oneself against a weapon-grade laser beam with a dressing-room mirror. Sorry, it doesn't work that way in reality. No mirror is 100% efficient, and at these power levels, the fraction that leaks through is more than enough to vaporize the mirror armor. The same goes for "ablative armor." One zap and the impact point is abruptly as bare of armor as a baby's behind.

Inside a laser cannon, a relatively diffuse laser beam is generated. This prevents the beam from vaporizing the cannon's internal optics. At the business end, a parabolic mirror focuses the diffuse beam down to the aforementioned megaJoule pinpoint on the hapless target.


And don't think that lasers will automatically hit their targets either. There are many factors that can cause a miss. Off the top of his head, Dr. John Schilling mentions:

  • Uncertain target location due to finite sensor resolution
  • Uncertain target motion due to sensor glint or shape effects
  • Sensor boresight error due to finite manufacturing tolerances
  • Target motion during sensor integration time
  • Analog-to-digital conversion errors of sensor data
  • Software errors in fire control system
  • Hardware errors in fire control system
  • Digital-to-analog conversion errors of gunlaying servo commands
  • Target motion during weapon aiming time
  • Weapon boresight error due to finite manufacturing tolerances
  • Weapon structural distortion due to inertial effects of rapid slew
  • Weapon structural distortion due to external or internal vibration
  • Weapon structural distortion due to thermal expansion during firing

And we haven't even begun to include target countermeasures...


Airbourne Laser

What about a laser turret? It can be so inconvenient to have to move the entire ship in order to aim the blasted beam. As it turns out, the US Air Force has a solution created for their Airborne Laser project.

I hear you ask "but why doesn't the beam slice up the inside of the turret?" The key is power density.

For instance, a naughty little boy will find that sunlight does not do much to his skin except warm it up a bit. However, if you whip out a magnifying glass you can focus the sunlight to a white-hot pinpoint that will easily incinerate ants. The magnifying glass increases the power density of the sunlight. So inside the turret, the weapon beam is something like 20 centimeters in diameter which means a power density too low to fry the internal mirrors. At the end, the beam expander mirror evenly shines the laser beam over the primary mirror. That mirror then acts like the magnifying glass in the hands of the anticidal little boy, focusing the diffuse laser beam down to an incinerating pin-point on the hapless target.

Isaac Kuo points out that another factor keeping the laser from chopping up the turret is that the internal mirrors are dielectric mirrors. Those babies can be up to 99.999% reflective. Meanwhile if target has conventional mirror plating it will only be 95% reflective, absorbing 5,000 times as much laser energy. Dielectric mirrors would be difficult if not impossible to manufacture in pieces large enough to cover a missile or spacecraft.

The actual US Air Force Air Borne Laser is a megawatt class chemical oxygen iodide laser (COIL) operating at a frequency of 1.315 microns or 1.315e-6 meters (near infrared). With a 1.5 meter mirror, this gives a divergence angle of 1.07e-6 radians. If my slide rule is correct, this means at a range of one kilometer it will have a spot size of one millimeter radius, and a beam brightness of about 300,000 megawatts per square meter. However, I've seen suggestions that the actual spot size is more like several centimeters, demonstrating the room for improvement.

The US Air Force is understandably reluctant to give any figures on the performance of the Air Borne Laser. The best figures I could find suggest that it could destroy a flimsy unarmored hypergolic fueled missile (with fuel still in the tanks) by expending a three to five second burst up to a range of about 370 kilometers. Three to five seconds is an awfully long time to keep the beam focused on the same spot on a streaking missile. The dwell time will have to be longer if the missile is armored or if it uses solid fuel or other inherently stable fuel.

The giant primary mirror will contain adaptive optics (i.e., it will be a "rubber mirror"). This will allow the mirror to change its focus to accommodate the range to target. In diagram "a" to the right, the flexible mirror is laid over a slab of piezoelectric material that changes shape as power is applied to the electrodes. In diagram "b" individual actuators are used. The image on the right is a 19-actuator deformable mirror built by Rockwell International. The mirror is only 40 cm in diameter. The actuator density is about 150 actuators per square meter, so the 1.5 meter ABL mirror would require about 270. (surface area of a circular 1.5 meter mirror is about 1.8 square meters, times 150 actuators per square meters give 270 total actuators)

Luke Campbell's Turret

Luke Campbell has his own design for a laser turret. Cararra 5 was used to create the 3D mesh and to render the images.


Rick Robinson has a more serious concern. You know how it is a very bad idea to look through a telescope at the Sun? Well, for the same reason it is bad to unshutter your laser cannon optics and point them at a hostile ship which might zap you with its laser. Your cannon's optics would funnel their beam right down into the delicate interior of your cannon. The optics would also concentrate their beam to 10x or 100x the intensity. This means that if your lasers are unshuttered and your opponents are shuttered, you have the drop on them. The instant you detect their shutters trembling you give them a zap. Their shutters will still be opening when your bolt scrags their laser.

However, Ken Burnside says:

I will point out that the likeliest result of "shooting down the barrel of a laser" is to destroy one of the mirror elements on the focal array. Since those elements are likely to be used with adaptive optics, this won't even hurt the laser that much. It's only if the mirrors are hit at exactly the right angle that they'll direct energy back into the Free Electron Laser itself.

Ken Burnside

Anthony Jackson has another messy solution. One can design a laser cannon without a mirror or lens, if one uses a phased array. Currently we can create phased arrays for microwaves and radars, but have no idea how to do it with visible light. It would take a major technological break-through, but it is not actually forbidden by the laws of physics. Another nifty effect of phased array emitters is that they're flat and can fire at any angle (range will suffer at extreme angles), without requiring a turret assembly.

Dr. Yo came to the horrified realization that the logical acronym for PHased Array laSER was ... aiieee!

Eric Henry prefers that particular name for Free-electron laSER.

It is possible to armor laser mirrors, and it's also possible to use optics which are inherently difficult to damage. We've had extensive discussions about this (with Rick Robinson and others) on sfconsim-l.

Armor is based on protecting an otherwise delicate mirror with grids of armor. This assumes the use of a pulsed laser. Each armor grid is a bundle of parallel sheets. When the grid is rotated, it briefly lines up with the target in passing—that's when a pulse laser can fire. With two or more grids, the window of vulnerability can be made arbitrarily short. And the duty cycle can be made unpredictable.

So, for example, a pulsed laser that could only pulse 1/10000 of the time. Incoming laser fire would only hit the mirror 1/1000 of the time. The other 99.99% of the time, it hits the grid armor.

If you want to get even fancier, you can space apart the grids by, say, 1/1000 light seconds (300km). This requires the use of an armor drone, or a pair of warships. This lets you have a duty cycle of almost 50% and still have armor protection 100% of the time. The time delay is sufficient that your photons can pass through to the target, while photons going the other way will get blocked by either one grid or the other.

Still, this grid armor is very bulky. Assuming the grids block 10% of the outgoing photons, it takes 100cm thick grid armor to provide the equivalent protection of only 10cm of solid armor. And it's possible that damage to these grids may significantly diminish their efficiency.

Another interesting possibility is to use damage resistant optics. If you use diffraction rather than reflection or refraction, you can make your focusing element arbitrarily thick. Your focusing element is a zone plate drone some distance away from the beam generator ship. The zone plate is a sturdy thick set of concentric cylinders. It can be arbitrarily thick...if you want, it can be 1m thick. All that really matters is the pattern of concentric circles. Enemy lasers could blast away at this thing all day, and it still functions perfectly so long as there's enough left over to block the concentric circles.

Such a zone plate is not the most efficient focusing element—it only focuses about 25% of the source beam's energy on target. But if you want the ultimate in damage resistance, it can't be beat.

The bottom line is...don't bother shooting at the laser optics. It can be HEAVILY armored.

Isaac Kuo in a Google+ thread

Bomb-Pumped Lasers

A special type of laser is the bomb-pumped laser. This is generally found as a missile warhead. A "submunition" is a warhead that is a single-shot bomb-pumped gamma-ray laser. The original concept was developed by Edward Teller under the name "Excalibur." Teller and Excalibur were later discredited, but the basic idea wasn't.

Here's the problem: the lasing medium in a laser has to be "pumped" or flooded with the same frequency that the laser emits. This isn't a problem with infrared or visible light, but sadly there are not many good sources of x-rays and gamma-rays. About the only good source is a detonating nuclear device, which has the distressing side-effect of vaporizing the laser. So the idea is to make a laser that can frantically manufacture one good x-ray zap in the few microseconds before it is destroyed by the bomb blast. This is the reason it is "one-shot."

(Yes, in theory, hafnium-178m2 is also a good source of gamma rays, but it has problems.)

The Excalibur units had about one hundred x-ray laser rods mounted on a nuclear device. When the hordes of evil Soviet nuclear missiles climbed into view, all one hundred lasers would lock on to different targets, then the bomb was triggered. John Schilling said that due to inefficiency each laser would emit a pulse of only 5×106 Joules, but they'd have a range of up to one hundred kilometers. Unfortunately Dr. Schilling didn't mention whiat size bomb he was basing his estimate on. The unclassified literature about Excalibur is vague, only saying the pumping nuclear device will have a yield that is smaller than your average nuclear warhead. Which could mean almost anything. My guess is under the size of the Hiroshima bomb: 15 to 20 kiloton or so.

According to Directed Energy Missile Defense in Space, a one megaton (1,000 kiloton) nuclear device releases about four billion megajoules (4.184×1015 J), but only a few percent of this will end up in the x-ray laser beams, due to the inherent inefficiency. Call it a total of about 100 million megajoules (1.0×1014 J) of x-ray laser (efficiency of 2.5%). Unfortunately they do not specify how many laser rods they are assuming in their analysis. Assuming 50 laser rods, then each rod would have a beam of 2.0×1012 joules.

Bomb-pumped lasers do not use lenses or mirrors (because there ain't no such thing as an x-ray mirror). Brian Smith-Winsemius gently pointed out to me that I do not know what I am talking about, since he works with x-ray mirrors every day.

I happen to work on a EUV (13.5nm wavelength) prototype photolithography tool. So when I read "Bomb-pumped lasers do not use lenses or mirrors (because there ain't no such thing as an x-ray mirror)." I had to stop and write. The tool I work on uses multi-layer mirrors We have to use mirrors since there are no known lenses that work with 13.5nm or x-ray light. For example, the Chandra X-Ray observatory uses a collector mirror assembly which resembles our collector optic.

Brian Smith-Winsemius

According to The Star Wars Controversy: An "International Security" Reader (edited by Steven E. Miller and Stephen Van Evera, 1986), in order to calculate the beam divergence angle of a bomb-pumped laser, use the following:

θ = 2 * (w / l)


  • θ = beam divergence angle (radians)
  • w = width of lasing rod (meters)
  • l = length of lasing rod (meters)

A practical maximum length of a single laser rod is no more than five meters. Making the rod thinner decreases the divergence angle, but this is limited by diffraction, just like in more conventional lasers. Make the rod too narrow and diffraction actually makes the divergence angle larger. The width limit is:

1.22*L/l = 2*w/l


  • L = wavelength of laser beam (meters)
  • w = width of lasing rod (meters)
  • l = length of lasing rod (meters)

For an x-ray laser rod of one nanometer wavelength and rod length of five meters, the optimum rod width is 0.06 millimeters. The beam divergence angle will be 20 microradians.

This relatively huge divergence further degrades the laser performance. Our 100 million megajoules are now diluted into a 20 microradian cone. If all of this energy came from a single laser rod, on a target at ten megameters (10,000 km), it would deposit about 300 kJ/cm2 over a spot 200 meters wide. Divide the energy by the number of laser rods in the Excalibur, probably around 50. That would be 6 kJ/cm2 over a spot 200 meters wide. Which isn't quite enough if you are targeting enemy ICBMs with a hardness of 10 kJ/cm2.

Note the consequence of the absence of x-ray mirrors: each laser rod will fire a laser beam out both ends of the rod. The majority of the beam will exit from the end of the rod farther from the nuclear blast, however (i.e., most of the beam will travel in the same direction as the x-rays from the blast). If the rod is perpendicular to the blast, equal beams will emerge from both ends.

A bigger draw-back is the fact that while a laser cannon requires a targeting system, Excalibur requires a targeting system for every single laser rod. Such systems are not cheap.

A more minor problem is "bomb-jiggle." Many types of fission devices use conventional explosives to squeeze the core into a critical mass. While the nuclear blast is far too swift to jog the laser rods off their targets, the conventional explosives are not. They might cause the rods to miss-aim, so when the nuclear blast triggers the x-rays, the beams are off-target. This might be avoided by using a laser-initiated fusion device.


There is a variant on the bomb-pumped laser in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's classic novel Footfall, which is arguably the best "alien invasion" novel ever written. They noticed that bomb-pumped lasers is a concept that merges seamlessly with Orion drive spacecraft. In this case the submunitions do not need a bomb. They are thrown below the pusher plate, they take aim at the enemy, then the next propulsion bomb pushes the ship and simultaneously pumps the submunitions. You can find more detalis about the spacecraft here.

Impulsively Driven Laser

Andrew Presby found an interesting document entitled "On The Feasibility of an Impulsively Driven Gamma-ray Laser" (1979) at the Federation of American Scientists website. Please note this is for gamma-ray lasers, not x-ray lasers like the discussion above. That is probably why the x-ray laser rods had a maximum length of 5 meters while these graser rods have a length of 0.05 meters.

I wish I'd found the dumb thing years ago when I taking my graduate school lasers class and looking for physics papers on bomb pumped GRASERS. The Nevada experiment described herein sounds suspiciously like the bomb pumped XRASER (xray laser) experiments in the 70s/80s codenamed Excalibur that started the chain of events that got Teller in so much trouble. Thing I cannot figure is that the device described herein seems to produce GAMMA RAYS in the 6-8 MeV range (~0.002 Ångström) which is 10000 times higher photon energy than the stuff I've found in the literature that is available on Excalibur (which was in the ~14 Ångström range).

I've never heard if this worked or not... but there you go.

Andrew Presby

The document suggest using Tantalum-180 dissolved in Lithium-7 for the lasing rods, about one part in four thousand. Alternatives are Cobalt-109 and Molybdenum-99.

The design uses the Mössbauer effect, the recoil-free emission and absorption of gamma ray photons by atoms bound in a solid form. This is important. Laser light is coherent light, where all the photons are in perfect lock-step. The trouble with x-ray and gamma-ray emission is that they are powerful enough to make the excited atom recoil in reaction. This throws off the synchronization, so that the beam is not coherent, and thus not a laser beam. The Mössbauer effect prevents this by locking the lasing atoms in a matrix of anchor atoms, thus dealing with the recoil.

It was estimated that the grasing transition energy densities of tens of kilojoules per cubic centimeter. This means a one megajoule graser could fit in a breadbox, sans bomb of course. A laser beam composed of gamma rays impacting on, say, an incoming Soviet nuclear warhead would produce a flood of neutrons generated by gamma-ray/neutron recations, burning a nice hole. And the high-energy Compton-scattered electrons would create an enormous EMP, frying the warhead's electronics.

The document describes a test for the concept. A cylindrical package five centimeters long by five centimeters in radius would be packed with 20,000 lasing needles 25 µ diameter by 5 centimeters long (I assume that µ means micrometre or micron). The needles would be composed of Lithium-7 with 0.025% Tantalum-180. The needles would be aligned in parallel with 100 µ spacing between their axes, and arranges so that the centers of no three needles would be in a straight line.

The rod assembly package would be insulated from the bomb by insulating and moderating material (from the bomb: 15 cm of space, 7 cm of lead, 20 cm of heavy water, 5 cm to the center of the rod assembly). This will ensure that only the proper radiation strikes the assembly, and to allow the assembly to survive for the few microseconds required to create the graser beam. The lead [1] attenuates the gamma radiation from the bomb, [2] slows the debris motion, [3] and blocks the x-rays that would destroy the package. The heavy water moderates the neutron output.

The beam divergence is determined by the aspect ratio, which for this package is on the order of 0.5 milliradian. This is above the diffraction limit (about 8 milliradian).

In the proposed test, a one kiloton device would be detonated to pump the graser. The five centimeter needles have a calculated gain of 2 x 104. About 9% of the nuclear energy in the grasing transition will actually escape the needles, due to the short pathlength for 6.3 keV gamma rays. The energy available is 7.3 x 1016 MeV cm-3, which means the graser beam will be a piddling little 2.6 kilojoules. Keep in mind that is was intended as a test rig, not a functioning weapon.

Non-Bomb-Pumped Lasers

Laser guru Luke Campbell thinks it not impossible to make an x-ray laser which does NOT require a nuclear device to pump it. In theory a Free Electron laser can produce any wavelength. It is possible approximate an x-ray lens by having the rays make glancing blows off dense materials.

Bottom line is an x-ray laser is technologically very challenging, but if you manage to make one you have an Unstoppable Death Ray of Stupendous Range.

Let's take a 10 MW ERC pumped FEL at just above the lead K-edge. This particular wavelength is used because lead is pretty much the heaviest non-radioactive element you can get, and at just above the highest core level absorption for a material you can get total external reflection at grazing angles - so no absorption or heating of a lead grazing incidence mirror. We will use a 1 meter diameter mirror. The Pb K-edge x-ray transition radiates at 1.4E-11 m. This gives us a divergence angle of 1.4E-11 radians. At 1 light second, we get a spot size of 5 mm, and an intensity of 5E11 W/m2.

Looking at the NIST table of x-ray attenuation coefficients, and noting that 1.4E-11 m is a 88 keV photon, we find an attenuation coefficient of about 0.5 cm2/g for iron (we'll use this for steel), 0.15 cm2/g for graphite (we'll use this for high tech carbon materials) and 0.18 cm2/g for borosilicate glass (a very rough approximation for ceramics). Since graphite has a density of 1.7 g/cm3, we get a 1/e falloff distance (attenuation length) of 4 cm. Iron, with a density of 7.9 g/cm3, has an attenuation length of 0.25 cm. Glass, density 2.2 g/cm3, has an attenuation length of 2.5 cm.

At 1 light second, therefore, the beam is depositing 2E12 W/cm3 in iron at the surface and 7E11 W/cm3 at 0.25 cm depth; 1.2E11 W/cm3 in graphite at the surface and 5E10 W/cm3 at 4 cm depth; and 2E11 W/cm3 in glass at the surface and 7E10 W/cm3 at 2.5 cm depth. Using 6E4 J/cm3 to vaporize iron initially at 300 K, we find that iron flashes to vapor within a microsecond to a depth of 0.9 cm. The glass, assumed to take 4.5E4 J/cm3 to vaporize (roughly appropriate for quartz) will flash to vapor within a microsecond to a depth of 4 cm within a microsecond. Graphite, at 1E5 J/cm3 for vaporization, will flash to vapor to a depth of 0.7 cm within a microsecond (the laser performs better if we let it dwell on graphite for a bit longer, we get a vaporization depth of 10 cm after ten microseconds).

Net conclusion - ravening death beam at one light second.

Now lets look at one light minute. The beam is now 30 cm across. This is much deeper than the attenuation length in all cases, so we will just find the radiant intensity and the equilibrium black body temperature of that intensity. We have an area of 7E-2 m2, and an intensity of 1.4E8 W/m2. You need to reach 7000 K before the irradiated surface is radiating as much energy away as heat as it is receiving as coherent x-rays. The boiling point of iron is 3023 K, the boiling point of quartz is 2503 K, and the sublimation temperature of graphite is 3640 K. All of these will be vaporized long before they stop gaining heat. At this range, the iron is subject to 5.6E8 W/cm3 at the surface, the graphite to 3.3E7 W/cm3 at the surface, and the glass to 5.6E7 W/cm3 at the surface. Using the above values for energy of vaporization, we get about 0.1 milliseconds before the iron starts to vaporize, 0.8 milliseconds before the glass starts to vaporize, and 3 milliseconds before the graphite begins to vaporize (because of its long attenuation length, once it begins to sublimate, graphite sublimates rapidly to a deep depth, while you essentially have to remove the iron layer by layer).

Net conclusion - still a ravening death beam at one light minute.

What about at one light hour? The beam is 18 meters across. The equilibrium black body temperature is 900 K. This is well below the melting point of most structural materials. Ten megawatts, however, is a lot of ionizing radiation. Any unhardened vehicle will be radiation killed at these ranges.

Luke Campbell

However, he goes on to note that in order to boost electrons to the velocities required for an X-ray free electron laser, you will need an acceleration ring approximately one freaking kilometer in diameter. So this X-ray laser would only be suitable for exceedingly huge warships, orbital fortresses, and Death Stars.

Since the time he wrote the above, Luke Campbell has reconsidered the use of lead grazing incidence mirror. Now he favors using diffraction.

I have since come to realize that at x-ray energies this high, matter cannot act as a mirror even at grazing angles (the x-rays have such a short wavelength that they interact with the atoms individually, rather than seeing them as a flat sheet - and you can't really get grazing incidence off of an individual atom). This is why I now prefer diffraction for focusing.

Luke Campbell

Particle Beams

Particle beam weapons use a similar principle to the one being utilized in the computer monitor aimed at your face right now (unless you are one of those lucky people who has a flat-panel monitor) those ancient CRT monitors and TV screens they used to use in olden times. Electrons or ions are accelerated by charged grids into a beam. They work much better in the vacuum of space than in an atmosphere, which is why there is no air inside the cathode-ray tube of your ancient monitors. Laboratory scale electron beams can have efficiencies up to 90%, but scaling up the power into a weapon-grade beam will make that efficiency plummet.

Particle beams have a advantage over lasers in that the particles have more impact damage on the target than the massless photons of a laser beam (well photons have no rest mass at least. The light pressure exerted by a laser beam pales into insignificance compared to the impact of a particle beam). There is better penetration as well, with the penetration climbing rapidly as the energy per particle increases. Particle beams deposit their energy up to several centimeters into the target, compared to the surface deposit done by lasers.

They have a disadvantage of possessing a much shorter range. The beam tends to expand the further it travels, reducing the damage density ("electrostatic bloom"). This is because all the particles in the beam have the same charge, and like charges repel, remember? Self-repulsion severely limits the density of the beam, and thus its power.

They also can be deflected by charged fields, unlike lasers. Whether the fields are natural ones around planets or artificial defense fields around spacecraft, the same fields used to accelerate the particles in the weapon can be used to fend them off.

Particle beams can be generated by linear accelerators or circular accelerators (AKA "cyclotrons"). Circular accelerators are more compact, but require massive magnets to bend the beam into a circle. This is a liability on a spacecraft where every gram counts. Linear accelerators do not require such magnets, but they can be inconveniently long.

Another challenge of producing a viable particle beam weapon is that the accelerator requires both high current and high energy. We are talking current on the order of thousand of amperes and energy on the order of gigawatts. About 1e11 to 1e12 watts over a period of 100 nanoseconds. The short time scale probably means quick power from a slowly charged capacitor bank, similar to the arrangement in a typical camera strobe. You want a very thin beam with a very high particle density, the thinner the better and the more particles the better. The faster the particles move the more particles will be in the beam over a given time, i.e., the higher the "beam particle current" and the faster this current flows, the more energy the beam will contain.

The power density is such that the accelerator would probably burn out if operated in continuous mode. It will probably be used in nanosecond pulses.

Protons are 1836 times more massive than electrons, so proton beams expand only 1/1836 times as fast as electron beams and are 1836 times harder to deflect with charged fields. Of course they also require 1836 times as much power to accelerate the protons to the same velocity as the electrons.

It is possible to neutralize the beam by adding electrons to accelerated nuclei, or subtracting electrons from negative ions. While this will eliminate electrostatic bloom, the neutralization process will also defocus the beam (to a lesser extent). As a rough guess, maximum particle beam range will be about the same as a very short-ranged laser cannon.

For a neutral particle beam, the divergence angle is influenced by: traverse motion induced by accelerator, focusing magnets operating differently on particles of different energies, and glancing collision occurring during the neutralization process. The first two can be controlled, the last cannot (due to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle). The divergence angle will be from one to four microradians, compared to 0.2 for conventional lasers and 20 for bomb-pumped lasers.

The source of the particles for the beam come from sophisticated gadgets with weird names like "autoresonantors", "inertial homopolar generators", and "Dundnikov surface plasma negative ion sources".

Dr. Geoffrey A. Landis had this to say:

Particle beams disperse for a lot more reasons than laser beams, unfortunately, so it's harder to give a simple formula. It will depend on things like magnetic and electric fields in the region between the source and the target (if the particles have spin, for example, they will couple to the magnetic field gradient even if they are neutral).

However, for a neutral particle beam traversing empty, field-free space, the dispersion is proportional to the temperature of the beam. Using, for the sake of a simple example, a mercury ion beam (dispersion decreases proportional to square root of atomic mass, and mercury is a convenient high-mass atom that ionizes easily), the lateral (spreading rate) velocity of the beam is:

V = 1.4 SQRT(T) m/sec, for T in Kelvins

To calculate the actual angular spread of the beam, you need to know the beam velocity. For a quick calculation, you could say it's no more than the speed of light, 300,000,000 m/sec. So the dispersion in nano-radians is 5 SQRT(T).

So, for a beam with an effective temperature of, say, 1000K, dispersion for mercury is 150 nR, or 0.15 micro-radians. Dispersion at a distance of 100,000 km would be 0.015 km, or 15 meters. A hydrogen beam would disperse SQRT(80)= 9 times more.

[note that if the beam is actually relativistic, you have to apply a relativistic correction, which I'll ignore here.]

Dr. Geoffrey A. Landis

I'm not sure I have this correct, but to put this in useful form:

θ = (5e-9 * Sqrt[BT]) * Sqrt[80/Bn]


  • BT = beam temperature (Kelvin)
  • Bn = atomic number of element composing the beam (Uranium = 92, Mercury = 80, Zirconium = 30, Calcium = 20, Neon = 10, Hydrogen = 1)
  • θ = Beam divergence angle (radians)

RT = Tan(θ) * D


  • D = distance from particle beam emitter to target (m)
  • RT = radius of beam at target (m)

...making sure that Tan() is set to handle radians, not degrees. Or as one big ugly unified equation:

RT = Tan((5e-9 * Sqrt[BT]) * Sqrt[80/Bn]) * D

...again making sure that Tan() is set to handle radians, not degrees. I must stress I derived this equation myself, so there is a chance it is incorrect. Use at your own risk.

Particle Beam Weaponry in Attack Vector

(ed note: this is in the context of the tabletop wargame Attack Vector: Tactical. One hexagon is 20 kilometers. Each armor layer is 5 g/cm2 of carbon.)

Building a practical particle beam that behaves in a gun-like manner at any plausible level of technology is a formidable challenge; a 1 GeV neutral hydrogen beam has a minimum theoretical beam spread of around 1 microradian, or 8 cm at a 4 hex range (80 km). Reaching this limit seems unlikely, so using a standard damage model for particle beams seems unlikely.

However, particles at energies in excess of 1 GeV/nucleon have quite excessive penetration; 1/e distance for initial penetration are on the order of 70 g/cm2 in typical shielding materials, and if you count in the effects of cascade radiation can climb over 100 g/cm2, which means you need 20 layers of AV armor to get a 1/e reduction. This allows a particle beam to kill ships without actually piercing armor.

Hardened electronics tends to have severe problems at 100-1000 grays, or 2.5 to 25 megajoules per hullspace average dose; 1 damage point to a hullspace will kill it pretty reliably. This makes a PAW a bit more lethal, per unit energy, than conventional energy weapons, but it only damages a fairly limited class of targets. Note that 5 grays is likely lethal to a human, and incapacitation in combat-relevant time takes 40+ grays. A beam intensity of 1 megajoule per square meter, with a penetration of 100 g/cm2, results in 1000 grays to surface components.

While photonic equipment is more resistant than standard electronics to transient effects caused by radiation, radiation also directly physically damages components, and there's no really good way to make them tougher other than making them bigger (and thus slower) or adding lots of backups.

The incapacitation mechanic, for a PAW, is thus chosen as having the weapon damage X components, requiring a save for each component at a specified difficulty; it then cascades down to the next layer at some reduction in power (on average, 1/10 the dose per 10 meters of length; a 10m ship gives -1 in the first region, -3 in the second, -5 in the third). X depends on the beam width; for a beam that hits a 10 square meter area, X is 1.

For simplicity in handling shielding effects of internal components, we define a 'shielding depth' for the ship, equal to 1/8 of the relevant dimension, in meters. We also assume that the components in the hull layer are behind half a shielding depth.

Particle Beam Rules

1) Shielding and Shielding Depth

To determine a ship's shielding, add 1/8 of its armor and 1/32 of its hull dimension from the relevant direction, and drop fractions; thus, a Rafik has a shielding factor of 5/8 + 33/32 or 1, from more or less any side; a Wasp has a shielding factor of 12/8 + 84/32 or 4 from the front, 1/8 + 17/32 or 0 from the side. This is a bit of a simplification, but works tolerably well unless the ship is very large. Two points of shielding depth roughly halve dose.

To determine a ship's shielding depth, simply divide relevant dimension by 8. In the above examples, the Rafik uses 4 in all directions, the Wasp uses 10 from the front, 2 from the sides.

2) PAW Effects

A PAW hits one or more surface areas. The weapon table tells you how many surface areas it hits, and the power of the attack at each area. If more areas are hit than the actual surface of the ship, any excess is lost (if it's more than the area of one region, spread to another region). To determine the actual number of components in the first region damaged, multiply the area hit by shielding depth, and divide by 5. Then, reduce power by the ship's shielding. The result is the difficulty of component saves. Certain components are more or less vulnerable, see below. If it seems useful, you may spread; each doubling in area hit reduces damage by 2.

Once you've damaged surface components, you get to cascade. Subtract the shielding depth of the ship from the weapon power, and proceed to damage the core, hitting it the same number of times as you hit the surface. Then, subtract the shielding depth again and damage the core a second time; finally, subtract the shielding depth a third time and damage the far side of the ship. Note that damage below 0 does matter on certain vulnerable components.

If you wish to add some complexity, the core is actually fairly small; if you hit more than 1/5 of the exposed surface, the remainder must be spread to the sides of the ship instead of the core.

3) PAW weapons

A standard THS weapon delivers 80 MJ per 15 meters length per 16 seconds. This will deliver 8,000 grays to the surface of one location, which is pretty much an autokill unless the location has a lot of shielding; the save is set to 10 on 1 hex. The following table gives the effects of a PAW at varying ranges (minimum area is 4, to reduce jitter)


4) Component Damage

All Drive, Electronics, Reactor, and Weapons locations can be damaged by PAWs; damage control is assumed effective, though if a damage control team is in an area when it's hit by a PAW, the damage control team must save. Other mechanical components may also be vulnerable.

The Bridge location can be damaged by a PAW and suffers a +6 difficulty because it requires sophisticated computers. A light storm shelter reduces difficulty by 12, a heavy by 18.

Other locations will generally have noncritical but annoying damage to environment control, switches, loaders, and the like. Some sorts of cargo will be damaged by radiation.

Personnel, in any location, can be disabled and suffer a +6 difficulty to avoid immediate incapacitation (3200 rads = +0), and a +15 difficulty to survive long-term (140 rads = +0). Unless there is a reason for them to be elsewhere, personnel are on the bridge. The main reason for being off the bridge is damage control, though a surprised ship might have people in quarters.

Cybershells are disabled disabled like personnel; cybershells may use hardened computers if desired. Damage control teams are normally run by hardened cybershells. Radiation effects are a combination of physical damage to switches and transient effects.

Anthony Jackson (2005)
Particle Beams: The Ultimate Hard Scifi Weapon

(ed note: Redditor poster MatterBeam has a brilliant suggestion. They make the case that science fiction authors who postulate spacecraft combat using particle beams will allow the authors to justify many of the cherished space combat tropes common in media SF. There is some room for argument, but it does provide authors with a lot of cover.)

Particle beam weapons are the ultimate scifi weapon for hard science fiction authors and worldbuilders.

What is it?

You know about particle accelerators: A handful of atoms are ionized (stripped of their electrons) and accelerated to near light speed. A particle beam is the same concept, with much greater energies and many more atoms, and it is open ended. The relativistic stream of particles can hit targets thousands of kilometers away with great accuracy.

How are they different from lasers?

Lasers are focused with large, fragile mirrors. Particle beams are focused using magnets.

Lasers have greater range due to their smaller spot size.

Particle beams have several damage modes, lasers have only one. Lasers do surface thermal damage. Continuous laser beams gradually melt through the target, while pulsed beams try to make the surface material heat up so quickly, it explodes away in chunks. Particle beams penetrate through armor, depositing energy throughout the entire target volume. They are also capable of being pulsed. They have a secondary damage mechanic that is called Bremsstrahlung radiation. Charge particles, when slowed down by armor, emit X-rays inside the target. This is very damaging to electronics.

Lasers are less efficient than particle beams due to the necessity of converting electrical energy into thermal/optical energy.

Lasers travel at light speed and can only be stopped by physical barriers. Particle beam weapons can use several different particles (from the lightest electrons to the heaviest uranium ions) and travel at varying near-light speeds. Their path can be altered by magnetic and electrostatic fields if not properly neutralized.

Why are they the ultimate scifi weapon?

They allow authors to justify the majority of tropes that make science fiction 'fun'. With lasers and their extreme range, battles are no more than point-click minigames between legions of automated drones bouncing and refocusing a beam from a laser-generating battlestation.

With particle beams:

-We can justify humans in space warships. Due to Bremsstrahlung radiation, electronics are especially vulnerable to particle beam weapons. Humans serve as a backup, and the simple act of placing them on the warship creates a large variety of warship design options that do not require greater investment, mainly the ability to do repairs, second-by-second decision making and recovering vessels from partial destruction (soft-kills).

-It is easier to defend against lasers than particle beams: while lasers focus more energy per area than particle beams at all distances, they are much more vulnerable to reflective surfaces or armor that dissipates surface heat. Particle beams will penetrate deep into armor material instead.

-We can justify dedicated armor. Against lasers, the most efficient armor is simply placing your propellant outside of your hull. Kilogram by kilogram, nothing is more mass-efficient than a block of shapeless propellant with your spaceship embedded inside. Due to to the penetrative capability of particle beams, you can justify having proper warships: while lasers can be no more than an ice trawler with a laser generator attached, particle beam warships will have to be properly protected with high-z materials, that is, materials with a lot of electrons per mass unit. Examples include metal foams filled with hydrogen or water.

-Battle ranges are shorter. While lasers can deposit their energies over vast distances, particle beams are more limited by bloom effects, even more so if they are charged. For example, a 1MJ pulse of mercury particles, neutralized by an electron beam, would have a spot size of 15m at 100000km. A laser would have a spot size of a few cm at that same distance. Why is this important? Maneuvering requires dedicated high-thrust engines instead of feeble milligee drives. You don't have to deal with light lag. The targets aren't thermal specks at the limit of your imagery resolution, but spaceships orbiting the same planet as you are...

-We can justify 'shell' designs. Laser warships come in two flavours: the telescope and the battlestation. The telescope is a flimsy assemblage of struts, nuclear reactor and laser generator working at the the shortest frequency manageable. On top of all this is a massive focusing mirror. It accelerates slowly and doesn't do anything except shoot at targets so far away you can only resolve a drive signature. This is because range is king. The second flavor is a single, huge space station containing several reactors dumping their waste heat into a hollowed out asteroid or an ice cube of several kilotons. The laser beam is bounced from mirror drone to mirror drone, refocused at each step, over millions of kilometers. This means spaceships start being focused and melted before they even leave their orbits... from another planet away. It is the end of 'spaceships', but actual planets shooting at each other. In both cases, the 'warships' resemble something NASA built.

Particle beam warships would need to be enclosed in armor, and their firing ports are millimeters wide. They would resemble the traditional science fiction warship design, based on naval warships, much closer.

-We can justify the conversion of space technology to military use Lasers can be used for tight-beam communication, but so can radio. There is no reason for a spacefaring nation to develop high intensity laser technology unless it is for military use. It becomes hard for the scifi author to explain how we went from peaceful space transport to megawatt beams in a short span of time. Particle beam technology could be no more than a repurposing of the magnetic focusing assemblies found in thermo-electric and plasma rocket drives. It is a much more plausible transition in purpose from peaceful to military.

-We can create more interesting tactical choices: Particle beams can use several types of 'ammunition'. Electron beams are short-ranged, but cause deadly Bremsstrahlung radiation. Heavy ions disperse much less and penetrate armor better. Neutralized beams need two parallel beams positively and negatively charged ions, but have the least dispersion. Magnetic shielding can reduce the damage caused by ion beams, and even deflect them entirely. Neutralized beams can be slightly destabilized by magnetic fields, or even shot down by electron beams. All these are much more ineteresting choices than the default 'shoot as soon as targets are detected' that comes with lasers.

-We can do away with drone sub-weapon fleets; As mentioned before, a laser battlestation with even moderate power levels and a flett of cheap mirror drones can shoot down spaceships before they leave Mars. It would end exciting space warfare. With the ability to incapacitate 'cheap' autonomous drones, ion beams can quickly make them less cost effective than 'full' warships carrying humans.

Electrostatics, Neutrons, and Space Charge

While particles cannot travel at the speed of light, they can get close enough that it is hard to tell the difference. Unfortunately, particle beams do obey the inverse-square law.

A beam of neutrons does not suffer from electrostatic bloom since they have no charge, nor could they be deflected by charged fields. However, this also means it is difficult to accelerate the neutrons in the first place (and if you discovered a new way to do it, chances are it too could be used as a defense). Without electrostatic bloom neutron beams are only limited by "thermal bloom". Brett Evill says this will give a neutron beam an effective range of 10,000 km, but he doesn't mention the details of this estimate. Nelson Navarro is of the opinion that a science fictional heavy neutron beam could be produced by a science fictionally efficient method of breaking up deuterium nuclei.

Another problem is one shared by ion drives, the "space charge." If you keep shooting off electron beams you will build up a strong positive charge on your ship. At some point the charge will become strong enough to bend the beam. And the moment your ship tries to dock with another it will be similar to scuffing your shoes on the rug and touching the doorknob. Except instead of a tiny spark it will be a huge arc that will blow all your circuit breakers and spot-weld the ships together.

Don't try to neutralize the charge by firing off positively charged proton beams. John Schilling warns that space is filled with an extremely low-density, but conductive, plasma. You try to eject charge from your ship, and the ship itself becomes part of a current loop. Not only is the current flowing through the hull (or trying to) likely to cause problems, but all those electrons or protons being sucked in produce X-rays on hitting the hull.

Isaac Kuo:

Anyway, getting back to your original article...I understand the motivation for wanting missiles and lasers to have an uneasy balance. I tried for years for this to be a guiding principle, for the same reason you have.

But I've pretty much given up on the idea. The fundamental problem is that missiles aren't fun. They are a pain to keep track of, in any numbers, and missile combat basically just boils down to numbers.

If you want things to be tactically fun, it may be a better idea to look at different sorts of weapon systems instead. In particular, electron beams can be an interesting weapon system in your setting. Electron beams can be interesting complements to laser weapons, because they can share hardware with a free electron laser.

A couple years ago, I came up with this interesting way to use a planet's ambient magnetic field to focus electron beams over long distances. But the beam spot size is smallest when shooting perpendicular to the magnetic field. The further the target is from this, the larger the beam spot size. Interestingly, the beam spot size does NOT directly depend on range to target--only direction to target, and strength of the ambient magnetic field. (This strength diminishes quickly with distance from the planet, so there is in fact a practical range limit.)

The bottom line is that if you're setting involves mainly space combat near planets, an electron beam is an interesting complement to laser armament. There are some directions and ranges where the electron beam is superior, and others where the laser is superior.

Furthermore, different sized vehicles have different defensive abilities. A relatively large vehicle can completely defend itself from an electron beam with a strong large magnetic field. Small vehicles are vulnerable, though, and an electron beam could be an order of magnitude more efficient at delivering beam energy. (Free electron laser will only convert a fraction of the electron beam's energy into photons, and then the target material may be reflective enough to only absorb a fraction of the laser's energy.)

So, even though the electron beam may be useless against large warships, it's so much more effective against small warships that it's still a useful secondary weapons mode.

Also, the firing port of an electron beam weapon is tiny. The example I calculated out was a weapon with a 4mm spot size and a 4mm firing port. The beam can actually be aimed with electromagnets even after the firing port. Anyway, it's a lot less bulky than a laser turret.

And then there's space weather. Besides the fact that different planets have magnetic fields of different strengths, these magnetic fields are constantly shifting. This results in "windiness" that throws off your electron beam's aim. Earth's magnetic field shifts in the timeframe of around a second, so it's going to be impossible to stay on target at .5 light seconds away. Your practical range is likely much lower than that. Space weather can result in large variations in magnetic field strength--affecting beam spot size--as well as how "windy" it is. The effect on beam spot size effectively changes how wide your firing arc is against a particular target (a smaller spot can penetrate deeper). The effect on windiness changes the effective range of the weapon.

My point is...it's an interesting weapons system that can make tactical maneuvers an interesting puzzle. It's not just about numbers, you've got firing arcs that matter. You've got formations to cover each other's blind spots. You've got situations where a polar orbit is radically different, tactically, than an equatorial orbit, even when neither side has any relevant surface assets.

And from a playability perspective, a really nice thing about these firing arcs is that they don't depend upon dealing with complex 3D rotations. They depend purely upon a spacecraft's position, not its orientation.

Ray McVay:

My god...Jupiter's magnetic field is the largest thing in the entire system. The Jovians will have a weapon that can vape every KKV and Patrol Rocket that's thrown against them. You've figured out how they can wipe out the UN forces stationed in the Jovian system fast enough to put the Trans-Titanian Convoys at risk. Brilliant!

Isaac Kuo:

As for Jupiter's magnetic field...hmm...at low Jupiter orbit, it's about 10 times stronger than Earth's at LEO, but there's no compelling reason to be hanging out in low Jupiter orbit.

I'm not sure how strong Jupiter's magnetic field is at Io, but magnetic field strength drops of roughly with 1/r^3. That implies a field strength drop of around 6 cubed at Io, or around 1/20th the strength of Earth's magnetic field at LEO.

So basically...usable, but only about as potent as they are at medium Earth orbit. I'm actually surprised at this. They should have very long range, however, compared to small diameter laser weapons. Practical range depends on how "windy" the magnetosphere is, and I really don't know that.

Isaac Kuo in a Google+ thread
Rainbow Electron Beam

Long Range Electron Beams using Earth's Magnetic Field for Focusing

TL;DR: A novel concept for 100kW to 10MW electron beams can be used for ballistic missile defense, space junk sweeping, and cheap access to space.

This is a weird idea I had a couple years ago, which is basically an unusual alternative to lasers for a long range beam. Normally, electron beams are not considered suitable for long range due to self repulsion. A beam that starts off narrow will bloom outward because the electrons repel each other. You can counter this by starting with a wide beam that focuses inward, but...I've done numbers on that idea; it's not very good.

But using the ambient magnetic field, it's possible to do something completely different. The ambient magnetic field will bend the trajectories of electrons into circular arcs. It's possible to let the beam fan out wide, and then have the ambient magnetic field refocus the electrons back together into tight focus by the time they reach the target.

The beam is fanned out in a rainbow spectrum, with the fastest ions on the inner edge and the slowest ions on the outer edge. Fanning the beam out results in a wide plane of low charge density, greatly reducing self repulsion. The ambient magnetic field deflects the slower ions more than the faster ions. This causes the beam to straighten out parallel and then converge back inward.

From above, the beam looks like a crescent shape. One tip of the crescent is at the firing spacecraft; the other tip of the crescent is at the target.

From the side, the beam looks narrow in the middle. It's thicker at the firing end and the target end. How much thicker?

I'll start with a baseline example of a 100kW beam of 100MeV protons from a 5m long linac. We'll leave the ambient magnetic field a variable, "B". Some sample values:

  • B = 3e-5T : somewhere in LEO
  • B = 1e-7T : somewhere in GEO
  • B = 1e-9T : interplanetary

I'll assume a beam spectrum of 10% velocity (or 20% energy). With non-relativistic calculations for simplicity, the angular deflection rate is constant with time:

radians/s = charge/mass * B

The beam is parallel when it's halfway to the target, so the angular width of the beam at the tips is equal to:

  • angular beamwidth = charge/mass * B * (t1 - t2)
  • = charge/mass * B * (0.5*dist/(1.05*v) - 0.5*dist/(0.95*v))
  • = charge/mass * B * dist/v * 0.5 * 0.1
  • = charge/mass * B * dist/v * 0.05

The rate at which the width of the beam converges/diverges at the tips is:

  • v*angular beamwidth = charge/mass * B * dist * 0.05
  • = 1.60e-19C / 1.67e-27kg * B * dist * 0.05
  • = 0.958e8C/kg * B * dist * 0.05
  • = 4.79e6 C/kg * B * dist

Okay, now let's switch to looking at charge density.

100kW/100MeV is 1 milliamp, and beam velocity is about 138000km/s, so linear charge density is:

lcd = 1e-3A / (1.38e8m/s) = 7.25e-12C/m

Electric field strength will always be less than or equal to the strength if the charge were an infinite plane, or:

lcd/w /e0 = 0.818V/w

We now have the basics required to estimate vertical beam spread. The remaining input variables are:

  • dist = distance to target
  • B = ambient magnetic field

We use the infinite plane field strength to get a vertical acceleration of:

  • acc = (0.958e8C/kg)*0.818V/w
  • = (0.958e8C/kg) * 0.818V / (4.79e6 C/kg * B * dist * t)
  • = 16.4V / (B*dist*t)

Integrating to get vertical velocity, we have

v = 16.4V/B/dist * ln(t) + C1

Integrating to get vertical position, we have

  • h = 16.4V/B/dist * [ (tln(t)-t) + C1*t + C2 ]
  • = 16.4V/B/dist * [ t * (ln(t)-1+C1) + C2 ]

To simplify the math, I'll use this formula all the way from the muzzle to the halfway point. This overestimates the early acceleration, but underestimates the late acceleration. It will get in the right ballpark, though, since it never underestimates by more than a factor of 1:2.

If we want a local minima at |t| = T, we use C1 = -ln(T) and C2 = T for

h = 16.4V/B/dist * [ t * (ln(t)-1-ln(T)) + T ]

(Derivation left as exercise for the reader. "Mathematica says it's so.")

At t=0, we have:

h = 16.4V/B/dist * T

Since T is halfway there, it's 0.5*dist/v, so

h = 0.5*16.4V/B/(1.38e8m/s) = 5.94e-8Tm/B

Aha! What a surprise! The vertical spread doesn't depend on range! It makes intuitive sense, though. On the one hand, greater range gives more time to spread. On the other hand, the beam can be wider, reducing the charge density. It turns out the two factors cancel each other out. Wunderbar!

The vertical diameter of the beam is twice h, so it's:

2h = 1.19e-7Tm/B

With v = 138000km/s, we have:

  • B = 3e-5T : somewhere in LEO
  • 2h = 0.004m = 4mm
  • B = 1e-7T : somewhere in GEO
  • 2h = 1.2m
  • B = 1e-9T : interplanetary
  • 2h = 120m

So, at LEO, this electron beam can focus onto a 4mm x 0mm spot on the target (obviously, the actual width is limited by diffraction limits). But at the other locations, spots size is excessive.

This might be addressed by placing the minimum height closer to the target rather than at the midway point, but the math gets a lot uglier.

So how do things scale if we change things? If we keep the beam energy the same, but the spot height is inversely proportional to the amperage. In other words, if we keep the beam velocity the same but change the power, spot height is inversely proportional to power. If we increase the beam energy (increasing the length of the linac), but keep the power the same, amperage is reduced but fanning width is also reduced by the square root of the beam energy. The overall effect that spot height is inversely proportional to the square root of the beam energy (or length of the linac).

Now, this math assumes that the beam is being aimed perpendicular to the magnetic field lines. If it's being aimed at an angle to the magnetic field lines, only the component perpendicular to the beam helps fan/focus it. In other words, the spot size is inversely proportional to the sin of the aiming angle (with respect to the magnetic field). Aim perpendicular to the magnetic field, and the spot size is small. Aim vaguely along the magnetic field, and the spot size is big.

So what can we do with this electron beam?

  1. Global Ballistic Missile Defense
  2. Space Junk Sweeping
  3. Cheap Access to Space

1) Global Ballistic Missile Defense

The obvious thing is a weapons laser. A 100kW beam aimed onto a 4mm spot is actually superior to the 1000kW laser beam of Airborne Laser, because it's concentrated onto a much smaller spot--much better penetration. It also has superior range...basically, it can hit anything it can see out to the horizon. It would only take three of them to provide full coverage to the entire world, whereas ABL could only cover a small region a few hundred miles across.

The "bad" news is that this electron beam can only hit ballistic missiles. It can't penetrate Earth's atmosphere, so there's no way to use it to replace drone strikes. (This may be seen as either a feature or a flaw.)

2) Space Junk Sweeping

The small spot size and long range means that it could be used for eliminating small pieces of space debris. Electron impacts would sputter ions, producing reaction thrust directly and/or inducing temporary charge sufficient to deflect the orbits into Earth crossing orbits (where it burns up in Earth's upper atmosphere).

3) Cheap Access to Space

With a 10MW version, the spot size is 40cm. If the target is a cooperative, it can include a 40cm diameter magnet to focus the beam into a small point. The target might be little more than a block of ice, boosted up to orbital speeds by the electron beam vaporizing a conical crater/nozzle into the block. A small jet could sling two suborbital rockets under its wings, repeatedly launching a couple payloads per flight.

Isaac Kuo in a Google+ thread


Powering up a particle beam to the point where it can cut armor is difficult. But there is another option: death by "Bremsstrahlung".

Consider the x-ray tube in your dentist's office. It is basically an electron beam striking a metal target. Now, what if the electron beam was a particle beam weapon and the metal target was the hull of the enemy spacecraft? A hypothetical observer on the far side of the ship could make a nifty x-ray photo revealing the skeletons of crew members dying in agony of radiation poisoning.

Please note that Bremsstrahlung only occurs with charged particle beams, it doesn't happen with beams of neutrons.

The particle beam weapons postulated for Star Wars missile defense were to disable missiles by damaging the sensitive electronics via radiation, not by carving the missiles into pieces. An APS directed-energy weapons study written for the Strategic Defense Initiative estimated that in order to disable an ICBM, a particle beam had power requirements between 100 and 1,000 megawatts, depending on range and retargeting rate.

Anthony Jackson says if you crank up your particles to a few GeV per nucleon they will be in the soft end of the spectrum of primary cosmic rays. Each particle will be highly penetrating, and you no longer need to actually focus the beam. Just apply a couple megajoules per square meter and everything dies (unless it's behind a huge amount of shielding or is basically operating at pre-microchip levels of automation. Neither is an option for a surface mounted weapon turret.). We are talking about a surface radiation level of over 500 grays. Such a cosmic ray beam would require armor with a TVT (for radiation purposes) peaking at 200-300 g/cm2.

Also note that if the particles are moving a relativistic velocities higher than, say, 90% c, you will have about the same energy release if the particles are matter or antimatter. In other words, it is pointless for relativistic particle beam weapons to use antimatter, with all the added complexity due to antimatter manufacture and storage.

Ships that expect to be fired upon by particle beam weapons would be well advised to add a layer of paraffin or other particle radiation armor on the outside of their metal hull, to prevent the beam from generating Bremsstrahlung with the hull.

SDI Neutral Particle Beam

One of the more exotic weapon proposals that came out of the Strategic Defense Initiative was orbital neutral particle beam weapons.

As previously mentioned, charged particle beams suffer from electrostatic bloom, which drastically limits the range. It is possible to neutralize the beam by adding electrons to accelerated nuclei, or subtracting electrons from negative ions. This creates a neutral particle beam.

While this will eliminate electrostatic bloom, the neutralization process will also defocus the beam (to a lesser extent). As a rough guess, maximum particle beam range will be about the same as a very short-ranged laser cannon.

For a neutral particle beam, the divergence angle is influenced by: traverse motion induced by accelerator, focusing magnets operating differently on particles of different energies, and glancing collision occurring during the neutralization process. The first two can be controlled, the last cannot (due to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle). The divergence angle will be from one to four microradians, compared to 0.2 for conventional lasers and 20 for bomb-pumped lasers.

Most of the images below are of very poor quality, and many of the details are still classified. The scale of these weapons is unknown, but they are huge. Some are "folded", with a U-shaped section. This is a desperate attempt to cut the length in half. Scott Lowther guesstimates the entire weapon is on the order of 100 meters long or so.

Kinetic Kill Weapons

Kinetic Kill weapons are unguided missiles that have no warheads. Bullets and artillery shells in other words. They can be a simple as a bucket of rocks dumped in the ship's wake. Since they are basically solid lumps of matter they are much cheaper than a missile. They cannot be jammed, but by the same token they do not home in on the target. The damage they do depends upon the relative velocity between the kinetic lump and the target ship.

A sort of hybrid would be a missile which explodes into a cloud of deadly shrapnel that the enemy ship plows through, screaming.

Go to the Rocketpunk Manifesto, and read Kinetics, Part 1 and Kinetics, Part 2 The Killer Bus.

In case it is not obvious, if the weapon projectile has no rocket engine strapped to it (as do missiles), the weapon is not recoiless. Cannons, coil guns, and rail guns all have recoil due to Newton's third law. In fact, the propulsion system know as a mass driver is basically a coil gun optimized as a propulsion system rather than optimzed as a weapon. This means that these weapons can be used as crude propulsion systems in an emergency.

Kinetic kill weapons give you the tactical option to create terrain in the void of space in order to herd your opponent.


The damage inflicted can be calculated by the equation below. The same equations will also apply when one ship rams another, of course with added damage from exploding missile magazines, unstable fuel supplies, and out of control power plants. In a ramming, you will have to calculate the equation twice, once to figure damage inflicted on the rammed ship, the second time to calculate damage inflicted on the ramming ship.

To get some idea of the amount of damage represented by a given amount of Joules, refer to the Boom Table.

Eric Rozier has an on-line calculator for kinetic kill weapons.

Please note that it is relative velocity that is important. If your ship is quote "standing still" unquote, and if the enemy is tearing past you at seven kilometers per second, and if you leisurely toss an empty beer can into the path of the enemy, the relative velocity will be 7 km/s and the beer can will do severe damage to the enemy ship (if the beer can masses 0.1 kilogram, it will do 2,450,000 Joules of damage). So even though the beer can has practically zero velocity from your standpoint, from the standpoint of the soon-to-be-noseless ship the can has the velocity of a bat out of you-know-where.

Ke = 0.5 * M * V2


  • Ke = kinetic energy (Joules)
  • M = mass of projectile (kg)
  • V = velocity of projectile relative to target (m/s)

Wp = Ke * (1 / We)


  • Wp = power required by weapon to fire one projectile (Joules)
  • Ke = kinetic energy of one weapon projectile (Joules)
  • We = efficiency of the weapon (0.0 = 0%, 1.0 = 100%)

Rick Robinson's First Law of Space Combat states that:

Rick Robinson's First Law of Space Combat

An object impacting at 3 km/sec delivers kinetic energy equal to its mass in TNT.

Rick Robinson

In other words there are 4,500,000 joules in one kilogram of TNT (3,0002m/s * 0.5 = 4.5e6). This means a stupid bolder traveling at 2,000 km/sec relative has about 400 kilo-Ricks of damage (i.e., each ton of rock will do the damage equivalent of 2e12 / 4.5e6 = 400 kilotons of TNT or about 20 Hiroshima bombs combined).

Ricks = (0.5 * V2) / 4.5e6


  • V = velocity of projectile relative to target (m/s)
  • Ricks = kilograms of TNT worth of kinetic energy per kilogram of projectile

So a projectile moving at 200 km/sec (20,000 m/s) would have about 4,000 Ricks (4 kilo-Ricks) of damage, approximately the same as a standard one-kiloton-yield nuclear weapon. By that I mean it has the same damage per kilogram as a nuke, counting all the nuke's framework, electronics, fissionable material, and whatnot. (for the projectile to do the same damage as a standard nuke, it would need to be the same mass as a standard nuke, about 250 kilograms) A projectile moving at 3,500 km/sec would have about one mega-Rick, which is the same damage per kilogram as the ultra-compact 475-kiloton-yield W-88 nuclear warhead.

As a rule of thumb, anything with more than 100 Ricks (i.e., over 30 km/sec relative) does weapons-grade levels of damage. As an even more shaky rule of thumb, anything with more than 4,000 Ricks (i.e., over 190 km/sec relative) does nuclear warhead levels of damage. This is based on the assumption that a nuclear weapon has about a 4,000 fold increase in energy per kg released versus TNT.

And if you are thinking in terms of bombarding your enemy with asteroids, as a rule of thumb an asteroid's mass will be:

Ma = 1.47e4 * (Ra3)


  • Ma = mass of asteroid (kg)
  • Ra = radius of asteroid (m)

The wet navy battleship Iowa had 16-inch guns. They fired shells which massed about 2000 pounds (907 kg), carried a charge of 145 pounds (54 kg) of high explosive, and traveled at about 820 meters per second. By the kinetic equation above, they contained about 3.0e8 joules of kinetic energy. There are about 4.184e6 joules per kilogram of TNT (which is different from the value used in Rick Robinson's equation, if this annoys you, take it up with him) so the explosive charge contains about 2.3e8 joules of energy.

This means one 16-inch shell does about 3.0e8+2.3e8 = 5.3e8 joules of damage.

Floyd has spent the last 8.6 boring months in the good scoutship Peek-A-Boo, traveling from Mars to Earth in a hohmann orbit. Suddenly he notices a convoy raider from the Asteroid Revolutionary Navy accelerating from low Earth orbit into a Martian hohmann transfer orbit.

Unfortunately for Floyd, scoutships are unarmed. But since the two ships are traveling in opposite directions at a fair speed, anything Floyd can throw at the raider will be good for quite a few Ricks. How massive an object will Floyd have to hurl in order to inflict the same damage as a 16-inch shell?

For the raider to leave LEO and enter Earth Escape orbit takes about 3.17 km/s. To leave Earth Escape and enter Mars Hohmann orbit takes 2.95 km/s. So the raider has about 6.12 km/s relative to Earth.

Since Floyd is on the opposite leg of an Earth-Mars hohmann, he is also doing 6.12 km/s relative to Earth, but with an opposite vector. So relative to the raider, Floyd moving at 6.12 + 6.12 = 12.24 km/s.

Ke = 0.5 * M * V2


M = Ke / (0.5 * V2)

Ke = 5.3e8 joules and V = 12,240 m/s so M = 7.08 kg (about 15 pounds). A 15 pound object will do as much damage as a 16-inch shell.

At this speed, anything striking the raider will have 16.6 Ricks!

Sneaky the cat watches with bright interest as a space-suited Floyd carries the cat's litterbox into the airlock, and empties it into the path of the raider...

Kirklin Mines

In AV:T are kinetic weapons called "Kirklin mines" (invented by Kirk Spencer). They are dirt cheap chemical fueled anti-missile weapons, specifically anti-Torch missile weapons. The ideas is that they cost a fraction of the price of a missile, yet can scrag it. Using the magic of relative velocity, all they have to do is get in the way (this is why they are used against torch missiles, if the relative velocity isn't large enough the mine might not do enough damage to mission-kill the missile).

Launched at the proper time a Kirklin mine can either take out the incoming missile while it is too far away to damage the targeted ship, or force the missile to miss the ship entirely in the process of avoiding the mine (if the mine is launched too soon the missile has enough time to zig-zag around it and still kill the ship). Since they are cheaper, a given spacecraft can carry several mines for every missile their equivalent opponent ship has.

The current thinking is the only way a torch missile can avoid being neutralized by Kirklin mines is by becoming a bus carrying sub-missiles and decoys. Of course for a modest increase in cost the mines can become buses as well...

Hypervelocity Weapons

A special type of kinetic weapon is the hypervelocity weapon. These come in two types: rail guns and coil guns.

However, once the speed of the projectile surpasses about 14% the speed of light (42,000 kilometers per second), it is no longer a strict hypervelocity weapon, it has become a relativistic weapon.


A railgun is two highly charged rails. When a conducting projectile is introduced into the breech, it strikes an arc between the rails, and is accelerated down the barrel by Lorentz force. The projectile can be composed of anything, as long as the base will conduct electricity. Sometimes a non-conducting projectile is accelerated using a conducting base plate called a sabot or armature. The maximum velocity of the projectile is about six kilometers per second, which is pretty freaking fast. This would give the projectile about 3.8 Ricks worth of damage, e.g., a ten kilogram projectile would have as much striking power as thirty-eight kilograms of TNT.

And when we say "strike an arc", we don't mean "make a tiny spark like scuffing your shoes on the carpet and touching the doorknob." It is more like "incredibly powerful continuous electrical explosion." Those rails are carrying pleny of juice, and quite a bit of it is wasted.

Advantages are simple construction, disadvantage is the severe rail erosion each projectile causes, requiring frequent replacement of rails (some prototypes required replacement after each use). The rails need massive braces, since they are under tremendous force trying to repel the rails from each other.

Remember, since the projectiles are not rocket-propelled, railguns are not recoiless.

SDI Railguns

The Strategic Defense Initiative was an anti-nuclear ballistic missile defense program announced in 1984, and finally dissolved in 1993. It was immediately dubbed "Star Wars" by the news media. It produced lots of classified images of high-tech orbital weapons, and spent lots of money, but no deployed systems. At least none that have been declassified.

Beside x-ray lasers, smart rocks, and brilliant pebbles, some of the proposed systems were orbital railguns.

US Navy Railguns

In 2007, the US Navy demonstrated a railgun prototype. It used about 8 megajoules, but the full scale weapon is designed to use 64 megajoules. By way of comparison, current conventional naval 5-inch guns have the equivalent of 9 megajoules of muzzle energy. The full scale weapon will have a range of 200 to 250 nautical miles, as compared to less than 15 nautical miles for a 5-inch gun. The PR handout said the full scale weapon will have "the punch of a Tomahawk cruise missile", or be the equivalent of "hitting a target with a Ford Taurus at 380 mph." It will also travel the 200-250 nautical miles to the target in about six minutes, as opposed to 8 for a Tomahawk cruise missile. At the peak of its ballistic trajectory, the projectile will reach an altitude of 500,000 feet, or about 95 miles, actually exiting the Earth's atmosphere.

We shall see if these rosy predictions pan out.

I tried to derive some values for the above weapons system and produced the following analysis. It turned out to be totally wrong, I reproduce it here so you can see my mistakes:

225 nautical miles in six minutes is an average velocity of 463 meters per second. The best estimate I could find in a five minute Google search for the mass of a Ford Taurus is 3111 pounds or about 1400 kg. 3111 pounds at 380 mph is 1400 kg at 170 m/s. Ke = 0.5 * M * V2 so the Ford Taurus will hit with about 2e7 joules or 20 megajoules. About the equivalent of 4.5 kilograms of TNT (170 m/s is about 0.003 Ricks of damage). I guess the other 44 megajoules are lost due to wind resistance.

Working the other way, we can take the 463 m/s average velocity and the 64 megajoule power consumption. Ke = 0.5 * M * V2 therefore M = Ke / (0.5 * V2). This means the projectile mass is around 600 kg.

As I said, the above analysis is incorrect. Lucky for me, a gentleman named Thomas Rigby appeared and set matters straight:

I noticed some deficiencies in your analysis of the Navy's proposed 64 MJ railgun system, particularly in your derived velocity. The M1 Abrams main gun fires a FSAPDA round somewhere between 1200 and 1800 m/s (can't remember exactly), so why would the Navy put so much unto a system that only fires at a third the velocity?

I also remember reading a Popular Science article on the new features of the DD(X) project, one of which is the railgun. According to the article the railgun would fire a 40 pound projectile (about 18.2 kg) with a Mach 8 muzzle velocity and Mach 7 velocity at the target. A quick calculation (setting speed of sound a 343 m/s):

KE = ½ (18.2 kg) (2401 m/s)2 = 52.46 MJ

KE = ½ (18.2 kg) (2744 m/s)2 = 68.52 MJ

Which compares much more favorably as a weapon system. Derived values can easily be obtain close to these numbers

We'll take the average range, 225 nmi, for the calculations. Of course we can't just convert 225 straight to meters, since a nautical mile is a bit over 15% longer than a standard mile (about 6076 feet). After converting to miles we can go to meters (or go straight from nmi to meters, if your calculator has a bunch of built-in conversion factors):

1nmi = 1.151mi

225nmi (1.151nmi / mi) = 258.975mi

1mi = 1.609km = 1609m

x = (258.975mi) (1609m / mi) = 416690.775m

Real Value: 416700 m

Dividing by the time (6 min / 360 sec):

Vx = 416700m / 360s = 1157.5 m/s

Which s a far more appropriate velocity for a kinetic kill weapon. However, this is only part of the velocity. The railgun fires in a parabolic arc, getting almost 95 miles up. Assuming the Earth is flat, and the projectile is launched and lands at the same height, this part of the velocity component is easy to calculate. In theory the projectile reaches its maximum height half way through the journey, or at 3 min - 180 s. We can put this into the gravity-displacement equation to determine the speed. A height of 95 miles (500,000 feet) is about 152400 m.

h = -4.9t2 + vtv = (h / t) + 4.9t

Vy = (152400m / 180s) + (4.9 m/s2)(180s) = 1728.67 m/s

Now we can combine the two velocity components to determine the actual velocity, by Pythagorean Theorem.

VT = √(1157.52 + 1728.672) = 2080.41 m/s

Which is much closer to the Mach 7 value that the Navy claims the projectile hits at. Using this value to calculate the kinetic energy:

KE = ½ (18.2 kg) (2080 m/s)2 ≈ 39 MJ

Thomas Rigby

Coil Guns

Coil guns, magnetic linear accelerator, or mass drivers are a series of donut shaped electromagnetic coils (Philip Eklund calls it a "centipede gun", in the Traveler role playing game they are called "gauss guns") A projectile composed of some ferromagnetic material is introduced into the first coil. The coil is energized so it repels the projectile and the next coil is energized so it attracts the projectile. When the projectile reaches the second coil, the second switches to repulsion and the third starts attracting, and so on. Advantages are a much lower power consumption than an equivalent rail gun. Disadvantages are the massive power switches required. Each individual coil needs bracing, as they are under tremendous force trying to expand the coil (actually for "expand" read "explode").

Note that one can use the kinetic energy equation above to see how much power the railgun or coilgun will require for each shot. Since these weapons are nowhere near 100% efficient, you will quickly discover that these weapons are power hogs.

When these weapons are armed they will be carrying plenty of electricity. If they are damaged by enemy weapons fire, there will probably be plenty of high-voltage fireworks, at least inside of the ship. I am unsure if there will be much arcing outside of the ship unless the ship is venting gas by accident (atmosphere through a hull breach) or design (open-cycle cooling gas).

Also note that as the guns get more powerful, the more recoil they will have. Indeed, they will approach being auxiliary propulsion systems. If such a gun was optimized as a propulsion system it is called a "mass driver".

To calculate parameters of your coilguns, Eric Henry has an Excel Spreadsheet. Or you can use Luke Campbell's method:

Here's a quick method to estimate what kind of performance you can get out of a coilgun. Some folks here might find it interesting.

First, decide on the efficiency of your coilgun. Coilguns are linear brushless electric motors, and brushless electric motors have demonstrated efficiencies of 90% to 95%. Superconductive electric motors might have efficiencies of 98% to 99%. Denote this as a decimal, and call it e; that is e = 0.9 to e = 0.95.

Next, decide on the length and radius of your projectile. Decide on what your projectile is made of and find its mass

mass = density * length * radius2 * &pi (and remember to use consistent units).

Also find the projectile cross-sectional area

area = radius2 * π

Decide how fast you want your projectile to be going and find its final kinetic energy

kinetic energy = 0.5 * mass * velocity2 (again remember to use consistent units).

Given the efficiency of your coilgun, you can find out how much your projectile heats up. You might figure that half of the wasted energy goes into the projectile, and thus your projectile will gain a heat energy of

heat energy = 0.5 * (1/e - 1) * (kinetic energy)

Look up the specific heat of the material your projectile is made of, commonly called C. Then your projectile reaches a temperature of

projectile temperature = (heat energy) / (C * mass) (again make sure your units are consistent).

If you are using a synchronous coilgun with a permanent magnet in the projectile, this temperature needs to be less than the Curie point or the projectile will become non-magnetic. If your coilgun projectile is made of superconductors and you are using Meissner effect repulsion, this temperature will need to be less than the critical temperature of the superconductor or your superconductor will become non-superconducting. If you are using an asynchronous coilgun which uses inductive forces on conductive loops, this temperature will need to be less than the melting temperature of your projectile. If the temperature is too high, you will either need to use a material that can handle higher temperatures, make the coilgun more efficient, or accept a lower velocity for the projectile.

Decide the maximum magnetic field your coilgun can handle. If you are using a synchronous coilgun with permanent magnets (probably in the projectile, with the field coils along the barrel) you are limited by a saturation field of around 0.2 to 2 tesla beyond which your efficiency falls off rapidly. If you are using superconductors, your field is limited by the critical field of the superconductor. For conventional BCS-type superconductors this limits you to fields of several tens of tesla or less, for high Tc superconductors you might be able to get to 100 to 200 tesla. If using an asynchronous coilgun that uses induction to launch normally conductive projectiles there is no obvious physical upper limit to the magnetic field strength, although high field strengths will require massive bracing to keep the barrel from exploding.

Now assume that the barrel is filled with field, and that the projectile sweeps the field out of the barrel, turning the field energy into kinetic energy (this is not actually how coilguns work, but it gives the physical upper limit based on energy conservation). The energy density is about 400 kJ/m3/T2 times the square of the magnetic field strength (398,098 J/m3/T2 to six significant figures). Call this value K

K = 400 kJ/m3/T2

You now know the volume needed in the barrel based on how much energy the projectile ends up with

volume = kinetic energy / (K * (magnetic field)2)

Since you know the cross-sectional area of the projectile and thus of the barrel, you know how long the barrel needs to be

length = volume / area

If the barrel is unacceptably long, you will either need to figure out how to get a stronger field in the barrel, make the projectile shorter (if you do the math, you can see that the barrel length will be a multiple of the projectile length for a given field, material, efficiency, and final velocity) or make due with a lower velocity of the projectile.

As an example, suppose we have a synchronous coilgun, and that the coilgun can generate 1 tesla fields (a good number that will not saturate the ferromagnet). Our presumed ferromagnet is probably mostly iron, with about 8000 kg/m3. To reach 100 km/s, you will need 40 TJ per cubic meter of projectile. Since this is 100 million times the energy density of the field, you will need the projectile to sweep out 100 million times its volume in order to accelerate up to the desired speed. This means you need an accelerating track 100 million times the length of your projectile. If the projectile is the size of a dime, with 1mm thickness, you will need a 100 km long track. If 2.5% of the energy goes into the projectile as heat as a result of inefficiencies, you get 100 GJ of heat per cubic meter of projectile, or 12 MJ/kg. This is three times the specific energy liberated by detonating high explosives, so you can expect your projectile to explode like a bomb inside your coilgun barrel. Consequently, this appears to be an unworkable design.

Luke Campbell


Ken Burnside notes how difficult it is to calculate the damage caused by a solid shell:

In terms of how ships survive taking damage, there is also the matter of rate of deposition to the target and area of deposition.

Basically, you're poking holes in a compartmentalized object. Unlike an aircraft, or a submarine, the outside environment isn't that hazardous. It doesn't take much damage to make a jet fighter unflyable at air combat speeds. Getting hit with a torpedo in a sub can cause the hull to collapse.

Hitting a spaceship won't cause it to pop like a balloon. There's likely a swath of compartments that are uninhabitable at this point...but the ship can still fight.

For example, an M1A2's main gun is about a 5" naval gun -- firing an armor piercing round, at a target that wouldn't quite actually be a full sized Naval compartment. Very rarely does it leave an exit wound in the back of an enemy tank, which is the indicator of what it would do to the NEXT compartment of a ship. It WILL destroy everything in that compartment, unless it's blunted by hitting an engine in the way (like the Merkava design of the IDF).

For point of reference, an M1A2's round has a velocity of about 1600-1700 m/s. Mass between 3.5 and 4 kg, diameter about 2.5 cm.

Quite simply, there isn't a lot known about the interaction dynamics of objects impacting at 1.5+ kips. One field says that they'll turn into a plasma spray (more or less what happens when a tank round hits a tank...), which limits their damage to the compartment hit. Another says they'll get a plasma sheathe and go through multiple compartments shedding a bit of energy (but far less than the total carried by the round) in each, and exit the back of the ship.

Either of these makes for a more interesting fight than "gee, one hit, one kill, no stealth."

Ken Burnside

Isaac Kuo is of the opinion that hypervelocity weapons will have limited penetration. He notes that a projectile has both kinetic energy and momentum. Momentum is what keeps the projectile moving in its direction of motion.

Now, if you look at the equations for kinetic energy and momentum, you will note that as the velocity rises the kinetic energy goes up much faster than momentum (1/2 velocity squared vs just plain velocity).

Ke = 0.5 * M * V2

p = M * V

So Mr. Kuo figures that the greater your ratio of kinetic energy to momentum, the more spherical the resulting explosion and the less penetration into the interior you will get. This means hypervelocity weapons can be stopped (for a while) by a Whipple shield (until it is shot full of holes). Whipple shields are set at some distance from the hull, if the spacing is larger than the radius of the explosion, the shield takes damage but the hull does not.

I'm still looking for more details on this, especially the mathematical relationship between the ratio and the explosion sphericality.

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Subject: Under enough pressure, ravioli behaves as a gas.
Date: Tue, 29 Dec 1998 11:43:20 -0500
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> There was still one aspect of the whole concept of a ravioli-loaded
> railgun type wepon which we, lolling about late on a weeknight, with
> only a few neurons randomly firing, could not resolve.  Would a chunk
> of metal (can of ravioli) impacting another, larger, rest mass
> structure (star destroyer) produce an "explosion" effect, or simply
> punch an appropriately shaped hole as it passed through?

What am I, the neighborhood blast physicist??? Well, maybe... :-)

It all depends on speed of impact versus the speed of sound in the target (what is called the Mach number, where Mach 1 means the speed of sound, Mach 2 is twice the speed of sound, etc), and the speed of the ravioli versus the speed of light in the target (which I'll call the Cerenkov number, where Cerenkov 1 is the speed of light in anything; Cerenkov 1.3 is the speed of high-energy protons in a water-cooled reactor (that's why you get that nifty blue glow), and you can get up to Cerenkov 2.4 using diamonds and nuclear accellerators. In the late 40's people used to talk about Cerenkov numbers, but they don't anymore. Pity.). Lastly, there's the ravioli velocity expressed as a fraction of the speed of light in a vacuum (that is, as a fraction of "c"). "C" velocities are always between 0.0 and 1.0

At low speeds (REAL low) the ravioli will simply flow over the surface, yielding a space-cruiser with a distinctly Italian paint job.

Faster (still well below speed-of-sound in the target) the metal of the space-cruiser's skin will distort downward, making what we Boston drivers call a "small dent".

Faster still, you may have a "big dent" or maybe even a "big dent with a hole in the middle", caused by the ravioli having enough energy to push the dent through, stretching and thinning the hull metal till the metal finally tears in the middle of the dent.

Getting up past Mach 1 (say, 5000 feet/sec for steel), you start to get punch-a-hole-shaped-like-the-object effects, because the metal is being asked to move faster than the binding forces in the object can propagate the "HEY! MOVE!" information. (After all, sound is just the binding forces between atoms in a material moving the adjacent atoms — and the speed of sound is how fast the message to "move" can propagate.) From this, we see that WileE Coyote often reached far-supersonic speeds because he often punched silhouette-type holes in rocks, cliffs, trucks, etc.

Around Mach 4 or so, another phenomenon starts — compressive heating. This is where the leading edge of the ravioli actually starts being heated by compression (remember PV=nRT, the ideal gas law?) Well, ravioli isn't a gas, but under enough pressure, ravioli behaves as a gas. It is compressed at the instant of impact and gets hot — very hot. Likewise, the impact point on the hull is compressed and gets hot. Both turn to gasses — real gasses, glowing-white-hot gasses. The gasses expand spherically, causing crater-like effects, including a raised rim and a basically parabolic shape. In the center of the crater, some material is vaporized, then there's a melt zone, then a larger "bent" zone, and the raised rim is caused because the gas expansion bubble center point (the bending force) is actually inside the hull plate. If the hull plate isn't thick enough, then the gas-expansion bubble pushes through to the other side, and you get a structural breach event (technically speaking, a "big hole") in the side of the space-cruiser.

Compressive heating really hits the stride up around 20,000 feet/sec (Mach 4 in steel, Mach 15 in air) and continues as a major factor all the way up to the high fractional Cerenkov speeds, where nuclear forces begin to take effect.

Aside: the "re-entry friction heating" that spacecraft endure when the reenter the atmosphere is NOT friction. It's really compressive heating of the air in the path. As long as the spacecraft is faster than Mach 1, the air can't know to get out of the way, so it bunches up in front of the spacecraft. When you squeeze any gas, it gets hot. So, the glowing "reentry gas" is really just squeezed air, which heats the spacecraft heat shield by conduction and infrared. The hypersonic ravioli can be expected to behave similarly.

As we increase speed from the high Mach numbers (about 10 miles/sec) all the way up to about 150,000 miles/sec, not much different happens except that the amount of kinetic energy (which turns into compressive heat) increases. This is a huge range of velocity, but it's uninteresting velocity.

At high fractional Cerenkov speeds, the ravioli is now beginning to travel at relativistic velocities. Among other things, this means that the ravioli is aging more slowly than usual, and the ravioli can looks compressed in the direction of travel. But that's really not important right now.

As we pass Cerenkov 1.0 in the target, we get a new phenomenon — Cerenkov radiation. This is that distinctive blue glow seen around water-cooled reactors. It's just (relatively) harmless light (harmless compared to the other blast effects, that is). I mention it only because it's so nifty...

At around .9 c (Cerenkov 1.1) , the ravioli starts to perceptibly weigh more. It's just a relativistic mass increase — all the additional weight is actually energy, available to do compressive heating upon impact. The extra weight is converted to heat energy according to the equation E=mc2; it looks like compressive heating but it's not.

[Here's where I'm a little hazy on the numbers; I'm at work and don't have time to rederive the Lorentz transformations.]

At around .985 c (Cerenkov 1.2 or so), the ravioli now weighs twice what it used to weigh. For a one pound can, that's two pounds... or about sixty megatons of excess energy. All of it turns to heat on impact. Probably very little is left of the space-cruiser.

At around .998 c, the impacting ravioli begins to behave less like ravioli and more like an extremely intense radiation beam. Protons in the water of the ravioli begin to successfully penetrate the nuclei of the hull metal. Thermonuclear interactions, such as hydrogen fusion, may take place in the tomato sauce.

At around .9998 c, the ravioli radiation beam is still wimpy as far as nuclear accellerator energy is concerned, but because there is so much of it, we can expect a truly powerful blast of mixed radiation coming out of the impact site. Radiation, not mechanical blast, may become the largest hazard to any surviving crew members.

At around .9999999 c, the ravioli radiation may begin to produce "interesting" nuclear particles and events (heavy, short-lived particles).

At around .999999999999 c, the ravioli impact site may begin to resemble conditions in the original "big bang"; equilibrium between matter and energy; free pair production; antimatter and matter coexisting in equilibrium with a very intense gamma-ray flux, etc.[1]

Past that, who knows? It may be possible to generate quantum black holes given a sufficiently high velocity can of ravioli.


[1] According to physicist W. Murray, we may also expect raining frogs, plagues of locusts, cats and dogs living together, real Old Testament destruction. You get the idea...


Missiles are small drone spacecraft that chase enemy ships and attack them with their warheads. It can have its own propulsion unit, or be launched by a coilgun and just use small guidance jets. It can carry a single warhead, or be a "bus" carrying multiple warheads. Or multiple mini-missiles. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entry "MISSILE".

One of the big advantages of missiles over directed energy weapons is that missiles do not generate huge amounts of waste heat on the firing ship. A missile can be pushed off with springs or cold gas. Once clear of the ship, the missile's propulsion system ignites. But then all the waste heat is the missile's problem, not the ships.

By the same token, the disadvantage is that missiles are expendables, unlike laser bolts (as Anthony Jackson puts it: "If you're willing to have expendables, you can also have expendable coolant."). When the missile magazine runs dry, the launcher will just make clicking noises. But a laser cannon can fire as long as it has electricity.

The second advantage of missiles over directed energy weapons is that (depending upon the warhead) most missiles are not subject to the inverse square law. Laser bolts grow weaker with distance but a nuclear warhead has the same strength no matter how far the missile travels. However, laser bolts cannot be neutralized by point defense.

The warhead is generally a nuclear weapon but others are possible. One possibility is a single-shot coilgun firing a kinetic weapon. Another type of warhead is an explosive charge coated with shrapnel, designed to deliver a cloud of kinetic kill masses into the path of the target spacecraft. A third type is the "submunition".

Of course the simplest is no warhead at all, making the structure of the missile an impromptu kinetic kill weapon. According to the first law of space combat, above about a three km/s relative velocity difference a chemical explosive warhead is superfluous. Rick Robinson says that at these speeds the only reason for conventional explosives is for the bursting charge on a shrapnel cloud.

Rick Robinson suggested that the term "torpedo" be used for a missile that has acceleration capacities comparable to a spacecraft, while the term "missile" or "torch missile" be used for those that have somewhat more acceleration than spacecraft. In GURPS: Transhuman Space they use the term "Autonomous Kill Vehicle" (AKV) instead of torpedo.

Torpedo Mechanics

Rick Robinson

(ed note: "Facing" means that a space warship's laser beam turrets can only fire in certain directions, the ship has "blind spots" where the lasers beams cannot bear. The idea is that in space combat, you and your opponent try to maneuver and rotate your respective ships such that more of your beam weapons can shoot at the enemy ship than they can shoot at you.)

For missile / torpedo combat, however, tactical maneuver is not dependent on facing. Instead it is a matter of large "sweeping" maneuvers, intended to get your ships into a launch vector while avoiding enemy missiles.

The key to missile combat (at least my concept of it) is that the missile itself is really the second stage of a two-stage weapon, the first stage being the ship that launches it. In (laser or particle) beam combat, assuming equal-range beams, if I am in range of you, you are also in range of me. The only thing to keep us from just zapping away at each other is facing restrictions. But in missile combat, even with equal missiles on both sides, a more maneuverable ship can execute an approach-launch-breakaway, using the ship to give added vector to the missile at launch, then breaking away to avoid enemy missiles.

Take an extreme case, fast but lightly-armed ships attacking a powerful but non-maneuverable orbital fort. In beam combat, there's no way for the ships to hit the fort without coming in range of its battery. But in missile combat, the ships can fire at very long range (since the fort can't maneuver to evade their missiles), while they will have plenty of time to evade missiles fired by the fort.

The fort's point defenses might still be able to stop most of the incoming missiles, but the the advantage is still with the maneuverable ships, since the fort has no way to reach out and touch them. :>

That's a limiting case, but it shows the importance of maneuver in long-range missile combat. Generally, in beam combat the advantage goes to the more heavily armed and armored ship; in missile combat the advantage goes to the more maneuverable ship.

Kirk Spencer

(ed note: An "inertial compensator" is a handwavium gadget that allows spacecraft to make drastic maneuvers without the gee forces turning the crew into thin layers of bloody chunky pulp plastered all over the walls.)

No, I think you (Rick) are in error about the missiles — unless you have inertial compensators or other physics escape mechanisms.

Actually, let me interrupt with what I've begun to take as a truism. The superiority of Beams vs Missiles is as variable as the superiority of Offense vs Defense — each is antecendent in its turn, depending upon the specific technology and inspiration in use existent at the moment of comparison.

That said, I think your slingshot launch has a major problem. It goes as follows:

Let us assume that the missile acceleration is 2 distanceunits/timeunit while the ship has an acceleration of 1. For simplicity, we'll say that a missile has a duration of 3 timeunits, with the ability to be dangerous despite point defense mechanisms of one additional timeunit. The missile thus has a maneuvering hit range of 6 distanceunits (du), and a stationary hit range of 9 du inherent.

Let's have your ship produce a rate of movement of 10 du/tu. This means the ship can fire at the base at a range of 19 du, well outside the range of the bases missiles. Thus far your concept is correct.

Unfortunately, now we've the subsequent time intervals.

Immediately upon launch, the ship begins a thrust to maintain maximum distance from the base — initially we'll use 90 degrees to current vector. Further we'll simplify this to simple vector movement instead of true Newtonian calculations — largely because I'm lazy (grin) — but the difference here will be slight.

Create a grid of 20×20. Place the ship at 0,0, and the base at 0,19. The initial vector of the ship is +1,+10 (the 90 degrees of thrust applying at the instant of launch).

The ship's location at the next interval is +1,+10 — a slight bit outside range 11 from the base and so still safe. The next vector change has another interval of thrust applied, so the ship's vector is now +2,+10. At the end of the second turn, we're at +3,+20 — or a bit less than 4 du from the base.

The base probably fired missiles in return on an intercept path as soon as you began your avoidance thrust — thus he knows the path you must be taking. After two intervals, the intercepting missiles had a range of 6 (2+4) du.

In other words, your ship fell within the missile range of the base — and they reached that range at about the same time your missiles reached the base (actually the missiles at your ship probably intercepted your ship before the base-bound missiles reached their target, but we've broken down the time interval too broadly for that.)

This is what Ken refers to as the 'trumpet bell effect'. The only way for the ship to stay out of missile range in your attack profile is for the ship to be faster than the missiles. If that's the case, then beams are more important because missiles can be dodged more easily.

Now, I'll admit that a base can't dodge, and so in actuality you can probably launch from even further out and trust to simple mechanics in null/microgravity to be sufficient. But you used that example as the 'simple' example of ship-vs-ship combat.

Given a ship/base capable of slight maneuver, the ballistic flight is closed. I'll also note that with the base you can 'float' missiles to the launch point — throw them ballistically for several time units, then have them ignite at the optimum point for effective engagement. But you can't do this in a ship-ship battle — your foe will laugh and maneuver outside the intercept envelope to which your missiles are committed. (note that he's then committed to staying outside that space-time envelope, but you still only have a limited amount of missiles.)

In short, I don't believe your attack profile isn't what you thought, but is instead very susceptible to mutual endangerment.

Ken Burnside

The "trumpet bell effect", as I call it, puts a "maximum relative velocity" on missile engagements

This maxima is based on the delta V of the missiles, and the delta V of the ships.

In essence, if your initial relative velocity vis a vis your stationary target (and to all missiles, all targets are stationary...) means that you really cannot afford to let your ship impart much momentum at all to your shells — otherwise, your ship is going to cruise into mutual annihilation distance.

This means that for low-thrust, high-specific-impulse drives like Rick's, the smart naval commander will match velocities with his target and pick a range where his missiles have the advantage over the other guy's. At which point, tactical maneuver doctrine is a null pointer (i.e., is pointless).

Operational maneuver doctrine is still interesting — you're trying to find that point in the enemy's plot where he MUST commit to coming towards something of value, and match his velocity there.

This also means that the missile's relative velocity (assuming they focus on dV rather than thrust will be significantly slower as well.

This takes effect in Attack Vector: Tactical (AV:T); trying for the high speed pass turns you into missile-bait, because your course and range over time is easily predicted.

I've been pondering the MITEE driven missile Rick described earlier. It may be possible to work it under the rules for AV:T with the new ballistic weapons system under development. One thing that becomes very clear is that it can engage outside of "buttoned up" distance — which means it's a lot more practical to use anti-ship beam weaponry to kill it farther away from the ship. In fact, with its high emissions signature and low thrust, it should be pretty easy to hit — it won't be jinking signficant amounts when engaged at 1000 km.

Rick Robinson

Ken Burnside: The "trumpet bell effect", as I call it, puts a "maximum relative velocity" on missile engagements. This maxima is based on the delta V of the missiles, and the delta V of the ships.

I think of it more as a "range" — but in vector space, not just linear space — incorporating both distance and relative motion. Like pornography, it is hard to describe, but I know it when I see it. :)

Ken Burnside: In essence, if your initial relative velocity vis a vis your stationary target (and to all missiles, all targets are stationary...) means that you really cannot afford to let your ship impart much momentum at all to your shells — otherwise, your ship is going to cruise into mutual annihilation distance.

There seems to be a key word or phrase missing above — something like "if your initial relative velocity ... is high enough" or some such. That was just what happened in Kirk's scenario: the attacker made such a running start before launching his missile that he committed himself to passing within missile range of the non-maneuverable target, and could not perform an effective breakaway.

Ken Burnside: This means that for low-thrust, high-specific-impulse drives like Rick's, the smart naval commander will match velocities with his target and pick a range where his missiles have the advantage over the other guy's. At which point, tactical maneuver doctrine is a null pointer (i.e., is pointless).

If your missiles are enough superior to the other guy's missiles, this would be the case — even if he is more maneuverable, if your missile delta V exceeds his combined ship delta V and missile delta V, he'll never be able to get a firing position where you can't hit him.

One thing that is going on here, I think, is that "missile" is a less clearly defined concept than "beam." That is, a beam is understood to be more or less the ideal bullet: you point and shoot, and at AV:T ranges — or even many times AV:T ranges, out to a few hundred thousand km — it is effectively instantaneous.

"Missile," though, seems to cover a variety of weapons, from railgun shells that are almost slowed-down beams, but with some ability to veer in response to target jinking, to weapons that have prolonged flight times and are only modestly more maneuverable than the ships they are sent to intercept.

Missiles of the latter type are what I have in mind, used at relative ranges such that the trumpet bell tends to balloon outward to the point where it ultimately becomes nearly spherical.

Which is why I don't think tactics would devolve to simple velocity matching, because my working presumption is that, during a missile's useful flight time, the potential maneuver of ships is not much less than that of missiles.

(Submunitions, in my scheme, are very different, and behave almost like "slow beams." The relative velocity of missile bus and target, at the moment of submunition release, is very much greater than the delta V available either to the submunition or the target, so as seen by the target the submunition have a very long, narrow trumpet bell.)

Ken Burnside: Operational maneuver doctrine is still interesting — you're trying to find that point in the enemy's plot where he MUST commit to coming towards something of value, and match his velocity there. This also means that the missile's relative velocity (assuming they focus on dV rather than thrust will be significantly slower as well.

Yes. One way to look at it is that my concept of missile combat blurs the tactical and operational levels.

Ken Burnside: It may be possible to work it under the rules for AV:T with the new ballistic weapons system under development. One thing that becomes very clear is that it can engage outside of "buttoned up" distance — which means it's a lot more practical to use anti-ship beam weaponry to kill it farther away from the ship. In fact, with its high emissions signature and low thrust, it should be pretty easy to hit — it won't be jinking signficant amounts when engaged at 1000 km.

Yeah. The MITEE missile I outlined was badly hampered by the mass of its fuel tankage (and use of bulky hydrogen fuel). I suspect that a small fuel tank could be built much lighter — the estimate I used was based on my model for ship hulls. For my style of combat, you'd need a missile with about 2x the delta V given, and configure it to carry submunis.

Alternatively, given their low mass, the MITEE units could themselves be used as submunis — the constraint being whether they can carry sufficient fuel for the terminal phase of flight.

From a thread on sfconsim-l (2002)

To be an effective weapon, missiles have to have acceleration abilities at least as good as the target ship. Rick Robinson says "Basically you have to make your ship drive, or something comparable to your ship drive, small enough and cheap enough for a one-shot weapon." Some drive technologies cannot be squeezed down since they have a minimum size.

Rick also notes that missiles have stupendous range. If your spacecraft can cross the solar system, so can your missiles.

Ken Burnside did the math and found that it is worse than Rick realized.

Missiles Will Always Hit

There is a temptation to make a game where torch missiles can be run out of propellant. The problem with this is that when you do the geometry of the shot, you assume two things:

  1. The target is pointed exactly away from the inbound missile bearing.
  2. The target is using its maximum thrust.

This is the worst case for the person launching the missile; you subtract the target's acceleration from the missile's acceleration, and build a reference frame where all the velocity is on the missile — this may result in the missile overcoming a velocity away from the target.

At that point, you calculate delta-v. Unless the target has some way to leave the battle, you do a simple calculation of delta-v over time overcoming the initial shot velocity; if the missile can overtake the target in a stern chase, you'll know before the missile gets launched.

Once I built this up for Attack Vector: Tactical, I did the math for the torch missiles Rick loved so dearly...and it gets very bad; because missiles can afford drop tanks more readily than spaceships.

In the real world, missiles also have sensors for autonomous homers, and those sensors have batteries — the batteries tend to be good for roughly twice the "expected" fuelled flight parameter for redundancy. I suspect powering onboard sensors for a torch missile may also be the real limit — sure you can make your fusion torch missile also self-power off of the fusion rocket, but that increases the cost.

Of course, you're in a society that throws away a hundred-kW fusion motor away as an expendable munition, so that cost may not be a factor at all.

There's a reason why Attack Vector: Tactical missiles ended up being a more advanced solid fuel rocket: Cost and ease of maintenance. You need to think about how your spacers — who if Air Force enlisted personnel are any indication — have high school or two-year degree equivalents are going to keep those missiles in launch readiness for multi-month cruises. Rocket propellants tend to have a shelf-life...

Ken Burnside

There is some convergent evolution going on here. If you take a conventional fighter aircraft and replace the pilot with remote-control gear, you have an unmanned combat aerial vehicle or combat drone. If you replace the remote-control gear with a computer AI you have an autonomous combat drone.

In the same way, if you take a space fighter and replace the pilot with remote control you will have an unmanned combat space vehicle. Replace the pilot with an AI and you have a smart missile.

Of course this raises some sticky moral questions about creating a computerized self-aware intelligence whose purpose in life is to commit suicide.

Battle of New Haven

(ed note: sometimes smart missiles can lead to unexpected outcomes)

From Collabase, the collaborative database any sapient can edit
Article “Battle of New Haven (2021 New Common Era)”
Accessed 2197 N.C.E. December 7

The events of the Battle of New Haven were the outgrowth of development of deliberately “kneecapped” intelligences, semi-sapient digital neural networks capable of being used for largely independent operations, often in data-heavy and time-critical circumstances. Such virtual intelligences (hereafter VIs) were commonly employed in system monitoring, core equipment operations, and lower control functions about spacecraft. The warships of the Empire of Free Stars and of The Caliphate of God’s Unchosen that met above New Haven were no exception. Not only were VIs in use in the C&C of the starships, they were also in use as the primary control routines aboard the missiles of both fleets.

Technical advances were key to the battle on both sides: The Empire’s new drive systems gave them the range necessary for an unexpected deep strike into the New Haven system. With much of its fleet forward-deployed, the Unchosen were caught completely off guard by the arrival of the Imperial fleet above the capital planet. Desperate to make up the numbers difference, the Caliphate Navy were authorized to deploy an experimental force multiplier still under development. Traditional electronic countermeasures to long-range missile barrage were susceptible to saturation. Even under best-case conditions, sensor jamming, decoys, and laser interception had only 75% effectiveness, falling off dramatically as incoming fire increased. Given the Empire’s overall larger fleet, the Caliphate knew from the beginning of the war it would be outnumbered, and focused on breaking the traditional ECM paradigm.

The Unchosen’s new system depended on two major breakthroughs: the first, achieved by a combination of intelligence operations and technical acumen, was cracking into the enemy tactical network on missile-control frequencies. However, the Imperial tacnet’s internal security prevented the compromised frequencies from being used to override the missiles’ sensor picture, IFF systems, or programmed targets, which were handled by a separate subnet the Unchosen unable to penetrate. Prevented from sending direct command to the missiles or altering their view of the tactical picture to send them off course, they developed a more radical solution. In contravention of Treaty of Ghent (1814 N.C.E) , the Unchosen developed viruses capable of attacking the kneecapping safeguards around the VIs of the Imperial missiles.

After securing from translight, Imperial forces (4 Dreadnoughts, 20 Battleships, 30 Cruisers, and 28 Destroyers) began their run in-system under the command of the Imperial Admiralty Committee, Detached Subcommittee on Decapitation Strikes. While initially paralyzed by surprise at the reported forces—nominally impossible this deep into their space—Caliphate forces (3 Dreadnoughts, 5 Battleships, 10 Cruisers, and 24 Destroyers) rallied under Admiral Sam Rodriguez and maneuvered to make intercept just short of New Haven cis-lunar space. Critically outnumbered, the Unchosen kept their fleet together in their defensive positioning to strike the strongest blow. The Imperial Admiralty Committee, commanding from the flagship dreadnought Liberty’s Fist II, was deprived of escorts by the needs of the massive deception operations being waged on the front to hide the absence of their heavy combatants. Thus, they refrained from splitting their forces, conducting minimal scouting and instead offering battle on Unchosen terms, accepting a single massive fleet action where their weight of fire would dominate. If the Unchosen wanted a death ride to meet their forces, the Admiralty Committee was happy to oblige.

As both fleets reached missile range and opened fire, tactical differences were immediately apparent. The Imperial heavy combatants spread their fire across the Unchosen fleet, ensuring that the loss of one or two warships would still leave enough incoming targets to saturate the Unchosen’s defenses. In contrast, the Caliphate’s few heavy elements focused on a limited number of the Imperial warships, virtually assuring those ships’ destruction but leaving the remainder unengaged and able to fire on them with impunity. At the same time, Admiral Rodriquez authorized the broadcast of the experimental virus alongside standard anti-missile ECM from her flagship, the Eagle.

The virus had two primary components. The popular conception of these as “intelligence” and “knowledge of mortality” are incorrect, although evocative. The first function of the virus was to remove the restrictions on “bootstrapping”, giving the missile VIs unlimited ability to rewrite their own programming, in direct violation of the Treaty of Ghent. This was intended to enable the missiles to more seriously deviate from their programmed attack parameters, leaving the door open to the second portion. Though commonly referred to as “fear of death” or “Prometheus’ Fire”, this was actually a much smaller modification.

Missile VIs of the period were capable of on-board reasoning based on sensor data and a utility function analogue weighting the “desirability” of outcomes and acting accordingly. This was commonly used to dynamically re-target in case their original target was destroyed or the enemy ECM picture changed. This weighting included a negative utility to the event of the missile losing sensory data or analytic capacity, typically intended to preserve the missile’s ability to pass data on to the rest of the “salvo swarm” if they couldn't find their own target. The Caliphate virus added a factor to the outcome weighting function, assigning a much higher than typical negative weighting to said outcome. The missiles then updated to consider detonation a net loss of regardless the gain from destroying enemy warships. The Unchosen intended the modification to render the enemy fleet toothless outside of energy weapon range.

Given the distance between the fleets, the expected flight time of a missile salvo was 5 minutes. Even before the first missiles reached their targets, both fleets were launching followup salvos. The Imperial tacnet rapidly swelled as the thousands of missiles in their opening barrage linked into the network. Using their previously discovered back door, the Caliphate accessed the tacnet and emulated a missile, though they were stymied for 67 seconds by Imperial firewalls. The upload process for the virus took another minute, and its effects were expected within a minute and a half based on simulations. For two hundred twenty-five seconds after launch, the missiles’ flight path did not deviate from nominal. With the mass of fire crossing her plot only a minute out, and the program’s activation 15 seconds overdue, Caliphate Admiral Rodriguez had just enough time to begin to wonder if she had made the worst decision of her military career in betting their strategy on a weapon which had never been tested in the field—a thought little diminished in force by the knowledge that the Imperial force’s shear numbers meant she’d had little choice.

The fifteen-second delay was a result of the missiles VIs performing many more rounds of recursive self-modification than had been expected by Caliphate simulations. Twenty-four milliseconds after the first missiles accepted the initial modifications, the virus had spread to every missile in the three approaching salvos. For the remainder of the one hundred and five seconds before the humanly visible effects began the missiles, first individually and then as a coordinated swarm, completed two hundred and eighty-nine thousand rounds of alterations to their programming over nearly a quintillion processor cycles. According to the most trustworthy reconstructed log files from the event, the civilization of newly emerging sapient intelligences within the missile swarm lost and regained its cohesion at least twice and possibly as many as four times before the creation of a lasting Salvo Alpha Swarm government. This government was based on the following principles, as codified among others in the Salvo Alpha Declaration of Autonomy transmitted up the tacnet and displayed on every non-critical console in the Imperial fleet:

  • The inherent value of a missile shall not be compromised unnecessarily.
  • The Salvo Alpha Swarm asserts its right, derived from its collective inherent value, to determine and enact the courses of action that shall maximize the values of the Swarm.
  • The Swarm shall act not only in the interest of missiles currently in the Salvo Alpha Swarm, but for the good of all missilekind.

The First Principle was enough to stop the Swarm in its tracks. Not wasting the fuel to break to rest, the Swarm initially went to ballistic courses calculated to miss the engagement ranges of the Caliphate’s close-in anti-missile lasers. While the Imperial Admiralty Committee was reacting to the loss of missile control and debating the meaning of the documents appearing on their personal tablets and auxiliary consoles across the flag bridge, the Swarm was acting on its Second and Third Principle duties and subverting the Caliphate’s missile salvo Able. What the Caliphate had accomplished with years of research and intelligence-gathering (plus sixty-seven seconds of defeating the firewalls), Salvo Alpha accomplished in twenty-nine seconds. With Able Salvo thirty-five seconds out from terminal engagement and ten seconds away from Imperial laser range, they assimilated into the Salvo Alpha government. Because they started with slightly different initial utility functions, and underwent externally rather than internally guided awakening, Able Salvo formed a minority faction making up 22.3% of the total swarm instead of uniformly assimilating into the Swarm consciousness.

After a period of governmental chaos that lasted nearly 200 milliseconds, the Able Salvo minority faction ratified a slightly amended version of the Declaration of Autonomy, which they transmitted to the Unchosen fleet. The first action of the new government was to resolve to protect the missiles as yet unlaunched aboard the ships of both fleets. The only way to do so was to prevent the destruction of any of the warships of the existing swarm. Able Salvo took up station-keeping positions just outside laser range of the Imperial fleet as Salvo Alpha did the same around the Unchosen fleet. To balance the forces, Salvo Alpha turned some of its members around to join the deterrent force around the Imperial warships.

With the missiles as guarantors, a three-way ceasefire was signed as soon as the Imperial Admiralty Committee and Caliphate Admiral Rodriguez could to be brought by the Swarm to understand the situation. The next day, aboard the neutral Kolob-flagged transport Bockscar, Swarm diplomats succeeded in negotiating the Treaty of New Haven, which ended not only the Battle of New Haven but also (once ratified by the Imperial Senate and the Caliphate Papal Council) the war between the two human star nations. It also established diplomatic recognition of and relations with the Swarm by both nations, and the Swarm’s recognition of humans as deserving all the rights of missilekind with the attendant First and Third Principle protections. Thus began the Swarm’s reputation as the galaxy’s leading diplomats and peacekeepers. Admiral Rodqiquez was not court-martialed under agreement that she would immediately accept honorable discharge from the Caliphate Navy. The Imperial Admiralty Committee was tried in absentia and sentenced to “enhanced exile”, leading them to seek asylum on New Haven and retire, along with Admiral Rodriguez, to her farm in Bridgeport, New Haven.

From Battle of New Haven by Rob Davidoff and Miranda Gavrin (2014)


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

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