If you want to get an intuitive feel for how interplanetary combat is likely to be, there are a few simulation games that can help. Otherwise, read on:
For supplementary information, please read Rick Robinson's Rocketpunk Manifesto. Specifically:
What's its going to be when space combat finally arrives?
Is it going to be like WWI aircraft? That is, rickety ships with a few crude weapons bolted on as afterthoughts, flown by a few aces who are familiar with the eccentricities of their craft? (Imagine a Space 1999 Eagle Transporter as a futuristic "Sopwith Camel") Or will it be more sophisticated?
Watching the evolution of space warships will be interesting as well. In the movie THE ENEMY BELOW (the movie that the ST:TOS episode "Balance of Terror" was based on) the German U-Boat commander was reminiscing. He said that in WWI, when you submerged in a U-Boat, you were never quite sure that the cantankerous submarine would surface again. The captain would eyeball the target through the periscope with no gauges, do some arithmetic in his head, and order the torpedo fired verbally. If you were lucky, it would make it out of the tube.
But now, the captain moans, it is all mechanized. He looks through the periscope with cross-hairs, which relays the settings to the plotting table and the automatic firing calculator. The captain thinks it is terrible that they've taken the men out of war.
So in the future one can imagine a Belter pilot, crying over her beer-bulb at Ceres Bar. She'll bend your ear about the good-old-days during the Asteroid War of Independence, figuring vectors and delta-vs by the seat of your pants, early mornings on the Cosmodrome with your leather jacket and anti-nuke goggles, flying for Duquesne's Flying Circus.
Nowadays, she'll complain that pilots just zip up into the acceleration tank and let the computer fight the ship. They've taken the men out of war...
Try to imagine what would it be like on the deck of an escort class interplanetary craft, shepherding a convoy of logistic hulls and on the lookout for convoy raiders. The signals officer will be alert on his ladar scope, trying to burn through the stealth of the wolf packs.
But then there is scientific reality to consider. Unfortunately, it seems that the more accurate you make it, the less interesting it becomes. Having said that, keep in mind that much of the following is speculative and controversial. If you don't like it, ignore it. Just try to be self-consistent and work out the ramifications of anything you postulate. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entries "SPACE WARFARE" and "WARFARE"
When it comes to scientifically accurate space war simulations that are NOT ultra-top secret classified military studies, the two best that I've found are the tabletop boardgame Attack Vector: Tactical and the computer game Children of a Dead Earth.
Yes, they make conflicting predictions about how space combat will be. This is because the designers cannot know what are realistic technological assumptions to use. They did their best, but the only way to be sure is if this is part of an ultra-top secret classified military study. In which case your clearance is probably not high enough to read it.
But either is light-years better than just making crap up, as does most media science fiction.
And SF authors should use Heinlein's technique of adding an odd detail or two in order to remind the reader that this is taking place in the future (his favorite example: "The door dilated"). For instance, World War I aircraft pilots wore silk scarves, everybody who enjoys Snoopy knows that. What most people don't know is the reason behind the scarves. The early rotary engines would spew a steady mist of castor oil lubricant into the pilot's faces. The scarves were a handy towel for the pilot to clean their goggles, and to keep the castor oil from running down their neck.
SF authors are advised to do their own thinking about the day-to-day life of their star pilots, and attempt to identify odd practical habits that would turn into identifying hallmarks. In his Known Space novels, Larry Niven's asteroid miners have a habit of not making hand gestures when they talk. In the cramped control cabins a gesture might accidentally hit a switch, with dire results.
Frank Chadwick of Game Designer's Workshop created a starship combat game called Star Cruiser. In his analysis, developments in tactical combat can largely be viewed as attempts at better solutions to the targeting problem. That is, the trouble is not with the destructive potential of the weapons, they are quite potent enough. The trouble is getting the weapons to reliably hit the target.
This can be done two ways: increase the precision of each shot (precision of fire), or keep the same precision but increase the number of shots fired (volume of fire). Obviously it is preferable to increase the precision of fire. For starters a volume fire version of a weapon will generally be much larger than a precision fire version.
There are three main elements to precision of fire:
|Enemy position||The location of the enemy when your shot arrives.|
|Weapon performance||The actual flight path of your shot as affected by the physical characteristics of the weapon itself and the environment through which the shot passes.|
|Weapon control||The degree to which you can precisely control the aiming of the weapon.|
Note that you can trade precision for increased range, that is, if you can increase the precision of your weapons, you can chose to target a hostile spacecraft at a greater range at the old precision.
Naturally your target is going to be trying to decrease your chance of hitting. They will be trying to decrease your precision of fire and decrease your effective volume of fire.
Precision of fire is decreased by interfering with the three factors listed above (obviously). The easiest is their position, by evasive maneuvers, by interfering with your targeting sensors, and by reducing their target signature.
Volume of fire is decreased by rendering harmless shots that actually hit. This is done by armor, point defense, and science-fictional force fields.
Much of the details the space combat for your science fiction novel or game are driven by the initial assumptions. So if the author desires to write about a certain style of interplanetary warfare, they can cherry-pick the initial assumptions to allow that style.
For example: if your initial assumptions include incredibly powerful lasers and incredibly precise aiming technology, you going to have a problem if the desired warfare style includes a pitched battle between spacecraft of the Lunar Revolutionary Navy and the Terran Royal Fleet occurring halfway between Terra and Luna. The two fleets will be shooting their opponents to pieces while in orbit around their respective worlds. If they try to fly to your desired battleground at midway point, the battle will be effectively over long before any of the surviving ships reach it.
When Ken Burnside was creating his starship combat game Attack Vector: Tactical (AV:T) he cherry-picked the laser ranges in order to allow the warships to maneuver. If the range is too huge, maneuver is pointless. In the following quote, it is interesting to see the various implications and trade offs.