Introduction to Space Warfare
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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 Will It Be Like?
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"
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.
Ain'ta Gonna Study War No More
Of course there are those who would like it if war was abolished. While that would be a nice idea, it seems to be a bit impractical. The old bromide is that people who beat their swords into plowshares tend to be killed by people who keep their swords intact, though sometimes they get lucky and are merely enslaved instead of killed. There are additional reasons for war if the others are aliens.
Getting rid of war, on the other hand, seems to me far more difficult (than FTL travel). It demands at least one, and probably two, psychological developments radical enough to be called breakthroughs, and our progress in developing and utilizing the psychological sciences has so far been disappointing.
The really necessary advance would involve some method of eliminating the almost universal human attitude that one's own rights are as important as anyone else's.
Not more important. As important.
I am not saying that people shouldn't feel that way, or don't have a right to feel that way, or that it's immoral or even unreasonably selfish. I simply say that unless and until it changes, conflicts of interest will continue to lead to violence in the name of right, freedom, and The People. What specific situation starts things off - the population of a landlocked country believing that it has the right to a seaport of its own, women believing that they have the same rights as men, or junkies believing that they have a right to a fix at public expense - is trivial beside the general principle that my right is as important as yours. If a way were actually discovered to alter this bit of human nature there would be screams against the dangers of psychological research; and if a government or some other group tried to apply the techniques, plenty of people (including me) would fight for the right to their own minds.
Please note that death, destruction, and mayhem are not primary aims of war. They may be secondary ones, as when a cannibal tribe attacks its neighbors for meat, but more usually they are just inconvenient by-products. The aim and end of war is to impose one's will on an opponent.
Unfortunately, imposing one's will on another includes the situation in which your will is merely that he not impose his on you.
Rick Robinson has a slightly different take on the topic:
My tentative suspicion is that war-as-we-know-it is obsolescent. This is not from any expectation that everyone is going to join hands and sing Kumbiya, or even seek mutual understanding through dialogue. But just a few days ago I saw a striking observation that the War of 1870 is the most recent inter-state war in which the side that started it achieved anything like its objectives. Certainly you could make a case that since 1945 most states would have been better off without armies: Governments have been far more at risk from their own armed forces than from someone else's.
In a post-industrial age, other modalities of political violence -- terrorism, assassination, even plain old rioting -- may well prove to be more efficient means of getting what you want through coercion than traditional march-across-the-border warfare, or even variations such as airstrikes, carrier task forces, or dare I say starships bristling with zappers and whackers of various fancy and expensive sorts.
Any shift from territorial states to other forms of power-political relations would certainly render war-as-we-know-it a doubtful proposition -- we have contemporary evidence of the problems that very formidable militaries face when they don't know who the hell the enemy is.
I see this as (perhaps!) part of the phase shift from agrarian society to post-industrial society, a phase shift comparable in scope to the shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture. War-as-we-know-it may not have existed among hunter-gatherers. It is/was a phenomenon of the agrarian age, the jet fighter simply a super chariot with 150,000 horses. It likewise may not exist among developed post-industrial societies, its place taken by forms of nastiness we today can only vaguely guess at.
I should hasten to add that my own SF pretty much follows the conventions, with recognizable space fleets fighting recognizable wars-as-we-know-them, offering only minor conceptual innovations, often themselves rooted in past history. Which is rather odd, and calls for explanation. The short answer is that, in spite of Realistic TM trappings, my SF concepts are fundamentally space opera -- starships, colonies, interstellar trade, all things that raise plausibility questions even if FTL turns out to be possible.
The slightly longer answer is that I like to write about recognizable people in recognizable settings. I am not a transhumanist; I suspect that humans in 3000 will be essentially the same messy Cro-Magnons that we are. I also suspect that the Singularity, to the extent there is one, already happened, centered around 1870-1930, though it will take at least a couple more centuries for its consequences to become clear. But the effort to create a future setting with plausible deep post-industrial power politics, would likely be so intellectually demanding that the ideas would overwhelm the story -- the result might be good futurism, but probably not good fiction.
Thus I am fully complicit in the SF convention, imagining what is fundamentally a retro-future, complete with fusion-torch Indiamen and fusion-torch frigates to chase them.
But it was interesting. I caught one of those master's thesis assignments he chucked around so casually; I had suggested that the Crusades were different from most wars. I got sawed off and handed this: Required: to prove that war and moral perfection derive from the same genetic inheritance.
Briefly, thus: All wars arise from population pressure. (Yes, even the Crusades, though you have to dig into trade routes and birth rate and several other things to prove it.) Morals - all correct moral rules derive from the instinct to survive; moral behavior is survival behavior above the individual level - as in a father who dies to save his children. But since population pressure results from the process of surviving through others, then war, because it results from population pressure, derives from the same inherited instinct which produces all moral rules suitable for human beings.
Check of proof: Is it possible to abolish war by relieving population pressure (and thus do away with the all-too evident evils of war) through constructing a moral code under which population is limited to resources?
Without debating the usefulness or morality of planned parenthood, it may be verified by observation that any breed which stops its own increase gets crowded out by breeds which expand. Some human populations did so, in Terran history, and other breeds moved in and engulfed them.
Nevertheless, let's assume that the human race manages to balance birth and death, just right to fit its own planets, and thereby becomes peaceful. What happens?
Soon (about next Wednesday) the Bugs move in, kill off this breed which "ain'ta gonna study war no more" and the universe forgets us. Which still may happen. Either we spread and wipe out the Bugs, or they spread and wipe us out - because both races are tough and smart and want the same real estate.
Do you know how fast population pressure could cause us to fill the entire universe shoulder to shoulder? The answer will astound you, just the flicker of an eye in terms of the age of our race.
Try it - it's a compound-interest expansion.
But does Man have any "right" to spread through the universe?
Man is what he is, a wild animal with the will to survive, and (so far) the ability, against all competition. Unless one accepts that, anything one says about morals, war, politics - you name it - is nonsense. Correct morals arise from knowing what Man is - not what do gooders and well-meaning old Aunt Nellies would like him to be.
The universe will let us know - later - whether or not Man has any "right" to expand through it.
"Aren't you taking all this too seriously?" Horvath asked. "After all, Captain, the Viceroy's orders were given before we knew much about Moties. Now, surely, we can see they aren't dangerous, and they certainly aren't hostile."
"Are you suggesting, Doctor, that we put ourselves in the position of countermanding an Imperial Directive?"
Horvath looked amused. His grin spread slowly across his face. "Oh no," he said. "I don't even imply, it. I only suggest that if and when -- when, really, it's inevitable -- that policy is changed, all this will seem a trifle silly, Captain Blaine. Childish in fact."
"Be damned to you!" Sinclair exploded. "That's nae way to talk to the Captain, mon!"
"Gently, Sandy," First Lieutenant Cargill interjected. "Dr. Horvath, I take it you've never been involved in military intelligence? No, of course not. But you see, in intelligence work we have to go by capabilities, not by intentions. If a potential enemy can do something to you, you have to prepare for it, without regard to what you think he wants to do."
(ed note: And as the novel turns out, Cargill was right, and Horvath was very seriously wrong.)
"That is the situation, Gentle Homos." It was Lugard's voice now with a rasping, grating tone increased by the broadcast. "You cannot trust such treaties -"
"Perhaps you cannot, Sector-Captain." That was Scyld Drax. "The military mind is apt to foresee difficulties-"
"The military mind!" Lugard's interruption came clearly. "I thought I made it simple - the situation is as plain as the sun over you, man! You say you want peace, that you think the war is over. Maybe the war is, the kind we have been fighting, but you don't have peace now - you have a vacuum out of which law, and what little protection any world can depend upon, has been drained. And into this is going to spread, just like one of your pet viruses, anarchy. A planet not prepared to defend itself is going to be a target for raiders. There were fleets wrecked out there, worlds destroyed. The survivors of those battles are men who have been living by creating death around them for almost half a generation, planet time. It has become their familiar way of life - kill or be killed, take or perish. They have no home bases to return to; their ships are now their homes. And they no longer have any central controls, no fears of the consequences if they take what they want from the weaker, from those who cannot or will not make the effort to stand them off. You let this ship land - only one ship, you say, poor lost people; give them living room as we have a sparsely settled world - there is one chance in a hundred you read them aright.
"But there are ninety-nine other chances that you have thrown open the door to your own destruction. One ship, two, three - a home port, a safe den from which to go raiding. And I ask you this, Corson, Drax, Ahren, the rest of you. This was a government experimental station. What secrets did you develop here that could be ferreted out, to be used as weapons to arm the unscrupulous?" There was a moment of silence. He had asked that as a man might deliver a challenge.
Then we heard Corson. "We have nothing that would serve as such - not now. When the authorities forced certain of us to such experimentation, we refused - and when that authority left, we destroyed all that had been done."
"Everything?" Lugard asked. "Your tapes, your supplies, perhaps, but not your memories. And as long as a man's memory remains, there are ways of using it." There was a sharp sound, as if a palm had been slapped down hard on some surface.
"There is no need to anticipate or suggest such violence, Sector-Captain Lugard. I - we must believe that your recent service has conditioned you to see always some dark design behind each action. There is not one reason to believe that these people are not what they have declared themselves to be, refugees seeking a new life. They have freely offered to let any one of us come aboard while they are still in off-orbit - to inspect their ship and make sure they come in peace. We would not turn a starving man from our doors; we cannot turn away these people and dare still to call ourselves a peaceful-minded community. I suggest we put it to the vote. Nor do I consider that you, Sector-Captain, are so much one of us as to have a vote."
"So be it-" That was Lugard once more, but he sounded very tired." 'And when Yamar lifted up his voice, they did not listen. And when he cried aloud, they put their hands to their ears, laughing. And when he showed them the cloud upon the mountains, they said it was afar and would come not nigh. And when a sword glinted in the hills and he pointed to it, they said it was but the dancing of a brook in the sun.' "
The Cry of Yamar! How long had it been since anyone had quoted that in my hearing? Why should anyone on Beltane? Yamar was a prophet of soldiers; his saga was one learned by recruits to point the difference between civilian and fighting man.
So it appears that war will be with the human race for the forseeable future, or can be avoided by becoming not human anymore. And so it goes. Anyway, back to the details on space war:
The Targeting Problem
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.
Mass drivers and other rockets can be used to alter the orbits of asteroids. Popular with asteroid miners who want to nudge their claims into different orbits. Unpopular with the astromilitary of all nations, who think that civilization-destroying asteroid bombardment is not a power one wants to give to rock-rats.
As a matter of fact, one can foresee a branch of "orbital guards" in each astromilitary, patrolling the solar system to prevent unauthorized changes in asteroid orbits. They would keep a close watch on all asteroids. If one starts to move without a permit, or if one with a permit strays off course, military spacecraft of the various space faring nations will pounce and blow the snot out of it.
This is a nice concept for SF authors, since it gives a plausible reason for the existence of astromilitary. And of course civilian settlements will spring up around any military bases.
In John Lumpkin's Through Struggle, The Stars, he has it the other way around. Initially none of the nations of Earth have a space presence, since there is no compelling reason to spend all that money on a space program when there are so many problems at home. The unexpected great asteroid strike of October 17, 2031 changed all that.
"If you guys just wanted to be left alone," said Murdoch, "why did you start the war? Why did you move Eros?"
"Ah, I see," said Vasily. "The propagandists have written your history books. We did not start the war."
"Like hell you didn't," said Murdoch. "Shifting Eros's orbit wasn't an act of war? It would have wiped us all out if it hit."
"Eros was an accident," said Vasily. "A few idiots who didn't double-check their math. We are not monsters, Murdoch. They never meant to aim the asteroid at the Pacific Ocean."
"Bad enough. And what's worse, you all banded up to protect Eros and make excuses for them, and when we asked you to help make sure it never happened again, you jerked us off."
"Your terms were impossible," said Vasily.
"Permits, Vasily," said Murdoch. "That's all we wanted. Is it that unreasonable? Each one of these rocks is a potential mass extinction event. Is filling out a form first that terrible?"
"Permits? No, they are not unreasonable," said Vasily. "An absolute veto for Earth over all orbital adjustments, no matter how minor or necessary? And the right to blow us out of the sky if we refused? No sovereign people would accept that."
"And war was worth that? It looks to me like that's what you ended up with anyway."
"Of course that's what we got," said Vasily. "You made us an offer we knew we would never accept, and then called it self-defense when you attacked us. It was imperialism. A smash-and-grab. You came, imposed yourselves on us, and forced us to mine your resources and buy the junk you made with it. You planned to do it for years, for decades. That's why you built your shining fleets. Do not try to tell me otherwise, good Murdoch. They had no purpose but to conquer us. Eros just gave you the excuse."
I thought I'd take the "orbit patrol" idea one step further -- if Earth has sufficient military power to punish the belters for any potentially dangerous orbit shift, they have the military power to rule the belters, period. In the revised backstory, the asteroids were initially seeded by settlers when ships were too slow to make maintaining a military presence in the belt economical (the belters sent minerals to Earth in unmanned "slow boats" which were little more than chunks of ore with engines strapped on). Then when the Zubrin drive was invented, the Great Powers suddenly had the means to extend their reach all over the Solar System, including the asteroid belt. Vasily is largely right: Earth seized on a careless mistake as an excuse to conquer the asteroids and turn them into 19th century African colonies or Appalachia in Space -- a place where poor local people dig out their natural resources at the behest of distant outsiders who "own" the land, get paid a pittance, and spend it on manufactured goods made by the same distant outsiders.
The Rock - Common term for Southern Ocean asteroid strike that took place on Oct. 17, 2031. The asteroid, about 280 meters in diameter, came from below the plane of the Solar System and was undetected by the meager capabilities of the (mostly volunteer) orbit watch organizations at the time. It created vast tsunami that inundated the coastlines of western Australia, southeast Africa, and southern Asia. Fatalities were estimated at more than three million. The event spurred Japan to develop a full-scale space program, initially aimed at preventing future potentially hazardous asteroids from striking Earth.
In response to the verbal from the autopilot, Dieter Ulans flipped his datavisor in front of his eyes and prepared to take direct command of the massive ring of lasers and reaction engines that was Hercules. He hit the juicer button and felt the rush as the drugs began to wash into his veins. "Com'monn jockey juice!" he whispered and then began to croon: "All my thoughts of you, you, you -- all that I've sought is you, you, you." The tiny green symbols on the datavisor began to zip past his eyes at an increasing speed.
His subconscious easily absorbed and processed the information even as his conscious mind took in the blue numbers and symbols on the main screen that showed the gross situation as Hercules and five other ships of the Martian battlefleet began their final approach to Vesta Main Station. "Joey Kolnichok, I know you're here and I'm going to personally fry your tender little parts." The ship thrummed as the main three o'clock engine cut in and changed vector in response to a movement of Dieter Ulan's right ring finger. It was his former classmate he sought -- Josip V. Kolnichok - the one who had beaten him out his bid for a cushy transport command and who had also cast aspersions on his loyalty to the company. This had cost Ulans two points on his profit sharing plan and that was a deficit he intended to make up by turning J.V. Kolnichok and the Des Jardin into a bright, glowing gas.
"80-80. Ready track. Ready main. On my mark FC to you and...mark!"
A second green line began streaming across the datavisor as Ulans took control of the main laser fire control systems. Every time he blinked, the little green symbols paused. Every time he squinted his eyelids, a bright blue bullseye magically appeared where he looked on the main screen. Just tap your foot when your buddy shows, he thought, and you'll make him a star. He began to click his teeth together. His finger tips sweated in the close-fitting control caps. Only eighteen k-k's from Vesta and still no Company. What had they done -- written the station off? The entire ship reached into his heightened awareness. The awesome engines designed to hurl inert cargo on multi-million-kilometer tracks through space. The heavy mining laser converted into a terrifying main weapon now slung in the cargo grapples. The thousands of bits of information from the ship's computers and sensing radars. Where the hell were they? "Come on, you Company fish, swim out into the pan."
Violently the ship executed a maximum burn maneuver with her nine and twelve o'clock engines. Some of the datastream elements were now glowing red. "Damage report: two mike hit on plates 1023/24 negative critical. Integrity 80-80."
"Beautiful, Dee, You saved our jewels with that cut."
Ulans tapped his foot reflexively. On the blue cross hair showing on the main screen, a yellow dot bloomed. Six thousand kilometers distant, several people died.
"Gotum! Gotum!" Jacklin screamed in the interphone. "You're writin' the book, Dee baby! Writin' the book!"
What would you know about books Jacklin, thought Dieter -- besides which I do not feel well and have not the faintest idea of what I'm doing. The rest of the crew was shouting over the phones, estatic with victory. Bystanders he thought. Goddamned passengers. Me -- I'm doing it and I don't know it until I've done it.
"17 to main power...16" Jacklin began to recite the seconds remaining until the main laser had built itself a new charge. No sound, mused Ulans, no bang. They should put sound effects on these things so that you could hear a bang when you made a shot. The slight vibration and the glow on the screen wasn't enough. No real way to relate to that. Should be some noise.
Once again, the crew was slammed by heavy G-force as the ship responded to the almost automatic commands of Ulans' fingers. A loud whanging started up in some distant part of the Hercules. He could actually feel the deck rippling under his feet. Not so lucky this time.
"Damage report. Nine mike frontal hit on super B. Partial dislocation on six o'clock. Six isolated. Explosive decom in cell four, five, six, and F-2. Randalls and Chung do not respond. Losing power on three o'clock and associated vanes. Looks bad, Dee."
"What's happening with the rest of the task force?"
"They're 180 on the other side of Vesta doing a job on the remaining Company element. We're being tracked by a triple-A Company police ship -- most likely the transport Des Jardin."
"Can we run for it, Dee?"
Ulans looked through the datavisor at the blue figures on the main screen even though he already knew the answer.
"No chance. We've got maybe one shot as Kolnichok closes. Maybe I'll get fancy and burn him off. At worst, we'll wind up in the Company Can -- after all they don't want to blow up this ship -- they think they own it!" he lied. He knew he was going to die, but the rest of the crew was even more helpless than he so why burden them with reality?
Three little orange dots appeared on the screen. Look at him -- blowing out decoys even though he knows we're out of maneuver -- that Kolnichok, grinned Dieter. So which one is you, Joey, and which are the aluminum balloons? (Seven dots grew on the screen, all had slightly different vectors.) Now you know my heater can take you in one flash and you also know that one zap is all I'm going to get. And if I take it you've got a perfect excuse to blow me up for the honor of the company rather than recapture valuable property for the accountants. So what's it going to be? I think you shot off too many balloons too early Joey -- cause the other ones aren't making the course correction you just did. Ain't that you, Joe?
Ulans squinted and tapped his foot.
Once, when man first took to the air, the waiting was short, the combat long. The biplanes and tri-planes, with turning circles half the length of Polar Star, could stay in contact till fuel ran out, with never more than five minutes between firing runs.
Then came World War II, and combat sprawling over countries and states while speeds lunged toward a thousand kilometers per hour and time between action doubled, tripled as the pilots, fighting to turn their planes around, swept miles beyond the field of battle before inertia could be bucked enough for return.
And then man broke the sound barrier. The MacDonald Phantom closing on the Mig, radar contact at sixty miles, the pilot inactive, his plane fighting for him as minutes drag, then contact, a shock of missiles, a blaze of fire, and he's fighting the rudder and ailerons, trying to make it around one hundred and eighty degrees of a turn before sliding into Chinese airspace a hundred miles away. A fistful of seconds for an armload of time.
And then into space. Forty minutes' wait while we watch those two fluorescent blue blotches converging across a quarter of the sky, our computers tracking, our nerves tensing, waiting for the five-second explosion, the reflexive punch at the missile control, and then empty sky ahead again, the enemy fading five hundred kilometers back and losing fast, your forward thrusters blazing to slow you down, to allow you to turn at a dead stop, to overcome inertia and rebuild the G-force to send you screaming back to the fray, the time between contact ten, twenty incredible minutes.
And every moment of waiting, while the heat of battle subsides around you, gives you time to think of the dangers you are in, of the dangers just survived, of the dangers you are plunging toward once again. For just a minute between battles, on less! For something to keep the mind a blank till it's needed to handle the stick! But it can't be done, and for ten minutes, twenty minutes, forty minutes, eyes riveted to the screens, you stagger beneath your load of fear. This is where battles are lost and won; this is where our battle was being fought, as the distance between us and the Tars narrowed and the minutes made their slow way by.