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"
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.
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.
Rick Robinson has a slightly different take on the topic:
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:
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.
Probably there will be a branch of orbit guards in all of the space faring nations. They will not just watch asteroids, they will also keep a close eye on the orbit guards belonging to other nations, just to keep them honest. If nation X has an orbit guard, enemy nation Y will want their own orbit guard. Otherwise nation X might be tempted to turn a blind eye to somebody targeting nation Y's capital city with an errant asteroid.
This is a nice concept for SF authors, since it gives a plausible reason for the existence of astromilitary. And of course civilian boom-towns and settlements will spring up around any military bases. There is money to be made supplying all those enlisted men with gambling, whiskey, and prostitutes.
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.