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Ask Slashdot: What Would Real Space Combat Look Like? 892

Posted by Soulskill
from the small-things-throwing-smaller-things-at-small-things dept.
c0mpliant writes "Two friends and I were up until the wee hours of the morning over the weekend debating what real space combat would look like. I've spent some time looking it up online, and there doesn't seem to be any general consensus. So, I thought I'd ask a community of peers what they think. Given our current technology and potential near-future technology, what would a future space battlefield look like? Would capital ships rule the day? Would there be equivalents of cruisers, fighters and bombers, or would it be a mix of them all?"
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Ask Slashdot: What Would Real Space Combat Look Like?

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  • by AngryDeuce (2205124) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:40PM (#39102869)
    My prediction: slow and boring.
  • One small rock (Score:4, Insightful)

    by reezle (239894) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:45PM (#39102959) Homepage

    One small rock accelerated for a long enough time then steered at a large ship (or moon or planet) would pretty much be the end of it.
    Can't really imagine much combat going on when it's a mutually assured destruction scenario any way you look at it.
    Most mass entertainment scenarios make sure that the attacking force needs to capture (not destroy) what they are attacking to make sure this doesn't come up.

    I suppose lots of tiny enclaves (small hollowed out asteroids) on both sides could duke it out with small ships. Still can't imagine a large enough industrial base to keep things going very long, though. Anything big enough to build ships would just be destoryed.

  • Two ships (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Inda (580031) <> on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:51PM (#39103079) Journal
    Two ships would face each other, head to head.

    The first ship would power the weapons.

    The second ship would not, so as not to seem hostile. There's a sense of bravado; manly posturing, but dialogue is the weapon of choice.

    The first ship fires a single anti-graviton phase beam.

    The second ship explodes because Picard is a pussy.

    That's how future space battles are fought.
  • Re:Laser Beams (Score:5, Insightful)

    by exploder (196936) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:52PM (#39103101) Homepage

    Laser Beams.

    That's all.

    my mirror shields will take the day

    I think this exchange about sums it up. Your great-great-...-great-grandparents could have sat around 150 years ago wondering what air combat would be like. With hindsight we know that the relative strengths of propulsion, maneuvering, aiming, homing, countermeasures, and automation have been constantly changing, with the result that air combat has looked different in each successive war.

    There's no reason to think that the qualitative nature of space combat wouldn't change just as drastically as the eternal arms race continued. Of course, that doesn't mean it's not fun to think about or that there's nothing meaningful that can be said. The exercise is to make a few essentially arbitrary assumptions about available tech, and then try to extrapolate consistently to their implications. AKA writing sci-fi, minus the character development. AKA writing sci-fi.

  • by snarkh (118018) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:52PM (#39103107)

    > and if they make it this far, they aren't going to waste their precious resources trying to kill us.

    Actually, if they make it this far, killing us (if they are inclined to do so) would be a trivial exercise, like shooting fish in a barrel.

  • by vlm (69642) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:53PM (#39103131)

    My prediction: slow and boring.

    Based on my experience in the military 20 years ago, it will remain the same as today... 99.99% boring as all hell; a bad dilbert cartoon would be better, and 00.01% holy cow. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

  • by dcollins (135727) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:56PM (#39103179) Homepage

    Better comparison -- Like spraying insecticide on an ant nest.

  • Re:Laser Beams (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rei (128717) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:15PM (#39103445) Homepage

    So if you're envisioning combat to be far enough away that the light speed delay poses a problem, exactly what weapon are you envisioning that *doesn't* have this problem? If light is too slow.... Plus, if you're that far away, you're not going to be closing in on each other worth a flip. You've got plenty of time for your system to make guesses about how the target is going to move; it'll nail them sooner or later. And if you think running that laser takes a lot of power/fuel/whatever, what do you think rapidly changing the trajectory of an entire spacecraft for days on end (enough to move it out of the path of a laser in under 0.6 seconds) will consume? The reality is that if you're far enough away that light is too slow, then your combat will just be conducted closer.

    Sooner or later nuclear weapons or similar would become part of space combat. There's so much empty space, true high population space colonies are so far off, and it's easy enough to set "no nukes near planets" as a MAD boundary, it seems it's going to happen. Aka, even if not a conventional nuclear weapon, with the increasing energy density demands required by space propulsion, you'll at least end up with something similar. They impose interesting constraints on space combat, as they're very different from on the ground. Almost no pressure wave, but the radiation threat is dramatically greater (nothing absorbs it and harder to block it in space)

    Combat would presumably be a "you're on your own" thing. Reinforcements would take *way* too long to arrive except perhaps right near a planet or base. Space is just really, really big and most of your time in space, you're drifting or providing a constant accel.

    Since all combat seems to be heading this way anyway, one might as well just say: Drones. Due to the light speed delay, they'd have to be much more automated, but again, we're headed that way anyway. Carrying around a person and a life support system is a *huge* mass and complexity penalty.

  • by v1 (525388) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:25PM (#39103587) Homepage Journal

    Additionally, you do not actually need to "blow up" a spacecraft, you just need to depressurize it, assuming there are human occupants, or mess with electronics etc.

    I'm surprised no one has brought up submarine warfare for comparison here. When in a sub war, one does not try to destroy their opponent. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. And THE enemy is water. Let the enemy in is the name of the game. Same with space. Vacuum is the enemy. Let the enemy into your opponent's ship and then sit back and watch the show. (for as long as it lasts anyway)

    Space introduces dynamics as unique as underwater. Craft can be insanely delicate and lack any armor and still be a potent force. Range is dictated by your ability to detect/track your enemy (without becoming a beacon yourself) and to focus laser and other particle weapons at long distance. Stealth is very important.

    So I think it's fair to say that any hit with a kinetic or explosive weapon would be fatal. Point-defense against missiles would be mandatory because it would be trivial for even the smallest ship to launch a few dozen little missiles that fan out in a very wide trajectory and track you. Mines would be big - think autonomous boxes that sit quietly playing asteroid until something big that lacks the FOF beacon comes into range.

    Due to the extreme decompression risk, crew would probably wear very minimalistic suits that carried very little air and power but could be tethered at their stations, and drop the face shield down in case of breech, to prevent a small breech from voiding the ship. Trying to armor critical areas of the ship would be mostly counter-productive because more mass means less maneuverability. The suits the crew wear may even be similar to flight suits that can help with high-Gs, allowing even greater maneuverability.

    I think current sci-fi fighter designs are closer to realistic. Babylon-5's star-furies showed excellent insight, I recommend looking at those for reference. Those also showed how ships need to be able to maneuver in zero-g, featured crew in suits, etc. The only thing not really serious there were the energy "pulse guns". But limited ammunition and fire recoil makes sci-fi space battles a lot less interesting. I think we need to break away from the "pulse gun" concept in sci fi fighters, it's a tired crutch that's unlikely to ever become reality.

    A lot of this is considering larger ships. Probably the only "big" things will be moon/asteroid bases and the occasional "space dock" carrier-type large ships, I don't think a "capital class" space battleship will be anything short of a nuke-magnet. (again reference several examples in B5, bigger ships generally lost to smaller ones, for good reason)

    The other crutch is unlimited energy, particularly in the fighters. Capital ships could have reactors, but at a great weight and size penalty. I think fighters are going to have to rely on smaller consumable fuel. Fuel logistics will be big, considering the difficulty of getting fuel into orbit or acquiring it in space. Other different ways of storing energy will probably be found, such as being able to produce hydrazine from raw elements found in space, with the synthesis (energy input) from solar power.

    I could probably muse about this for several more pages but I'll take a break now I think.

  • Re:Laser Beams (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Runaway1956 (1322357) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:38PM (#39103749) Homepage Journal

    Guns, smart and dumb. Missiles. Bombs, smart and dumb. Maneuvering for position in gravity wells. People will discover that common, everyday tools make great weapons, with the application of imagination.

    What will war look like? Just like it has always looked. Messy, confusing, chaotic, adorned with lots of blood and gore.

    My question is, why does everyone ignore the guns? Guns will work wonderfully in space. Projectiles won't be deflected by dust, mirrors, or other fancy tricks. Guns have been pretty reliable since they were invented. Guns probably won't last long as a primary weapon, but they will always have a place in combat. Energy weapons won't rule until we've figured out cold fusion. Until then, guns will remain as end-game deciders, if nothing else.

  • by NF6X (725054) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:57PM (#39103965) Homepage
    Decades of boredom punctuated by nanoseconds of hard radiation.
  • Re:Laser Beams (Score:5, Insightful)

    by amicusNYCL (1538833) on Monday February 20, 2012 @06:01PM (#39104009)

    My question is, why does everyone ignore the guns? Guns will work wonderfully in space.

    The main issue with using large guns in space is the recoil. A missile, for example, could be just tossed away from the ship with minimal impulse, and it fires up its own propulsion and goes on its way. Also, you really don't need the massive kinetic impact of a gun in space. Making a little pinhole in the side of a ship with a laser would be pretty effective in space and lasers would offer several other advantages over guns, including less recoil.

  • Re:Laser Beams (Score:4, Insightful)

    by RsG (809189) on Monday February 20, 2012 @06:10PM (#39104111)

    I think if you've got a laser with enough light pressure to generate significant recoil, you've won with the first shot that actually hits, regardless of what the target is made of.

    As for what space combat would look like, assuming no exotic tech like controlled gravity, shields, reactionless engines or faster than light travel:
    -Manoeuvring would be limited by the g forces the crew can withstand on manned craft. Small combat craft would be drones, without exception.
    -Range would be longer than any current theatre of battle. Including strategic nuclear warfare.
    -Any drive worth using for long both range force projection and combat manoeuvres would be a fearsome weapon in itself. Think "thermonuclear blowtorch". With an Orion or antimatter engine, the fuel is potently explosive.
    -Stealth is flat out impossible.

    So, messy, expensive and strategic would be a good guess, and it probably wouldn't look very interesting to the naked eye (lots of bright flashes and empty blackness). Think less "Top Gun" and more "Wargames".

  • Where? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by raehl (609729) <raehl311@[ ] ['yah' in gap]> on Monday February 20, 2012 @06:26PM (#39104291) Homepage

    Barring a completely different future propulsion system, everything in space is either in orbit, on its way into orbit, or on its way back to Earth. Current space ships have extremely little ability to adjust their trajectory on more than a very occasional basis.

    So, for any near-earth combat, one would simply launch a missile from earth or a high altitude aircraft to destroy the target in orbit.

    For combat near another celestial body, you would probably just toss some marbles in the other party's orbital path.

    If you can get there. If something is in orbit around the moon, the only thing capable of touching it will have to get to the moon first. And that's not an action that happens on a whim.

    For any extra-orbital combat, relative speeds and distances between objects are likely so great that there isn't any combat at all.

  • Re:noise (Score:5, Insightful)

    by realityimpaired (1668397) on Monday February 20, 2012 @08:14PM (#39105347)

    Only once have you actually seen sound depicted in space? And you say you've seen a *lot* of scifi? I've seen sound depicted in Star Trek and Star Wars, not to mention hundreds of other shows and movies. Firefly stands out from the crowd because it's the only one I can think of which actually depicted no sound at all in space.

    Or do you perhaps mean conversation? In that case, Spaceballs is the only one I can think of where characters actually carried out a conversation in space, without the benefit of space suits or any kind of environmental protection.

  • Re:Laser Beams (Score:4, Insightful)

    by JosKarith (757063) on Tuesday February 21, 2012 @05:49AM (#39108123)
    Gunnery Chief: [as the character enters the Citadel] This, recruits, is a 20-kilo ferris slug, feel the weight. Every five seconds, the main gun of an everest class dreadnought accelerates one to 1.3% of light-speed. It impacts with the force of a 38-kiloton bomb. That is three times the yield of the city-buster dropped on Hiroshima back on Earth. That means- Sir Issac Newton is the deadliest son-of-a-bitch in space. Now! Serviceman Burnside! What is Newton's first law?
    Serviceman Burnside: Sir! An object in motion stays in motion, sir!
    Gunnery Chief: No credit for partial answers, maggot!
    Serviceman Burnside: Sir! Unless acted on by an outside force, sir!
    Gunnery Chief: Damn straight! I dare to assume you ignorant jackasses know that space is empty. Once you fire this hunk of metal, it keeps going til it hits something. That can be a ship. Or the planet behind that ship. It might go off into deep space and hit somebody else in ten thousand years. If you pull the trigger on this, you are ruining someones day, somewhere and sometime. That is why you check your targets. That is why you wait for the computer to give you a damn firing solution. That is why, Serviceman Chung, we do not "eyeball it". This is a weapon of mass destruction. You are not a cowboy shooting from the hip!
    Serviceman Chung: Sir, yes sir!

The shortest distance between two points is under construction. -- Noelie Alito