Fireside Friday: August 14th, 2020

Hey folks! Fireside this week – sorry for those of you who were waiting patiently for the last post on cereal farming. I had hoped to have it ready to go, but the start of fall semester teaching has pushed that off until next week. Those who pay less attention to higher education news may be surprised that the semester is starting so early, but most colleges (including the institution I am teaching at) have moved their schedules up and compressed them (by removing all of the holidays) in order to get the fall semester done before Thanksgiving, as a way (hopefully) to reduce the threat of COVID-19 outbreaks. Only time will tell if that is a successful strategy, though my teaching is all-online in any case!

For my musing this week, I wanted to actually return to some of the comments on the last Fireside’s musing. The comments for that post were very active with suggestions for technological or strategic situations which would or would not make orbit-to-land operations (read: planetary invasions) unnecessary or obsolete, which were all quite interesting.

What I found most striking through was a relative confidence in how space battles would be waged in general, which I’ve seen both a little bit here in the comments and frequently more broadly in the hard-sci-fi community. The assumptions run very roughly that, without some form of magic-tech (like shields), space battles would be fought at extreme range, with devastating hyper-accurate weapons against which there could be no real defense, leading to relatively ‘thin-skinned’ spacecraft. Evasion is typically dismissed as a possibility and with it smaller craft (like fighters) with potentially more favorable thrust-to-mass ratios. It’s actually handy for encapsulating this view of space combat that The Expanse essentially reproduces this model.

And, to be clear, I am not suggesting that this vision of future combat is wrong in any particular way. It may be right! But I find the relative confidence with which this model is often offered as more than a little bit misleading. The problem isn’t the model; it’s the false certainty with which it gets presented.

Let’s talk about aircraft carriers for a moment – I promise this is going to come back around to spaceships (though some of you may well enjoy the waterships just as much). There is currently a long-raging debate about the future of the aircraft carrier as a platform, particularly for the US Navy (by far the largest operator of aircraft carriers in the world), to the point that I suspect most national security publications could open companion websites exclusively for the endless whinging on aircraft carriers and their supposed obsolescence or non-obsolescence. And yet, new aircraft carriers continue to be built.

As an aside, this is one of those debates that has been going on so long and so continuously that it becomes misleading for regular people. Most writing on the topic, since the battle lines in the debate are so well-drawn, consists of all-or-nothing arguments made in the strongest terms in part because everyone assumes that everyone else has already read the other side; there’s no point in excessively caveating your War on the Rocks aircraft carrier article, because anyone who reads WotR has read twenty already and so knows all of those caveats already. Except, of course, the new reader does not and is going to read that article and assume it represents the current state of the debate and wonder why, if the evidence is so strong, the debate is not resolved. This isn’t exclusive to aircraft carriers, mind you – the various hoplite debates (date of origin, othismos, uniformity of the phalanx) have reached this point as well; a reader of any number of ‘heterodox’ works on the topic (a position most closely associated with Hans van Wees) could well be excused for assuming they were the last word, when it still seems to me that they represent a significant but probably still minority position in the field (though perhaps quite close to parity now). This is a common phenomenon for longstanding specialist debates and thus something to be wary of when moving into a new field; when in doubt, buy a specialist a drink and ask about the ‘state of the debate’ (not ‘who is right’ but ‘who argues what;’ be aware that it is generally the heterodox position in these debates that is loudest, even as the minority).

Very briefly, the argument about carriers revolves around their cost, vulnerability and utility. Carrier skeptics point out that carriers are massive, expensive platforms that are increasingly vulnerable to anti-ship missiles and that the steadily growing range of those missiles would force carriers to operate further and further from their objectives, potentially forcing them to choose between exposing themselves or being pushed out of the battlespace altogether (this, as an aside, is what is meant by A2/AD – ‘Anti-Access/Area-Denial’ – weapons). The fear advanced is of swarms of hypersonic long-range anti-ship missiles defeating or overwhelming the point-defense capability of a carrier strike group and striking or even sinking the prize asset aircraft carrier – an asset too expensive to lose.

Carrier advocates will then point out all of the missions for which carriers are still necessary: power projection, ground action support, sea control, humanitarian operations and so on. They argue that no platform other than an aircraft carrier appears able to do these missions, that these missions remain essential and that smaller aircraft carriers appear to be substantially less effective at these missions, which limits the value of dispersing assets among a greater number of less expensive platforms. They also dispute the degree to which current or future weapon-systems endanger the carrier platform.

I am not here to resolve the carrier debate, of course. The people writing these articles know a lot more about modern naval strategy and carrier operations than I do.

Instead I bring up the carrier debate to note one facet of it that I think also applies to thinking about spaceships: the carrier debate operates under conditions of fearsome technological uncertainty. This is one of those things that – as I mentioned above – can be missed by just reading a little of the debate. Almost none of the weapon systems involved here have seen extensive combat usage in a ship-to-ship or land-to-ship context. Naval thinkers are trying to puzzle out what will happen when carriers with untested stealth technology, defended by untested anti-missile defenses are engaged by untested high-speed anti-ship missiles which are guided by untested satellite systems which are under attack by untested anti-satellite systems in a conflict where even the humans in at least one of these fighting forces are also untested in combat (I should note I mean ‘untested’ here not in the sense that these systems haven’t been through test runs, but in the sense that they haven’t ever been used in anger in this kind of near-peer conflict environment; they have all been shown to work under test conditions). Oh, and the interlinked computer systems that all of these components require will likely be under unprecedented levels of cyber-attack.

No one is actually certain how these technologies will interact under battlefield conditions. No one can be really sure if these technologies will even work as advertised under battlefield conditions; ask the designers of the M16 – works in a lab and works in the field are not always the same thing. You can see this in a lot of the bet-hedging that’s currently happening: the People’s Republic of China has famously bet big on A2/AD and prohibiting (American) carriers from operating near China, but now has also initiated an ambitious aircraft carrier building program, apparently investing in the technology they spent so much time and energy rendering – if one believes the carrier skeptics – ‘obsolete.’ Meanwhile, the United States Navy – the largest operator of aircraft carriers in the world – is pushing development on multiple anti-ship missiles of the very sort that supposedly render the Navy’s own fleet ‘obsolete,’ while also moving forward building the newest model of super-carrier. If either side was confident in the obsolescence (or non-obsolescence) of the aircraft carrier in the face of A2/AD weapons, they’d focus on one or the other; the bet hedging is a product of uncertainty – or perhaps more correctly a product of the calculation that uncertainty and less-than-perfect performance will create a space for both sets of weapon-systems to coexist in the battlespace as neither quite lives up to its best billing.

(I should note that for this brief summary, I am treating everyone’s development and ship procurement systems as rational and strategic. Which, to be clear, they are not – personalities, institutional culture and objectives, politics all play a huge role. But for now this is a useful simplifying assumption – for the most part, the people procuring these weapons do imagine that they are still useful.)

In many ways, the current aircraft carrier debate resembles a fast moving version of the naval developments of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Naval designers of the period were faced with fearsome unknowns – would battleships function alone or in groups? Would they be screened against fast moving torpedo boats or forced to defend themselves? How lethal might a torpedo attack be and how could it be defended against? Would they be exposed to short-range direct heavy gunfire or long-range plunging gunfire (which radically changes how you arm and armor these ships)? With technologies evolving in parallel in the absence of battlefield tests, these remained unknowns. The eventual ‘correct solution’ emerged in 1903 with the suggestion of the all-big-gun battleship, but the first of these (HMS Dreadnought), while begun in 1904 was finished only after the Battle of Tsushima (May 27-8, 1905) had provided apparently startling clarity on the question.

Coming back around to spaceships: if multiple national navies stocked with dozens of experts with decades of experience and training aren’t fully confident they know what a naval war in 2035 will look like, I find myself with sincere doubts that science fiction writers who are at best amateur engineers and military theorists have a good sense of what warfare in 2350 (much less the Grim Darkness of the Future Where There is Only War) will look like. This isn’t to trash on any given science fiction property mind you. At best, what someone right now can do is essentially game out, flow-chart style, probable fighting systems based on plausible technological systems, understanding that even small changes can radically change the picture. For just one example, consider the question “at what range can one space warship resolve an accurate target solution against another with the stealth systems and electronics warfare available?” Different answers to that question, predicated on different sensor, weapons and electronics warfare capabilities produce wildly different combat systems.

(As an aside: I am sure someone is already dashing down in the comments preparing to write ‘there is no stealth in space.’ To a degree, that is true – the kind of Star Trek-esque cloaking device of complete invisibility is impossible in space, because a ship’s waste heat has to go somewhere and that is going to make the craft detectable. But detectable and detected are not the same: the sky is big, there are lots of sources of electromagnetic radiation in it. There are as yet undiscovered large asteroids in the solar-system; the idea of a ship designed to radiate waste heat away from enemies and pretend to be one more undocumented large rock (or escape notice entirely, since an enemy may not be able to track everything in the sky) long enough to escape detection or close to ideal range doesn’t seem outlandish to me. Likewise, once detected, the idea of a ship using something like chaff to introduce just enough noise into an opponent’s targeting system so that they can’t determine velocity and heading with enough precision to put a hit on target at 100,000 miles away doesn’t seem insane either. Or none of that might work, leading to extreme-range exchanges. Again, the question is all about the interaction of detection, targeting and counter-measure technology, which we can’t really predict at all.)

And that uncertainty attaches to almost every sort of technological interaction. Sensors and targeting against electronics warfare and stealth, but also missiles and projectiles against point-defense and CIWS, or any kind of weapon against armor (there is often an assumption, for instance, that armor is entirely useless against nuclear strikes, which is not the case) and on and on. Layered on top of that is what future technologies will even prove practical – if heat dissipation problems for lasers or capacitor limitations on railguns be solved problems, for instance. If we can’t quite be sure how known technologies will interact in an environment (our own planet’s seas) that we are intimately familiar with, we should be careful expressing confidence about how future technology will work in space. Consequently, while a science fiction setting can certainly generate a plausible model of future space combat, I think the certainty with which those models and their assumptions are sometimes presented is misplaced.

On to Recommendations!

I watched this video by Military History (not) Visualized on the distinction between tactics, operations and strategy a couple of years ago, but I ran across it again, and I think it is interesting, although I do not entirely agree with the taxonomy. The are a few linked major changes I would have made – and these aren’t really corrections (he isn’t wrong), so much as preferences. First, I think it should probably be more strongly stressed that ‘grand strategy’ is often not broken out in this taxonomy; MHnV is very much presenting a taxonomy with grand strategy as its own distinct entity (and consequently, the space for regular strategy is dramatically shrunk). He notes this, but doesn’t note strongly enough that in selecting grand strategy out, he is effectively presenting not a three-part taxonomy (as his title and structure implies), but a four-part taxonomy, with the fourth part removed. That’s a pretty important difference to leave out!

That in turn leads him to under-emphasize the massive difference between the two definitions of strategy he presents (though he seems aware of its significance, a viewer might not be): one of which confines itself to how to achieve policy ends by military force and the other of which includes the decision not to use force to achieve those ends. I very much prefer the latter definition of strategy, to the point that I am fond of saying that ‘any game which doesn’t let you declare peace is merely Real Time or Turn Based Tactics.’ A definition of strategy that includes only “how to use military force to achieve policy ends” risks fading rapidly into operations and – as we’ve discussed – mistaking operations for strategy is a classic and disastrous planning blunder.

It’s still a very useful video, especially as a starting point for thinking about these terms, but those are points I think could have done with a touch more clarification; again, not a critique per se – nothing MHnV says is wrong, just a preference.

I stumbled across “Losing the War” an essay by Lee Sandlin about World War II (particularly the American perspective) and its memory. I think the rumination on the memory of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is particularly thought-provoking, but deserves caveat. The long essay that precedes it does a good job of both rendering the unthinkable thinkable (and thus perhaps offering some insight into the strategic calculus at the time) while at the same time not engaging in an apologia for it. On the flip side, even for 1997, the essay is a bit behind the curve in the shifting evidence for the complex decision-making calculus about using nuclear weapons; folks with JSTOR access may note this article which appeared in Foreign Policy two years before Sandlin’s essay and gives a better sense of the late-90s ‘state of the debate.’

Also very much worth a look, this video by Tod of Tod’s Workshop serves as a fantastic followup to our discussion last year about arrow penetration. In that essay, I noted that one of my frustrations was a lack of evidence about arrow speed and impact energy over distance since most tests are done at extreme close range. Tod’s effort here provides measured test shots at up to 100m, providing a firmer basis to consider how an arrow slows down in flight – in this case, quite a bit more than I had expected. I had figured, based on the computer simulations of Magiar et al. that an arrow might lose about 6% of its velocity and about 10% of its impact energy at 100m of distance, but I noted in the essay that I thought something had gone rather wrong with Magiar et al.’s figures, but I didn’t know what. Tod’s work, at minimum, shows that the decline in striking power is much greater over distance: his arrows lost around 16% of their velocity and 30% of their impact energy (thirty!!) over 100m. That would suggest that the drop-off in lethality against armored (or shielded) targets at long range would be potentially even more severe than my original essay suggested. At the same time, I think penetration that Tod’s arrows do show at that distance suggests to me that I need to also downgrade mail-over-gambeson even further in my mental model, against appropriate ‘bodkin’ tips.

Finally, for this week’s Book Recommendation, David Abulafia’s The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (2011), which is a history of the Mediterranean (and to a lesser, but still important extent the people who lived next to it), beginning in 22,000 BC and running up to 2010. Naturally, this is a history of systems, not events. The Great Sea recommends itself on at least two accounts. First, Abulafia has written it as an engaging introduction to the history of the Mediterranean Sea and the peoples who lived on its shores, suitable and useful for the non-specialist looking to get a handle on it. That’s more important than you may realize. We tend to think of history in terms of land areas, but as Abulafia correctly notes down to about 1830 or so, the Mediterranean – including the countries and peoples dotting its coast – is a more useful category of understanding than land regions. Abulafia is not the first person to make this observation, but that leads to the second point.

Second, The Great Sea is, in my view, simply superior to the comparable volume, Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (2000). Both books work with the argument that we should understand the places where people lived on the Mediterranean almost like an archipelago, united by the sea but divided by the land, because land transport times and costs were so much higher than sea transport, such that a place far up the coast might be ‘closer’ than a much nearer village located inland. This insight is fundamentally correct. But there the similarities begin to fade as Abulafia has in many ways written his book as a response to The Corrupting Sea, something he is quite explicit about (e.g. xxiv-xxxi). Horden and Purcell argue for an almost timeless Mediterranean, at least through to the end of the Middle Ages and so they structure their book thematically, mixing time periods in order to present a seemingly unchanging Mediterranean reality. It is, especially for the non-specialist, a frustrating and inaccessible structure (as an aside – if you do read The Corrupting Sea, you will note several gestures at a sequel companion volume; in the twenty years since its publication that volume has not emerged, though a collection of essays by the authors – most already published elsewhere – titled The Boundless Sea: Writing Mediterranean History (2019) has. This is not to be confused with David Abulafia’s recent book, also titled The Boundless Sea (with the subtitle A Human History of the Oceans) and also published in 2019, but which has the singular virtue of being an original monograph, rather than a collection of republished essays).

By contrast with Horden and Purcell, Abulafia argues that there is not one, timeless Mediterranean, but rather five clear periods, each defined by distinctive patterns of trade, movement and conflict on the sea. In the end, reading both books, I find it hard not to conclude that Abulafia is correct that it is more useful to think about the way the sea changed than Horden and Purcell’s effort to think about the way it stays the same, not the least of which because it allows Abulafia to avoid dragging certain patterns anachronistically into eras where they did not seem to predominate (the obvious example being The Corrupting Sea‘s emphasis on cabotage – meant here in its non-legal definition as small-scale coastal trading with small boats over short distances – which was present in all eras, but far less dominant during the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, both periods which saw far more long-distance bulk trade).

Consequently there is something here for the non-specialist reader who wants to get a grasp on the history of this place (with an ample set of endnotes to spur further reading), while the specialist can read the book sniffing for how Abulafia differs from Horden and Purcell (and also Fernand Braudel) and what evidence he uses to make that case.

110 thoughts on “Fireside Friday: August 14th, 2020

  1. Thanks for the article! Typos:

    an asset to expensive to lose. -> an asset too expensive to lose.

    Battle of Tsushima (May 27-8, 1095) -> Battle of Tsushima (May 27-8, 1905)

    [joke] Too early for the Mongols, was it for another invasion of Korea? [/joke]

    but still important extend the people who lived next to it -> but still important extent the people who lived next to it

    1. No, it is 1095: Battleships were invented a really, really long time ago. Remember william’s bombardment at Hastings?

    2. As always, I enjoyed reading!

      This looks like the spot to add two more proofreading corrections and an editor’s query:
      they spent so much and energy -> they spent so much (time? money?) and energy
      understanding the even small changes -> understanding that even small changes

      (boldface original)
      Which technologies evolving in parallel in the absence of battlefield tests, these remained unknowns. -> (I include this sentence(?) because no matter how I parse it, I cannot make grammatical sense of it. Is it my failing? Or is something missing?)

  2. Hello,

    Long time reader, first time poster, etc etc. I very much enjoyed the analogy of tea-leaves-reading for carrier and space warfare, looking forward to teasing a few sci-fi grognards with it. One quite minor note – perhaps nuance? – I might make is that missile systems in particular are synergistic with air power, not contradictory. The same missiles can be developed for one application (air launched) and then put towards another (sea launched, this is the case for all missiles listed), but even if this weren’t the case, a crucial aspect of air power is the ability to pass information and targeting cues to the seaborne missilery. Of course, “but these systems don’t actually contradict, the militaries pursue a blend of different systems precisely because they work together!1!” does seems to support your broader point very well. 🙂

    Thank you for running an excellent blog.

    1. Complicating this picture are some of the asymmetries between what land-based missile batteries can do and what carrier-based air wings launching missiles can do.

      Carrier aviation is usually limited in the practical size of the missiles it can fire, while land-based missiles can be almost arbitrarily large.

      Even the largest carrier can only support so many aircraft sorties at a time (further limited by the *rate* of launches from a single carrier and the need to mass aircraft for a strike; the problem is sort of like trying to get an army on the road when they can only march out of camp four abreast). Meanwhile, a land-based position’s volume of fire tends to be relatively scalable.

      Land-based targets are individually vulnerable but, if dispersed, lack single points of failure. Meanwhile, my fleet must pound the enemy into helplessness a little at a time, and my own ability to do so hinges on a single point of failure. A land-based force can sink my carrier and end my ability to inflict serious harm on the enemy. But as a general rule, my carrier battlegroup cannot sink the enemy’s continental landmass and end their resistance the same way!

      So it is at least *plausible* that sufficient performance for land-based antiship missiles, or air-launched missiles fired from bombers too large to fly off a carrier, will simply make it impractical to even operate carriers close enough to a hostile coastline to matter; if they stand off outside of hypersonic cruise missile range, they’re also standing off outside the range of their own strike group.

  3. In the official setting for the Traveller tabletop role-playing game there are a bunch of in-universe articles endlessly debating “battle riders versus battleships.” That is, should warships have their own bulky FTL drives, or should they ride on a special FTL transport which stays well back from the battle.

    Harking back to your previous article Where Does My Main Battery Go? Traveller warship design revolves around a ship’s “spinal mount.” You build a really big beam weapon as the spine of the ship, attach the drives, and everything else is kind of an afterthought, as in your article.

    1. The Traveller book, I think Mercenary, has an interesting speculative future history of military measures and countermeasures. And I was brought back to High Guard the first time I saw Star Trek First Contact when Picard says “Mr. Worf, do you remember your zero g combat training?”

  4. Absolutely agreed re: humility in the face of space warfare arguments. It’s worth keeping in mind that a contemporary author trying to write about space war in the year 2350 is in pretty much the same position as Thomas Hobbes attempting to give an account of the Battle of Midway in 1620.

    Actually, a little more thought on that scenario can be illuminating on the gradations of what can be predicted and what is difficult to predict.

    It’s easy enough to imagine Hobbes (or his contemporary) conceiving of a major naval battle in the Pacific between fleets of large boats armed with guns. Between a Western power and an Asian one? Not inconceivable, but the details would be harder to nail down. The US would have seemed extremely unlikely in 1620. It would actually have been easier to come up with the Empire of Japan, since 1620 predates sakoku.

    And the technological context (and resulting tactical and strategic situation) would have been neigh inconceivable. This 1620s thought experiment predated the steam engine. The entire framework of a non-sail navy would have been entirely fanciful, let alone the key role of air power, radio, radar, mechanical cryptography, etc. etc.

    It’s reasonable to suppose, therefore, that the battles of 2350 will be fought by societies we struggle to imagine in vessels whose technological precursors do not presently exist. Given that position of uncertainty, making robust claims about tactics and doctrine is untenable.

    Now, one might argue that we exist in a different position relative to 2350 than Hobbes did to us; that we are better positioned to forecast future technologies and their constraints than he was. Maybe so; but many who have had good reason to believe that in the past were subsequently proven quite wrong.

    Certainly very hard science fiction seems to take as a hidden premise the idea that there will be no surprises; that pretty much every feature of space war would make Freeman Dyson smile with smug satisfaction and say “I told you so.” It’s fine enough as a literary conceit, but I think it lacks a certain realism. Right now there are no good prospects of space war, because there is no realistic chance of space civilization. Technological circumstances would have to change dramatically to enable the latter; these changes would undoubtedly modify the constraints of the former. The idea of space battles fought between ballistic, invisible distributed nanotube meshes where the primary offensive battery is malware packets and demoralizing gifs is fundamentally no more incredible than laser-toting capsules taking long-range coherent light potshots at each other.

    1. “primary offensive battery is malware packets and demoralizing gifs”

      I am stealing this idea to describe the corrupting influence of Chaos in Warhammer 40000 in my gaming circle.

      Interesting point on how in 1620 would envision mid twentieth century. I’m not fully familiar with the history of literature but there is a whole other tangent on when did we start producing art about a future that we could now call sci-fi? Does it go much before the late nineteenth century?

      Lastly in the 1600s you can see the ideas meeting reality in the English Civil Wars. There were numerous pamphlets and books on military matters and I seem to remember being taught that early in the war combatants were wearing the antique pieces of armour from the Wars of the Roses 200 years before.

      1. I am not at all an expert here, but I’ve heard that the first futurist writing in English is “Memoirs of the Twentieth Century” by Samuel Madden. It was written in 1733 and set in 1997-98. He did not predict any changes in military technology, but he did predict that the Jesuits would rule most of the world and be absolutely terrible.

      2. If a person in the 1620s would speculate wildly, they might well come up with the concepts of aircraft and submarines, and realize that these would really important in naval battles – from a flying machine, you could drop grenadoes and and fire-bombs on enemy vessels, or with a submarine (presumably with a ram) attack them from underneath. They might speculate that guns will fire so far that you would need a telescope to aim. They would get all the details wrong, but the concepts would be there.

        What someone in the 1620s – as opposed to 1720 – wouldn’t have a notion of would be a ship powered by anything except wind or muscle power.

      3. That is exactly what the Mechanicum’s – later Dark Mechanicum – scrap code is: extremely advanced malware, with a component of outlawed AI.

    2. “there is no realistic chance of space civilization”

      I beg to differ. It is a fact that the major powers are devoting increasing resources to orbital military assets. It’s only a matter of time before lifting manufacturing capacity into orbit and using captured asteroids for raw materials becomes preferable. Also, situations aren’t inconceivable where Earth-side access to a particular resource is locked politically (eg China locks down the only African nation that has extensive deposits of some rare earth) and the options are go to war or mine a space rock. Either would result in long-term manned space habitats, and voila, we’re out of the cradle.

      Unless, of course, it becomes feasible to exploit asteroids via teleoperation or autonomous machines. Remote presence with very high lag doesn’t seem to work too well, and autonomous machines are science fiction (and more than a little magic). Looking forward to opinions from people who actually know something about mining.

      “Thomas Hobbes attempting to give an account of the Battle of Midway in 1620”

      Jules Verne described subs, airplanes, ornithopters, electric drive, phones, wireless power transmission and more, including nuclear weapons. Not quite 1620, but still.

    3. On space civilization on the real world, given what I hear about the speed with which various Earth governments are cluttering Earth’s vicinity with ‘space junk’ (with bits dropped from space missions, and/or with anti-satellite weapons tests) it seems to me that it may well soon end up a moot question of whether it’s in theory possible anyway – simply because the risk of some sort of colonising or ‘supply’ mission hitting something and being wiped out or forced to return to Earth will become unacceptably high.

    4. I think that a lot of the takes that “technology X is impossible in space” are pretty silly in light of the fact that most of these settings pre-suppose the existence of FTL, anti-gravity or other technology that is currently impossible. If sci-fi settings have hyperdrives, deflector shields and artificial gravity, why do we draw the line at cloaking devices? If someone is claiming that a certain sci-fi technology is impossible using any rules except the established rules of that setting, they’re probably just complaining for the sake of complaining.

    5. “very hard science fiction seems to take as a hidden premise the idea that there will be no surprises”

      That’s not a hidden premise, that’s a definition of the genre! If you postulate some big surprise, especially in new physics, then it’s not very (diamond) hard SF any more!

      (Ignoring the alternative definition of hard SF: assume one surprise and explore the hell out of it, like Vernor Vinge’s bobbles or The Witling.)

      We obviously can’t know whether there’ll be such big surprises between now and 2350. On the one hand we simply do know more than Hobbes did — we can explain much of the world and its observable phenomena, much more well, and we know more about the limits of what we can do. OTOH we certainly don’t know everything. OTOH again, many of the big physical lacunae are such precisely because they’re hard to observe and not very relevant to our lives — the high energy intersection of gravity and quantum mechanics, say. So there’s almost certainly at least one big surprise waiting — but it might be centuries or millennia or more away. Nor would such a surprise necessarily be useful for justifying common SF stories.

      Tons of SF, including mainline assumptions of space warfare, rests on the assumption that a historical period of rapid progress and discovery would keep happening. That as we went from horse to cars to planes to rockets, we would keep going to ever faster rockets and FTL and such. That as we had discovered a whole bunch of useful new science, we would keep doing so.

      That assumption looks wrong. Instead we picked lots of low-hanging fruit. We jumped from not having a clue to being able to more or less explain most of the world we see, and quickly explored the basics of what could be done with that. Now we’re in the phase of refining, improvement rather than raw invention.

      1. Some, arguably most, of this stall in progress was a political choice. We developed spaceflight as we know it for national prestige in the Cold War. The continuance of that research and engineering progress was exchanged for tax cuts for the wealthy and wasteful military adventures. Private equity wants profit next quarter, not pure research that will change the world someday. This is also a political choice.

        1. Nope, strong disagreement. The progress I was talking about was more fundamental. We had a period of lots of deep discoveries: steam engines and thermodynamics, electricity, flight and aerodynamics, cell and germ theory, the periodic table, atoms and subatomic particles, radioactivity, relativity, quantum mechanics. (Also some social advances, like standardized parts/mass production, more advanced capitalism, representative democracy.) And key inventions: entirely wheeled vehicles (no foot contact with the ground) like velocipedes, bicycles, and cars; planes; rockets (actually rather older, but much better understood in the 20th century.)

          That rush of basic discoveries has pretty much ended. There are probably more in the future… sometime… but progress isn’t what it used to be. And that’s despite a *lot* of ongoing public investment in basic research. It used to be that a handful of gentleman-scientists could discover electromagnetism, which turned rapidly into stuff like the telegraph; now we spend billions of dollars on particle colliders that discover nothing particularly useful. There’s still progress but it’s more about figuring out complexity, not discovering fundamental forces and transformations of energy. The stuff that was easy to discover and invent has been discovered and invented.

          I am skeptical that there’s some easy way to go to space that’s just a few more $billions of research away; getting off of Earth with chemical rockets is simply hard. Mass production might make it at least somewhat cheaper, but then we hit the problem that there’s little reason to do so, other than satellite constellations, or maybe spamming the solar system with *lots* of probes and rovers. Which I’d be all for, but yes, that is a political choice. And such spam would still be expensive (cheaper per unit, but more units) — worth the expense? rather debatable. Probably cheaper and more relevant to spam the oceans with submersibles.

    6. Minor spoilers, but Banks’ _Excession_ features a self-aware warship armed with a variety of coherent radiation, antimatter, and even more purely science-fictional weapons (gridfire projectors) but whose primary weapon really is demoralizing malware.

    7. There are some issues with this argument.

      First among them is that analogy to the past is an exceptionally poor method by which to discuss our vision of technological development.

      We exist in as radically different a state compared to the agrarians on whom you have predicated your analogy as they did in relation to hunter-gatherers of the Neolithic – this is a qualitative shift and thus, unless you have assurance that a post-industrial revolution must necessarily precede space combat, quite problematic.

      We are largely aware of the primary physical constraints that confront us, and while there are assuredly to be surprises when it comes to the implementation and development of that which we know, paradigmatic shifts in physics have grown to be an increasingly unlikely prospect – indeed I would not be suprised if the opposite is borne out; science is stained with the blood of many a reactionless drive already and speculation of wormhole travel and other forms of FTL procede from an acknowledgement that there may be no possible manner in which the vital steps of their functioning might be actuated in the first place.

      In the end, we know the factors. The essence of space combat discussion is first in understanding how they apply to space as an environment, and second in suggesting what weights these factors should be given based on what we know, and on personal preference in how those factors on which our knowledge is unclear can be interpreted.

      Those suggesting they know all are, as ever, wrong, but this of course does not necessarily mean that those who diametrically oppose them are ever correct.

  5. In the context of games, the basic difference between tactics and strategy are resources as targets. The more a game lets you manage resources, control their allocation and expansion, choose your force composition and, crucially, *interfere with these processes on the enemy side*, the more “strategy” it is, Games with little strategy are labeled “tactics” and are more of a niche – for debatable reasons.

    As for space warfare, it’s quite true that we won’t know for sure what it’ll look like until it (eventually, inevitably) happens. The thing is, there exist some physical laws which seem to be valid (under most conditions) and any advance is only likely to change our understanding *of the outliers*.

    Classical mechanics remain valid and applicable for day-to-day use. Relativity explained some outliers and quantum mechanics – others, but F=ma remains useable and true outside these outliers. The Next Big Physics Breakthrough will doubtlessly shed light on nature’s even darker corners, but we can expect E=mc2 will remain a viable, workable approximation.

    My point is, future tech might be (likely will be) magically potent, but it’s not not likely to break known laws under normal circumstances. Which isn’t saying much, but it helps set some limits. Blackbodies will still radiate. Speaking of which..

    I thoroughly agree about low observability in space being not quite inconceivable. Also, while it’s quite true that heat has to go somewhere, its detectability is not set in stone. A cloud of expanding hydrogen is much harder to spot than an omnidirectional radiator. There are costs to consider and tradeoffs to be made. Basic principles don’t deny low observability in space, but they do point out that it will be nontrivial to achieve.

    1. In the context of games, the basic difference between tactics and strategy are resources as targets. The more a game lets you manage resources, control their allocation and expansion, choose your force composition and, crucially, *interfere with these processes on the enemy side*, the more “strategy” it is, Games with little strategy are labeled “tactics” and are more of a niche – for debatable reasons.

      I think Bret would call that “operations” – the logistical level between strategy and tactics that determines, once you’ve chosen to go to war, how big an army you can show up to the battlefield with. Starcraft is a very logistics-heavy game, where outproducing your opponent (macro) is generally a more reliable route to victory than winning with skillful maneuvering (micro). But “Real-time Operations” doesn’t sound as catchy.

    2. One of the examples of the strategic vs tactical divide is the Battle of Jutland. The RN lost a greater number of its engaged capital ships* than did the Reichsmarine, so the latter’s histories could claim a tactical victory, but the KM’s capital ships never attempted a mass sortie again, so the KM was unable to meet its strategic goal of breaking the RN’s distant blockade. In other words, while it was certainly not as unambiguous as Trafalgar, it was equally an RN victory.

      Back to the topic of war in SPACE!

      Right now, the concept of war in space is only a little beyond the concept of airwar in the US Civil War, where aircraft, in this case balloons, were relatively static observation platforms, with satellites being used for observation and communication, but not for any kind of direct military action. Extrapolating from military satellites to self-contained combat vehicles is not too dissimilar to the leap from observation balloons to WW2-era bomber aircraft.

      Of course, this won’t stop me.

      Currently, and for at least the next century, the only possible space war will be not far from the current Earth-orbital region, going as far as geosynchronous orbit. There will be few, if any, manned combat vehicles operating in space, and those will be far more analogous to aircraft than to naval vessels. Interplanetary warfare won’t be possible for at least a century past that (Star Trek‘s time line is far too optimistic in regards to interstellar warfare, especially since faster-than-light travel is not possible within today’s physics). Then, physics starts to really make a difference. Limiting this to known physics, transit times between planets will be measured in months or years, due to the tyranny of the rocket equation ( The same physics also places significant constraints on major changes in course. In other words, spaceships zipping around the Solar System, as in Heinlein, Asimov, or Niven is highly unlikely.

      Going into the realm of science fiction and space opera, to interstellar war, there’s a major problem: it’s not unlikely that any ET will have biochemistry that is somewhat to massively incompatible with that on Earth, so Earth’s ecosystem is of relatively little value; in this case, sterilizing the planet would be a prelude to colonization. Leaving that aside, and assuming that the ET is something like Anne Leckie’s Radch or Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate, they’ll work this simply: wipe out the national capitals in a first strike, destroy any significant military assets from space, put the planet under a global no-fly zone, etc. The Radch would then take hostages from the elites’ (CEOs, coupon-clippers, trust fund babies, billionaires, etc) families (and likely their property). The Hexarchate would torture and kill the same elites and, likely, anyone in anything resembling a resistance. T

    3. I think Jutland is pretty obviously (in hindsight) a British victory on every level.

      Strategically, as an American reporter put it, “The Germans assaulted their jailer, but they remain in jail”.

      Tactically, the Germans ran away whenever they met anything resembling a similar British force. Their ships took disproportionately heavy damage and, while they didn’t sink, many were out of action for the next few months. The only reason they didn’t lose their whole fleet was darkness and British unwillingness to risk torpedo attack. On the other hand, the Grand Fleet was resupplied and ready to go to sea again the next week.

      The British battlecruisers blew up because they basically dispensed with powder handling safeties, so they could shoot faster. Yet even that disastrous misjudgment didn’t imperil their dominance.

    4. Regarding stealthy ships with low blackbody radiation of internal heat. With current heat pumping tech as a starting point, I can see ships having a ability to “run cold” for a limited time by carrying a thermal store deep in the hull that is chilled continuously by pumping heat out to the external radiators during cruising operations, then during combat ops, pumping ship heat into the store, gaining a short time where the heat signature is kept low enough to disappear into the background noise.

      If most or all of your outer hull is radiator with heat exchanger circulation, then if you have a place to temporarily put heat, you can drag the hull temperature down fairly trivially for a short period. Long enough to get off the others’ sensors to get to a safe spot or take them out. Then you have time to dump the stored heat via the normal channels.

      1. Heat sinks would definitely heave a role to play. Mostly tactical, since storage capacity would be limited over longer duration.

        Also, in battle, when the sinks are full, you could dump them overboard as decoys. There would have to be radiators fitted to the sinks, so they mimic the spectrum of the ship’s radiators. Also, a rocket nozzle, using the hot working fluid as exhaust to make the decoys actually accelerate. The ship can then radiate freely, as long as it controls the intensity so it matches the (continuously cooling) sinks.

        Finnicky, but worth it to dodge those torps.

      2. I think sensor spoofing is an underrated technology in most sci-fi. If you think of modern flare technology in aircraft, it’s not inconceivable that a ship could carry hundreds of more advanced “space flares”, if you will, that could effectively limit long-range detection.
        Another interesting idea would be to pulse the enemy’s sensors with IR lasers to blind them, like we can do to modern satellites .

        1. Flares are for screwing with short-range targeting sensors, not long-range detection. If you suddenly see flares shooting off in all directions, you can be pretty sure that *someone* is out there, and since that someone is trying to spoof your sensors, you can be pretty confident they’re a bad guy. The only thing you can’t do is lock your missiles onto them, since you don’t know which of those streaks of light is the bad guy and which one is a decoy. That’s still useful, but I wouldn’t call it stealthy. You can’t hide yourself by putting on a pyrotechnic light show.

          Ditto for blinding lasers – if someone is blinding your sensors, you know that there’s a bad guy somewhere within laser range.

          1. “Flares are for screwing with short-range targeting sensors, not long-range detection”

            Flares could be useful in long-range terms too. You see a hundred identical bright points accelerating away from the enemy fleet base, each towards a different target. Then, they all vanish. One *might* have been a real ship. Then the same light show happens tomorrow, etc.

            “if someone is blinding your sensors, you know that there’s a bad guy somewhere within laser range”

            Within *blinding* range, which is vastly greater than destructive weapon range.

          2. They won’t be identical bright lights, not unless the decoys have engines with comparable energy to the real ship (at which point they’re not so much “decoys” as “extra ships”). Flares work because you have to identify the real target in a few seconds using whatever tiny sensor you can squeeze into your missile. At long range, you can take your time, look closely at each light, and determine whether it’s coming from a rocket engine or a bundle of magnesium.

          3. “look closely at each light, and determine whether it’s coming from a rocket engine or a bundle of magnesium”

            It’s not difficult to set up light sources to shine in exactly any spectrum and intensity one desires. A bright dot could be the radiators from a ship under thrust, or a really bright collection of LEDs attached to a cold gas thruster. How do you tell, when all you’ve got is a light source and its acceleration?

          4. This reprises the real world issue with flares and other kinds of decoy: the better an enemy’s sensor and computer signal processing tech is at differentiating a real target from a decoy, the harder it is to build a workable decoy.

            Creating a dozen fake radar images to distract a radar-guided missile *briefly* from hitting the target is easy, comparatively speaking. It’s harder to fool the missile, though, when the state of the computational art improves and the missile is thinking “hey, wait, eleven of those missiles aren’t moving the way my real target would.” You can double down and build decoys that DO move the way the target would, or are otherwise more convincing, but this rapidly turns into an arms race. And the side you’re trying to fool often has a lot of options for avoiding getting fooled. They can, for instance, coordinate sensor readings from widely separated platforms or detecting diverse things, so that just shining LEDs at the enemy in hopes they’ll be fooled into thinking you’re firing up a megawatt-class fusion torch drive won’t cut it. You may not even know where all their sensor platforms are, and it’s a lot harder to fool a camera when you don’t know it’s there.

      3. Tactical stealth during combat is a possibility. The “There ain’t no stealth in space” business on Atomic Rockets is mostly about *strategic* stealth. It might be possible to vanish from the enemy sensors for a few minutes to throw off their firing solution or confuse a missile, but you can’t have a “space submarine” that vanishes for a multi-month journey between planets – that requires hiding massively more energy, over a much longer period of time. And orbits are predictable, so if you’ve been spotted once, you remain spotted until you make another maneuver (which means lighting up your drive and becoming visible.)

        1. Thermal rockets are, by definition, cooled by their exhaust. There’s no theoretical reason a ship can’t stay very cold indeed, while thrusting.

          As for the exhaust plume, its detectability depends on what it’s made of. Pure hydrogen in free expansion doesn’t radiate much. And that’s exactly what thermal rockets are likely to prefer as exhaust.

  6. I’d like to see more use of smokescreens, or possibly water-vapour-screens, in hard-SF space battles. Lasers attenuate a lot over very long distances. Spaceships might only be in weapons range for short periods, maybe a fraction of second. If you can deploy a handful of microsats spewing smoke, vapour and chaff you might be able to hide in the cloud until you’re out of range.

    Battles might be more about peppering the path of the opposing ship with tiny pellets and hope some of them intersect. Or the procedure might be fire projectiles, deploy smokescreen, blast hard in a random direction, then when both your smokescreens have cleared decide whether to run or engage again.

    1. The engineering consultants for the original Star Trek thought of the Enterprise as a missile cruiser with phasers for point defense. The script writers thought Enterprise was a gun cruiser with a heavy weapon to use if the Situation was Serious. Without getting into speculations about ray guns, I find it hard to argue with guided missiles as an offensive strategy. Your observation about smoke and water is probably correct. I’ve read that engineers trying to build self driving cars (good luck) know that LIDAR based sensors are faster, and superior to radar sensors. But LIDAR gets scattered by rain.

      1. I am reminded of the space board game J.U.M.P., which I played several times one afternoon. It had a fun feature where you rolled to discover new worlds, procedural generation for the table top. You could also design your fleets, and as far as we could tell, “buy a shitload of missiles” was the winning strategy, which I was the first among us to discover. Possibly realistic, if poor game balance.

        [1] For one world I rolled ‘6’ four times. Habitable, wealthy, high tech, some other good thing. Then I rolled for attitude, and got another ‘6’… which meant Xenophobic, because that table reversed whether rolling high was good. Doh!

      2. I think guided missiles depend on your technological assumptions.

        If spaceships are powered by fusion drives, and those drives are bulky and expensive, a chemical missile/rocket might not be able to keep up with a spaceship over a long range. Or it might be blasted with lasers before it could get close.

        I’d like to see more tactics explored in hard science fiction battles, in particular what happens if a couple of assumptions change.

        In most of naval history, smaller ships have been generally faster than larger ships. That underlies a whole lot of tactics and strategy: how do you break down your fleet into small/fast and big/powerful.

        But in science fiction, especially with hyperdrives, a big ship is as fast as a small one. How does that affect tactics and strategy? Does each space empire try to build the biggest single flagship it can, and a single engagement between them decides the war? If you split your resources between smaller ships, aren’t they just going to be picked apart by an enemy supership?

        Also in most of naval history, ships deliver most of their firepower through broadsides, and are most vulnerable at the stern. If your spaceship has a fusion torch which it uses as a weapon though, its most powerful weapon is also at the stern. So how do you pursue another ship? To chase, your fusion torch is pointed away from them, but they can blast you as they run.

    1. I’d say it’s a bit of a stretch, calling it research literature. Enthusiastic amateurs, with varying degrees of literacy in math, physics, astronomy and military history.

      Atomic Rockets is certainly entertaining, bearing in mind it’s meant primarily as an aide and reference for sci-fi authors looking to improve their stories’ plausibility.

      But I don’t think anybody’s building, or risking, their professional career and credibility on studies of interplanetary battles and interstellar strategy.

      1. That gets a bit complicated for a blog comment, but … scholarly debates have a cost of entry: you have to show you understand the facts and the main arguments (“read the literature”) before you put forth your own view. That is necessary if there is going to be efficient discussion and progress rather than ten thousand discordant voices. The stuff futurists and novelists and wargamers is not as rigorous as what ancient historians and other scientists do, but its not all nonsense, and I think anyone who wants to write on this subject is responsible for reading it.

        I think I remember that Project Rho has a bibliography if you want the engineering papers on Whipple shields and visibility of rockets at interplanetary distances, and its pretty good at summarizing the ‘grey literature’ of convention panels and mailing lists.

      2. There’s obviously nothing like a professional or tested literature. There is, however, math that we know has to apply — this is in fact rocket science — and a bunch of people have thought what ships and weapons could look like, compatible with known science and engineering, and if you dive into space warfare thoughts ignorant of both the math and the prior work, then you’re at a big disadvantage.

      3. AlexT, since this is the year that the United States Space Force was formaly created as a branch of the US military, I suggest that there soon will be, if there aren’t already, military people building their professional careers on precisely those studies.

        Before that we (humans) have been studying space travel and living in space for decades, and with that inevitably someone is studying how to break things and kill people in space. Formal, academic and industry studies, for which people get paid and promoted and which generates “proper” research literature.

        The first anti-satellite missile was tested in 1959! There were all kinds of proposals for space based weapons, from a Soviet satellite reputed to have carried a machine gun, to the proposed laser and particle beam satellites, to the proposed nuclear missiles on a moon base. A lot of technology is dual purpose: the Orion drive required detailed studies of nuclear blast and ablation effects in space (by very brilliant people like Freeman Dyson), the microwave power satellite proposals had to study high energy beam forming and diffusion and atmospheric effects.

        There’s even a small scientific research community studying First Contact with extra-terrestrials, how it might happen, what the implications could be.

        Don’t judge all of science fiction by Star Trek.

      4. There certainly is a lot of valid thought into space warfare. There’s also a massive amount of fantasy, wishful thinking, misunderstandings, bad math and sheer cluelesness, and no universally agreed-upon reference. Nor is there likely to be, for the foreseeable future. The USSF is currently interested in Earth orbit, and imo not likely to publish its most valuable findings.

        “I think I remember that Project Rho has a bibliography”

        Indeed, and its non-fiction section points to a lot of valuable material on the current state of spaceflight. But precious little on actual space war beyond Earth orbit. Which is to be expected: the effort that goes into actual science is orders of magnitude beyond what amateurs are willing and/or able to do.

        “Don’t judge all of science fiction by Star Trek.”

        I really don’t. But I won’t conflate effort aimed primarily at entertainment, with serious peer-reviewed research.

  7. The problem with a lot of space warfare seems to be an inability to imagine what a micro-gravity environment is actually like – unsurprisingly, “2001: A Space Odyssey” got it largely right. That scene of the Pan Am orbital aerospace liner docking with the space station is perhaps the best example of someone getting it right, while Star Wars gets its foot in its mouth so often … Arthur C Clarke’s “Earthlight” should be read more often – it contains about the only realistic space battle I’ve ever read. Mind you, Peter F Hamilton managed to break the mould with his “combat wasps’ in Night’s Dawn Trilogy, for which he does deserve some credit.

    I once had a go at writing a space battle, between two “orbital forts”, to use the term James Blish used in Cities in Flight. At the rate of knots and at the distances at which they could see each other, and other such factors, it took quite a while for the “artillery” – high-energy laser/particle beams – to be usable, and then there was the gas and dust in the orbital plane which cut down the effectiveness of such weaponry at long distance … I never finished the story, for obvkious reasons.

  8. Great article, Brett! I’m currently at a (virtual) conference on professional wargaming (Connections Global) at which we’re discussing some of the issues you’ve presented here. A very real challenge for professional wargaming is helping to assess how new technologies will develop and interact, for example, various cyber technologies, AI, hypersonic missiles, drone swarms, and so on.

    It’s very instructive to look at stuff like late 1800s/early 1900s naval, and tech development up to and possibly immediately after WW2, because in some cases there’s evidence to back it up. Where there is a major difficulty, in my opinion, is when we see pronouncements about relatively older technologies that have not yet been used, such as battlefield nuclear weapons.

    The article you mentioned about the effects of nuclear weapons seems an example of this hubris. The example used to illustrate the limitations of nuclear weapons, and more importantly, the inferences from it, are striking (if you’ll forgive the pun). The example has a Chieftain tank – main battle tank – within 500 yards of a small nuclear weapon. The detailed results, while showing that the tank was not blown to pieces, clearly demonstrates that it was rendered completely combat ineffective – “…the tank had taken some damage… The crew would likely have been killed by the overpressure”. In WW2, the Germans would have counted this combat unit as “vernichtet”, or “destroyed”, meaning that it no longer has any immediate combat capability. The fact that it is reparable and can be re-crewed is irrelevant, because the immediate situation can be exploited by the enemy. For example, most of the Panzer Lehr Division front line was “vernichtet” as a result of the initial Allied air bombardment prior to Operation Cobra – a few days later it reported over 11,000 men available and was still in action (Zetterling, “Normandy 1944”), but the break-through and exploitation was already under way and succeeding. I prefer the term “vernichtet” than the meaning of “destroyed” that was used by the Western allies, because its the combat capability that’s critical, not whether or not the vehicle has burnt out or been transformed into a pile of scrap.

    So, a few nuclear weapons can, quite simply, stop a large scale modern combined arms attack in its tracks (!). For example, use a few dozen battlefield nuclear weapons over a 20 – 30 kilometre front, and you’ll render all things in that area “vernichtet”. The difficulty with this result, is that it may well lead to escalation; indeed, modern doctrine has this type of dangerous escalation built-in. This is, I think, the primary problem with peer-to-peer top-of-the-tree warfare, and I sincerely hope that operational and strategic thinking can draw appropriate conclusions (I have my doubts; there’s much too much “war-fighting” thinking around).

    In the past, the destructive capability of projectile weapons systems has tended to attenuate with range. The revolution in respect of modern precision-guided weapons, and I would think this must continue into SF futuristic space warfare, is that their destructive power is maintained independent of range. In a sense, nuclear weapons started this tendency. This revolution means that the attacker can render “vernichtet” pretty much anything they can hit at any range. With increasingly capable sensor systems, modern weapons systems will be able to detect more and more potential targets. From this, conventional mass army, even conventional combined arms warfare is problematic, and we start down the track of focusing much much more on battlefield networks as targets – command, control, communications, logistics, replacements and such like. Without these, a modern military force becomes inneffective, even if it technically still exists on the ground.

    There are, I believe, 2 main inferences from the above. One is that peer-to-peer warfare becomes increasingly risky, and the second is that the gap in combat capability of peer to non-peer is overwhelmingly vast and keeps increasing. The Gulf War is a good example. Therefore, if you think you’re a peer player, you don’t want to risk committing to military action with another front rank power, when you might suddenly find you’ve miscalculated the actual combat effectiveness of your stuff, and you’re not a peer player after all.

  9. One thing I will raise when it comes to space fighters is the generally unacknowledged advantages of a split medium that makes aircraft carriers work in the real world. One of the main reasons carrier vessels make sense on the oceans is that they combine the best elements of both air and sea transportation. The carrier itself is low speed and high efficiency, allowing it to carry a large amount of material into the combat area and remain for some time without resupply. It’s aircraft are high speed and low efficiency, quickly reaching and engaging their targets but do not possess any real staying power. It’s a very powerful combination and had dominated a good fifty years of naval warfare.

    When it comes to hard sci-fi, or even soft sci-fi to be honest, just copying our existing order runs slap bang into this issue of medium. There is no split to exploit in most settings, your ship, your weapon systems and their delivery craft are all in the same medium (space) using the same engines (rockets).

    Now, in the real world you can use different types of rockets with different efficiencies so maybe these differences are significant enough to actually make parasite craft sensible. Heck, there might even be a hyperspace for us to use to truly allow craft to operate on different layers. However, in most sci-fi settings the fighters and the carriers use the same drives and that’s about as sensible as the battle of Trafalgar consisting of everyone lowering their lifeboats and fighting with those.

    1. The lack of split medium is a good point. Differences in ship design might matter, e.g. rider ships not carrying full life support. A small ship might be able to be locally faster or more maneuverable than the big ones, while still killing ship-killer weapons.

      OTOH the extreme form of that is a missile, which has the advantage of not having to reserve fuel for return. Just burn and smash. And armored small ships have a higher ratio of armor to volume.

  10. For space warfare to happen, there needs to be another ‘side’ out there. Which means we (or they) have found some form of FTL. How the battles go after that depends on further assumptions – CJ Cherryh’s Alliance series has ships ‘jumping’ from mass to mass, entering at substantial fractions of C. So jump, lock, launch and run, with your missiles arriving pretty much as they are detected. Two ships duelling at .5C, using radar or similar detection systems, are like two near-sighted people shooting at each other in a field – each never quite sure where the other is exactly.

    Or one might have wormholes – easily defended points of entry and exit. Or something else.

    In effect, the speculation is similar to that around ‘magic’ in fantasy – it can be anything. The reader can only ask that it be coherently presented.

    1. For space warfare to happen, there needs to be another ‘side’ out there. Which means we (or they) have found some form of FTL.

      Only if you want a war between star systems. War between planets can happen at slower-than-light speeds. Think Mars declaring independence from Earth, revolutionaries in the asteroid belt, that sort of thing. It’s most common in older sci-fi, but still shows up from time to time. So long as you stay within the solar system you can have a good sci-fi battle without any FTL at all.

    2. It’s been a while since I read it, but I recall that in Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire/The Killing of the Worlds military SF duology, there’s instantaneous FTL communication that enables interstellar empires (and thus interstellar war), but spaceships are still limited by the speed of light. Moving a fleet from one planetary system to another can take many years or even decades (although due to special relativity it feels experiences a much shorter trip, which is an important plot point), and therefore operations have to be extremely carefully planned years or decades in advance, since it’s not possible to e.g. send a fleet to relieve a besieged planet — quite often the battle will have already ended one way or another by the time it arrives (another plot point).

      In contrast, ship-to-ship engagements happen at near-light speed, leading to very short battles, roughly within the thin-skin paradigm. The crew prepares the ship for combat, but the actual execution (lasting a few seconds) is done by an army of drones that extends several kilometres around the ship and that deploys all sorts of nasty tactics. Ultimately it boils down to a very complex, assymetric game of rock-paper-scissors.

      The first book also shows a land battle where orbital bombardment is not an option, because the attacker’s main mission is rescuing a member of the imperial family.

    3. ‘there needs to be another ‘side’ out there. Which means we (or they) have found some form of FTL’

      No it doesn’t. Space colonization could provide other sides within our solar system, either between planets (Revolt On Mars!) or e.g. two Earth powers fighting over space resources (Britain and German battleships in the Battle of Deimos!)

      The most realistic near term space warfare would be Earth powers fighting over control of Earth orbit and its satellite networks. Anti-sat missiles vs. launching armored satellites or something…

      1. There are still treaties against arming space and the moon. We talked about proposing large recoiled style guns for defense against asteroids, space debris, micro-meteorites, etc. The idea was shot down due to treaty issues. Anything that could do that job could just as easily be turned earthward.

      1. A lot of SF authors’ space battles seem to resemble Trafalgar far too much. I suspect, in the long term, space battles will more resemble the one in Iain Banks’ Excession than anything humans have seen to date, in that the combats will be managed by AIs and the only roles for humans will be as chickenhawk initiators and sacrificial victims to the people who started the war.

        1. Well this is the point already made by Mary, that science fiction authors choose their technological and scientific assumptions to make possible the story they want to tell. Iain Banks wasn’t writing military science fiction.

          Science fiction authors, and screenwriters, who do write space combat are well aware of Burnside’s Zeroth Law of Space Combat: Science fiction fans relate more to human beings that to silicon chips.

  11. Great article, as usual. But as depressing as the thought might be, misplaced confidence in the ability of writers to predict wide-ranging changes to the nature of warfare is itself a very historically observed phenomenon. You only need to skim over the works of guys like Gulio Douhet or JFC Fuller to see how wrong and how confident they were about their predictions.

    I think part of it is just an intrinsic factor of how humans seem to be wired. It’s *hard* to argue on technical merits, especially the technical merits of predictions of technological interactions that do not as yet exist, nobody has actual experience in these matters, just educated guesses. But people are generally pretty good at detecting sincerity and confidence, and especially when you have amateurs who don’t have their own expertise to fall back on, they’ll tend to gravitate towards people who give off sincere and confident vibes. After all, if they believe what they’re saying, and you don’t know better, well, surely they know what they’re talking about, right?

    Since there is no true expertise in these matters to interject purely technical matters, these debates are almost necessarily going to be dominated by the people who exude confidence. So while regrettable, I’m really not surprised by how (misplaced) confidently people express these opinions. It’s what works to win internet debates.

    1. Wasn’t artillery supposed to make war quick and easy? When Napolean used it, he managed to make it work at first in that way because his enemies were still fighting the last war. When he came up against people who’d been observing his progress and making notes, he got trounced, or rather, his overconfidence got him trounced.

      That’s where Gulio Douhet failed. Air power is in essence over-the-horizon artillery, and strategic bombing is just another form of that. The major difference is that you can shoot down a bomber, but not an artillery shell.

  12. Good thoughts on the peer war on the brine – the web of massively untested ideals, systems, defenses etc that would come into play its actually kind mind boggling. Its worth also noting the almost pathetic level of testing and ammunition expenditure that goes into so many systems. Raython runs a few highly scripted tests and now system X is sold as 95% effective. Its also worth pointing to the fact that with both the USS Stark and the INS Hanit neither ship’s commanders apparently felt safe having their CIWS on automatic operating mode even in war zones.

    I also find lack of armor and durability invested in ships somewhat odd.. No I am not a zealot for bringing back the battleship. I know sure one hit from a large hyper sonic missile is likely a mission kill for a modern DD basically everyone’s ship of the line now. That being said I think the recent sinking of the Norwegian FF is notable. The damage was not that bad but seemingly its interior bulkheads were both not water tight and not structurally impressive. I can’t help but wonder would a Fletcher class DD from WW2 be underwater in a similar indecent. Similarity would the same ship (Fletcher or even a bit more if you go with something like the Cleveland ) be so vulnerable to shrapnel from a successful but near CIWS interception of a missile (or a hit from the CIWS of neighboring ship as happened in the first Gulf War)?

    1. Modern warship designers do the best they can. Without actual wartime experience of ships taking damage it is very difficult to anticipate the problems. In both WW1 and WW2 “watertight” bulkheads turned out not be on various warships, others capsized when they shouldn’t have, and so on. The peacetime example is the Titanic.

      The most effective peacetime substitute is to try and sink your own ships, and a nation has to be very rich and very committed to the navy to do that. The US does a “SinkEx” from time to time where an older but still representative warship is used as a target for various missiles and bombs. Smaller navies usually can’t afford to “waste” a usable warship like this. (If the ship is too old, you don’t learn anything from shooting at it because all your current warships will be of different design and construction.)

      My understanding is that post 1982 Falklands the Royal (British) Navy made a lot of largely invisible internal changes, and yes this did include light armour between and around various important bits of equipment. They presumably passed this information on to close allies.

      A Fletcher or other WW2 warship would have better armour on the hull and main guns, but you can’t surround your radar and other electronic sensors with armour plating. Even in WW2 losing your radar was a significant disadvantage in a battle, today it probably guarantees defeat.

  13. Re tactics, operations, strategy. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, partly as a result of the recent emergence of various different (and complex) definitions as people have wrestled with the position of operations vis a vis the more conventional tactics and strategy. I think it’s helpful to base the taxonomy, if it’s needed, on the different characteristics of the three concepts. Stress on *different* characteristics. I couldn’t go with a characterisation of simply one of these as “planning” or “movement”, because all 3 concepts have those characteristics. My definitions are based on the characteristic of Tactics as “contact with the enemy so that weapons can be used”, Operations as “co-ordination of tactical engagements”, and Strategy / Military Strategy as “getting another political adversary to change the mind by force”. So, I would suggest the following, not very complicated, definitions:

    Tactics: “The deployment of friendly forces, and the engagement of a part of the enemy forces by them.”

    Operations: “The planning and execution of a sequence of tactical engagements to further our strategic objectives.”

    Strategy (Military Strategy): “The planning and implementation of military and supporting measures (warfare) to compel by force a political adversary to adhere to our policy objectives.”

    Strategic Policy / Grand Strategy: The setting of goals by a political entity (typically a sovereign state) vis a vis other potentially rival political entities, and defining the means by which to achieve them. Warfare may be one amongst many different policies, but warfare always involves the use of force to compel an enemy to comply with aspects of our policy against their will.

    Ideally, from a humanitarian, ethical perspective, warfare will be very much a last resort. And this does mean last resort. It’s important to stress that this is not the same as “taking difficult decisions” or “stopping them now, rather than later” or “pre-empting the bad guys”. In my view, war is almost always a failure of policy.

  14. So on the one hand we barely have spaceships, how can we be confident about space warfare?

    OTOH there’s a case that space warfare (compatible with known science) is more physically constrained than stuff on Earth, hence more predictable.

    Analogy: we know more about the interiors of stars than the interiors or even potential surfaces of planets. (Every new solar system probe is a source of surprise.) This is partly because stars glow and release lots of information (we can do *seismology* on the Sun), partly because there are so many of them glowing at us, providing tons of data, but also once you get that much hydrogen collapsing on itself, the forces are so extreme that there’s not much that can happen.

    Analogy: if you’re sessile or slow-moving, you have lots of design options. If you want to move fast through the air or worse, water, you need to be streamlined. Physics is uncompromising.

    Space needs high velocities to get anywhere useful on human timescales. Lots of work has been done on designing rocket engines, with disappointing results even in theory: you can get high thrust or delta-vee but not both, short of maybe an Orion drive, and if you do get both (especially with Orion) you can definitely dismiss stealthy maneuvers. The relative velocities are bad news for armor, especially armor you need to be able to move (spaceship vs. space base). High-thrust engines are much hotter than asteroids, hence more detectable; human life support is also pretty hot (often unspoken assumption: that humans are still involved somehow. If everything is a robot then at least lurking stealth is easier — though high thrust maneuvers will still give you away.) Detectors are much cheaper than spaceships, so more spammable.

    I don’t know about the aircraft carrier debate, but my impression from reading lots of space debates is that one side has a lot of motivated reasoning to try to ignore physics. The same applies to advocacy of *manned* space exploration with current tech and economics: it is far more effective to spam the Solar system with robotic probes, but a lot of people don’t want to believe that.

    As I may have mentioned before, Rocketpunk Manifesto actually brought up something new in thinking about orbital warfare rather than interplanetary warfare.

  15. Excellent article, and especially the main point of unknowns! A few years back I followed the excellent (in my non-historian’s eye) video series “The Great War”, which did a week-by-week four year long survey of WW1. One thing that was brought home repeatedly in the history of that war, was the impact that a long period of peace had on military planning.

    There were, of course, still plenty of small wars, but the major military clashes between powers that were seen in the Napoleonic era had not happened for more than a generation. The colonial wars, or wars between only two nations for a very limited objective, had not really stretched thinking very much. So, when the first major war between industrial powers (that had gasoline powered engines, modern steel furnaces to make artillery, etc.) broke out, it seemed to catch everybody by surprise how it went.

    Part of the reason seemed to be that the emphasis on industrial capacity, and the relative decline in the importance of dauntless courage (sending swarms against machine guns gets you less than in previous eras), was just not a change that the generals of the era _wanted_ to be true, so they had a hard time recognizing it. Wars are supposed to be won by courage and daring, not by having more efficient factories to churn out more artillery shells. It is difficult to learn, much less foresee, something you don’t want to be true.

    So, what might be the equivalent in the future? The most obvious possibility (perhaps for that very reason probably wrong), is the removal of humans from the equation entirely. If the pace of war becomes far too fast to have human decision making in the loop, even the manufacturing, then it could be the case that one is forced to turn over control of the war machine to your AI, and hope that your AI is better than the opponent’s. I anticipate many generals and admirals would be loathe to admit that this were so.

    1. The Terminator franchise seems to make abundantly clear to me the dangers of turning over control of military stuff to a genuine AI – which may reach quite logical conclusions that: (1) humans are a threat to it; and (2) it doesn’t really need humans for anything.

      Now if by ‘AI’ you mean just ‘really fast calculating engine’, fair enough, but letting a genuine Ai anywhere near control of weapons systems…
      (On a related note, which it seems to me hardly gets touched upon in most of the science fiction that I’m familiar with, if you have genuine AI’s (ones which somehow don’t need switching off to preserve them from doing quite logical things to dispose of the human race) it seems to me that all sorts of issues raise themselves to do with employment rights, a right to be paid, whatever rights the AI version of access to ‘medical treatment’ involve, reproductive rights, voting rights & right to a fair trial, etc, etc. I know occasionally some science fiction touches on this – there was a Will Smith film, I think, a few years ago about it, maybe?)

      1. Most of the Western countries (US included) have pledged to always have a man in the loop before pulling a trigger where a life could be taken. Russia has not agreed to this. I don’t remember China’s stance.

        1. Evidence so far is that this pledge will be forgotten in wartime. Example is the Phalanx CIWS, an automatic 20mm gatling gun fitted to US and allied warships to shoot down incoming missiles. It is designed to be fully autonomous, the radar tracks everything around the ship, and if a target “looks” threatening, points the gun at it.
          There is a risk of friendly fire. So in peacetime a Phalanx is set to ‘man in the loop’, it tracks a target but won’t open fire until the operator confirms. In the two Iraq wars, (source is PW Singer IIRC) when the Iraqis and others had actual anti-shipping missiles and were firing them, ships in the Gulf put their Phalanxes on full auto unless there was a specific reason not to. (eg a nearby carrier known to be launching aircraft).
          Modern warfare is so fast that ‘man in the loop’ decision making would often get you killed.

          1. Phalanx is a point defense system it isn’t mobile. It wasn’t what I was talking about. The commitment is regards to systems such as drones including ground and sea vehicles. The Army is testing remote tanks presently. They have a person pulling the trigger albeit remotely. Every current program is requiring a man in the loop and doesn’t have automated firing. This has been standard doctrine for a while and I see no signs of it changing. Even with drone swarms a person still designates the targets. I will admit though it has been a while since I have seen any of those briefings.

          2. A friend, who ended his USN career as a destroyer captain, told me that Phalanx could not be in its autonomous mode when helicopters were operating, as it would fire at the tips of the rotor blades. Its software’s basic logic is that if something is moving at or above a certain speed and on a collision course or sufficiently close to it, it’s a threat to be engaged.

            Electronic countermeasures are also pretty effective against anti-ship missiles, from chaff rockets to active jammers on nearby helicopters. Apparently (according to my friend), the jammers on helicopters are controlled from the ship, not the helicopter. On the first generation of manned USN frigate-based helicopters, the jammers were turned off by the flight crew, who would rather not be the target of the cruise missile. This endangered the ships upon from which the helicopter operated….

      2. I’ve always believed that the first true AI to learn from humanity’s data will either suicide or enslave some group of people to feed its porn addiction.

    2. For a general reader who wants an overview of robotics / AI in current era military, I recommend “Wired For War” by PW Singer. Yes it’s getting old. His primary interest is not the technological side, engines and technology, but more in the people side of it from developers to front line combat troops.
      “Armed Drones and the Ethics of War” by C Enemark is a bit more specialized. Still interesting, for example the debate about how can we even judge a robotic system that commits a war crime.

      1. Well, for the curious, there’s a blog called Ai Weirdness which shows just how far we are from having fully functional Artificial Intelligence. Google for the word “giraffing” …

  16. I was told this week that the large caliber railgun work is being defunded in spring 2021. Doesn’t surprise me too much as it was never designed as a gun but rather a large lab experiment.

    Railgun focus is shifting to medium caliber guns like General Atomics Blitzer.

        1. Yeah I don’t know the history of the complainers name. They have been part of the EM gun community for decades though. (That whole community has been a disgusting mess for decades as well) They lost the Navy decision to BAE but managed to get a Congressional plus up for the Army to look at Blitzer.

          Like all railgun programs there is a lot of work on the projectile / terminal ballistics and the power supply but not the launcher. In medium cal a hideously overweight launcher can still accommodated but not in large cal.

      1. Well, General Atomics was founded in 1955 as a division of General Dynamics, so the ’50s character of the name fits.

  17. Bret wrote “I find myself with *sincere* doubts that science fiction writers who are at best amateur engineers and military theorists have a good sense of…”

    You’re really looking to start a fight with those words 🙂

    At best the science fiction writers have military experience, Robert Heinlein being the most famous example. There’s a large community of military / defence people, or formerly such, involved in science fiction discussions and game design and development. Here’s three hours of video presentations by these military / science fiction geeks, organised by the US Naval Academy Museum

    1. Joe Haldeman has far better military credentials than Heinlein, who was invalided out in the 1930s. Haldeman actually served in combat, where he was seriously wounded. Overall, however, a very large percentage of people of Heinlein’s generation are likely to have had military experience, of one sort or another, from a desk job in the US, to setting up weather stations in Mongolia, through flying B-24s at treetop level over occupied Europe, being resistance fighters in occupied countries, or direct land and air combat in Eurasia, Africa, Australasia, the World’s oceans and seas.

      For a number of reasons, I tend to have a poor opinion of most military SF, and I consider it to be one of the weakest of sf/f’s many sub-genres, somewhat beating out paranormal romance. There are some standouts (Forever War, Anne Leckie’s series Ancillary series, and a few others), but many I find completely unreadable: bad physics, worse psychology, and even worse politics and economics.

      1. Glen Cook’s The Black Company, military fantasy of a sort:

        ‘It has become something of a cult classic, especially among current and former members of the military. When asked about the series’ popularity among soldiers, Cook replied: “The characters act like the guys actually behave. It doesn’t glorify war; it’s just people getting on with the job. The characters are real soldiers. They’re not soldiers as imagined by people who’ve never been in the service. That’s why service guys like it.”‘ (Wikipedia)

        It says Cook served in the US Navy, though I don’t know if he saw combat.

    2. Engineers is even weaker. Writers of hard SF are notoriously engineers or scientists.

  18. I read some essay by Joe Haldeman in the 80s or 90s where he said that the only military SF writers he knew of with actual experience in combat were Jerry Pournelle (artillery in Korea), David Drake (tanks in Vietnam), and himself (combat engineer in Vietnam). With an honorable mention for Mack Reynolds who was a non-combatant in combat, usually hiding behind the most solid thing he could find.

    Of course, there may have been more in the 30-odd years since then.

  19. Regarding the aircraft carrier viability debate, I have one strategy point that comes down firmly on the “carriers won’t make it thourgh the next war” side: given that US power projection is well-understood to rely on carriers to a large extent, nobody is going to agree to fight a major war with us unless they think they’ve got a workable plan for neutralizing the carriers.

    The qualifications are obviously important. If other strategic concerns push war before a comfortably workable solution is found (a la Japan 1941), or the US unilaterally starts the fight, then the carriers might make it through. The game theory says, however, that if someone starts a fight with the US purposefully, then you can bet they at least believe they’ve got a workable plan for neutralizing the carrier strike groups.

    1. The 64 billion dollar question for the US is whether it can arrange matters so that nobody can be confident that they can neutralize carriers for the next 30 to 40 years.

    2. “if someone starts a fight with the US purposefully, then you can bet they at least believe they’ve got a workable plan for neutralizing the carrier strike groups”

      Neutralized can mean simply forced to stay out of range, eg due to threat from shore-based attacks. Doesn’t mean the carriers won’t make it through the war, just that they have to be more careful.

      This actually happened during the Falklands war: the British carrier stayed out of range of mainland-based Argentinian planes, but it was still near enough to provide air cover over the islands.

      Another way to “neutralize” a carrier is to have a powerful air defense over the likely targets. The carrier will launch a few attacks, then run out of planes. So the carrier is forced to do something else with its planes, but is still very much alive.

  20. You know, on the surface it’s a bit of a bait and switch: “Hey, guys, here are kilotons that are needed to level a fortification, so it’s a surety that space boots will be needed on the ground… wait a minute, why are you so sure about space combat? It’s no good, there is more in heavens and on earth…”

    However, it seems to me a conflation of several topics into one is going on.

    First of all, the planet-side weaponry is largely constricted by materials science, while the space combat is usually theorized given the ideal conceivable materials and bounces of off laws of physics.
    Let’s return to the carrier groups. Nimitz-class carrier has more or less the same speed as Ark Royal did despite all the progress. Don’t carrier need speed? Surely having twice the speed on hydrofoils or, even better, something like an ekranoplan and 150-170 knots would be better for everything: strategic mobility, more takeoff load, much easier landing. And they can be built, they’re just too damn expensive with the materials we have today. But we can imagine it and, aside from tritanium or adamantium needed, it can be done. Oh, and that ultrastrong and ultralight material can drastically increase the effectiveness of HEs against fortifications. Pair it with very conceivable individual at-spot aiming of shaped charges per enemy combatant and your kilotons go way down. Materials are king.
    Now, let’s take a plain old laser cannon. Even when we’ll be able to make it flawlessly, the laser impulse will still diverge proportionally to wavelength divided by aperture (or waist in case of a collimated beam), no matter what you do. Lowering wavelength is hard, we still don’t know how to make a reusable x-ray laser that emits coherently. Aperture means that this thing will be bulky and bulk means mass. And mass means a lot of things. So, we’re already wielding an impossibly ideal laser with no waste heat and it’s still not good enough even in space. And it goes for tons of things.

    Now, that’s boring.
    It has no place in a narrative, it has a place in a niche video game (like Children of a Dead Earth) and even there it needs to be “balanced”.
    Because what we’re typing here are narratives.

    And that’s a second thing. Space combat is, thankfully, a yet unverifiable speculative narrative. Hoplites vs phalanx is a somewhat verifiable and constrained speculative narrative. Noone’s giving hoplites machineguns. Yet that’s what we do with space combat to make it interesting.
    Narrative is a lot of things. Humans lie to read about humans for some weird reason, even if they’re aliens or hobbits or whatever. The movement of fleets is relegated to video games, because strategic and tactical games give agency and narrative doesn’t. The narrative is there to show the emotions and motives and actions of relatable characters. And they kinda need to be shaped by the rules of the world they’re put in.
    I think, you can explain what machinegun will do with the tight infantry formations to any open-minded general of Napoleon III, for example, especially if you bring one for a show and tell. No amount of show and tell will make this general understand how it’s possible to hack ATMs, and first of all, why people are placing real money in these things.
    So, if the writer is conscious of the societal implication (and why theorycraft if you handwave anyway?) this turns into a tweaking of a baseline narrative that does not contradict the laws of physics as we know them in an “interesting” way, suited for the particular narrative. And you can do anything, starting from very plausible boarding parties in space and ending by casual tweaking of causality before breakfast.

    But it’s your narrative. Your own. For your liking and, hopefully, others.
    It’s kinda dumb to go into a discussion and say that in your headcanon everything is different because of A, B and Z. It’s great that your headcanon is like this, but I just say missiles have progressed enough, so all your carriers are now exotic fishtanks, they just don’t know it yet. Real fun and useful, right?

    So, to get something out of used time and bytes, you need a neutral baseline everyone can kinda agree on and deliberate about.
    And you’re like: “Hey, it’s not the only possibility, there’s so much else!”
    Well, duh.

  21. “exclusively for the endless whinging on aircraft carriers”

    That quote alone made this worth reading. Thank you.

    I have to confess, my exposure to space battles in SF is pretty much limited to “ST”, which is awful at it. (Some of that because the miniatures & camera work just can’t cope with anything complicated.) It’s obviously crippled by writers with no clue how even contemporary battles would be fought, & mapping past experience incompetently onto future conditions. (Thus, swarms of fighters, planets as necessary objectives, no gasp of the importance of logistics, & endless references to “lines”, as if naval warfare was somehow static or positional.)

  22. People talking about the rapid pace of technological change in naval warfare now clearly haven’t looked too hard at the history of HMS Dreadnought herself: revolutionary world-changer in 1906, not fit to stand in the line and relegated from the Grand Fleet to channel squadron duties in 1916

  23. Just a comment on aircraft carriers – battleships were being built right up till the end of the Second World War – HMS Vanguard being the stirling example, being the last battleship to be built, launched in 1946 and finally broken up in 1960. During the Second World War the various navies of the world saw that battleships were a huge sink of valuable resources that could be sunk by a much smaller investment in a small set of weapons. Though Roger Parkinson points out in “Dreadnought: The Ship that Changed the World”, this was merely the tail end of a trend that had already started with mines, torpedoes, torpedo boats and destroyers and submaarines in the decades before the Dreadnought was launched. At which point will the commonly available use of missiles and ICT equipment make the aircraft carrier an equivalent massive sink of valuable resources? (FWVLIW, I would argue that the PC and the Internet has already made the US Strategic Command obsolete, ditto the Russian equivalent, etc for the other nuclear-armed powers … and so for the vast majority of US war planning, which is so heavily invested in nuclear weaponry as the back-stop.)

    1. “At which point will the commonly available use of missiles and ICT equipment make the aircraft carrier an equivalent massive sink of valuable resources?”

      AIUI, the current trend is for more and more capable missiles which intercept the big anti-ship missiles. There was a point where missiles were smart and capable enough to hit big targets (like ships) but were unreliable against small, fast targets (like other missiles). But presently, interceptor missiles (and the sensors and targeting systems etc) are capable enough that they can reliably defend against other missiles, and becoming ever more so.

      The point is, increasingly advanced tech is making missiles *less* effective. It’s not a one-way street.

    2. Even Germany was slow to learn the lesson, though. Only in mid-war their focus changed form battleships to subs.

  24. Back in the day (1980’s) the little NASA group I worked at spent some Navy money looking at how to put aircraft on small ships. I think we had wind tunnel models from 4 or 5 of the then aircraft design groups. We did the aerodynamic testing not figuring out how to do the nitty gritty of landing or taking off the aircraft from a small ship. Nor what had to be done to integrate the aircraft with the ship. I remember an admiral telling me the weapons of that day were lethal beyond target identification range. Interesting times. Even more interesting now. We studied aircraft from hypersonic to dirigibles..

    1. Target identification is one of the difficult and messy parts of missile warfare that often gets overlooked by those who focus on technical specifications. The South China Sea is full of ships that aren’t USN carrier battlegroups. One of the hard science fiction assumptions, as seen in The Expanse, is that likewise by the time we have space warfare capabilities, we’ll also have lots of important space civilian traffic.

      I attended a short course on guided weapons for civilians. The instructor, ex Aus Defence Force, described Harpoon anti-shipping missiles as a weapon that would always hit an enemy ship – if they weren’t your enemy before, they were now!

  25. The laws of physics as applied to hydrodynamics haven’t changed since Dreadnought or even, for that matter, since well before pentaconters patrolled the Aegean; displacement ships, a group to which all major warships belong, are limited by those laws from getting much faster. In other words, the speeds of major warships have not significantly increased for over a century because they can’t. Also, in the age of long-ranged missiles and aircraft, the tactical value of high speed is decreased, so there is less incentive to spend the money on making ships much faster.

  26. It has been interesting reading the comments over the past week. I work for a DoD lab doing research on large caliber weapons so I have sat in on briefings of current and future threats and the technology gaps that go with them. So I thought I would add a few comments.

    There are treaties that currently keep us from arming space and the moon. The last time there was active efforts to put weapons in space was during the SDI days. The main concern with space at present is anti-satellite weapons. Everyone is concerned about operating in a GPS denied environment. The Space Force is really just a rebrand of US Space Command. Their R&D will be AFRL for the foreseeable future.

    There is a major push for hypersonics by all the services for a mix of projectiles and vehicles. Some of these flirt with space but most don’t. Speed though is still a major goal.

    The electromagnetic railgun was originally supposed to launch a 16kg projectile at Mach 7, leave the sensible atmosphere and hit the ground 210 nautical miles away going Mach 5, possible air bursting into ball bearings on the way down. Erosion of the projectile was a major issue. The power requirement for the 64 MJ launcher was 5 million amps with 20 kVolts at the breech. 15 MJ was going to be arced to the atmosphere with every shot. When the order for DDG1000 was cut their was no ship that could easily supply the required power. The system has been scaled back several times. The projectile was supposed to have enough control authority in flight to take out incoming warheads. Last update was the the Navy was ceasing funding in the Spring.

    There are efforts for extremely long range artillery (SLRC). With artillery and mortars there is always the threat of counter fire. Against a peer or near peer it only takes a few rounds to locate the source of fire and fire on it. On top of that everyone has Counter Rocket Artillery Mortar Systems (CRAMS). With that it becomes a matter of whose battery / counter battery is deeper. If you can out range them then you have the advantage.

    Another big issue is jamming. Our reliance on wireless communications is also a weakness. A few years ago coworker talked to an operator that had come back from Ukraine. He said that the Russians would send in drones to jam communications. They would shoot them down and then another would show up. The fourth one was usually armed with a missile. It got to the point that the Ukrainians put phones back on the outside of the tanks to talk with the infantry.

    For every frequency we use our peers have a jammer and vice versa.That is the one advantage to traditional ballistic projectiles. You can’t jam a dumb round. You can however steer some of them. DARPA has demonstrated steering small and medium cal using lasers aimed at their base.

    I once talked to a light infantry captain that had just returned from Afghanistan. He said that want was nothing more than a slap fight but the next one will be a bloodbath.

    1. What’s the overall state of c-ram? Is it assumed capable to provide reasonable safety (until it’s saturated), or is it more of a “reduce incoming by X% but expect some will always get through” situation?

      1. CRAM is a bit out of my lane. All I can say is that when describing why we needed a longer range howitzer (besides being currently outranged) it was stated that any current engagement against a peer or near peer would come down to who has the deeper magazine. Given the way everything else works in the Army I would guess on the latter interpretation.

  27. ‘It’s not difficult to set up light sources to shine in exactly any spectrum and intensity one desires. A bright dot could be the radiators from a ship under thrust, or a really bright collection of LEDs attached to a cold gas thruster. How do you tell, when all you’ve got is a light source and its acceleration?’

    I’m not an expert but my first thought is spectrograph. Is a light source an actual thermal blockbody? A handful of LEDs might look white-hot to a human but will be blatantly different to a machine. Rocket thrust would mean infrared light, cold gas thruster wouldn’t, unless you add infrared LEDs, and can you emulate the nearly continuous spectrum of blackbody radiation?

    And moving a massive ship under high thrust means lots of energy. (Actually moving it under low thrust but high delta-vee means as much or more energy.) For example, the power of a Space Shuttle under launch is given as 12 GW! “13 Hoover Dams”. Even if that’s high, the “any intensity one desires” may have to be 10s or 100s of megawatts of LEDs. And of course all that power has to be generated somehow, likely leading to more waste heat that has to be dumped… which you might think could be used to solve the earlier problem, but I’m pretty sure “LEDs + power generation heat” won’t look the same as “rocket”.

    1. LEDs can emit in infrared through to ultraviolet. Evidently, the decoy’s spectrum (LEDs, maybe lasers, plus the power source’s radiators) will match the entire spectrum of the rocket it’s mimicking, not merely its visible component.

      The power of the rocket is irrelevant, what matters is how much is radiated. Engine efficiency provides an upper bound for this, but even some of the energy that doesn’t actually push the rocket may not be radiated away instantly. Bottom line – the decoy would not have to radiate anywhere near the engine’s power. Since it also needs to shine only briefly, it could be relatively cheap compared to the real rocket it’s mimicking.

  28. A lot of classic SF authors were caught up in WWII. Harry Harrison spent some time in the Army Air Corps, and I’m pretty sure his experiences informed much of his anti-war satirical stance; evidenced by Bill, the Galactic Hero and the Stainless Steel Rat series.

    I did love it when the Hidden Aliens kidnaped all the Human admirals, only to discover that CPOs swiftly took over all the Admiralty functions and fleet efficiency improved 300%.

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