Space Fighters: Threat or Menace?

We can have an argument about that if you like. :slight_smile: (In a nutshell: fighters and missiles dominate modern naval warfare mostly because they move in a different medium from the ships, but there’s no equivalent different medium in space.)

But I suspect that the short version is that most (not all, I admit) space-battle anime has individual craft so that the leads can be heroic in them, and therefore needs a setting where individual craft make sense; and MFZ is imitating space-battle anime.


Only if we argue like scientists (ie: to gain knowledge, to re-contextualize the data we have, and to reform our opinions as we discuss… as opposed to digging in our heels and assuming our initial position is the correct one regardless of new information).

I would posit that fighters and missiles dominate modern naval warfare because of:

  1. Acceleration
  2. The Z-Axis
  3. Ineffectiveness of armour vs capacity to inflict damage

If all that was required to dominate modern naval warfare was a different medium, then both land-based defensive emplacements or submarines would also outstrip the capacity of surface warships to contribute to a fight. Land-based weaponry doesn’t have the requirement that it be capable of floating, and therefore can far outclass naval armaments (theoretically… there is still something to be said about putting a set of 45cm cannons on a single platform that you can then move wherever you need rather than having to build 50cm cannons around every naval port). Submarines can have weaponry designed exclusively to dominate naval combat (torpedoes) without fear of retaliatory attacks from larger caliber cannons (ie: I can fire my biggest torpedo at you, but you can’t fire your 45cm cannons at me).

Now, how does this translate into space?
The biggest contribution to space combat (under reasonable extrapolations) will be:

  1. Acceleration
  2. Range/accuracy

The range/accuracy discussion is a difficult one to quantify. Let us assume we have the longest ranged, most accurate weapons we possibly can (lasers? Missiles? Probably missiles, actually, given the beam coherency issues involved with light weapons).

The ability to change directions is a direct correlation to acceleration. And since we all know that Force = Mass X Acceleration, that leads us to state that Acceleration = Force / Mass. We also have to deal with the Impulse (the tendency of an object to continue to move in a straight line as a function of its mass… basically, the heavier something is, the harder it is to make it go in a different direction).

This means if we want to design a more maneuverable ship (to evade enemy fire, since we are going to assume that weaponry will continue to far-outpace armour/defensive capabilities), we can either generate more force (bigger engines), or we can reduce the mass (smaller ship).

This leads us back to fighter-craft as a dominate contribution to future space warfare, since:

  1. They are going to be small
  2. The lack of mass means the ability to change directions quickly (and theoretically reach combat speeds sooner), due to low Impulse and high Acceleration.

All that aside, I don’t think we’re going to see Star Wars-era fighters (which are basically WW2 dogfighters in space), but more like Babylon 5 era ships (thrusters in every direction designed specifically as high-maneuverability interceptors)… or those from the Expanse (although I think Expanse-fighters are outfitted with railguns, which has issues of inertia/Newtonian physics involved with firing… space fighters will probably be torpedo/missiles boats more than anything else? I guess that will be a function of Phalanx-style defenses…).

Gosh, I love discussing sci-fi… sorry if I got carried away! :slight_smile:


Sorry, I didn’t mean to derail the game discussion. Possibly we should cross-thread?

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… I don’t know what that means. blush

Look, I’m a luddite, I’m sorry.

Doesn’t this all come down to targeting? Kinetic weapons will always come off worse against nimble craft.

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The argument for small aircraft is that they need to be able to turn aerodynamically, and you get square-cube effects. (8× the mass of the aircraft is only 4× the area of airframe on which the air impinges, so 2× the pressure on the control surfaces, not to mention air resistance preventing it from going fast.)

But a spacecraft doesn’t have to worry about that to the same extent; it turns with manoeuvre thrusters (where the effectiveness is radius divided by rotational inertia, so there’s still an argument for small there) and accelerates with its main engine. (Unless you have tech that allows you lots of engine nozzles pointing in different directions, which doesn’t care about scale at all.) But a main engine is just a proportion of vehicle mass, and so’s a fuel tank. A 1,000-ton fighter craft can have the same acceleration as a 1-ton drone.

If you have crews, then they need life support, and that gives you a fixed mass as well as a per-crew mass; that points towards big ships.

If armour is worth anything, you get more armour per proportional mass on a bigger ship (8× the mass, only 4× the surface area).

I’m not saying space fighters can’t happen, but I think we’d be much more likely to see medium-sized vessels (10+ crew and larger), and missiles, with little in between.

Missiles pretty much need to make contact with the target (even nukes), and they can’t hide in surface clutter, so shooting them down becomes relatively easier. So you want lots of them, I think.

(“Whoever came up with these laws of physics must have been a goddamn Commie” – apocryphal general working on SDI).


I feel like all of these discussions rely entirely on what tech level we’re talking about. Even if the fighters moved more realistically (initial d-ing around with many movement thrusters as opposed to aerodynamically) if they were simply hard to ‘see’ and hard to hit, then they’re still valuable. Even in our reality, people tried to make the case that mach 3 missiles that can pull 10g turns would render interceptors obsolete - but a jet flying much slower and pulling less g’s can actually outmaneuver a sidewinder. Or look at the ‘Wobblin’ Goblin’ F117 - if your radar detects a seagull sized blip - is that a space rock or a fighter carrying a nuke?

Shields, point defence, and perfect-information scanning changes things, but may even make small fighters more viable. It is assumed that something cannot be good at both dealing with massive capital ships and also deal with small maneuverable things as well. In Star Wars, for example, it seems like shields are effective for long range attacks (a capital ship can take more than one death-star shot in the Return of the Jedi), but up-close they are useless.

All valid points. Assuming sensors as perfect is very dangerous… space is really big, and so it can be hard to pinpoint information accurately.

My final year astrophysics course had an exam question that boiled down to “Given this data, determine the location of this star within 3 orders of magnitude.” (We had to get it accurate to within 1,000 light-years, more or less)

It’s an interesting observation about missiles-vs-maneuverability, and outside my wheelhouse unfortunately. A lot of those are the ability of a fightercraft to move aerodynamically (wings) versus the raw-thrust capability of a missile but with lower capacity to change direction (I assume).

Perfect targeting makes fighters obsolete (and missiles). But less than perfect targeting… I think there’s an argument for them.

I guess I should explain that missiles can make turns that would be humanly impossible - a human pilot would pass out. Yet there are ways that a modern fighter can avoid or pre-detonate (chaff/flares) a missile before it connects.

I think another component of this is, given perfect targeting (predictive targeting?), can we expect laser weapons to track fast enough and hit hard enough to make missiles obsolete?

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A mach 3 missile pulling 10g has a turn radius of ~10km. Speed squared over acceleration, so if you halve the speed you’ve cancelled out 4× the acceleration. (But of course you want a missile to be fast, so…)

I’m assuming what we can speculate about real-world tech; obviously in fiction you can set your tech assumptions to produce the effects you need, and this is great fun but not a useful basis for argument. :slight_smile:

Depending on just how the laser tech works, it’s reasonably plausible to have a no-moving-parts tracking system.

The missile interception problem, once you remove cover, is basically a two-dimensional one: the missile has to hit you to damage you, so its angular rate when it’s coming at you is relatively low and even if you’re using conventional guns you don’t need to lead much. (Shooting down missiles heading for other ships is harder.)

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Are you telling me Galactica’s flak field was actually useful?!

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Lots of (semi-smart) missiles. As counter measures eliminate oncoming missiles, the explosions flood sensors. This creates a time lag before the counter measures can lock onto the next wave of incoming missiles. Each successive wave of missiles creep closer to the target until one wave hits.

Fighters give a chance to intercept waves inbound missiles further out than counter measures are effective.

(There’s no physics in my considerations)


This is the problem!! Star Wars rules or Star Trek rules?? Or something else, or your own custom sci fi?? Depending on which you’re talking about, then it completely changes the rules of engagement!


The only way to actually tell if our theories are correct is to construct actual space armadas and square off.


What about this: if we assume only modern technology with one additional hiccup: pretend modern naval ships are capable of flying.

No change in acceleration or maneuverability except that a modern destroyer can turn port, starboard, or “up” and “down” with equal ease.

Fighters would still dominate naval combat, yes? The biggest starships would be missile-destroyers, but aircraft (spacecraft) carriers would still be the queens of the fleet.

I like this observation. It seems like the cost to keep a person alive in space compared to the ability to communicate with drones or program drones reliably enough to accept longer communication lags is a key driver.

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Well, sure, if you still have aircraft that can go much faster than ships while carrying ship-killing weapons, aircraft will indeed be dominant.


A couple of things come to mind.

The first is that “fighters” is usually a misnomer. It is the bombers that people are usually thinking of. Fighters are there to shoot down the bombers, or to shoot down the enemy fighters that are trying to shoot down our bombers; if it weren’t for the bombers we wouldn’t care about the fighters¹. The worst a fighter can do is a kamikaze attack, which is a serious threat to a carrier with a timber deck, but against an armoured flight-deck? You just scrape them over the side. As for a kamikaze with a warhead, we have drones (“missiles”) for that now.

Fighters are a defensive weapon. [Tactical] bombers are the ship-killers.

The second is that it’s all very past-istic. It doesn’t seem even contemporary, let alone futuristic. The reason that sci-fi movies have Bristol Beauforts in spaaace is that George Lucas liked WWII movies. But close attacks on capital ships by carrier-launched tacticool bombers weren’t a thing before Taranto (11 November 1940) and haven’t been a thing since about 1982 — we have drones (“missiles”) for that now. I don’t feel compelled by the charm of recreating that 40-year epoch.

Finally, the whole WWII naval paradigm depends on a profound difference between flying in the air, steaming about on the surface, and submarining under the surface. Altitude, stall speed, the huge difference of speed and endurance of ship and aircraft, the huge difference of burthen between ships and aircraft. Without those you don’t get “fighters” and missiles, you get torpedo-boats and torpedos.

So, you can have your space-“fighters”. You need one woo-woo to make them perform very differently from ships. You need a second woo-woo to make it worth putting a human pilot in them. And the pay-off is that you get to make a WWII movie.

¹ Yes, there are F/A aircraft now. It’s the “A” that threatens ships.


Yes. Also, if you put a human pilot in your small attack craft then you need to reserve a significant amount of delta-vee for getting them back at the end of the operation. It’s not like you can shut a human off and collect it at the end of the campaign, and expending them is Pyrrhic at best. So if you use an uncrewed vehicle you not only save the mass of a pilot and their life-support system, and you not only free yourself up to use high accelerations, but you gain the option of using more of your delta-vee for useful military purposes.

Note: it is getting harder and harder to convince young people that a guidance computer need be costlier or more massive than a mobile phone, or that humans will out-perform computers in the future.


Here’s a space-fighter (all right, space-small-combat-craft) paradigm which works reasonably well for me.

In Transhuman Space (with which I think Agemegos is familiar, but others may not be) the role of the attack aircraft is taken by the “AKV”, Autonomous Kill Vehicle. This has a drive with higher thrust but lower delta-v than that of the ship which carries it – perhaps something like 3× the acceleration, ½× the dV, which isn’t compelling but can make a difference in a short-range engagement. It carries weapons of its own, typically lasers or gauss guns* rather than missiles, and is capable of ramming; and it’s controlled by an AI. AIs in this setting are definitely people (though not all jurisdictions agree), but because of the transhumanist tropes that go into the background, it’s generally felt in-world that keeping a backup gives you functional immortality. Both the AI-control and the raw cost of the thing mean that it isn’t typically used just as a big missile; if you can bring it home from the engagement you do. But if you don’t, it’s an expense item rather than a letter to the grieving parents.

* by which I broadly mean all electromagnetic accelerator weapons; I know there are distinctions between railguns and coilguns and other such, but that’s a finer level of detail than the system supports or I really care about.