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Interstellar Aircraft Carriers and Science Fiction Naval Warfare

Interstellar Aircraft Carriers and Science Fiction Naval Warfare

October 3, 2012 - What would a naval battle in space be like? Would it resemble warfare on Earth, with spaceships or battleships, or would it be waged with tactics and technologies that we can’t even imagine?

While I can only speculate, I was fortunate enough to speak with someone who can speculate better than I can. I interviewed Chris Weuve,  professional naval analyst,  avid science-fiction fan and wargamer, on how realistically naval warfare is portrayed in SF. You can read the interview here,  but among other points, Chris notes how often SF fleet battles mimic some historical period on Earth, with spaceships resembling Napoleonic frigates, WWII submarines or modern American aircraft carriers.

I’m neither a naval officer, physicist nor engineer. Compared to the stellar knowledge of a Chris Weuve, I’m just a white dwarf. But I do write about military affairs, and I am an SF fan (Original Star Trek and Deep Space 9 are my favorites, as are the Lensman series and C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station novels). Rather than offer answers that would only be speculation in disguise, I’m going to pose a few of my own questions about how warfare in space would be fought:

1. Why will there be war in space? On Planet Earth, we fight for many reasons: resources, ideology, power, fear. But what would be the logic of waging interstellar war? The most compelling motive would seem to be resources. Yet if it’s resources, the universe is vast and might offer enough to satisfy everyone. Or, it might be easier to develop a substitute than wage a war across many light years. SF weapons are often depicted as smart, which implies precision targeting, yet also of immense destructive power. If the belligerents are hurtling missiles at each other that travel faster than light, it might be difficult to prosecute a war for resources without destroying the planets that have the resources they covet. As for motives like fear, preventative war is most attractive if the attacker believes he can win quickly and cheaply. Judging by the cost of present-day missile defense, this seems a long shot.

2. Can anyone afford war in space?Napoleon said that an army marches on its stomach, but after years of writing about the U.S. military, I’ve concluded that an army marches on its wallet. Medieval kings didn’t lack peasant-fodder to fill out their armies, but paying for the logistics of war – horses, food and weapons – bankrupted many a kingdom and compelled many a bellicose monarch to make peace. America has the physical resources to build an armada of aircraft carriers and stealth bombers, but that’s cold comfort to a Pentagon that’s busy downsizing because the defense budget is being slashed. Yet one never hears that the USS Enterprise had to abort its five-year mission to three years because Starfleet Command’s budget was slashed, or half its shuttlecraft are down because there is no money for spare parts. Babylon 5′s overworked space station commander did have to deal with budget cuts, and one would hate to be the Imperial accountant who has to confront Darth Vader with Death Star cost overruns (“your lack of funding disturbs me”), but otherwise there

The second Death Star under construction in Return of the Jedi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

seems to be money aplenty in SF for expensive fleets. Assuming that a technologically sophisticated, spacefaring race has an economy and a currency (certainly some mechanism to allocate resources to satisfy the needs of the population), one can only hope that any potential enemy confronting Earth would have a limited treasury.

3. Will technology or tactics determine victory in space? How many times has the Enterprise been blasted by some alien CGI Ray of Death that knifes through the deflector shields like butter? In reality, technological surprise does happen: the Aztecs encountering Spanish gunpowder and horses, or European knights encountering Mongolian horse archers. But victorious nations tend to be not those with better technology, but those who use their technology better. French tanks were superior to German tanks in 1940, but the Germans conquered France in six weeks by making better use of the tanks they had. Tactics vs. technology is a difficult issue in SF, because the environment inherently favors technology; tech is needed to keep humans alive in space, to travel between worlds, and a primitive sublight missile fired at a ship traveling faster than light probably won’t hit its target. While clever tactics are certainly a major plot point in SF, whether it’s Kirk’s Corbomite ruse or Luke Skywalker penetrating the Death Star’s weak spot, superior technology seems to rule the day. The clever Zulus defeated the technologically superior British at Isandlwana, but I’d still hate to pit a spear against an M-1 tank, let alone an Imperial Star Destroyer.

4. Are there universal truths in space warfare? In speculative fiction like SF, so much depends on the assumptions made by the authors, but even assumptions are usually based on physical laws. Do the laws and logic of the universe favor certain tactics and technologies, such that an alien race adhering to logic (as humans know it) would be compelled to adopt them? Perhaps the physics and economics of space will tend to favor carriers equipped with fighters, or giant battleships, or hordes of smaller craft. If there are truths, then the nature of space warfare will be predictable. If not, the combatants will learn the hard way.

5. How will aliens fight in space?  The cardinal sin of military history is assuming that your enemy will fight as you do and with the same weapons. The weapons of the Alliance and the Empire seemed mostly identical in Star Wars, as did Federation phasers and Klingon disruptors. That’s no surprise, given the inevitable diffusion of military technology (or as Spock told the Romulan commander, “military secrets are the most fleeting of all” ). It’s interesting that 2005′s War of the Worlds had the aliens using energy fields to knock out Earth’s devices, in the same way that the Americans and Soviets would have used electromagnetic pulses from nuclear weapons to disrupt each other’s weapons and infrastructure, or how the U.S. used graphite bombs to take down the Iraqi and Serbian electrical grids. I suspect that if many of us were to conceive of space warfare, it would resemble early 21st Century warfare, with lots of drones, cyberwarfare, and so on. A hundred years ago, it would have been airships and dreadnoughts. Should Earth encounter a hostile alien power, our admirals and scientists will have to guess – just as they do now – how and with what weapons the enemy will fight. Based on recent American history, I suspect they will either assume the enemy will fight as humans will fight, or they will credit the enemy with capabilities that would only exist if we were fighting the planet Krypton.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. I’ll be returning to the crossroads of SF and current military technology and tactics.

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