Monday, February 23, 2015

Space Combat in Conjunction: Tactical Considerations

So here we are again, RocketFans, with another installment of combat in … SPAAAACE! Conjunction-style.
Pictured: UNLS Czechoslovakia  in rendezvous formation with PL-16. 
Because even super robot ray guns in space need maintenance. 

In the last segment, we discussed a few of the assumptions that space combat in the Conjunction universe would be working under, at least initially. To recap, these are:

  1. Missiles and lasers are evenly matched
  2. Remote control beyond a light-second is impractical
  3. Most combat is going to in orbital space, where it is possible to hide
  4. The most vulnerable location on a spacecraft is its laser
So the questions are: What does this all mean for ship design? And what does it mean for strategy and tactics? The second of those questions is the main topic of this post – after all, you need to know what kind of missions you're going to accomplish before you try to design the ships.

Or else you get this.
So, let's look at assumption #1 first, and then weave in the others as needed.   A large enough salvo of missiles will overwhelm any laser defense but could be too expensive, and lasers need to be the biggest, most powerful and therefore most expensive in terms of cash and, much more important, mass and energy. What kind of tactics does this suggest?  If the missiles have less Δ-V than the spacecraft they are attacking, than the ships can get out of the way. If the ships have large enough lasers, they don't even need to get out the way – they can shoot the missiles and laugh at you. But, let us not forget Assumption #4 – once our ship starts shooting, targeting that laser is a simple matter and without the laser, the ship neither defend itself or – and this is important – attack its own targets.

Why can't the defending ship attack? We can assume that the defender has its own missile salvo to launch, right? Because the nature of the beast, especially Assumption #2, both the attacker and defender will launch their missile salvos at a specific time to insure that they have the maximum spread and the maximum amount of control. Of course, if the goal is to utterly destroy the defender, vaporize its armor and detonate its propellant, kill every living thing on board and write off the multi-billon dollar price tag of the defending spacecraft, than you can just launch on the most economical vector, shoot out the defender's lasers, and let Sir Isaac's mighty maths convert mass and acceleration into lethal force.

I told you:  Fear my mighty maths.
In Conjunction, however, there is another possible mission goal. 

One of the Conjunction universe's central assumptions is that the war is one of colonial revolt. This is a civil war in space – which means that all the spacecraft in the conflict are considered by the UNSF the property of the UN&C. So if it was possible to mission-kill a spacecraft and spare the vessel - and its squishy crew – we can assume that doctrine would suggest doing so. But how?

It's like this: Because we assume lasers are vulnerable, missiles need to be launched early and at the same time, and spacecraft want to keep the distance of engagement at around a light-second, tactics exist that allow one to mission-kill a spacecraft without destroying it. The missiles, which would occupy all the attention of a spacecraft's lasers, are maneuvered into a spread that requires the spacecraft to do just that.  One way to do that is to bracket the defending spacecraft so that it must destroy the missiles or maneuver onto a vector that will force them to expend too much propellant - either die fast with a bang or slow with a whimper.  It can also be assumed that some of the missiles are lasers themselves, used to attack the defending spacecraft's lasers. Because a spacecraft must use most if not all of its laser time-on-target, the side with the most intact lasers wins, period. They can still defend against missiles, and the other side cannot. If the other side surrenders, they will do so by maneuvering their remaining missiles away from the attackers, probably at a perpendicular vector the ecliptic - because those missiles will eventually hit something, even it's Vega a million years from now. The victors can then do the same thing, confidant that they are still in control, because they have working lasers, and the other side doesn't. Physics being what they are, the two ships will most likely never be able to rendezvous, but that's okay, because unless the defenders turns Kamikaze and rams something, they can't really hurt anyone anymore. The best they can hope for is to return to a friendly (or even unfriendly) port and get resupplied.   

Of course, this only works if both sides considers the others' rockets and the lives of their crew to be worth preserving. Jovian forces would not consider the UNSF spacecraft their property and therefore have no financial reason to want to conserve the UN's assets, would they? That being said, part of the true difference between a group of separatists and a group of terrorists is that the separatists generally adhere to the conventions of lawful war – which means not slaughtering enemy combatants if it is not necessary. This is why members of the Confederate States militias and the earlier Continental Army (eventually) were treated as enemy combatants when captured and not summarily executed for treason.
"...we are willing to exchange all colonial
prisoners if you stay in America..."

Did you know that most prisoners of war in the American Civil War were paroled? There were simply too many POWs to house and feed, and no one really wanted to slaughter fellow Americans. Soldiers on paroled were expected to never raise arms against the other side until a formal prisoner exchange took place. If they did, then they would be summarily executed the next time they found themselves on the losing side on the battlefield. I bring this up because this is exactly what could happen to our defeated spacecraft in the example above. They surrender, they are allowed to go on their way, make port and not die in space. Should that spacecraft be repaired and redeployed before a formal exchange (which basically means both sides agree to allow x number of defeated spacecraft to be reactivated) it will be shot out of the sky with all the Ricks that can be mustered.

It occurs to me that for all the bloody massacres implied by the cold equations in space combat, we may see a different effect on the future battlespace of the solar system simply because we chose to limit ourselves to more civilized forms of warfare, just as we do (mostly sometimes) today. If the idea of paroled patrol craft and “exchanges” of spacecraft that amount to little more than saying “Okay, your timeout is over, you can play again!” sounds unrealistic, remember that with infantry in at least one war just such a thing has already happened.

Our next post will be about what kind of design considerations are needed to make these missions happen, and some more about the doctrines and deployments these spacecraft can execute. After that, back to Building a Navy with the ships we come up with. Hope you enjoy!


  1. One thing you might want to consider as an anti-missile defense system is a guided missile CIWS. It doesn't need to be as powerful as an anti-ship missile, although you might want to pack more delta-v in case ASMs have jinking capability. Even so, you could still make them smaller and lighter (and therefore potentially carry more of them) than ASMs.

    The reason why you might carry something like this is because PD lasers are so vulnerable, especially to counter-laser attack. Sure, you have to worry about ammunition expenditure, but the launch system can be armored more easily than a laser, and has no tactical value once it's used up all of its ordnance.

    Interestingly, especially considering the thesis of the setting (that war has never happened in space before), you have some parallels with World War I. In that war, aerial combat and armored warfare were completely new areas of tactics and strategy, but the more interesting innovations came as a result of the trench warfare doctrine. The European powers were still largely basing their infantry operations on the Napoleonic model - soldiers were unarmored because the body armor that could protect one against a bullet or shell was too cumbersome for marches and maneuver, and the tactics used relied on the assumption that the weapons used by infantry were too inaccurate to effectively target individual troops and lacked a sufficient rate of fire to make up for lack of accuracy - an assumption that snipers and machine gun nests tore to pieces (it was snipers who ended the practice of wearing flashy uniforms and medals on the field of battle, and machine guns that rendered cavalry hilariously impotent).

    However, these changes weren't the ones that had the most effect. It was specifically the close-quarters nature of trench warfare that drove the initial change to modern warfare doctrine. In the trenches, you couldn't bring a rifle to bear quickly enough to aim and kill a target if the fighting actually spilled into the trenches themselves. The European armies ended up bringing back technologies that had been rendered obsolete by the changing nature of war - body armor (British helmets were about identical to those worn by English archers a millennium before), melee weapons like clubs and maces (it's been said that the weapon that killed the most men in the trenches was the common shovel), and grenades, to name a few. Shotguns (especially popular among American troops) began to see use in the trenches, as well (in fact, it was common for European troops to summarily execute POWs wielding shotguns, which was an interesting case of values dissonance between Americans and the Central Powers - Americans were used to using shotguns to protect stagecoaches from bandits, while in Europe, shotguns were used for hunting game animals. You can see why Europeans would take issue in this regard).

    As a corollary to Conjunction, perhaps at some point in the conflict someone realizes the vulnerability of laser PD systems and discovers a solution in 21st century weapons like the SeaRam or SA-N-9 Gauntlet guided missile CIWS.

  2. Part of every missile salvo will include anti missile-missiles and laser sats that attack both missiles and the lasers on larger craft. More about that in later Articles. Your points, as always, are very well thought out and useful.
    I like the allusion to WWI...It's actually easier, in my opinion, to write this as the first interplanetary war, because when I make the inevitable mistake in tactics and technology, the setting won't have been using my stupid ideas for decades!

  3. Do you intend to use laser protections? I remember reading something in the comments (and on Atomic Rocket) about protective grids, including grid drones at a distance to have a permanent protection against one target. Atomic Rockets also evokes damage-resistant optics using diffraction.
    Though I can see them develop it during the war, after a "How didn't we think about that decades ago?" moment - which has precedents in history.

    Having it being the first interstellar war even makes it potentially more interesting as they scramble to adapt doctrines and hardware after it is really tested for the first time.
    Though Struggle, the Stars does it pretty well IMHO, making clear that everything about space combat is untested, and that a major interstellar war is considered unlikely (as in, WWI-unlikely) - later, the main offender being explained in the sequel as "someone though it was too dangerous" before field experience proved the alternative worse.
    OTOH it is one of my gripes with Honor Harrington to take centuries of space warfare, several year of total war and several books to come up with something as simple as a missile pod, a multi-stage missile or a spinal-armed, forward-shielded craft.

    So that's indeed a good idea as early mistakes may be later retconned as a dastardly, deliberate plan from the author to add believability and tensions. And it can be deliberately used in a dastardly plan to add believability and tensions.

    Thank you for your great work btw. I became aware of your blog through Atomic Rocket and read it with much interest since.


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