Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Space Combat: A Case for Smaller Spacecraft?

NOT Practical.

Space Combat in The Black Desert: A Case for Smaller Spacecraft?

         One of the distinguishing features of realistic, Newtonian space combat is that small spacecraft in general and “space fighters” in particular are not practical. This has to do with available -v; the measure of how much a spacecraft can change it's velocity. Simply put, because there isn't any friction in space, you must burn just as much propellant slowing down as you do speeding up in the first place. This means that the spacecraft with the largest engines and prop-tanks can accelerate the fastest and move around the most. Needless to say, this means that small, one man fighters are worse than useless; they are slower than the big boys, have a far shorter effective range, and carry much smaller and weaker payloads. Better to build big ships, with a huge amount of smaller missiles and UCAVs, than to make small rockets.

        That being said...

       One of my favorite Naval ship classes is the lowly Destroyer Escort. The tiny DEs, too small and slow to keep up with the fleet, were under-gunned and built as a stop-gap ship that was pressed into service to escort convoys across the Atlantic and then were pressed into service to bulk up the Pacific fleet buring the island-hopping offensive against the Empire of Japan. Despite being slow and toothless compared to full-fledged destroyers, there were actually better than any other ship in the fleet at anti-submarine warfare, thanks to their impossibly tight turning radius. If you don't know anything about these “tin cans” and their contribution to the American Navy during WWII, I suggest reading Last Stand of the TinCan Sailors and looking at the website of the USS Slater museum, one of only two extant DEs remaining in the world.

1,200 Tons of AWESOME
       What do these two disparate paragraphs have to do with each other? It occurred to me that stop-gap measures was a legitimate, justifiable reason for making smaller spacecraft in a SF setting, even when we all know that the big ships are better. Like the DE, which Navy planners knew to be an inferior craft compared to the fleet destroyer, a small, “Escort IPV” would be an impractical design on paper but could nonetheless exist because it was cheaper, faster to build, and required less trained personnel to crew.

       The way I see it, while big ships in space are faster, they cannot be in two places at once. In addition, their very size makes it impractical to build very many of them. To use a present day analogy, the aircraft carrier, the largest and most expensive Naval vessels in the world, are only present in large numbers in the US fleets, and then there are less than twenty. We in the States have sacrificed health and social services for seventy years, since the end of WWII in order to secure that advantage, and as it is were are now so massively in debt from it that the prospect of another economic Great Depression is more “when” than “if”.

       Back to the game: Given that the US in BD in the time of the Great War just finished building a Space Elevator, the most expensive public works project in history, you can see that building dozens of large IPVs is probably beyond them. Brazil in The Black Desert had the means and the will to build a couple of dozen, and the US was forced to respond. After the Turing Fallacy Revolt, when the US lost a big portion of its space fleets after their AI deserted, The US needed to make more IPVs fast, and didn't have a lot of available resources to do it.

       Let's also look at the missions that IPVs are expected to perform. As I'vementioned before, IPVs currently come in two varieties: Missile and Tactical Craft.
       A missile craft's primary mission is resource denial in the Deep Space Theater. They move into the orbits of Asteroid outposts, and by the very presence of their payloads of hundreds of kinetic kill missiles, they can force a settlement to capitulate of face thirty or so years of isolation thanks to Kessler's Syndrome. The missile craft also carry Espatiers I order to land and occupy these small worlds, in order to secure their resources for their goverments.

Tactical Craft Concept.
      Tactical craft exist to hunt down and kill missile craft. Their primary payload is a squadron of drone rockets (plus one command and control craft) that are armed not only with KKMs, but Fusion Torches, which are the only effective weapon against an IPVs magnetic sails. Because they carry twelve orbiters, they can also be used for invasion and assault against asteroids.
       So, what could a smaller IPV be used for? First of all, an “escort IPV” could be built in larger numbers, which means that it would be easier to respond to tactical hot spots all over the Inner System. They would require only the smallest of crews, which means that they are easier to staff. In addition, IPV-Es could be used as training craft, taking Astronaut Candidates on their missions in an effort to give green crews much needed experience.
       These are just the financial advantages. The question remains, of course: Is a small Interplanetary spacecraft is even worth building? There is no question that these pony craft would be less effective than the larger ships of the fleet, but could they even do the mission of their larger cousins well enough to be a viable asset? We'll discuss that in more detail tomorrow, RocketFans!


  1. I encountered a similar problem with justifying space fighters in my own setting. What I eventually decided on was this:

    Everyone who is not the militaries of Earth or Mars are stuck with the Karibachi space fighter. It's a refit of the ubiquitous Mitsubachi space construction pod, replacing the manipulator arms with a pair of 1kg (the mass of the projectile) railguns, and the economical steam thrusters with high-performance plasma engines. The reason for this was originally a form of defense against raiders, but the Mars colonies put them to use against the invasion force of the Earth Federation during their fight for independence.

    The Mars Colonial Defense Force (and the army of privateers that work for them) utilizes two different fighter types: the Senshi and the Bushi. The Senshi is a remote-control drone that, while it can be piloted remotely, has an onboard near-AI smart enough to take a variety of pre-programmed orders and adapt them to fit the situation at hand. Because there is no human pilot aboard, it is regarded as expendable if necessary. The Bushi is a 2-seater command craft designed to control a group of Senshi should they need to operate beyond the optimal range limit from a base or a carrier. Both craft are capable of operating in an atmosphere, although they would have difficulty flying in an Earth-normal atmosphere due to more emphasis on thruster size than wingspan.

    As for the Earth Forces, they likewise use two fighter types, although calling one of them a "fighter" is a bit of a misnomer. The SB-18 Falcon is referred to as a "lancer;" a 2-seater craft mounting the largest laser it can carry. Its purpose is to engage and destroy larger warships, although more through crippling critical systems rather than actually blowing them apart. The F-501 Kestrel is peculiar in that it is designed primarily as a fighter plane, but has space maneuver capability due to its RCS thruster packs (every other example above has an engine system designed to be able to provide equal thrust in just about every direction), and has a truly insane forward thrust capacity due to its microfusion reactor (smallest of its kind, and still the size of a 4-door automobile) and compound plasma engines. Its design was intended to circumvent the ban on orbital bombardment imposed by the Sagittarius Accord, being intended to launch from a carrier, enter the upper atmosphere, strike at its target from high altitude and then boost back to orbit to be recovered by its carrier. Its biggest flaw is that it's still fundamentally an airplane, with all the mass distribution issues that brings.

    In the case of the lesser colonies, space fighters are essentially their only means of defense; spaceships are expensive to build and maintain, but when they're no longer needed they can swap out the guns for the arms again and return them to their original purpose.

    In the case of Mars and Earth, it's more for the advantage of force projection; carriers are more commonly employed in cluttered areas of space such as space colony clusters and the orbital space of a planet, moon or asteroid; anywhere where there is a horizon to get in the way of detecting the enemy. The Earth Forces take this one step further and use fighter piloting as training for command; a commander has to know how to make the best use of his ship's resources, and what better way to teach him how to do that than to start him with the limited capabilities of a space fighter? Additionally, fighter pilots just look really good on propaganda posters.

  2. No pics yet, but you can see a Mitsubachi Mk. 1 in action starting from here. Kestrel, Senshi and fighter pilot propaganda pics to come in the next two chapters.


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