Friday, June 5, 2015

Space Combat in Conjunction: How "Fleets" Work

Here we are with what is probably the final installment of this particular series.  When last we met on this topic, We came up with a few types of spacecraft to perform the missions needed in policing the solar system, and made sure that these craft fit in with our basic assumptions about how space combat will work. To recap, these are:

Central Control Craft: They contain the majority of the crew accommodation, the fleet reserve of propellant, large nuclear engines, docking and repair facilities for patrol craft, landers and gunships, magazines of kinetic missiles and laser sats, and of course the central control facilities.

Patrol Cutters/ Gunships: These rockets extend the command and control range over the missiles an extra light-second, transport troops and gunships if needed, and have lasers for defense of themselves and the Control Craft. Gunships do the same thing, just not as well, and they can only carry missiles OR troops OR a laser.

Laserstar: Automated, nuclear powered, BFG.  Used to protect the Control Craft by vaporizing anything that gets too close.

Supertanker: Basically, an iceberg with a nuclear engine at one end and electrolyzers at the other.  Keeps the tanks topped off for the other ships.

The central thrust (pun!) of this article is how all of these spacecraft work as a whole.

First of all, we must once again stress that space is a unique environment. There are a lot of common misconceptions about how space travel works, and many of the realities of space travel are sort of non-intuitive.  For one thing, the range of engagement is ridiculous:  even restricting the range to a single light-second, as we do for Conjunction, puts the sweet spot at a distance equal to that from Earth to the Moon. Even more ridiculous are the distances between planets.  It takes our theoretical Central Control Craft two years to get from Earth to the combat theater, and only ships of that size can make the trip unassisted.  Speeds needed to get to where you're going are high enough to make marshmallows lethal projectiles, and no matter how fast you're going, you can't outrun light.  As in lasers.


Rick Robinson posited the idea once that future space "fleets" would more likely resemble a series of networked fortifications more so than a surface fleet.  I happened to like that idea so I stole used it as inspiration for how the fleets in Conjunction would work.  At the same time, my own work about the difference between orbital space and interplanetary space illustrates how spacecraft in different areas of space have different requirements.  By looking at all of these factors, some useful ideas begin to emerge.

Fist of all, there is a fundamental division in our fleet's constellation's operations that will define all other factors:  Strategic Operations and Tactical Operations.  Strategic operations involve moving the constellation between planets, from a shipyard to their patrol station, and from their patrol station to a hot zone, if need be. Tactical operations are what happens when the constellation is actually performing its missions of patrol, SAR, quarantine, blockade, and if need be, combat.

For those who haven't studied naval history too closely, combat is usually the last thing a fleet is supposed to do, and it's doubtful that space constellations will be any different.  The primary function of any large collection of  craft, be they sea- air- or space-, is to say "You're going to do things my way."  with varying degrees of politeness and volume.  Only the loudest and rudest of methods involve combat action.  But I digress.

A strategically operating constellation will only have three spacecraft in play, if that:  The CCC, the Laserstar, and the Tanker.  The CCC is the primary unit of a constellation - its headquarters, logistical system, and transport system all rolled into one  All chemically powered craft, from the tiniest missile to the uprated Class B Patrol rockets, are merely cargo at this point.  The Tanker is only needed if speed is a factor, and the Laserstar will only be sent if there is a reasonable expectation of shenanigans at the other end of the trip.  Now remember RocketFans, The speeds required for interplanetary travel mean a strategically operating constellation cannot tactically maneuver.  Even if these nuclear ships used the full force of their main drives, they would only be able to change course by a few degrees before contact if attacked while in transit.  Of course, given the lack of  shipping lanes in space, and the inability to hide drive emissions in any way, our constellation would see an attack coming the moment it was launched, minus what ever speed-of-light lag there happens to be.  This gives the strategically operating constellation a choice- they can gently move away, or commit to action with all the time in the world to prepare. Likewise, if there is a constellation opposing our side at the end of the strategic movement, they too can easily change vectors and escape or use the time to prepare. This is why combat engagements are so often in orbital space or at a max range of one light-second, remember?

When the target orbit is reached, the constellation transforms.  The CCC deploys its carried Patrol Craft and missiles. These elements then spread out, using their minuscule Delta-V to get into position and stay there.  The important thing, possibly the most important thing to remember about this deployment is that once a fleet begins tactical operations, it can no longer strategically maneuver.   Not without abandoning it's carried craft, it's missiles and half of its crew.   The space forces in the area, in fact, no longer exist as a constellation the way we normally understand it - it is now that "networked fortification" Rick Robinson mentioned.  The analogies of a castle are better suited to the tactically operating constellation than the naval model is - the CCC is the central keep, the Patrol Craft are the bastion towers of a star fort, the missiles are the cannonades, and all structures are protected by curtain walls of laser light.

But what does our castle look like, floating in space?

Imagine a tetrahedron 300 thousand kilometers on a side.  At the vertices of the tetrahedron are patrol craft, which used as much as half of their Delta-V to get into position.  This will of course depend on how fast they had travel-the more time they have to get to their assigned coordinates, the more propellant reserve they have for tactical maneuvers.

In between each of the vertices of our light-second tetrahedron are clouds of kinetic kill missiles.  These are deployed as economically as possible, as soon as possible.  Perhaps the individual missiles have drop tanks, or are staged, or are beamed into position via laser preclusion- the point is that they must have the absolute maximum Delta-V available or they aren't worth deploying at all.  The distribution of missiles, along what vectors in what concentrations, are where the Mission Commanders earn their pay.  If you know exactly what vector an enemy will attack from, naturally you'd put all of your missiles on an intercepting vector.  The enemy, whomever they may be,  is rarely so accommodating.

The Central Control Craft  floats in the center of the tetrahedron, equidistant to all missile clouds, and uniformly distant from all patrol craft.  If this is a standard patrol or blockade, it floats alone.  If the constellation travelled at flank speed from the Inner System, there is a Tanker in evidence.  If the constellation is invading or entering combat with malice aforethought, there will be a flotilla of Patrol Craft to put more light down-range - if available, there will be a Laserstar.

The reason for this configuration is to insure continuity of command communications for the clouds of KKVs.  Each deployed cloud of missiles is within a light-second's range of no less than two manned spacecraft; the CCC, a patrol rocket, or a combination thereof.  Variations on this central theme are certainly possible - there could be a second layer of missiles closer to the CCC, another ring of Patrol craft further out - whatever. The point is to have all approaches covered by missiles that are within one second of launch at any given moment.

Keep in mind, RocketFans, that this is an enormous formation.  The Earth and Moon both can be effectively patrolled by a constellation like the one described above.  Jupiter and Saturn would require more rockets and clouds for total coverage, but suitably fast orbits could keep at least a quarter of the even those giants under a constellation's cross hairs at any given moment, with any point in their respective sub-systems only an hour or two from being under fire, if that.

So, that is our castle, RocketFans, our networked fortification of manned rockets, monstrous mobile logistics stations, and endless swarms of killer missiles.  Mostly, all the ships in the proverbial fleet will float peacefully, stationary relative to one another, with the small cygnus rockets transferring the Blue and White crews for a fraction of the Delta-V needed to move one of the Class-A rockets, or moving maintenance crews from missile cloud to missile cloud, fixing station keeping thrusters, or checking propellant reserves, or what have you.  The Crew on the CCC will be training, cross-training, or performing the endless maintenance a spin hab needs, which is an effective sort of damage control training all its own.  I imagine a patrol like this will get pretty boring.

Until, of course, it isn't...

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