A Blog Devoted to Exploring and Explaining the World of Military Science Fiction.
04 July 2012
FWS Topics: Space Combat Weaponry
FWS apologizes for the delay in updating the blog, but this is the SECOND time I've written this blogpost, and I hope that it goes better this time! Anyway, most mainstream sci-fi feature space warfare between starships in a fashion popularized by Star Wars and Star Trek . However, often these warships only mount two weapons (Starfleet anyone?), one being some form of directed energy weapon and the other is a missile or torpedo system. This seems unrealistic to me, especially since when compared to the USS Sulaco from ALIENS, the Andromeda Ascent from Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda.These space-going warships are armed with a variety of weapon offensive and defensive systems, giving their captains greater tactical options that fire phasers or launch torpedoes. To counter this limitation of armament imagination FWS has written an extensive list on the subject and if I've missed any, please comment below and let me know!
Kinetic Energy Projectiles
During my writing of this blogpost, Seinfeld came on, and Jerry was talking about Drake's Coffee Cake, and he said: "Yep, that's your big boy". That got me to thinking, Gauss, chemically propelled, and Railgun are all examples of the 'big boy' of offensive spaceship armaments, kinetic energy weapons. Factors that limit the lethality of DEW systems, dwelling time, the size of the heat radiators, and hull armor do not effect KEW systems in the same way. What KEW projectiles can do, is when and if they make contact with the hull of the enemy starships, they tear the utter shit out of it. No amount of armor could be layered on a warship to defeat against an incoming magnetically propelled projectile, but the firing vessel would have to hit their enemy. KEW projectiles do not move at light speed, and given the distance that ship-to-ship engagements would be waged (think Earth-to-the-Moon), the opposition warship would have time to avoid the incoming metal, or melt it with a point-defense laser beam due to the dwelling time. But, when it comes to THE ship-killer in space warfare, as one of my friends who I consult with, David said: "Mass is the thing in space combat."
High Engery Laser
Throughout most of the history of science fiction, space going warship have exchanged laser beams, from the heat rays of the Martians, to Buck Rogers' raygun, and the Phaser arrays of the Enterprise-D. Unlike many spaceborne weapon systems depicted in sci-fi, high energy laser beam emitters will be used by future combat spaceships. But, will they slice into enemy vessels like on Babylon 5? The main issues with HE laser beams is dwelling time, and this was one of the main issues that the US government during the SDI days. Laser beams need to be held on target (dwelling time), to burn through the skin of the target, requiring distance, stability of the firing vessel, and ability of the firing vessel to dump the heat buildup.
To lessen dwelling time, one might pump up the power output of the laser emitter, but this also would pump up the heat generated, and the need for bigger heat radiators. Bigger heat radiators translate as bigger bull-eyes for an enemy vessel to zap their laser emitters at. Unlike KEW, laser DEW system can be countered via aerogel layers, cooling systems, ablative armor, and moving the beam around, not allowing it to settle. I can see a day when the defenses against HE laser beams could out strip the warship's ability to dump the waste heat generated. To overcome a defense, a warship would dial up the output of the beam, however, like I said above, that only increased the heat radiators size.
Sandcaster (AKA: the Kitty Litter Space Shotgun!)
In the Traveller RPG, warship throw up clouds of granulated material to form a shield, but because of an article on Atomic Rockets, I thought this might be used as a offensive armament. The article on Atomic Rockets talked about a space pilot being jumped by a raider, and to defeat the rail, he dumps his cat's litterbox. This acts has a kinetic weapon, impacting the hostile ship with thousands of buckshot, hence Kitty Litter Space Shotgun! The issue with the KLSS is that it would have to be used close or in a chase situation, and that many kinetic projectiles running around the field of battle is a danger to the enemy as well as your friends.
In modern naval warfare, the traditional cannon has been replaced with missiles, and it seems that these would translate well in the soundless void. Not so much...While missiles generate no heat for the firing spaceship, most explosive we know about do not work in space. Bummer. But, missiles or torpedoes do offer the room to allow an smart A.I. controlled delivery system to snake past the target vessel's defense grid. With the lack of explosive package available to a starship captain, missiles/torpedoes would be something different than TV has shown us. A two-stage warhead equipped missiles could be used, one would be used to crack the hull armor, and the other inject lethal gases or biological agents, or even plasma into the interior of the ship, targeting the crew. even cluster missiles, with smaller, rocket-propelled KE projectiles, showering the target vessel with dozens of rods. Another use mentioned on Atomic Rockets website, is rocket-propelled single shot Gauss Guns. Distance in ship-to-ship combat allows for the use of countermeasures, a rocket engine would close the gap, lessening the chance of being shot-down.
During a recent blogpost, FWS talked about the fearsome endoatmospheric nuclear weapon, being more toothless in arena of space combat. This does not mean that nukes would be useful if you could get the nuclear device within one kilometer of the hostile warship's hull. But one kilometer is very, very close in the realm of space combat, like someone sharing your underwear close. If a nuclear torpedo could detonate within one kilometer of the hull, it would do some serious damage via a giant blast of x-rays and shock effect. With the prolixity needs for effective usage of nukes in space, there be a case for nuclear space mines.
For much of the history of naval combat, sailors taking the fight onboard the ship was commonplace, especially during the piracy of the 18th century. For much of more modern naval warfare of this century, ship boarding is not common, unless you're a Somali pirate, of course. Naval personnel today, like the SEALs and Coast Guard preform VBSS operations, on ship running drugs, breaking blockades, and oil rigs. Space Marines and hostile alien boarding parties are common in sci-fi, from the 1970's Anime Starblazers to Star Trek: Enterprise to HALO: Reach, but would it really work in space combat? Starfleet and the Imperium of Man both have teleporter technology, allowing them to instantly bridge the gap between the two ships, but in reality, boarding marine or stormtrooper parties would be crossing the soundless void in shuttles. This gives the hostile vessel time to shoot them to pieces. There could be a use for armed boarding parties if there is something of value on the enemy ship, or the ship itself is of value, like the Jumpships of the Battletech universe
Since most of sci-fi spaceship combat is based on current naval tactics, and mines have been used for centuries, causing sci-fi creators to incorporate them into space combat. And it would seem that mine warfare would be a logical offensive tool of space warfare. But the issue is that there is no magically cloaking system to hid the mines, and since most explosives do not work in space, it limits the mines ability to scare off space pirates or hostile aliens bent on making Terra a beef jerky factory. The closest thing to mines in hard-science space warfare would be automated weapons platforms in sensitive areas or for orbital defense.
Any spacefaring warship, like current state-of-the-art naval warships, they are depend on computers and accessing networks, this would give any enemy a change to hack the opposing starship, getting the 'soft-kill'. It is no secret that cyber-warfare is the next big idea in low-intensity warfare, and could be used as a possible prelude to invasion, like we saw in the 2005 War of Worlds, ID4, or the upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops II.
Inflecting a starship with an attack virus could bring down a ship without firing a shot, allowing their ship to be the enemy, leaving them exposed for capture or termination. These attack virus could be very specific, much like the recent NSA attack virus that hit the Iranian Nuclear Program, were it takes out life support, the gun port doors, or sends the fusion generator into critical. This offensive cyber-warfare would be a human-only tool of space warfare, alien and human computer would not match in any way, shape, or form....sorry, Jeff, your Mac wouldn't work.
According to Atomic Rockets, if you mix one gram of Hydrogen and one gram of Anti-Hydrogen, you will get an explosion on the order of 43 kilotons, about the same as the Trident Nuclear missile or 3x the blast of Hiroshima. It seems logically that M/AM explosive would be stupid powerful, much what Star Trek has shown us throughout the years, but the issue is with efficiency storage,and cost. The US Air Force looked at M/AM weapons, but the issue was with cost (AM is the most expensive material on Earth), and science at this time cannot gather enough of it high enough density for weaponized anti-matter. Then there is storing AM so that it will not come into any contact with any normal matter.
This would require EM fields in a near prefect vacuum, or even at sub-kelvin temperates with all means power and money to create these with a balancing act, hard to do a military-grade weapon system. Also to be weapons-grade, the violent reaction between M/AM to have as close to 100% efficiency, where every atom of matter/anti-matter reaction and not fly off into space when the photon torpedo strikes the Klingon Bird-of-Prey's shields. Then we move to cost and production, according to Wikipedia, it would CERN two billion years to manufacture half a gram of AM, just enough to replicate the blast-yield of Hiroshima's Little Boy Atomic bomb.In terms of cost, Antimatter the most expensive materials in the world, partly because production requires a particle accelerator, and according to NASA, one milligram of the stuff costs $100 billion! Some sci-fi works show antimatter particles being used in a laser-blaster cannon system, like the antiproton DEW heavy particle cannons of Andromeda and Star Trek; Deep Space 9. There is little on AM heavy particle beam weapons, Atomic Rockets says simple that it is a waste of good AM. I would guess that a beam DEW would fire a stream of AM particles at a target, hoping for it come into contact with matter to result in explosion.
All of these factors, limit, I think the future of Antimatter in space for propulsion not warfare, after all, an kinetic projectile is cheaper and more effective. Sorry, Star Trek.
Here is a link:
Plasma DE weapons have been used in science fiction, and were the primary offensive armament for the Covenant forces in the HALO universe. As depicted, plasma is normally a beam or bolt of hazy bluish energy made up of ionized hydrogen encased in EM sabots that does extreme damage via thermal energy. The issues is that plasma weaponry is more fitted to be a futuristic wielding touch or flamethrower than DEW system. There could be a use for plasma as the explosive warhead encased a polymer capsule, which would break once it impacted on a target, but not a traditional beam DEW system.
Planet-Killer Super Weapons
As TVTROPES said about the Wave Motion Gun: "When you absolutely, positively gotta kil every motherfucker in the galaxy, accept no substitutes", and in sci-fi works, super-uber weapons are very common, like the Wave Motion Gun of Starblazers, the Super-Laser of the Death Star, and the Reflex Cannon from the ROBOTECH universe, but could you really blow up a planet? Well, that all depends if you have your own star to hook your uber-laser to. The power was used to transform Alderaan into tortilla chips was 2.9 x 1031, constituting the need for the Empire to build a Dyson Sphere like structure, and be a Level-II civilization on the Kardashev Scale to engineer it (from the Atomic Rockets Boom Table). The major technical issue of a space station that is fires these planet-killing uber beams that vaporize whole planets, is waste heat generated. If a Dyson's Sphere is need for the levels of power needed, than the heat radiators would be vast, stretching out several AUs.
The real question if you were a Level-II civilization would you need to build a planet-killer to keep your imperial worlds in line? Most likely not, especially if you had portal technology, like the Iconians from Star Trek. for most normal sci-fi races involved in space combat, rods-from-god or even good old fashioned nukes would be more effective, cheaper, and no heat to dump. Plus, you could use the planet for other uses that space dust. Now, uber-beam weapons seen in Starblazers and ROBOTECH that destory spaceships faster than blow touching a snowball would be very wasteful on power, high in heat, and could not be that effective for their intended use. I mean, what if you missed, or the target ship avoided that incoming death-beam? One of the primary drawbacks with super beam weapons is what we have seen with the Yamato, there is a recharge time that could leave the firing vessel's pants down while the enemy mounts a counterstrike.
Relativistic Kill Vehicle
This main stand of sci-fi weapon system is the 'having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too' of spaceborne offensive weapon system. Relativistic Kill Vehicle (RKV) move at near or above light speed like a DEW, has the destructive capability of a KEW, and the fear of a Super Weapon. An RKV is an kinetic penetrator that moves at some percent of light-speed, and have been treated in science fiction as something akin to a weapon that can create an extinction level event, as it was used in the book the Killing Star,and why they were banned in the Honor Harrington universe.Some of the examples of RKV moved at 1% of light-speed, such as in the Mass Effect shipboard weaponry, or 40% with the MAC stations in HALO 2. In the realm of space combat, RKV could be a reality, it just depends on how you accelerate the projectile at it relativistic speed, with magnetic coils, or different rocket systems (Anti-Matter or NERV), or Bussard ramjets. Given the expensive of an RKV, much like nuclear weapons today, they be used against more stationary targets (planets) and only at the most desperate tactical situation. RKV cannot charge their direction, and any warship worth its heat radiators, would mount a serious sensory system, fully capable of detecting power-buildup for an RKV launch.
One underused DEW system is the neutral particle beam (NPB) that damages its target with kinetic and thermal damage, making less dwelling time, unlike the HE laser emitters. However, unlike HE lasers, NPB are short range, around 10,000 kilometers and are not light speed fast (but close). NPB can be used to fry electronics of a hostile warship at a greater range, about 100,000 kilometers, making these DEW system both a 'hard' and 'soft' kill weapon system, and could be powered via deuterium. What is stopping NPB from being deployed is that NPB are basically particle accelerators, much like the CERN, and they require massive amounts of energy, on the order of nearing a gigawatt of juice, but you could see an NPB as a 'pulse' weapon easier than a HE laser emitter.
First appearing in Arthur C. Clarke's 1955 Earthlight novel as the Stiletto beam, reappearing in Mass Effect 2 as the reversed engineered Thanix cannon by the Turins from Soveregin and later mounted on the second Normandy. This weapon, the Magneto Hydrodynamic Explosive Munition (MHEM) is being worked on by DARPA to develop a jet of self-forming projectiles (SFP) being fired at a target. We've seen these used against our own troops in Iraq via shaped-charge IEDs.
In the Mass Effect universe, the Thanix cannons use element zero powered core to form an massive EM field to suspend a lethal mix of liquid iron, uranium, and tungsten allies that form SFPs on a biblical scale. This ramrod of metal is pushed at near relativistic speeds, causing critical damage to the target via kinetic and thermal damage.
Fire Ship (RAMMING SPEED!)
When the shields are down, weapons gone, and the enemy is still advancing, there is one more final opinion give'em a taste of the divine wind! Using your own vessel as a massive kinetic projectile is the action of a desperate last-ditch effort to kill your enemy at all cost. Another use of a dead-in-the-water warship would be to act as a fire-ship. A wounded vessel would propel itself to the enemy lines, and set the fusion power-plant to critical, showering the enemy warships nearly by with shrapnel from the explosion.
Since World War II, fighters and bombers launched from sea-going carriers are the offensive weapon of modern naval warfare. Given the uber-cool nature of attack jet fighter pilots, science fiction, particularly, George Lucas, made them a core concept of space warfare. It seem that you cannot have space warships without the space fighter. The sad truth is that space fighters are not true hard science, they are too lightly armored to often any protection, too small power systems to pose a threat to a enemy space cruiser, and at most, a space fighter (or lancer) would be akin to a WWII naval torpedo bomber armed with a kinetic projectile. These space dive bombers, that could be piloted by AI, would use their Delta-Vee ability to avoid incoming fire, then fire their ordnance at the warship, then peel-out using their Delta-Vee. No word if these space lancer pilots would wear leather jackets, though.
During World War II to modern naval combat, naval warships filled the sky with lead and flak from rapid-fire cannons, artillery shells, and machines in batteries to intercept incoming fighters. In the 1970's Anime Space Cruiser Yamato (AKA: Starblazers), the sides of the great Earth battlecruiser were lined with batteries of AAA pulse laser cannons that were under computer control and tasked with taking out incoming space bombers and missiles. This was also the task of the KE AAA/point defense cannons onboard the Galactica and Pegasus that also worked injunction with their main battery cannons, to lay down a flak/KE projectile screen preventing a dirty Cylon raider or boarding crew from getting close. These AAA KE batteries would be a blunt countermeasure, while the point-defense lasers would be more precise, targeting specific incoming threats. The issue with the AAA artillery is that you would be filling local space with KE rounds, and they could pose a threat to your own allies or space fighters.
Most of the time, we think of hull armor as a static piece of metal and composite that acts only when the AAA and energy shields fail. To most of us raised in the Star Trek/Star Wars generation, we equal defense in space combat to the handwave energy shield barrier, however, I happened to see Starblazers, and the Argo have no energy shields, but thick hull armor protecting the ship, and teams of repair crews. This made me question scenes were the Enterprise-D being taking out by an old Bird-of-Prey just because the shields were down. But, now when we examine space combat in a hard-science POV, hull armor can only do so much after DEW threats, and little little if anything against KEW. It needs help from nano-layers that hardened, much like the polarized hull plating of Star Trek: Enterprise, aerogel, ablative effects, and possibly power absorption panels for use with DEW beams (suggested by David, one of FWS's consults).
I see hull armor on more realistically designed ships (like the one above) defending the 'spine' of the vessel that connect it to the drive section, because the front of the vessel would be protected by a Whipple Shield. An enemy warship would aim their offensive weaponry at sides of the vessel.
In order to protect these sections, I can imagine Spanish roof titles like armor plates lining the space between the threat and the spaceship, making them easily replicable after combat. these Spanish armor plates would more than static sheets of composite and metal, but having layer of nano-fiber that hardens when activated (like in Crysis), aerogel for cooling against DEW strikes, movement, to avoid a DEW beam from settling. Aiding the armor would be other defensive armaments, like point-defense lasers.
The first time I heard of ablative armor was in Star Trek:DS9, and from the technical manual on the Defiant, its ablative armor works in two ways. First, the layer of armor boils away at a controlled rate when a DEW beam makes contact, which leds to the secondary method it defends the starships. The boiled off particles of armor form a cloud of particles that shield a portion of the ship's hull from impact. In hard science terms, the first method of defense is the way ablative armor is used for real-world space vehicle reentry protection. Ablative armor features would be used on any space combat vessel that paired off with hostiles using DEW systems. The issue with ablative armor is once its gone, its gone, and it will be up to your repair crews to replace the panels.
When it comes to realistic ship-to-ship combat, it would in the best interest of the ships to knock as much incoming ordnance as possible, because, at present we don't have any energy shielding. That is were interceptors come into play. Some of the defensive armament mentioned here could be to intercept incoming fire, but interceptors are more of dedicated system than using laser emitters or missiles. The basic design of interceptors comes from the defense grid mounted on the Babylon 5 station. During several episodes, B5 and other Earth Alliance vessels firing fast moving bolts at inbound fire, and to over come this, the enemy warships often increase their fire output, dropping the effectiveness of the interceptors. A combat starship could use rapid-fire Gauss guns to knock incoming fire which would require one hell of a sensor system and fire control AI program.
Space combat drones could be the first line defense against a bushwhack situation from a missile launch from the surface or in an asteroid belt. These unmanned drones have been seen orbiting spaceships, like the Andromeda Ascendant, and use their mass to intercept incoming fire. In the Andromeda series, the drones are controlled via the ship's amazing (and sexy) AI. In the Peter F. Hamiliton Night's Dawn series, his space combat vessels use 'combat wasps' drones, which normally carries 30 of these fully independent weapons platforms. This is smart when you think about it, armed drones that operate independently from the mother ship cause the enemy to divide their fire between the drones and the mother ship
Here is a link:
In the 1984 film, 2010: the year we make contact, the USSR Alexei Leonov depolys balloon shields to protect the ship while preforming an aero-braking operation around Jupiter. NASA using balloon shields (AKA Airbags) to protect the Mars Rovers from a brutal surface landing, and NASA is looking at these for replacing the thermal title reentry protection system. These balloon shields could be deployed the moment a warship entered a hostile situation much like a cat puffing up before the fight ensues, and could take the impact of a DEW or missile strike. The great thing about the balloon shields, is not only could they be used in conjunction with other defensive systems, but it would also be cheaper to store replace balloons than armor panels. I am not such about the protective factor of the balloon shields, but if they can protect a space vehicle against the horrors of reentry, than they should be able to protect against a phaser beam.
Decoys have been used in combat, hunting, and in the old Total Recall film, and it appears sometimes sci-fi works for use of in space combat. On several occasions, the USS Enterprise faked it's warp signature to fool their enemy. But the earliest example I can remember was in episode 11 of original Starblazers the Quest to Iscander series, when the Argo deployed a balloon Argo dummy to fool the Desslok mine field, and this was the first examples of a decoys in space sci-fi combat. Although this example is laughable, but could it really work to fool an enemy vessel? Atomic Rockets says that a realistic decoy that could fool an enemy would be another ship, due to complexity. An decoy starship would need to emit the same level of heat, radiation, which translate to a powerplant equal to the mother ship. Atomic Rockets also brings up that the exhaust plume of the decoy would have to equal the mother ship or the jig would be up. Simply put, decoys do not work in a hard science space battle, if discovered, the ship would be better of hiding in an asteroid belt or slipping into commercial shipping lanes.
Space Fighter Screen
In Babylon 5 and the new Battlestar Galactica, we see litters of space fighters acting as a screen against incoming fire, much like the space drones discuss above. Space fighters could be used to defend their carrier against incoming missiles, boarding ships, and even kinetic energy projectiles. But, I have to say, not many pilots would be keen on becoming kamikazes when there are unmanned drones that could do the job. Also, having a great deal of space fighters hanging out in space when their carrier is pumping out KE projectiles from their AAA batteries could result in blue-on-blue fire.
Point-Defense High Energy Lasers
In real hard science space combat, there is no sheath, no energy shields, and if a kinetic rounds hits you, than you are fucked for the most part. But this is were taking out the threat thousands of kilometers out is critical to your survival. That role of saving the collective asses of everyone onboard ship, would fall on the point defense HE laser emitters. Point defense cannons are used on today's combat naval vessels with the Phalanx CIWS that fires 20x120mm tungsten sabots via a six-barrel electric Gatling cannon. But, this KEW system is being planned to be replaced with a deuterium fluoride laser that has been tested against smaller swift boats, and the US Army tested the THEL that could be used in a FOB to defend against incoming shells.
In 2000-2001, this deuterium fluoride chemical laser was about to shot down incoming mortar shells, and could be hauled to the battlefield via a HUMMV. What is interesting to me is that battlefield lasers used to be pure fantasy when I was a kid, because the only laser I saw came with my Flash GI Joe figure. In the realm of space warfare, Lasers have the speed, moving at the speed of light, to met the target threat just have the KE projectile or missile has left the launcher, giving the point defense laser maximum dwelling time. These point-defense emitters would be tasked with defending the critical areas of the ship, and unitize advanced sensors and computer control system.
In the Traveller RPG, sandcaster shields are used to counter incoming HE laser beams by flooding space with dense clouds of granular material. However, Atomic Rockets calls bullshit on the sandcaster kitty-litter shields, due to their inability to produce a dense enough cloud. These could be used for a counter incoming kinetic munitions, or even space fighters/lancers in a interceptor role. The downside of the Sancaster shields is that you are flooding local space with particles that pose a threat to friendlies as well as the enemy, and could even block or disrupt your out going fire.
Attacking a hostile warship's computer control systems seems like a logic offensive option, but how can attack virus be a defensive method? An attack virus could lock down an enemy's weapon system, not allowing Gauss coils from not charging, or preventing the laser lense covers from opening. Cyber-warfare operators onboard ship could hack into incoming AI missile control system, or an space fighter's flight systems, making it impossible for them to reach your ship.
In my novel Endangered Species, to blind the alien warship, the American vessels uses nuclear missiles to bath the alien ship in radiation and x-rays. This could a defensive use for nukes in space, massive, expensive flash-bangs. A nuke could blind or scramble incoming missiles, gunships, drones, or even space lancers. Some sites detailed the use of nuclear devices as countermeasures to incoming ordnance, like a massive flak burst, but the nuke would have to close to be that effective.
A Case Study in Space Weaponry: The USS SULACO
If you have read much of this blog, than you known of my great admiration for Lee Brimmicrombe-Wood's 1996 masterpiece ALIENS: Colonial Marines Technical Manual, and one of the standouts of the book was the work he did on the USS Sulaco. Unlike most other sci-fi ships, the Sulaco is a member of the Conestoga class, that were original planned to be a transport/logistic vessel, however, times changed, and the Conestoga was outfitted to be more of a light assault ship that the majority of the time was computer controlled.
The Sulaco was armed to the teeth when compared to the Enterprise-D, it mounts twin 800 Mev neutral particle cannons, four railgun turrets, two 80 Mw point defense lasers, and eight ASAT 'long lance' missiles that use a forged fragment ring to pepper a hostile with kinetic projectile at very close range. The interesting point about the missiles is that are two-stage rockets, one stage is designed for launch from the home vessel, then it coasts, until it get within striking range, then it fires the last stage to The different usage of weapons is explained expertly in the manual, saying that the point-defense is handled by the lasers, the hard kill is the job of the railguns, that are fired in volleys, and are prone to missing, and the NPB cannons are mainly for frying electronics. Besides the lasers for point defense, the Sulaco had aerogel layers in the skin of the hull, and decoys (which would not work in hard science space battles), and some sheath elements. The interesting thing to me, is that Sulaco is an armed transport well-armed to deal with most tactical situations when it arrives at its designation, and could be the most effective real space combat vessel because it has a great deal of flexible.