13 March 2011

Ships of the Line: The Overview of Military Spaceship Classes

During my writing of my first military sci-fi novel, Endangered Species, I researched the types of military space combat vessels that would exist in reality (since the book is more hard than soft sci-fi). As someone that grew up with Star Trek/ Star Wars you would expect when there is a real-space-going fleet, there would an vast array of warships, like the wet navies of the world maintains now.  After reading the article on Atomic Rocket (http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/spacewarship.php), I decided that would make an excellent article for FWS! Just like with the real navies, money, mission, area of operations, and range of the drive system would determine the scope and size of the space-going fleets of the future.Here is a list of the major seaborne naval warship classes verse the spaceborne warships, comparing and contrasting the two. This is not meant to be entirely hard science discuss, if you want that, than the link above is your best bet, nor is it completely soft on science, more in between the two. Over at Atomic Rockets website , Ken Burnside came up with a table matrix that divided up space-going ships by if they were capable independent patrol or had to a part of a larger main fleet. For example, a "Battleship" is part of the main fleet, and operates with other vessels, while the "Battlecrusier" is designed for independent operations and can hold it's own in ship-to-ship engagements. For those sci-fi creators out there, it seems to me, that in the realm of a space-going warships, the most important consideration is their faster-than-light (FTL) drive system. How it works and the rules of how it travels through space determines a great deal about your fictional universe.
UPDATE From the Future:This old FWS blogpst would give rise to the popular Ships of the Line blogpost series. If you wish to know more in-depth information about sci-fi military spaceship classes, check it out on the "Master List" side bar section.  


Just around the time of the First World War, there was an arms race between the industrial powers to build these sea monsters.
The term dreadnought, and mainly applies to a specific British warship built prior to WWI, the term gets through around, and changes over time, but it seems that dreadnoughts are heavily-armored warships that possess massive long-range seaborne artillery cannons that rain down shells the size of Volkswagen Beetles on enemy naval vessels. They mostly disappeared between WWI and WWII.


The role of a dreadnought space warship came to me when I watched the Battlestar Galactica mini-series, when the old space carrier laid down a blanket of AAA to allow the deployment of the Vipers. This could be the role of a massive well-armored, well-armed warship, laying down suppressive fire, locking them to a certain position, then allowing smaller warships to outflank the enemy forces. This would means that a dreadnought class warship would be armed with long-range cannons and missiles and on-board munitions factories as well as massive power generators. The space-going dreadnought would be tied to supply ships.
 The best examples of dreadnoughts in sci-fi have to be the Nova class From Babylon 5 and the Andromeda class from Space Cruiser Yamato.



Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are the battleships of this era, and are the true offensive power of any nation's naval or military. Carriers operate within a battlegroup, due to their lack of anti-ship weaponry, but they can project airpower against entire nations.


In hard sci-fi circles, there would be no spaceborne fighters...however, for those that like their space fighters, the use of space fighters and the ships that carry them into space battles are easily imagined. Space carriers would be armed with anti-aircraft artillery to prevent enemy fighters from getting easy shots at fighters just coming out of the launcher tubes. More over, a space-going carrier would be able to project fighters, attack shuttles, and other smaller ships into a solar system.
The best examples of space-going carriers are Galactica/Pegasus from Battlestar Galactica, and the SCVN Saratoga from Space: Above and Beyond.


The battlecruiser is a faster, lightly armored, but better armed version of the heavy/main-line cruiser. These were to be faster than a battleship, and was a main stay of naval combat until the end of WWII...they were replaced by the aircraft carrier.


Unlike their shorter-range battleships that are tied to the main fleet, the Battlecruiser is designed to take the fight to the enemy territory, and even their homeworld. With this mission, the battlecruiser would have spare part and ammunition factories, larger crews, full sick bays, and larger cargo bays, along with the best FTL system in the fleet. To deal with all tactical situations that would arise, the battlecrusier would be armed with a vast array of weapons.
The best examples of the long-range battlecruiser are the Yamato from Space Cruiser Yamato/Starblazers, and the SDF-3 from the aborted Robotech II: the Sentients series.


The battleship, besides being a rather fun game, was the queen of the blue-water battlefield, with its massive large caliber cannons, heavy armor, and thousands of sailors. Nations bragged about how many they had, and battles were defined by these brutes. However, they were weak against aircraft, and since the warship couldn't touch their base-of-operations, they were hit with wave after wave. This was the fate of the largest battleship in history, the Imperial Japanese Yamato.


While the battlecruiser is made for long-range combat away from the support of their bases, the Battleship is the main short-ranged ship killer. These would be mainstay of any fleet, these ships would be armed with heavy anti-capitol ship weapons, and the armor to take a pounding. These ships would be the largest produced of any warships in the fleet.



The modern Frigates are used for specific tasks, like anti-submarine warfare, guided missile cruiser, and some are being fitted with sheath technology. Often Frigates are used for escort duties and most likely be used for warfare against pirates using smaller boats.


It is possible, that a frigate-like smaller warship that had FTL would be used for escort duties for dangerous trade routes, and for pirate suppression tasks. Given that a government would invest in heavy cruisers to fulfill both duties, it is unlikely that a frigate would exist.
My favorite frigates in science-fiction ship is the UNSC Forward onto Dawn and In Amber Clad from HALO 2 and 3.



The destroyer is defined as a fast, maneuverable, long-range warship that operates in a larger naval force and often protects the fleet from smaller, faster, warships. These ships have been lumped into the missile cruiser role.


Oddly, the main ship of the Earth Alliance in the Babylon 5 TV show is a destroyer, and one of my favorite spaceships of all time, the Omega class. The EA used the Omegas for all manner of duties and even had a small unit of fighters. However, in the firm reality of paying for space fleet, the destroyer looks like a class that would not exist. The only way for a destroyer to work, would be for a smaller warship that would mount anti-capitol ship weaponry. However, the power requirements for that would require a battleship sized vessel.



The modern corvette is used for a varity of roles, surface warfare, mine warfare, use smaller weapon systems, and guilded surface-to-air missiles, and a anti-submarine helicopter.


To me, the light cruiser would be used to protect new colonial settlements on the outer portions of their territory. These small warships would be tied to supplylines, and would limited FTL and arms. These vessels would be too lightly armed, armored, and limited range to be used in main battle fleets. The best known light cruiser is the Reliant from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.



The heavy cruiser is not longer a class of naval warship constructed. They went out during WWII, and occuiped a role similar to a battlecruiser. The cruisers of today are armed with cruise missiles and a 127mm cannon, and occuipe several roles  


I envision a heavy cruiser being the traveling and fighting companion of the battlecruiser, being a long-range warship that is cheaper than the battlecruiser. These heavy cruiser would be the more massed produced ships, and mostly likely the first warship on the scene.
The most famous heavy cruiser of all time, is the USS:Enterprise, and shows the flexible of this class of space warship.



With the invention and depolyment of the cruiser missile, the Tomahawk, and since the First Gulf War, most cruisers of the US Navy are missile crusiers to protect the fleet from long-range naval and airborne threats along bomb land targets.


I can imagine a space fleet having several missile cruisers in storage until the outbreak of war. These limited use warships would be constructed on an existing spaceframe, like a cruiser, but with much more limited abilities. The missile crusier would use quick in-and-out FTL systems, that would allow this ship to target a enemy fleet, and jump in, then with the massive frontal arch missile launching tubes, it would pepper the enemy ships with massive fire-and-forget missiles, then jump out. Seconds after the missiles reach their targets, the rest of the warships would jump in and finish off the confused vessels.
I based my missile cruiser concept around the Star Trek Akira class torpedo cruiser.



The amphibious assault ship covers a number of warships in modern navies, they possess a flattop to land helicopter, tilt-rotors, and even VTOL jets, and room to deploy marines. While the aircraft carrier is used for projecting airpower, the assault craft projects land power.


In my opinion, the assault ship would be the ship to spend the money on, due to its flexible. If you take the Sulaco from ALIENS, as the example, these would be a multi-role warship that mounted the weapon systems to deal with other combat ships and cargo ability to transport marines with light armored vehicles and a few drop/gunships to the planetary battlefield. One of the critical elements in future space warfare would be starlift ability, how much can you put on a ship to get to the battlefield. If your warships can carry tanks/supplies/troops, so much the better.
The assault craft concept as seen best seen in the Sulaco from ALIENS and the UNSC Pillar of Autumn from HALO.



The modern corvette is used for a variety of roles, surface warfare, mine warfare, use smaller weapon systems, and guided surface-to-air missiles, and a anti-submarine helicopter.


This is another smaller warship that simply does not work in the realm of space warfare...the role of a ship like this is fulfilled by the ligth cruisers and patrol ships.
The most famous corvette in sci-fi is the blockrunner at the beginning of Star War IV: A New Hope.


The patrol vessels of the Coast Guard are a workhorse of all manner of duties, from rescue in storms, to stopping drug runners, and waterborne terrorism.


Patrol vessels would be most likely be the most constructed class of military spaceship in a colonizing empire, due to their role as a the "coast guard." These small lightly armed, armored, and non-FTL ships would operate in a settled star system, watching for criminals, pirates, rescue operations, and monitoring trading.
These also would be the first line of defense in case of invasion. No space fleet is big enough or as the money to keep main line warships in every colonial stat system.


The US navy maintains two hospital ships, and they are often the first at global mass disasters to render aide, and show the other side of the navy. These ships have a thousand beds, a dozen surgery rooms, and can be the turning point in care, often getting patients in the "golden hour."


The hospital ship is a class of ship that will exist as a both a military vessel and one that operates in peacetime. The hospital vessel would be stationed in orbit above a planet being fought over, or that had a disaster, and render aide. It is easy to see wounded soldiers being shuttled up to the hospital ship for treatment, then able to be shuttle back to the warzone.
The only two hospital ships that I am aware of in sci-fi is the M'Benga class from the FASA Star Trek: TNG Officer's Manuel printed in 1987, and the hospital EF76 Nebulon-B Frigate from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.


A few navies across the global have science vessels for various uses...these are not armed or even have that many military personnel. These are a rare vessel in the military, partly because civilian companies and other government agencies.


Science ships in science fiction are not uncommon, mainly because of Star Trek, where the majority of Starfleet ships are science first, combat second.
The science ships becomes a foil for them to be rescued or that they found something.
Since space is filled with mystery and wonder, it is very likely that a space fleet would have a few science ships, and these would have impressive FTL, probes, and sensor systems. My favorite science ship is the USS Grissom from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.



During World Wars, the Cold War, the submarine was an offensive tool of war that could have been the first strike in World War III. For years, we and the Soviets played cat-and-mouse under the seas...some sci-fi writers have linked future space warfare between ships as being similar to submarine warfare.


According to the link below, hard sci-fi tells us that there would be no shealth in outer space. Simply put, the engines from a starship would be measured in the terrawatts! There isn't any way to hide that kind of energy plume.  There are more links to read about how there is not any stealth in space:

 Here is the link:

And another link:


The use of scouts is limited to science-fiction fleets, mostly the classic ships of Star Trek and Star Wars, the role of these lightly armed vessels is to jump into a system, scan the enemy vessels/plants/bases, then jump back to the main fleet and allow the battleships to do their work. Of course, these would not be manned ships, unlike the view presented by most sci-fi. The simple fact is that unmanned space probes would be smaller, far cheaper, and could hid in asteroid fields and rings of gas giants. The data could transmitted back, or even jump back to a RV point.


Explorer class starships do not really exist in modern navies anymore. The days of Columbus or Magellan are gone, but in the realm of space, an explorer vessel is a real possibility. These would be well-armed, with marines, science labs, landing ships, repair factories, and the best FTL and navigation system available. The explorer class vessel would be able to be away from their government and supply lines for years, naturally, these vessels would be few in number and very expensive.
The best examples of explorer class vessels, are, of course, the Galaxy class Enterprise-D and the Cortes from Babylon 5.

Military Space Ships in my own military sci-fi writings

I grew up with Star Trek, Star Wars, and Babylon 5, and saw the traditional big fleet concept in sci-fi, and I thought that is how it should be in my own sci-fi.
That ended when I read the ALIENS: The Colonial Marines Technical Manuel, then I saw battles in space as rare and violent, fought over habitual planets and in orbit. I stopped seeing a vast space going fleet based around a wet-navy, and filled with various classes of ships. My ideas imagined ships that looked more realistic, like the ISV-Venture Star from Avatar, and the Sulaco from ALIENS.
In a realistic space fleet, the starships would be a mix of FTL troop/vehicle transports that have a array of weaponry to defend themselves against warship, much like the Pillar of Dawn from HALO and the Sulaco from ALIENS. It is mostly like, that most governments of the future would be limited by money to how many FTL ships they could deploy, and the Transport/Warship would the most logically class.
Most of my books/stories deal with planetside warfare, because this is a world I more familiar with, and it is much easier to write, from a harder sci-fi POV. The brief hard-science space combat scene in my book (that is being written) took months of research...and was a real pain in the ass.


io9 article on anti-matter on space travel

Here is a blog devoted to Hard Sci-fi, and their article on warships

The best hard sci-fi website:

Here is the Avatar Wiki article on the ISV Venture Star

This is the best work on the Akira class warship:

Here is a great site to see all manner of combat starships


  1. Great post! As a fan of space combat games, I enjoyed your take on the various starship classes. One note regarding hospital ships: you forgot to mention the medical frigate from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

  2. You are correct! I cannot believe I missed that...oops. Thank you for reading!

  3. Outer space is a new environment, and whenever a new environment is discussed in fiction, writers tend to base their projections on what exists in their world. Before the days of air travel, SF writers imagined vast air-ships. Of course, once real aircraft were made, no-one tried to "cross the T" in the air. Space SF writers tend to project modern day war-fare into space. Thus vast space-going fleets are based on wet-navy fleets.

    Real space warfare will probably be quite a bit different from what spake opera imagines. Space aircraft carriers make no sense. Space submarines are impossible. Space scoutships are un-needed when unmanned sensor probes can do the same job more cheaply and stealthily. They need be no bigger than a tin can or computer chip.

    If your novel explores sub-light interstellar travel that takes decades or centuries, or even a slower variety of FTL, space combat will be a lot different. Instead of space going fleets, you might have sub-C ships that explore the stars, looking for planets to colonize. The ships would have to have closed life support, means to manufacture needed items, and defense systems. Such ships would have weapons for defense, armor, and "space marines" for security. They would be miniature, self-sustaining worlds in the void. The ships would be cut off from the home planet from the day they set out. A story could take place on a single star-ship threatened by aliens. Such a ship would be far more interesting to read about than another re-hashed space opera with star-faring aircraft carriers.

    In such a sub-C 'verse, it would be difficult for a government to control over any but the nearest star-systems. A sub-C interstellar empire would take a very interesting explanation to justify its existence. It would be a miracle of social engineering. People spending their whole lives owning allegiance to a planet hundreds of light years away- even if non-voluntary death was unheard of, and star travel cheap, it would be hard to do. What use is a space warship that takes decades or centuries to reach its destination? It would take years to even realize a border world had rebelled.

    Star combat will depend on what setting you invent, and what people live in it. SF writers spend to much time aping each others base-line technologies, and don't seem to realize that the technology makes the civilization and the people are part of it. Rather than bending laws of physics to get space frigates to work, a writer could work with sub-C ships. If you do decide to explore systems of wormholes or star-drives, try to imagine what would come of whatever system of travel you created, instead of projecting naval warfare into space.

    Some real scientists are investigating the ideas of interstellar travel and breakthrough propulsion. Google "Centauri Dreams", "breakthrough propulsion physics program" and "Marc Millis". Some real ideas include wormholes, warp drives, and space-drives. Worm-holes and warp drives would require one turn a planet the size of jupiter into pure energy, so I suggest you stay away from those. Space drives are STL, but solve the mass problem, so you don't need propellent ( a vital feature). The perfect engine for a STL explorer ship!!

    Christopher Phoenix

  4. I've always been a fan of spaceships and what we incorrectly call science fiction (as i have no doubt that humanity's future lays among the stars!), and i stumbled upon this quite amazing site quite on accident. I find everything you have written here to be absolutely amazing. Such a great compilation of all my favorite sci-fi shows and movies! I hope to visit this site many more times and read more on the blog. Also, I'll try to pick up your book as soon as I can, for I have not been able to read it.

    Live Long and Prosper!
    -A Proud Nerd

  5. Thanks for the kind words about FWS. We are attempting to be a resource for the world of MSF. It is hard, at times, to keep up with all the works of MSF out there.
    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. I have to be a gad fly about one thing, a corvette class vessel could be used as a gun ship supporting ground ops on a planet or as a heavy screen for large warships at least IMO, and as far as stealth using a counter grav drive or waiting in ambush stealth does has a place I think it all depends on the angle your writing from, we don't know what kind of drives will be invented, once it was said if you went over 100 mph you would die, and it was impossible to break the sound Barrier Now I'm not a published writer and I have respect for those who are but remember scifi doesn't have to bow to hard science, because its about things that we speculate on, Because I don't know about you but I don't know how to build an FTL drive , great post By the Way I liked it.

  7. Nice Article. Doing a quick search, I found that real world wet navy Hospital ships tended to be marked with symbols to show it what type of ship it was. The Sector General series (probably the only Pacifistic Space Opera, and surprisingly good) has such ships, marked with several symbols designating a Ambulance craft.

    Then again, when facing a foe that doesn't care about who it attacks, marking a medical ship would be moot.

    I'd imagine Destroyers would still play a role in space warfare - they would be relatively cheaper and less massive than larger capital ships (compare losing a Battleship instead), and could protect them faster craft or missiles. Perhaps if they were dedicated to Point-defense - help get the small craft and missiles off.

  8. Thanks for reading and commenting! FWS has decided to explore the topic of spaceborne fleet ships classics via the Ships of the Line blogpost series, and hospital ships will be covered. Thanks for the input.

  9. I see you've based this system of classes mainly around military and what they need. But when I think back to my Star Wars knowledge, there were a lot of Smugglers, and mercenaries. would you be able to lend me a hand in creating a class system for the more rudimentary, and less government-based starships?

  10. That would be an interesting challenge...let me know what you need. You may what to check out the Orion starships from the old star trek FASA RPG
    here is a link:

  11. As to viability of a "carrier" in real space warfare. I agree that is mostly bull unless you envision an FTL technology that requires a mother ship so massive that they are unlikely to be warships themselves but rather just big fling hangers that move all the smaller regular sub-C ships (including warships) around in big massive jumps that jump in, unload, and re-load, and jump back out as quickly as possible and as far as practically possible away from any danger especially combat because you cannot afford to risk loosing one of this massive FTL jump carriers for any reason.

    I think of the giant hollow shaped cylinder FTL jump ships in the various versions of "Dune" I've seen on the screen most notably the si-fy channel mini-series.

    Also that massive "battle wagon" of the dark allies of the shadows left behind seen in one of the battle scenes of the "Crusade" spin off from B-5 that the commander flat out stated its only purpose was to jump in, unload its payload of full on capital warships, and then jump back out and it had no other purpose then that so it had to have a very good top of the line FTL system (and used that tactical deduction to force the big "battle wagon" to jump and piggy back on the jump when his ships FTL was not yet capable of jumping again).

    Depending on how exactly the FTL technology in the universe works and its limitations "carriers" may indeed exist, only its not little fighters they carry, they carry whole capital ships as a means of FTL when capital ships don't have FTL or to overcome limitations of smaller FTL drives on the capital ships when they do have it.

  12. i find the argument of a Carrier class ship rather silly, think of the name it was designed after, carrier, to carry, think about it, if you stock a battle ship with arsenal, youd stock a carrier ship with drop ships or little fighters, imagine a swarm of space fighter jets popping out of it with armor piercing missiles, or a plethora of drop ships for getting anything from supplies to people down to and up from a planet, presto one invasion force or colony group, a carrier is not a dumb idea to have for a spaceship.

  13. A rather interesting blog entry you have here. It certainly gives some seed ideas that I could utilize for my own setting. Still, to be completely honest, your opinion on the Dreadnaught is rather... jarring, compared to the typical view of the Dreadnaught as the largest, most heavily armed and armored of combat spacecraft. But to imagine them being the equivalent of a SAW Gunner for lack of a better analogy?

    Then again, when one uses the original definition and usage of the Destroyer, it makes a whole lot of sense: The Destroyer provides AAA support, if not point defense, for the task constellation while the Dreadnaught provides heavy firepower to corral hostile bandits into angles and vectors that the task constellation could take advantage of and mission kill (at the very least) said target and win the engagement.

  14. Under: Military Space Ships in my own military sci-fi writings
    you wrote "much like the Pillar of Dawn from HALO".

    This is a mix of Forward onto Dawn and Pillar of Autumn, ones a frigate and the other is an Assault craft, you may want to clean up that typo to make your point clear.

  15. Nibiru is here, We need a STAR FLEET COMMAND, LET THE JOURNEY BEGIN !

  16. Wouldn't a space submarine not be a stealth ship but an expensive ship that keeps itself inside hyperspace constantly and shoots FTL torpedos out of hyperspace, moving slowly if that causes a harder detection

    1. An interesting concept for a stealthy attack sub. Wouldn't moving slowly in hyperspace actually drop a ship out of hyperspace? Still the energy bloom would be like a modern nuke boat dumping its heated water back into the sea causing a huge heat signature.

      US Navy Veteran, HM2c(FMF)/USN, 1965-1978

  17. Enjoyed your article here. As a US Navy Veteran I was hoping for a little more in an original concept drawings of the Ships of a Space Navy. I still applaud your efforts to find and share the various classes of ships. I am currently trying to write a story that involves the abduction of a sailor, who returns at the helm of his own ship which I have classed as a Heavy Fleet Destroyer or a DDF. I have been looking for equipment, fighters and shuttles to flesh out my ship. I was hoping that you would have included some of these smaller fleet assets.

    Thank you for your efforts here.

    US Navy Veteran, HM2c(FMF)/USN 1965-1978

  18. Your assumption of classes of ships is outdated concerning Spacecraft types and rolls.

    The biggest is submarine class. You need to understand the evolving hyperspace physics and what it actually is. Submarines would be used within the hyperspace gravitational incline as ships pass through FTL routes as Blackholes, Neutron Stars and Graviton Stars would block certain routes. FTL within Hyperspace is restricted to certain known paths to avoid getting sucked into a star. While in FTL, space is distorted to the point that knowing where you are going and where you have been can be lost. Thus, mapped paths are required or beacons which can send strong signals into hyperspace can give accurate enough position. This is because the gravitational incline varies greatly depending upon class ans size of stellar objects you pass. A blackhole will distort space significantly and will without known position cause the craft to slip down the gravitational incline until the event horizon is reached. After that point, you fall into the star or blackhole. Submarines would exclusively navigate within hyperspace or nebula type of stellar field which they would attack any enemy ship that would be passing. It would detect both the gravitational and light shift of an FTL capable ship and basically mine or torpedo the predicted path of the enemy who would never see the attack before it happened. Guard ships are also a class of special spacecraft that is not seen on the open seas. They are basically supply, mine, missile and tactical nuke capable. Strictly, system defending or attacking at medium range.

  19. pillar of autumn is a light cruiser not a lander also its not pillar of down its forward unto dawn

  20. I think a space carrier of the future in reality would probably be a mass drone lunch station. The advantage of a small maneuverable ship with powerful weapons would be minimal yes, but a sworn of them, capable of dodging weapons fire from larger ships would be of an advantage. I see it as a distinct possibility. Furthermore a carrier would also have boarding craft and landing craft.

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