Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Force shields

In an early post I speculated about "shields" as an acceptable technology; it prolongs space combat, gives the heroes more survivability, and also provides a way to justify otherwise pretty unreasonable engine exhaust velocities.

I have been re-reading the "defenses" page of Atomic Rockets and re-thinking that position.  Whatever hand-wave we might want for the engine, keeping the weapons systems effective and dramatic is probably a pretty good idea.  I have been reading sections of The Fighting at Jutland and I was impressed at how the most dramatic stories were those of the most damaged ships.

If there is a question, it is what are the most viable platforms?  Large ships with extensive defenses or small craft, but many, with big-ship-killing weapons?  I must think through my technological assumptions and come up with something that works for me.


  1. I think the question becomes a cultural one just as much as a technological one.

    On the tech end, consider that small craft, although they may be harder to see, are more limited in every way (Fuel, armor, life support) in what they carry. Build it bigger, you have more space to extend the logistics of the unit. You can also have larger, more effective systems which may be easier to maintain (compare maintenance in a vac suit on a small craft to a large craft in an environment in overalls).

    Now, if you go with smaller craft, consider how you keep them supplied and in the fight. To my mind, there are 3 types of small craft. 1st are the equivalents of modern day aircraft. 2nd, there are your Fast Attack Craft (i.e. PT-109, Osa, Sa'ar) types. 3rd are WWII type submarines (Gato-class or Type VII U-Boats).

    Unless you have a reactionless drive that overcomes the laws of inertia, it’s hard for them to be effective. They would have a hard time carrying sufficient fuel, armor, or ECM to survive long against an equivalent enemy. From reading your blog, it does not sound like this is something you want to do with your future history.

    Going the FAC route, they are fast, carry a decent amount of fuel, but, historically, sacrifice of living/life support, armor, and magazine capacity. They may need a tender to be capable of moving from system to system. If capable of interstellar travel, the fuel cost may be too much for them to be able to be expected to fight on arrival. If transported or accompanied by a tender, then they have a larger, albeit vulnerable ship, which carries the burdens over long distances for them. In terms of firepower, historically, they tend to be able to deliver 1 or 2 salvos before becoming essentially targets evading retribution.

    The 3rd type sacrifices tactical speed for operational speed. WWII submarine equivalents, as opposed to modern SSN's (large craft in my opinion) trade higher tactical speed sense for greater fuel, magazine capacity, and lifesupport. While they would need replenishment, they would be able to conduct operations for a more extended period of time. Weapons would be heavier, more likely to inflict a crippling or destructive blow alone.

    Large ships need maintenance as well, but they can go longer. They can carry more of everything necessary to fight. Historically, there are two large size warship choices. The modern version, i.e. BB, SSN, and CVN. Each type is optimized to do one job as its primary function and any other task really is secondary. SSN's do sea denial. Battleships and CVN do sea control.

    The other type comes from the age of sail. Sure, the line of battle was composed of ships with massive broadsides, but they also carried marines. Indiamen and frigates carried a respectable broadside, but also carried cargoes.

    There are also affecting large ships. For example, how do you fuel your ships? The argument is made in Neptune's Inferno that the USN was essentially kept in port because of they had to make a choice between fueling carrier escort groups of fuelling a few battleships. Also, when you'd have to pull a vessel from the front, either for maintenance or battle damage, you are probably taking a more significant percentage of your order or battle and/or firepower out.

  2. Ultimately, you don't have to make a choice. People fight according to their cultural dictates. For example, take a Soviet-style entity. Its not going to care about the human cost that victory might require. Therefore, it will be willing to send waves of small craft, knowing most of them will not return, to secure victory. On the other hand, an American mindset, is going to always prioritize the human cost and be willing to expend more for complex systems offering greater protection for the users. A culture valuing individual honor might favor smaller craft because it makes them feel that they are more connected to the act than they would feel in a large vessel with a crew in the hundreds or thousands.

    Furthermore, consider the entity's goals. For example, you could have the same type of vessels but with radically different design philosophies. Look at the ships at Jutland. The Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine ships were superficially similar. The battleships were built along Dreadnought lines, carrying 12 to 15 inch rifled cannons. However, the German ships were optimized for battle in North Sea. Crew compartments were meant for short voyages (Kriegies lived most of their enlistments ashore). The RN ships were optimized for more expeditionary/imperial operations. Likewise, you could have large vessels which forgo the FTL/Interplanetary drive for the reason that they don't want to go out of their system.

  3. Ultimately, you don't have to make a choice.

    I think that's a very good point. As a world/game designer you have to research, and ultimately decide, what technologies work out and which do not, and to what degree; but the ideal balance would be one in which the choices were so even that there was no obvious winning strategy for fleet design. It makes for more interesting combinations.

    Thanks for your comment; there is a lot to think through there.

  4. No weapon is a true silver bullet. For a time a weapon or a system may be the dominant one, but eventually counter measures are almost always developed. For example, USAF/USMC/USN pilots don't really fear the equipment used by their counterparts. They respect them. What they fear more are the cheap SAMs and AAA batteries. A CVN may be the powerful platform, but a lowly diesel-electric attack sub can take it out in the right circumstances.

    For a gaming perspective, I think you need to have those tradeoffs,otherwise everyone just wants to use the same systems. And that gets boring after a while.

  5. Another interesting set of capabilities -- especially in a handwave-minimized setting -- come from the various physical and mental capabilities of non-human species. The obvious example is higher G tolerances for heavy-world species, or cheaper life support spaces form smaller creatures, but I am sure that there are others.

  6. Here's the another thing to consider, if you haven't already, is whether the vehicles are even manned at all. Are they remotely piloted? Tolerances for machines can be much more than tolerances of humans. If you have one group that has perfected FTL communications, and another that has not, you would have human vs human but one might be much more limited in their manueverability.

  7. I am very interested in what AngryBell wrote about in his comments on space warfare and starship/warship development.

    I think that some of the ideas from the tactical games that SimCan did along the lines of Long Lance could mesh into this type of tactical environment.

    Your ships are off on deep exploration or patrol. They are outside the chain of command, much like Napoleonic frigates. You have established tactical and strategic doctrines that must be followed. These could even be modified by knowledge of the political climate. Cold war vs Hot War. In case of hostilities against Team Red, open order packet ZZZ. These orders are in effect until you received an order to change them.

    Naturally, if you are running a ship as per a solo adventure game, you have some leeway to do as you choose, keeping in mind there will be a penalty to pay if you screwe up.

  8. Simple mass constraints suggest that most combat platforms will be unmanned. I envision a situation in which there's a main "bus" with a crew compartment, and 3 to 6 "riders" which have equivalent firepower, better maneuverability (because they aren't hauling around a life-support system and a stardrive), and suicidally enthusiastic AI brains.

    Meanwhile, system defenders omit the bus.

    Note also that these vehicles will almost certainly be armed with beam weapons, probably lasers. If you're using missiles, why bother with the rest of the ship?

  9. Indeed, I'd see the main function of the "ship" as a repository for the human payload and for operational reaction mass. If each rider is configured to carry only enough mass for tactical maneuver then you can make headway as a group by sprinting with the main bus, then allowing the riders to refuel in cycles. You might look at it as a tanker, but it might also be considered as the bridge of an extended ship surrounded by a cloud of its own components.

    What, after all, are the advantages of a large ship. They are clear enough on water, but in space the factors may be reversed.