Musings on Space Combat

So, with Ender’s Game having come out and my having recently acquired the game “Space Engineers” (SE) and already owning “Kerbal Space Program” (KSP), I was thinking about space combat and how, exactly, it would work.

Something common I see in spaceship designs in SE, and also in generic SciFi capital ships, is INCREDIBLY vulnerable skinny parts. Consider Star War’s Nebulon-B Frigate (A.K.A. That long one at the end of episode 5 where Luke gets his hand fixed), or consider Star Trek’s Enterprise. The spaceship design is inherently vulnerable because of the various skinny parts around the ships. One good solid hit with anything will destroy them.


This problem plagues most of SciFi, from the lofty BattleCruiser to the Covenant Supercarrier. They have weak points that, while in lore are shielded, are actually extremely vulnerable to enemy fire. One of the best solutions to this I’ve seen is the Imperial Star Destroyer. Other than its protruding bridge (Which I’ll get to soon), it has no obvious break points.


A good combat spaceship should be solid, able to take hits throughout its entire superstructure and not have the ship break into seperate parts. 

Paradoxically, a good spaceship should have thrusters mounted far away from the center of mass for turning quickly. Given, a spaceship could (and in my opinion should) use internal gyroscopes, using RCS (Reaction Control Systems) is fairly commonplace and usually quicker than gyro turning, such as in KSP.


This means a more fuel efficient, maneuverable craft, which is good. However, putting the thrusters out farther means (especially on small craft) weak points. Which kind of goes against my first point. Nonetheless, a good spaceship design should account for its own mass and plan accordingly to maximize its agility. A good spaceship should be maneuverable. Lack of maneuverability would make for a pretty crappy capital ship and an outright terrible fighter. Which brings me to my next point.

The classification of spaceships is usually pretty clear, but for my discussion, I’m going to explicitly define them:

Fighter – 1 (maybe 2) man spaceship. Fast, Agile, not a lot of bullets/missiles/fuel/whatever

Frigate – Medium size, crewed with 2-10 people. has more capacity than a fighter, and can possibly be self-sustained, but is not equipped to deal with everything.

Capital Ship – Crewed 10+, fairly large. Capable of housing fighter wings and possibly frigates. Self-sustained.

With those in mind, let’s talk fleet logistics and tactics. It’s hard to compare the structure of a space fleet to anything modern-day.  The closest comparison is Aircraft Carriers, so most of the tactics I’ll bring up will involve those, as well as the fighter-bomber tactical relationships between WW2 B-17’s and escorts.

I’ll start with carrier tactics. Now, the general deployment for carriers is at the core of a fleet. This allows the fighter squad to “abandon” the carrier, knowing it’s safe in the hands of the various support vessels. This, in turn, lends the entire fighter squad a larger range of deployment.

However, a single carrier is in and of itself not vulnerable. With a capable fighter squadron kept close (A relative term in space) to the carrier, the carrier can remain safe, and even engage other ships, albeit at relatively close quarters. When facing a single carrier, the most promising tactic would be to try and tempt the fighter squads away from the carrier, leaving it vulnerable. The United States did this (Although accidentally) during the battle of Midway, where U.S. Fighter Pilots happened upon undefended Japanese Aircraft Carriers with the fighters away defending the island. The fighters than returned to an empty patch of ocean, now out of fuel.


While this is a valid tactic, in space it must be adjusted. First off, a long, clear line of sight and (hopefully) ample communication makes this tactic mush more difficult to enact. Additionally, once completed, the enemy fighter squad is not inherently defeated because of space physics. While aircraft run out of fuel and crash, spacecraft drift endlessly drift in the direction they have velocity. With their last vestiges of fuel (and likely, the knowledge of the destroyed carrier) they can attempt to do several things, one of which is attack your squad without restrain in a suicidal fashion. Several tons of fighter speeding at your capital ships is incredibly dangerous. So, overall: Be careful how you destroy carriers. Their fighters are still dangerous.

Now, to talk about the main battlegroup. The carrier and the support ships should be in the center, because they are highly vulnerable. Surrounding these, in spherical fashion, are the various frigates and battleships that make up the fleet. Note: spherical, not circular. Space is 3D, which I will get to. These frigates protect the vulnerable carriers.

This is a highly defensive stance, and would be most likely impenetrable, but this would get the battlefleet nowhere in terms of offensive capability.

This is where we talk about fighter-bomber tactics. My vision for offensive attacks would be offensive frigates escorted en route to target. In movies, the notion of the fighter is highly romanticized. For example, the concept of a single fighter overwhelming the defenses of an entire battlestation is ridiculous (See Star Wars ep 1,4). More likely, frigates with substantial firepower are escorted by fighters for protection from enemy fighters and frigates. It is likely that fighters can cripple or even destroy frigates, so small-scale battlegroups probing each others defenses are likely.


As the frigates bear towards targets, the fighters work in several squads to eliminate incoming enemies. The fighters, in turn, would operate in a loose formation. Loose, to discourage area of effect weapons. This would adhere to the Finger-Four formation to give the individuals a clear firing line, while still being able to maneuver.

The frigates would then attempt to attack larger capital ships when close, attempting to disable or destroy their capacity to attack offensively.

This leads me poorly to my next point: Bridge placement. While Hollywood portrays spaceships having these majestic Bridges with sweeping, majestic views of the entire ship. This is about as dangerous as it gets, one good hit to the structure eliminates the entire command structure. The best bridge would be tucked away in the center of the ship, safe from all enemy fire. Situational awareness would be simulated by cameras around the ship, and with radar.


Final topic: Space being 3D.

While classically, combat is thought of in 2 Dimensions, almost entirely due to the constraint of gravity, space is entirely 3D. This must ALWAYS be considered when deploying formations.

When deploying formations, there is inherently no “up”. This lack of direction leads to confusion when arranging. This can, however, be mitigated by using the flagship (Say, where the admiral resides) as reference. Using the prow of the ship (where the engines aren’t located) as forward, the entire fleet can be arrayed around it in a coherent battle fleet.

That’s all I got for now.

Thanks for Reading!


EDIT: I forgot to cover the topic of coverage. In many capital ships, there are a lot of emplacements. It is entirely imperative to consider the amount of coverage each individual emplacement has, while also balancing an emplacements efficiency. My rule of thumb: Unless you have a damn good reason to have directed fire (Which there are good reasons), have ample coverage all over the ship.


One thought on “Musings on Space Combat

  1. I think in Star Trek, Federation ships particularly Starfleet has primary and secondary power systems. Don’t quote me on this though, but from what I understand the warp reactor provides main power while secondary power comes from systems similar to batteries. Though I think some ships in the universe do contain a secondary reactor for impulse engines (Somewhat like RCS). So in theory, the crew would have some power in case main power is compromised.

    As for fleet strategies in space, there is a problem in the defensive “ball” formation. Being the fact that ships can be destroyed by the debris itself assuming the weapons do not vaporize and defensive system do not defend against physical collisions. So head-to-head engagements would result to heavy losses on both sides. This is similar to symmetrical warfare pre-1900’s where line warfare would result in heavy losses on both sides. Taking the assumption that your ship is as long than it is wide, the strategy would be to mount weapon hard points along the starboard, port and ventral sides of the ship. Quite literally, broadsiding in three dimensions.Then the battle area would be perpendicular to direction of travel, allowing easier opportunities to withdrawal and engagement.

    Lastly, I agree with your ship design critique. Hollywood depicts ships with exposed commands centres, though I think this more to help viewers distinguish where the command centre is located and indirectly provides an “up” direction. In my opinion, command centres would be located somewhere deep inside the ship or recessed inside the hull to prevent exposure.

    Good read!

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