A Brief History of Space Combat: Part III

The third instalment of Bobby Abernethy's A Brief History of Space Combat, prequel to his award-winning Red Nightfall and Grey Dawn. The next instalment will be published on this blog on Monday, 20th August.

Between the Wars: The Age of Explosives

Though the Twenty Years’ War was over, the Solar System was far from peaceful. The near-fifty years of peace that had followed World War III, the longest continuous period without war in humanity’s history, had been shattered. With the Saturn system still a disputed territory and none of the powers agreeing to a disarmament clause at the Rhea Peace Conference, the need to wage war in space remained.

An uneasy peace, the Pax Solaria as it is known in Dog Latin, began after 2115. The primary conflicts were land wars on rebellious Commonwealth colonies. The Pax Solaria, sometimes referred to as the “Age of Osterhagen”, after the diplomatic efforts of the Solarian politician Nadine Osterhagen, saw no major wars break out until 2153. Hatred and suspicion was the norm throughout the Solar System, however, and all three navies sought to gain an advantage over each other.

The first major new development came in 2122 with the invention of a new type of cannon by Lamarre Naval Technologies in the Solarian Republic. Looking for a weapon that could decisively breach Whipple shields, the SRN quickly adopted the CN17 25/20 cannon, which in addition to the standard solid and tandem shot, could fire a variety of high explosive shells. Multi-stage explosively-formed penetrators and high-explosive anti-tank shells promised to be able to defeat any Whipple shield. The design was quickly copied by the Commonwealth Navy and the Confederate States Navy, and by 2130 the Lamarre gun was the standard armament aboard all new battleships, beginning with the Solarian Gaillou-class.

With the end of the war, the Commonwealth began to worry about future insurrections on its colonies. The Navy put forward a design for an orbital support ship. Poorly-armoured but heavily armed, it could be used to quell uprisings in the first few days and support troops via an orbital bombardment during the invasion stage. Thus the monitor was born with the Humber-class. Monitors saw their first deployment during the Ganymede Troubles of 2133, and have served as recently as the Hyperion Massacres.

As improvements were made to gas core nuclear thermal engines, navies began to re-examine the fourteener concept. A modern fourteener promised to be as fast as and only slightly less manoeuvrable than a modern tenner. The first fourteener built after the Twenty Years’ War was the Solarian Valiant-class in 2124, swiftly followed by the Commonwealth Glorious-class the next year, and the Confederate States’ first fourteeners, the Haumea-class. The Commonwealth and Solarians also experimented with sixteeners and eighteeners, with the Republic launching one eighteener class and two sixteener classes, and the Commonwealth launching three eighteener and five sixteener classes.

To defend themselves against explosive shells, navies turned to more exotic protection schemes. Ceramic armour and laser-based active protection systems, initially developed for tanks, were adopted. In turn, reflective and ablative anti-laser coatings were applied to shot and shells. By 2138, gunnery tests and simulations showed that a space battle with then-modern weapons and armour would be little different to the traditional wall-versus-wall stalemate.

The navies fought to break this. The Commonwealth Navy saw speed and acceleration as the key. Under the enthusiastic leadership of First Sea Lord Admiral Dame Claire Brunelle, it concluded that the encirclement tactics tried in the Solarian War of Independence did not lack merit, but had been mostly unsuccessful due to both sides being relatively equal in terms of engine power. Faster vessels would be able to outflank the enemy before it could react. The decision was taken to abandon the complex closed-cycle gas core nuclear thermal engines in favour of open-cycle engines, which have twice the exhaust velocity and delta-V, but have the disadvantage of releasing fissioning nuclear fuel in their exhausts. The first of these vessels, HMS Napoleon, launched in 2140, was armed as a traditional fourteener, but had approximately twice the acceleration rate of a conventional battleship. When the Solarian Republic designed their own open-cycle gas core engine, the Commonwealth and Solarians fought to outbuild each other. Altogether, the Solarians built ten new open-cycle battleships and converted twenty-eight from older battleship units, while the Commonwealth built eighteen and converted forty-one.

The open-cycle engine, however, created an unforeseen problem: If any engine that releases a radioactive exhaust operates in a planet’s magnetosphere, then the exhaust will be directed down on to that planet and its inhabitants. This had never been a great problem in the Twenty Years’ War, as badly-damaged ships usually jettisoned their engines as a surrender signal before they could be destroyed and radioactive materials released. Now however, it was impossible to operate an open-cycle engine near a planet or moon. Under the Kiviuq Protocol to the Interplanetary Convention on Environmental Protection of 2147, all ships with open-cycle nuclear engines must be equipped with hardwired engine shutdown systems that will activate when the ship enters a magnetosphere. From then on, the ship must operate on non-radioactive thrusters until it exits, which are much slower. This also created a new tactical problem for captains: A fleet firing from inside the magnetosphere at another that is not will be at a major tactical disadvantage, as it will be less mobile, and in the modern era, its weapons will pack much less punch.

The Confederate States Navy sought to capitalise on the new engine developments. Kuiper has a small population, so it cannot crew many large warships. The C.S. Navy hoped to use the new open-cycle engine to create a large fleet of small ships with small crews to overwhelm the larger Commonwealth and Solarian navies. Each ship was small, highly manoeuvrable and difficult to hit, and carried two powerful cannon. Thus the gunboat was born with the Alexander-class.

While they built open-cycle battleships, the Solarian Republic Navy also adopted a new weapon that no amount of armour could protect against. The CS234-25 Tactical Nuclear Shell became standard issue aboard all Solarian warships in 2143, to the horror and outrage of the Commonwealth and Confederate States, who asserted that the Republic had broken the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. After the Republic pointed out that it had never signed the treaty, the other powers quickly began development of their own nuclear shells.

The effectiveness of nuclear weapons in space is mixed. Since there can be no blast wave in space, they rely on their electromagnetic energy, especially x-rays, to damage a target. Because of this, the intensity of the explosion will fall off very quickly with range, and for even the most powerful nuclear weapons, the damage range for a space detonation is slightly under a kilometre. Though this is miniscule compared to modern weapon systems, the limitations of early point-defence meant that it was almost trivially easy for a nuclear shell to reach this range.

The first nuclear shells were compact, crude two-point hollow-pit implosion-type weapons that had a yield of one kiloton and weighed twenty-five kilograms. The first shells were designed to fit in already-existing cannon, but warship redesigns to deal with the nuclear threat meant that shells soon grew in size as new cannon were developed. The nuclear warhead promised to turn space battles into brief, hideously costly affairs which the nominal victor would be lucky to leave with more than one ship still operational. Warships that had originally been unpainted metal were now coated with brilliant “anti-flash white” paint to reflect thermal radiation from nuclear explosions. New armouring schemes such as beryllium copper and lithium deuteride layers were pioneered to stop radiation, and naval designers raced to improve their point-defence systems. It was clear, however, that it would only take one nuclear shell to get through to utterly destroy a warship.

An important innovation made in 2151 by the Commonwealth was the space mine. The concept originally involved rocks being dropped by a retreating fleet into the path of the enemy, which would have to pause and tediously eliminate each mine to continue pursuit. Area-effect nuclear mines were soon developed, some of which were disguised as rocks. In 2152, the Confederate States Navy developed the tactic of seeding the orbits above ground combat zones with mines so as to deny the enemy on the ground orbital support. Conversely, the C.S. Navy is considered to be the best of all the Solar System’s navies at minesweeping.

The effectiveness of nuclear weapons and mines was demonstrated dramatically during the Kuiper War of 2153 to 2156. The Kuiper Colonies Dispute between the Confederate States and the Solarian Republic over jurisdiction over new colonies in the Kuiper belt escalated into war when the Solarians deployed troops to Eris and Cinderella. The Kuipers declared war on the Republic in October, and commerce raiding and skirmishing between the Solarian and Kuiper fleets went on for weeks before the Battle of Varuna on November 30th. Six nuclear-armed Solarian battleships and two frigates decisively destroyed a conventionally-armed Kuiper fleet of seven frigates and seven gunboats, with only one frigate escaping. Notably, however, twelve Solarian monitors and three frigates were lost to Kuiper orbital mines during the Varuna ground campaign. The attack provided the Commonwealth with the justification it needed to enter the war in 2154. The Pax Solaria had been shattered

The dramatic effectiveness of the nuclear shells prompted the Kuipers and the Commonwealth to hold their battleships in port until they could come up with a countermeasure. The Commonwealth Navy developed a stopgap solution in July 2154 with the “flying batteries”. These were six Devastation-class battleships retrofitted with huge amounts of beryllium copper, lithium deuteride, and depleted uranium armour, along with triple the number of close-in weapon systems carried by the standard battleship. Despite their heavy armour and cannon, they had few other qualities as warships. Their armour meant they had to be towed by two other battleships for long range transit. However, supplementing the less well-armoured battleship and gunboat fleet, the six Commonwealth and three Kuiper flying batteries were extremely effective against the Solarian Republic Navy at the Battle of Haumea on October 17th 2155. Two batteries, HMS Devastation and CSS Carolyn Foulds, were lost in the war. The Commonwealth plan to use their flying batteries against the Solarian fleet at their primary naval base at Uranus was influential in causing the Solarians to sue for peace.

The Kuiper War was primarily a land war. There were few large naval engagements, and much of the space war was based around commerce raiding, which with the exception of the range of engagement was fundamentally unchanged from the convoy battles of the Twenty Years’ War. Though in excess of seven hundred thousand people died in the war, the vast majority of these casualties were on the ground. An important consequence of the war relating to naval matters, however, was the inclusion of a provision against indiscriminate orbital bombardments in the Treaty of Ganymede. The decisive allied victory at the Second Battle of Cinderella had been primarily due to a long-range nuclear bombardment of the dwarf planet by Kuiper flying batteries to avoid mines. Twenty thousand civilians had died in addition to the Solarian Republic Army garrisons.

Though a higher percentage of ships were destroyed than had been the norm in the Twenty Years’ War, the flying batteries and improved defences on other ships, together with the unwillingness of Admirals to commit their ships to large, potentially extremely costly engagements, meant that the traditional naval stalemate was still in place. Furthermore, though the flying battery concept as a whole was impractical, important elements of its design soon found their way into the Commonwealth’s next class of battleships, the Iron Duke-class. The nuclear shell was no longer the decisive game changer it had been. With their losses in the Kuiper War and the greater number and greater productivity of Commonwealth shipyards, by 2157 it was clear to the Solarians that they would not be able to match their rivals. To regain the strategic initiative another dramatic change would be required.

Next instalment (2157-2168: The Age of Lasers): Monday, 20th August