A Brief History of Space Combat: Part IV

The fourth instalment of Bobby Abernethy's A Brief History of Space Combat, prequel to his award-winning Red Nightfall and Grey Dawn. The final instalment will be published on this blog on Friday,  24th August.

2157-2168: The Age of Lasers

Beginning in 2157, the Solarian Republic Navy pursued the development of an anti-ship laser. Launched in 2159, SRS Glory, the first “laserer”, mounted three spinal free-electron lasers, each capable of delivering a single pulse with a total energy of 100 megajoules, or that same energy in pulses of 100 joules each. The SRN also took the revolutionary step of mounting the lasers inside the hull, meaning they had significantly greater protection than older hull-mounted cannon. The removal of external hull fittings also dramatically reduced the ship’s radar cross-section. Each laser could not destroy a ship outright. Instead, they were designed to remove mission-critical equipment, such as radiators, sensors, and cannon mounts, from an approaching ship’s hull from beyond the range she could strike back, before finishing the crippled ship off with nuclear shells. A disadvantage to this, however, was that the entire ship had to be reoriented to switch targets. Due to the lasers’ power and maintenance requirements, Glory also had a vastly larger crew than previous battleships. While older ships had had crews of a few dozen at most, Glory carried nearly a hundred and fifty crewmembers.

Powered by open-cycle engines, Glory retained the armouring scheme of wrapping water ice reaction mass around the hull, but also included a new revolutionary scheme designed to defend against lasers. Glory’s external thermal shield was composed of carbon-12 backed by a hafnium diboride ceramic layer, backed by a beryllium copper alloy layer. Carbon-12 ablates slowly when hit by a laser, carrying away heat and also creating a cloud of plasma that disrupts the beam. Hafnium diboride has high thermal conductivity while the beryllium copper acts as a heat sink, spreading heat from the ceramic layer over large area, thus preventing the ceramic from melting at the hit point. Beryllium also offers additional protection against neutron radiation. Glory also carried the standard Whipple shield and lithium deuteride anti-radiation layer. Below these, however, it carried a new water-based active cooling system, which was designed to further reduce damage by lasers.

The implications of Glory were staggering. Until then, battles had taken place at ranges of a few tens of kilometres at most, with only the development of the nuclear shell and cannon capable of firing shot at twenty-five kilometres-per-second pushing engagements beyond visual range. A laser-armed battleship, however, could conceivably engage targets at over one hundred thousand kilometres. Cannon-armed battleships were totally obsolete. Hysteria erupted in the Commonwealth on Glory’s launch, and the Solarian Federal Government admitted in 2210 that it had planned an invasion of the Saturn system using Glory and her two sister ships as the primary striking element before the Commonwealth could react. In response to the “invasion scare”, the Commonwealth began development of its own laserers with the Warrior-class.

HMS Warrior and HMS Black Prince were launched in 2161. With four 150-megajoule spinal lasers, heavier armour and point-defence, and more powerful engines, they were more effective than the Glory-class, and were briefly the most powerful warships in the Solar System. By 2166, laser-armed warships were the core of all of the Solar System’s navies. The first battle between these new battleships, however, would not take place between the Commonwealth and the Republic, but within Kuiper itself.

The first clash of laserers was during the Kuiper Civil War of 2161-2165. Four dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt, already dissatisfied with their representation in the Confederate government, seceded from the Confederate States over the March election of President Harry Whipple, forming the Kuiper Republic under President Jimmy Davies and taking the laserer Robert D. Shaffer with them. Hoping to gain a new ally against the Commonwealth, the Solarian Republic supplied the laser-armed SRS McDonald to the Republic, which was modified and renamed KRS Willis, after the C.S. Navy Commander who was court-martialled and imprisoned for his pro-secession sympathies.

An important Kuiper innovation just prior to the outbreak of war had been the laser turret. A series of “rubber mirrors” allowed a battleship direct the full power of a spinal laser’s beam through a series of independently-targetable turret mounts without having to completely reorient the ship. The standard armament on all Kuiper battleships was two laser turrets and six cannon. The turret would be particularly important in the coming battles.

KRS Robert D. Shaffer first battled three out-of-date C.S. Navy frigates at the Battle of Haumea on October 12th 2161. A bloodless, inconclusive raid, it nevertheless showed the range and striking power of lasers. As Confederate States Army forces garrisoned on the seceding planets engaged Republican Army forces, the naval war settled down into inconclusive exchanges of fire between gunboats and monitors and the familiar pattern of commerce raiding: Neither side had yet developed laser-armed frigates or cruisers. Notably, the Kuiper Republic issued letters of marque during its brief period of independence, and the use of privateers was levelled against Republican officers and politicians as a war crime in post-war tribunals.

The first battle between laserers would take place on March 9th 2162 at Varuna, as CSS Macalister was deployed to protect the Confederate States Navy’s older fleet from KRS Willis, a gunboat, and two older battleships. On March 8th, Willis wrecked havoc on the five older C.S. Navy battleships over Varuna, crippling CSS Boxer and destroying CSS Martin when her reactor melted down after lasers destroyed her radiators. The remaining three battleships pulled out of Varuna’s orbit. Notably, however, Willis was forced to fire from ten thousand kilometres, far within the theoretical maximum range of her lasers, due to deficiencies in her cannon-era targeting software. The defeat caused panic in the Confederate capital on Haumea. Nerves that had already been shaken by Robert D. Shaffer’s raid in October were shattered by news that over four hundred spacers had been lost with two ships. Nevertheless, Macalister under Captain Maxwell Jewells was already on her way to Varuna, and engaged Willis at 1116 the next day while the latter was waiting for Republican troopships.

The two ships circled each other at eight to ten thousand kilometres for three hours, their armour proving more than capable at resisting laser shots. Finally, a frustrated Jewells attempted to ram Willis, moving in and firing nuclear shells, to no effect. This action, however, scared Commander Rey Fontaine enough to withdraw his ship. Three died and sixteen were wounded aboard Willis compared to two dead and twelve wounded aboard Macalister.

The engagement was ultimately strategically inconclusive, and the Republic failed to damage the Confederate States’ blockade of their planets. Willis would be destroyed in May by the Republicans to prevent the Confederates from seizing her. The effectiveness of lasers against older warships was noted by the Solarians and the Commonwealth. The revolving laser turret was also noted and the design is still used aboard modern battleships. Another feature of the battle that was not emulated so successfully in future designs was Jewells’ ramming tactics. The Commonwealth’s battleship Taurus in 2163 was the first warship for over half a century to incorporate a purpose-built ram, and as far as a generation of naval tacticians were concerned, lasers and cannon were ineffective against modern defences and their sole role was to “prepare the way for the ram”, even when improvements in laser targeting meant that such an approach would be suicidal.

In Kuiper, the Confederates began a furious construction programme for laser-armed warships. The first laser-armed frigates and cruisers, the Alligator- and Lincoln-classes, proved to be devastatingly effective against Republican merchant shipping. At Makemake on August 5th 2164, four Confederate laserers, two gunboats, three older battleships and nine cruisers engaged three Republican gunboats and the Republican Navy’s last laserer, Robert D. Shaffer. The Republicans under Rear Admiral Nick Buchanan pulled back into high orbit over Makemake, dropping mines in the Confederates’ path. Rear Admiral Lower Half Ailidh Farlander aboard the Macalister-class CSS Hermes ordered her ships to advance through the minefield, firing as they went to destroy the mines. When the Kowalski-class gunboat Richards was destroyed by a mine, Farlander’s flag captain suggested that they pull back. With a cry of; “Damn the mines! All ahead flank!”, Farlander ordered her ships to continue. The remaining ships made it through the minefield without casualties.

In the hopes of destroying the battleships Hermes, Porter, Williams and Page, Buchanan ordered his three Dubois-class gunboats forward on a suicide run. Fire from the Confederate gunboats Mitchell and Richards destroyed KRS Constellation, and KRS Warrington was crippled by fire from Porter and surrendered. KRS Osprey surrendered without firing a shot. Farlander then turned on Robert D. Shaffer, attempting to ram her as Jewells had done at Haumea. Shaffer successfully evaded the ramming attacks, and though her armour worked well, she suffered damage from ten thousand kilometres to her hull-mounted equipment. Furthermore, the Republic’s poor military state at the time meant that her laser turrets began misfiring. Finally, after nearly three hours, the ship was almost motionless, with one of her turrets jammed and many of her sensor systems shot away. Buchanan, who was suffering from a broken leg, gave permission to Captain David Clay to surrender. Despite it being a decisive Confederate victory, however, C.S. Navy losses were considerably higher than the Republicans, with 148 dead and 180 wounded compared to thirteen dead and twenty wounded.

The Kuiper Civil War killed over six hundred and twenty thousand people, with another four hundred thousand wounded in action. After the Republican surrender on May 9th, 2165, the development of battleships continued apace. Ironically, the lessons of Makemake, which showed that a battleship could indeed cripple another with only lasers, were forgotten in the midst of the “ramming craze”. The clean lines of battleships were now disfigured by the addition of tungsten-and-concrete rams to their bows. Beginning with HMS Taurus, the naval ram was really more of an ultra-short range missile. In the ideal scenario, a battleship would accelerate at the highest possible rate towards the enemy, firing as it went, and releasing at the last moment the ultra-dense bow section before throwing the ship into reverse. The bow section would theoretically continue on and cripple or outright destroy the target ship.

In practice, the ram threw fleet tactics into disarray. A hard-charging fleet would waste a great deal of fuel pursuing a retreating enemy, and individual ships could become dangerously isolated from the rest of the wall and set upon by multiple enemies. Furthermore, the presence of a heavy, ultra-massive bow ram made battleships unspaceworthy, difficult to manoeuvre, and wasteful of fuel. In a real engagement, one wall of battleships would easily be able to cripple another that was attempting to ram. However, the ineffectiveness of lasers at Haumea and the lucky destruction of HMS Frederick the Great by SRS Vespasian at Loge during the Saturn War only gave strength to the ramming school.

The first, and indeed, last fleet battle between laserer battleships was at Loge during the Saturn War of 2166. Begun on June 14th, the “nine weeks war” is mostly of interest to those studying the cult of the offensive and “war by timetable”. Convinced that the Commonwealth’s battleship-building programme was a precursor to war, and that they could only win if they struck before the programme was completed, the Solarians under President Junshi Maya ordered an immediate mobilisation of its reserves to attack the Saturn system. The strictness of mobilisation timetables and communication delays between the Solarian Republic’s planets meant that it was impossible to reverse mobilisation and call back the fleet even when Maya issued a cancellation order.

The Battle of Loge on July 20th is considered to be low point in the history of the Commonwealth Navy. A Solarian fleet escorting a troop convoy bound to invade Titan encountered a Commonwealth fleet near the small moon of Loge. With seven laser-armed battleships, four laser-armed cruisers, and the newly-built, ram-equipped Indefatigable, the Commonwealth fleet under Admiral Sir Charles Patterson had a decisive advantage over the seven Solarian laserers and seven older ships under Rear Admiral Lower Half Victoria MacMurrough. The Commonwealth fleet, however, suffered from bickering between Patterson and his cruiser squadron commander, Vice Admiral Tatiana Neame, an outspoken opponent of ramming.

Believing her ships to be less effective than the Commonwealth’s, MacMurrough chose to close the range quickly, seeking to ram with her laserers while allowing her older ships to make full use of their cannon. Patterson ordered his laserers to ram as well, and his starboard wing of battleships advanced on the Solarians at 0645, opening fire from twenty thousand kilometres. Afraid of committing her cruisers at close range, however, Neame held back. Seeing a chance to defeat the Commonwealth in detail, MacMurrough threw her entire fleet against Patterson’s starboard. In the process, she allowed her i to be dotted by Neame, but the fire from the Commonwealth cruiser division was sparse and mostly inaccurate. The Solarian laserer Revenge of the Retribution-class was hit seventeen times by lasers on the approach, temporarily losing propulsion and killing Captain Ricardo Burks. Had Patterson concentrated his fleet’s fire, Revenge could easily have been destroyed, but he was so desperate to make a ramming attack that she was left to drift until the executive officer, Commander Charlotte Bryant, got the ship back under control.

By 0730, the Solarian wall had brought Patterson’s starboard to close action, resulting in a chaotic, uncoordinated exchange of nuclear shells and lasers. Advanced point-defence successfully neutralised the majority of shells, but laser fire still caused damage. Interestingly, despite losing a significant number of external sensors to lasers, the older battleships in both fleets were still able to engage with nuclear shells using visual targeting, which would have been impossible with a laserer due to the vast differences in engagement range.

Aboard Indefatigable, Patterson took the decision to make the first ramming attack, approaching the older President-class battleship Congress. However, Congress successfully dodged Patterson, forcing him to beat a hasty retreat back to his own wall while under heavy fire. Encourage by his admiral, Captain Christi Yarbrough aboard the Marquess of Bute-class HMS Lord Saltoun made her own charge. At the last moment, however, Congress spun to present her engines to Lord Saltoun, severely damaging her bow and forcing her to break off. At the same time, MacMurrough aboard her flagship, the Roman-class Vespasian, attempted her own ramming attack against the Premier-class laserer HMS Palmerston, which managed to dodge the attack but suffered severe laser damage to its radiators. Her reactor melted down twenty minutes later, leaving only twenty survivors out of a crew of two hundred and fifty.

Undaunted by her failure to ram Palmerston, MacMurrough turned on her sister ship Walpole. Firing as she charged, Vespasian successfully released her ram into the laserer’s flank as she unsuccessfully attempted to turn away. The heavy ram opened 80% of Walpole’s compartments to space and sent the ship tumbling out of formation. Falling back to her own wall, Vespasian dodged a ramming attack by HMS Ancona, but lost three of its laser turrets to the battleship’s fire in the process. With many of his ships damaged by laser fire or missing their rams having released them too early, and despite Congress now being in a good position to ram, Patterson ordered his fleet to retreat.

The Commonwealth’s public was outraged at the defeat: Two laserers and 650 men had died, compared to 38 dead for the Solarians. Patterson and Neame were dishonourably discharged for their conduct. The Navy’s embarrassment was only heightened after the decisive defeat of the Solarian force on Titan by the Commonwealth Army at the Battle of Kerguelen Facula, where Solarian casualties were nearly seven times those of the Commonwealth. In total, one hundred and eight thousand people died during the war, seventy thousand of them civilians in the Saturn system. The Treaty of Deimos, concluded in October, saw an end to the war with a return to the status quo ante bellum.

Final instalment (2168-2217: The Age of the Missile): Friday, 24th August