Friday, 24 August 2012

A Brief History of Space Combat: Part V

The fifth and final instalment of Bobby Abernethy's A Brief History of Space Combat, prequel to his award-winning Red Nightfall and Grey Dawn. Previous instalments can be read here: Part IPart II, Part III and Part IV.

2168-2217: The Age of the Missile

Frustrated by the deficiencies of lasers and ramming at Loge, a growing number of naval architects and tacticians sought new ways to break the tactical deadlock. Impressed by the effectiveness of mines and nuclear shells against undefended hulls, the Commonwealth naval designer Patricia Winters sought to develop a self-propelled nuclear shell that could track an evading target at extreme range, while being able to survive most point-defence fire. Her experiments led to the 2168 development of the torpedo. Designed to be fired from pre-existing cannon barrels, the torpedo has changed little from its first design, and resembles a long, tapering metal cigar, which carries relatively heavy armouring to protect it from laser and kinetic point-defence. The aft two-thirds of the torpedo houses a propulsion system, which in Winters’ day, was a miniaturised open-cycle gas core engine with a secondary plasma thrusters for use in a magnetosphere. The first torpedoes had a maximum range of twenty-five thousand kilometres, with the expectation that they would be used alongside lasers in long-range engagements. The fore third of the torpedo houses targeting systems and the warhead.

Winters’ nuclear warhead was her most important innovation. Though nuclear shells and mines had graduated from kiloton-yield implosion-type weapons to three- to five-megaton thermonuclear designs, the problem of much of the explosion’s energy being wasted in a spherical detonation remained. Winters’ design was a nuclear shaped charge. A thermonuclear device was enclosed inside a shell of x-ray opaque uranium, which upon detonation, forced the x-rays generated by the explosion to exit through a small hole in the front of the case, where a channel filler of beryllium oxide transforms the x-rays into heat, which transforms a liner in front of the filler into a jet of plasma that carries around 85% of the weapon’s energy into the target, enough to completely destroy a battleship. The liner’s composition is classified to this day, but its effects suggest a low atomic number metal to allow for a high-velocity, narrow jet. The shaped charge also provides a degree of standoff to the torpedo, increasing its lethality while minimising its exposure to enemy defensive fire.

Winters first marketed her design to the Confederate States Navy, which eagerly accepted it as a way of rescuing its large fleet of gunboats from obsolescence. Re-designated “torpedo boats”, they could now inflict crippling damage on a larger vessel, and given the relatively poor accuracy of battleship lasers at extreme range, it seemed likely that a large swarm of torpedo boats could launch enough weapons to outright destroy a battleship. The modern torpedo boat is a poorly-armoured but heavily-armed craft designed to survive in battle using its speed and manoeuvrability alone.

The Commonwealth Navy’s response was to develop the first destroyer with the Falcon-class. Developed from the hull of a Conestoga-class frigate, mounted an unprecedented sixteen lasers designed for the sole purpose of destroying flimsy torpedo boats, and twenty-five less-powerful lasers designed to defend itself and the main wall of battleships from torpedoes.

The Solarian Republic Navy went a step further with the 2170 development of the missile, essentially a stripped-down Mark 3 torpedo designed to track and destroy the relatively-defenceless torpedo boats. The ATB-1 missile had superior manoeuvrability and acceleration compared to heavy torpedoes, and to this day the definition of a torpedo is a weapon that possesses acceleration comparable to a warship, while a missile has greater acceleration than a warship. Another important Solarian innovation in 2173 was the ATM-1 counter-torpedo missile, which later became the modern term “countermissile”. The ATM-1 was designed to be fired in groups of four from a cannon barrel, creating a “shotgun effect” before activating their engines to track down and destroy torpedoes with kinetic-kill fragmenting warheads.

The 2173 launch of SRS Redoubtable showcased all these new innovations. At a hundred and one metres in length it appeared to be a modern and advanced warship, but was in fact a confused mass of anti-torpedo boat lasers, anti-ship lasers, and torpedo, nuclear shell, missile, and countermissile magazines. The Redoubtable-class never saw combat, but had it done so, it is likely that in the confusion of battle, the wrong type of ammunition would be sent to the wrong weapon at the wrong time.

Naval tacticians still considered lasers, torpedoes and nuclear shells to be vital components in a combined arms attack on another fleet. Lasers and torpedoes would be used to wear down the enemy’s screen and defences, while nuclear shells would be fired in the last stages of the battle to finish a weakened enemy off. The development of the missile, however, influenced the Commonwealth’s Third Sea Lord and Controller of the Navy Sir Jackson Grant, who reasoned that rather relying on a few heavy, slow torpedoes surviving enemy point-defence, it would be better to rely on a large number of flimsier but faster shaped charge missiles that could overwhelm the enemy with sheer numbers. Perhaps most importantly, the lighter construction of a missile allows for a much higher acceleration rate than a torpedo, giving point-defence much less time to track it, as well as greater fuel efficiency and so superior range. The first missiles were designed in conjunction with new targeting systems for lasers, and so pushed the engagement envelope out to one hundred thousand kilometres. With all this in mind, Grant directed the development of the Admiral-class battleship.

First launched in 2180, the Admirals marked the beginnings of a substantial doctrinal shift in the Commonwealth Navy away from lasers to missiles as a ship’s main armament. The Admiral-class did away with nuclear shells entirely in favour of two dedicated coilgun missile tubes firing the fifty-metric ton RSM-5 Javelin anti-ship missile, two L-26/500 MJ anti-ship laser turrets, a single dedicated torpedo tube firing the 125-ton Mark 5 torpedo, and six launchers firing the twenty-ton RSM-6 Sarissa anti-torpedo boat missile. For defence they carried four QFL-13/100 MJ anti-missile and torpedo lasers and eight launchers for the RIM-3 Sparrow countermissile.

Like the earlier Redoubtables, the similar-sized Admirals never saw combat, and there is considerable debate among naval historians as to how successful they would have been in combat. Some argue that the design was confused and unsuccessful, particularly the even split between missile and laser armament, which is thought to be a poor design compromise brought about by bickering between traditional and newer thinkers. In combat, it is unlikely that this armament layout would have been able to deliver the proper weight of fire in missiles or laser fire to overwhelm the enemy’s defences. Other historians see it as a vital first experiment in missiles that would lead to the modern missile main armament.

After the Admiral-class performed well in exercises, Grant was able to pursue his ambition of a ship with a missile main armament with the Sovereign-class in 2189, setting the standard of naval power for a generation. The Sovereigns were considerably larger at 125 metres in length, and also fired the larger 75-ton RSM-10 Poseidon missile from four missile tubes, with a secondary armament of ten Sarissa missile launchers, six 200 megajoule “quick firing” lasers with sixteen turrets, and seven torpedo tubes. Defensively, they carried twelve Sparrow countermissile launchers and twelve 100 megajoule point-defence lasers. The Sovereign design team envisioned a large number of five-megaton yield missiles being fired to draw enemy point-defence fire away from the more powerful but slower ten-megaton torpedoes.

Intensive missile development over the nine years between the Admirals and Sovereigns had produced the Poseidon missile, which had an incredible maximum range of five million kilometres. In practice, however, even modern missile fire is neither heavy enough nor accurate enough to penetrate enemy point-defence at this range, so beginning with the Sovereign-class, the heaviest anti-ship missiles have always operated at shorter ranges in conjunction with the secondary lighter missile and laser armament to cripple or destroy enemy vessels. Furthermore, modern missile tubes have a maximum rate of fire of around one round per minute, so lighter armaments are required to ensure a constant bombardment. Combat between missile-armed battleships, therefore, usually takes place at a maximum range of five hundred thousand kilometres. Due to light speed lag, it is impossible for a laser beam to hit an evading target beyond this range.

What gave the Poseidon missile its unprecedented maximum range was its nuclear salt-water engine using 50% enriched uranium tetrabromide.The modern missile is fired from a long electromagnetic tube that extends from the ship’s bow almost to its stern. A battleship-weight missile is fired from the tube and will travel at least five thousand kilometres from the ship before it activates its engine. This allows it to cross its five million kilometre maximum range in slightly under ten minutes. However, a missile’s sensor head has an extremely narrow field of view, and so will easily lose track of a rapidly evading target. It must therefore receive near-constant target information updates from the firing ship before it achieves its own target lock at around halfway through its flight to the target. Since targeting updates are limited by the speed of light, this essentially limits effective range of a missile to one and a half million kilometres.

The Sovereign-class also used the radical nuclear salt-water engine as its primary propulsion system, which made them the fastest battleships in the Solar System at the time. This record has only recently been broken by the Commonwealth Navy’s 2215 launch of HMS Illustrious.

The modern battleship design reached maturity with the Commonwealth’s Majestic-class in 2195, incorporating a double-layered armoured hull of anti-laser, anti-kinetic, and anti-radiation layers. An important modification to the anti-radiation layer was structuring it from overlapping slats of lithium deuteride and concrete, backed by a layer of depleted uranium. A second innovation was the addition to two ten-centimetre graphite-coated steel layers to the armouring scheme, designed to provide a measure of protection should a nuclear shaped charge jet, weakened by point-defence, actually strike the hull. The Majestic-class also utilises a lighter fifty-ton RSM-28 Spatha missile as its main armament, which due to propellant and warhead advances, is just as fast and lethal as the larger Poseidon missile, which has since been retired by the Commonwealth Navy.

Today, the modern battleship design is epitomised by the Commonwealth’s Sovereign, Majestic, King Henry X, and Illustrious-classes, the Solarian Cicero, Parker, and Admiral de Grasse-classes, and the Kuiper Carolyn Foulds, Farlander, and Togo-classes. All these carry a main armament of four tubes firing fifty-tonne missiles, with a secondary battery of ten to fifteen twenty-ton missile launchers and twelve to sixteen 200 to 500 megajoule quick firing lasers, and five to eight torpedo tubes. Improvements in materials and propulsion now mean that the modern missile is almost as heavily-protected as the first torpedoes.

In terms of fleet tactics, the wall formation is mostly unchanged, though it is now defended by a heavy screen of destroyer and cruiser squadrons. After the advent of the missile as the new long-range anti-ship weapon, the roles of the destroyer and the traditional cruiser and frigate had to be rethought. Though it is still designed to deal with torpedo boats, this is a secondary mission for the modern destroyer, which carries an extremely heavy countermissile and point-defence laser armament to stop enemy missiles and torpedoes from reaching the main wall of battleships. The modern frigate is too light to sit in the wall during fleet actions, and it has been mostly replaced in commerce raiding and protection duties by the larger light cruiser. However, it still finds use in force projection, orbital support, and independent patrol.

The modern cruiser is divided into two types; light and heavy. The heavy cruiser flies with the wall during major fleet actions, fulfilling the role of a “screen killer” in trying to take out the enemy’s destroyers and cruisers, as well as acting as a command and control ship for its fleets own destroyers and torpedo boats. A heavy cruiser’s armament, however, is too light to engage a battleship, and it relies on speed and manoeuvrability to evade capital ship fire during a fleet engagement. The light cruiser, meanwhile, has taken on the frigate’s role of commerce raiding and protection, and also fulfils independent patrol duties. The role of the monitor is basically unchanged from its original mission of orbital support.

Notably, despite the Solar System’s navies racing to establish large missile-armed battleship fleets, there has yet to have been a major clash between them. The Confederate States is content with its pocket in the Kuiper belt, and the Commonwealth Union has never been a power to launch aggressive wars. Furthermore, since the fiasco of the Saturn War, the Solarian Federal Republic seems to have abandoned outright war as a means to seize the Saturn system, instead funding proxy wars and uprisings within Commonwealth territory, most recently the Europa Insurrection of 2203 and the Hyperion Massacres of 2208, conflicts which proved the continued viability of the monitor and the frigate. However, as Stanley Baldwin put it on the eve of the Second World War, great armaments lead inevitably to war, and this, coupled with the increasing violence of Solarian-funded rebellions, means that the next great naval clash cannot be far away.

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