Friday, 10 August 2012

A Brief History of Space Combat

Bobby Abernethy has written two novels, Grey Storm and Red Nightfall (which won the 2012 Ithaka Prize). He has just completed a prequel, A Brief History of Space Combat, which he is releasing in instalments, each Friday and Monday, over the next three weeks, on the blog.


The history of space warfare begins in the 1960s with anti-satellite weapon projects of the Soviet Union and the United States. Ground-to-space anti-satellite missiles were fired by the U.S., China, Russia and India in World War III, and these engagements are believed to have shortened the war by at least six months. Space warfare technology, however, stagnated after the unification of Earth under the Commonwealth Union. It was only during the mass expansion of humanity into space and the development of true colonies that warfare in space became as critically important as engagements on the surface.

The Three Laws of Space Combat

Despite advances in weaponry, armour and propulsion, a few fundamental truths, sometimes called the “Three Laws of Space Combat”, have dominated space warfare since the first engagements.

The First Law states that stealth in space is almost impossible. It is not possible to conceal a spacecraft due to the need to remove waste heat, which even from small vessels is detectable from several million kilometres. The larger a ship becomes, the more heat must be removed. It is therefore impossible to design any form of manned stealth warship, and the Solar System’s navies have historically put more effort into making their warships look like something more innocent rather than concealing them entirely. All ships, military or otherwise, must carry large radiators to remove heat, and these are the Achilles heel of combat spacecraft. Since the majority of waste heat from warships comes from life support systems, however, it is possible to design small unmanned drones that are stealthy, and these see heavy use in reconnaissance sweeps. It is impractical, however, to use these offensively, as the evasion capabilities and active sensor systems required for a missile render any stealth features essentially useless. A qualifier to the First Law, however, is that detection is not the same as a target lock, so combat typically takes place at much shorter ranges than the First Law would initially suggest.

The Second Law states that any object hitting another at three kilometres per second delivers kinetic energy broadly equal to its mass in TNT. For this reason, for roughly half of the history of space warfare, ship-to-ship weapons did not carry explosive warheads. Warheads, first based on chemical explosives, and then nuclear, only emerged once point-defence and improved electronic countermeasures made direct strikes on a target’s hull almost impossible. This also relates to planetary strikes: Because of the extreme damage any spacecraft could cause if it collided with a planet, all civilian ships are equipped with self-destruct systems that can be remotely triggered by orbital patrol ships if a vessel is acting erratically or suspiciously.

The Third Law states that as a spacecraft’s engine becomes more powerful, its potential as a weapon becomes greater. This is sometimes known as the “Kzinti Lesson”. The current nuclear salt-water engines used aboard modern battleships allow ships to reach 3.6% of the speed of light, meaning a trip from Earth to Pluto (assuming both planets are at their closest points to each other) will last only twelve days. This also means, however, that every ship with this type of drive has a one thousand kilometre “no go zone” behind the stern, in which another ship can expect severe damage or outright destruction from the exhaust and radiation plume. Naturally, this has led to the development of complex docking procedures to prevent ships or space stations from destroying each other. From 2096 to 2220, there have been twenty-six recorded incidents of ships blundering into another ship’s exhaust stream, with the effects ranging from severe hull damage to the ship being blown clean in half. Coming into contact with another vessel’s exhaust is a real danger if a ship is forced to retreat from a battle zone. Because of the extreme power of these, only military vessels operate nuclear salt-water engines, and only licensed shipping companies are permitted to operate other types of nuclear engine. The dominant engines used in civilian ships are plasma drives such as the variable specific impulse magnetoplasma engine and the dual-stage four-grid ion engine. These are only useful for short-range flights between moons or nearby planets.

These three laws have also guaranteed a measure of consistency in tactics and design. From the first space engagements, the spinal mount has been the standard layout for capital ship weapons as it allows for the greatest length of barrel to accelerate a projectile or energise a laser beam. This has also had a significant effect on the development of fleet formations: To this day, the standard fleet formation is that of a screen of lighter combatants in front of an “advancing wall” of the most powerful capital ships. One ship deep and many ships long and high, the wall allows for the greatest number of forward-fixed weapons to be brought to bear on the enemy formation. Single ship actions generally see greater variety in tactics, and compared to the formalistic wall-to-wall combat of fleet actions, these battles tend to resemble intricate “dances” as each ship vies for position, and are typically won by the more daring tactician.

Thus, the basic warship design that has held true for one and a half centuries is a long tube with a heavy forward armament and a heavily-protected prow. Because of the wall formation and their lack of power compared to the longer barrels of spinal mounts, very few warship designs have ever mounted a large broadside offensive armament, and those that have are largely considered to be failed experiments. The modern battleship’s broadsides are entirely devoid of heavy offensive weaponry, and as a result the tactical ideal of modern combat is to “dot the i”, whereby one’s own wall, heavily compressed to allow the greatest number of battleships to attack at the greatest possible range, approaches the flank of the enemy’s wall, allowing for enfilading fire along its entire length while the enemy cannot respond offensively. However, the inability to avoid detection in space means a fleet can easily detect any attempt to “dot its i”, and can reorient itself long before the enemy can enter weapons range. Because of this, successful i dottings are vanishingly rare even in single ship actions.

The first space battles: The age of ramming

The first true space engagements between ships were fought during the Twenty Years’ War (2096 – 2115), comprising the Solarian and Kuiper Wars of Independence. This was the largest conflict since the Third World War, and saw revolutions in ship design, military theory, and political alignment.

Following the unprecedented success of the first Mars, Venus, and Moon colonies, the Commonwealth Union began an aggressive colonisation programme of Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, and the outer Solar System, made possible by improvements in engine technology. The variable specific impulse magnetoplasma engine and the dual-stage four-grid ion engine were great improvements over the older ion and pulsed inductive thrusters, cutting a journey to Jupiter that would have originally taken five years one-way to a one-year round trip (ships with nuclear engines were restricted to government use only). A second development was the invention of the inertial compensator, which makes use of “utility fog” to both simulate gravity and provide buoyancy forces to counter the effects of intense acceleration or harsh manoeuvres. The inertial compensator also provides internal reinforcement to flimsily-built ships undergoing strong acceleration. These two developments allowed ships to accelerate at tremendous rates, cutting down journey times while not risking the lives of passengers.

Beginning in 2075, the Commonwealth government aimed to move one billion people into these colonies by 2100. The first ships of two million colonists arrived in the systems in March 2080, after the first habitats had been established. Despite the distance from the Sun, the colonists adjusted well, with the expectation that conditions would improve even further when terraforming began in earnest.

The second wave of five million colonists, however, was not as successful. Their arrival on the new colonies in April 2082 caused resentment among the first arrivals. While in Jupiter the new arrivals were relatively well-received, there was significant hostility in the Saturn system and outright violence in the Uranus and Neptune systems. Though the Commonwealth government attempt to placate the colonists, it would not stop new shipments. Resentment towards immigrants grew in the new colonies as new, ever larger shipments arrived every two years, until events came to a head in 2096.

The Massacre of the Twentieth of April saw the coordinated murder of two million new colonists on the Neptunian moon of Triton and the Uranian moons of Miranda and Umbriel. The Commonwealth government was shocked to hear that police and Commonwealth Army security forces had been involved in the massacre. The colonial governments of the Neptune and Uranus systems declared independence from the Commonwealth Union, creating the Solarian Federal Republic under President Charlotte Hart, the Neptunian governor. Utilising twelve captured merchant ships, four mining vessels, and six rescue craft, the new Solarian Republic Navy invaded the Saturn system, with the aim of claiming the system for its original colonists.

The Solarian task force under Admiral Jaime Gaul, an ex-Patrol Service officer, was met by a force of eight Commonwealth Space Patrol Service craft. Though they were completely unarmed and designed only for rescue and customs inspection, the Commonwealth ships ordered the Solarians to stand down. Utilising mass drivers designed to break apart asteroids, the Solarian mining vessels destroyed three ships. These early coilguns were slow to reload and required the entire ship to be reoriented to aim, so five ships successfully evaded the incoming fire. These survivors were rammed by the Solarian rescue craft. These “ramships” took minor structural damage, but all five patrol craft were destroyed. Within a month, the Solarians had seized four of the eight colonised Saturnian moons.

The long, tapering cylindrical designs of the mining and rescue vessels would influence naval designers for decades to come. Since all space vessels were based on the same modular design at the time, both ship types were visually similar and both one hundred and fifty metres in length. Powered by solid core nuclear thermal engines, the rescue ships were had far greater rates of acceleration than the magnetoplasma engine-powered mining vessels, making them excellent at evading mass driver fire. Where they had once held lifeboats on docking arms, these ships were now encased in armoured shells. Their cockpits had originally sat in the nose of the vessels, but were moved as far to the stern as possible and their noses and armoured shells were filled with dense materials such as lead, tungsten and concrete to increase the ramship’s kinetic energy. Each ship had a crew of two, reduced from the four in the original design.

The mining vessels, designated “battleships” by the Solarians, were outwardly similar to the unmodified rescue vessels, but instead of lifeboats, mounted four mass drivers, each of which could accelerate a four kilogram projectile to five kilometres per second, with a maximum range of ten kilometres. In practice, however, engagements typically took place at much shorter ranges due to the extreme difficulty of aiming mass drivers. Nicknamed “cannon” by their crews, this name for mass drivers was soon officially adopted out of sheer convenience. Each cannon had a rate of fire of one round every minute. Their variable specific impulse magnetoplasma engines were much slower than the ramships, however, which had initially been designed to reach stricken vessels in the shortest possible time. Each battleship also had a crew of four.

The events in the Saturn system were met with stunned disbelief on Earth, followed by sheer horror. Prime Minister Steven Donne’s government collapsed when the news became widely known, and was replaced by Claudia Alsop’s wartime coalition. Never had the Commonwealth Armed Forces’ military planners considered anything like this happening. While the Solarians were developing new naval tactics, the Commonwealth had no dedicated space warships, no plans for engaging an enemy in space, and no ability to quickly ship masses of troops to combat zones. Furthermore, the Solarians were supplying known insurrectionary groups in Jupiter and Mars. The breakup of the Commonwealth Union seemed to be inevitable.

The Commonwealth had one advantage, however. The Solarians had neither the capacity nor willingness to engage in orbital bombardments of targets. Orbital strikes were and remain a fundamentally inaccurate method of destroying a position. Therefore, the Commonwealth Army garrisons on Titan and Mimas successfully held out even as the Solarians controlled the orbitals. Garrisons on the other moons had surrendered out of fear once the Solarians had control of space. Furthermore, after the initial shock had died down, the Commonwealth Space Patrol Service had closely scrutinised the Solarians’ tactics. The combination of fast, manoeuvrable ramships and mining vessels providing long-range covering fire with their mass drivers was recognised as the best form for a new space navy until dedicated warships could be developed. While the shipyards over Earth and Mars switched from building colony ships to war vessels, twenty mining vessels were seized and thirty patrol craft modified to military standards. However, the Space Patrol Service insisted that a military mission was alien to its original role as a peacekeeping and rescue organisation, and refused to operate the new ships. An effort was made to transfer control to the Commonwealth Air Force, but the CAF refused the expensive new vessels, and the Commonwealth Navy received them. The Navy, which had been struggling to find a new role after the need to patrol Earth’s seas became less, gladly accepted the new ships, and the Commonwealth Navy Space Service was founded in February 2097 around a core of officers and men brought from the Patrol Service.

Earth’s counterattack under Admiral Dianne Connor began on April 1st 2097. The “Glorious Eighth of April” saw the fleet gain its first victory at Greip with the destruction of four ramships and two battleships for no Commonwealth losses, in spite of the fact that due to a combination of signalling difficulties and discipline and morale problems, only three Commonwealth ramships attacked the Solarian wall. By the end of the year, the Commonwealth’s superior numbers had forced the Solarian Navy from the Saturn system and caused the death of Admiral Gaul. The Commonwealth Navy halted its advance after it took the system, choosing to wait for the ten new dedicated warships under development at Earth to be finished before they retook Uranus and Neptune.

A weakness of both sides highlighted in the campaign was both fleets’ dependence on “battle carriers”. These three hundred-metre skeletal, cylindrical vessels had originally carried merchant ships between planets before being repurposed to carry warships, and served as roving repair and resupply bases. The Solarians and the Commonwealth were heavily dependent on these ships to transport supplies, fresh crews, and the warships themselves to the theatre. Connor’s fleet had to break off contact with the Solarians and allow their battleships to retreat at the First Battle of Iapetus when Gaul made his ultimately-suicidal charge against her battle carriers with his ramships. Dependence on battle carriers would hamper both sides’ war fighting capabilities for another eight years.

Next instalment (2098-2115: The age of cannon): Monday, 13th August.

1 comment:

  1. Tim MacBain comments:

    "I must admit, Bobby, this is blooming good. Is there any way I could get my hands on either of the two novels?"


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