RocketCat sez

Aw fer cryin' out loud! When he was making his first "Star Wars" movie George Lucas thought it would be cute to add scenes inspired by old World War 2 dogfighting movies. And ever since then sci-fi fans have lost their freaking minds.

I've got new for you: in the real world combat spacecraft based on one-man fighter planes is just about the greatest military invention since the rubber spear. The concept stinks on ice scientifically, militarily, and economically.

While you are at it you might as well have your starship troopers wear bright red coats with no armor, firmly resisting the urge to take cover, and fighting out in the open in broad ranks like rows of targets in a carnaval shooting gallery.

Not like that's gonna to stop you. There are idiotic space fighter planes in both Battlestar Galacticas, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Babylon 5, Space Above And Beyond, and many many others. Not to mention the fact that it is forty freaking years after the first Star Wars movie came out and they are still making new ones jam packed with space fighters.


Small, fast, highly maneuverable COMBAT SPACECRAFT. They have very limited range (never FTL), and no crew habitability to speak of; they can only operate for at most a few hours at a time. The crew is limited to one person, or occasionally two. At least among EARTH HUMANS and ALIENS WTH FOREHEAD RIDGES, these are usually males in their early twenties, known for their swagger, coolness, and fast moves on any attractive female of an INTERBREEDABLE species. (Who REALLY ALIENS use to crew their Space Fighters is not known.)

     Because of their short range, Space Fighters usually must be carried into action by TRANSPORTER ships, though in some cases they will be carried piggyback on other, larger Combat Spacecraft. Their tactical value is unclear, since the are really just small spacecraft themselves. Since they don't operate in an essentially different medium, the way aircraft operate in a different medium from surface ships, there is no fundamental reason why they should be all that much faster. In naval terms they are more analogous to motor gunboats than to airplanes. 

     Mostly Space Fighters fight each other, which is logical enough in itself but doesn't explain why they are used in the first place. Only two other missions can be identified for them:

     1) To destroy gargantuan BATTLE STATIONS, which are vulnerable only to attack by Space Fighters.

     2) To give prominent roles to young males in their early twenties, so they can display their swagger, coolness, and fast moves on any attractive female of an Interbreedable species.


Why Fighters Are Worthless

I know all you Battlestar Galactica fans are not going to want to hear it, but looking from a cost/benefit analysis, space fighter craft do not make any sense. Go to the Future War Stories blog and read the post Hard Science Space Fighters.

And before you rage at me for taking away your cherised X-Wing you might want to review the section on Respecting Science.

Ken Burnside tells it like it is:


The other deciding factor is this: A "fighter" needs to be recovered (ed note: Otherwise it is some kind of manned kamikaze missile).

That means you need delta v to get to the objective, then delta v to cancel out your inbound vector, then delta v to get to a rendezvous point, plus delta v for maneuvering in the thick of things.

A rough estimate was that you needed delta v equal to about four times that of a comparable mass missile that just needs to do a drive-by shooting.

Four times the delta v means that your fuel fraction just went up by a factor of something around four (depends on your Isp).

Now put in the life support compartment, and the payload mass, and it gets even worse; rocket performance is the red queen's race, and you rapidly hit declining efficiencies.

If you could build a TLAM that had the operational range of an F-18, you could probably get more of them packed onto a comparable size ship than a comparable mass of F-18s.

TLAMs require lots of data on the target and the terrain and have to fly "over the horizon". A lot of opposition to the TLAM was that it took away the offensive strike mission from carrier aviation.

In space, there's no horizon to hide behind.


The basic argument for fighters is that people think they're fun and cool.

The basic argument against fighters is horizon distance.

Fighters make sense in surface naval operations because a fighter can go to places where the carrier or cruiser can't. The fighter can also go to places where the big ships can't see, because of the curvature of the earth.

Unfortunately, there's no horizon for targets to hide behind in space. Even if you have something short of everyone sees everyone, it's hard(er) to justify fighters seeing things their carriers can't, just because carriers can carry bigger sensors, and space is a very sensor friendly environment.

Fighters do make sense in an orbital reference frame context, where, well, curvature of the earth matters, and where going into atmosphere matters. But this turns fighter carriers into "brown water" vessels that work in the tide pools of planetary gravity wells, which isn't the role you see them doing in fiction, which tends to take WWII carrier ops or modern USN carrier ops and apply an SFnal veneer.

Note that that's all mission specific, and only mildly tech related.

What do fighters do better than, or exclusively related to, larger ships? Answer this, and you get a reason for fighters in a setting. (the problem is in the real world the answer appears to be "Nothing")

In terms of pure offensive firepower, there's very little you can do with a fighter that a cruise missile can't do better in a space game context.

Of course, the best reason to have fighters is because they make your game more funnerer. But it does kind of help to figure out what mission they're doing.


Isaac Kuo:

That is NOT the main problem (that all combat spacecraft with be huge ships with lots of crew) with "space fighters". Depending on your technological assumptions, it's rather easy to justify small "fighter" ships. What's hard to justify is why it's better to burden the "fighter" with a human occupant rather than using remote and/or automated operation.

In other words, the crux of the matter isn't fighters vs ships—it's manned fighters vs unmanned drones.

One point in favor of drones—no one dies if the system fails.

Another point in favor of drones—lose a couple tons of life support equipment and human, and you've got that much more resources to put into other equipment.
From a thread FIIIGHTERS - WIITHOUT HANDWAVIIUM on SFConSim-l (2007)

      Of course this is only interesting in the scenarios where other reasons, such as the short loop to a decision maker, provide a benefit from humans aboard a small craft. However, given that—

     There many be another reason why a "space fighter" would be more maneuverable and hence more survivable. There are acceleration countermeasures, both tested and experimental, for dramatically increasing the G-tolerance of human beings. Total water immersion has roughly doubled tolerance for transverse G, and even without that, a 0.25 second ramp from 0 to 50G's is potentially tolerable. It's quite credible that with total fluid immersion, that might be 100G's, but let's say 80. A ramp from 0 to 80G's over 0.25 second is a 100m/s maneuver; if the same ramp down is used, it's a 200m/s maneuver in 0.5 second, moving the ship (roughly) 50 meters in the first 0.5 second, and then another 200 meters in every following second.

     If an incoming projectile (whether inert or a missile) is being tracked and approaching at 50,000 m/s, the fighter can initiate that maneuver in an unpredictable direction say 1 second before projected impact. The fighter will then displace its trajectory 250 meters before the time of impact. To match that course, the incoming missile would need sufficient acceleration to match the maneuver, otherwise it is going to miss by a distance which is probably sufficient to project the fighter from a non-nuclear warhead. If the incoming projectile is inert, of course, it can't follow at all.

     The fighter gets to pick the direction of the maneuver and the incoming projectile doesn't know which way it is dodging until the maneuver starts (and maybe a bit longer to figure out which way it is going). At these high thrusts it is probably impractical to carry multi-axis thrusters; both the fighter and the ship have to pivot (like the B5 starfuries), to accelerate along the axis that the thruster points. The fighter can have prepositioned that — started the tumble and be waiting to initiate the maneuver when desired; the missile can't start the turn to follow the maneuver until the fighter starts the burn.

     If the incoming missile is Sidewinder sized (which is a very small missile indeed for these kinds of speeds with any credible technology), 4m long, 0.4m diameter, with a mass of 500kg, the inertia is about 600 kg-m^2. To turn in 0.1 second (a time short compared to the intercept time), by 90 degrees (45 to start, 45 to stop), takes an angular acceleration of 150 radians/s^2, and a torque of about 10,000 N-m. If applied by a thruster on the end, that's a thrust of 5,000N (about 1100 lbf). Is it possible? Yes. Is it possible the missile also has maneuvering rockets of sufficient thrust to follow the fighter? Yes. But it's enormously more difficult that it is to hit a target that can't maneuver in this way.

     Not only would the idea of stressing a large ship for 80+ G maneuvers be prohibitive, but the kinds of countermeasures involved simply cannot be applied with crew that are able to move about the ship. The only way to manage this is if the crew is very near the center of gravity of the ship, properly cushioned, and restrained, and if water immersed, using something like fingertip controls inside the water volume.

     You can push this further by doing things like liquid breathing — just how much improvement that will give is speculative, but it is not at all crazy given the results from centrifuging animals with fluid-filled lungs to think that an improvement in tolerance up to ten fold might be achievable; but make no mistake about it, the pilot in that environment is going to be wired in to a life support system — mechanical respiration assistance, gas exchange on the fluid medium, possibly a blood-connected CO2 scrubber. This is not something where you sound the acceleration warning; getting in that kind of environment is a serious operation and I can't believe that doing that for everyone on a large ship would be practical (and if so, they'd be quite immobilized within the ship). If you involve those technologies, short maneuvers (ramp from 0 to Gmax in 0.25 second and then back down) up to 500G's might be practical. That's an 80m displacement in 0.25 second, with a 1225 m/s resulting velocity (after 0.25 second ramp up and 0.25 second ramp down).

     Now the missile needs to turn faster, or accelerate even more sharply than the fighter, to catch up to it; the advantage of the fighter in getting to pick the direction of the escape maneuver unpredictably is magnified. A missile that can do all of those things, and do late-trajectory side thrusts sufficient to keep up, might be as expensive as the fighter it is trying to shoot down.

personal communciation with Jeff Greason (2017)

Space Fighter: Averted. Due to fairly inexorable laws of physics, ships that don’t have to contain meat and meat-support systems always outperform ships that do – which means the classic notion of a space fighter inevitably loses to the autonomous kill vehicle (AKV), which combines a cross between a missile and an attack drone with an AI – naturally-evolved brains also aren’t good at handling three-dimensional, relativistically-distorted combat environments in which microseconds count. Further kicking the trope in the teeth, they don’t look anything like space fighters – rather than an aerodynamic form-factor, except in very specialized aerospace machines with air-to-orbit capabilities – they’re unstreamlined roughly-tetrahedral machines with thruster clusters at each vertex for maximal maneuverability.

There are military starship classes called, as a set, starfighters, but they’re nothing like space fighters. Rather, they’re a tiny, sub-frigate-sized class of carrier, hosting four to eight of the above-mentioned AKVs clamped on to their outer hull – and after they get the AKVs to the fight, they hang back as a mobile command post, their own fitting being close to purely defensive. And they’re mostly used by the Shadow Fleet, scouting units, commerce raiders, and mercenaries – never on the wall of battle.


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas added Space Fighters to the standard arsenal of SF warfare tropes. For Hollywood it was love at first flight, partly for the cool special effects, partly for the reason I gave here. At SFConsim-l the consensus has been trying to stuff the things back in the toy box for the last eight years … but no one listens to us.

Lucas did not invent space fighters, of course. I don't specifically recall any in the SF I read growing up, but I vividly remember one in an animated series I used to watch in grade school. (That was also a long, long time ago, and alas I have no idea what show it was.) Space fighters didn't really catch on till Lucas, though — the clearest evidence being that Trek had nothing of the sort.

So ... what exactly is a space fighter, and what does SFConsim-l have against them? If Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and Babylon 5 are anything to go by, a space fighter is exactly what you would imagine: the spacegoing equivalent of a DeHavilland DH-4 or an F-16. It is a small spacecraft, about the size — and, oddly, roughly the shape — of a present-day fighter jet. It has a single pilot or at most a two-man crew, strapped into a cockpit with minimal habitability, clearly intended for short missions of only a day or so at most. We see them whooshing and gyrating across the screen, zapping away at each other. Now and then they also destroy the odd stray Death Star, which with typical bad-guy carelessness is designed to obliterate whole planets but cannot defend itself effectively against killer gnats.

(Credit to Babylon 5: not only did its Starfuries have less overt similarity to atmospheric jet fighters, they sometimes even maneuvered like spacecraft instead of airplanes — an all but unique Hollywood tribute to Sir Isaac Newton.)

So what, you may ask, do some of us have against space fighters? The atmospheric kind have been with us for more than 90 years — a shade longer than tanks — so they're no passing fad. What works in one environment, however, isn't automatically suited to a very different one, and fighter planes don't fight in space any more than tanks do. (Yes, the same false-analogy critique can be laid against the analogy of space warcraft to naval ships — but that's an issue for another post.)

Space, first of all, is the same environment for small ships and big ones alike. This immediately knocks the stuffing out of the implicit contrast between small, fast fighters and big, slow space dreadnoughts. Fighter planes are airplanes; battleships are ships: They operate in two entirely different fluid mediums with very different properties. Battleships can't fly, and fighter jets can't cut power and drift while making repairs. There's no such essential difference between space fighters and larger ships — and no inherent reason for the fighter to be faster or more maneuverable.

"Fast" is in fact a bit of a slippery concept when it comes to spacecraft. Speed in space is all relative to begin with; the more useful measure for a spaceship is delta v, "change in velocity" — especially, how much you can change your velocity before you run out of gas. For any given propulsion technology, the way to get more delta v isn't a more powerful engine but a bigger fuel tank. What a powerful engine does give you is higher acceleration — so you can achieve any given delta v more quickly.

"Bigger fuel tank" and "more powerful engine" are also relative — to the size of the ship, more specifically its mass, since that's what you've got to push around. They are also contradictory in a sense — a big propellant supply means more the engine has to push around, so it is hard to get both sprightly maneuver performance (high acceleration) and extended maneuver capability (ample delta v) in the same ship.

Which does suggest that a small, somewhat fighter-like spacecraft, designed for tactical operations with limited endurance, could be a good deal handier than big ships designed for long voyages. The short-range tactical ship — presumably transported to the battle zone by a "carrier," or operating from a nearby base — can carry a smaller and lighter fuel load relative to its size. It doesn't need the supplies, provisions, and life support of long-voyage ships — not even a proper zero-g toilet, let alone bunkrooms and a galley. (Also no crew of techs to keep it running: just a pilot.) The mass saved by leaving all of this out translates directly into higher acceleration: in tactical terms a more agile, "faster" ship.

So isn't this our fighter, even if it doesn't look much like the Star Wars kind?

If it's going to be a useful fighter, however, it should probably have an armament. It can't carry a very heavy one, or you lose the maneuver performance that is the fighter's reason for being. Nor can it carry much armor or other protection, for the same reason. Whatever armament and protection it does carry, however, should be sufficient to fight its enemy counterparts. If successful it destroys them or chases them off, after which it can attack bigger, slower enemy ships ... how?

Broadly speaking, space warcraft in SF use two kinds of weapons. The more familiar are beam weapons — once called ray guns; now usually imagined as lasers or something similar. The hitch here is that our small fighter can't carry a very big one, especially since the weapon needs a power supply. Big, sluggish ships, by virtue of being big and sluggish, can carry a much heavier armament — heavy enough to zap a swarm of fighters out of the sky before the fighters can do much more than scratch the big ship's paint.

Yes, the fighter is fast and maneuverable — but not faster than a laser beam. Nor is there much chance of jinking around to dodging one, at least at any range much less than Earth-Moon distance. Light travels that distance in one and a quarter seconds. Aiming is limited by the round trip (because the gunner depends on light, or a radar beam, etc., to see the target), so at Earth-Moon distance our fighter has two and a half seconds to dodge. That might be enough. But at a tenth of Earth-Moon distance — a piddly 40,000 kilometers — the fighter only has a quarter-second of dodge time.

Dodging "bullets" that come at the speed of light is no way to live long and prosper. So if fortune favors the big battalions, combat between laser-armed warcraft favors big ships that can lay down powerful zaps. Maneuver hardly enters into it.

Lasers and similar beam weapons, however, are not the only plausible space weapons. A throw pillow will wreck a space dreadnought, if you throw it fast enough, and spacecraft do go fast. Thus kinetic weapons, as described in this snippet back in April. The weapon itself is nothing more or less than a slug (or spray of slugs, like buckshot). It does, however, have to be thrown — fast and hard.

One way to throw it is to shoot it out of a gun — probably electrical, a railgun or coilgun. This, however, requires a heavy, high-power installation. As with lasers, coilguns with serious hitting power thus require big ships to carry them and their power supply. Another way to throw a slug, however, is to put it on the front end of a missile. The launching ship has to carry the missile, but this requires nothing more than a launching box, or even a clamp on the side. The third way to deliver a kinetic slug is the simplest of all: Head toward the target, fast, release the slug — then veer aside before it hits.

This last tactic has a lot in common with World War II dive bombing. In practice you would probably combine "bomb" and "missile" - the slug having a guidance motor to steer it into the target and counter any evasive moves on the target's part. Henry Cobb on SFConsim-l came up with the term lancer for this tactic and the ships used to execute it.

In contrast to zapping with lasers or similar weapons, lancer tactics favor small, agile ships. You need good maneuver performance, first to line up on collision course with your target, then to veer clear of the target — and its defensive fire envelope — after releasing your ordnance. Large size is no advantage, because the lancer ship needs no powerful on-board equipment, and because several small lancer ships are preferable to one big one. They can engage several different targets — or come at one target from several directions, boxing it in.

Now things start to look interesting, because it has probably already occurred to you that lancer ships can engage each other. In fact, if lancers are technically and tactically viable at all, the best way to protect your big ships from them might be to send your own lancers out to engage them. A battle between lancers even looks quite a bit like a dogfight, though on a vastly larger physical scale. We can imagine small, handy ships, hurtling along complex curved trajectories, trying to line up for clean shots at their enemies while avoiding getting lined up on — especially getting boxed in, where evading one enemy sends you right into the path of another.

It's taken us long enough - I've been working on this post, off and on, for about three weeks (which is why this blog has looked like a dead zone lately) — but here at last we seem to have our space fighters.

Not so fast: There are complications. In space, if I've lined up a good shot at you, you also have a good shot at me. We're heading straight at each other in a game of interplanetary chicken — given equal-performance ships, if one of us veers aside in time neither of us scores a hit; if not, we both score hits. In lancer combat you're either a live chicken or a dead duck. So much for swaggering lancer jocks knocking back green fuming Rigellian brandy and hitting on the bar girls.

The simple if unromantic solution is to leave out the pilots, or at least put them back somewhere safe, "flying" the lancers by remote control. That way you're not throwing away pilots, just some expensive hardware. There's not much reason to have a pilot in any case. Outer space is a tactically "clean" environment, without much clutter — ideal for automated systems. A lancer ship would have to be flown mostly by computer anyway; there's really not much place for silk scarf and goggles. Save the mass of pilot, cockpit, and even minimal life support and your lancer-turned-drone becomes that much more agile.

One type of decision that can't be left to an ordinary computer is a rules-of-engagement decision: shoot or don't shoot. In contemporary terms only a human being — or an artificial intelligence as sophisticated as a human being — can decide whether a car speeding toward a checkpoint carries a suicide bomber or a terrified Iraqi family. A tactical space battle, however, is very unlikely to pose that sort of question, at least in a form so immediate that it can't be decided by a human remote operator a few light-seconds away.

You could find ways around all of these complications, but at some point it becomes special pleading — like contriving a world where people have radar and guided missiles, but fight their sea battles with ironclads, really just because it would be cool. A more robust contrivance is to have your ships fight in Z-space (or whatever you choose to call it), where the local laws of physics favor spaceships that fly like airplanes. It's still contrived, but not so baroque.

For "normal" space, however — the kind with stars and planets — space fighters are a pretty dubious proposition, and you're better off without them.

Of course, if Hollywood calls and waves some money in front of me ... space fighters you want, space fighters you get.

From ROCKETPUNK MANIFESTO by Rick Robinson (2007)

An interesting discussion of the physics of space battles brings up a lot of good points — those science-fantasy movies with spaceships flitting about ignore a lot of basic physics. Star Wars was basically WWI biplanes whirling around at speeds under 60kph, which is kind of ridiculous. But fun.

This article points out that that’s not how things would play out if ever there were a real space battle. The ships would have to obey physics and orbital mechanics, and there would be a priority on speed and acceleration and rapid maneuvers; also, explosions are kind of useless in a vacuum. So he talks about using big gyroscopes to whip mostly spherical ships around, and they’d be zooming about in complex spirals to take advantage of gravity wells.

But then he talks about crews.

I’m assuming that we’d have some intrepid members of the United Earth Space Force crewing these combat vessels. Or, at least, crewing some of them – robotic drone fighters would be a tremendous boon to space soldiers, but the communication lag between planets and vessels in orbit would make the split-second judgments of humans necessary at times.

Nah, I don’t believe it. In space battles, you’re talking about tremendous velocities, where maneuvers would slam the pilots with huge g forces. Even our atmosphere-bound fighter aircraft have problems with the limitations of the human body. How can you equip your Star Destroyer with massive gyroscopes that can flip it end over end in seconds, and not realize that using it would snap necks and turn your crew into bloody slime splattered over their cockpits?

I also don’t buy the stuff about needing the “split-second judgments of humans”. Human brains are slow. It takes us milliseconds to seconds to just absorb simple sensory output — we’re operating with a built-in lag that we don’t notice because your consciousness can’t notice that something already happened until your consciousness notices. So if the outcome of your battle depends on things only happening fast enough for human brains to process them, you’ll be dead when the ruthless cybernetic death machine swivels 10 times faster than a gooey animal body can handle, and decides to fire in microseconds, long before you perceive the new situation.

If our technology ever gets to the point where space battles can become a reality, it will also have reached a point where humans are no longer able to compete on the battle field.


Point Defenseless:

Utterly averted. The automated point-defense systems – usually plasma lasers or other Energy Weapons, for their speed and reaction time, gridded across the hull – will rip to pieces just about anything that gets within their range in an colorful orgy of photonic destruction, unless it’s extremely fast, capable of turning on a dime, and very smart about doing both. (This is another reason why meat-piloted Space Fighters don’t exist, since AKVs can at least try to be competitive in this close-combat environment.)

Even then, defeating them is a matter of wearing them down (until heat buildup, primarily, lessens their efficacy) and swamping them with sheer volume of incoming fire.

Why Fans Cling So Desperately

Why do spacefighter fans cling so determinedly? The simple answer is that at a young age fans imprinted on space fighters. In other words it is a case of computer baby duck syndrome.

Why is there a constant stream of media science fiction featuring space fighters, readily available for new fans to imprint on? I suspect what Charles Stross calls "Second Artist Effect." The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist's work and paints that, instead of a real landscape. In this case the first artist is George Lucas in 1977 with his World War 2 X-Wings and T.I.E. Fighters.

But it might be a bit more complicated. Here's my reasoning:

It seems to me that the space fighter is nothing more that people taking a dramatic and comfortable metaphor (sea-going aircraft carriers and combat fighter aircraft) and transporting it intact into the outer space environment. But if you think about it, interplanetary combat is highly unlikely to be like anything that has occurred before.

Here's an analogy: Imagine a speculative fiction writer back in the Victorian era, such as Jules Verne. Say they wanted to write a novel about the far future, when heavier than air flight had been invented, and the age of Aerial Combat had arrived.

They might take the dramatic and comfortable metaphor of sea-going frigates and battleships and transporting it intact into the aerial environment. Held aloft by dozens of helicopter blades, the battleships of the air would ponderously maneuver, trying to "cross the T" with the enemy aerial dreadnoughts.

See how silly it sounds? Well, combat spacecraft behaving like fighter aircraft is just as silly. In both cases a metaphor is being forced into a situation where it does not work.

In reality, when the Wright brothers invented heavier-than-air flight and Fokker Triplanes started dog-fighting Sopwith Camels, it was totally unlike anything that had occurred before. Biplanes never ever tried to cross the T, and a sea-going battleship had never ever performed an Immelmann turn.

Therefore, by analogy, when interplanetary combat arrives, it too will be totally unlike anything that has occurred before.

As Ken Burnside puts it:


On the other hand — Winch's analogy to victorian era fiction about flying dreadnoughts and the "Who the hell thought of an Immelmann turn?" question sort of underscores why I want to model how space combat works using known physics as a gameable experience.

It won't be WWII in space. It won't be the Iraq war in space, it won't be subs in the North Atlantic in space. It will be its own unique thing.

To figure out what that unique thing is, you need to understand the environment of space, how it differs from a planetary environment, and once you have those differences modeled, you need to work out the tactics for this new environment, much the same way WWI biplane pilots had to work out the tactics of air to air combat.

Now, it's certain that I've got things wrong with the Attack Vector: Tactical model. When they get pointed out, I fix them. On the other hand, to the best of my knowledge and belief, it's the first serious attempt at trying to model what the tactical environment looks like.

World War II/Battleships/Fighters in space is about as likely to be an accurate model of space combat as, modeling jet air-to-air combat with pike square formations. Attack Vector: Tactical is probably akin to saying that jet fighters behave like World War I biplanes, only faster. It's still likely wrong, but it's probably much LESS wrong.


In space, fighters seem to have no performance advantage over missiles by our current understanding.

In atmosphere, missiles have better straight line acceleration, but much worse ability to change direction of travel; they don't have the big airfoils to generate lift or to turn off of. Kinematic kills of missiles are ones where the fighter maneuvers to a vector inside the missile's turning radius. Doing so requires recognition of the tactical environment and knowing the right degree of thrust/turning G to apply.

Many of the people who cling to fighters for space combat have internalized that difference and don't think about why it would (or would not) be true in space.

Ken Burnside (2014)

      With the entrance of combat aircraft into the fighting of World War I, 1914 to 1918, we began to hear on both sides references to “our gallant airmen.”
     —Gallant: “brave; high-spirited; courageous; heroic; of a noble bearing” says Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary

     Why “gallant” airmen, then?

     The artillerymen, the infantry in the trenches, the engineers—all had various complimentary terms addressed to them too. They were “heroic,” they were “brave,” and so forth. But there was a conspicuous absence of the word “gallant” in descriptions of them.
     There was a reason for this. They were the toilers of war. The time had been when any soldier could be referred to as being gallant right up through the first part of the eighteenth century.
     Then the word began to disappear, along with the development of more efficient weapons of destruction and mass battles. Now what was talked about was more the number slain or captured on each side than the individual actions of those who exposed themselves to death. Only in rare instances where an individual found himself alone facing a mass of enemy and behaved in a way that went beyond commendable into the extraordinary was the word “gallant” still used.
     The gallant had all but died; but then, from 1914 to 1918, it was being revived for the pilots, who at first waved to their opposite numbers above the front-line trenches as they flew, then began to exchange pistol shots from their cockpits as their opposed aircraft passed, then progressed to mounted machine guns—and once more we began to have warriors who were spoken of as gallant.

     The reason for it all, and its application to this particular collection, is connected to the human instinctive system. Something that over a few thousand years we humans have come almost to deny. We can and do respond to our instinctive system in times of emergency or danger, but we usually rationalize our actions by coming up with a cognitive, a “thinking,” reason.
     Consequently, the reason for suddenly attributing gallantry to the embattled pilots of World War I and afterward, was obscured by the fact that, then and now, we reached for thinking reasons to use the word.
     It seldom occurs to us that our responses are ones that go back to the beginning of human time.
     In the beginning all fights were individual fights. Back in the Stone Age, when one tribe battled with an enemy, it became a series of single combats—one man against another, until one of those men went down; at which point the victor might be free to take on another opponent among the enemy tribesmen. One who also happened to be free at the moment.

     Under these conditions it was easy to see that some fighters were more outstanding than others. So that the word that evolved down through history to describe the unusually praiseworthy actions of one of our warriors in single combat against an enemy warrior was “gallantry.” It connoted, among other things, “nobility”—itself now a lost word in its original meaning.
     “Gallantry” connoted an all-or-nothing meeting with at least an equal; and either a remarkable victory, or great bravery and skill shown even in defeat. This element of the word actually lasted up through the time of cavalry. There were horsed cavalry in combat in World War I; but they soon disappeared. They were pitifully vulnerable to the machine gun and other new improved modern weapons of the time.

     To be shot down by massed fire from up to some hundreds of yards makes combat mass murder with little opportunity to show gallantry.
     On the other hand, actual physical contact, above all the one-on-one battle in which two individuals meet and only one survives as victor, made it possible.
     Now, suddenly with the cloth and wire aircraft of World War I, it became possible again. For aerial combat was essentially a throwback to the Stone Age, in that two met à outrance, as in medieval days.
     What the airplane had revived in air warfare was the ancient duel between two individuals.
     There is an instinctive response to the idea of the duel, particularly if not exclusively, on the part of males, who tend to see such an encounter in itself as proof of courage and possible nobility.
     For in the duel, it was a situation in which everything was put on the board, including the life of the people engaging in it. lt was a standard by which combatants could be measured; and until very very recent times—and we are not even yet free of them today—the willingness to engage in it was one measure of the one who engaged in it.
     Therefore, the idea of the aerial duel lit the fuse of imagination in many earlier authors. An author’s job, in the long run, after all, is to pluck the emotional strings of the reader with a story that evokes the music of his imagination.

     The mere concept of the aerial duel did this. As a result, a great deal was written in the way of air-war stories for a period following World War I. As late as the 1930s and ’40s there were still pulp magazines that were devoted exclusively to air-war stories; most laid back in the time of World War I, others laid in some far-off comer of the world, where for some reason ancient enemies of the air were meeting once again with their ships and their machine guns in one-on-one combat.
     With the vanishing of the pulp magazines the air-war stories also vanished.

     They reappeared in science fiction and fantasy, some years later, but with a difference.
     It has always been the province of science fiction—and the fantasy from which it derived—to add an element of the unknown to what otherwise might be a here-and-now story. A sort of literary fourth dimension, without which it did not stand apart from fiction of the here and now. Often what once was, or what may be in the future or otherwhen, is used as a metaphor to make the story science fiction or fantasy.
     As a result, the reader of this book will find in it a number of remarkable stories, all of them well researched and true in their depiction of early aircraft and aerial combat—but also in their application of that image to the later, modem world as we know it now.

     This is done by a number of methods, from the familiar one (in science fiction) of someone who falls back through time into a World War I situation—as a combat flier in Dean McLaughlin‘s “The Hawk Among the Sparrows,” to Algis Budrys' “The Nuptial Flight of Warbirds,” who sets up the parallel between the original early-twentieth-century wartime air battle and a comparable, very modem situation—which cuttingly compares the past real, with a present falseness.
     But in each case the story touches on the strangeness, the response to the notion of gallantry under extreme pressure, of the original duelists of the air that were the World War I airmen; even if this is only implied—as in the narrator’s building a perfect replica of a Fokker tri-plane as in Gene Wolfe’s excellent “Against the Lafayette Escadrille"—to tell a story which draws on imagination in a different area, but with both areas reflecting the same intense longing for what can never be, for the narrator.
     We are taken into a moment in the immediate future in “Night of the Vampyres” by George R. R. Martin, but the story is told within the action that was the one-on-one aerial action of the first warplanes, even though these particular warships are as viciously armed and powered as those we’re familiar with today.

     There are two things, therefore, for the reader to resonate to in all of these stories: One is the past loneliness and potential gallantry of single combat; the other is what the author wishes to tell us, in the unique literary mode of science fiction and fantasy; about ourselves, here in the present.


Justifications For Fighters

While space fighters in general are pretty worthless, it is possible for an author to establish a specialized situation making them practical.

As Ken Burnside said: "What do fighters do better than, or exclusively related to, larger ships? Answer this, and you get a reason for fighters in a setting."

If the author has already allowed handwaving faster-than-light travel into their literary universe, it should be straightforward enough to tweak it such to allow the existence of spacefighters. TV Tropes says just use Applied Phlebotinum or Minovsky Physics.

One example using handwaving faster-than-light starships is the Traveller Battle-Rider.

Another example are the fighter starship of William H. Keith's Star Carrier series. They use a handwaving carrot-on-a-stick drive, accelerating at 50,000 g and reaching relativistic velocity in about ten minutes flat. So sorry, huge capital ships and carriers cannot use this marvelous propulsion system, so they cannot act like fighters. Sadly while the carrot drive's gravity gradient across a twenty meter fighter is negligible, it will rip apart a one kilometer battleship with tidal forces.


The best justification for fighters is the Zeroeth Law:

Players (and readers) want characters they can identify with. Buzz Starbuck, Ace Fighter pilot, drinker, womanizer and general cad with a heart of gold is far more empathetic than Autonomous Remote Combat Drone Operations Reusable Kinematics Systems (ARCDORKS) when writing fiction or playing a game.

(ed note: you gotta have crew)

This may change over time...but it will require something that makes manned fighters seem as quaint as Nelson's signal flags in an era of persistent networks and GPS-guided bombs.

Ken Burnside (2014)

RICK ROBINSON: Fighters substantially outperforming big ships can be justified, though. Big ships (presumably) need crew habitability for extended voyages, fuel for same, usually an FTL gizmo, and crew including maintenance types, etc. All of which are mass penalties. A fighter is pretty much just drive engine, enough delta v for its mission profile, minimal habitability for a minimal crew, and ordnance carried.

ME (being a spoil sport): The question then becomes why doesn't the designers replace the minimal habitability crew space with some electronics and turn the fighter into a missile bus.

RICK ROBINSON: What a rude question. {grin}

(ed note: but then Rick checkmated me by invoking Burnside's Zeroth Law)


Rick Robinson:

I see a hierarchy of decision-making levels, roughly as follows from "lowest" to "highest:"

  1. Weapon manipulator (gun crew member)
  2. Weapon controller (gun crew chief)
  3. Platform controller (fire control officer, CO in fleet formation)
  4. Tactical decision-maker (CO in independent ops / melee)
  5. Operational/strategic decision-maker (admiral)
  6. Policy decision-maker (CINC, Chief of Staff, king)

Obviously these often blur together. Moreover, the higher functions aren't necessarily confined to high ranks. In a counterinsurgency war, for example, the individual grunt often has to make rules-of-engagement decisions that are essentially political: "Is that car speeding toward my checkpoint a suicide bomber or a terrified family that took a wrong turn?"

In space war, however, there will probably be less intermixing of levels — fewer situations where the guy behind the gun has to make a snap decision on rules of engagement. (Presuming that space yachts won't often blunder into the middle of a battle.)

Level 1 seems almost certain to be automated. I just can't see guys spinning wheels to slew a laser cannon around, let alone shoving photons into the breech. :>

Levels 2 and 3 may be automated at a cybertech level not much above what we already have — depending on how many ambiguities arise in combat, and at what scale. I can easily see all human decision making confined to the bridge and CIC, with turrets operated by some mix of automation and remote control. And — depending on range, light lag, and other comms factors — the turrets might well detach from the ship and maneuver in formation, still controlled from bridge and CIC. (In other words, combat drones at least partly controlled from a mother ship.)

Levels 4 and 5 are a much taller order. I have speculated, though, on what I call the "legate" concept, in which the only human decision-makers are essentially policy representatives of the government. The only military orders a legate gives are, in effect "authorized to fire" and "cease firing." Everything in between is automated.

Level 6 can only be automated if you have fully sentient AI that not only can vote, but be elected (or functional equivalent).

Levels 4+ can only be automated at a cybertech level that is not only way above what we have, but (so far as I know) beyond what we can even speculate about in any informed way. We do not know how human judgment and intuition — "the Force" — work, so we haven't the first clue of how to replicate it. I don't rule it out in the future (i.e., I'm not ready to fall back on semi-mystical assumptions about the human mind), but I don't see it as a "foreseeable" tech in the way that, say, fusion torches are.

Level 3 is also pretty dicey — however, depending on your specific tech assumptions, remote control may well be viable at this level. For example, in my setting combat is at ranges on order of 100,000 km, but unfolds as a slow pavane, with maneuver and firing taking place on a scale of hours. In that environment, it's quite plausible to have uncrewed weapon platforms whose Level 1 and 2 functions are automated, while their Level 3 functions are performed by operators in safer positions a few light seconds away.

Now, how does all this relate to "space fighters" in the usual sense? I take that sense to imply small tactical spacecraft with a small crew (usually one or two) and limited habitability/endurance — the crew is in a cockpit, not a cabin.

Whether space fighters are viable depends on two things: First, are vest-pocket space warcraft of any value at all, and if so, do they benefit substantially from having humans on board, rather than being either automated or controlled by remote operators (or some combination).

I'll further note that "fighter" is — at least in the WW II naval analogy — a misleading term; fighters (and all aircraft) operated in an entirely separate environment from ships, and had radically different performance characters: They could go ten times faster than any ship, though they could not heave-to even for a moment. :> "Space fighters" are, in most techs, much more analogous to torpedo boats.

If beam weapons are dominant, miniature space warcraft seem pretty useless whether crewed or uncrewed — their small size must limit their weapon installations to peashooters, useless against large ships. (Two exceptions: compact but enormously powerful beam weapons, or beam combat ranges near 1 light second, so that small craft can jink while larger ones cannot.)

If kinetics are dominant, small warcraft may be viable if useful missiles are even smaller (so that they can carry a few) — and especially if one hit one kill is the rule, so that a bigger ship is merely a richer target.

However, then the question is whether these small platforms need an onboard crew, or can be handled by a combination of remote control and onboard expert-system AI. My own take is that for most Plausible [TM] tech and tactical scenarios, there's little reason for putting humans aboard small platforms, especially since putting the human-in-the-loop elsewhere allows them to be cheaper and semi-expendable.

From a thread VALUE OF 'FIGHTERS' IN SPACE COMBAT on SFConSim-l (2007)

      The United States needs a new national security policy. For the first time in more than sixty years, we face the real possibility of a large-scale conventional war, and we are woefully unprepared.

     Eastern and central Europe are now so weakly defended as to virtually invite invasion. The United States is not about to engage in nuclear war to defend any foreign country. So deterrence is dead, and with the German army cut from twelve divisions to three; the British gone from the continent; and American troops down to a thirty-thousand-person, nearly tankless remnant, the only serious and committed ground force that stands between Russia and the Rhine is the Polish army. It's not enough. Meanwhile, in Asia, the powerful growth of the Chinese economy promises that nation eventual overwhelming numerical force superiority in the region.

     How can we restore the balance, creating a sufficiently powerful conventional force to deter aggressors? It won't be by matching potential adversaries tank for tank, division for division, replacement for replacement. Rather, we must seek to totally outgun them by obtaining a radical technological advantage. This can be done by achieving space supremacy.

     To grasp the importance of space power some historical perspective is required. Wars are fought for control of territory. Yet for thousands of years, victory on land has frequently been determined by dominance at sea. In the twentieth century, victory on both land and sea almost invariably went to the power that controlled the air. In the twenty-first century, victory on land, sea, or in the air will go to the power that controls space.

     The critical military importance of space has been obscured by the fact that, in the period since the United States has had space assets, all of our wars have been fought against minor powers that we could also have defeated without such advantages. Desert Storm has been called the first space war because the allied forces made extensive use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS). However, if we had possessed no such technology, the end result would have been just the same. This has given some the impression that space forces are just a frill to real military power—a useful and convenient frill, perhaps, but a frill nevertheless.

     But consider how history might have changed had the Axis of World War II possessed reconnaissance satellites—merely one of many of today's space-based assets—without the Allies having a matching capability. The Battle of the Atlantic would have gone to the U-boats, as they would have had infallible intelligence on the location of every convoy. Cut off from oil and other supplies, Britain would have fallen. On the Eastern Front, every Soviet tank concentration would have been spotted in advance and wiped out by German air power, as would any surviving British ships or tanks in the Mediterranean and North Africa. In the Pacific, the Battle of Midway would have gone very much the other way, as the Japanese would not have wasted their first deadly air strike on the unsinkable island but sunk the American carriers instead. With these gone, the remaining cruisers and destroyers in Fletcher's fleet would have lacked air cover, and every one of them would then have been hunted down and sunk by unopposed and omniscient Japanese airpower. The same fate would have awaited any American ships that dared venture forth from the West Coast. Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand would have subsequently fallen, and eventually China and India as well. With a monopoly of just one element of space power, the Axis would have won the war.

     But modern space power involves far more than reconnaissance satellites. The use of space-based GPS can endow munitions with one hundred times greater accuracy, while space-based communications provide an unmatched capability of command and control of forces. Knock out the enemy's reconnaissance satellites, and they are effectively blind. Knock out their comsats, and they are deaf. Knock out their NAVSATs, and they lose their aim. In any serious future conventional conflict, even between opponents as mismatched as Imperial Japan was against the United States—or Poland (with one thousand tanks) currently is against Russia (with twelve thousand)—it is space power that will prove decisive.

     Not only Europe but the defense of the entire free world hangs upon this matter. For the past seventy years, US Navy carrier task forces have controlled the world's oceans, first making and then keeping the Pax Americana, which has done so much to secure and advance the human condition over the postwar period. But should there ever be another major conflict, an adversary possessing the ability to locate and target those carriers from space would be able to wipe them out with the push of a button. For this reason, it is imperative that the United States possess space capabilities that are so robust as to not only assure our own ability to operate in and through space but be able to comprehensively deny this to others.

     Space superiority means having better space assets than an opponent. Space supremacy means being able to assert a complete monopoly of such capabilities. The latter is what we must have. If we can gain space supremacy, then the capability of any American ally can be multiplied by orders of magnitude and, with the support of the similarly multiplied striking power of our own land- and sea-based air and missile forces, be made so formidable as to render any conventional attack unthinkable. On the other hand, should we fail to do so, we will remain so vulnerable as to increasingly invite aggression by ever-more-emboldened revanchist powers.

     For this reason, both Russia and China have been developing and actively testing antisatellite (ASAT) systems. Up till now, the systems they have been testing have been ground launched, designed to orbit a few times and then collide with and destroy targets below one thousand kilometers altitude. This is sufficient to take out our reconnaissance satellites but not our GPS and communications satellites, which fly at twenty thousand and thirty-six thousand kilometers respectively. However, the means to reach these are straightforward, and, given their critical importance to us, there is every reason to believe that such development is well underway.

     The United States armed forces are far more dependent upon space assets than any potential opponent. Were both sides in a conflict able to destroy the space assets of the other, we would be the overwhelming loser by the exchange.

     What we need are not ASATs but something much better: fighter satellites, fully analogous to fighter aircraft. A fighter aircraft has two critical functions—it destroys enemy aircraft and protects our own. An ASAT, as generally conceived, only performs the first. As such, it is more analogous to an antiaircraft missile.

     But the decisive weapon for achieving air supremacy has always been fighter aircraft. Only fighter aircraft can protect bombers and the rest from enemy fighters while also denying the enemy the use of the air. We need to do both in space.

     We need fighter sats that can not only knock out adversarial space assets but patrol as escorts for our own reconnaissance, GPS, and communication satellites to protect them from enemy ASATs.

     Such a fighter sat should be relatively small and cheap, perhaps on the order of a hundred kilograms, with an impulsive propulsion system that allows it to maneuver rapidly to intercept an approaching ASAT. It should also be armed with a standoff weapon system that allows it to destroy or deflect approaching ASATs at a distance. Perhaps a projectile weapon system firing small high-velocity rockets with limited guidance might be considered. If the fighter can maneuver well, such a short-range system might be satisfactory: even a hit that is sufficient to impact a small velocity change on an attacking ASAT could cause it to miss. Alternatively, directed energy systems or larger missiles with sophisticated guidance enabling interception at long distances could be employed. However, what is needed is a craft that transcends the ASAT's kamikaze mode of attack, because any defensive system based on such a principle could rapidly be overwhelmed.

     The fighter sat's capability as an antisatellite system is also essential. After all, unless we can take out the adversary's reconnaissance satellites, the entire US Navy surface fleet will be readily visible and therefore extremely vulnerable to attack by enemy ICBMs, submarines, and other means. So, in the event of conflict, we will need to sweep enemy satellites from the skies. But this essential task cannot be trusted to mere ASATs because if the enemy creates fighter sats to protect their space assets, then our ASATs could be readily defeated.

     Only American fighter sats capable of defeating the adversary's fighter sat escorts can be relied upon to get through.

     Finally, it may be noted that fighter sats engaged with others will inevitably take losses. Therefore, for the defense to be effective, the ability to rapidly launch replacements must also be an essential part of the system architecture.

     In the period before World War II, many airpower theorists argued that since bombers were the air assets that actually impacted operations on the ground, producing and operating large bomber fleets was the key to air superiority. This theory was wrong, and caused the Eighth Air Force, operating B-17s over Germany, to take horrendous losses while sharply limiting its effectiveness. It was only after long-range fighter escorts such as the P-51 Mustang were introduced that America was able to achieve the air supremacy necessary for victory.

     America's space power today is at risk because it is based on the same fallacy as that promoted by the prewar bomber theorists. Yes, it is true that the communications, GPS, and reconnaissance satellites comprise the business end of space power that actually influence the war below. It may not seem that they need protection because in all the years they have existed, we have not fought any wars against opponents with space power capabilities. But it is precisely against such more capable potential adversaries that they are most critically necessary.

     Without our communication satellites, we would be unable to adequately coordinate our forces. Without our reconnaissance satellites, we would be nearly blind. Without our GPS system, the effective firepower of our forces would be reduced by orders of magnitude. Were we to lose such capabilities, our victory in any future conflict would be very much in doubt. Were an adversary able to eliminate our space assets while preserving their own, our defeat would be virtually guaranteed. Such an outcome is unacceptable.

     We are not at war today, but the creation of the necessary systems will take some time. If we are to be sufficiently prepared to deter aggression, we need to start developing the essential capabilities now.

     This battle for space supremacy is one the Western alliance can win. Because societies based on liberty are the most creative, no unfree potential adversary can match us in this area if we put our mind to it. We can and must develop ever-more-advanced satellite systems, fighter satellite systems, and truly robust space launch and logistics capabilities. Then the next time an aggressor commits an act of war against us or a country we are pledged to defend, instead of impotently threatening to limit its tourist visas, we can respond by taking out its satellites, effectively informing it in advance the certainty of defeat should it persist.

     The entrepreneurial space launch revolution offers the free world the chance to obtain these critical advantages. If Russia or China hopes to compete with such a Western military space initiative, there is only one way they could do it: they would need to also become free.

     In which case, there will be no war.

From THE CASE FOR SPACE by Robert Zubrin (2019)

TV Tropes Analysis


When might Space Fighters be practical?

Note: Majority of arguments below are based on a realistic hard scifi setting. In softer settings you can probably invent any Applied Phlebotinum or Minovsky Physics needed to support or refute the plausibility of starfighters.

Also, per Standard Sci-Fi Fleet, we are using "space fighters"/"starfighters"/"strikecraft" as a shorthand for all combat-capable Small Craft. There is no need to wrangle over the differences between bombers, fighters and other subtypes.

A1. Glass Cannons. Glass Cannons everywhere.

While an inductive argument is not foolproof, there is some evidence in military history that defense will often lag behind offense. Armor Is Useless, in other words. Look at, say, how infantry armor was abandoned for quite a while due to the impracticality of the thickness needed to protect against advanced guns, or how modern carriers need to use active defenses to intercept incoming missiles rather than being able to just weather them.

Extending from this, future space combat scenarios may involve spacecraft firing at each other with weapons they cannot survive. If relatively small starfighter weapons can continue to lay the hurt on capital craft, it may be more practical to let relatively expendable strikecraft sortie than risk capital spacecraft whose loss will cost heavily in money and manpower.

There have been times throughout history when defense did outpace offense, however, at least for a while. Arguments B4 and B6, below, address potential problems with this idea.

A2. The Tech Level is low, and orbital combat is a top priority.

Quite simply, space fighters are easier and cheaper to build than large ships. If the setting has a tech level close to what we currently have in Real Life, building a Standard Sci-Fi Fleet of capital ships may simply be impossible, or at least prohibitively difficult and expensive, but small, single-person spacecraft could be realistic enough. In such a setting, fighters would be launched directly from a planet, and combat would take place in orbit or otherwise in nearby space. Space fighters may be the most practical way — or the only practical way — to get any combat capability into space at all in such circumstances. This is the alternative that has come closest to becoming Truth in Television so far.

On the other hand, if the tech level is a bit higher — high enough to allow for a Space Elevator or other comparatively low-cost means of getting into orbit, for example, and to allow manufacturing and resource gathering to take place directly in space — then the construction of larger ships becomes much more feasible. In a setting with such a tech level, it is possible for one large warship to be more economical than an equivalent squadron of fighters.

A3. Weapons are projectile-based and slow/ungainly.

If the dominant weapons are solid projectiles, interceptors would be useful as a complement to the point defense screen, thinning out incoming fire so the PD on capitals would have an easier job. Obviously, you can't do the same with energy weapons. This would also be contingent on the projectiles not being too fast, else the interceptors would have difficulty running them down.

An easy way to make this happen is to create something like a smoke screen yourself. By firing a specially designed projectile which will be inflated and/or spread out small particles that are magnetically attracted to a centre zone, one can form an area that can block incoming DEW for a short while (similar to whats being used in Starship Operators). Smaller ships (i.e. space fighters) can use smaller versions to shorten the distance and use solid projectile weapons, or simply move to another angle to attack.

See B5 for the opposite.

A4. The maneuverability of space fighters versus larger ships makes them worthwhile.

Space is not an ocean, but space fighters would still be more maneuverable than larger spacecraft thanks to the Square/Cube Law. The larger a spacecraft is, the harder it is for its structure to handle the stress of rapid acceleration during maneuvers — see this web-page for more on this. In this case, rather than being a space version of an aircraft fighter, the space fighter would be more analogous to a PT boat or other "fast attack craft". The main question is whether this added maneuverability would be enough of an advantage to make space fighters sensible — missiles and robotic drones would have the same strength, after all, and likely even more when you take out the mass of the pilot or life-support gear. Still, some critics of space fighters do occasionally argue that larger ships have no disadvantage at all when compared to space fighters in a realistic setting, and this is one plausible counter-argument.

A5. There is significant electronic warfare in the setting.

Retaining human pilots for Space Fighters can provide survivability in works with significant electronic and information warfare — a robotic drone is of little use if the enemy can control it with a software hack, and missiles can be led off-course with decoys of one sort or another. Human pilots may prove more resilient against such threats. There is some real-life precedent for this; notably, there have been actual cases where militaries have claimed the ability to bring down sophisticated remote-controlled and AI-equipped spy drones with nothing but radio signals and hacking. Of course, space is the sort of environment where even a human pilot will likely need to rely on computers and electronic equipment to a significant extent — but still, keeping a human in the loop may give a significant advantage. Another, related problem with drones (and possibly, though not necessarily, missiles) could be the absence of an AI capable of doing the job of a human pilot — see point B3 below for more on this.

A6. Cost.

Moving and utilizing a large ship is expensive. All the fuel spent is not free in a realistic setting. If sending in a smaller ship or a set of smaller ships can do the job, real life militaries will not send the big guns. A fleet with a carrier can indeed send out a few space fighters to perform smaller tasks rather than sending out the smallest possible ship like a frigate. The smaller ships may not be able to survive a long journey by themselves, but the mother ship can. This is particularly the case if there are any FTL systems that requires really big ships to perform, so the fighters cannot travel at FTL themselves, but require a larger ship to bring them to a closer range where they can then perform a small task with their mobility where the big ship cannot.

B7 arguments are only true when space fighters are used against large ships, but this is not always the case in real life. You have smaller or weaker targets, like transport or civilian ships, patrol ships if there are pirate behaviour, and as long as you need to take care of those, you always have some sort of space fighters that are easy and cheap to launch, and the fighters that can fight against this kind of small enemy ships.

Another thing about cost, is economy. You cannot support a fleet that is above your economical capabilities — if you only have an income of X, you cannot support a fleet that spends 2X. In a fictional or ideal world, yes, the bigger the better, build the largest ship your technology can give you, and build zillions of it, and you have the strongest fleet. In the real world, physics is not the only limiting factor to the ships — your political concerns, your enemy, your economic strength, your ability to gather troops, etc. are also limiting factors. To give a historical example, at the turn of the 20th century, France was only a minor player in the "dreadnought race" that many world powers (particularly its neighbors, the UK and Germany) were undergoing at the time, instead focusing on building its army and a fleet of smaller ships capable of defending its holdings in the Mediterranean and North Africa. The Entente Cordiale with the UK removed that nation as a naval rival to France, while the nation's greatest geostrategic threat was a land invasion by Germany that naval forces would be of little use deterring. As such, military planners saw little use in supporting a large, modern fleet when they could be using that money to support a large, modern land army.

A7. Because there are planets.

If you enter the gravity well of a planet, it is hard to get out with a big ship or the big ship simply doesn't have the power to fly in the atmosphere, but the small fighters can enter it and be back. Arguably not space fighters, but if the enemy intercepts in space, than these need to have space combat ability as well.

Also arguably that the big ship can perform orbital bombardments, but it will be hard to aim a few hundred km away, with clouds and with orbital defence shooting at you while you are zooming through your target at 7.8km/s.

A8. Stealth.

There is no Stealth in Space, for large and long operating ships. But the same may not apply to smaller and short operating vessels. If a vessel operates with cold propellant, has an onboard system that cools down its exterior, and traps the heat inside for only a few hours, it will be much harder to detect than any big ships that inevitably heat up faster.

A9. If large ships became man-operable with small crews.

You cannot really distinguish a space fighter and a space frigate if it is operational with a 2 man crew, or even less than 10 like the heavy bombers of WW2, while having much larger ships in your fleet.

A10. When you are cheap or poor and space is huge, 1 single capital ship is rather useless in defending all your bases.

No matter how big your enemy's ship is, there is almost always a slightly smaller design that can still damage it, but is a cheaper alternative when you don't have enough money to build and constantly send out such a large ship.

If against a similar enemy, both will then build smaller ships to increase strategical mobility of the ships for better fleet management.

At a certain point, only small ships can be mobile enough for your needs, and space fighters might be able to damage them, so sending out skirmishing fighters may become a good way to stall your enemy, and protection against this kind of enemy is necessary.

A11. If you don't have Deflector Shields.

A1 will still be valid countering B4 as long as no force field technology is developed. Physics tells us that no matter how thick your armour is, each attack is still going to chip away the armour bit by bit. Also, Hyper Velocity Impact tests( shows that a thick armour is not an ideal defense against KEW at really high speeds.

Countering B4, a capital ship with too much armour (i.e. mass) will be a sitting duck under super long range sieges that are slower but are also massive (e.g. asteroid bombs) since it is hard to turn and change course.

A12. Becasue there are the celestials

No cover, no hiding place, no horizont, entirely true in deep space, not if you want to capture something. If you want to capture an asteroid mine for example, mobile defender units can move behind the asteroid, or even hide in a shaft, missiles are a waste against them. Fighters can attack behind cover, and one don't have to bring the big ones close — the later sacrifices the advantage of superior laser range, and make the big ships also quite vulnerable.

A13. Prolonged war

The arguments are strong, that missiles are superior for a single fleet battle. How about a dozen fleet battle, maybe maintain peace and order on captured colonies? It does matter, whether an attack craft can be only used at once, or multiple times. Especially, if smaller rockets can also have advanced hardware, nuclear heat engines for example. Unlike missiles, fighters can return, if you can gather resources in space, refueling is much cheaper than getting new missiles.

Also if the attack fleet already has a high closing speed (at the magnitude of 100 km/s) then it doesn't count much, whether a missile add a further 10 km/s, or a fighter only add 4 km/s, and save the rest of the fuel for return.

A14. Time Lag

As noted in B9, space combat may take place at extreme ranges measuring in light seconds or even minutes. At such ranges, even lasers have to lead and predict the movements of their targets, making lasers more akin to naval artillery shells, and the overall battle much like an old fashioned battleship duel. A large craft like a battleship or even a cruiser would have its ability to maneuver and change course limited by its mass and volume. However, small craft could use its size to its advantage to make it significantly harder to lead. Thus, space fighters could get much closer to the enemy than its larger companions while maintaining the same relative ability to evade incoming fire, while having an advantage in their own accuracy due to the decreased range.

When might Space Fighters NOT be practical?

B1. Reliable point defenses exist.

If the universe has PD that can mow down far more aggressively-manoeuvring missiles like cavalry before Gatlings, only blatant Plot Armor can protect sluggish strikecraft from getting torn to pieces even more easily. If there is no Stealth in Space, and if combat takes place over large distances, it could give the defenders plenty of time to detect incoming fighters and try to take them out from afar.

A9 above might be a way through this.

B2. Long-range missiles are a viable alternative.

In real life, long-range missiles are an increasingly important part of warfare; the same may be true in space. Instead of fighters, large spacecraft could simply launch robotic missiles at each other from great range. These would have a few advantages over fighters. For starters, a missile doesn't need to make a return trip (or indeed decelerate relative to its target at all), which means it can either carry much less fuel (making it smaller and lighter) or it can carry the same amount of fuel, but use it for manoeuvres that a fighter could not afford to make. The missile could also accelerate more rapidly, both for this reason and because it wouldn't carry a pilot that could lose consciousness from excessive G-forces. All this can combine to make the missile harder for point defenses to hit — it could give the enemy less time to react as it approaches, evade point-defense fire more effectively, and present a smaller target. Unlike an Attack Drone (see below), a missile would not necessarily need advanced AI or remote control. It would simply have to track a target, accelerate towards it, and perhaps make some randomized evasive manoeuvres to try and dodge point-defense fire. A missile could also be cheaper than a fighter or an Attack Drone, meaning that more could be deployed — also making the job harder for point-defense systems. It may still be much easier for the enemy to shoot down missiles in space than it would be on Earth — greater distances mean more warning and more time to react, and no horizon or real limit on the range of point defense weapons means more chances to take the missile out. However, depending on the way Space Fighters would be used in the setting, they may suffer from the same weaknesses to an even greater extent (see above) — their one advantage would be if they could engage the enemy from a range great enough to make dodging defensive fire possible, while missiles obviously would not have this option.

One might be tempted to say that there's no rule that says space fighters can't simply carry missiles. Today, most airborne missiles are carried by fighters (some of which are in turn launched from carriers). Depending on how technology advances, this approach might work in space, as well. Then again, defenses may be such that fighters and fighter-launched missiles don't have the punch to damage capitals; see B4 below. It's also possible that the same lack-of-horizon that will make missiles easier to shoot down in space will also reduce the need to have fighters carry missiles into action, instead of having them launch directly from larger ships — and a missile launched from a fighter is effectively the same as a multistage missile, with the key difference that the "first stage" is manned in the former case.

B3. Reliable and inexpensive drones exist.

This depends on a variety of circumstances, including the range at which space combat in the universe takes place, the quality of AI available in the universe, and whether faster-than-light communication is possible, among other factors. Unmanned robotic fighters would need either decent AI or some means of remote control, and the possibility of the latter depends on either combat taking place at fairly close range, or the availability of a Subspace Ansible. However, some combination of AI and remote control could be practical — remote control (with a light-speed delay) could instruct the fighter as to its overall goals and priorities, and an on-board AI would handle moment-to-moment decisions that depend on "reflexes" and adapting to quickly changing circumstances. If these problems could be solved, drones would have several advantages over fighters, mainly not needing to carry a pilot. If computing technology is miniaturized enough, the pilot and life support could be replaced with a much lighter computer system — and in space, every gram of mass counts for fuel use and manoeuvrability; also, as with missiles, there would be no need to worry about a pilot blacking out from G-forces. Of course, no pilot also means not putting human lives at risk, and possibly faster reaction times.

The main unknown variable here is the weight and cost of the pilot-replacing technology. A future can be imagined in which it is cheaper to train a pilot and build a piloted craft than it is to install fighters with advanced AI (indeed, several sci-fi writers, including Isaac Asimov, have imagined such scenarios). Some evidence for both sides of the debate can be taken from real life. On the one hand, human labor still turns out to be cheaper than automation in many applications, including industrial tasks that could be automated with present-day technology — using a human being instead of a machine is by no means always the more expensive option. On the other hand, looking at present-day space technology, robotic craft have certainly turned out to be far cheaper and more practical than manned vessels for a variety of scientific and commercial applications — though admittedly, there's no way to know whether this would still apply in the chaotic environment of combat. Then there's the fact that computers are still getting smaller and more powerful every year — but then again, many experts already foresee the end of Moore's Law and rapid advancement in computer power in the not-too-distant future. Looking at present-day military forces, robots and drones are certainly being used more and more — but so far it looks like they will work alongside human fighters, rather than replace them outright. The same balanced approach may prove viable in space combat. As for the Subspace Ansible, it is, of course, totally impossible to know how much such a hypothetical device would weigh or cost.

Another potential problem with drone fighters is that they may fall prey to information warfare — hacking, fake radio signals, and the like. Piloted fighters would still likely need lots of computer equipment, and so may not be immune to information attacks either — but they may still be less susceptible than a fully robotic drone. See point A5 above.

B4. Highly resilient capital craft.

Modern fighters and bombers are a threat to wet navy capital ships and land fortifications because they can carry weapons that effectively damage them. However, even in space where they do not have to fight against gravity to launch, engineering limits would prevent a relatively small fighter from carrying too big a weapon. As a counterpoint to A1 though, you can probably imagine a world where torpedoes and air-launched munitions never gained the punch to be useful against battleships or land fortifications, leaving battleship cannon as the kings of the battlefield. Alternately, future defenses such as Deflector Shields might scale with size such that even the heaviest strikecraft weapons barely damage capital craft, or not even that. Either way, strikecraft would be effectively useless in the offensive role. While a larger projectile would have more mass, it would also have more space for propulsion, fuel, payload, all the useful jazz. A good existing example of this is the Honor Harrington series, where until recently the aversion of Armor Is Useless meant that subcapital weapons lacked the punch to usefully damage (super)dreadnoughts.

A12 is a reason to counter this.

B5. Weapons are energy-based or fast and agile.

You can shoot down a projectile. You cannot do the same for directed energy; if it's already on-target, one can only attempt to absorb or deflect it. Sending interceptors out to aid PD would be worthless in this case.

Furthermore, if missiles are sufficiently agile and fast that strikecraft cannot easily catch them either - reference the currently-in-development BRAHMOS II that does over Mach 6, impossible for any current Western air-launched missile, much less the carrying fighter, to catch in a tail-on chase - that would also eliminate their defensive role as a supplement to the point defense screen.

B6. Everything Space Fighters can do something else can do better.

While there are advantages as well as disadvantages to space fighters when directly compared to larger ships, a good look at the concept from the very base upwards is necessary. The first question shouldn't be "What advantage does a fighter have over a big ship?" but "What can a space fighter do?". Because we're talking about military ships here, the answer is generally to bring some sort of weapon payload (bullets, lasers, blaster bolts, missiles, bombs) in contact with a target. But the conditions of combat in space make fighters pointless for that. On planet, fighters are needed to extend the range of whatever deploys them (an airforce base or a carrier). If the base were to shoot the guns or the missiles that a fighter carries directly, it wouldn't have nearly the range that a fighter can achieve. The horizon on planet prevents direct targeting beyond a limited range. The friction of the air slows down bullets and missiles so they drop to the ground short of the target when they have been slowed down enough or their fuel has run out respectively. The engines and shape of an fighter allow far more efficient travel in atmosphere than those of a missile (or bomb or bullet).

Not so in space. There is no horizon, so everything can be targeted directly. There is no friction, so ranges are not limited. There is no need for aerodynamic design, so missiles are far more effective than fighters. For comparison: if one were to use a missile that is the same size as the fighter i.e. using the same engine and same amount of fuel, it would have four times the range of a fighter, because the fighters needs a lot of fuel to brake and return to base again (and this is before you take into account the fact that using a missile instead of a fighter also frees up space that would be otherwise taken by the pilot and whatever equipment he needs to both stay alive and control his craft). So, unlike in an atmosphere, where mounting missiles on a fighter extends the effective range of the warheads, in space it would seriously limit it.

As for guns, those are even less effective. Unless there is some sort of magical technology at play that makes 5 tons of gun components, propellant and bullets somehow capable of more destruction than just 5 tons of warhead (not the case with real physics) then carrying a small gun close to a target to shoot it is a colossal waste of time.

Targeting is another thing that potentially looks like a reason for fighters to exist. But it is again not the case. Getting closer to the target does exactly the same thing as using a bigger lens (because there is no horizon) so the bigger lens wins. (does not get closer to danger, doesn't need refuelling, etc.)

Intercepting incoming missiles works pretty much the same as launching attacking missiles, and attaching a space fighter makes it worse, not better. For that matter, anything that can destroy an incoming missile will probably be just as effective against a fighter, too.

In the end, while one can point out plenty of advantages that a space fighter has over a larger ship (in a universe with real physics), there just is no task that a space fighter is best suited to perform. Either a bigger ship will outperform several small fighters, or one or several missiles will outperform one fighter.

B7 Cost is not an issue

This comes in two flavors. The first being the high-end SF post-scarcity society where construction resources are not an issue. Assuming some other kind of limiting factor (without at least one, offensive war itself makes no sense) that will be what determines ship sizes. For example if resources are infinite but the number of pilots is limited, ships will be designed in a way to capitalize on that i.e. the most powerful ships operated by the least crew.

The second flavor being the erroneous but still perpetuated assumption that space fighters being cheaper than bigger ships is an advantage. Yes, a space fighter is cheaper than a space battleship. No, that does not necessarily translate into an advantage for space fighters. A single space fighter may be cheaper, but would not stand a chance in a fight alone, or else no one would build battleships. For space fighters to be a viable alternative to big ships, one needs to have enough of them to win against the bigger ships, so the question becomes what that whole swarm of fighters costs compared to the single big ship. And there is no reason why a whole group of fighters would be inherently cheaper than a single bigger ship. Maybe economics of scale make fighters cheaper. Maybe the greater efficiency of larger systems make big ships cheaper. There's no hard answer for which will be the case at the moment.

What matters in the end is not so much cost, as cost efficiency. So: yes, small fighters cheaper. No, that doesn't mean anything by itself.

A6 and A11 address the counter arguments.

B8. Space travel is slow.

For combat over distances greater than, say, the Earth-Moon system, fighters lack the extended life-support and large fuel capacity needed to make the journey. If your pilot has to spend more than a week sitting in his cockpit just to reach the battlespace, he's not going to be performing at 100% effectiveness when he gets there. Which means either fighters are limited to action in planetary orbit, or they require large carrier spacecraft , which can provide all these needs, while not engage in combat directly — but that then brings us back to the question of why not use missiles instead.

Another way to counter this is a dispensible living quarter, you bring it along for the travel, but separate it before combat like a stage in a dispensible rocket. If you win, go and pick it back and reattach it. If you lose, you don't really need to care about it anymore since you are dead.

Another issue related to B8 is acceleration. Inertial Dampening aside, a small space fighter may be able to reach a higher acceleration than, say, a capital ship but the former having small fuel reserves will be stuck at a certain velocity (you'd better save fuel to brake or maneuver in both cases), while the larger ship even if it had a far worse acceleration could maintain it for a longer time as it has far more fuel, eventually overtaking the fighter.

B9. Space combat occurs at extended range.

A sufficiently powerful and focused energy weapon travels at c while mass accelerators can propel projectiles at a significant fraction thereof. Coupled with powerful sensors, space combat in this setting will be closer to submarine combat rather than surface navy engagements. Weapons strike at enemy capital ships light seconds away as predictive algorithms try to lead an enemy into a successful shot. The time taken to deploy strikecraft under such circumstances would render them moot, most engagements are settled in seconds by powerful capital ship grade weapons, and more importantly, computers and sensors. If the strikecraft require telemetry from their carrier to tell them where to fire, it is probably too late to hit anything.

B10. If even "small ships" need large crews.

Approaching A9 from the other side, depending on how the technology pans out, the different roles a spacecraft's crew has to handle may get more complex, such that the traditional fighter's pilot-weapon systems officer two-man crew may no longer be adequate and larger crews are needed. For example, sensors could get more advanced and complex without data-analysis AI or software keeping up, resulting in the need to spin off a dedicated sensor officer to keep track of what's going on in the fight. In such a situation, crew complements could balloon to the point where they more closely resemble fast attack craft or patrol boats'. As such, although they might still technically count as "fighters" by virtue of being short-legged and reliant on carriers for operating away from friendly ports, their doctrine would necessarily differ from traditional fighters'. Once again, see the Honorverse's light attack craft for an existing example.

B11. Exactly because there are planets and celestials.

All the so-called weaknesses mentioned in A7 and A12 apply equally to fighters. If a missile can't do the acrobatics needed for close quarter combat in an Asteroid Thicket, neither will it be possible with a larger, less agile fighter unless there is blatant Plot Armor. And complaining about the speed of a larger warship while playing up an even faster fighter is silly.

By simple physics, a small fighter just can't carry as much fuel and ammo as a larger warship. And unlike naval gun fire support, where targets can be far enough inland that a fighter can reach but a ship's guns cannot, almost everything planetside can be hit with the right orbit. Maybe for some reason you can't or don't want to dedicate an all-up battleship to fire support, but some kind of corvette or gunboat equivalent would still be able to remain on station longer than a fighter squadron, which would have to more frequently return to the safely-distant carrier for refuelling and rearming.

As for the cloud thing, you don't need fighters to overcome. You can send recon drones or infantry spotters. If defences are so strong that even those can't get through, you should still be working on orbital superiority and destroying orbit-to-surface defences rather than whatever else you need more precise aiming for.

Anything you need to capture intact, or is placed somewhere you can't bombard from air or orbit a la The Guns of Navarone, you should be sending in the Space Marines anyway. Precision guided munitions can only be so precise after all, so if it's something that precious, you should be using boots on the ground, not fire support.

B12. A13 is not actually an argument for or against fighters, merely against missiles. And not a very strong one either.

Yes, you can refuel a fighter. But what about its ammo? Unless it's purely armed with energy weapons and unguided, non self-propelled cannon, the Mobile Factory converting Asteroid Mined resources into munitions will also need to produce complicated electronics for drives/engines and sensors. And from there it's a stone's throw to producing missiles.

Back on topic, if said Mobile Factory can produce fuel and ammo for fighters, it would merely be a matter of scaling up to produce supplies for larger warships too. Unless, of course, there are arbitrary restrictions on this.


Jack Staik makes the case for space fighters existing due to sheer inertia and entrenched cultural bias. Cue Tevye singing the song "Tradition".

It is true that in a universe governed by hard-headed practicality and realism, a missile bus or an Honorverse-style missile pod would make more sense. However, there is one factor that would allow manned space fighters to proliferate and even prosper — Cultural Bias!

Practical and realistic concerns have often been swept aside in real life by cultural conditioning —look at Japan's centuries of refusal to modernize or adapt until the fact of their utter vulnerability was shoved down their throats by Admiral Perry.

An aristocratic culture with a leaning toward individual heroism (i.e. Arthurian or Samurai theme) would love the idea of manned space-fighters. Noble warriors with the blood of kings firing up their fighters to challenge the Evil Alien Hordes, one man's courage and missiles against the onslaught … it's a primal image. The fighters themselves would probably be very individualistic, instead of mass-produced identical, to reflect their aristocratic pilot. And since the space-fighter would be the provenance of only the high-caste persons, the cultural conditioning could keep manned space-fighter a viable concept for generations in even a hyper-realistic scenario.

Of course, in time raw practicality will sweep aside the manned space-fighter, much as it did the armored knight on horseback, but the fighters will still be the emblem of a bygone age of chivalry and romance. And a Don Quixote-type character, pulling an ancestor's old space-fighter out of storage, to take up arms against a threat from the heavens, has lots of storytelling potential.

Jack Staik

Rick Robinson:

It suddenly strikes me that this whole very interesting thread is not really quite about "space fighters" in the usual sense, though it is very much about space fighters in the sense of "people who fight in space." Your (Mr. Meieimatai) observations (about how human beings have mystical powers that computers will never ever duplicate, trust the Force Luke!) are essentially about the role of the human in the loop of tactical space combat.

Winchell Chung:

That is a key observation, and for me it gets to the heart of the argument "you can take my space fighters when you pry them out of my cold dead hands."

I would suspect that people who embrace that fighter argument will also have an aversion to "push-button warfare" in general (e.g., fighting a war not with soldiers but rather by pushing a button and launching a nuclear strike).
From a thread VALUE OF 'FIGHTERS' IN SPACE COMBAT on SFConSim-l (2007)

However, culture only goes so far. Currently (2012) in Afghanistan, the US Air Force is used to attack partisan forces. But more and more the attacks are carried out by remotely piloted drones, not by valiant Top Gun piloted fighter aircraft.

The Air Force pilots are quite angry about this. They are angry that their role is shrinking, they are angry that their chances of flying exciting missions grow slim, they are angry that fat-bottomed desk-jockys controlling a drone from an office in New Mexico are called "fighter pilots" just like them, they are just angry.

But culture or no, in 2011 the Air Force said it trained more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined.


Until recently, most drone operators were regular Air Force pilots. Now, the service is reaching out to people who've never even flown before. And that has caused friction within the Air Force as it tries to redefine what it means to be a pilot.

"There's a cultural divide," says Kelly, a 46-year-old Air Force reservist from Texas who is now a student at Holloman. Kelly grew up wanting to be a fighter pilot, but his vision is not good enough for that job. But he can fly drones. And he says that irks fighter pilots who see themselves at the top of the Air Force pyramid.

"Part of it is an ego ... I hate to say an ego trip, but it is," he says.

The Air Force has been working to bridge the divide between these two groups of fliers. First off, drone operators are called pilots, and they wear the same green flight suits as fighter pilots, even though they never get in a plane. Their operating stations look like dashboards in a cockpit.

But all of that has made tensions worse. Aaron is another Holloman student. He used to fix military communications equipment; now he's training to operate drones.

"There's still a lot of animosity. You see people in a conventional aircrew that wonder why we get to wear the flight suits even though we don't leave the ground, why do we need flight physicals, why do we get incentive pay — stuff like that," he says.

In 2016 things got worse for human fighter pilots. Researchers developed software that (in computer simulations) reliably defeated human pilots. So instead of being replace by a fat-bottomed desk-jocky, they are being replaced by a computer.


Artificial intelligence (AI) developed by a University of Cincinnati doctoral graduate was recently assessed by subject-matter expert and retired United States Air Force Colonel Gene Lee — who holds extensive aerial combat experience as an instructor and Air Battle Manager with considerable fighter aircraft expertise — in a high-fidelity air combat simulator.

The artificial intelligence, dubbed ALPHA, was the victor in that simulated scenario, and according to Lee, is “the most aggressive, responsive, dynamic and credible AI I’ve seen to date.”

Details on ALPHA – a significant breakthrough in the application of what’s called genetic-fuzzy systems are published in the most-recent issue of the Journal of Defense Management, as this application is specifically designed for use with Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) in simulated air-combat missions for research purposes...

High pressure and fast pace: An artificial intelligence sparring partner

ALPHA is currently viewed as a research tool for manned and unmanned teaming in a simulation environment. In its earliest iterations, ALPHA consistently outperformed a baseline computer program previously used by the Air Force Research Lab for research.  In other words, it defeated other AI opponents.

In fact, it was only after early iterations of ALPHA bested other computer program opponents that Lee then took to manual controls against a more mature version of ALPHA last October. Not only was Lee not able to score a kill against ALPHA after repeated attempts, he was shot out of the air every time during protracted engagements in the simulator.

Since that first human vs. ALPHA encounter in the simulator, this AI has repeatedly bested other experts as well, and is even able to win out against these human experts when its (the ALPHA-controlled) aircraft are deliberately handicapped in terms of speed, turning, missile capability and sensors.

Lee, who has been flying in simulators against AI opponents since the early 1980s, said of that first encounter against ALPHA, “I was surprised at how aware and reactive it was. It seemed to be aware of my intentions and reacting instantly to my changes in flight and my missile deployment. It knew how to defeat the shot I was taking. It moved instantly between defensive and offensive actions as needed.”

He added that with most AIs, “an experienced pilot can beat up on it (the AI) if you know what you’re doing. Sure, you might have gotten shot down once in a while by an AI program when you, as a pilot, were trying something new, but, until now, an AI opponent simply could not keep up with anything like the real pressure and pace of combat-like scenarios.”

But, now, it’s been Lee, who has trained with thousands of U.S. Air Force pilots, flown in several fighter aircraft and graduated from the U.S. Fighter Weapons School (the equivalent of earning an advanced degree in air combat tactics and strategy), as well as other pilots who have been feeling pressured by ALPHA.

And, anymore, when Lee flies against ALPHA in hours-long sessions that mimic real missions, “I go home feeling washed out. I’m tired, drained and mentally exhausted. This may be artificial intelligence, but it represents a real challenge.”

An artificial intelligence wingman: How an AI combat role might develop

Explained Ernest, “ALPHA is already a deadly opponent to face in these simulated environments. The goal is to continue developing ALPHA, to push and extend its capabilities, and perform additional testing against other trained pilots. Fidelity also needs to be increased, which will come in the form of even more realistic aerodynamic and sensor models. ALPHA is fully able to accommodate these additions, and we at Psibernetix look forward to continuing development."

In the long term, teaming artificial intelligence with U.S. air capabilities will represent a revolutionary leap. Air combat as it is performed today by human pilots is a highly dynamic application of aerospace physics, skill, art, and intuition to maneuver a fighter aircraft and missiles against adversaries, all moving at very high speeds. After all, today’s fighters close in on each other at speeds in excess of 1,500 miles per hour while flying at altitudes above 40,000 feet. Microseconds matter, and the cost for a mistake is very high.

Eventually, ALPHA aims to lessen the likelihood of mistakes since its operations already occur significantly faster than do those of other language-based consumer product programming. In fact, ALPHA can take in the entirety of sensor data, organize it, create a complete mapping of a combat scenario and make or change combat decisions for a flight of four fighter aircraft in less than a millisecond. Basically, the AI is so fast that it could consider and coordinate the best tactical plan and precise responses, within a dynamic environment, over 250 times faster than ALPHA’s human opponents could blink.

So it’s likely that future air combat, requiring reaction times that surpass human capabilities, will integrate AI wingmen – Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) – capable of performing air combat and teamed with manned aircraft wherein an onboard battle management system would be able to process situational awareness, determine reactions, select tactics, manage weapons use and more. So, AI like ALPHA could simultaneously evade dozens of hostile missiles, take accurate shots at multiple targets, coordinate actions of squad mates, and record and learn from observations of enemy tactics and capabilities.

UC’s Cohen added, “ALPHA would be an extremely easy AI to cooperate with and have as a teammate. ALPHA could continuously determine the optimal ways to perform tasks commanded by its manned wingman, as well as provide tactical and situational advice to the rest of its flight.”

A programming victory: Low computing power, high-performance results

It would normally be expected that an artificial intelligence with the learning and performance capabilities of ALPHA, applicable to incredibly complex problems, would require a super computer in order to operate.

However, ALPHA and its algorithms require no more than the computing power available in a low-budget PC in order to run in real time and quickly react and respond to uncertainty and random events or scenarios.

According to a lead engineer for autonomy at AFRL, "ALPHA shows incredible potential, with a combination of high performance and low computational cost that is a critical enabling capability for complex coordinated operations by teams of unmanned aircraft."

(ed note: for the software details, refer to the report)


Keeping with the World War 2 motif, if military aircraft translate into space fighters, then aircraft carriers translate into space carriers. Basically a mobile fighter base, containing launch and recovery facilities and all the logistics needed for fighter resupply. Militarily it is a capital ship where the weapons operate at some distance from the main ship.

Science fiction writers commonly use the historical Battle of Midway as their model for combat. Since there were no orbital reconnaissance satellites in 1941, the carrier groups on both sides of the conflict spent most of their time trying to find the tiny motes of hostile ships lost in a giant ocean. They sent out waves of scout aircraft to play needle-in-the-haystack with enemy battle groups. When they finally found the enemy, then the friendly carriers would launch ship-killer aircraft to try and elude the hostile combat air patrol and blow the enemy carriers out of the water with torpedoes. In Midway, the carrier groups were about 1,000 kilometers apart, way over the horizon. The ships never saw each other, just hostile aircraft.

Which is exactly like space carriers and space fighters. Except there are reconnaissance satellites, carriers groups on both sides will always know where the hostile ships are down to the millimeter, scouts are not needed, there is no horizon in space, and the ships will see each other (abet through a telescope).

The science fiction author can alter the situation to more closely mirror the Battle of Midway model if they must, generally by adding weird constraints to the ship's faster-than-light propulsion. The most popular constraint is on faster-than-light radar. It needs to exist, but the range has to be adjusted. What you want is to reproduce the detection capabilities of the Battle of Midway: detection at conventional radar ranges exists but not detection over the entire freaking Pacific ocean like orbital reconnaissance satellites. Pacific ocean is about 15,500 km wide, carrier radar can see 4.7 km to the horizon, scouts have a range of about 1,000 km but can only spot something within 200 km of the scout.


Naval analyst Christopher Weuve talks to Foreign Policy about what Battlestar Galactica gets right about space warfare.

Last month, Small Wars Journal managing editor Robert Haddick asked whether new technology has rendered aircraft carriers obsolete. Well, not everyone thinks so, especially in science-fiction, where "flat tops" still rule in TV shows like Battlestar Galactica. So FP‘s Michael Peck spoke with Chris Weuve, a naval analyst, former U.S. Naval War College research professor, and an ardent science-fiction fan about how naval warfare is portrayed in the literature and television of outer-space.

Foreign Policy: How has sci-fi incorporated the themes of wet-navy warfare? How have warships at sea influenced the depiction of warships in space?

Chris Weuve: There are a lot of naval metaphors that have made their way into sci-fi. They are analogs, models of ways to think about naval combat. When people started writing about science-fiction combat, it was very easy to say that a spaceship is like a ship that floats on the water. So when people were looking for ways to think about, there was a tendency to use models they already understood. As navies have changed over time, that means there is a fair number of models that various science fiction authors can draw on. You have a model that resembles the Age of Sail, World War I or World War II surface action, or submarines, or fighters in space. Combine a couple of those, and you have aircraft carriers in space. I’m not one who gets hung up on the real physics because it is science fiction. But all of these models are based more upon historical analogs then analysis of the actual situation in space.

FP: Let’s reverse the question. Has sci-fi affected the way that our navies conduct warfare?

CW: This is a question that I occasionally think about. Many people point to the development of the shipboard Combat Information Center in World War II as being inspired by E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman novels from the 1940s. Smith realized that with hundreds of ships over huge expanses, the mere act of coordinating them was problematic. I think there is a synergistic effect. I also know a number of naval officers who have admitted to me that the reason they joined the Navy was because Starfleet Command wasn’t hiring.

FP: How do these different space warfare models differ from their oceanic counterparts?

CW: Science fiction authors and moviemakers tend to gravitate towards historical models they — and their audience — understand. So, sometimes you end up with "submarines in space" — but a submarine is a vessel designed to hide under the water, which obscures your vision and forces you to use capricious sensors like sonar. Space, on the other hand, is wide open, and any ship putting out enough heat to keep its crew alive stands out from the background, if you have enough time to look. Other times we get "dreadnoughts in space," with gunnery duels like Jutland — but again, hiding is hard, so this battle should take place at extreme range. Or you get "airplanes in space," which largely ignores that airplanes work in the real world because they take advantage of the fact that air and sea have different attributes.

All of these models are fun, and some work better than others, but they all present space combat in a way that doesn’t really fit with the salient attributes of space. And lest I get a thousand emails from people who say I don’t understand how combat in their favorite universe works — yes, I do. My answers are necessarily approximations for this interview. Someday I should write a book.

FP: So how would actual space war differ from naval warfare?

CW: That’s hard to say, since we haven’t seen space warfare of the type we see in science fiction, and the results are very dependent on technological assumptions. But let me turn that question sideways: what are the salient features of naval warfare, and do these match up?

You can sum up the difference with the "two media and three Hs." The two media are the air and the water. Submarines operate in the water. Ships operate on the water. And aircraft operate in the air, though the limitations of the air dictate that aircraft can’t stay there very long, and must land either ashore or at sea to rest and replenish. This is self-evident, but naval combat is defined by these simple truths.

The "three Hs" are history, hiding, and hydrodynamics.

For the first H, history, there were only two two types of warships: "battleships" and "scouts and auxiliaries." They usually didn’t call them by these names, but that’s a good functional description. The battleships fought, and the scouts and auxiliaries scouted and carried troops, materiel, messages, and the like. In the 20th century, though, we got changes: new weapons (torpedoes) that make a new type of ship, the escort, necessary, and new platforms (submarines and airplanes) that used the new weapon (and added aerial bombs). These new weapons had the frightening ability to, at least on paper, kill a battleship with a single blow. And one warfare area (surface combat) becomes three — surface, subsurface, and air. That’s historically how things developed, with different time periods having their own particular characters, as new technologies were developed and old ways of doing things were superseded. Science fiction navies, however, are often a mishmash of time periods, with all of the "cool bits" mixed together. So, they don’t make sense given the assumptions of the fictional universe or the non-fictional universe from which they were drawn.

For the second H, hiding, surface ships hide in four different ways: Behind the curve of the earth, behind the ocean interface where ocean surface meets the sky, by taking advantage of distance, and through the use of low-observability such as stealth technology. But in space, there is no curve of the earth or ocean interface to hide you from enemy radar, or even telescopes.

The third H is hydrodynamics: For a ship in the water, drag increases as the cube of speed. This is why ships have a top speed. As your speed increases, your drag increases exponentially, until you double the size of your engines but you really don’t go any faster. In space, your top speed is more about reaction mass, but you have other issues that have to do with how big ship you can build before it starts to collapse in on itself. As ships grow bigger, they have to devote a greater percentage of their total mass to holding themselves together. Hydrodynamics limits and defines surface ships and submarines, just as aerodynamics limits and defines airplanes. In the real world, this means that combat craft either go fairly slow like ships or go fairly fast (like airplanes) — there’s not much in between. You see similar patterns in a lot of science fiction, even though they should be thinking in terms of acceleration over time, rather than top speed. As with most of these things, written science fiction is better than video formats.

FP: You seem particularly concerned about the "aircraft carrier in space" concept.

CW: I don’t think "concerned" is the right word. Let’s call it amused. Aircraft carriers are a particularly good model to illustrate how the differences between the ocean and the air really drive how naval combat works, and hence don’t work so well when converted to space. An aircraft carrier is built around three things: the flight deck, which functions as the airplanes’ doorway between the sea and the sky, and also the parking lot for the airplanes; the hangar deck, where essential aircraft maintenance is carried out; and the propulsion spaces, because you really want that flight deck to be moving fast to generate wind over the deck, which in turn makes it easier to land and take off. Everything about the "airport" aspects of an aircraft carrier point towards making it big: big engines, and big flight deck that is also elevated away from the turbulence of the ocean surface. So, since you need a big ship anyway, we decide to put a lot of planes on, plus extra fuel, command and control facilities, a hospital, a post office, and so on. You name it, an aircraft carrier has it.

But in space, you don’t need that doorway between the sea and the sky, because your "fighter" is operating in the same medium as the mothership. You don’t need a flight deck. You just need a hatch, or maybe just a clamp that attaches the fighter to the hull if you don’t mind leaving it outside. You don’t need the big engines or the big elevated flight deck. And hence it doesn’t make nearly so much sense to put all of your eggs in one basket. There might still be some efficiencies in grouping them together, but the fighters are probably more analogous to helicopters rather than F-18s. Almost every ship in the U.S. Navy carries a helicopter, or at least could temporarily. And before the emails start, Battlestar Galactica is one of my favorite TV shows.

FP: So it sounds like sci-fi space warfare is transplanted naval warfare, but a very mixed bag when it comes to realism?

CW: It is kind of a mixed bag, but "realistic" is a word that I have problems with. For a lot of these models, the assumption drives the conclusion. The ability of your laser cannon drives a lot of the problem. If you have a faster-than-light propulsion or communications capability, that also drives the problem. If you do a fairly simple extrapolation of current technology, what you end up with is space combat as sort of ponderous ballet with shots fired at long distance at fairly fragile targets where you have to predict where the target is going to be. You don’t end up with space fighters. You don’t end up with lots of armaments. On the other hand, if you look at the modern U.S. Navy and then go back 300 years, there are things now that would be incomprehensible to people back then. They would get some parts, but not others. Our scientific knowledge is greater than ever in human history, so there’s a greater chance that we have a complete understanding of the physics in the future. But then again, you don’t know what you don’t know. I remember seeing a submarine book when I was in high school. A Jules Verne type of book, with a submarine with a sled that hung underneath the sub, with some kind of contact sensor to let you know if you were close to the bottom. They didn’t know about sonar. It was a perfectly logical, perfectly clever solution to a problem. It also turned out to be perfectly wrong.

FP: What about ships turning in space like airplanes?

CW: Babylon 5 was closer in that it understood that there is no air in space and you don’t bank. But even on that show, the ships would be under thrust, and then they decide to go back the way they come, they would spin around and almost immediately start going in the opposite direction. That doesn’t work. They ignored the fact that acceleration is cumulative. But I do like that they can rotate in flight and fire sideways. Babylon 5 and the new Battlestar Galactica are far and away the best in trying to portray vector physics. There are a lot of problems with the way they do it, but I’m willing to give them an A for effort.

FP: Which are the most realistic sci-fi movies in portraying space warfare?

CW: There isn’t any show that does a really good job across the board. Some do better at different parts. For example, the new Battlestar Galactica is probably the best at depicting life on board a ship. That ship is very spacious compared to a U.S. Navy warship, but the inside of it looks correct. One of my all-time favorite TV shows is Star Trek, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation. But one thing that drives me crazy is that on Star Trek, you’re either on watch or off duty, when a real naval officer has a whole other job, such as being a department or division head. So he’s constantly doing paperwork. Most shows don’t get that right at all.

FP: And the worst shows for realistic space warfare?

CW: There are so many that are so bad. Star Wars is probably the worst. There is no explanation for why X-Wings [fighters] do what they do, other than the source material is really Zeroes [Japanese fighter planes] from World War II. Lucas quite consciously copied World War II fighter combat. He basically has said they analyzed World War II movies and gun camera footage and recreated those shots. Battlestar Galactica has other issues. One thing I have never understood is why the humans didn’t lose halfway through the first episode. If information moves at the speed of light, and one side has a tactically useful FTL [faster-than-light] drive to make very small jumps, then there is no reason why the Cylons couldn’t jump close enough and go, "Oh, there the Colonials are three light minutes away, I can see where they are, but they won’t see me for three minutes?" C.J. Cherryh’s novels address this a bit with the idea of "longscan," where you predict where they are going to be, but you might not know for some period of time what they actually did.

FP: So a universe of faster-than-light travel favors surprise attacks?

CW: It really, really does. You can go and mug somebody and they never see it coming. Of course, not all faster-than-light drives in fiction work the same way, but the Cylon drives certainly had that attribute.

FP: You have a list of factors that real navies must contend with, such as doctrine and acquisitions, that sci-fi navies don’t. Can you elaborate?

CW: The full-up list is pretty long, but the different pieces group nicely into six major areas: 1) strategic assumptions, 2) strategic goals, 3) fleet missions, 4) fleet design, 5) force size, and 6) force management. These are the sorts of things one needs to think about when designing a navy. Most science fiction does not cover the whole model; at best it might cover Fleet Missions and Fleet Design in detail, with most other areas only vaguely defined.

Another issue is that modern naval warfare is very much tied to a logistics. There is a lifeline to the shore, and on top of that, there is this support network across the world, such as satellite, meteorological support, and land-based aircraft. Air campaigns are planned ashore. This idea that Captain Kirk leaves on a five-year mission? We go to sea for six or nine months at a time, with continuous logistical support, and when we come back, the ships are pretty beaten up. They need refit. It’s hard to imagine these spaceships going out alone and unafraid without any sort of support. Most sci-fi authors ignore that, and haven’t thought about what would be needed. Interestingly, the sci-fi authors of the 1950s were better at thinking it though. It was a time when everyone was talking about how a hydroponics section would be needed to provide food on a starship. Maybe nowadays you can say you have a magic power source, or nanotech to produce the materials you need. But I really get the impression that sci-fi doesn’t really understand this stuff.

FP: The United States is in the midst of a major debate on what our defense policy, especially given shrinking budgets and the rise of China as Pacific sea power. Does sci-fi offer lessons on how the United States can resolve this?

CW: Fiction does not replace policy analysis. But science fiction is the literature of "what if?" Not just "what if X happens?" but also "what if we continue what we’re doing?" In that way, science fiction can inform policy making directly, and it can inform those who build scenarios for wargames and exercises and the like. One of the great strengths of science fiction is that it allows you have a conversation about something that you otherwise couldn’t talk about because it’s too politically charged. It allows you to create the universe you need in order to have the conversation you want to have. Battlestar Galactica spent a lot of time talking about the war in Iraq. There were lots of things on that show about how you treat prisoners. They never came out and said that directly. They didn’t have to. At the Naval War College, one of the core courses on strategy and policy had a section on the Peloponnesian War. It was added to the curriculum in the mid-1970s because the Vietnam War was too close, so they couldn’t talk about it, except by going back to 400 BC.


But what of vehicles intended to fight in space? As colonies and mining outposts spread throughout our solar system, there may be military value in capturing or destroying far-flung settlements — which means there'll be military value in intercepting such missions. The popular notion of space war today seems to follow the Dykstra images of movies and TV, where great whopping trillion-ton battleships direct fleets of parasite fighters (ed. note: Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars). The mother ship with its own little fleet makes lots of sense, but in sheer mass the parasites may account for much of the system, and battle craft in space may have meter-thick carapaces to withstand laser fire and nuke near-misses.

Let's consider a battle craft of reasonable size and a human crew, intended to absorb laser and projectile weapons as well as some hard radiation. We'll give it reactor-powered rockets, fed with pellets of solid fuel which is exhausted as vapor.

To begin with, the best shape for the battle craft might be an elongated torus; a tall, stretched-out doughnut. In the long hole down the middle we install a crew of two — if that many — weapons, communication gear, life support equipment, and all the other stuff that's most vulnerable to enemy weapons. This central cavity is then domed over at both ends, with airlocks at one end and weapon pods at the other. The crew stays in the very center where protection is maximized. The fuel pellets, comprising most of the craft's mass, occupy the main cavity of the torus, surrounding the vulnerable crew like so many tons of gravel. Why solid pellets? Because they'd be easier than fluids to recover in space after battle damage to the fuel tanks. The rocket engines are gimbaled on short arms around the waist of the torus, where they can impart spin, forward, or angular momentum, or thrust reversal. The whole craft would look like a squat cylinder twenty meters long by fifteen wide, with circular indentations at each end where the inner cavity closures meat the torus curvatures.

The battle craft doesn't seem very large but it could easily gross over 5,000 tons, fully fueled. If combat accelerations are to reach 5 g's with full tanks, the engines must produce far more thrust than anything available today. Do we go ahead and design engines producing 25,000 tons of thrust, or do we accept far less acceleration in hopes the enemy can't do any better? Or do we redesign the cylindrical crew section so that it can eject itself from the fuel torus for combat maneuvers? This trick — separating the crew and weapons pod as a fighting unit while the fuel supply loiters off at a distance — greatly improves the battle craft's performance. But it also mans the crew pod must link up again very soon with the torus to replenish its on-board fuel supply. And if the enemy zaps the fuel torus hard enough while the crew is absent, it may be a long trajectory home in cryogenic sleep.

(ed note: the detachable fuel torus concept is vaguely similar to Traveller's Battle Rider concept.)

Presuming that a fleet of the toroidal battle craft sets out on an interplanetary mission, the fleet might start out as a group of parasite ships attached to a mother ship. It's anybody's guess how the mother ship will be laid out, so let's make a guess for the critics to lambaste.

Our mother ship would be a pair of fat discs, each duplicating the other's repair functions in case one is damaged. The discs would be separated by three compression girders and kept in tension by a long central cable. To get a mental picture of the layout, take two biscuits and run a yard long thread through the center of each. Then make three columns from soda straws, each a yard long, and poke the straw ends into the biscuits near their edges. Now the biscuits are facing each other, a yard apart, pulled toward each other by the central thread and held apart by the straw columns. If you think of the biscuits as being a hundred meters in diameter with rocket engines poking away from the ends, you have a rough idea of the mother ship.

Clearly, the mother ship is two modules, upwards of a mile apart but linked by structural tension and compression members. The small battle craft might be attached to the compression girders for their long ride to battle, but if the mother ship must maneuver, their masses might pose unacceptable loads on the girders. Better by far if the parasites nestle in between the girders to grapple onto the tension cable. In this way, a fleet could embark from planetary orbit as a single system, separating into sortie elements near the end of the trip.

Since the total mass of all the battle craft is about equal to that of the unencumbered mother ship, the big ship can maneuver itself much more easily when the kids get off mama's back. The tactical advantages are that the system is redundant with fuel and repair elements; a nuke strike in space might destroy one end of the system without affecting the rest; and all elements become more flexible in their operational modes just when they need to be. Even if mother ships someday become as massive as moons, my guess is that they'll be made up of redundant elements and separated by lots of open space. Any hopelessly damaged elements can be discarded, or maybe kept and munched up for fuel mass.


So now I’m thinking about that favorite military sci-fi trope: the space carrier!

Whether it makes sense, from a military, technical, or economic point of view, to build a carrier vessel to launch smaller fighting craft is a complex argument. (The FP article discusses more of this than I will here.) The major reasons to do so would be the same reasons why we build naval aircraft carriers now: the ship provides a base of operations for the aircraft, and allows them to participate missions that they could not perform on their own. That’s the sort of argument that even a far-flung space military would go for – if backed up with plenty of supporting evidence – but whether their space carriers launch single-seat fighters, small-crew attack ships, or robotic drones is up for grabs. I think that we can’t completelyanswer that question without knowing more about the reasons for this space military’s existence and the socioeconomic conditions during the Space War!

Let’s just suppose that it makes sense to have some kind of mother ship carrying some kind of smaller craft in a space military. I’m going to take a couple examples of carriers from military science fiction and grade them on what they do well and what they don’t. My examples are going to illustrate some common types of space carriers in media: space carriers from Star Wars, space carriers from the 2004-2010 TV series Battlestar Galactica, and space carriers from from the “Wing Commander” games.

First of all, I’ve got to get one thing off my chest. There’s one thing all these space carrier depictions do terribly: show proper behavior of gravity. All three have decks laid out like an oceangoing ship. In fact, all three move mostly in two dimensions, only occasionally dipping into the third spatial dimension. This phenomenon has more to do with making Hollywood production easier than anything else. In reality, everything in the carrier would have to be constructed to withstand the force of thrust – so it’s far more likely to have decks stacked “up” from the engines. I don’t think a carrier would spin for centrifugal artificial gravity, because that huge momentum would affect maneuvering; the spin would also affect how fighters get launched or recovered. (Even if we do find some other way to make artificial gravity, gravity is an attractive force so I think we’d see more spheres with grav-generators in the center or cylinders with grav-generators running down the axis than we would decks with grav-generators spread all around as flat plates.)

The battlestar Galactica and all the “Wing Commander” carriers all have hangar bays that run the full length of the ship, just as an oceangoing aircraft carrier has a runway along its length. This may seem like a good idea, but there is actually a major design flaw here! It has to do with a concept called “plume impingement.” In space, there’s no air to damp out or guide the motion of all the reaction mass expelled by a rocket engine. Rocket exhaust will just spray out of the nozzle, not in a nice flame-shaped jet going backwards, but in a cone that sweeps out to the sides as well. That exhaust is moving at high velocity and could pit or scrape up any surfaces it encounters, including fighter cockpits, gun ports, and sensor apertures. On top of that, if we’re talking about ion engines (and from the pale blue glows of most sci-fi space carrier engines, they seem to be using ion propulsion!) then the exhaust consists of charged particles. If a fighter runs into that stream of ions, then not only will all its surfaces get corroded, but the fighter is going to start picking up a charge – too much charge, and electricity will eventually arc from one surface to another, potentially damaging the fighter craft!

The upshot of all this is that there should be a big huge keep-out zone for fighters anywhere aft of a space carriers beefy engines. (I assume that one reason to have the space carrier in the first place is to let fighter craft hitch a ride on something with dedicated gargantuan rockets!) Here’s my crappy rendition of the Galactica and the TCS Victory, and where fighters should stay away:

The battlestar’s keep-out zone is slightly more favorable than the other carrier’s. Still, if you can see the carrier’s engines, chances are lots of ions are hitting your cockpit canopy. The best thing to do would be to approach the battlestar sideways, just behind the flight pod, and turn in at the last second – or approach from the front.

The Star Wars carriers, on the other hand, never seem to incorporate this flaw. From Home One to Devastator, hangar bays seem to point out radially from the ship’s central axis. So, fighters coming in for landings aren’t going anywhere near the spray of particles ejected from the rear of the carrier spacecraft! (This seems like just about the only instance when the Empire could have included a design flaw but did not…)

The battlestar design is superior to the Star Wars carriers in at least one respect: just as the carrier engines will muck up the fighters, so will the fighter engines muck up the carrier! TIE fighters streaming out of that Imperial hangar bay are likely to cause all sorts of problems on the deck. When a battlestar launches its Viper complement, though, it accelerates the fighter craft with a catapult-like device; only after exiting the launch tube does the Viper appear to really light its engines.

In the design of a space carrier, engineers would have to keep in mind exactly what the purpose of the carrier is. Is it to carry common supplies for the fighter craft? Serve as a mobile refuel and repair station? Shield fighters from a first strike attack and only disperse them in close to the enemy?

I think that for long journery it might very well make sense to build a big propulsion, supply, and support ship that carries smaller fighter vehicles along with it. I’m not sure that one-man fighters make sense, but spreading an attack force out to cover multiple approaches would certainly be an advantage. I picture a large cylindrical center stage with fighter craft docked along its length: when it’s time for launch, the fighters can be ejected with some catapult mechanism. They would be recovered using the reverse process, just like a docking maneuver.

Fleet Carriers

Having space carriers being motherships to space fighters like an outer space version of the Battle of Midway is somewhat dubious from a hard science standpoint.

But if you scale it up a bit so that the fighters are more like full scale space warships, and the carrier is more like a titanic interstellar propulsion unit (slower-than-light or faster-than-light), then it makes more logical sense.

The idea is that the interstellar propulsion, if present in every single warship, will consume an unwelcome portion of the ship's mass budget. Meaning that an almost identical non-interstellar warship design can replace the stardrive mass with more weapons and defenses. The non-stardrive warship can beat the pants off its stardrive cousin.

In the role-playing-game Traveller, such non-stardrive ships are called System Defense Boats. Their advantage is they are cheaper or more heavily armed compared to equivalent stardrive ships. The disadvantage is they are a pain in the posterior to move between star systems.

To counter this, the solution is the Fleet Carrier. It is a huge mothership which carries lots of system defense boats. The advantage is that the fleet carried will also be system defense boats and thus be on an even footing with the system's defense fleet. The disadvantage is that if the mothership is destroyed, the invading fleet is up doo-doo-pulsar with no gravity generator.


(ed note: Bussard Ramjet pilot Corbett was sent by The State totalitarian regime on an interstellar trip, but he goes his own way. Later he comes back to Terra after a relativistic trip lasting a few hundred millennia. He notices many small changes, such as the sun is burning hotter and Terra is now orbiting Jupiter. The State seems to have died out, replaced by two genetically engineered factions called the Boys and the Girls.)

      "Watch the show.”
     Certain stars glowed more brightly than others… and planetary systems circled them, greatly enlarged for effect. Now all but two of these systems turned sullen red—turned enemy. These were the worlds that had turned against the State.
     One of the red systems sparkled and faded into the background, its colony destroyed.
     The two neutral systems went red.
     Another system faded out.
     The view closed on Sol system… on more of Sol system than Corbell had known, with three dark gas giants beyond Pluto, and countless swarming comets.

     Fleets of spacecraft moved out toward the renegade colonies. Other fleets invaded. Sometimes they came like a hornet’s nest, many ships clustered around a Bussard ramjet core. Sometimes like a Portuguese man-of-war: thousands of ships as weights around the fringe of a great silver light-sail. Early fleets included hospital ships and return fuel; later there were massive suicide attacks.

     It went on for centuries. The State utopia became a subsistence civilization, turning all its surplus energy to war. The fleets moved at just less than lightspeed. News of success or failure or need for reinforcements moved barely faster. The State was Boys and Girls and dictators all united for the common good. Corbell hurt with the loss of that unity.

     He watched a beam of light bathe Sol system: laser cannon firing from Farside colony. Farside launched warships by light-sail at terrific accelerations. The ships dropped their sails and decelerated most of the way to Sol, arriving just behind the beam itself, long before the State could prepare.

From A WORLD OUT OF TIME by Larry Niven (1976)

“Finally, let us turn to the biggest megaships of them all, the fleet carriers. Including them in this work is a choice which I expect to be somewhat controversial – many would argue that a fleet carrier is a formation, not a vessel – but with respect to those readers who may hold that position, since the Imperial Navy treats fleet carriers as a single vessel for asset accounting and command designation purposes, so in turn shall I.

“Let us begin with a look at the history of the type. Fleet carriers were not known before the Exterminomachy (5782-5901). While before that time lighthuggers had met with occasional hostility, they had proven more than capable of defending themselves against local system defense forces, in particular with the Perreinar Wheel1 – and in those cases where they were not, it was because they had encountered a Power not readily opposed by pure military force. This changed with the arrival of the skrandar berserker probes, whose numbers and willingness to embrace suicide tactics made them a serious threat to even well-defended vessels, and eliminating breeding site for which required the transport of full task forces to their host systems.

“The first fleet carriers, then, were improvisations; lighthuggers pressed into service under the right of angary. Stripped down by removing all cargo capacity, much crew space, and all other less-than-essential facilities, and enhancing their fuel capacity with multiple drop tanks, it became possible to clamp a small number of light units – overstocked with fuel and supplies – to the spine of such a vessel, and have it haul them slowly and painfully to a target system.

“Such crude improvisations were fraught with problems, from wear and tear on ships and crew during the slow transit, to the risk of interception before the transported units could free themselves from the carrier – both due to the inefficiency of the mechanical clamps, and the need to cut clamps frozen in transit or actual hard welds used where clamps would not suffice, to even entire vessels lost from the carrier in transit. (The last of these to be recovered, CS Bloodwashed3, was salvaged with all hands in 6722.)

“Fortunately, by the third year of the Exterminomachy, new designs were emerging from the cageworks at Ashen Planitia and Armory. The second-generation fleet carriers were custom-built starships, or rather, the specialized elements (the “propulsion head” and “collier module”) were, since the second generation eschewed the rigid designs of the first in exchange for dispersed tensegrity structures.

“In effect, the starships transported by the fleet carrier, along with the specialized elements, formed the floating compression struts of the overall structure, while being linked by braided cables (derived from orbital elevator technology) into a unified structure. The majority of the propulsive thrust is provided by the dedicated propulsion heads, while specialized fleet mediator software enables the use of the drives of the various carried ships to balance the structure and correct attitude. Meanwhile, supplies carried in the collier modules, distributed by rigged flexpipe and by cable-crawling logistics robots, eliminated the need to overload any individual ship with supplies, and indeed enabled the transportation of greater volumes of fuel and replenishment. Moreover, such fleet carriers could separate instantly if intercepted by simply blowing the explosive cable-couplers and engaging their drives independently, the dispersed tensegrity structure providing adequate safety separation for this.

“Such dispersed-design fleet carriers served with distinction throughout the remainder of the Exterminomachy, and have remained a key element of IN subluminal doctrine since. While there exist a third generation of fleet carrier designs, these merely reflect the evolution in technological reliability that allows the physical cables of the second generation to be replaced with vector-control tractor-pressor beams, and does not reflect any change in fundamental design or doctrine.

“As ad hoc structures, of course, it would be incorrect to say that fleet carriers have classes, in the strictest sense. However, the individual propulsion heads and collier modules, the former full starships in themselves, do. Thus, we shall begin our examination of fleet carriers with a look at the most common propulsion head in Imperial service, the Legends-class…”

– Megaships of the Imperium, Lorvis Maric, pub. 7290

  1. Perreinar2 Wheel: a fight-and-flight maneuver in which a lighthugger puts its stern towards the battle and engages its interstellar drive, thus retreating from the engagement while simultaneously treating the enemy to the close-range efflux of a pion drive – a situation which is very rarely survivable for anything larger than a baryon.
  2. From the eponymous horse archers who had perfected the “Perreinar shot” centuries before.
  3. Lost in the wreck of CS Cúlíän Daphnotarthius, which suffered a structural collapse of the spine while outward bound to IGS 31238 in the second year of the war.
From OUTSIZE by Alistair Young (2019)

      Star "fighters" the size of skyscrapers operating out of a "carrier" the size of a city. That's the scale I want out of a space battle.

     The fighters are either unmanned, or piloted by a single individual, but could be modified to carry hundreds of passengers in an emergency. Have limited self repair abilities but rely on the carrier for logistic support. Despite being piloted by individuals, the "fighters" fight at range more like warships.

     The "pilots" job is mostly tactics and using esp for faster than lightspeed detection/targeting/coms. Also having dramatic dialogue with the enemy.

     The city sized carrier is basically a space colony with engines and weapons. Its hangar bays are more like harbors than carrier flight decks. Most of the ship is empty space as a damage mitigation measure. Attacks can go right through it. Because the ships structure is mostly force fields, its possible to have habitation blocks that look like ordinary neighborhoods. Even in combat the town can be safely isolated by force fields. Of course if they fail, millions die instantly. Better hope the fields hold.

     Space battles can take very long from a human perspective. Up until the part where you die instantly. A community could be at "battle stations" for years, a pilot could spend their entire career as a single sortie during which they never leave their cockpit. This isn't even taking time dilation into account. A ship might spend literal years of local time being chased from system to system. And strategic necessity might require missions that don't return home until the war is over.

     The pilots have telepathic communication with each other, allowing them to be connected emotionally, but the carrier can resupply the fighters remotely by warping supplies in. Its defense screen is spread across several star systems.

     As I said before, the one man fighters are the size of skyscrapers. The Cockpit has every amenity you could want in an armored capsule size of a small house. The restaurant of the ship is mostly empty space as before, it could be reconfigured to be livable volume. Of course for combat purposes, its either empty space, or full of weapons. There will be lulls in the battle where you can sleep, eat, play video games, read, as long as you stay inside and are ready to fight at a moments notice. The ship can wake you up with drugs If necessary.

     For the people on the mothership, the experience will be be more like a city under siege or bombardment. People will try to go about their lives with a constant sense of dread punctuated with sirens and evacuations.

     Some civilizations will of course build "cruisers" smaller than cities but bigger than buildings. Completely self sufficient and thus more flexible in deployment. The ones with biological crews will have crews more comparable to a ships. Ships of cruiser size or larger contain the manufacturing capacity to kickstarting an entire civilization given enough time and resources. Any one of them could start building an entire fleet by themselves. This would however take time and might attract unwanted attention.

     An advantage of a mothership is it can manufacture smaller ships on the move without them being vulnerable to raiders. A cruiser wishing to build re enforcements has to defend them while they finish self assembly. In either case the limit of self replicating spacecraft is ultimately arms limitation treaties. Expanding too fast gets you labeled a berserker. Defense against berserkers is why people have space warships in the first place.

From a tweet by Psi Operator (2020)

Hegemony Interceptors

Hegemony is hardSF novel by Mark Kalina. I know it is hard because he used this website as reference.

The space carriers are called Lance ships. The fighters are called interceptors.

The Lance ships not only ferry the interceptors into battle, but they are the interceptor's power supply. The Lance ships have six huge laser arrays. In addition to being used as laser weapons, some can be tasked to energize the laser thermal engines on the interceptors. Laser thermal engines are incredibly lightweight compared to most other rocket engines, giving the interceptors a huge thrust-to-weight ratio, which in turn gives fanatastic acceleration. This gives the interceptors much greater maneuverability than a Lance ship, and makes them very hard to be targeted by hostile weapons fire.

The draw-back is that the interceptor's power plant is not present in the interceptor, it is back on the Lance mothership. If anything happens to the Lance, or if the Lance needs all its lasers to defend itself, the interceptor might suddenly find its laser thermal engines inoperable. For such emergencies the interceptor has an auxiliary rocket engine with a very limited supply of fission pellets.

The Lance's lasers can focus sharply enough to be used as weapons to damage enemy targets up to range X (until diffraction spreads the beam too much). But the lasers can energize interceptor engines at a longer range than X because the engines can utilize a more diffuse beam. In addition the interceptor has lightweight laser combat mirrors which can focus diffuse Lance laser beams down to ship-destroying pin-points on the enemy.

The interceptors also carry loads of bomb-pumped x-ray lasers.

Interceptors cannot carry human pilots since 100+ g accelerations would kill them in a fraction of a second. But the interceptors must carry human pilots because of Burnside's First Law (the SciFi novel readers hate reading stories about the Adventures of Droney, the unmanned combat aerial vehicle). Mr. Kalina's solution is that the pilots are carried onboard the interceptors, for certain values of "carried." The pilot's brain patterns are digitally uploaded into the interceptor's computer. The digital pattern contains the pilot's consciousness, memories, and combat skill. But it does not contain squishy brains, breakable bones, and rupturable organs; so it is immune to high g acceleration. If the digital pilot thinks that destruction of the interceptor is imminent, it will attempt to upload itself back to the mothership.


A standard lance-ship was built around a battery of half a dozen seven-meter-diameter Primary Laser Arrays (PLAs). The huge capital ship weapons were capable of delivering shattering, pin-point focused laser energy out as far as twenty thousand kilometers and causing severe thermal damage at twice that range. That was impressive, especially given the thermal shock of a well-focused hit would shatter hull metal like glass. But the real use of the PLAs was to boost interceptor-missiles. Boosted by one of the PLAs, the little laser-drive missiles could reach out to almost two light-seconds, well over five hundred thousand kilometers. Each missile carried multiple stand-off warheads, anti-ship and anti-interceptor, giving it substantial tactical flexibility. These laser-driven missiles were the real primary weapon of a lance-ship.

The interceptor was a narrow spike of metal and ceramic, black as space and, where the hull was not interrupted by external hardware, smooth as glass. Zandy ran her hand along the hull of Interceptor CS-1-4. The ten meter long craft was nestled in its support cradle, one of six that were about to be loaded into the forward-starboard launch tubes. The interceptor was festooned with clusters of long "harpoons," nuclear detonation x-ray laser warheads fitted along the interceptor's sides. There were a dozen anti-interceptor warheads and six bigger anti-ship warheads; these were the business end of the tiny fighter-missile. Each warhead was a six-meter-long needle of metal. The anti-interceptor warheads were barely 10 centimeters in diameter, and the anti-ship warheads were only twice as wide. The x-ray lasing rods took up most of that length, with the actual warhead and short-duration fission pulse-drive crammed into the last meter of the weapon. Zandy smiled grimly.

This time would be for real; no simulations now. Those warheads were live; multi-kiloton nukes for the anti-interceptor weapons and megaton-yield nukes for the anti-ship warheads. She stepped forward to look at the retracted panels of the bow-shields, ran a hand along the sensors masts that would extend to look past the shield, then stepped aft to inspect the reflector array that, once opened to its full twelve meter span, would help focus laser energy onto the interceptor's drive. The drive section was retracted for now; in space it would extend from the rear of the interceptor, almost doubling the craft's length, placing the reaction mass nozzle right at the focus point of the reflectors. When the laser energy from one of the Conquering Sun's PLAs focused on it, the drive would be able to accelerate the interceptor at almost ninety gees. Zandy looked over the glossy half spheres of the interceptor's laser arrays.

The little lasers lacked the power to burn though heavy armor, but they would be able to blind an enemy interceptor's sensors. Aside for the bow-shields, the little lasers and the radical evasions made possible by the interceptor's huge acceleration were her only defense. She ran a hand along the cluster of recessed launch tubes for her sensor drones. Those would be her eyes when the main sensors of the interceptor were blinded by the glare of enemy lasers.

Everything looked perfect. It was odd, she thought, to be touching one of her bodies with the hand of the other... Now there was a thought only a daemon could have, Zandy mused. She could see the distorted reflection of her biosim face in the smooth metal of the interceptor, and for a moment it was as if the interceptor wore the same face. She wondered briefly which one was actually "her." But there was no time for that sort of thing now. She focused her mind and turned away from the interceptor.

It was time to head to the avatar storage compartment, where her current body would be safely stored while she inhabited the interceptor. There was just enough time left to walk to her assigned storage compartment before the Conquering Sun dispensed with the charade that she was a freight super-liner and went to a full three gees acceleration; a few minutes after that, the enemy would be in range and the assault-ship would open fire, with Zandy, in her interceptor body, as one of the projectiles.

The avatar storage room was a familiar sight; rows and rows of storage capsules for biosims and the occasional bioavatar. In an emergency, she could have transferred into her interceptor from her quarters, or from a dozen other places in the ship, but if the Conquering Sun accelerated hard, that would risk damage to her biosim avatar, left behind while she was in the interceptor. Zandy jostled past other crewmembers as they climbed into the capsules. Jessa was already in the command neural net, flying the ship. Her biosim avatar was already stored in one of the ship's other avatar storage rooms.

Zandy climbed into a storage capsule, plugged a data line into the back of her neck, and strapped herself in. The link to her interceptor lit up inside her mind and she transferred herself: A moment of disorientation... And she was in the interceptor; she was the interceptor. A systems check ran almost subconsciously as she tested her body: reflectors, maneuver systems, small laser arrays, sensors; all came up green, stretched and limber, ready to fly. She was used enough to the interceptor that she didn't feel a psychological need to take a deep breath. A query came into her mind and she answered it, "CS-1-4 ready to go."

Interceptors could be launched with AI control. But, whether, as some researchers argued, AIs were actually sentient, or whether, as conventional wisdom held, they were just a very clever imitation of sentience, it was clear that, no matter how sophisticated, AIs utterly lacked any sort of intuition or instinct. It might have been different if pilots were forced to interact with their weapons by voice and manual commands, but even biological minds could be interfaced directly with their defenses and weapons; there was no speed advantage for AI controlled weapons.

And in a contest between a thinking mind and even the most elaborate autonomous programming, an AI, incapable of improvised or creative responses, almost always lost. So that left putting a human mind into the interceptor. Not hard to do; a neural network large enough to hold a daemon was small enough to fit into a human skull. A six thousand kilogram interceptor had plenty of room. A biological human pilot could have been crammed in, at the cost of significant payload space, but no biological pilot could have survived the accelerations that interceptors attained under laser-boost.

There was another advantage to having a daemon pilot an interceptor: All too often, an interceptor mission was a suicide mission. The tiny ships really were more like missiles than space-fighters. A daemon stood a good chance of escaping from her manned missile by means of a data-link, transferring back to the launching ship in the instants before an interceptor was destroyed. Daemon pilots allowed interceptors to fight like heedless kamikazes, but without the certain loss of skilled pilots and without the need to indoctrinate skilled pilots to become suicidal. Which was not to say that piloting an interceptor was safe.

Even without combat, the huge accelerations and energies involved made the tiny parasite ships very dangerous. Simply to operate, they had to ride a high energy laser beam that, if mismanaged, could vaporize the tiny ships. An interceptor mission was usually over in less than twenty minutes; an interceptor pilot's statistical average life-span in actual combat time, even allowing for data-link escape for the piloting daemon, was less than an hour. A pilot who survived three combat missions was a hardened veteran.

And each battle could see a pilot launched more than once: An assault-ship carried several hundred interceptors in its magazines; a pilot could expect to be yanked from a dying interceptor into a fresh one and launched again if the battle was an extended engagement. In some cases, a pilot might go through three interceptors in one fight.

Time was measured in long seconds. Zandy was on the beam. The interceptor was centered on the output of the Number Three Primary Laser Array, boosting hard at eighty-two gees towards the enemy ship. The enemy was focusing a tertiary laser array on her; she increased polymer flow to the bow-shields and launched another set of optical sensor-relay drones on a trajectory that ought to take them out of the dazzle-blinding pattern of the enemy laser. No joy; the enemy seemed to have it in for her, personally; all three drones flared and died, giving her no new sensor data. She was flying blind. She had the sensor feed from the Conquering Sun, her mother-ship, but it was light-lagged by almost two seconds, and her mother-ship was being laser-blinded too. The data wasn't totally useless, but it was nowhere near as good as getting some of her own sensors into the game. Seconds were a long time for an interceptor on an attack run.

The interceptor was riding the laser of one of the Conquering Sun's Primary Laser Arrays, PLAs, catching the enormous output of the huge laser array in its variable geometry parabolic reflectors and focusing it to turn carbon reaction mass into high energy plasma thrust. Zandy adjusted the magnetic nozzle of her drive and her thrust vector changed accordingly, slewing the interceptor in a corkscrew as she signaled the vector change back to her mother-ship. She could direct thrust in almost any direction, so long as it was powered by the PLA of her mother ship. But she needed that laser; there was no way get sustained high thrust from an onboard power source in something as small as an interceptor.

There was also no way to focus killing laser energy from the assault-ship out as far as an interceptor could be propelled, using its reflectors to focus the distant laser of its mother-ship. That meant that interceptors, propelled by laser power from their mother-ships, were the weapons of choice for deep space battle. For a moment she was off the beam, switching seamlessly to a burst of micro-fission pellets for thrust, before the mother-ship tracked her maneuver and tasked another PLA to propel her. The engine switched back to laser power. She was out of the glare of the enemy blinding laser now, and she triggered another spread of sensor drones to launch. This time she had a decent few seconds of new data before the enemy blinding lasers found her. The bow-shields were bleeding vaporized polymer fast, and she upped the injection rate of fresh polymer into the shields to maximum.

The shields were deployable panels of smart-metal and composite mesh that held a fluid barrier of ablative polymer between her and the enemy lasers. Her onboard polymer reserves should hold out for the brief remaining duration of the attack run. More importantly, the new sensor data suddenly gave her a targeting fix on two enemy interceptors screaming out to meet her. Her closing vector towards the enemy ship was up to almost 680 kilometers per second now, and the enemy interceptors were doing about 370 kps reciprocal.

The closure rate was over a thousand kilometers per second, a third of a percent of light speed. There might be a second wave of enemy interceptors beyond this one, she thought, but it would be too late. Interceptors launched this late wouldn't be able to engage her before she was in range of their mother-ship, especially since the enemy boost lasers would be getting dangerously hot; her own mother-ship was venting geysers of coolant trying to manage the big lasers' waste heat.

But she had a target now and the decision to take the shot was almost subconscious. She selected half of her anti-interceptor warheads and tasked them, launching them out into the laser-saturated space around her. The small projectiles' fission motors flared for a violent second, deploying the warheads to minimum stand-off range. Lasing rods aligned at the now unseen targets' probable positions and the multi-kiloton yield warheads detonated in flashes of nuclear fire, sending out coherent blasts of X-ray energy. An instant after the warheads were launched she was executing another random vector variation and dropping salvos of micro-decoys, seeking to evade a possible counter-attack from the enemy interceptors. Her own blinding lasers were tracking across the most likely volumes of space where the enemy interceptors might have deployed sensor drones; their main sensors would be blinded by tertiary laser arrays from her mother-ship, just like the enemy ship was blinding her.

She assumed that the enemy interceptors had taken shots at her too, but she never got confirmation of it. If she had scored any interceptor kills, she would find out from the mother-ship's records. Her own sensors told her nothing about it. Her second spread of sensor drones were fully cooked now, burned to uselessness by hostile laser energy, and she launched a third salvo. She was off the beam again, and her fission fuel reserves were falling fast to keep up her thrust. Her acceleration was jolting all along the range from sixty to almost ninety gees; a constant rate of acceleration was almost as quick a form of suicide as drifting on a fixed vector would be.

The only thing saving her now was that the enemy ship's own sensors were being flooded with blinding lasers, making it impossible for the enemy ship to keep a concentrated point of laser light focused on her constantly evading interceptor. If she let her interceptor drift on a fixed vector, or even accelerated at a constant rate, the enemy's secondary laser arrays would track her and burn through her bow-shields in a matter of scant seconds. The enemy ship had scant seconds left. Captain Ari-Kani of the Hegemonic assault-ship Conquering Sun had chosen to gamble, dedicating all of his ship's PLAs to a long-range offensive strike, powering a salvo of twelve interceptors, two full waves, for a long duration burn and holding back nothing for powering a defensive salvo of interceptors.

The huge ship still had her secondary and tertiary laser arrays for defense, to blind enemy sensors and try to burn down inbound interceptors and warheads. Committing all of her Primary Laser Arrays and launching only twelve interceptors allowed time for half of the Conquering Sun's big boost-laser arrays to cool down without interrupting power to the interceptors. But the lasers generated vast amounts of waste heat when they fired. Even with half the beams shut down for cooling at any given time, the Conquering Sun's radiator spines were glowing with waste heat and the huge ship was venting streams of super-heated coolant to keep the lasers from overheating.

There was no margin to power a second salvo of interceptors, a defensive salvo, without cutting power to the attack salvo. Heat buildup would eventually force the big lasers to shut down, even with the massive coolant expenditure and the alternation of half the lasers between cooling and firing cycles. But not soon enough for this enemy, thought Zandy. She didn't know what her sibling interceptors were doing, but she was almost in range of the target ship, past its first defensive wave of interceptors and too close for a second defensive wave to get in her way before her own weapons would be in range. She found the beam again and accelerated on laser power; there wasn't much fission fuel left, but that didn't matter. Now she was just within maximum range; she could launch her ship-killers now, but the odds of a kill were still low.

The power of the warheads' nuclear detonation-pumped X-ray lasers was enormous, but the focus accuracy was very poor. Not to mention that the target ship was stealthed to degrade last-instant radar targeting and was pumping out blinding lasers to degrade optical sensors. So the weapons had to get close to work. It would take only a few more endless seconds to get the target deeper into her range envelope. Ideally she would have wanted to wait till her interceptor shot past the target ship, giving her weapons a clear shot behind the enemy's bow-shields, but there was too much enemy fire and the odds of living long enough for that were too low.

The enemy's tactics were more conventional than her side's. Five or six interceptors, a single wave, had been held back as defenders, to try to stop her and the other interceptors in her wave. It was a futile defense against the dozen inbound interceptors, but it let the enemy shoot a full wave of a half dozen interceptors at her mother-ship, unopposed. But if she could kill the enemy ship, the enemy interceptors would lose power; limited to their internal fission fuel, the enemy wouldn't be able to maintain a high acceleration attack run, and without the ability to evade at extreme accelerations, the enemy interceptors would be swatted out of the vacuum like flies stuck to fly paper. The beam suddenly died.

Fission took over again, giving her some acceleration, but there was less than 10% reserves left. No time. She frantically looked though rear facing sensors. The Conquering Sun was no longer lasing for her; all the PLAs had been re-tasked! Her acceleration was down to 58 gees, and the bow-shields were suddenly subliming faster than the polymer could be injected; a secondary laser array from the enemy mother-ship was trying to track her, and doing a better job now that her acceleration had fallen off. She could evade at full acceleration, but that would use the last of her fission fuel. Range was down to just over ten thousand kilometers, falling fast. Decision was instant. She pushed for maximum acceleration, straining the structure of the interceptor at eight-eight gees, ramming herself out of the focus point of the laser.

From HEGEMONY by Mark Kalina (2012)

BDM Carrier

This is more a carrier with a load of planetary exploration ships, as opposed to a load of deadly combat fighters. However, the "shoot down threatening meteor" function would work equally well as a "shoot down hostile warship" function. For a BDM carrier optimised for combat fighters, see here.



     Since powerful advanced electric power plants are an "a priori" part of most currently envisioned large manned interplanetary vehicles, a most attractive alternative use of this power would be to remotely propel shuttlecraft to and from the planetary surface. Such shuttles, powered by laser or microwave energy, can be designed to use the atmosphere to advantage (i.e., by momentum exchange) and thereby out-perform conventional rocket-powered shuttles. From an integrated systems standpoint, the beamed-energy dependent shuttle would appear to be the most energy and fuel efficient transport—necessitating the least power plant redundancy in interplanetary missions. The logistics of such a system is explored in this chapter.

     Also. the availability of a powerful electric power plant has other implications for extraterrestrial propellant resupply in advanced manned missions. As pointed out by Heppenheimer, converting water to hydrogen propellant at the landing site offers a potential means to keep down the size of interplanetary spacecraft. and permits mission operations out to Jupiter's system. This hydrogen could be used both by the interplanetary vehicle as well as by single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) shuttlecraft.


     Figure XV-l is a schematic diagram of a beamed-energy network for a large-scale manned planetary expedition. Orbital laser or microwave power is beamed (downlinked) to Mobile Field Generator (MFG) shuttlecraft either a) direct from mammoth interplanetary carriers, or b) first bounced off a relay satellite (Monocle Shuttle). Clearly. power could also be beamed direct from the interplanetary carrier vehicle to Landing/Survey sub-orbital vehicles (L/S craft).

1. Relay Satellite Stations

     These self-propelled (or laser-propelled) relay satellites would be deployed in great numbers about the destination planet, enabling the interplanetary cruisers to beam laser power to shuttlecraft or MFG carrier vehicles located anywhere around the entire globe. The "Monocle Shuttle" described in Chapter X is an example of such a relay station for laser frequencies.

i. Mobile Field Generator (MFG) Shuttlecraft

     After placing relay satellites in appropriate orbits, the interplanetary cruiser would deploy large SSTO shuttlecraft to the planet surface. These Mobile Field Generator (MFG) vehicles are designed to float, neutrally-buoyant, in the dense low-altitude atmosphere. The primary function of MFG vehicles is to carry numerous smaller landing/survey (L/S) craft, which do not have SSTO flight capability. Next the SSTO shuttle, acting as a "mobile electrostatic field generator", would artificially charge up a portion of the planet's atmosphere (as shown in Figure XIII-1), then deploy the L/S craft to fly on this field—in order that they may conduct their explorations largely from the air.

     The MFG shuttlecraft are envisioned as lighter-than-air vehicles (LTAV) of the variety described in Chapter XII, equipped with aerial docking and interior storage (i.e., hanger) provisions for L/S craft. Figure XV-2 is an artist concept of a MFG carrier, deploying L/S craft.

     When the decision is made to return to the interplanetary cruiser, the L/S craft would be gathered up and the MFG carrier vehicle would be boosted back into orbit on laser power beamed from the interplanetary cruiser.

3. Landing/Survey (L/S) Craft

     The L/S craft could be either of the heavier-than-air or lighter-than-air variety. They could either a) fly on large electrostatic fields generated by artificial atmospheric charging (i.e., the MFG carrier vehicle function), as introduced in Chapter XIII, or b) fly with laser-thermal or laser-electric engines of the types described in Chapters IV - IX. These craft would be designed for efficient atmosphere-based, planetary exploration, and would not have SSTO capability.

4. Interplanetary Spacecraft

     Figure XV-3 portrays the essential features of an interplanetary spacecraft suitable for large scale solar system expeditions. It is modeled after the cylindrical geometry of 10 km long O'Neill Model 3 space colonies, and would contain superior space laboratory and observatory facilities. (The laser power-beaming mirror might be shared for space telescope applications.) An advanced gas core reactor, fusion, or matter-antimatter annihilation power source would produce prodigeous levels of electricity for use in power beaming or electric propulsion engines. Propellant and tankage are placed between the reactor and the manned portions of the cruiser to reduce the radiation exposure. MFG shuttlecrart would occupy the space between propellant tanks and the 1-G centrifuge crew compartment.

     The interplanetary cruiser would be kept in high orbits around the destination planet and would never venture into the planetary atmosphere; it would not have SSTO capability.

     The interplanetary cruiser would be kept in high orbits around the destination planet and would never venture into the planetary atmosphere; it would not have SSTO capability.

     The exterior contours of the interplanetary cruiser would be smoothly rounded, so that it could be charged up to a very high potential. By this means, large numbers of "escort" shuttlecraft may be propelled great distances from the cruiser electrostatically, using the cruiser as the reaction mass as shown in Figure XV-4. This would also enable the interplanetary cruiser to provide an electrostatic tractor field for escort "fighters". (The concept is similar to that introduced in Reference 3 where the vehicle endeavors to charge up an entire asteroid or the moon.)

     Finally, we note that the laser-power beaming equipment may be used for self-protection of the interplanetary cruiser. High velocity astronomical threats (e.g., meteorites, etc.) may be vaporized, fractured into small pieces, or laser-propelled away to avoid the danger of impacting the vehicle. "Monocle" fighting-mirror escorts could provide the function of re-focusing the cruiser's laser beam, thereby greatly increasing the lethal range.

BDM Battlecruiser

This is a combat warship with a honking huge laser. It can use the laser to energize the laser thermal engines of Monocle Fighters, so that the fighters can boost payloads into orbit. Or so the fighters can act as mobile laser combat mirrors. The battlecruiser carries a combat wing of monocle fighters.

The fighters use laser power from the battlecruiser to maneuver close to the enemy. They then angle their combat mirror, and the battlecruiser does a bank shot off the mirror and into the enemy ship.

The battlecruiser has three rotating bed particle nuclear reactors with a total output of 7.5 gigawatts of thermal energy for a few seconds at a time. How much of that energy can be converted into laser energy by the free-electron laser is unclear. Probably a few gigawatts. Laser efficiencies been as poor as they are, the battlecruiser needs huge heat radiators.

You can find more details here.

Traveller Battle Riders

The role-playing game Traveller has an interesting variant on the The Tyranny of the Rocket Equation.

In our real-world universe where combat spacecraft use rockets for propulsion, spacecraft are huge propellant tanks with an engine at one end and some weapons bolted on. Orbital bases are not subject to the Rocket Equation Tyranny, since they have no rockets. So they can take the design mass budget ordinarily consumed by propellant and engines and instead use it for more weapons. Which means an orbital base out-guns a combat spacecraft of the same mass by several orders of magnitude.

In the Traveller universe, however, spacecraft use a handwaving reactionless drive ("maneuver drive"). Which means the Rocket Equation Tyranny does not apply to Traveller warships.

With one important exception.

You see, Traveller maneuver drives are only used for interplanetary travel, between planets in a given solar system. For interstellar travel, you have to use a faster-than-light "jump drive". As it turns out jump drives are subject to a limited form of the Rocket Equation Tyranny. They require absolutely huge amounts of hydrogen.

(What the hydrogen is required for is unclear. If it is used in a fusion reactor it means the smallest tramp freighter in Traveller in one jump burns 20 tons of hydrogen producing 380,000 megawatt-years of power, or about 160% of the energy the US produces in a single year. This is why some Traveller fans are retconing that the hydrogen is needed as coolant or something.)

The Jump-drive Equation Tyranny has two main effects on Traveller spacecraft combat.

First off, it creates a ship type called a System Defense Boat. They are warships with no jump drives nor huge jump drive hydrogen tanks. So like orbital bases they are more heavily armed than a combat starship of equal mass. System defense boats are also quicker and easier to build, since weapons are less difficult to construct than complicated jump drives. Not to mention all the expensive Lanthanum required for a jump drive. Large system defense boats are called "monitors".

The main draw-back to system defense boats is they are a major headache to shift between solar systems. For obvious reasons.

Which leads us to the second major effect on Traveller spacecraft combat. I give you the Battle Rider.

What you do is basically make a detachable jump drive. This takes the form of a "Jump Tender" which is a large framework capable of carrying multiple large system defense boats (called "battle riders"), along with a freaking huge jump drive and lots of hydrogen tanks. The tender typically carries six to eight battle riders. The jump tender transports itself and all of its child battle riders into a hostile solar system.

After entering the hostile system the battle riders detach and leap into battle with the hostile local system defense boats (or even better, with the hostile combat starships). The jump tender runs away from the battle and hides in a location it hopes is safe. It returns to its children once the battle is over. Or it escapes by jumping out system if all its children are killed.

The advantage is that the battle riders will be evenly matched against hostile system defense boats and will have an actual advantage against hostile combat starships. Also, spending your ship building budget on battle riders increases the number of spinal mount weapons you will get for your warship dollar (because each warship can only have one spinal mount. More warships per dollar = more spinal mounts per dollar). Due to the way the Traveller game mechanics treat spinal mounts, the side with the larger number of spinal mounts tend to win the battles.

The disadvantage is the cost of of building the jump tender. And the fact that if the hostiles manage to obliterate the tender, the battle riders will be up doo-doo pulsar with no gravity generator. The battle riders will be trapped in the solar system with no way out. Pure combat starships can concentrate on the battle at hand, they do not have to always be simultaneously trying to protect their jump tender. The tender is the "Achilles heel" of a battle rider squadron.

Even if the jump tender is safe, it still makes it difficult for the battle riders to escape a battle gone wrong by jumping outsystem.

If a group of combat starship jump into a system, advance into combat, then suddenly discover that they are seriously outnumbered, escape is possible by simply activating their jump drives and fleeing to another solar system.

If a group of battle riders discovers that they are heading into a futuristic reenactment of Custer's Last Stand, they have to

  1. Retreat under fire while suffering losses
  2. Fight a running battle back to the mother jump tender
  3. Hope they can latch on and be jumped outsystem before the hostiles scrag the jump tender

Or they can bravely do their best General Custer impressions and heroically allow the jump tender to escape.

The battle-rider concept has some vague similaries to Dean Ing's detachable fuel torus.

There have been a few articles written on the topic of "battle riders vs. Battleships" in various Traveller publications. The last I read the consensus was that the battle rider concept looks nice on paper but is at a disadvantage in real combat.

Some of the analysis suggests that it is more cost effective to have each jump tender only carry a single battle rider, to avoid stranding six to eight battle riders with the destruction of one jump tender. However this defeats the "maximizing number of spinal mounts" advantage.

Others suggest using combat starships on the front line and holding battle riders in reserve. This means battle riders called into a battle underway will be jumping into a known situation instead of possibly being fatally surprised.

But If You Must They Act Like This

If you just can't live without your T.I.E. fighter (or if you are an author pandering to your audience) you might as well get the rest of the science correct anyway. Think up some justification to allow space fighters to exist, then try to live within the draconian constraints.

Keep in mind that even if you have space fighters, they are not going to fly like winged fighters in an atmosphere. I don't care how the X-wing and Viper space fighters maneuvered. It is impossible to make swooping maneuvers without an atmosphere and wings.

No such thing as space dog fighting with banking turns. Not yours.

You also cannot turn on a dime. The faster the ship is moving, the wider your turns will be. Your spacecraft will NOT move like an airplane, it will act more like a heavily loaded 18-wheeler truck moving at high speed on a huge sheet of black ice.


Old-School Dogfighting: No. Just no, except for specialized orbit-to-atmosphere interceptor craft that would more properly be described as “fighter-interceptor aircraft with limited suborbital capability”. Ain’t no air in space. Ain’t no space fighters, either – hanging the mass of a meatbody and its life support, including acceleration limits, off your combat craft ruins its performance envelope compared to more sensible designs. Namely, proper AKVs with a digital pilot, tetrahedral thrusters for maximal all-vectors maneuverability in vacuum and microgravity, and all the ability to handle three dimensions, multiple reference frames, and relativistic effects that primate tree-swinging instinct does not provide.

As a side note: anyone who banks their ship in a vacuum anyway is just showing off and wasting RCS reserves, and/or thinks far too well of their paint job.

And another thing: if you maneuver, you are NOT going to be slammed into walls by high gee forces like a NASCAR race car driver. It doesn't work that way unless you have an atmosphere and wings. The only thing you will feel is a force in the same direction that the rocket exhaust is shooting, which will be equal to magnitude to the acceleration the engine is producing. Since Rockets Are Not Boats, the force generally be in the direction the crew considers as "down", as defined by the rocket's design. It will never be "sideways" (except under silly situations, like occupying a spinning centrifugal gravity ring while the rocket is accelerating).

It doesn't matter if you are thrusting in some other direction that the rocket's direction of travel (see Rockets Are Not Arrows) nor does it matter the rocket's current velocity (relative to what?). If the rocket engine cannot provide more than 0.5 gs of acceleration, the crew is never going to feel more than 0.5 gs of acceleration. Even if the ship is moving at a large fraction of the speed of light.


Let me try to explain one aspect of this: specifically, the motion of space fighters.

Don’t get me wrong. Star Wars is a great movie, one of my all-time favorites. It’s even still a pretty good movie if Han doesn’t shoot first, even though that’s an absurd change on so many levels. But Star Wars wrecked the popular perception of how space fighters would move in space for a long time. The basic problem is, they move like airplanes.

There are two things about an airplane’s motion that the Star Wars fighters do, even though they shouldn’t have to. First, an airplane is always moving in the direction it is pointing. if you know Newton’s laws, you will ask, “moving relative to what?” Well, relative to the air that it’s moving through, of course! If they didn’t, they’d fall out of the sky, for they are aerodynamically designed to fly by pushing up off of the air. But there’s no air in space; the density of gas even in high earth orbit is lower than the density of gas in the hardest vacuum we can create in the lab on Earth. If your space fighter only has reaction engines that point in one direction (as is the case, at least, with the X-wing fighters of Star Wars), then they have to point in the direction that they are accelerating… but not in the direction they are moving. All those Y-wing pilots who died attacking the Death Star because they had TIE fighters on their tails whom they couldn’t shake? A tragedy of misunderstood physics. They didn’t have to loop around to fire at the TIE fighters, the way airplanes do; they could have just turned around in place!

The second thing Star Wars routinely gets wrong is that fighters in space do not have to bank. When an airplane turns, it banks. Think about being in a car going quickly around a curve. You’re more likely to maintain control of your car if the road is banked. Look at a high-speed racetrack sometime, and you’ll notice that the curves are banked. What’s going on is that to turn to the left, a vehicle needs some acceleration pointing to the left of its current direction of motion. With a car on a flat road, that acceleration is provided entirely by friction between the road and the tires. On a banked road, some of that acceleration is now provided by the road pushing up on the car. Similarly, with an airplane, the main force of the air on the plane is the air pushing up on the wings, generating lift. If an airplane wants to turn left, it banks so that the bottom of its wings are pointing to the right. This, combined (crucially!) with the plane’s motion, gives it some acceleration to the left, allowing it to turn.

In space, there is no air to bank off of! Once again, things work differently. First of all, these space fighters are all (approximately) in freefall. They’re either in deep space, or they’re in orbit about a planet, so there is (effectively) no gravity to fight. Second, without air, they can’t bank off of it. Want to go in a different direction? Point your engines in the direction such that the acceleration applied to your current velocity vector (relative to whatever you’re measuring your velocity relative to) will give you a velocity in the direction you want.

What would this look like? It would look weird to those of us who are used to things flying like airplanes or, alas, flying like the fighters in the worlds most popular space movie epics (where the space fighters fly like airplanes). But sometimes it’s done right. The new Battlestar Galactica series tends to do it pretty well. Before that, though, back in the early-mid 1990’s, the TV show Babylon 5 (still my favorite) explicitly had space fighters obeying Newton’s laws. It was a rare gem to see, and it warmed my physics nerd heart. (I’m the kind of guy who gets a warm and fuzzy feeling to hear the pilot of a science fiction fighter say “coordinating vectors for grapple.” Look! Technobabble that actually means something and makes sense!)

The very first episode of the series (after the pilot) was “Midnight on the Firing Line,” and it showed a space combat between a group of raiders and a squadron of Starfuries (which are well designed space fighters; whereas X-wings look cool, Starfuries are cool and look like they were designed for Newtons-laws-obeying space!). At one point, Commander Sinclair has a raider (in a little potato chip ship) on his tail:

If he was in a Y-wing, I guess he’d just have to die. (Indeed, he does take some fire— you can see it happening there— but he was hoping for a surrender.) Instead, though, what does he do?

In the picture above, you see him just starting to turn around. The asymmetric firing of the engines makes sense given the direction he wants to turn. Does he have to bank or loop around or anything like that? No. He just points in the other direction. His fighter continues to move in the same direction relative to the larger ship as it had been, but now he’s got his guns pointing in the right direction:

much to the dismay of the raider:

Here, also, you can see that Sinclair is accelerating away from the exploding raider ship. Probably not a bad idea; there will be debris coming away from it. Also, a line he said before turning around suggested that he was slowing himself down relative to the raider, so it was probably approaching him at this point; he’ll want to get away to avoid a collision.

There are other great tidbits of space fighters qualitatively getting Newton’s Laws right in that scene, and in other scenes from Babylon 5. Indeed, the fact that the Raiders have ships that look like flying wings is explained; Sinclair says that they are designed for both space and atmosphere, and as such the wings are good vulnerable points to shoot for.

More often, though, when you see something with ships flying about in space, not only do they make sound (which happens even in B5), but they fly like airplanes. Very few people realize the degree to which this is a violation of Newton’s Laws. Kudos to Babylon 5 for trying to get it right.

(ed note: apparently the idea to make the B5 Starfuries move according to Newton's Law was due to Ron Thornton of Foundation Imaging)


      1A) Purple/Green debate — a debate that starts from fundamentally different tech assumptions, like missiles versus beams.

     1C) The Rule of 10% — it seems unlikely that you'll have beam weapons with less than 10% of the output of your fusion torch.

     1D) Robinson's First Law: Objects impacting at a smidge under 3 km/sec deliver kinetic impacts comparable to their mass in TNT.

     3D) Lasers can fry sensors at about 10 to 100x the ranges that they can burn through armor.

     4) Space combat (arguably) looks like this:

     4A) It may not be mobile. Laterla thrust versus closing velocity and the trumpet bell of future positions. (When closing velocity is high enough relative to lateral thrust, you have no real maneuver — you have a minimum separation at closest approach, but everything flashes by.

     4B) It may not involve ships at all. Discuss cruise missiles, AIs, and graxing incidence mirror X ray battle stations. This is where a discussion of solar system scale GPS systems are. Similar to this are beamed power stations and disposable focusing mirrors.

     4C) There may or may not be countermeasures, both as sensor messer uppers and as "debris fields" to let things plow through.

     4D) Unless your drives are puny, expect about 20% of your delta v to get you to the fight, 20% to get you "back on orbit" if you're done (i.e., back home to base), about 20-40% for maneuver reserves while in the fight, and 20% to be your margin in setting up the fight.

from a post by Ken Burnside to SFConSim-l (2008)

Four things have triggered a growing interest in the real possibility of a space fighter:

  • The NASA Space Transportation System, otherwise popularly known as the space shuttle, proved once and for all that it was possible to orbit a manned winged space vehicle and return it safely to an aircraft-type landing for re-use.
  • The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird Mach-3 high-altitude spy plane has since 1962 shown that such high-speed high-altitude manned reconnaissance vehicles had utility beyond what could be accomplished by unmanned orbiting recon satellites.
  • The Soviet Union began testing a small winged reuseable "spaceplane" in about 1976. (ed note: the MiG-105 "Spiral". Cancelled in 1978)
  • The development of the simple "space cruiser" concept by Fred W. "Bud" Redding, an aerospace designer with the DCS Corporation, caught the eye of the United States Air Force because of an article about it by this author in the November 1983 issue of Omni magazine.

These things are leading to the impending birth of the space fighter. Quite apart from the utility of a space fighter in outer space itself, the vehicle has a definite series of missions it can perform in close proximity to the Earth. Students of aviation history as well as military history knew that early airplanes co-opted the role of the horse cavalry in scouting as well as general harassment of the enemy's rear because of mobility and use of the principle of surprise. Only later did aircraft also assume the role of load-carriers, vehicles capable of delivering either cargoes or bombs over ranges far beyond those of ground vehicles or artillery guns. Helicopters have taken over the tactical scouting and harassment roles today on the battlefields of Earth, but aircraft have kept the art of scouting, harassment, and load delivery alive by doing these things at higher and higher altitudes and faster and faster speeds. The space fighter concept extends them into space itself, but a space fighter must not be considered a load-carrier like the space shuttle orbiter.

The operational requirements for a space fighter, especially the ones we're likely to see in the next 25 years, are simple to set forth and not technically as difficult to achieve as might be assumed. A space fighter should be capable of being launched on a few minutes' notice from the surface of Earth, from an airborne platform, or from a space facility such as the space shuttle or a space base. It should be capable of entering any orbit and making several changes of orbital altitude and inclination. It should have suitable aerodynamic characteristics—primarily a high ratio between lift and drag—so that it can maneuver in the upper atmosphere of the Earth by means of aerodynamic controls, primarily stubby delta wings.

Thus, the space fighter should be able to appear suddenly in the high atmosphere over any nation at any time moving in any direction at a wide variety of speeds. A system of defense against such a space fighter will be extremely expensive in comparison to the cost of the space fighter. In fact, even the detection system necessary to find one and track it will be costly. For operations in the near-Earth orbital region, a capability to change its velocity ("delta-vee") of about 2,500 feet per second (760 m/s) is necessary. For operation in the Earth-Moon system, a delta-vee of 20,000 feet per second (6000 m/s) would be more than adequate.

The space fighter should be a completely self-contained manned vehicle with a life support capability of at least 24 hours. Finally, the space fighter should be able to return to a number of bases or landing sites and terminate its mission in a reusable condition.

In 1965, these requirements were technologically difficult if not impossible. Now they are "state of the art" if clever engineering is used. It looks as though the Soviet Union has already embarked on a "spaceplane" if not a space fighter program with its small shuttle. France is considering the development of the "Hermes," a delta-winged mini-shuttle intended to be launched into low Earth orbit by the Eurospace "Ariane" rocket. And the United States Department of Defense has embarked upon at least two admitted spaceplane or space fighter programs.

An excellent example of this is Fred W. "Bud" Redding's space cruiser or spaceplane, which is being funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as a research vehicle. The Redding space cruiser is delightfully simple and brings out the machismo in hot fighter pilots. A slender cone about 24 feet long with a base diameter of about five feet, the vehicle is a scaled-up version of the proven Mark 12 Minuteman re-entry vehicle. The aerodynamic characteristics of this shape are very well known and understood. It's a hypersonic and supersonic airframe shape with good lift-to-drag ratio and therefore good maneuverability. And small delta wings, and it becomes highly maneuverable. It's large enough that a single pilot clad in a pressure suit can sit in an unpressurized cockpit in the aft end just ahead of a ring of rocket motors. A hatch that can be opened allows him to stand up in the cockpit to look around. In this "open cockpit" space vehicle, the pilot "owns space" around him.

The nose of the conical spaceplane can be folded back to permit it to become a "pusher" or space tug for shifting larger loads in orbit. With a Centaur underneath it as a lower stage, it is capable of taking its pilot around the Moon and back.

The simplicity of the Redding spaceplane comes from its lack of design compromises. One of the things that makes the space shuttle orbiter so complex is the requirement that it fly well at subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic speeds. This was a difficult and expensive technological feat requiring many compromises that didn't contribute to low cost and design simplicity. If a spaceplane is designed to fly at only supersonic and hypersonic speeds, it can be greatly simplified. But how can it be landed if it won't fly at subsonic speeds?

The Mark 12 re-entry vehicle is a fine supersonic and hypersonic airframe but a streamlined anvil at subsonic speeds. The Redding spaceplane is the same. But rather than compromise the design by giving it a good subsonic lift-to-drag ratio to permit a horizontal landing, Bud Redding opted to use another simple and straightforward method: a parachute. Not the simple circular parachute used on early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space capsules that dropped the capsule into the ocean in an uncontrolled fashion. Instead, Redding suggests the use of the steerable, flyable "parasail" used by thousands of sports parachutists every weekend. Once the spaceplane gets into the atmosphere and its speed slows to subsonic where it becomes a brick, a parasail chute is deployed, allowing the pilot to steer the slender cone to a soft landing inside a fifty-foot circle. It could be landed even on the deck of a ship at sea.

The Redding DARPA spaceplane is almost a technological reality today. But coming down the line very quickly is something the United States Air Force calls the "transatmospheric vehicle" (TAV). This is not a space fighter or a space cruiser. It's conceived as a vehicle larger and more complex than the Redding spaceplane but smaller and simpler than the NASA space shuttle. The TAV would take off horizonally from the runway of any Air Force base, fly into orbit using wings for lift and a combination of turbo-ramjet and rocket engines for propulsion, operate in low Earth orbit, and return at will to land horizonally on the runway of any Air Force base. The TAV may be operation in the 1990s. The Redding spaceplane could be flying in the 1980 decade. Neither of these space fighter-like vehicles will look anything like what anyone thought a space ship would in the annals of science fiction. They won't look like X-wings, Y-wings, TIE fighters. Vipers, Starfighters, or anything else conceived to date in the minds of authors or illustrators. There is one thing for certain: When their appearances become unclassified (like the appearance of the Redding spaceplane already is), artistic interpretations based upon their designs will quickly come to grace not only science fiction book and magazine covers, but also the beautiful full-color institutional ads of aerospace companies—product ads proudly announcing that "HyperTech's Mark Three Solar Powered Laser Gizmoscope was chosen above all others to provide essential on-board services," and numerous backgrounds for national newsmagazine covers.

Beyond the 1999 space fighter, however, the technological crystal ball becomes cloudy. This is not to say that the wildest hallucinations of a Hollywood art director are a better indication of what futuristic space fighters would look like. Probably not, because such concepts are based solely on what looks good and appears to be futuristic. The actual space fighters of the twenty-first century will not only look "right," they will be beautiful in their own way because they'll be designed with a full understanding of the mission requirements of a space fighter based upon realistic military doctrines of space. They will be difficult to operate, dangerous to life and limb, and push human capabilities to their utmost limits just as has every scouting and fighting vehicle (including the horse) throughout history. Far more important in the long run is the inevitable spin-off of space fighter technology into the technology of civilian and commercial spacecraft. Just as the airliners and general aviation aircraft of 1984 use the engines, electronics, aerodynamics, and other technologies pioneered for military aircraft, so the military spacecraft will also contribute toward the accompanying commercial and private use of space. And that possibility is perhaps far more exciting than space fighters themselves. Move over, science fiction. Another of your dreams is about to become reality!

(ed note: The above was written in 1985. Alas no "space fighters" have made an appearance. And unfortunately with current technological advances, it seems more likely that a space fighter developed today will be an unmanned drone, not a Starfury.)

from AFTERWORD: SPACE FIGHERS by G. Harry Stine (1985)

     Basic Assumptions:
     This paper was written using the following assumptions as a baseline.
     1. Physical laws:
     The laws of physics as we know them still apply. This means that spacecraft move in a Newtonian (or Einsteinian, though this realm is outside the scope of the paper) manner, using reaction drives or other physically-plausible systems (such as solar sails) for propulsion. Thermodynamics dictate that all spacecraft must radiate waste heat, and lasers obey diffraction. The only exception is FTL, which will be included in some scenarios.
     2. Technology:
     The technological background is less constrained. If a system is physically plausible, the engineering details can be ignored, or at most subject to only minor scrutiny. The paper will examine a spectrum of technology backgrounds, but will focus on near to mid-future scenarios, where the general performance and operation of the technology can be predicted with at least a little accuracy. A common term used to describe this era is PMF, which stands for Plausible Mid-Future. This term (coined by Rick Robinson) is difficult to define, but it assumes significant improvements in technologies we have today, such as nuclear-electric drives, fading into those we don’t, such as fusion torches.
     3. Environment:
     This paper will attempt to examine a wide variety of environments in which space combat might occur. However, it will make no attempt to examine all of them, and the scenarios described will conform to several principles.
     First, this is a general theory. Any scenario that is dependent on a one-shot tactic or highly specific circumstance will likely not be included, except during the discussion of the beginnings of space warfare, or to demonstrate why it is impractical in the long run. The recommendations made are not optimal for all circumstances, nor is such a thing possible. They are instead what the author believes would be best for a realistic military based on the likely missions and constraints. Picking highly unlikely and specific sets of circumstances under which they are not optimal is best answered with a quote from the author about one such scenario, posting on the Rocketpunk Manifesto topic Space Warfare XIII: “You need a blockade, a hijacking (innocents aboard a vessel trying to break the blockade), and a high-thrust booster on the hijacked ship. Two stretch the limits of plausibility. The third is ridiculous. Claiming that this justifies humans [onboard warships, see Section 2] is like claiming that because warships sometimes run aground, we should install huge external tires on all of them to help get them off.”
     Second, no attempt will be made to include the effects of aliens or alien technology, because to do so would be sheer uninformed speculation.
     Third, the default scenario, unless otherwise noted, is deep-space combat between two fleets. Other scenarios will be addressed, but will be clearly noted as such.

Space fighters are a controversial topic in hard sci-fi space warfare discussions.  The consensus among the community is that they are not practical in the way they are depicted by Hollywood, nor in most other ways imagined, and that is a view the author shares.  However, this consensus is continually challenged, and the purpose of this section is to collect most of the rebuttals to those objections.

What exactly is a space fighter?  That varies depending on the context of the discussion, but the average person would probably point at an X-wing or TIE fighter.  A 10-20 m long spacecraft with a one or two man crew and a few hours of endurance.  In other words, something much like an atmospheric fighter, but in space.  Others would expand the definition to include any small, low-endurance combat craft, particularly those carried by other vessels.  Some would broaden the definition even more, to the point where it bears no resemblance at all to a classical space fighter.  Many of these proposals for “fighters” suffer problems which render them marginally effective or ineffective, and those that don’t are the ones that bear the least resemblance to the visions of Hollywood.  In the interest of accuracy, any vessel carried and deployed (that is to say, not merely shipped to a destination) by another vessel will be referred to as a parasite, leaving fighter to describe Hollywood-type combat parasites.

The origin of the space fighter is obvious.  It was developed out of an analogy to wet navy combat, specifically the aircraft carrier and its fighters.  Even the serious space warfare community often engages in wet navy analogies, so it appears to make sense to expand it to include carriers and fighters.  This suffers one critical flaw.  Aircraft carriers are effective primarily because aircraft work in a different environment then do ships.  A carrier can stay on station for months, but can only go at around 30 knots, while a fighter can make Mach 2, but only has a few hours endurance.  In space, a fighter will have no environmental advantage over its carrier.  Both obey the same rules, so any advantage must come from size and design.  A much better analogy is that of large and small warships, such as destroyers and Fast Attack Craft.

The naval analogies that underlie the basic concept of the space fighter deserve closer examination.  Before the late 1800s, small craft did not have the ability to threaten larger ones while the larger ship was not at anchor.  This changed with the invention of the torpedo.  For a time, many, most prominently the French Jeune Ecole, believed that the torpedo boat spelled the end of the battleship.  While this obviously did not happen, many navies experimented with various ways to use torpedo boats, including building torpedo boat carriers.  During the Russo-Turkish war of 1877, the Russians converted several vessels to carry torpedo boats, and a torpedo boat operating from the tender Veliky Knyaz Konstantin became the first vessel to sink another with a self-propelled torpedo.  In the 1880s, the Royal Navy built HMS Vulcan, while the French Navy produced Foudre, both cruiser-type vessels, meant to travel with the fleet and deploy 8 or 10 small torpedo boats against the enemy.  Both remained in service for about two decades, before being converted to other roles.  There has been occasional discussion by various powers about building more such ships, including by the US in WWII, but nothing came of it.  In fact, despite the presence of LSDs (Land Ship Dock) in the fleet, including for carrying PT boats to the front lines, there are no records of PT boats being launched into action from LSDs.  The total failure of this idea renders dubious the prospect of a similar vessel in space.

These are the next major issues.  One often-noted advantage is that a fighter only has to carry a few people and a few days’ worth of life support, which gives it superior performance to a larger ship.  This makes sense at first glance, but several factors conspire to defeat it.  First, how much of that performance is really useful?  Second, how does the fighter in question actually kill its target?  Third, how much money is being spent on all of this, anyway?  Fourth, do we need people aboard at all?

Maneuverability is a common explanation for fighters.  The logic is that a ship that has a higher acceleration is better, so cutting out as much dead weight as possible is good.  However, to what extent is this statement true when balanced against other factors.  A fighter by definition is of limited operating endurance.  Most proposals run from hours to a week or two.  Within that time, it must return to its base, generally a carrier, to restock.  A ship’s maneuverability is furthermore defined by two factors, delta-V and acceleration.  While a fighter would have superior acceleration, that must be balanced against its generally more limited delta-V.  

One salient fact to keep in mind is that ships that maneuver in combat using the same drive they cruise under are not maneuverable in combat.  Given the amount of time spent under thrust, generally measured in days if not weeks, ships will be unable to change the tactical geometry in a meaningful way during a few hours, let alone a few minutes.  This does not apply if the ship fights under a different engine then it maneuvers with.  Attack Vector: Tactical uses this approach, with engines having a high-efficiency, low-thrust cruise mode and a high-thrust low-efficiency combat mode.  However, this seems somewhat unlikely given currently foreseeable technology.  Mass-injected fusion drives could work this way (as they do in AV:T), but they are at the limits of the technology under consideration in this paper.

The limited endurance of a fighter presents two problems.  The first is that, as mentioned above, a ship that uses the same, or even a similar (within about an order of magnitude in terms of thrust/delta-V) drive in combat as in cruise will not be able to change the tactical geometry in a meaningful way during combat.  This applies to parasites as well.  The parasite’s cruise drive is that of the carrier, which means that it must have a significantly higher-thrust drive then the carrier does.  However, given that both operate in the same environment, the parasite will likely have to mount an entirely different type of drive.  This is a common fictional explanation, but there is no reason to believe that a small ship will be able to use drives that a larger ship could not also mount.  One could install a chemical or nuclear-thermal engine, which are not likely to be used by interplanetary vessels, but both of those have limited delta-V, which, when combined with the next issue, renders that proposal extremely questionable for deep-space combat.

An interesting solution to the different drive problem is an “antimatter afterburner”.  This involves the use of small amounts of antimatter in a fighter engine of some type as the name implies.  The originator of the idea suggested that expense and danger would prevent similar technology from being used on larger vessels.  The use of antimatter in large quantities removes the idea from the realm of the PMF, and the author believes that danger can be handled with proper engineering.  Expense is an open question, but the other problems with fighters are likely significant enough to torpedo the idea.

A parasite must return to its carrier before its endurance is exhausted.  While that statement is obvious, it places severe limitations on tactical flexibility.  First and foremost, a parasite will need four times its average transit velocity relative to the carrier in delta-V.  To state it another way, a parasite will have an average transit velocity of at best one-fourth of delta-V.  Maneuvering the fighter will reduce the transit velocity available.  If a parasite is using a high-thrust, low-ISP drive, the low delta-V achievable will limit transit velocity, and maximum range from the carrier (assuming the carrier does not accelerate during the mission) can be defined as transit velocity times one-half of endurance.  For any reasonable ranges, endurance will have to be large, or transit velocity very high, implying fusion drives or similar technology, and raising the question of the advantage of fighters over conventional ships again.  

Note that the maximum range for a given endurance and delta-V will only occur when the delta-V used for the outbound and return legs is equal.  Any other distribution will result in a lower average transit velocity, and thus reduced range. This distribution also corresponds to the highest average transit velocity possible for a mission of a given range, which could be of great importance if the fighter is to be recovered and reused during a given battle.  Table 1 shows how the distribution of delta-V affects transit velocity for a given endurance and total transit time for a given range.  Note that these numbers only apply in flat space and if the carrier is not accelerating during the mission.  Because the fighters start at rest relative to the carrier, and must return to it, any velocity the carrier initially possesses is irrelevant.  Flat space should be a reasonable approximation for deep-space engagements, and near-orbital space will be dealt with later.  Also, it is assumed that the burns are short relative to the total transit time, which is a good approximation for most cases, although not necessarily high-end ones.

Table 1
High Leg
Low Leg

If the carrier maneuvers during the mission, it sets off a complex interplay of carrier delta-V expenditure, fighter delta-V expenditure, and transit time changes, leaving aside the tactical effects of the carrier’s maneuvers, which fall outside the scope of this section.  In the most extreme case, a fighter might expend its entire transit delta-V in a single burn to intercept the target, and then allow the carrier to match velocities and catch it.  This would require massive delta-V from the carrier, and significant time, particularly if the carrier’s drive is low-thrust.  Also, the tactical and orbital effects are likely to be severe.  A more practical situation might be for the fighters to expend all of their delta-V on the outbound leg, and wait for the carrier to reach them at the target.  This takes less delta-V from the carrier, and significantly less time, but does leave the fighters vulnerable if things go wrong.  Moving the carrier towards the target is also potentially problematic.  If the carrier simply accelerates and decelerates to rest relative to its initial velocity, the transit time is reduced somewhat at a cost in delta-V.  If it does not decelerate, the fighters will have to expend additional delta-V to match velocities.  Likewise, after reaching the target, the fighters could expend all of their delta-V on start of the return leg, and the carrier could match velocities.  The effect of all of these must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, although the analysis itself is quite simple once the parameters are established.

Once the fighter has reached the target, it must still kill it.  Plausible space warfare weapons break down into three main categories: beams, projectors, and missiles.  Beams, which include both EM and particle beams, travel at close to the speed of light, but fall off with distance.  Projectors cover any weapon that fires mass at a target, where most of the velocity is imparted by a device on the ship itself.  Cannon, railguns, and coilguns are all examples of this.  Velocities achievable are likely to be limited to less than 100 km/s.  Missiles are any kinetic weapons released from a vessel which gain their velocity from some combination of the velocity of the launching ship and an internal engine.

Beams and cannon are not good candidates for fighter weapons.  Lasers scale significantly with size (see Section 7), which generally means that the vessel with the largest laser wins.  Particle beams and launchers also scale with size, though probably not as strongly, which puts any fighter mounting them at a disadvantage.  That leaves missiles.

Missiles make sense.  Put some missiles on a fighter, send it to within range of the enemy, and shoot them off.  The problem is that, in space, missiles don’t have range.  A missile will likely coast for much of its flight anyway.  There is no reason to use a fighter to launch a missile.  Put on another stage, and remove the fighter entirely.  More of these missiles can be fit into the space formerly occupied by the fighters, which increases firepower, and probably cuts costs in the long run, as a fighter has to decelerate to a stop, then come back, burning remass the whole way, not to mention the cost of support facilities for the fighter.  

But what if money can be saved by using the fighter for all of the missile’s primary delta-V?  The fighter simply tosses them out, leaving them to guide their way in.  This vessel is generally referred to as a Lancer.  The problem is, again, delta-V.  A lancer would have to stop, and return to its carrier after launching the missiles.  It might not have to have four times the projectile velocity in delta-V, as it can return to the carrier at a lower velocity then it launched from, but something on the order of three times launch velocity is probably the minimum practical delta-V.  If the lancer and a self-propelled missile are using broadly similar engines (similar ISP) the lancer would have to have at least three times the fuel fraction for the same impact velocity, if not significantly more.


The only situation where this would be a generally viable tactic is if, for some reason, the missile cannot use a drive that is within the same ISP range as the lancer’s, probably for cost reasons.  This might be the case when, say, fusion drives are new.  The cost of the drive is high enough that it is a requirement to reuse it.  Conventional missiles are impractical, because chemfuel simply can’t generate enough delta-V to be viable against fusion-powered vessels.  Thus, a lancer is developed.  This is a fairly specific set of circumstances, and should not be generalized to most situations.

Note that the rejection of beam-armed fighters is based upon the beam weapons in question scaling with size.  If this is not the case, (Dr. Device from Ender’s Game is the only example which springs to mind here, although the description in Ender’s Shadow casts doubt on if this is actually what’s going on) there are advantages to having as many platforms in action as possible, and fighters become an option again.  Another case in which fighters (or combat parasites in general) might become practical, also illustrated by Ender’s Game, involves an interplanetary propulsion system that for some reason cannot be fitted to individual combat craft.  This could be for any number of reasons, including expense, minimum size of the systems, or simple rarity of the drive.  In any of these cases, it would be logical to use parasites to fight, and leaving the drive spacecraft in the role of command ship.

One option for parasites is a type of missile defense drone.  The purpose of this drone is to bypass the armor of incoming missiles.  It is not armed with conventional weapons, but instead contains a pair of linked telescopes.  One of these receives a beam from a larger vessel in the main fleet, while the other redirects it to a missile.  Conventional missiles are only armored on the front, so a laser from beside or behind them would be highly effective.  While this tactic is not impossible to counter, mostly by spreading the armor more evenly across the missile, doing so will reduce the armor thickness or increase the mass, and thus the cost of the missile.  Either means is a win for the defender, which makes this category of parasite potentially quite useful.  One thing should be noted about this type of craft, though.  It operates at short ranges from the fleet, and can use a rather low transit delta-V, which removes a lot of the problems of other parasites.

One common claim for the superiority of fighters is that they are cheaper than an equivalent amount of firepower in larger vessels.  On the surface, this claim is true.  Fighters, not being required to have long-term living quarters and the like, do seem to deliver high firepower per dollar (or credit or yuan or what have you).  The economics become much less robust, however, when the cost of the carrier is factored in.  Before delving into that, a discussion of carriers themselves is in order.

Carriers can be of several different types.  The simplest is to strap parasites to the hull of a ship, and detach them for battle.  This design promises low cost, but limits the utility of fighters, as they likely can’t be rearmed or refueled, and maintenance is very difficult.  More complex designs have specialized docks, which allow easy rearming and refueling, but limit access to the outside of the parasite in question.  This works better with gunboat-type parasites, which have significant capability for independent operation, and should be capable of being serviced from the inside.  They would also provide some living quarters and support for the crew.  The final step is a full carrier with pressurized fighter bays, which is the type usually seen on TV.  These are mass-intensive, but allow classical fighter operations, with external maintenance and the like.  The crews are housed onboard, and all support gear is on the carrier.

The first option is obviously the cheapest, but suffers from the fact that it more resembles the British Catapult-Armed Merchant ships of World War II then a proper carrier.  The fighters are one-use, and probably can’t be maintained terribly well.  While they can be recovered after battle, they are helpless until a tender of some sort is reached.  The second option requires a dedicated ship, but, apart from magazines and remass tanks, is not terribly mass-intensive, and probably no more than 25% of the mass of the carried craft is required in clamps and docking systems and such.  The full carrier is, however, highly mass-intensive.  At best, a ratio of 100% of parasite mass to docking facility mass might be achievable.  However, this is probably optimistic.  All quarters and such must be duplicated, and the bays themselves are going to be large, if mostly empty when unoccupied.  There are actually two options for hangar arrangement.  The first, and most obvious, is to dock each fighter in individual bays, or place a few fighters in each bay.  The alternative involves a large central hangar and the use of airlocks to move fighters in and out.  This approach is probably more efficient in terms of mass, volume, and ease of maintenance, particularly for large numbers of parasites, but will launch and recover its parasites more slowly than if they were in individual bays.

Why is mass so important to determine cost?  It’s not weapons and electronics, which are expensive, is it?  The problem is that for a given vessel performance (delta-V and acceleration), cost will tend to scale with mass.  More mass means bigger fuel tanks, bigger engine, and more structure.  A conventional vessel of the same weapons cost as a carrier and fighters will almost certainly be considerably cheaper overall.  It does not require duplicate engines, duplicate quarters, pressurized fighter bays, extra remass tanks, or any of the other sundries that a fighter squadron would require.  

The actual mechanics of carrier operations is an interesting issue as well.  Numerous different methods for operating small craft off of bigger craft have been proposed, some more viable than others.  For the first two types of carriers, the chosen method of recovery, namely simple docking, is quite obvious.  This is also a potential method for a hangar-type carrier.  In that case, the fighter would probably dock on some form of movable attachment, and then be moved inside.  This attachment could range from a simple extendable arm for a bay-style carrier to a “tractor” for a lock-style carrier.  An alternative is the use of an arm to recover (and launch) fighters.  This draws on the experience with the Candararm on the Space Shuttle and ISS.  The advantage is that it requires less skill on the part of the pilot, and is generally more versatile, as well as potentially simplifying handling.  

One interesting alternative is the use of an actual deck, probably on a lock-style carrier.  This is most useful with aerospace fighters, which have landing gear that might simplify handling and operations.  The biggest problem is that there is no gravity to keep the fighter on the deck, necessitating either some sort of physical hold-down, or the use of magnets to keep the fighter on the deck.  The use of a deck was originally proposed in conjunction with the use of arrestor wires, much like how aircraft are recovered by aircraft carriers.  There are, however, numerous problems with this approach.  The dynamics of recovery are significantly different from those of a naval carrier, mostly due to the fact that the wire must both stop the fighter and hold it on the deck.  Even at the proposed approach speed of somewhere below 1 m/s, there are serious questions about the actual viability of hitting such a small target with a hook without snagging one of the wheels, or bouncing off the deck into space.  More problems would be caused in handling the aircraft on the deck, as the original proposal involved using the wires and a magnetically-attached tractor to move the fighter onto the elevator before strapping it down.  In total, this is not a viable solution to the problem, and would not be seriously considered by any competent aerospace engineer.  A better alternative if a proper deck must be used is based on the Canadian Beartrap system for helicopter recovery.  In this, a cable attaches the fighter to the carrier, and the fighter is simply winched down at low speed.  This is more space-efficient, safer, and easier to implement.  The biggest problem with it, and a serious problem with the wires, is the need to open holes in the heat shield of the fighter.  While the conventional landing gear would indeed need such holes, opening them unnecessarily increases the chances of something going wrong, as does cutting extra holes for the hook or beartrap system.  All in all, it appears that either a probe or an arm system would be the most effective.

The only situation in which a fighter-like vessel would be useful as a major combat craft is during planetary defense.  This scenario plays to the advantage of short-endurance craft (low cost per unit firepower).  However, there is no reason to suppose that conventional fighters will dominate this field.  It is entirely possible that full-sized warships could be constructed with limited endurance specifically for planetary defense missions.  The best analog for these vessels are the coastal defense ships of the first half of the 20th century.  This concept is covered in more detail in Section 6.

The last question is the one that nobody wants to ask.  Do we even need people aboard these things?  As Rick Robinson points out, there are only three missions for space fighters:

  1. Fighting each other, which is not a reason to exist.
  2. Destroying battle stations, which are only vulnerable to fighters for some reason.
  3. “To give prominent roles to young males in their early twenties, so they can display their swagger, coolness, and fast moves on any attractive female of an Interbreedable species.”

To seriously look at this, we first need to establish one principle of spaceflight.  Spacecraft are the ultimate in fly-by-wire controls.  There is no need to have people stuffing photons into the lasers, or laying the coilguns by hand.  There are no stokers throwing uranium into the reactor, and no lookouts in the crow’s nest watching for the enemy.  Almost all roles aboard a ship are those of bridge crew, or maintenance.  Why is this important?  The computer doesn’t care if it gets its orders from onboard control stations or by tight-beam laser from a mothership a light-second away.  This makes automation very easy.  Fighters almost by definition have no maintenance onboard, leaving only the pilot.  But why have a pilot onboard?  He only adds mass, and lots of it.  For a few hours to a day or so, he can probably get by on a ton or two.  After that, habitation demands start to render the “fighter” indistinguishable from a normal ship.  This neglects the added costs of the hab itself.  That mass can be a significant fraction of the total vessel mass, which will either drive up vessel mass and cost for equal performance, or reduce performance.  All of this indicates that any form of fighter, or combat parasite in general, is likely to be unmanned.  

All of the above discusses the usefulness (or lack therof) of fighters to a deep-space fleet engagement, and combat will obviously not be limited to that environment.  Orbital combat is often suggested as an ideal environment for fighters, and on the surface, it has much to recommend it.  The superior acceleration of the fighter allows it to change orbit more quickly than a larger vessel, and the fact that it’s in orbit keeps it close to the carrier.  At the same time, a larger vessel is more vulnerable to surface-based defenses and less maneuverable.  The problem is lack of role.  There is no particular reason that a vessel would need to venture into low orbit for battle.  A laserstar should be able to stay well out of range and fire into low orbit, and the fact that the vessel in question is the attacker allows it to force the faster opponent to give battle.  While some sort of spotting drone might be required, there is no reason for it to be manned or armed.  

The most likely use of manned parasite craft is for carrying people, either for landing or boarding missions.  These are not terribly common during battle, but occur more frequently on patrol missions.  Patrol missions are where parasites are likely to come into their own.  First, patrol is not used to speak of a ship making a loop to check on a colony.  The concept involved is more akin to the Asiatic Stations of the beginning of the 20th century.  The proposed “Patrol Carrier” would be semi-permanently stationed at a potential crisis area, most likely a gas giant, and carry a variety of small craft.  The carrier has the responsibility of dealing with any minor crises in the area, similar to the manner in which carrier battlegroups are deployed by the US today.  The technological imbalance involved makes several things feasible, including lancers.  The lancers operate in a low-threat environment, but might be used regularly.  One problem with lancers that most people miss is the fact that they require frequent use to be cost-effective.  Given the expected rarity of major battles, lancers make little sense for the main fleet.  However, a patrol carrier in an active region would need to make frequent use of them, making them more useful.

An interesting suggestion for such a vessel is to make use of the same drives for both lancers and manned patrol/inspection missions.  This would have advantages in logistics, but might require significant design compromises.  First off, the payload sizes are likely to be somewhat dissimilar.  A manned inspection pod is likely to be somewhere above 10 tons, which is quite large for a typical lancer payload.  It is possible that multiple sizes would be used, but that reduces the logistical advantages.

Another type of fighter that has been suggested is the aerospace fighter.  It, as the name suggests, operates both in the atmosphere and in space.  This is somewhat more plausible, as deep-space craft will almost certainly be incapable of atmospheric flight.  Aerospace fighters can be divided into four categories: dual-role, ground-launch space, space-launch air, and space-drop air.

Dual-role aerospace fighters are designed to fight both in the atmosphere and in space.  This type is actually the classic Hollywood “Space Fighter”, but is extremely unlikely in reality.  Both aircraft and spacecraft suffer significant performance penalties for excess mass.  The requirements of combat in the air and in space are vastly different, which means that the mass penalties pile up quickly.  Add to that the fact that the dual-role has to cross a third environment (atmosphere-to-orbit and back) and the resulting design will be expensive, underperforming, and probably a maintenance nightmare to boot.  There is virtually no commonality between the requirements of the different roles.  The only common weapon would be some form of gun, and a conventional gun is unlikely to be of much use in space due to its low muzzle velocity, while high-velocity guns used in space might well have problems functioning in an atmosphere.  Missiles for the two environments will be completely different (although it might be possible to make a dual-purpose missile at a moderate penalty in size/cost/performance), and the use of lasers on an atmospheric fighter is dubious at best, particularly lasers with sufficient range for space use.  Theoretically, two sets of optics could be used, one for space and the other for atmospheric combat, but mass again dictates against this.  The airframe and atmospheric engine are virtually useless in space, and the fact that it must also have a heat shield and be an SSTO seal the verdict.  The only situation in which one of these might see use would be for overawing primitive natives, particularly those that understand the design tradeoffs involved.

Ground-launched space fighters are entirely different.  As the name suggests, they only fight in space. Besides not having to deal with the mass of the atmospheric combat systems, this has other advantages.  It does not strictly have to be an SSTO, and for very early space combat could be the dominant warcraft.  An example of this would be the Dyna-Soar spaceplane, which was to be launched by a Titan III.  The weapons fit would probably be limited, and on-orbit time minimized, possibly to the point of taking the SpaceShip One approach and not going into orbit at all.  The biggest question for this design is operational.  What advantage does it have over putting another stage on a missile?  Basing is non-trivial unless one accepts the design headaches of VTOL, and there is probably only a small marginal cost savings, easily erased if the opponent destroys the fighter on even a small proportion of missions.  The only advantage the author can think of is the ability to use vacuum-frequency lasers.  Aerodynamic limitations would restrict mirror size, and mass would restrict both that and laser generator mass, which then raises the option of making a bigger ground-based laser instead.

Space-launch air fighters are the opposite of ground-launches.  They have the advantage over dual-roles of not needing space combat capability, and would in fact probably be designed with the minimum possible space operational capability in mind, only barely getting into orbit after a mission, and relying on the carrier for pickup.  This would of course restrict their use when the opponent still has significant orbital defense capability due to the risk to the carriers.  However, the need to have SSTO capability would still place them at a significant disadvantage compared to conventional atmospheric fighters.  The question again is operational.  It has been suggested that this type of fighter could be used to destroy heavily-defended targets during a planetary invasion.  The author is skeptical of that for a variety of reasons.  To begin with, kinetic bombardment should be more than adequate for almost any target.  The author cannot see any situation in which an airstrike is superior to a kinetic bombardment for a given target.  If for some reason, an airstrike is an absolute necessity, cruise missiles are a far better option.  While they might cost more than a fighter’s payload, they are expendable and do not face the design constraints of having to return to orbit.  Secondly, defending against an in-atmosphere assault is quite easy.  The fighters entering the atmosphere are vulnerable to ABM-type defenses (discussed in Section 4).  These weapons will probably have ranges on the order of 1000 km, giving the opponent plenty of warning, or inflicting heavy casualties on the attackers.  Not only that, the fighters are in fact more vulnerable than kinetics because they must be almost at rest at the end of atmospheric entry, instead of trying to maintain speed.  After reaching the lower atmosphere, fighters are vulnerable to the diverse array of anti-air weapons that have been developed, many of which are quite cheap compared to spacecraft and planetary defenses.  Thirdly, the cost of the fighters is likely to be quite high, as is attrition.  None of the points above suggest that losses per mission will be low, but low losses are required for the reusability touted by proponents of this concept to give significant savings.  The added vulnerability of the fighter returning to orbit is another significant problem.  The defender will keep shooting if for no other reason than to prevent it being sent back tomorrow.  The only situation in which this concept would be practical is one of overwhelming technological advantage, which is mostly outside the scope of this paper.

In fairness, it would be a fairly trivial matter to equip a missile-armed space-launched air fighter to serve as a dual-role fighter.  While the missiles would have to be different, only minor changes would be required to the rest of the vessel.  The problem is that the air mission mass would be a significant penalty, and the expense of the fighters, not to mention the general lack of utility of fighters in orbital combat, renders operational use of the concept dubious.

The last concept, space-dropped air fighters, is the most practical.  Instead of launching a fighter capable of returning to orbit, an invading power fits a more-or-less conventional atmospheric fighter with a heat shield and some modifications to allow air-starting, and drops it into the atmosphere in support of an invasion.  The practicality of planetary invasions aside, the main problems are logistical.  There is only a minor performance penalty, and air cover would be quite useful for a beachhead.  Fuel and (to a lesser extent) ordinance are likely to be the killers here.  A nuclear-powered laser-armed fighter, though a bit far-out, would be the most logical way of solving this problem.  Though undoubtedly more expensive than a conventional fighter, the logistical savings might make up for it.  It is even conceivable that such a craft might be capable of SSTO performance, although the penalties for doing so would be significant.  VTOL offers another option, combined with lots of planning to ensure availability of supplies and weapons.  

Another application of this general concept is expendable drone fighters.  In this case, the fighter is written off after use, but avoids the need to return to orbit.  The practicality of this approach depends on how the debate over manned combat aircraft turns out, a subject which lies outside the scope of this paper.

by Byron Coffey

Christian Geißler posed some great questions about the underlying assumptions that drive our interpretation of space combat in the future. Zach El Hajj, our chief engineer and spacecraft designer, has the answers:

Christian makes a very strong point regarding those assumptions. Even the hardest science fiction goes in with certain assumptions that shape the universe, and one could even define science fiction by how it expands from such premises — if the assumption is taken to be true, we can expect the rest to logically follow. That is what we are trying to do with Starfighter Inc, and there’s a lot behind the scenes, as he deduced.

Out of universe, you could probably guess the reason we’re using manned fighters — Burnside’s zeroth law, people emphasize more with people than machines, and we thought it would increase immersion. We were willing to go to extreme lengths to make this happen. Early on, SFI was to be set in an alternate universe where computers developed much more slowly and so there was no alternative but for ships to be manned (this was partially in tribute to the golden age of science fiction), and for a while, we debated going the other way entirely and having pilots download themselves into their ship computers so you could pilot an “autonomous” drone and still be human. However, in both cases the technological implications caught up with us, so we decided to stick with a simpler setup. As for why manned fighters are used in our universe, there are three reasons.

Firstly, while you could just throw missile after missile, the greater the distance that the missile has to cross, the less likely it is to make it to the target. Between the target’s movement and its ability to evade, the time available for the missiles to be stopped by countermeasures or point defense systems. There’s a lot more involved than this, though; ships have a much easier time outrunning missiles because most missiles in-setting use chemical drives, whereas the ships use solid and gas core nuclear drives. What this means is that the missiles have much higher acceleration and are nearly impossible to outrun at close range, but the ships’ exponentially greater fuel efficiency lets them run for much longer and burn out the missiles in long pursuits. You could make a missile with a nuclear drive, but that’s a lot of money to throw away for an expendable munition, and at that point you’ve already got the basis of a drone or starfighter — just strap on a power system, ammo rack and gun, and now you’ve got a working platform that can be recovered. As for why manned fighters dominate over drones, that’s covered in the following two reasons.

Secondly, the universe is dominated by corporations which don’t really place much value on human life, and between this and the starfighters lacking onboard life support (the pilot depends on his spacesuit), there’s not as much difference between manned and unmanned ships as might be expected. That’s not to deny the difference in potential performance due to limitations imposed by said sack of meat in the seat, but there comes the third reason — one which Christian already guessed.

Thirdly, EMP technology and distance-hacking is in very wide use in-setting, neither of which is a concern to a flesh and bones pilot, so at the very least said sack of meat can serve as a failsafe. Most of the time. The “human element” isn’t always reliable, either.

As for why they fight at close ranges, that's partially an artifact of the setup of the video — the gaps in the rings of Saturn are less than tens of kilometers across in some parts, half that if you consider shepherd moons and asteroids in-between. But there are strategic reasons as well. Simply put, starfighters do better at close range, because nearly all of their weapons are more likely to do damage. Missiles can get the jump on nearby ships and there’s less time for them to be taken out, kinetic weapons are unlikely to hit at a great distance due to the relative velocity of projectiles to the ships and movement lag, and lasers have difficulty focusing past a few hundred kilometers taking away their potential destructiveness.

There’s not much that can be done about the missiles, but for the rest it turns out the solution is to go bigger. Longer mass drivers can accelerate the projectile for longer and hence reach higher speeds, and larger laser lenses can focus light to greater distances. However, there’s a pretty big snag, in that the effects are not linear, but quadratic. If you assume uniform acceleration throughout the barrel (which is not true — acceleration actually decreases towards the end, meaning the reality is worse than this), time and hence velocity scale to the square root of length, so you need to quadruple gun length in order to double the speed. Similarly, kinetic energy scales to the square of velocity, so power scales rapidly, too. For lasers, the focusing distance is proportional to the diameter of the lens, but mass increases to the square of diameter due to the increased area. Suffice to say, increasing range for either of these weapon types is a weighty proposition.

To support weapons suited for many thousand kilometer ranges, you need capital ships. These are also easier to fight at range due to their greater cross-sections and slower response times (between the scaling of thrust, moment of inertia and simply the high centrifugal forces in crewed vessels if they try to spin too fast), but they have a few notable caveats relative to fighters. For one, every capital ship taken out is a huge investment of resources and losing even one can be a hit to any war effort, whereas you could build a thousand starfighters for the same price and afford to lose a few.

Nuclear weapons are what tilt the scale here — it is possible for a starfighter to eliminate (or at least cripple) a capital ship with a sufficiently high yield bomb, but the same mass of starfighters can disperse sufficiently to require a whole fleet of missiles. For another, the square cube law works against larger ships, at least if you assume that power consumption scales up directly with ship volume (when most power systems have slightly better specific power as they get bigger).

This is because the surface area that lets the ship radiate waste heat increases more slowly than power - scale up a ship tenfold, its mass and power should increase a thousandfold, but with only a hundred times the radiative area, it’s got a tenth the relative area - requiring much larger radiators that can easily make up the greater part of the ship, presenting a huge vulnerable area. On the other hand, the reverse scaling means that starfighters can get away with very small radiators and, in some cases (actually, all the ships currently shown), if run hot enough they can suffice with using their skin in this manner. Furthermore, the much smaller scale means fighters could potentially rely on highly thermally conductive materials for a solid state heat management system, making these systems much less maintenance intensive and much more durable than a capital ships’ fluid coolant loops and mass of pumps.

But there’s a third factor that’s more pertinent in setting, which is simply the implications of owning a capital ship at all. The megacorps are not engaged in open warfare, but are mostly squabbling under the table, sabotaging each other and trying to keep their squabbles away from the public eye. Insofar as nothing is really invisible in space, all they can do is control the information. Minor skirmishes between starfighters can be excused, and a carrier can ostensibly be used for civilian purposes, but a battleship means a new scale of engagement however you look at it, and raises questions and concerns the megacorps would really rather they didn’t have to answer (besides that, they’d rather not waste themselves in a full-on campaign).

That’s our setting in a nutshell. It’s a little difficult to translate to a four minute video.

Fighter Roles


A military aircraft is any fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft that is operated by a legal or insurrectionary armed service of any type. Military aircraft can be either combat or non-combat:

  • Combat aircraft are designed to destroy enemy equipment using their own aircraft ordnance. Combat aircraft are normally developed and procured only by military forces.
  • Non-combat aircraft are not designed for combat as their primary function, but may carry weapons for self-defense. These mainly operate in support roles, and may be developed by either military forces or civilian organizations.

Combat aircraft

Combat aircraft, or "Warplanes", are divided broadly into multi-role, fighters, bombers, attackers, and electronic warfare support. Variations exist between them, including fighter-bombers and long-range maritime patrol aircraft that are often equipped to attack with anti-ship missiles and anti-submarine weapons.

Fighter aircraft

Main articles: Fighter aircraft, Air superiority fighter, Interceptor aircraft, Fighter-bomber, and Strike fighter

The primary role of fighters is destroying enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat, as part of both offensive and defensive counter air operations. Many fighters also possess a degree of ground attack capability, allowing them to perform surface attack and close air support missions. In addition to their counter air duties they are tasked to perform escort mission for bombers or other aircraft. Fighters are capable of carrying a variety of weapons, including machine guns, cannons, rockets, guided missiles, and bombs. Many modern fighters can attack enemy fighters from a great distance, before the enemy even sees or detects them.

Bomber aircraft

Main articles: Bomber, Strategic bomber, Heavy bomber, Medium bomber, and Interdictor

Bombers are normally larger, heavier, and less maneuverable than fighter aircraft. They are capable of carrying large payloads of bombs, torpedoes or cruise missiles. Bombers are used almost exclusively for ground attacks and not fast or agile enough to take on enemy fighters head-to-head. A few have a single engine and require one pilot to operate and others have two or more engines and require crews of two or more. A limited number of bombers have stealth capabilities that keep them from being detected by enemy radar. Bombers include light bombers, medium bombers, heavy bombers, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers.

Attack aircraft

Main articles: Attack aircraft and Gunship

Attack aircraft can be used to provide support for friendly ground troops. Some are able to carry conventional or nuclear weapons far behind enemy lines to strike priority ground targets. Attack helicopters attack enemy armor and provide close air support for ground troops. Several types of transport airplanes have been armed with sideways firing weapons as gunships for ground attack.

Electronic warfare aircraft

Main article: Electronic-warfare aircraft

An electronic warfare aircraft is a military aircraft equipped for electronic warfare (EW) - i.e. degrading the effectiveness of enemy radar and radio systems. They are generally modified versions of other pre-existing aircraft.

Maritime patrol aircraft

Main article: Maritime patrol aircraft

A maritime patrol aircraft fixed-wing military aircraft designed to operate for long durations over water in maritime patrol roles—in particular anti-submarine, anti-ship and search and rescue. Some patrol aircraft were designed for this purpose, many others are modified designs of pre-existing aircraft

Multirole combat aircraft

Main articles: Multirole combat aircraft, Fighter-bomber, and Strike fighter

Many combat aircraft today have a multirole ability. Normally only applying to fixed-wing aircraft, this term signifies that the plane in question can be a fighter or a bomber, depending on what the mission calls for.

Non-combat aircraft

Non-combat roles of military aircraft include search and rescue, reconnaissance, observation/surveillance, Airborne Early Warning and Control, transport, training, and aerial refueling.

Many civil aircraft, both fixed wing and rotary wing, have been produced in separate models for military use.

Military transport aircraft

Main article: Military transport aircraft

Military transport (logistics) aircraft are primarily used to transport troops and war supplies. Cargo can be attached to pallets, which are easily loaded, secured for flight, and quickly unloaded for delivery. Cargo also may be discharged from flying aircraft on parachutes, eliminating the need for landing. Also included in this category are aerial tankers; these planes can refuel other aircraft while in flight.

Calling a military aircraft a "cargo plane" is incorrect, because military transport planes also carry paratroopers and other soldiers.

Airborne early warning and control

Main article: Airborne early warning and control

An airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system is an airborne radar system designed to detect aircraft, ships and ground vehicles at long ranges and control and command the battle space in an air engagement by directing fighter and attack aircraft strikes. AEW&C units are also used to carry out surveillance, including over ground targets and frequently perform C2BM (command and control, battle management) functions similar to an Airport Traffic Controller given military command over other forces. Used at a high altitude, the radars on the aircraft allow the operators to distinguish between friendly and hostile aircraft hundreds of miles away.

AEW&C aircraft are used for both defensive and offensive air operations, and are to the NATO and USA forces trained or integrated Air Forces what the Command Information Center is to a Navy Warship, plus a highly mobile and powerful radar platform. The system is used offensively to direct fighters to their target locations, and defensively in order to counterattacks by enemy forces, both air and ground. So useful is the advantage of command and control from a high altitude, the United States Navy operates AEW&C aircraft off its Supercarriers to augment and protect its carrier Command Information Centers (CICs).

AEW&C is also known by the older terms "airborne early warning" (AEW) and "airborne warning and control system" (AWACS, /ˈeɪwæks/ ay-waks) although AWACS is the name of a specific system currently used by NATO and the USAF and is often used in error to describe similar systems.

Reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft

Main articles: Reconnaissance aircraft and Surveillance aircraft

Reconnaissance aircraft are primarily used to gather intelligence. They are equipped with cameras and other sensors. These aircraft may be specially designed or may be modified from a basic fighter or bomber type. This role is increasingly being filled by satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Surveillance and observation aircraft use radar and other sensors for battlefield surveillance, airspace surveillance, maritime patrol and artillery spotting. They include modified civil aircraft designs, moored balloons and UAVs.

Experimental aircraft

Main article: Experimental aircraft

Experimental aircraft are designed in order to test advanced aerodynamic, structural, avionic, or propulsion concepts. These are usually well instrumented, with performance data telemetered on radio-frequency data links to ground stations located at the test ranges where they are flown.

From the Wikipedia entry for MILITARY AIRCRAFT


Air interdiction (AI), also known as deep air support (DAS), is the use of preventive aircraft attacks against enemy targets, that are not an immediate threat, in order to delay, disrupt, or hinder later enemy engagement of friendly forces. It is a core capability of virtually all military air forces, and has been conducted in conflicts since World War I.

A distinction is often made between tactical and strategic air interdiction, depending on the objectives of the operation. Typical objectives in tactical interdiction are meant to affect events rapidly and locally, for example through direct destruction of forces or supplies en route to the active battle area. By contrast, strategic objectives are often broader and more long-term, with less direct attacks on enemy fighting capabilities, instead focusing on infrastructure, logistics and other supportive assets.

The term deep air support, relates to close air support and denotes the difference between their respective objectives. Close air support, as the name suggests, is directed towards targets close to friendly ground units, as closely coordinated air-strikes, in direct support of active engagement with the enemy. Deep air support or air interdiction is carried out further from the active fighting, based more on strategic planning and less directly coordinated with ground units. Despite being more strategic than close air support, air interdiction should not be confused with strategic bombing, which is unrelated to ground operations.


An air superiority fighter, also spelled air-superiority fighter, is a type of fighter aircraft designed for entering and seizing control of enemy airspace as a means of establishing complete dominance over the enemy's air force (air supremacy). Air superiority fighters are designed primarily to effectively engage enemy fighters, more than other types of aircraft, although some may have a secondary role for air-to-ground strikes.


An attack aircraft, strike aircraft, or attack bomber, is a tactical military aircraft that has a primary role of carrying out airstrikes with greater precision than bombers, and is prepared to encounter strong low-level air defenses while pressing the attack. This class of aircraft is designed mostly for close air support and naval air-to-surface missions, overlapping the tactical bomber mission. Designs dedicated to non-naval roles are often known as ground-attack aircraft.

Fighter aircraft often carry out the attack role, although they would not be considered attack aircraft per se, although fighter-bomber conversions of those same aircraft would be considered part of the class. Strike fighters, which have effectively replaced the fighter-bomber and light bomber concepts, also differ little from the broad concept of an attack aircraft.

The dedicated attack aircraft as a separate class existed primarily during and after World War II. The precise implementation varied from country to country, and was handled by a wide variety of designs. In the US and UK, attack aircraft were generally based on light bombers, sometimes carrying heavier forward-firing weapons. In Germany and USSR, where they were known as Schlachtflugzeug ("battle aircraft") or sturmovik ("storm trooper") respectively, this role was carried out by aircraft purpose-designed and heavily armored. The Germans and Soviets also used light bombers in this role.

In the late-war era, the fighter-bomber began to take over many attack roles, a change that continued in the post-war era. Jet-powered examples were relatively rare, but not unknown. The US Navy continued to introduce new aircraft in their A-series, but these were purely light and medium bombers. The need for this design category was greatly diminished by the introduction of precision-guided munitions, which allowed almost any aircraft to carry out this role while remaining safe at high altitude, while the attack helicopter took over many of the remaining roles that could only be carried out at lower altitudes.

A variety of light attack aircraft exist, usually based on adapted trainers or other light fixed-wing aircraft.

As with many aircraft classifications, the definition of attack aircraft is somewhat vague and has tended to change over time. Current U.S. military doctrine defines it as an aircraft which most likely performs an attack mission, more than any other kind of mission. Attack mission means, in turn, specifically tactical air-to-ground action—in other words, neither air-to-air action nor strategic bombing is considered an attack mission. In United States Navy vocabulary, the alternative designation for the same activity is a strike mission. Attack missions are principally divided into two categories: air interdiction and close air support.

In the last several decades, the rise of the ubiquitous multi-role fighter has created some confusion about the difference between attack and fighter aircraft. According to the current U.S. designation system, an attack aircraft (A) is designed primarily for air-to-surface (Attack: Aircraft designed to find, attack, and destroy land or sea targets) missions (also known as "attack missions"), while a fighter category F incorporates not only aircraft designed primarily for air-to-air combat, but additionally multipurpose aircraft designed also for ground-attack missions. "F - Fighter Aircraft were designed to intercept and destroy other aircraft or missiles. This includes multipurpose aircraft also designed for ground support missions such as interdiction and close air support.


A bomber is a combat aircraft designed to attack ground and naval targets by dropping air-to-ground weaponry (such as bombs), firing torpedoes and bullets or deploying air-launched cruise missiles.

Strategic bombing is done by heavy bombers primarily designed for long-range bombing missions against strategic targets such as supply bases, bridges, factories, shipyards, and cities themselves, in order to diminish the enemy's ability to wage war by limiting access to resources through crippling infrastructure or reducing industrial output.

Tactical bombing, aimed at countering enemy military activity and in supporting offensive operations, is typically assigned to smaller aircraft operating at shorter ranges, typically near the troops on the ground or against enemy shipping. This role is filled by tactical bomber class, which crosses and blurs with various other aircraft categories: light bombers, medium bombers, dive bombers, interdictors, fighter-bombers, attack aircraft, multirole combat aircraft, and others.


Carpet bombing, also known as saturation bombing, is a large aerial bombing done in a progressive manner to inflict damage in every part of a selected area of land. The phrase evokes the image of explosions completely covering an area, in the same way that a carpet covers a floor. Carpet bombing is usually achieved by dropping many unguided bombs.

The term obliteration bombing is sometimes used to describe especially intensified bombing with the intention of destroying a city or a large part of the city. The term area bombing refers to indiscriminate bombing of an area, and also encompasses cases of carpet bombing, including obliteration bombing. It was used in that sense especially during World War II. Carpet bombing of cities, towns, villages, or other areas containing a concentration of civilians is considered a war crime as of the 1977 Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions.


In military tactics, close air support (CAS) is defined as air action such as air strikes by fixed or rotary-winged aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and which requires detailed integration of each air mission with fire and movement of these forces and attacks with missiles, aircraft cannons, machine guns, and even directed-energy weapons such as lasers.

The requirement for detailed integration because of proximity, fires or movement is the determining factor. CAS may need to be conducted during shaping operations with Special Operations Forces (SOF) if the mission requires detailed integration with the fire and movement of these forces. A closely related subset of air interdiction (AI,) battlefield air interdiction, denotes interdiction against units with near-term effects on friendly units, but which does not require integration with friendly troop movements. The term "battlefield air interdiction" is not currently used in U.S. joint doctrine.

Close air support requires excellent coordination with ground forces. In advanced modern militaries, this coordination is typically handled by specialists such as Joint Fires Observers (JFOs), Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), and forward air controllers (FACs).


Counter-insurgency aircraft or COIN aircraft are a specialized variety of military light attack aircraft, designed for counter-insurgency operations, armed reconnaissance, air escort of ground forces, and ground support against "low-intensity engagements"; usually irregular groups of insurgents armed with artillery and/or portable rockets.

Some of the roles carried out by counter-insurgency aircraft include:

For an aircraft—whether fixed-wing or rotary—to effectively carry out all these roles, it should have specification characteristics such as low loitering speed, long endurance, simplicity in maintenance, and the capability to perform short or vertical take-offs and landings from makeshift and roughly constructed runways.


A day fighter is a fighter aircraft equipped only to fight during the day. More specifically, it refers to a multi-purpose aircraft that does not include equipment for fighting at night (such as a radar and specialized avionics), although it is sometimes used to refer to some interceptors as well.

The term is an example of a retronym: before the development of effective dedicated night fighter aircraft early in World War II, in effect, all fighter aircraft that were not specifically modified for night combat were day fighters.


A dive bomber is a bomber aircraft that dives directly at its targets in order to provide greater accuracy for the bomb it drops. Diving towards the target simplifies the bomb's trajectory and allows the pilot to keep visual contact throughout the bomb run. This allows attacks on point targets and ships, which were difficult to attack with conventional level bombers, even en masse.

Glide bombing is a similar technique using shallower dive angles that does not require a sharp pull-up after dropping the bombs. This can be performed by larger aircraft and fighter bombers but does not confer the same level of accuracy as a steep dive from a dedicated aircraft.


The escort fighter was a World War II concept for a fighter aircraft designed to escort bombers to and from their targets. An escort fighter needed range long enough to reach the target, loiter over it for the duration of the raid to defend the bombers, and return.

A number of twin-engined heavy fighters with high fuel capacity were designed for escort duties before World War II. Such heavy fighters largely failed in their intended escort role during the war, as they were outmaneuvered by more agile single-engined fighters. As the war progressed, longer-range fighter designs and the use of drop tanks allowed single-engined fighters to perform escort duties.

In the post-war era the introduction of jet engines and their inherent short range made escort fighters very difficult to build. The related concept of a penetration fighter emerged briefly in the 1950s and again in the 1960s, but did not result in any production aircraft.


A fighter aircraft is a military aircraft designed primarily for air-to-air combat against other aircraft, as opposed to bombers and attack aircraft, whose main mission is to attack ground targets. The hallmarks of a fighter are its speed, maneuverability, and small size relative to other combat aircraft.

Many fighters have secondary ground-attack capabilities, and some are designed as dual-purpose fighter-bombers; often aircraft that do not fulfill the standard definition are called fighters. This may be for political or national security reasons, for advertising purposes, or other reasons.

A fighter's main purpose is to establish air superiority over a battlefield. Since World War I, achieving and maintaining air superiority has been considered essential for victory in conventional warfare. The success or failure of a belligerent's efforts to gain air supremacy hinges on several factors including the skill of its pilots, the tactical soundness of its doctrine for deploying its fighters, and the numbers and performance of those fighters. Because of the importance of air superiority, since the early days of aerial combat armed forces have constantly competed to develop technologically superior fighters and to deploy these fighters in greater numbers, and fielding a viable fighter fleet consumes a substantial proportion of the defense budgets of modern armed forces.

The word "fighter" did not become the official English-language term for such aircraft until after World War I. In the British Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force these aircraft were referred to as "scouts" into the early 1920s. The U.S. Army called their fighters "pursuit" aircraft from 1916 until the late 1940s. In most languages a fighter aircraft is known as a hunter, or hunting aircraft (avion de chasse, Jagdflugzeuge, avión de caza etc.). Exceptions include Russian, where a fighter is an "истребитель" (pronounced "istrebitel"), meaning "exterminator", and Hebrew where it is "matose krav" (literally "battle plane").

As a part of military nomenclature, a letter is often assigned to various types of aircraft to indicate their use, along with a number to indicate the specific aircraft. The letters used to designate a fighter differ in various countries – in the English-speaking world, "F" is now used to indicate a fighter (e.g. Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II or Supermarine Spitfire F.22), though when the pursuit designation was used in the US, they were "P" types (e.g. Curtiss P-40 Warhawk). In Russia "I" was used (Polikarpov I-16), while the French continue to use "C" (Nieuport 17 C.1).

Although the term "fighter" specifies aircraft designed to shoot down other aircraft, such designs are often also useful as multirole fighter-bombers, strike fighters, and sometimes lighter, fighter-sized tactical ground-attack aircraft. This has always been the case, for instance the Sopwith Camel and other "fighting scouts" of World War I performed a great deal of ground-attack work. In World War II, the USAAF and RAF often favored fighters over dedicated light bombers or dive bombers, and types such as the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and Hawker Hurricane that were no longer competitive as aerial combat fighters were relegated to ground attack. Several aircraft, such as the F-111 and F-117, have received fighter designations though they had no fighter capability due to political or other reasons. The F-111B variant was originally intended for a fighter role with the U.S. Navy, but it was cancelled. This blurring follows the use of fighters from their earliest days for "attack" or "strike" operations against ground targets by means of strafing or dropping small bombs and incendiaries. Versatile multirole fighter-bombers such as the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet are a less expensive option than having a range of specialized aircraft types.

Some of the most expensive fighters such as the US Grumman F-14 Tomcat, McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and Russian Sukhoi Su-27 were employed as all-weather interceptors as well as air superiority fighter aircraft, while commonly developing air-to-ground roles late in their careers. An interceptor is generally an aircraft intended to target (or intercept) bombers and so often trades maneuverability for climb rate.


A fighter-bomber is a fighter aircraft that has been modified, or used primarily, as a light bomber or attack aircraft. It differs from bomber and attack aircraft primarily in its origins, as a fighter that has been adapted into other roles, whereas bombers and attack aircraft are developed specifically for bombing and attack roles.

Although still used, the term fighter-bomber has less significance since the introduction of rockets and guided missiles into aerial warfare. Modern aircraft with similar duties are now typically called multirole combat aircraft or strike fighters.


Forward air control is the provision of guidance to close air support (CAS) aircraft intended to ensure that their attack hits the intended target and does not injure friendly troops. This task is carried out by a forward air controller (FAC).

A primary forward air control function is ensuring the safety of friendly troops during close air support. Enemy targets in the front line ("Forward Edge of the Battle Area" in US terminology) are often close to friendly forces and therefore friendly forces are at risk of friendly fire through proximity during air attack. The danger is twofold: the bombing pilot cannot identify the target clearly, and is not aware of the locations of friendly forces. Camouflage, a constantly changing situation and the fog of war all increase the risk. Present day doctrine holds that Forward Air Controllers (FACs) are not needed for air interdiction, although there has been such use of FACs in the past.

A secondary concern of forward air controllers is the avoidance of harm to noncombatants in the strike area.


A gunship is a military aircraft armed with heavy guns, primarily intended for attacking ground targets.


Heavy bombers are bomber aircraft capable of delivering the largest payload of air-to-ground weaponry (usually bombs) and longest range of their era. Archetypal heavy bombers have therefore usually been among the largest and most powerful military aircraft at any point in time. In the second half of the 20th century, heavy bombers were largely superseded by strategic bombers, which were often smaller in size, but were capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

Because of advances in aircraft design and engineering — especially in powerplants and aerodynamics — the size of payloads carried by heavy bombers have increased at rates greater than increases in the size of their airframes. The largest bombers of World War I, the four engine aircraft built by the Zeppelin-Staaken company in Germany, could carry a payload of up to 4,400 pounds (2,000 kg) of bombs. By the middle of World War II even a single-engine fighter-bomber could carry a 2,000-pound (910 kg) bomb load, and such aircraft were taking over from light and medium bombers in the tactical bombing role. Advancements in four-engine aircraft design enabled heavy bombers to carry even larger payloads to targets thousands of kilometres away. For instance, the Avro Lancaster (introduced in 1942) routinely delivered payloads of 14,000 pounds (6,400 kg) (and sometimes up to 22,000 lb/10,000 kg) and had a range of 2,530 miles (4,070 km). The B-29 (1944) delivered payloads in excess of 20,000 pounds (9,100 kg) and had a range of 3,250 miles (5,230 km). By the early 1960s, the jet-powered Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, travelling at speeds of up to 650 miles per hour (1,050 km/h) (i.e., more than double that of a Lancaster), could deliver a payload of 70,000 pounds (32,000 kg), over a combat radius of 4,480 miles (7,210 km).

During World War II, mass production techniques made available large, long-range heavy bombers in such quantities as to allow strategic bombing campaigns to be developed and employed. This culminated in August 1945, when B-29s of the United States Army Air Forces dropped atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, contributing significantly to the end of hostilities.

The arrival of nuclear weapons and guided missiles permanently changed the nature of military aviation and strategy. After the 1950s intercontinental ballistic missiles and ballistic missile submarines began to supersede heavy bombers in the strategic nuclear role. Along with the emergence of more accurate precision-guided munitions ("smart bombs") and nuclear-armed missiles, which could be carried and delivered by smaller aircraft, these technological advancements eclipsed the heavy bomber's once-central role in strategic warfare by the late 20th century. Heavy bombers have, nevertheless, been used to deliver conventional weapons in several regional conflicts since World War II (e.g., B-52s in the Vietnam War).

Heavy bombers are now operated only by the air forces of the United States, Russia and China. They serve in both strategic and tactical bombing roles.


A heavy fighter is a fighter aircraft designed to carry heavier weapons or operate at longer ranges than light fighter aircraft. To achieve acceptable performance, most heavy fighters were twin-engined, and many had multi-place crews.

The twin-engine heavy fighter was a major design class during the pre-World War II period, conceived as long-range escort fighters or heavily armed bomber destroyers. With the exception of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and the de Havilland Mosquito, heavy fighters largely failed in their intended roles during World War II, as they could not outmaneuver the more conventional, single-engined fighters. Many twin-engined heavy fighters eventually found their niche as night fighters, with considerable successes.


High level bombing (also called high-altitude bombing) is a tactic of dropping bombs from bomber aircraft in level flight at high altitude. The term is used in contrast to both World War II-era dive bombing and medium or low level bombing.

Prior to the modern age of precision-guided munitions (PGMs), high level bombing was primarily used for strategic bombing—inflicting mass damage on the enemy's economy and population—not for attacks on specific military targets. High level bombing missions have been flown by many different types of aircraft, including medium bombers, heavy bombers, strategic bombers and fighter-bombers.

The choice to use high level bombing as an offensive tactic of aerial warfare is dependent not only upon the inherent accuracy and effectiveness of the bombing aircraft and their delivered ordnance on the target, but also upon a target's air defense capabilities. From the 1940s onward, radar in particular became a powerful new defensive early warning tool, and a serious threat to attacking aircraft when they flew at higher altitudes towards their target.

Bombing from medium to high altitudes, especially in the post-World War II era with sophisticated surface-to-air missiles, interceptor aircraft and radars exposes attacking bomber aircraft to greater risks of detection, interception and destruction. During World War II, various methods were employed to protect high level bombers from flak, fighter aircraft and radar detection, including defensive armament, escort fighters, chaff and electronic jamming. Modern stealth aircraft technologies, for example, can alleviate some risks inherent to high level bombing missions, but are not a guarantee of success or permanent solution for the attackers.


In military aviation, an intruder is a fighter aircraft or light bomber, often a night fighter, the crew of which are tasked with penetrating deep into enemy airspace to disrupt enemy air operations. To achieve this they attack fighters, airfields, radar and other infrastructure; stage diversionary attacks; and escort bombers. Intruders often loiter in the vicinity of enemy airbases to attack aircraft as they take off or land.

The technique was first used in World War Two. Starting in July 1940, small numbers of German fast bombers would merge into streams of Royal Air Force bombers returning from night missions over Europe. Once past the Chain Home radars, where they appeared to be returning bombers, they were free to attack RAF air bases. This often took the form of dropping light bombs, sometimes Butterfly Bombs, and then strafing aircraft. Early operations were not very successful, but by 1941 they had claimed 125 aircraft destroyed. However, these missions were risky; during this same period, they lost 55 of their intruder aircraft.

The RAF eventually took up the same concept, using the Hawker Hurricane Mk IIc as a makeshift intruder in various theatres. From late 1943, Bristol Beaufighters and de Havilland Mosquito intruders patrolled over occupied Europe, using Serrate radar detectors to hunt German night fighters.

In the post-war era, the term fell from use and was at times synonymous with the interdictor concept.


An interceptor aircraft, or simply interceptor, is a type of fighter aircraft designed specifically to attack enemy aircraft, particularly bombers and reconnaissance aircraft, as they approach. There are two general classes of interceptor: relatively lightweight aircraft built for high performance, and heavier aircraft designed to fly at night or in adverse weather and operate over longer ranges.

For daytime operations, conventional fighters normally fill the interceptor role, as well as many other missions. Daytime interceptors have been used in a defensive role since the World War I era, but are perhaps best known from several major actions during World War II, notably the Battle of Britain where the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane developed a good reputation. Few aircraft can be considered dedicated daytime interceptors.

Night fighters and bomber destroyers are, by definition, interceptors of the heavy type, although initially they were rarely referred to as such. In the early Cold War era the combination of jet-powered bombers and nuclear weapons created air forces' demand for highly capable interceptors; it is during this period that the term is perhaps most recognized and used.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, the rapid improvements in design led to most air-superiority and multirole fighters, having the performance to take on the interceptor role, and the strategic threat moved from bombers to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Dedicated interceptor designs became rare.


An interdictor is a type of attack aircraft that operates far behind enemy lines, with the express intent of interdicting the enemy's military targets, most notably those involved in logistics. The interdiction prevents or delays enemy forces and supplies from reaching the battlefront; the term has generally fallen from use. The strike fighter is a closely related concept, but puts more emphasis on air-to-air combat capabilities as a multirole combat aircraft. Larger versions of the interdictor concept are generally referred to as penetrators.


A light bomber is a relatively small and fast type of military bomber aircraft that was primarily employed before the 1950s. Such aircraft would typically not carry more than one ton of ordnance, but they also could be fitted with pilot-controlled machine guns, cannon, and rockets to serve as ground-attack aircraft, a role to which they were well-suited. The dedicated light bomber disappeared as fighters, due to advancements in powerplants and aircraft design, were eventually able to deliver equal or greater bomb loads while also carrying out other missions and roles.


Light fighters are fighter aircraft towards the low end of the practical range of weight, cost, and complexity over which fighters are fielded. The term lightweight fighter is more commonly used in the modern literature, and by example tends to imply somewhat more capable aircraft than light fighters at the lower practical ranges, but the terms overlap and are sometimes used interchangeably. Whatever term is used, the concept is to be on the generally lower half of the practical range, but still with carefully selected competitive features, in order to project highly effective force per unit of budget via an efficient design.

As well-designed lightweight fighters have proven able to match or beat heavier aircraft plane-for-plane for many missions, and to significantly excel them in budgetary efficiency, light/lightweight fighters have proven to be a strategically valuable concept. Attempting to scale this efficiency to still lower cost, some manufacturers have in recent years adopted the term “light fighter” to also refer to light primarily air-to-ground attack aircraft, some of which are modified trainer designs.

A key design goal of light/lightweight fighter design is to satisfy standard air-to-air fighter effectiveness requirements. These criteria, in order of importance, are the ability to benefit from the element of surprise, to have numerical superiority in the air, to have superior maneuverability, and to possess suitable weapon systems effectiveness. Light fighters typically achieve a surprise advantage over larger aircraft due to smaller visual and radar signatures, which is important since in the majority of air-to-air kills, the element of surprise is dominant. Their comparative lower cost and higher reliability also allows for greater numbers per budget. Finally, while a single engine light fighter would typically only carry about half the weapons load of a heavy twin engine fighter, its surprise and maneuverability advantages often allow it to gain positional advantage to make better use of those weapons.

A requirement for low cost and therefore small fighters first arose in the period between World War I and World War II. Examples include several RAF interceptor designs from the interwar era and French "Jockey" aircraft of the immediate pre-World War II. None of these very light fighters enjoyed success into World War II, as they were too hampered in performance. Similar to the meaning of lightweight fighter today, during World War II the term “small fighter” was used to describe a single engine aircraft of competitive performance, range, and armament load, but with no unnecessary weight and cost.

After World War II fighter design moved into the jet era, and many jet fighters basically followed the successful World War II formula of highly efficient mostly single engine designs that tended to be about half the weight and cost of twin engine heavy fighters. More modern lightweight fighters have competitive air-to-air capability (supersonic aircraft with afterburning engines and modern missile armament). The high practical and budgetary effectiveness of modern light fighters for many missions is why the US Air Force adopted both the F-15 Eagle and F-16 in a "hi/lo" strategy of both an outstanding but expensive heavy fighter and a lower cost but also outstanding lightweight fighter. The investment to maintain a competitive modern lightweight fighter air force is approximately $90M to $130M (2013 dollars) per plane over a 20-year service life, which is approximately half the cost of heavy fighters, so understanding fighter aircraft design trade-offs and combat effectiveness is of national level strategic importance.


A maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), also known as a patrol aircraft, maritime reconnaissance aircraft, or by the older American term patrol bomber, is a fixed-wing aircraft designed to operate for long durations over water in maritime patrol roles — in particular anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-ship warfare (AShW), and search and rescue (SAR).


A medium bomber is a military bomber aircraft designed to operate with medium-sized bombloads over medium range distances; the name serves to distinguish this type from larger heavy bombers and smaller light bombers.

The term was used prior to and during World War II, based on available parameters of engine and aeronautical technology for bomber aircraft designs at that time. After the war, medium bombers were replaced in world air forces by more advanced and capable aircraft.


A multirole combat aircraft (MRCA) is a combat aircraft intended to perform different roles in combat. A multirole fighter is a multirole combat aircraft which is, at the same time, also a fighter aircraft; in other words, an aircraft whose various roles include, among others, the role of air-to-air combat.

The term "Multirole" had originally been reserved for aircraft designed with the aim of using a common airframe for multiple tasks where the same basic airframe is adapted to a number of differing roles. The main motivation for developing multirole aircraft is cost reduction in using a common airframe.

More roles can be added, such as aerial reconnaissance, forward air control, and electronic-warfare aircraft. Attack missions include the subtypes air interdiction, suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD), and close air support (CAS).

Multirole has also been applied to one aircraft with both major roles, a primary air-to-air combat role, and a secondary role like air-to-surface attack. However, those designed with an emphasis on aerial combat are usually regarded as air superiority fighters and usually deployed solely in that role, even though they are theoretically capable of ground attack. A good example is the F-14 Tomcat versus the F/A-18 Hornet; the F-14 was envisioned originally for air superiority and fleet interception defense with some variants later receiving secondary ground attack capability, while the F/A-18 was designed from the onset for air-to-surface strikes with a limited capacity to defend itself from other aircraft. In another instance, the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale are classified as multirole fighters; however the Typhoon is frequently considered an air superiority fighter due to its higher dogfighting prowess while its built-in strike capability has a lighter bomb load compared to contemporaries, compared to the more balanced Rafale which sacrifices air-to-air ability for a heavier payload.

Some aircraft are called swing-role, to emphasize the ability of a quick role change, either at short notice, or even within the same mission. According to the Military Dictionary : "the ability to employ a multi-role aircraft for multiple purposes during the same mission."

According to BAE Systems, "an aircraft that can accomplish both air-to-air and air-to-surface roles on the same mission and swing between these roles instantly offers true flexibility. This reduces cost, increases effectiveness and enhances interoperability with allied air forces".

"Capability also offers considerable cost-of-ownership benefits to and operational commanders."


A night fighter (also known as all-weather fighter or all-weather interceptor for a period of time post-World War II) is a fighter aircraft adapted for use at night or in other times of bad visibility. Night fighters began to be used in World War I and included types that were specifically modified to operate at night.

During World War II, night fighters were either purpose-built or day fighters modified to be effective night fighting combat aircraft, often employing radar or other systems for providing some sort of detection capability in low visibility. Many WW II night fighters also included instrument landing systems for landing at night as turning on the runway lights made runways into an easy target for opposing intruders.

Avionics systems were greatly miniaturized over time allowing the addition of radar altimeter, terrain-following radar, improved instrument landing system (ILS), microwave landing system (MLS), Doppler weather radar, LORAN receivers, GEE, tactical air navigation system (TACAN), inertial navigation system (INS), GPS, and GNSS in aircraft. The addition of greatly improved landing and navigation equipment combined with radar led to the use of the term all-weather fighter or all-weather fighter attack, depending on the aircraft capabilities. The use of the term night fighter gradually faded away as a result of these improvements making the vast majority of fighters capable of night operation.


A no-drive zone is a form of interdiction and specifically a militarily enforced declaration of an intent to deny vehicular movement over a strategic or tactically valued line of communication by the threat of vehicle destruction. A capability first used in the Balkans and a term recently coined during the 2011 Libyan civil war as a potential course of action to prevent Muammar Gaddafi's government forces from approaching rebel strongholds near Benghazi, no-drive zones present unique challenges to military planners and warfighters. Unlike no-fly zone enforcement where electronic and visual means of identification of relative few air entities allow warfighters to sort out potential targets, no-drive zones may include a variety of vehicle types with no electronic signatures to identify themselves and where enemy, friendly, and unaffiliated traffic are co-mingled. Enforcement from the air is further complicated by the necessary coordination with ground controller units providing persistent surveillance and possible identification when airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets are unavailable or denied necessary airspace access.

Employing air-to-ground precision-guided munitions in support of a no-drive zone is an extremely challenging effort. Moving vehicles present a difficult target for fighter aircraft as they can stop or turn compounding the targeting solution calculation or travel into areas where unacceptable collateral damage may occur after targeting and weapon release. The anticipated rules of engagement would likely include notification to the friendly or supported forces that no vehicles should be allowed to enter the zone as all vehicles detected in the zone will be considered as suspected hostile. Vehicles detected in the zone may be subjected to the Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, and Assess (F2T2EA) process by warfighters or engaged immediately per free-fire zone tactics. However, this interruption of ground travel over major roadways or designated geographic areas over a long period of time could have negative impacts on the economic flow of goods in the region.

Several different munitions would be available to enforce a no-drive zone. One system in development, the GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb II, is being designed to attack moving targets, through the weather, and from standoff ranges. It will be able to distinguish between tracked vehicles and wheeled vehicles but cannot identify the exact vehicle type. The GBU-53/B accepts post-release control from either an airborne or ground controller unit to include the ability to receive retargeting and abort commands.

Other engagement options could include vehicle interdiction by other military vehicles, artillery, laser-guided bombs, or directed-energy weapons.


A penetrator is a long-range bomber aircraft designed to penetrate enemy defenses. The term is mostly applied to aircraft that fly at low altitude in order to avoid radar, a strategic counterpart to the shorter-ranged tactical interdictor designs like the TSR-2 and F-111. However, the term can be applied to any aircraft that is designed to survive over enemy airspace, and has also been used for the penetration fighter designs that were designed to escort the bombers.


The term penetration fighter was used for a short time to describe a theoretical long-range fighter aircraft designed to penetrate enemy air defences and attack defensive interceptors. The concept is similar to the escort fighter, but differs primarily in that the aircraft would not operate in close concert with bombers. The same general mission is also carried out by intruders, but these are generally night fighters or light bombers that do not have the air combat performance of this concept.

The presence of the North American P-51 Mustang above Germany allowed USAAF bombers to fly at will over the country, and is considered one of the turning points of the air war. In the post-war period, the development of jet-powered strategic bombers made this role difficult to fill; aircraft with performance to protect the bombers had very short range, and those with the range were propeller designs that could not keep up. The desire for a fighter that could penetrate enemy airspace along with the bombers led to several prototype designs in the early 1950s. In order to be competitive with existing interceptors, these had to be jet powered, and this demanded huge fuel loads. None proved able to compete with shorter range designs, and the penetration fighter concept faded.


A reconnaissance aircraft is a military aircraft designed, or adapted, to carry out aerial reconnaissance. Their roles are to collect imagery intelligence, signals intelligence, and measurement and signature intelligence.


A strategic bomber is a medium to long range penetration bomber aircraft designed to drop large amounts of air-to-ground weaponry onto a distant target for the purposes of debilitating the enemy's capacity to wage war. Unlike tactical bombers, penetrators, fighter-bombers, and attack aircraft, which are used in air interdiction operations to attack enemy combatants and military equipment, strategic bombers are designed to fly into enemy territory to destroy strategic targets (e.g., infrastructure, logistics, military installations, factories, cities, and civilians). In addition to strategic bombing, strategic bombers can be used for tactical missions.

The modern strategic bomber role appeared after strategic bombing was widely employed, and atomic bombs were first used in combat during World War II. Nuclear strike missions (i.e., delivering nuclear-armed missiles or bombs) can potentially be carried out by most modern fighter-bombers and strike fighters, even at intercontinental range, with the use of aerial refueling, so any nation possessing this combination of equipment and techniques theoretically has such capability. Primary delivery aircraft for a modern strategic bombing mission need not always necessarily be a heavy bomber type, and any modern aircraft capable of nuclear strikes at long range is equally able to carry out tactical missions with conventional weapons.


Strategic bombing is a military strategy used in a total war with the goal of defeating the enemy by destroying its morale or its economic ability to produce and transport materiel to the theatres of military operations, or both. It is a systematically organized and executed attack from the air which can utilize strategic bombers, long- or medium-range missiles, or nuclear-armed fighter-bomber aircraft to attack targets deemed vital to the enemy's war-making capability.

One of the aims of war is to demoralize the enemy, so that peace or surrender becomes preferable to continuing the conflict. Strategic bombing has been used to this end. The phrase "terror bombing" entered the English lexicon towards the end of World War II and many strategic bombing campaigns and individual raids have been described as terror bombing by commentators and historians. Because the term has pejorative connotations, some, including the Allies of World War II, have preferred to use euphemisms such as "will to resist" and "morale bombings".

The theoretical distinction between tactical and strategic air warfare was developed between the two world wars.


Not to be confused with "strike aircraft", an alternative term for an attack aircraft

In current military parlance, a strike fighter is a multirole combat aircraft designed to operate primarily as an attack aircraft, while also incorporating certain performance characteristics of a fighter. As a category, it is distinct from fighter-bombers. It is closely related to the concept of interdictor aircraft, but it puts more emphasis on air-to-air combat capabilities as a multirole combat aircraft.


A surveillance aircraft is an aircraft used for surveillance—collecting information over time. They are operated by military forces and other government agencies in roles such as intelligence gathering, battlefield surveillance, airspace surveillance, observation (e.g. artillery spotting), border patrol and fishery protection. This article concentrates on aircraft used in those roles, rather than for traffic monitoring, law enforcement and similar activities.

Surveillance aircraft usually carry no armament, or only limited defensive armament. A surveillance aircraft does not necessarily require high-performance capability or stealth characteristics. It may be a modified civilian aircraft. Surveillance aircraft have also included moored balloons (e.g. TARS) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).


Tactical bombing is aerial bombing aimed at targets of immediate military value, such as combatants, military installations, or military equipment. This is in contrast to strategic bombing, or attacking enemy cities and factories to cripple future military production and enemy civilians' will to support the war effort, in order to debilitate the enemy's long-term capacity to wage war. A tactical bomber is a bomber aircraft with an intended primary role of tactical bombing.

Tactical bombing is employed for two primary assignments. Aircraft providing close air support attack targets in nearby proximity to friendly ground forces, acting in direct support of the ground operations (as a "flying artillery"). Air interdiction, by contrast, attacks tactical targets that are distant from or otherwise not in contact with friendly units.


A torpedo bomber is a military aircraft designed primarily to attack ships with aerial torpedoes. Torpedo bombers came into existence just before the First World War almost as soon as aircraft were built that were capable of carrying the weight of a torpedo, and remained an important aircraft type until they were rendered obsolete by anti-ship missiles. They were an important element in many famous Second World War battles, notably the British attack at Taranto and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.


Toss bombing (sometimes known as loft bombing, and by the U.S. Air Force as the Low Altitude Bombing System, LABS) is a method of bombing where the attacking aircraft pulls upward when releasing its bomb load, giving the bomb additional time of flight by starting its ballistic path with an upward vector.

The purpose of toss bombing is to compensate for the gravity drop of the bomb in flight, and allow an aircraft to bomb a target without flying directly over it. This is in order to avoid overflying a heavily defended target, or in order to distance the attacking aircraft from the blast effects of a nuclear (or conventional) bomb.


Wild Weasel is a code name given by the United States Armed Forces, specifically the US Air Force, to an aircraft, of any type, equipped with radar-seeking missiles and tasked with destroying the radars and SAM installations of enemy air defense systems.

The Wild Weasel concept was developed by the United States Air Force in 1965, after the introduction of Soviet SAM missiles and their downing of U.S. strike aircraft over the skies of North Vietnam.

In brief, the task of a Wild Weasel aircraft is to bait enemy anti-aircraft defenses into targeting it with their radars, whereupon the radar waves are traced back to their source, allowing the Weasel or its teammates to precisely target it for destruction. A simple analogy is playing the game of "flashlight tag" in the dark; a flashlight is usually the only reliable means of identifying someone in order to "tag" (destroy) them, but the light immediately renders the bearer able to be identified and attacked as well. The result is a hectic game of cat-and-mouse in which the radar "flashlights" are rapidly cycled on and off in an attempt to identify and kill the target before the target is able to home in on the emitted radar "light" and destroy the site.

The modern term used in the U.S. Armed Forces for this mission profile is "Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses", or SEAD.

From various Wikipedia entrys

Fighter Missions

  • BARCAP: "Barrier Combat Air Patrol", in fleet terms, a mission flown between a carrier battle group and the direction from which it is most likely that an enemy attack will come. Also refers to fighter aircraft placed between a friendly strike force and an area of expected airborne threat, also known as a "MiG screen". The BARCAPs that I flew were for protection of my aircraft carrier from attack.
  • MIGCAP: “Used primarily during the Vietnam War, a MiGCAP is directed specifically against MiG aircraft. MiGCAP during Operation Linebacker became highly organized.” MIGCAPs were stationed away from the strike group and to protect them from MiG attack.
  • RESCAP: "’Rescue Combat Air Patrol’, a fighter force often drawn from aircraft already in the area, used to protect personnel on the ground (such as downed pilots) from ground threats, as well as combat search and rescue aircraft or other rescue forces from both ground and air threats.”
  • TARCAP: "’Target Combat Air Patrol’ is flown over or near a strike target in order to protect specialized attack aircraft. As TARCAP we were among the first to bomb a heavily defended target. Then we stood by to protect the strike group from any MiG attacks.”
  • Photo Escort: Escorting unarmed photo reconnaissance aircraft over enemy targets
  • Road Recce’s: Freelance looking for targets of opportunity.
  • Close Air Support (CAS): Protecting ground troops from an engaged enemy nearby.
  • Bombing strikes on specific targets: Either individually or in conjunction with a large coordinated Alpha Strike.
  • Flak Suppression Bombing AAA and SAM sites prior to and during a strike group attack on a major and heavily defended target.
  • Anti-ship Mine laying: Laying mines in Haiphong harbor and other inlets.

At the time except for BARCAPs and mine laying, the Air Force flew essentially the same types of missions as we did with the Navy, but mostly with different aircraft and different capabilities. Of course the Navy had no comparison to the B-52’s with their Arc Light strikes or the Operation Linebacker II Christmas raids, but the Navy flew other aircraft in support of those raids.


In the simplified board game Asteroid Zero-Four, the US and the USSR each have a valuable asteroid to mine. And each asteroid is armed to the teeth to ensure that it stays in the owner's possession. A prologned solar storm cuts both asteroids off from Terra, so the asteroids have a private little nuclear war to capture the other asteroid.

The two sides attack each other with:

  • Inter-Asteroidal Ballistic Missiles with MIRVed nuclear warheads
  • Fighter spacecraft (lots of anti-fighter weapons, limited nuclear bomb capability)
  • Bomber spacecraft (limited anti-fighter weapons, large nuclear bomb capability)
  • Fighter-bomber mulirole spacecraft (intermediate amount of anti-fighter weapons, intermediate nuclear bomb capability)
  • Anti-fighter laser installations on asteroid

USSR has fighters and bombers, US only has fighter-bombers. Both have IABMs and anti-fighter laser installations. There are a variety of nuclear bomb loadouts that a spacecraft can be armed with, only spacecraft on a "Strike" mission have bombs installed. During each turn, each player takes their fighters that are ready (not currently being refueled and reloaded) and secretly allocates them among the mission types. They also launch IABMs to add to the STRIKE mission, number of missiles limited to number of undestroyed launch silos.

The missions are:

  • STRIKE (S): IABMs separate into MIRVed bombs and explode on their designated targets on the enemy asteroid. Spacecraft drop their nuclear bombs on their designated targets on the enemy asteroid and return to home base, while undergoing weapons fire from the asteroid's laser ack-ack batteries.

  • COMBAT SPACE PATROL (CSP): defend your asteroid from incoming hostile spacecraft and IABMs.

    Each of your spacecraft on CSP engages in combat with one of the incoming hostile spacecraft on a STRIKE ESCORT mission. The hostile ships on SE can return fire.

    If you have more ships on CSP than the hostiles have on SE, the remainder can attack hostile IABMs and enemy ships on S missions on a one-on-one basis. The poor enemy ships cannot return fire, they are focusing on bombing.

    If you have less ships on CSP, the enemy strike goes streaking past you. There it dumps bombs on your base while your CSP is tangled up dealing with the enemy SE.
  • STRIKE ESCORT (SE): defend your friendly spacecraft on S missions from enemy spacecraft on CSP mission.

  • STRIKE HOLDING (SH): Ships held in reserve to throw the enemy off stride. Friendly ships returning from a S or SE mission have to sit out the next game turn while they are refueled and rearmed. Ships on an SH mission can be quickly thrown into CSP or even S missions in response to enemy action, which makes the enemy think twice before starting anything.

  • REAR AREA (RA) Ships on an RA mission are sent to safe remote bases to avoid combat. Sometimes used to avoid losses if a huge enemy strike is anticipated at an awkward time. After the enemy strike ships can return from RA to join surviving refueled friendly spacecraft.

In other words: each asteroid base is surrounded by mutually-friendly fighters on Combat Space Patrol, tasked with defending the base from incoming hostile strikes (missiles with nuclear warheads and bomber spacecraft loaded with nuclear bombs). The incoming strike is surrounded by mutually-friendly fighters on Strike Escort, tasked with defending the strike from hostile Combat Space Patrol. The escorts are trying to keep the enemy CSP off the back of the friendly bombers and IAMBs, poking a hole in the asteroid's defenses so that the bombers can bomb the crap out of the enemy asteroid's various installations. Meanwhile the asteroid's ack-ack laser batteries are doing their darnedest to shoot down all the bombers and IAMBs. The latter explode on target, surviving bombers return to base to be refueled and rearmed.

If there are more CSP fighters than SE fighters, the excess CSP can either double-up on SE fighters (two-on-one dogfight) or penetrate to shoot up the enemy Strike (which is the preferred option, it's the mission objective after all). Enemy fighters on SE can return fire on the CSP, poor enemy ships on Strike cannot. The strike ships are concentrating on laying their bombs, they cannot defend themselves.

If there are more SE fighters than CSP fighters, they can double-up on the CSP fighters. The Strike sails by unencumbered by the hostile CSP.

In either case, surviving SE fighters return to base to be refueled and rearmed.

Braking Overshoot

This is a trick fighter maneuver. TV Tropes calls it Dodging by Braking.

The earliest instance I could find was the premier episode of classic Battlestar Galactica "Saga of a Star World" (1978). Apollo in his viper fighter has some Cylon raiders on his tail, barraging it with laser bolts. Apollo hits his breaking thrusters and abruptly slows down. The Cylons, still traveling rapidly, are caught flat footed. They overshoot Apollo and suddenly he is the one behind the enemy, firing laser bolts up the Cylon's buttocks. He quickly blows them both to Em-See-Squared.

Instances of this maneuver I've manage to find include:

You never see the Starfuries in Babylon 5 do this maneuver. That's because the writers know that rockets are not arrows. If an enemy fighter is on your tail, just spin in place and blow their face off. They also got it right in Space Above and Beyond and the Battlestar Galactica reboot.



During a dogfight, the term "overshoot" refers to situations in which the attacker either crosses the enemy's flight path or passes the defender, ending up in front.

Passing the defender is referred to as a "wingline overshoot". Also called a "3-9 line overshoot" or a "dangerous overshoot", this occurs when an attacking aircraft approaches too fast and accidentally crosses the defender's wingline (an imaginary line passing through the center of the aircraft at the 3 o-clock and 9 o-clock positions). A wingline overshoot is usually referred to as "flying out in front" and causes "role reversal", putting the attacker in range of the defender's weapons, and the attacker suddenly becomes the defender.

When the attacker crosses the defender's flight path, the situation is called a "flight path overshoot". This happens when an attacker fails to control closure and crosses the defender's flight path from behind. Although not necessarily dangerous, it is possible for a flight path overshoot to cause the attacker to fly out in front of the defender. More often, however, it greatly reduces the attacker's angular advantage over the defender. Flight path overshoots are divided into two categories, called "control-zone overshoots" and "in-close overshoots".

A "control-zone overshoot" occurs when the attacker crosses the defender's flight path from behind the front edge of the control zone. After a control-zone overshoot, the defender will continue turning in the same direction to retain the acquired angular advantage, trying to prevent the attacker from getting a good aim.

An '"in-close overshoot" happens when the attacker overshoots the defender's flight path ahead of the control zone. This gives the defender the opportunity to reverse the turn and possibly to cause a wingline overshoot, allowing the defender to move in behind the attacker and reverse their roles.

From the Wikipedia entry for BASIC FIGHTER MANEUVERS
"You've got an enemy on your tail! Use the brake!"
Peppy Hare, Star Fox 64

In a knuckle-whitening aerial dogfight (or other vehicle pursuit), our hero is in a tight spot as the enemy aircraft are closing in, approaching speeds he cannot hope to match, so rather than continue to outrun his opponents, our hero does the unexpected trick of putting on the brakes, switching the advantage in a split second as his foes rush out in front of his guns.

Truth in Television, as forcing your opponent to over-shoot is actually a keynote of dogfighting tactics. There are many ways to do it, from the simple defensive high-speed yo-yo to the more complex vertical and rolling scissors. The real-life maneuver most commonly seen in media is the barrel roll defense, where the defending aircraft pops up and rolls gracefully before coming back down behind the attacker. It looks cool, and the split-second reversal of advantage is suitably dramatic. This works just as well on jets as it does on biplanes; it's just that dogfights are much less common in Real Life these days.

The trope also applies to more dramatic depictions where the character's vehicle seems to literally "brake" in mid-air without fancy maneuvering. This is possible if a pilot drops his flaps, speed brake or even landing gear to slow down (though this is a desperation move since it can also make them an easy target, or worse, stall the plane), or if they have certain kinds of vectored-thrust aircraft, specifically, the version used by the Harrier Jump Jet to enable STOVL (Short TakeOff, Vertical Landing), which can perform VIFFing (Vector In Forward Flight). Still other types of aircraft with thrust-vectoring (NOT the same as vectored thrust: Thrust-Vectoring is when you can redirect the jet nozzle's thrust off-center to augment or even completely replace the use of aerodynamic control surfaces usually used only to augment/replace rudders and elevators. Somewhat more difficult use for roll control)

And of course, the trope also applies to similar braking maneuvers that are simply impossible.

Compare Ram by Braking, Wronski Feint and Aerial Canyon Chase.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)

Realistic Designs

Most of these are classic "arrow" or "spear" designs. That is, they look like a long rod with a sharp pointy thing at the top. The rod is the booster that lofts the fighter into orbit, while the pointy thing is the fighter proper. Some of the fighters actually have wings, which enhances the arrow motif. The technical term is "spaceplane".

Monocle Fighter

The Monocle Fighter is a beam rider energized by a mothership, much like a Hegemony Interceptor. It is basically a mobile laser combat mirror.

A scaled-up version can be used to boost cargo into orbit (or land them).

The name "monocle" is from the fact that the fighter looks like a round mirror, similar to the single eyeglass. In operation, the fighter does yaw-pitch-roll until the fighter is oriented such that the mothership can fire its laser in a bank shot off the fighter combat mirror and into the enemy ship. Since the fighter is closer to the enemy than the mother, it can aim more precisely. The mother can aim at the fighter with more accuracy because the fighter is constantly transmitting its location to the mother.

The monocle also allows the mothership to do a laser attack on an enemy that is not in the mothership's line-of-sight. Say, if the enemy was hiding behind the horizon of a planet. The monocle allows the mothership to shoot around the corner and nail the enemy anyway.

Lockheed proposed a "binocle" fighter which had two telescopes linked by an optical train of mirrors. The larger telescope is fed by the laser from the mothership, the smaller transmits the laser to fry the hapless target. It is basically two sets of beam expanders linked end-to-end (i.e., don't be fooled by the word "binocle": it is only one optical train, not two). Advantages: can isolate the laser train from fighter vibrations that spoil the aim, it is easier to aim the beam at the target since you don't have to rotate the entire fighter. Disadvantage: by focusing the beam small enough to fit into the optical train of mirrors, the increased intensity will increase the thermal load on the mirrors.

The BDM Corporation proposed a "perinocle" fighter. It only had two large mirrors with a rotary joint in the middle. Much like a periscope. Basically a binocle minus the optical train of mirrors. Advantages: makes it easier to aim beam at target, has no optical train of mirrors subject to thermal loads. Disadvantage: rotary joint and aiming mechanism adds more points of failure compared to the simple monocle design.

Monocle Ship
PropulsionLaser Thermal
Diameter4.5 m20 m
STO Power
(no aero lift)
3.6 GW10 GW
STO Power
(with aero lift)
1.2 GW?
Combat MirrorYesNo
Combat Mirror Max Laser50 MWn/a
Mass1,300 kg?
Cargon/a15,000 kg

      We think it might be most useful to combine a monocle fighting mirror with a radially symmetrical shuttle (i.e., looks like a squat cone or flying saucer). This could be a marriage made in—well, if not in heaven, at least in orbit.

     Let's assume we have already crammed some first-generation monocles into Poseidon payloads (meaning we can boost the monocles into orbit with Navy-surplus Poseidon missiles before we have gigantic ground-based lasers for boosting) and it is now the turn of the century. We have the military big beamers in development, so it is time we developed a military SSTO shuttle to use them. That SSTO craft might look something like Figure 8-1. It's a bit over fifteen feet in diameter (4.5 meters), with radial jet exhausts ranged around its circumference, and the flexible mirror covering its underside has about twenty layers of thin film coatings for very high reflectivity. It will take (and redirect for fighting) a fifty MW laser, but even if it reflects 99.9% of that energy it still absorbs fifty KW of it. This is roughly one-fourth of a watt per square centimeter surface area, not much different from the heat deposited by the sun in Earth orbit. That means we do not need to install a cooling system across the inner surface of that mirror’s underside. The whole craft might weigh in at 2800 pounds (1,300 kg). It is not very big. You could mock this thing up full-scale, with plywood and cardboard in your garage.

     On its upper surface it will be more or less cone-shaped. If we can get a lot of aerodynamic lift from this frisbee on a long slanting acceleration to orbit, we might get by with less laser power during the boost to orbit. With aerodynamic help we might boost it up with a dozen lasers each beaming a hundred MW to the craft (1.2 gigawatts total). If we don't get much aerodynamic help, and if the system efficiency is low, each of those dozen lasers might have to beam 300 MW each (3.6 gigawatts total). We may very well fly this rig as an RPV (remotely piloted vehicle) to save weight.

     On the other hand, an onboard pilot might not be much of a weight penalty. This is a true SSTO shuttle, capable of popping up into orbit and back down again within a few minutes, so we might not have to furnish the pilot with much more than an acceleration couch, a ham sandwich, and a hefty bottle of breathing oxygen. While on-station in space, this scout craft could use the adaptive optics on its mirror-bright underside to receive, adapt, and focus a beam against any military target within sight, even if that target is thousands of miles away.

     Later, when we get more powerful lasers or more of them to gang for boost power, we could build a much larger version of this craft for a different purpose. We played with larger versions in Chapter 5 and found that we would have to make the structures of large craft very light. Author Myrabo has crunched some numbers to get a sixty-six footer (20 meter diameter) which can haul about sixteen tons of cargo, half the payload of the NASA shuttle, to orbit. Bear in mind that with laser boost, we could do it every hour on the hour—but we might need ten gigawatts to lift it.

     When we start talking about cargo, some of you may wonder if we are going from military to commercial missions. We’re not; at least, not right away. Military outposts in space need resupply on schedule, and a radially-symmetrical SSTO (otherwise known as a sixty-foot frisbee) could do the job. A few years later, we should not be surprised to see all that military hardware and procedure used by commerical carriers. If it weren't for military transportation systems developed during World War II, we would have needed many more years to develop the globe-girdling commercial air transportation network we have today.

     We have sketched out several future military flight systems, largely using designs borrowed from earlier chapters. We waited until now to rough out a real space cruiser, because it's a bit of a departure from all those frisbees.

     For one thing, we think a real battle cruiser will probably have to cruise the deeps of space with only occasional support, in true dreadnaught tradition. It will be on-station, call it picket duty if you like, for long months. It will require a crew of at least a couple of dozen. And if it has to operate on its own, it will have to carry its own power. Well into the next century we may have antimatter engines, and then all that onboard power will be a cinch. But like it or not, until then we will have to use more well-developed technology. As with their deep ocean submersible counterparts, our first space cruisers will probably ply the void with nuclear power plants.

     Many years ago, we developed solid-core nuclear reactors for the rocket engines of the NERVA project. We learned a lot from it—including the fact that solid-core reactors would almost certainly not serve us for the cruiser. For weapon energy, we have to put sudden, extreme power demands on our cruiser's engines. The heat buildup in solid-core elements would cause tremendous stresses inside the reactor. It might fail the first time we made a heavy demand on it. Sorry.

     A particle bed reactor is another matter, though. It could accept those sudden peak demands, assuming we have some means for radiating waste heat away from the reactor after it’s shut down.‘That is a mighty big assumption, because we will need humongous radiators. There are lots of radiators that could handle the waste heat of a few gigawatt-rated reactors, but most radiator designs would mass more than the rest of the entire cruiser. That, to understate the case, is no small mass. Figure 8-2 shows a three-view of our space cruiser.

From THE FUTURE OF FLIGHT by Leik Myrabo and Dean Ing (1985)
ISBN: 0-671-55941-9 / 978-0-671-55941-0

Space Cruiser/STAR

Mass Schedule
Dry Mass989 kg
Fuel Mass1,941 kg
Wet Mass2,930 kg
EnginePlug Nozzle
Isp323 sec
3,169 m/s
Mass Ratio2.96
ΔV3,443 m/s
1984 STAR Report
Mass Schedule
Dry Mass
(no payload)
1,950 kg
Fuel Mass2,631 kg
Wet Mass
(no payload)
4,581 kg
EnginePlug Nozzle
Isp316.85 sec
3,108 m/s
Mass Ratio
(no payload)
(no payload)
2,655 m/s
(no payload
Centaur 1st
8,908 m/s
(with payload)
See Table
Mass Schedule
Thermal Tiles272 kg
Lifting Surfaces163 kg
Structure249 kg
Ballast153 kg
APU98 kg
Life Support176 kg
Avionics/Comm124 kg
Elevons36 kg
Recovery155 kg
Propulsion38 kg
ACS20 kg
767 kg
Pilot218 kg
Payload113 kg
DRY MASS1622 kg
WET MASS2,584 kg
Mass Ratio1.59
Nitrogen tetroxide +
Isp323 sec
3,170 m/s
ΔV1,476 m/s
Length8 m
Max width1.4 m
Life span100 missions
Thrust/engine836 N
Num Enginex16
x16 Thrust13,380 N
x16 Thrust
(Plug Nozzle)
13,600 N

This is a popular design since it is the closest thing to a space fighter in the real world. It periodically appears in breathless aerospace articles. However, it was more like a manned missile than it was a Viper from Battlestar Galactica.

Information is from Spaceplane Technology And Research (STAR), Aerospace Project Review Extras: Space Cruiser part 1, Aerospace Project Review US Spacecraft Projects #2: Spaceplanes, Astronautix Space Cruiser, and STAR: The USAF’s “Everything” Spacecraft.

Back in the early 1970's the US Navy wanted a manned spacecraft to attack Soviet spy satellites if war broke out. The catch was they wanted the blasted thing carried and launched from a submarine. At the time submarines were the next best thing to having a cloaking device. The invisible sub could unexpectedly surface, launch the space cruiser into LEO, cruiser scrags the Soviet spy satellite in less than one whole orbit, and returns to Terra before being detected by Soviet radar.

Fred Redding Jr. was given the job of trying to design the space cruiser. Sadly no spacecraft small enough to fit in a submarine's Poseidon missile tube could make it even halfway to orbit. Not with 1970s technology at any rate. The US Navy lost interest.

One relic of this work was the space cruiser's pointy shape. It was based on the profile of hypersonic MIRV nuclear ICBMs, though scaled up a bit.

Anyway Mr. Redding managed to pry his work out of the Navy's hands and got DARPA and the US Air Force interested. The name was changed from space cruiser to Spaceplane Technology and Research (STAR).

The STAR was redesigned to launch from a conventional booster, which was a heck of a lot easier than squeezing it into a sub missile launching tube. The cross-section was changed from circular to oval, converting it from a cone into a sort of lifting body. This also increased the size of the inadequate fuel tanks. Putting wings on a cone that wouldn't be instantly ripped off by hypersonic flight had been an unsolved problem, using a lifting body instead of wings neatly avoided the problem.

Reading between the lines it appears that Mr. Redding was quite upset at how the US Navy's desire for a one-trick pony made the project vulnerable to cancellation. To avoid a repeat, he tried to come up with as many different missions as possible for his baby. A thousand and one uses, indeed.

The STAR could get an astronaut into space, but with zero frills and luxuries. Strictly bare-bones. The crew compartment was barely large enough to sit in. It had no pressurization, the astronaut had to wear a space suit for the entire mission (24 hours of oxygen, wearing a diaper). No hydraulics, no ejection seat, not even landing gear. Blasted thing landed by a Rogallo wing like was proposed for the Gemini. One drogue chute located in the center of the engine plug cluster, one Rogallo at the fuel tanks, and one Rogallo directly forwards of the fuel tanks.

In space the pilot's hatch opens so they can straighten up and stick their head out of the hatch. Much like a World War 1 fighter plane, actually: "open cockpit." Of course they will have to squeeze back in and close the hatch before reentry unless they want to barbecue their head.

In yet another desperate attempt to reduce the spacecraft mass the pilot had a heads-up display projected on the inside of their space helment. Much less mass than physical instruments. Some spacecraft functions can be voice controlled, which comes in handy when the astronaut is performing an EVA for satellite repair and is not physically at the controls.

The spacecraft can fold roughly in half to allow it to fit into cramped launch shrouds. This exposed the front arry of sensor system and forward attitude control thrusters. The front area can also carry a larger payload, or used as a tug to push satellites. Of course the front will have to unfold back into place before reentry.

For missions beyond the Van Allen belts the skin will have to be increased to 1.3 centimeters for more radiation shielding.

To increase endurance a sidecar habitat module can be added. This is an aluminum cylinder 1.2 meters in diameter, 3.7 meters long, 454 kgs. It is mounted over the pilot's hatch. It has to be jettisoned before reentry. Consumables for extended missions is 91 kg/day, where 41 kg is water for environmental cooling and 45 kg is APU fuel. A solar power array would eliminiate the need for the APU fuel.

Drop tanks can add up to 953 extra kilograms of fuel and an additional 886 m/s of delta-V.

To be able to reach geosynchronous orbit, the STAR can be mounted on a Centaur-G. Performance as per the tables below. 4,267 m/s (14,000 fps) is needed to travel from a 100 nautical mile orbit inclinded at 28.5° (a bare bones launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Flight Center) to geosynchronous orbit.

Notes on table:

  • APU: Auxiliary power unit including generator, batteries, and power conditioning. Runs on same rocket fuel
  • Life Support: a space suit. 24 max endurance
  • Recovery System: a Rogallo wing
  • Thermal Protection Tiles: the re-entry heat shield
  • Pilot: includes person, Extravehicular Mobility Unit (for satellite repair EVA), and acceleration couch
  • Fuel: PAAB-1 is Proprietary Aerojet Amine blend no. 1.
  • ACS: Attitude control system. Jets are located at nose when cone is folded in half and at base just forwards of engines. 68 Newtons per thruster. Fine control by momentum wheels. And a mercury trim adjuster is used to keep the center of gravity from drifting during re-entry, avoiding the whole tumbling and exploding into fiery debris problem.
  • Payload: 113 kg is not much. Probably sensors or light weapons to kill unfriendly satellites.
  • x16 Thrust (Plug Nozzle): Sixteen thrusters at 836 N each would ordinarily provide 13,380 N total thrust. But clustering them in a plug nozzle configuration effectively increases the expansion ratio, which creates 13,600 N total thrust.
  • The development of the simple "space cruiser" concept by Fred W. "Bud" Redding, an aerospace designer with the DCS Corporation, caught the eye of the United States Air Force because of an article about it by this author in the November 1983 issue of Omni magazine.

For operations in the near-Earth orbital region, a capability to change its velocity ("delta-vee") of about 2,500 feet per second (760 m/s) is necessary. For operation in the Earth-Moon system, a delta-vee of 20,000 feet per second (6000 m/s) would be more than adequate.

An excellent example of this is Fred W. "Bud" Redding's space cruiser or spaceplane, which is being funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as a research vehicle. The Redding space cruiser is delightfully simple and brings out the machismo in hot fighter pilots. A slender cone about 24 feet long with a base diameter of about five feet, the vehicle is a scaled-up version of the proven Mark 12 Minuteman re-entry vehicle. The aerodynamic characteristics of this shape are very well known and understood. It's a hypersonic and supersonic airframe shape with good lift-to-drag ratio and therefore good maneuverability. And small delta wings, and it becomes highly maneuverable. It's large enough that a single pilot clad in a pressure suit can sit in an unpressurized cockpit in the aft end just ahead of a ring of rocket motors. A hatch that can be opened allows him to stand up in the cockpit to look around. In this "open cockpit" space vehicle, the pilot "owns space" around him.

The nose of the conical spaceplane can be folded back to permit it to become a "pusher" or space tug for shifting larger loads in orbit. With a Centaur underneath it as a lower stage, it is capable of taking its pilot around the Moon and back.

The simplicity of the Redding spaceplane comes from its lack of design compromises. One of the things that makes the space shuttle orbiter so complex is the requirement that it fly well at subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic speeds. This was a difficult and expensive technological feat requiring many compromises that didn't contribute to low cost and design simplicity. If a spaceplane is designed to fly at only supersonic and hypersonic speeds, it can be greatly simplified. But how can it be landed if it won't fly at subsonic speeds?

The Mark 12 re-entry vehicle is a fine supersonic and hypersonic airframe but a streamlined anvil at subsonic speeds. The Redding spaceplane is the same. But rather than compromise the design by giving it a good subsonic lift-to-drag ratio to permit a horizontal landing, Bud Redding opted to use another simple and straightforward method: a parachute. Not the simple circular parachute used on early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space capsules that dropped the capsule into the ocean in an uncontrolled fashion. Instead, Redding suggests the use of the steerable, flyable "parasail" used by thousands of sports parachutists every weekend. Once the spaceplane gets into the atmosphere and its speed slows to subsonic where it becomes a brick, a parasail chute is deployed, allowing the pilot to steer the slender cone to a soft landing inside a fifty-foot circle. It could be landed even on the deck of a ship at sea.

from AFTERWORD: SPACE FIGHERS by G. Harry Stine (1985)

To figure delta-V:

IMPERIAL UNITS (only included because I don't want to re-draw the graph)

C1_delta_V_FPS = 10,107 * ln[ (10,100 + payloadLB) / (4,300 + payloadLB) ]


C1_delta_V_FPS = STAR total delta-V (ft/sec)
10,107 = exhaust velocity (ft/sec) from specific impulse of 316.85 sec
10,100 = wet mass of STAR less payload (lbs)
4,300 = dry mass of STAR less payload (lbs)
payloadLB = payload (lbs)
ln[x] = natural logarithm of x, the "ln" key on your calculator


C1_delta_V_MPS = 3,108 * ln( (4,581 + payloadKG) / (1,950 + payloadKG) )


C1_delta_V_MPS = STAR total delta-V (m/sec)
3,108 = exhaust velocity (m/sec) from specific impulse of 316.85 sec
4,581 = wet mass of STAR less payload (kg)
1,950 = dry mass of STAR less payload (kg)
payloadKG = payload (kg)

To figure delta-V:

IMPERIAL UNITS (only included because I don't want to re-draw the graph)

C1_delta_V_FPS = 10,107 * ln[ (10,100 + payloadLB) / (4,300 + payloadLB) ]

C2_delta_V_FPS = 15,194 * ln[ (63,800 + payloadLB) / (16,538 + payloadLB) ]

C3_delta_V_FPS = C1_delta_V_FPS + C2_delta_V_FPS


C1_delta_V_FPS = STAR total delta-V (ft/sec) Curve 1
C2_delta_V_FPS = Centaur carrying STAR total delta-V (ft/sec) Curve 2
C3_delta_V_FPS = STAR using Centaur as first stage total delta-V (ft/sec) Curve 3 {must use same value for payloadLB when calculating C1_delta_V_FPS and C2_delta_V_FPS}
10,107 = STAR exhaust velocity (ft/sec) from specific impulse of 316.85 sec
10,100 = wet mass of STAR less payload (lbs)
4,300 = dry mass of STAR less payload (lbs)
payloadLB = STAR payload (lbs)
15,194 = Centaur exhaust velocity (ft/sec) from specific impulse of 472 sec
63,800 = wet mass of Centaur with STAR but less payload (lbs)
16,538 = dry mass of Centaur with STAR but less payload (lbs)
ln[x] = natural logarithm of x, the "ln" key on your calculator


C1_delta_V_MPS = 3,108 * ln( (4,581 + payloadKG) / (1,950 + payloadKG) )

C2_delta_V_MPS = 4,631 * ln[ (28,939 + payloadKG) / (7,501 + payloadKG) ]

C3_delta_V_MPS = C1_delta_V_MPS + C2_delta_V_MPS


C1_delta_V_MPS = STAR total delta-V (m/sec) Curve 1
C2_delta_V_MPS = Centaur carrying STAR total delta-V (m/sec) Curve 2
C3_delta_V_MPS = STAR using Centaur as first stage total delta-V (m/sec) Curve 3 {must use same value for payloadKG when calculating C1_delta_V_MPS and C2_delta_V_MPS}
3,108 = exhaust velocity (m/sec) from specific impulse of 316.85 sec
4,581 = wet mass of STAR less payload (kg)
1,950 = dry mass of STAR less payload (kg)
payloadKG = payload (kg)
4,631 = Centaur exhaust velocity (m/sec) from specific impulse of 472 sec
28,939 = wet mass of Centaur with STAR but less payload (kg)
7,501 = dry mass of Centaur with STAR but less payload (kg)
ln[x] = natural logarithm of x, the "ln" key on your calculator

Ames Fighter

This is from the HORIZONS newsletter May/June 2012 Issue, article by Scott Lowther. The article describes a mysterious 1961-1963 NASA-Ames wind tunnel report on an intriguing vehicle, but with zero info about who designed it, what project it was part of, and what was the subsequent history of the vehicle in question.

All that is known is it was some species of winged re-entry vehicle. Which doesn't help much because back in the 1960s pretty much every US aerospace company was frantically working on spaceplanes.

The interesting detail about this bird, though, is that it could be used as an orbital taxi…or as a fighter jet. With jet engines, weapons, and everything. Launch mass of both versions was 9,000 kilograms. Blueprints below contain mass schedules.

The vehicle launched into orbit, flew to a space station or something, and re-entered the atmosphere, all while folded up into a lifting body shape. That is, the opposite of a flying wing with all wing and no fuselage. Instead the lifting body was all fuselage and no wing, but with the fuselage cunningly shaped so it provided wing-like aerodynamic lift anyway. This is an advantage when you are aerobraking into atmospheric re-entry, since the atmospheric drag will be doing its darnedest to savagely rip right off any freaking wings. Lifting bodies stick their tongues out at atmospheric drag since they have no wings.

On the other hand, lifting bodies make lousy fighter planes because they maneuver with all the grace and elegance of a pregnant hippo. Just ask Steve Austin.

To deal with this, when it slows down from hypersonic re-entry speeds to mere low supersonic speeds, the Ames fighter unfolds so it has wings. The wings allow high speed jinking and dogfighting. Oh, and it also ejects a cover protecting the under-nose jet engine inlet. During re-entry an uncovered inlet will allow atmospheric drag to grab the poor aircraft by the nose and turn it inside out like a sock.

The orbital taxi version is a civilian thing with cargo capacity, room for three passengers, a tiny jet engine inlet and a single jet engine.

The military version is a lean, mean, fighting machine. No cargo, no passengers, added fuel capacity, a huge jet engine inlet, and four turbojet engines each larger than the civilian engine. Plus weapons and ammo. Weapons were not specified in the report, but were probably either a brace of machine guns or a rocket gun firing guided/unguided missiles.

Upon re-entry the wings would start unfolding at an altitude of 37 kilometers and a speed of Mach 5. The turbojets would start at 18 km and between Mach 1 and 2. Cruising speed was Mach 2. The four jet engines produce 62,000 Newtons of thrust.

Since the orbital taxi version was meant to be orbital, the military version would have a global range at the very least. Can probably reach any spot on Terra in 45 minutes flat. Sadly there ain't no more details.

Scott Lowther has a speculative idea, which makes sense to me. About the same time that the Ames fighter was being designed, Douglas Aircraft took their RHOMBUS plug nozzle heavy lift vehicle concept and made a it into a semi-single-stage-to-orbit intercontinental troop transport called Ithacus carrying 1,200 soldiers. It can reach any spot on Terra in 45 minutes flat. Gee, where have I heard that number before? Scott's idea is that a flight of Ames fighters can accompany an Ithacus on its suborbital hop and act as an escort. The fighters can neutralize any anti-Ithacus weapons, and provide air cover for the Ithacus during and after landing, until slower conventional fighters can arrive. Because frankly an Ithacus is an unmaneuverable fat hard-to-miss pig with a neon bulls-eye painted on the side, and conventional defensive fighters will take hours to show up.

Scott also says he'd be delighted if anybody has further information on this concept, and I'd like to see it as well.

Satellite Interceptor

Historically this was a project created by the US military in 1957. Officially cancelled in 1962, it apparently is still undergoing some top-secret development as late as 2018. From a science fiction standpoint this would only make sense on a balkanized planet (i.e., more than one soveregn nation), not on a planet totally controlled by a single government. The project was called SAtellite INTerceptor or SAINT.

The idea seems to be to deal with the threat of Soviet satellites. On the one hand they might be orbital nuclear warheads. On the other hand if the US just preemptively destroyed out of hand any satellites the Soviets launched, the international political situation would deteriorate rapidly. So it would be well if the US could send up at an hours notice a crewed spacecraft to inspect the new Soviet satellite. If it turns out to be a nuke, then you can destroy it.


Project SAINT (an acronym formed from "SAtellite INTerceptor") Developed during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the project was heavily over budget by the time it was cancelled in late 1962. As a result of advances in countermeasures on Soviet satellites, alongside the development of cheaper anti-satellite methods, the concept was rendered unsuitable.


The project was created after the Central Intelligence Agency's 1957 National Intelligence Estimate 11-5-57, named "Soviet Capabilities and Probable Programs in the Guided Missile Field", estimated that the Soviet Union would be capable of having a reconnaissance satellite in space by 1963. The United States Air Force issued General Operational Requirement-170 on 19 June 1958 ordering the development of a system that was capable of destroying a satellite. Then the United States Air Force and Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) commissioned studies by the Space Technology Laboratories and the Radio Corporation of America. The plan for development of the system formulated by the Air Force was shown to the National Security Council on 5 February 1960. On 17 March 1961, the Radio Corporation of America received a grant to develop Project SAINT.

Project phases

The project was broken into three phases. Phase one was to create a satellite that could meet and inspect another satellite of 1 square meter (11 sq ft) radar cross-section that was in orbit at up to 740 kilometers (460 mi) high. Phase two was to create a satellite capable of making multiple inspections, with a vertical range up to 7,400 kilometers (4,600 mi) high. Phase three was to create a satellite that could destroy other satellites, based on the platform of the satellite of phase two. The SAINTs were expected to weigh 4,400 pounds (2,000 kg), and be 14 feet (4.3 m) long.


The project included the building of a SAINT operation center within the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) complex in Colorado Springs, and the construction of launch facilities that could respond within 12 hours at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg, along with stations in Florida and Rhodesia.

The study undertaken by the Space Technology Laboratory suggested the use of a Thor-Hydra booster, however the more capable and more readily available Atlas-Agena B booster was selected instead. In phase two they switched to the use of the Atlas-Centaur booster, instead of an Atlas-Agena B booster.

The third phase of the project included several elements such as a powerful main engine whose propellant was pressure fed, a computer and a unit to measure inertia in order to control maneuvers. In addition, a long and close range radar system was required to guide the satellite (the system was taken from the Westinghouse radar used in Bomarc surface-to-air missiles), as were lights to illuminate the other satellite, and four cameras for observation. A radiation detector was to be installed to determine if a satellite was carrying either a nuclear weapon or something whose power source involved a radioactive substance. Other sensors included infrared and gravimetric sensors to ascertain the mass of the other satellite, while defensive counter measures would be installed to identify decoys, booby traps, anti-jamming devices, and enemy attack, along with nitrogen cold gas thrusters for orientation.

The concept was for the satellite to be launched ahead of its target, so that the target would come close to it. After this the Agena would be used as fuel to put the SAINT in a co-orbit with its target, and then the SAINT would locate the target using its long range radar, and jettison its Agena once it had acquired the target. Then within the next 8 to 12 minutes the SAINT's radar and orientation systems would guide it to within 39ft (12m) of the target. If a SAINT was launched from Cape Canaveral, it would be able to provide initial video of the target and data dumps to the NORAD station in Rhodesia. A full inspection of the target would take two hours, and be recorded, then sent to a ground station as soon as it came within the range of the station. It would then stay within 200ft (60m) of the target for up to two days, taking pictures and measurements at different angles. After this it would be depleted of battery power and propellant.

Several designs for the exact method of destroying the target were suggested. One of these was to have the satellite carry out a kamikaze attack on the target, while another was to coat it with black paint, blocking its ability to see or transmit, rendering it inoperable. Yet another was for it to use a laser to disable reconnaissance or optical sensors of the target. Another suggestion was for the satellite to carry a nuclear missile, of up to one megaton yield, and launch it at the satellite. However, in July 1959, Joseph V. Charyk directed that all technical efforts were to be focused on developing the inspection function, rather than the kill function, effectively ending its role as a satellite interceptor, and shifting the project to the development of a satellite inspector.


It was planned to launch four satellites in December 1962. However, before the launches could take place, then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara cancelled the program, due to concerns that it would not be able to operate if a full scale nuclear war broke out, and that only a small number of SAINTs could be launched at a time. The project had also gone over budget, spending over 100 million dollars, which was several times the funding that had been publicly reported. By the end of the 1960s, the concept of inspecting Soviet satellites was abandoned as the Soviets had begun installing destruction packages on their satellites, that would blow up both itself and the SAINT, by use of the APO-2 destruction system, which could either be set off by its operators in the USSR, or if it sensed that it was being scanned. The standard American military reconnaissance satellite was capable of scanning other satellites long range, along with ground-based detection of satellites.

The project's only unique role, that of being able to destroy satellites, was then given to fighter planes, which were cheaper and could hit a satellite without being detected, and also to the LIM-49 Nike Zeus, a ballistic missile with possible anti-satellite use. Under Program 437, the Thor DSV-2 rocket, which was derived from the PGM-17 Thor Intermediate-range ballistic missile, was made. The DSV-2 would carry W49 or W50 nuclear warheads, which would ensure that the target satellite would either be destroyed by the nuclear blast, or the resulting electromagnetic pulse. A wing of the program was called "Alternate Payload" used DSV-2J rockets, which were also based on the PGM-17 Thor, to inspect satellites.

From the Wikipedia entry for PROJECT SAINT

For those interested in diving down a spaceflight rabbit hole, I here detail a key term hidden amongst thousands of declassified pages that hints at a defunct space station’s secret mission – one that might soon find new life given the renewed talk of a “Space Force.” …if it hasn’t already been resurrected, that is…

Rediscovering the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory

It all began with the discovery of a mysterious pair of blue pressure suits at a Cape Canaveral Air Force Station facility in 2005 – suits that didn’t exactly belong to any known NASA space program. Thus, the secretive military Manned Orbiting Laboratory of the 1960s, or MOL, was re-discovered as security officers ventured into a long-locked storage room in a facility known as the Launch Complex 5/6 museum. There, they recovered two MH-7 training suits worn by Air Force astronauts that never got a chance to fly to space (at least not with the Air Force; several went on to successful NASA careers).

Subsequently, in response to a FOIA request, the clandestine National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in July of 2015 declassified tens of thousands of pages of MOL program documents and a gallery of images. Truly, the database is a trove of information on the formerly-secret military reconnaissance space program that might’ve been.

Now, I should admit that I found most of the released information to be soberingly bureaucratic in nature, and because many have covered the generalities of MOL in the intervening few years at great length, instead of describing the overall program I wanted to drill inward and focus on an intriguing series of omissions in the MOL literature.

Quite simply, I found that the nigh-overwhelming information release was much more interesting with regard to what it didn’t reveal as opposed to what it did…

To Man, or Not to Man?

In the space community, there is something of a longstanding rift between the “human exploration” and the “robotic exploration” camps. The former cite the dynamic advantages of human beings as intelligent, adaptive tools of exploration, while the latter cite the woefully-heavy and expensive life-support requirements of the former as a justification to send robots instead.

The pro-robot folks point to the many scientific successes of robotic spacecraft, such as Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, and New Horizons, while the pro-astronaut types point to being able to share the human experience and context of exploration in a way that no robot can.

And so the argumentation goes.

This conflict was perhaps best pioneered in the case of MOL, which as a crewed station eventually lost out in mortal combat over government funding to the ever-increasing utility of spy satellites.

But, in my opinion, it’s in the justification for human occupants that MOL gets most interesting…

Redaction Points the Way

Standing more in the “pro-astronaut” camp (and as a former spaceflight “Crew Systems” manager/analyst), I like to think of myself as quite versed in the many legitimate justifications for crewed spaceflight. That’s exactly why I found myself surprised to see some of the human spaceflight mission sections of the MOL documents redacted… 55 years after the fact.

Admittedly, some (if not most) of the redaction found in the released documents relates to the optical performance of spy telescopes or the detection of enemy nuclear missile launches. I can easily recognize the tactical benefit of keeping some of those details under our hat, even to the present day.

However, neither of those have to do with crewed spaceflight, and it is the presence of additional redaction in the human context that began to lift my eyebrows.

For example, in the “Manned Orbiting Laboratory Technical Panel, First Preliminary Report” (3/17/1964), which was tasked with generating a series of space experiment proposals for MOL, the list of study areas (p. 2) reads as follows:

This redacts something other than “reconnaissance and surveillance,” into which our traditional understanding of spy satellites and nuclear launch detection squarely sits. It is also something other than satellite logistics, maintenance, and repair – dynamic activities typically reserved for the “pro-astronaut” folks…

The curious redaction was expanded upon in, “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN FOR THE MANNED ORBITING LABORATORY” (6/30/1964), a report which detailed manned experiment study areas (p. 6-8):

…and it was further highlighted later in the same document during a description of Extra-Vehicular Activities (EVAs), more commonly known as “spacewalks” (p. 6-22):

These, again, redact something other than the well-known and well-trodden justification for astronauts performing EVAs, such as in-space construction, repair, rescue, etc.

Therefore, the question that took root in my mind was simply this:

“If the MOL concept was indeed rendered obsolete by spy satellite technology of the late 1960s, what concept for military human spaceflight is so good that it remains classified today – more than a half-century later?”

As fate would have it, there is at least one bread-crumb hiding within the thousands of pages of material that suggests an answer…

An Idea So Good…

Idling on a single table in one of hundreds of documents amidst the 20,000+ pages included in the whole of the NRO FOIA release on MOL stands a single, critical term.

On Table 1 of the “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN (PTDP) FOR THE MOL PROGRAM” (3/10/1964), eight rows down on the right-side column, is the word, “SAINT” :

Now, MIDAS – the term found one row up from SAINT – is something I had heard of before, relating to the detection of Soviet nuclear missile launches. As MOL was a secret reconnaissance platform, I found mention of MIDAS entirely unsurprising, and from the human spaceflight perspective, entirely irrelevant.

But what about SAINT?

A re-scan of the NRO documents finds the term turning up only one other time – in a summary document written after MOL’s cancellation, “History of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) Program” (2/1/1970):

SAINT, then, appeared to be – at least in part – an openly-acknowledged Air Force military space program of some sort, along with Blue (Air Force) Gemini, which was the vehicle used to get to-and-from MOL.

But “Saint” in this instance wasn’t capitalized. So, what sort of space program was it?

SAINT Revelations

A literature search of Air Force planning documents from the mid-1960s turns up the following section on SAINT, excerpted from a June, 1966 document from the USAF Historical Division Liason Office, entitled, “The Air Force in Space. Fiscal Year 1962,” which identified SAINT as an acronym for Satellite Inspector.

(p. 19):

(pp. 93):


SAINT here is painted with somewhat vague but intentional strokes, using phrases like,“satellite capture and neutralization.”

However, SAINT is clearly described as a satellite (i.e., robotic) research and development program. Did MOL missions really include a human parallel to “satellite interception and neutralization” as suggested in Table 1 of the 1964 technical document?

When re-scanning the NRO documents for a related SAINT term, “inspection,” one manages to turn up one additional, fruitful mention, again in the MOL summary/history document, “History of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) Program” (2/1/1970):

Mission (1) as described here casts SAINT in a darker, more aggressive light. Gone are the euphemisms like, “neutralization.”

Instead, we have, “Inspection and destruction of hostile satellites.”

Now, reviewing the original redacted sections above in the context of the Air Force SAINT program, one begins to assemble a clearer picture of one possibility for what I like to call this “missing” human mission.

…and while many are quick to characterize MOL as a relic of a “by-gone era,” this may also – due perhaps especially to its modern redaction – serve as a glimpse into our own human spaceflight future.

Astronaut SAINTs

If viewing the MOL program as earmarking astronauts as human satellite inspectors, (might we refer to them as Astronaut SAINTs?), ancillary details of the MOL documentation detritus suddenly begin to fall into place.

For example, in the report, “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN FOR THE MANNED ORBITING LABORATORY” (6/30/1964), mentioned earlier, look to the table titled, “Primary Experiments – Assessment of Man’s Utility,” and consider that the redacted position of experiment P-7 (“Inspection”?) is located right after P-6, “Extravehicular Activity.” That would make absolute sense from a planning perspective.

One has to learn how to walk before one can run, after all.

Consider also that the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU), seen above – a longer-range version of the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) that would be used by NASA Shuttle astronauts – was developed by the Air Force for the MOL program.

Why might military astronauts need to travel some distance from their station if via umbilical tether they can reach and repair any portion of the MOL station, itself? Signs point to SAINT.

Consider also another of the redacted sections considered above in report,”Manned Orbiting Laboratory Technical Panel, First Preliminary Report” (3/17/1964), in the section describing experiment “general areas.” The redaction eliminates an entire line but then leaves two words before a semicolon denoting the next section: “…satellite survivability.” Well, needless to say this would certainly follow sensibly after something like, “satellite inspection, satellite neutralization/destruction, and…”

Finally, note that Table 1 of the “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN (PTDP) FOR THE MOL PROGRAM” (3/10/1964), in which I first discovered the mention of SAINT, appears to be ordered alphabetically. Perhaps coincidentally, the redacted term associated with SAINT sits between E (ELINT) and M (Meteorology).

“Inspection” fits there quite nicely.

Indeed, if we return to the Air Force history document, “The Air Force in Space. Fiscal Year 1962,” we find on page 95 that an intersection between NASA’s manned Gemini program and SAINT development was explored but – at least openly – nebulously dismissed based on mission requirements:

I should point out that this is several years prior to the design and creation of the Air Force’s modified Gemini-B spacecraft, which may well have addressed some of these issues.

All this weighed together, it certainly seems like serious planning was given to human anti-satellite (ASAT) operations in the 1960s, and for reasons unknown, knowledge of this reality remains largely and intentionally obscured today. This sort of activity would have been an extraordinary venture for human spaceflight – far riskier than anything ever attempted in human extravehicular activities, aside from, perhaps, moonwalkers venturing a great distance from their lunar lander via rover.

Curiously, I discovered after all of this poking around that famed astronaut and astronaut-wrangler Deke Slayton may have quietly let the Astronaut-SAINT-cat out of the bag in his 1994 autobiography when he opined that the Air Force may have developed the AMU because, “they thought they might have the chance to inspect somebody else’s satellites.”

His choice usage of the word, “inspect,” suggests he might have known just a little bit more about plans for Astronaut SAINTs than he was letting on.

A Hint of Things to Come?

So, why might the proposition of Astronaut SAINTs remain classified today?

One is forced to consider the obvious possibility that it remains classified because such a role for future military astronauts is still on the table. Given the realities of the infamous 2007 Chinese ASAT test along with the recent Russian test of the PL19/Nudol direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon, this may not be surprising.

Further, the timing of the release and redaction, in 2015, might be noteworthy. As it happens, Russia launched its own “satellite-fixer/satellite-killer” satellite in 2014, which practiced sophisticated satellite maneuvering and rendezvous maneuvers. This may have (rightfully) spooked U.S. defense strategists into clamping down on all mention of SAINT.

…and, with the recent White House push both for increased commercialization of space as well as for a dedicated Space Force to go along with it, it is entirely possible that in gazing between the lines of these MOL documents we are also glimpsing a vision of military space activities that may yet come to pass.


Recently I wrote about the various plans to send Gemini on Circumlunar or Lunar Orbital missions. These studies spanned a period from the very genesis of Gemini as Mercury Mark II in 1961 through into the operational phase of NASA’s earth orbital Gemini missions in 1966.

During the research for that article, I gathered a great many proposals and memos generated by NASA, Congress and the main programme contractors, McDonnell who built the Gemini capsule and Martin (later Martin Marietta) who built the Gemini Launch Vehicle (GLV) – the Titan II. In one of the documents I obtained, there was a curious addition on the final page. A labelled illustration of a Gemini derived vehicle featuring a standard looking capsule mounted on what appears to be a Titan transtage and featuring various additional hardware.

Even at first glance, it seemed pretty obvious that what was shown here was something designed for an entirely different mission to the circumlunar or high orbit variants elsewhere in the document. Notably, this concept featured sensor palettes on what look to be deployable sections of the Gemini adaptor section. Hardware on the palettes includes infra red sensors, radar, cameras, a nuclear sensor, an electronic signals intelligence ‘ferret’ system and most eye-catchingly a set of ‘negation missiles’. Extending forward of the capsule, there is a telescopic mass sensor, whilst on the rear section, additional attitude control jets are included. So what was this vehicle and what mission was it intended to fly? Given that the illustration came with no additional description beyond the labels described, I could only make an informed guess that, given the sensors included and the manouverability implied by the transtage and attitude thrusters, this vehicle was clearly intended to rendezvous with and inspect (and possibly destroy) another orbital vehicle.

The on-orbit inspection of other spacecraft was a popular idea in the early years of the military space race. With space seeming to provide the ‘open skies’ reconnaissance opportunities that had been denied to reconnaissance aircraft, both the USA and the USSR were quick to devise orbital platforms capable of taking a closer look at their adversary’s territory. It seems only natural then that the next logical step would be to create a means of inspecting and, if deemed necessary, removing the other side’s orbital reconnaissance assets.

New threats, new countermeasures
Even before Sputnik 1 became the world’s first artificial satellite in October 1957, the CIA had raised the likelihood that the Soviet Union would have the capability to orbit reconnaissance systems by 1963. The following year the Air Force and the newly formed Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) moved to address this imminent threat by examining possible counter measures, with these studies leading directly to the Air Force’s 1960 proposal for a new system known as the Satellite Inspector for Space Defense, or SAINT. The multi-phased programme aimed to develop a vehicle which could rendezvous with an orbiting target and approach closely enough to allow for a detailed inspection. The target would be illuminated by a bank of lights allowing SAINT’s TV cameras to return close-up views whilst radiation sensors could detect if any nuclear material was carried onboard, indicating that the target could be a weapon. The mass and infrared signature of the target would also be determined alongside any evidence of active countermeasures or decoys. The ability to destroy (via collision) or disable the target by spraying it with black paint were proposed for later versions of SAINT. The first test launch was planned for 1962 and work even began on a more advanced SAINT II, a crewed lifting body using the SV-5 shape that the Martin Company had been developing for the Air Force, but both SAINT and SAINT II faced competition from another Air Force project.

Dyna-Soar was a program initiated by the Air Force’s Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) in October 1957 as a consolidation of work done on a number of previous spaceplane proposals such as BoMi, Brass Bell, RoBo and HYWARDS. The aim was to create a single seat space glider that could be launched vertically using a conventional booster, then return to Earth via an elongated glide path. Whilst previous projects had always referred to this type of mission as Boost-Glide, ARDC now developed the term Dynamic-Soaring (hence the name Dyna-Soar). In 1959 Boeing won the contract to develop the spacecraft with Martin being announced as the booster contractor, but Dyna-Soar’s development became a long and tortuous one, with constantly shifting mission roles, development and testing plans and booster configurations whilst all the while the Air Force struggled to justify the need for such a system.

By the early 1960’s Dyna-Soar had become an orbital system and one of the many missions proposed for the spaceplane was satellite inspection. Within the Air Force, many of the glider’s proponents saw SAINT and SAINT II as a direct threat to Dyna-Soar and this in part led to the cancellation of these programmes in late 1962, but whilst direct internal competition to Dyna-Soar had been removed, the program now faced a far more serious threat to its continuation.

A Blue Gemini?
After the Kennedy Administration entered power in 1961, many defence programmes were reevaluated by the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. Given NASA’s burgeoning manned space programme following Kennedy’s announcement of a lunar landing within the decade, McNamara wondered if there was really any need for separate Air Force human spaceflight vehicles. Given the proposed capabilities of NASA’s new two person Gemini spacecraft, could the Air Force not simply adapt this vehicle to suit their missions? By February 1962 McNamara had officially limited the objectives of the Dyna-Soar programme to that of an orbital research system. This led to a new designation, the X-20A, in June of the same year. In January 1963 McNamara ordered a full review of the Dyna-Soar programme and this was followed later the same month by an agreement between the DoD and NASA for Defense Department participation in Gemini. On March 15th McNamara directed the Air Force to carry out a comparison between Gemini and Dyna-Soar with regards to their military potential. The writing was truly on the wall for the military spaceplane and on December 10th 1963 the programme was finally cancelled, with a new plan for a Gemini based Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) announced to take its place.

So how does this fit in with our mysterious Gemini vehicle? Well, given the similarity between the sensor payload shown and the proposed payload for SAINT, plus the fact that this would clearly put astronauts in the satellite inspection loop as Dyna-Soar and SAINT II had proposed, it seems likely that this concept may have emerged as part of the 1962 comparison between Gemini and Dyna-Soar, assessing their suitability for proposed military mission. Unfortunately, that’s where the paper trail went cold as I was unable to find any supporting evidence for this supposition. Until yesterday.

Finally unearthing the answer
Sometimes, research into historical space programmes can involve countless hours of trawling archives, reading the best books, articles and reports you can find and slowly piecing together the picture. Sometimes though, you can just ask a question and you get lucky.

Having appealed for information relating to the original image a number of times through forums and social media, I thought I’d give it a final try yesterday by posting the image up on the Space Hipsters Facebook group. Knowing that a large number of space historians and authors frequent the group, it seemed a reasonable enough place to try an appeal. Noted MilSpace historian Dwayne Day responded that, although he was familiar with the illustration, he’d been unable to uncover any supporting details. Figuring that if he didn’t know, maybe nobody would, I was prepared to accept this as one of those concepts that occasionally surfaces with no obvious provenance, but soon after another member, Brian Matney, responded with a document apparently relating to MOL which included our mystery vehicle.

Sure enough, the document did contain the mystery vehicle but also gave a better insight into those final months of Dyna-Soar and the genesis of what soon became MOL. Dated October 1963 and titled Manned Orbiting Stations and Alternatives, this document was a report to the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee (PSAC), presumably by the Air Force or DoD, on potential Gemini based military orbital systems.

The report examines a number of options, from extended missions using the existing Gemini capsule and GLV (deemed unattractive due to small potential gains and possible delays and schedule disruption to NASA’s Gemini flights), through the use of a modified single-seat Gemini on the existing GLV (seen as a questionable option due to development costs and limited payloads) and onto more advanced vehicles utilising the Titan IIIC launch vehicle. It’s in this final category, with a predicted 14,000lb payload capacity available (dependant on orbit), that the Air Force sees potential and accordingly this is where we see the interesting concepts discussed in greater detail.

Three possible uses are mentioned: General Manoeuvrable & Non-General Manoeuvrable testing, Bioastronautic Testing and Mission Peculiar Development testing. The document is fairly thin in detail regarding exactly what sort of testing would be undertaken beyond an acknowledgement that altitudes up to 1000nm could be reached and long duration flights with larger working spaces would be possible. Under the ‘Peculiar Missions’ heading we find configurations for Rendezvous Inspection, Fly-By and Multi-Sensor Reconnaissance.

The Reconnaissance variants show many of the features that later became so closely associated with MOL such as the connecting tunnel between the Gemini and the aft section requiring a hatch in the heat shield, and large pressurised ‘shirt-sleeve environment’ work spaces. The sensor payload is perhaps unsurprisingly not discussed.

Under Rendezvous Inspection we again see a number of concepts, some resembling smaller versions of what would eventually become MOL but amongst them we find our mystery vehicle described as Typical Integration of Inspection Sensors (Universal Module). The image is far less clear than the one I initially found, indeed by this point much of the report becomes illegible, but fortunately the document has a covering note attached from Scott Lowther of Aerospace Projects Review explaining that he produced the ‘cleaned-up’ version of the image after obtaining the original document.

So I now have my answer to the mystery Gemini vehicle. Whilst I was broadly correct about the mission it was intended to fly, it’s interesting to see the timing associated with these concepts.

Given that this report was published in October 1963, it’s probably safe to assume that somewhere out there, there will be more detailed DoD reports and supporting proposals produced by McDonnell and Martin following McNamara’s request for the comparison with Dyna-Soar some months earlier. It’s also interesting to speculate on the project definition process that took place between the Manned Orbiting Station concepts shown here and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory announced by McNamara 2 months later. I guess ‘Laboratory’ does sound more innocuous! I can also finally put an image credit on the illustration that got me started on this in the first place.

Again I’d like to thank Brian Matney for coming through with the report when I was beginning to give up hope, Dwayne Day for his input and Scott Lowther for his tireless work in unearthing obscure aerospace programmes and making them available to the rest of us. You can find many fascinating articles by Dwayne Day on military space surveillance and intelligence systems over at The Space Review. If you enjoy reading about some of the ‘what-ifs’ and dead ends of the space programme, I can unreservedly recommend Aerospace Projects Review either for Scott Lowther’s blog or the excellent pdf issues he puts together.

Manned Orbiting Stations and Alternatives
Report to the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee – October 10, 1963

History of the X-20A Dyna-Soar: Volume 1
Clarence J. Geiger, Aeronautical Systems Division Information Office (USAF) – October 1963

Encyclopedia Astronautica – Accessed 27th June, 2018

Encyclopedia Astronautica – Accessed 27th June, 2018


(ed note: this is from an alternate history story set in the 1960s when the US Air Force had crewed orbital capability)

      Kinsman only half-listened as the hurried introductions went around the table. He felt uncomfortable already, and it was only partly due to the stickiness of the crowded little room. Through the only window he could see the first glow of dawn.
     “Now then,” Borgeson said, introductions finished, “very briefly, your mission will involve orbiting and making rendezvous with an unidentified satellite.”
     Borgeson nodded. “Whoever launched it has made no announcement whatsoever. Therefore, we must consider the satellite as potentially hostile. To begin at the beginning, we’ll have Colonel McKeever of SPADATS give you the tracking data first.”
     As they went around the table, each colonel adding his bit of information, Kinsman began to build up the picture in his mind.
     The satellite had been launched from the mid-Pacific, nine hours ago. Probably from a specially rigged submarine. It was now in a polar orbit, so that it covered every square mile on Earth in twelve hours. Since it went up, not a single radio transmission had been detected going to it or from it. And it was big, even heavier than the ten-ton Voshkods the Russians had been using for manned flights.
     “A satellite of that size,” said the colonel from the Special Weapons Center, “could easily contain a nuclear warhead of 100 megatons or more.”
     If the bomb were large enough, he explained, it could heat the atmosphere to the point where every combustible thing on the ground would ignite. Kinsman pictured trees, plants, grass, buildings, people, the sky itself, all bursting into flame.
     “Half the United States could be destroyed at once with such a bomb,” the colonel said.
     “And in a little more than two hours,” Borgeson added, “the satellite will pass over Chicago and travel right across the heartland of America.”
     Murdock paled. “You don’t think they’d … set it off?”
     “We don’t know,” General Hatch answered. “And we don’t intend to sit here waiting until we find out.”

     “Why not just knock it down?” Kinsman asked. “We can hit it, can’t we?”
     Hatch frowned. “We could reach it with a missile, yes. But we’ve been ordered by the Pentagon to inspect the satellite and determine whether or not it’s actually hostile.”
     “In two hours?”
     “Perhaps I can explain,” said the civilian. He had been introduced as a State Department man; Kinsman had already forgotten his name. He had a soft, sheltered look about him.
     “You may know that the disarmament meeting in Geneva is discussing nuclear weapons in space. It seemed last week we were on the verge of an agreement to ban weapons in space, just as testing weapons in the atmosphere has already been banned. But three days ago the conference suddenly became deadlocked on some very minor issues. It’s been very difficult to determine who is responsible for the deadlock and why. The Russians, the Chinese, the French, even some of the smaller nations, are apparently stalling for time … waiting for something to happen.”
     “And this satellite might be it,” Kinsman said.
     “The Department of State believes that this satellite is a test, to see if we can detect and counteract weapons placed in orbit.”
     “But they know we can shoot them down!” the general snapped.
     “Yes, of course,” the civilian answered softly. “But they also know we would not fire on a satellite that might be a peaceful research station. Not unless we were certain that it was actually a bomb in orbit. We must inspect this satellite to prove to the world that we can board any satellite and satisfy ourselves that it is not a threat to us. Otherwise we will be wide open to nuclear blackmail, in orbit.”

     The general shook his head. “If they’ve gone to the trouble of launching a multi-ton vehicle, then military logic dictates that they placed a bomb in it. By damn, that’s what I’d do, in their place.”
     “Suppose it is a bomb,” Kinsman asked, “and they explode it over Chicago?”
     Borgeson smiled uneasily. “It could take out everything between New England and the Rockies.”
     Kinsman heard himself whistle in astonishment.
     “No matter whether it’s a bomb or not, the satellite is probably rigged with booby traps to prevent us from inspecting it,” one of the other colonels pointed out.
     Thanks a lot, Kinsman said to himself.
     Hatch focused his gunmetal eyes on Kinsman. “Captain, I want to impress a few thoughts on you. First, the Air Force has been working for nearly twenty years to achieve the capability of placing a military man in orbit on an instant’s notice. Your flight will be the first practical demonstration of all that we’ve battled to achieve over those years. You can see, then, the importance of this mission.”

     Countdowns took minutes instead of days, with solid-fueled rockets. But there were just as many chances of a man or machine failing at a critical point and turning the intricate, delicately poised booster into a flaming pyre of twisted metal.
     Kinsman sat tautly in the contoured couch, listening to them tick off the seconds. He hated countdowns. He hated being helpless, completely dependent on a hundred faceless voices that flickered through his earphones, waiting childlike in a mechanical womb, not alive, waiting, doubled up and crowded by the unfeeling, impersonal machinery that automatically gave him warmth and breath and life.
     He could feel the tiny vibrations along his spine that told him the ship was awakening. Green lights started to blossom across the control panel, a few inches in front of his faceplate, telling him that everything was ready. Still the voices droned through his earphones in carefully measured cadence:
     three … two … one.
     And she bellowed into life. Acceleration pressure flattened Kinsman into the couch. Vibration rattled his eyes in their sockets. Time became meaningless. The surging, engulfing, overpowering noise of the mighty rocket engines made his head ring, even after they burned out into silence.

     Within minutes he was in orbit, the long slender rocket stages falling away behind, together with all sensations of weight. Kinsman was alone now in the squat, delta-shaped capsule: weightless, free of Earth.
     Still he was the helpless, unstirring one. Computers sent guidance instructions from the ground to the capsule’s controls. Tiny vectoring rockets placed around the capsule’s black hull squirted on and off, microscopic puffs of thrust that maneuvered the capsule into the precise orbit needed for catching the unidentified satellite.
     Completely around the world Kinsman spun, southward over the Pacific, past the gleaming whiteness of Antarctica, and then north again over the wrinkled, cloud-spattered land mass of Asia. As he crossed the night-shrouded Arctic, nearly two hours after being launched, the voices from his base began crackling in his earphones again. He answered them as automatically as the machines did, reading off the numbers on the control panel, proving to them that he was alive and functioning properly.
     Then Murdock’s voice cut in: “There’s been another launch, fifteen minutes ago. From somewhere near Mongolia as near as we can determine it. It’s a high-energy boost; looks as though you’re going to have company.”

     Kinsman acknowledged the information, but still sat unmoving. Then he saw it looming ahead of him, seemingly hurtling toward him.
     He came to life. To meet and board the satellite he had to match its orbit and speed, exactly. He was approaching it too fast. No computer on Earth could handle this part of the job. Radar and stabilizing gyros helped, but it was his own eyes and the fingers that manipulated the retrorocket controls that finally eased the capsule into a rendezvous orbit.
     Finally, the big satellite seemed to be stopped in space, dead ahead of his capsule, a huge inert hulk of metal, dazzlingly brilliant where the sun lit its curving side, totally invisible where it was in shadow. It looked ridiculously like a crescent moon made of flush-welded aluminum. A smaller crescent puzzled Kinsman until he realized it was a dead rocket-nozzle hanging from the satellite’s tailcan.
     “I’m parked alongside her, about fifty feet off,” he reported into his helmet microphone. “She looks like the complete upper stage of a Saturn-class booster. Can’t see any markings from this angle. I’ll have to go outside.”
     “You’d better make it fast,” Murdock’s voice answered. “That second ship is closing in fast.”
     “What’s the E.T.A?”
     A pause while voices mumbled in the background. “About fifteen minutes … maybe less.”
     “You can abort if you want to.”
     Same to you, Pal, Kinsman said to himself. Aloud, he replied, “I’m going to take a close look at her. Maybe get inside, if I can. Call you back in fifteen minutes.
     Murdock didn’t argue. Kinsman smiled grimly at the realization that the colonel had not reminded him that the satellite might be booby-trapped. Old Mother Murdock hardly forgot such items. He simply had decided not to make the choice of aborting the mission too attractive.

     Gimmicked or not, the satellite was too near and too enticing to turn back now. Kinsman quickly checked out his pressure suit, pumped the air out of his cabin and into storage tanks, and then opened the airlock hatch over his head.
     Out of the womb and into the world.
     He climbed out and teetered on the lip of the airlock, balancing weightlessly. The real world. No matter how many times he saw it, it always caught his breath. The vast sweep of the multi-hued Earth, hanging at an impossible angle, decked with dazzling clouds, immense and beautiful beyond imagining. The unending black of space, sprinkled with countless, gleaming jewels of stars that shone steadily, solemnly, the unblinking eyes of infinity.
     I’ll bet this is all there is to heaven, he said to himself. You don’t need anything more than this.
     Then he turned, with the careful deliberate motions of a deep-sea diver, and looked at the fat crescent of the nearby satellite. Only ten minutes now. Even less.
     He pushed off from his capsule and sailed effortlessly, arms outstretched. Behind him trailed the umbilical cord that carried his air and electrical power for heating/cooling. As he approached the satellite, the sun rose over the humped curve of its hull and nearly blinded him, despite the automatic darkening of the photochromic plastic in his faceplate visor. He kicked downward and ducked behind the satellite’s protective shadow again.
     Still half-blind from the sudden glare, he bumped into the satellite’s massive body and rebounded gently. With an effort, he twisted about, pushed back to the satellite, and planted his magnetized boots on the metal hull.

     I claim this island for Isabella of Spain, he muttered foolishly. Now where the hell’s the hatch?
     The hatch was over on the sunlit side, he found, at last. It wasn’t too hard to figure out how to operate it, even though there were absolutely no printed words in any language anywhere on the hull. Kinsman knelt down and turned the locking mechanism. He felt it click open.
     For a moment he hesitated. It might be booby-trapped, he heard the colonel warn.
     The hell with it.
     Kinsman yanked the hatch open. No explosion, no sound at all. A dim light came from within the satellite. Carefully he slid down inside. A trio of faint emergency lights were on; there were other lights in place, he saw, but not operating.
     “Saving the juice,” he muttered to himself.
     It took a moment for his eyes to accustom themselves to the dimness. Then he began to appreciate what he saw. The satellite was packed with equipment. He couldn’t understand what most of it was, but it was clearly not a bomb. Surveillance equipment, he guessed. Cameras, recording instruments, small telescopes. Three contoured couches lay side by side beneath the hatch. He was standing on one of them. Up forward of the couches was a gallery of compact cabinets.
     “All very cozy.”
     He stepped off the couch and onto the main deck, crouching to avoid bumping his head on the instrument rack, above. He opened a few of the cabinets. Murdock’ll probably want a few samples to play with. He found a set of small hand wrenches, unfastened them from their setting.
     With the wrenches in one hand, Kinsman tried the center couch. By lying all the way back on it, he could see through the satellite’s only observation port. He scanned the instrument panel:
     Cyrillic letters and Arabic numerals on all the gauges.
     Made in the USSR. Kinsman put the wrenches down on the armrest of the couch. They stuck, magnetically. Then he reached for the miniature camera at his belt. He took four snaps of the instrument panel.

     Something flashed in the corner of his eye.
     He tucked the camera back in its belt holster and looked at the observation port. Nothing but the stars: beautiful, impersonal. Then another flash, and this time his eye caught and held the slim crescent of another ship gliding toward him. Most of the ship was in impenetrable shadow; he would have never found it without the telltale burst of the retrorockets.
     She’s damned close! Kinsman grabbed his tiny horde of stolen wrenches and got up from the couch. In his haste, he stumbled over his trailing umbilical cord and nearly went sprawling. A weightless fall might not hurt you, but it could keep you bouncing around for precious minutes before you regained your equilibrium.
     Kinsman hoisted himself out of the satellite’s hatch just as the second ship make its final rendezvous maneuver. A final flare of its retrorockets, and the ship seemed to come to a stop alongside the satellite.
     Kinsman ducked across the satellite’s hull and crouched in the shadows of the dark side. Squatting in utter blackness, safely invisible, he watched the second ship.
     She was considerably smaller than the satellite, but built along the same general lines. Abruptly, a hatch popped open. A strange-looking figure emerged and hovered, dreamlike, for a long moment.
     The figure looked like a tapered canister, with flexible arms and legs and a plastic bubble over the head. Kinsman could see no umbilical cord. There were bulging packs of equipment attached all around the canister.
     Self-contained capsule, Kinsman said to himself. Very neat.
     A wispy plume of gas jetted from the canister, and the cosmonaut sailed purposefully over to the satellite’s hatch.
     Got his own reaction motor, too. Kinsman was impressed.

     Unconsciously, he hunched down deeper in the shadows as the figure approached. Only one of them; no one else appeared from the second ship. The newcomer touched down easily beside the still-open hatch of the satellite. For several minutes he did not move. Then he edged away from the satellite slightly and, hovering, turned toward Kinsman’s capsule, still hanging only a few hundred feet away.
     Kinsman felt himself start to sweat, even in the cold darkness. The cosmonaut jetted away from the satellite, straight toward the American capsule.
     Damn! Kinsman snapped at himself. First rule of warfare, you stupid slob: keep your line of retreat open!
     He leaped off the satellite and started floating back toward his own capsule. It was nightmarish, drifting through space with agonizing slowness while the weird-looking cosmonaut sped on ahead. The cosmonaut spotted Kinsman as soon as he cleared the shadow of the satellite and emerged into the sunlight.
     For a moment they simply stared at each other, separated by a hundred feet of nothingness.
     “Get away from that capsule!” Kinsman shouted, even though he knew that the intruder could not possibly hear him.
     As if to prove the point, the cosmonaut put a hand on the lip of the capsule’s hatch and peered inside. Kinsman flailed his arms and legs, trying to raise some speed, but still he moved with hellish slowness. Then he remembered the wrenches he was carrying.
     Almost without thinking, he tossed the whole handful at the cosmonaut. The effort spun him wildly off-balance. The Earth slid across his field of vision, then the stars swam by dizzingly. He caught a glimpse of the cosmonaut as the wrenches reached the capsule—most of them missed and bounced noiselessly off the capsule. But one banged into the intruder’s helmet hard enough to jar him, then rebounded crazily out of sight.
     Kinsman lost sight of the entire capsule as he spun around. Grimly, he fought to straighten himself, using his arms and legs as counterweights. Finally, the stars stopped whirling. He turned and found the capsule again, but it was upside-down. Very carefully, Kinsman turned himself to the same orientation as the cosmonaut.

     The intruder still had his hand on the capsule hatch, and his free hand was rubbing along the spot where the wrench had hit. He looked ludicrously like a little boy rubbing a bump on his head.
     “That means get off, stranger,” Kinsman muttered. “No trespassing. U.S. property. Beware of the eagle. Next time I’ll crack your helmet in half.”
     The newcomer turned slightly and reached for one of the equipment packs on the canister-suit. A weird-looking tool appeared in his hand. Kinsman drifted helplessly and watched the cosmonaut take up a section of the umbilical line. Then he applied the hand tool to it. Sparks flared.
     Electrical torch! He’s trying to cut the line! He’ll kill me!
     Frantically, Kinsman began clambering along the umbilical line, hand-over-hand. All he could see, all he could think of, was that flashing torch eating into his lifeline.

From TEST IN ORBIT by Ben Bova (1965)

One of the proposed missions for the Boeing X-20 Dyna Soar was satellite inspector.

Pye Wacket was an apparent re-fit of a flying saucer shaped missile project that was in danger of being cancelled. They tried to apply it to the Blue SAINT program, making it a crewed satellite interceptor. Sadly it was in direct competition with the X-20 Dyna Soar project, so Py Wacket got axed by McNamara in 1962.

The Convair Space Shuttle was not an official part of SAINT. But it was intended to deliver repair crews to satellites for fixing malfunctions and maintenance. I'm sure it could be adapted to SAINT with little trouble.

Code Name: Pye Wacket

Pye Wacket was a flying saucer shaped air-to-air missle the US Air Force developed from 1957 to 1961. At the end, it was studies as a possible design for a manned antisatellite spacecraft.

In 1957, the main part of the US nuclear deterrence strategy was nuclear armed B-52 bombers. Once they penetrated Soviet airspace, the Soviets would throw everything but the kitchen sink at them. The USAF figured the B-52 would need some kind of defense besides hiding and trying to look small. They started to look into some kind of defensive air-to-air missile the B-52 could carry, to deal with Soviet air-to-air missiles, surface-to-air mssiles, and manned interceptors. But the defense could not be allowed to interfere with the main goal of getting within bombing range of the target ASAP. Later the specification was changed from being launched from a B-52 to a B-70

The idea was to make an "omnidirectional" missile, that could fly in any direction upon release. The developers started looking into a lens-shaped design, much like the popular conception of a flying saucer. This was probably encouraged by the release of the USAF Project Blue Book study on UFOs, Paul Hill's attempts to explain UFO performance as seen in sightings using only conventional physics, and Alan Kehlet promoting his lenticular spacecraft.

They developed a shape that was sort of like a wedge that had been punched with a circular cookie cutter.

But then the project fell on hard times. The B-70 project was having difficulty getting the aircraft to travel fast enough even with no defensive missiles at all, it would be impossible if such missiles were carried. About this time a USAF U-2 spyplane got shot down in Soviet airspace at an altitude of 21 freaking kilometers. This lead to USAF's decision to turn to intercontinental ballistic missiles as the primary nuclear delivery force instead of bomber planes. The B-70 project got cancelled, and Pye Wacket along with it.

Or did it?

The USAF had a project called Project SAINT (SAtellite INTerceptor) started in 1958. Top secret. This was a system to travel into orbit, inspect evil Soviet satellites, and destroy them if they posed threats to US national security. SAINT I used unmanned vehicles in the Green SAINT and White SAINT segments.

Then there was Blue SAINT, using a manned vehicle.

Blue SAINT was in direct competition with Boeing's X-20 Dynasoar program, so things quickly turned nasty. Blue SAINT was essentially cancelled in October 1962 by McNamara

Which may explain why Convair executive Earl Honeywell got away with his revelation at the Eighth Symposium on Ballistic Missile and Space Technology in San Diego on 17 October 1963.

Honeywell went into considerable detail about Convair's Manned Anti-Satellite System. It looked suspiciously like a failed proposal for the ultra top clam Blue SAINT.

But what we are interested in is the fact it was based on Pye Wacket.

The spacecraft could intercept a Soviet satellite within 100 of the Soviet launch. It would stop at a safe distance, and send a remote controlled intercepter to the (possibly booby-trapped) Soviet satt. The interceptor would then scan the Soviet interloper with radar, infrared, and a TV camera. The manned crew would then decide whether or not to trigger the interceptor's warhead and vaporize the Soviet into a down payment on the Kessler Syndrome.

However, you can see that the lenticular reentry vehicle is pure Pye Wacket.

For more details, refer to the Pye Wacket article

There are many theories about where the code name "Pye Wacket" came from. Strategic Air Command Colonel James "Jimmy" Stewart had appeared in a movie called Bell Book and Candle where the Greenwich Village Witch (played by Kim Novak) had a feline familiar named Pye Wacket. Some say that the name was suggested by a secretary in the project office who had seen the movie. Others say that Jimmy Stewart himself suggested it. But there is no definitive answer.


What it was: A conceptual design for a manned satellite interceptor/killer, floated by General Dynamics in 1963.


What happened to make it fail: The MASS is a perfect storm of ideas that seemed promising in 1960 but that turned out to be dead-ends. Lenticular craft have never promised enough advantages to be built, the proposed customer—the USAF—never did get its own manned space program, and its proposed mission to intercept, inspect, and potentially destroy satellites has never been worthwhile in practice. In the X-20, it was also up against a strong competitor that had already got underway when MASS was proposed.

What was necessary for it to succeed: It’s awfully hard to get this one to fly. Perhaps if Eisenhower hadn’t been so insistent on giving space to a civilian agency, and if the USAF had been able to fend off the Army to gain it for themselves (far from a foregone conclusion even in the absence of NASA), MASS might have moved further. Even under those circumstances we would have been much likelier to see something like the X-20 or the Manned Orbiting Laboratory rather than the MASS.

When it comes down to it, this proposal placed bets on too many things that, in retrospect, never worked out. It’s interesting as a concrete example of how much we didn’t know in the early 1960s but, with the exception of the Project Horizon Lunar Base, it’s the least likely of all the post-Sputnik projects we’ve examined.

On the other hand…for those of you who (like the author) enjoy stories about conspiracy theories, black projects, UFOs, and the like without actually giving them any credence, I’ll direct you to a strange Pye Wacket-related article published in Popular Mechanics’ November 2000 issue. It makes the case that the MASS wasn’t cancelled but instead went black and turned into a vehicle called the LRV. Fair warning, though: the words “Roswell”, “Nazi”, and “flying saucer” are used in all seriousness.


“Manned Anti-Satelllite System”, E.E. Honeywell; Transactions of the Eighth Symposium on Ballistic Missile and Space Technology (Vol. II); Defense Documentation Center, Alexandria, Virginia; 1963.

Boeing DS-1

This is a spaceplane whose purpose is to investigate and/or nuke suspicious satellites placed by hostile governments. Note that concept-wise it is quite close to Stine's Space Scout.

DS-1 Satellite Manned Interceptor
General data for 814-1050
Empty weight7560 lbs
Gross weight w/missiles9670 lbs
Armamentx3 15-kt nuclear interceptors
Wingspan18' 17.2"
Wing Area330 sq. ft
Length34' 7.5"
Landing EngineJT-12 turbojet

      In June, 1959, the Boeing Airplane Company reported on potential operational derivatives of the Dyna Soar. One of these vehicles was a satellite inspector/interceptor based on the Model 814-1050 DS-1 Dyna Soar. Unlike many of the vehicles in the study, the satellite interceptor was a fairly minimal modification of the Dyna Soar rather than a whole new vehicle.

     The spaceplane would carry three to five missiles in sealed launch tubes located on the back where they would not interfere with air brakes or escape capsule separation. The launch tubes would be raised for missile firing and jettisoned afterwards; if a missile was unused at the end of the mission, it and its launch tube would be retained and would return to Earth with the spaceplane.

     Two types of missile could be carried: inspectors and interceptors. Inspectors would rendezvous with the target satellite, floating about 100 feet away; a TV camera would relay images. If directed to, the inspector missile would detonate its warhead. The other missile was a dedicated interceptor with no TV camera; it would home directly onto the target and destroy it. The missiles would be launched while the spaceplane was in a 150 mile circular orbit and could reach satellites orbit at altitudes of at least 1000 miles. From launch to a distance of about 40 miles from the target the missile would be guided by a simple inertial system; at that point IR seekers would home in on the targets and were capable of getting the missiles to within 100 feet. In order to assure that the missiles would destroy their targets at that distance, each missile was equipped with a warhead weighing fifty pounds... a nuclear warhead, with a yield of 15 kilotons (approximately the same as the Hiroshima "Little Boy").

     The satellite interceptor would be launched into orbit by a partially reusable booster. The first stage burned hydrocarbon fuel, and was equipped with wings, turbojets, landing gear and a crew in order to return to a runway landing. The second stage was fueled with hydrogen and would stay with the spaceplane while in orbit, separating just before re-entry. This booster could put the complete interceptor into a 500 nautical mile circular orbit. Launch sites would be Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Point Arguello, California (soon to be part of Vandenberg AFB).

     The spaceplane would be much like the experimental Dyna Soar, but with provisions to carry and launch missiles, more communications systems, military subsystems and increased power generation. Life support systems would need to be beefed up to support missions of up to 15 hours, and heat rejection systems would need to deal with the heat generated by all the additional equipment. It would retain the turbojet landing engine of the DS-1 as then designed.


(ed note: I apologize, the quality of the scanning in the document is substandard)


Airframe3,570 lbs
(escape cap.)
220 lbs
Crew Accommodations550 lbs
Secondary Power950 lbs
Environmental Control1,160 lbs
Flight Controls225 lbs
Mechanisms255 lbs
Electronics530 lbs
INERT MASS7,560 lbs
x3 Missiles1,860 lbs
Launcher250 lbs
GLIDER MASS9,670 lbs
Second Stage
Burnout Mass14,970 lbs
Propellant Mass47,300 lbs
First Stage
Mass Empty81,900 lbs
Pilot250 lbs
Trapped Rocket Propellants4,300 lbs
Turbojet Fuel16,000 lbs
Propellant432,000 lbs
LAUNCH MASS596,7200 lbs

1. Operational Concept

     Te satellite interceptor is a manned recoverable, boost glide vehicle with limited duration, orbital capabilities. It is a modification of the DS-1 configuration with provision for carrying a number of attached missiles. The mission of the interceptor is to examine and/or destroy satellite which may be hostile. Actual inspection and destruction of the enemy is accomplished by missiles which are launched from the interceptor.

     Initial detection and tracking of satellite objects are accomplished by ground installations. Data obtained on a satellite object is relayed to the interceptor bases where launch conditions are determined. At the exact time the launch site passes into the orbital plane of the satellite, the interceptor is boosted into a 150-mile altitude co-planar orbit. The vehicle travels in the same direction as the object to be inspected. A typical mission is shown in Figure IV.F-1.

     Upon reaching the 150-mile altitude the interceptor uses its higher orbital angular velocity to gain on the target until missile firing position is achieved. Data in the satellite position is stored in the interceptor and corrected from ground tracking stations thru a data link. A pilot's display is used to present the crew-man with visual information on the satellite position, the interceptor's position, and the correct position and time for missile launch. The pilot has the option to fire manually by overriding.

Boeing Airplane Company, report D7-1048, June 30, 1956

North American X-15A-3

Enginex1 YLR-99
Thrust 262,450 N
Wet Mass25,000 kg
Burnout Mass8,557 kg
Dry Mass5,000 kg
Isp276 sec
Exhaust Velocity2,710 m/s
Max SpeedMach 8
ΔV2,400 m/s
Peak Altitude30 km
Air-Launch vehicleXB-70
Length19 m
Span6.8 m

The North American Aviation X-15 was an experimental hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft operated jointly by the U.S. Air Force and NASA (then NACA). The rocket plane was carried by a B-52 mothership to an altitude of about 14 kilometers and launch at subsonic speeds (my father was a radar/nav on a B-52). The very successful program had its first flight in 1959 and was winding down in 1968.

In 1956 the USAF was invested in the Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar, because it was military. No space explorer this, it was a hypersonic bomber designed to drop nuclear bombs on targets in the Soviet Union. The annoying part was even though the X-20 project had already started, it was going to be years before it actually flew. The USAF figured a quick program could be inserted into the schedule until X-20 was ready. After the X-15 program started they tried the quick-and-dirty route with a modification called the X-15B. This was cancelled in 1958 when NACA became NASA, and replaced with Project Mercury.

In 1965 NASA tried to keep the X-15 program going by proposing a version with delta wings instead of those ridiculous little stubs sported by the stock X-15. The USAF was not interested in funding this, they saw their involvement with the X-15 was at a close. By 1967 the delta-wing X-15 program had advanced to a point where they could issue a formal Request For Proposals for formal conceptual design studies from interested corporations in the aerospace industry.

The only response was from North American Aviation, but it was a lulu! They submitted a two-volume, 500-page proposal containing detailed engineering concepts and cost data. And this was just the proposal to do the actual study. Most of the information in this section is from that study.

The X-15A-3 would have a much lower peak altitude than the X-15, but after all it was designed to study hypersonic flights at relatively low altitudes. Keep in mind that the program could easily be developed into a full blown spaceplane capable of reaching LEO.

Just so you are not puzzled by the illustrations, there were two main variants about the wings.

In the "wing forward" position, the front-most apex of the wing is 1.981 meters behind the nose. In the "wing midpostion" position, the front-most apex of the wing is 2.616 meters behind the nose.

The difference is a whole 0.6 meters, which you probably cannot tell by looking at the pictures. However the wing-forward type has tip fins with four sides, while the wing-midposition type has tip fins with six sides. That you can easily see in the pictures.

It doesn't make much difference, but I didn't want you fretting about the different types of tip fins in the various pictures. And there were other variants.

Somebody along the line figured that a X-15A-3 could fly higher and faster if it had a mothership more powerful than a pokey old B-52. Like say…a freaking XB-70 Valkyrie! Which also by some strange coincidence just happened to be developed by North American Aviation. This monster could fly at an altitude of 20 kilometers at about Mach 3.

It is hard to view this proposal as anything other than showmanship. In order to launch an X-15A-3, the Valkyrie would basically have to be re-designed from scratch. And the fatal M-12/D-21 launch disaster showed how dangerous Mach 3 launches are. For better or worse the actual studies looking into this are unavailable.

Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar

X-20 Dyna-Soar
Payload450 kg
Thrust71,190 N
Wet Mass10,125 kg
Dry Mass7,435 kg
Height14.5 m
Span6.34 m

Most of this is from Aerospace Projects Review issue V3N4. If you have any interest in the Dyna Soar at all, you need to purchase this.

The X-20 had the confidential nickname 'Dyna-Soar' (for Dynamic Soarer) and the unclassified title 'Hypersonic Strategic Weapon System'.

The concept was born in those dire years of the 1950s, before the invention of ICBMs. The prevailing opinion was that ballistic missiles would never be accurate enough to entrust the responsibility for US nuclear deterrence. The then current system used bomber aircraft, which would have to somehow avoid every Soviet intercepter, fighter, and anti-aircraft weapon along the way. Surely there must be a better way.

So the Dyna Soar was sort of a hypersonic nuclear bomber. It could travel to the target in the fraction of the time a conventional bomber would take, be very difficult to intercept, and carrying a human pilot/bombardier to deliver the weapon much more accurately than any missile. It could evade intercepters by "skip-gliding", bouncing along the upper reaches of the atmosphere much like a flat stone skipping across the water. This idea dates back to the German Silbervogel concept.

It was actually more a hypersonic nuclear-bomb carrying glider, but you can't have everything.

The program was started in 1957. Sadly it was only a couple of years before the advent of ICBMs accurate enough to plant nuclear warheads right on the bulls-eye. Such missiles were even faster, carried no crew with all their limitations, and were much cheaper. The Dyna Soar program was in peril. The proponents quickly re-labeled it as an experimental reentry vehicle (the X-20). When that grew thin it was touted as a sort of an all-purpose space jeep.

The developers had quite a few missions that the Dyna-Soar was capable of fullfilling. Alas, in every single case there developed a smaller-lighter-cheaper solution that could use a smaller boost vehicle. The program was cancelled in 1963. Arguably it lives on in the top-secret X-37B, which can perform many of the same missions but is unmanned.

The final form was the Model 844.2050E. It was a delta-winged glider with no propulsion system except for its RCS. Actually it would perform most of its missions with the top stage of the rocket booster still attached to the rear (called the "transtage"). At the end of the mission it would jettison the transtage, use the one-shot engine in the transition section to deorbit, ditch the transition section, do a reentry aerobrake exactly like the Space Shuttle, and finish as a hypersonic glider doing a dead-stick landing on some salt flats (again just like the Space Shuttle).

The plan was to use a Titan IIIC as a booster.

Doing an aerobraking reentry (aka almost but not quite burning to a cinder in the atmosphere) is guaranteed to make a hot spacecraft. They calculated that the belly would reach 1340°C. That's red-hot, a mere 35 degrees below the melting point of cast iron. It won't melt at that temperature, but it will turn into something about as strong as taffy on a hot summer day. So the designers decided to use René 41 super alloy.

However the designers heat strategy was a little surprising: garden variety radiative cooling. In other words hope it can radiate away the heat before the wing melts. More modern heat shields use ablative cooling: the shield slowly chars and flakes away. Which means they have to be replaced after each use. Using radiative cooling is an attempt to avoid that.

The designers went with a layer of D-36 columbium alloy, insulated from the René 41 by a layer of Q-felt silica fiber. The leading edges got even hotter, 1550°C. So the wing and fin leading edges, the outboard rudder surfaces, and lower surface of elevons used panels of TZM molybdenum instead of columbium alloy. These got a double layer of TZM separated by an air gap, just in case of a burn-through. The black color is from a coating of disilicide for oxidation protection, otherwise the the columbium and molybdenum would "burn" away. The coating would have to be replaced after each reentry, but it can be easily sprayed on like paint. Nothing like the nightmare of replacing Space Shuttle tiles.

But the nose of the Dyna Soar got hottest of all: a blazing 2010°C! These had to be made out of ceramics.

A small triangular columbium heat shield covers the forward pilot windows, otherwise reentry would melt the windows and the blowtorch of hot air would incinerate the crew. The side windows are not covered since they can survive the lower heat there. Once reentry is over the window heat shield is jettisoned so the pilot can see to land.


Since the Dyna Soar's major movement was by skip-gliding, the most important instrument in the pilot cockpit was the Energy Management Display Indicator (EMDI). What it boils down to is the instrument shows the pilot where the Dyna Soar can go. Possible landing areas given the Dyna Soar's current position, velocity, and maneuver capability (keeping within the allowable heating rate of the structure). The instrument is especially important since the Dyna Soar is a blasted glider, it has no engines. If you miss a landing you cannot do a go-around, instead you crash.

The EMDI was a cathode ray tube with a 10 centimeter diameter display. It could show up to ten dots, each a possible landing site. Overlaying was a long strip of film that could be advanced one frame at a time, each with a different graphic overlay. This was ultra-high tech back in 1962, it looks like stone knives and slide rules to us nowadays.

The pilot used typical rudder foot pedals for rudder control. The joystick was a pain in the posterior though. Instead of the then-standard central control stick, there were two side stick controls. Common nowadays but high tech back then. The right-hand stick controlled the wing flaps by a—gasp!—fly-by-wire system (ditto). The left-hand stick controlled the RCS jets.

In vacuum the pilot used the left stick, in atmo the right stick. But during reentry the poor pilot had to use both sticks since neither system was at its best during the transition.


Unlike the later Space Shuttle, Dyna-Soar did not have wheels on its tricycle undercarriage as the rubber tires required cooled compartments or they would burn like a tire fire covered in thermite during re-entry. Instead Goodyear developed retractable wire-brush skids made of the same René 41 super alloy as the airframe. Sure it will be a bumpy ride, but René 41 is fireproof.


The interior compartments were not built into the skin of the Dyna Soar, because that skin got red hot. Instead they were suspended within the structural trusswork, and had active cooling. The entire outer surface was covered with water filled panels surrounded by Q-felt silica fiber insulation. The water walls dropped the 980°C trusswork down to 93°C which the cockpit air conditioning and pilot's space suit could handle. The water walls were about 0.84 cm thick and had about 5 kilograms of water per square meter. The water was solidified with cyanogum 41 jelling agent and contained in wicks. The water would eventually boil and the steam would be dumped overboard. Hopefully the reentry would run out of heat before the walls ran out of water.



In orbit the glider remained attached to the third stage of the Titan. This transtage was a restartable rocket capable of enormous maneuvers. Before ignition it had a gross mass of 12,250 kg, of which 10,300 kg was storable nitrogen tetroxide/Aerozine-50 propellants. The transtage would fire initially to place the Dyna-Soar in orbit. Available remaining propulsion would depend on the mission initial orbit and glider mass. On a typical mission it was expected the total mass (glider+transtage) orbited would be 12,700 kg, leaving the transtage with 5700 kg of propellants, enough for a single maneuver of over 2 km/sec. Such huge maneuvers would greatly complicate the enemy's ability to predict the overflight path and time of the Dyna-Soar on a reconnaissance, bombing, or satellite interception mission.

Hydrazine + Nitrogen Tetroxide is storable, and hypergolic (you don't need an igniter). Drawback is the low specific impulse.

Liquid Fluorine + Liquid Hydrogen has fantastic specific impulse. Fluorine is also denser than oxygen, so the tank is smaller. Drawback is LH2 is cryogenic so it is a royal pain to store. And fluorine is insanely dangerous to work with. Both toxic and it dissolves pretty much every single material a spacecraft is built out of.

Liquid Oxygen + Liquid Hydrogen has pretty good specific impulse. Drawback is LH2 is cryogenic so it is a royal pain to store.

Mission Configurations

Mike Billard is an engineer who is learning the art of 3D CGI graphics. The YF-19A Saber is a TOTALLY FICTITIOUS SCIENCE-FICTIONAL hypothetical outgrowth of the 1960's Dyna Soar project. Of course, the engineering detail are meticulous. He can be found on the SciFi Meshes forum under the handle Mikey-B.

In the last four images below, the black X-20 mesh was created by an artist named Burncycle for the space simulation Orbiter.

Space Scout

RocketCat sez

Oh, I remember studying this ship when I was a kitten, in the poster hanging on my wall. The poster was based on work from Frank Tinsley, one of the gods of spaceship art. It does have a couple of questionable design decisions, but the blasted thing is more scientifically accurate than 99% of media science fiction. There is nothing quite as mentally stimulating as a good cut-away diagram. You can really put yourself in the picture.

This is from a book entitled The Answer to the Space Flight Challenge by Frank Tinsley (1958).

Noted rocket engineer G. Harry Stine designed this vehicle in the early 1950's. He figured that manned space stations would be controlled by the nation that built them. Therefore a scientific station could be instantly transformed into a martial moon at the sound of a trumpet! Horrors! Armed with atomic missiles, they could strike any spot on Earth. What a hideous threat to freedom and democracy the world over.

The space scout is designed to deal with this menace, blowing up hostile stations with atomic missiles before they can strike. Without it, the world stands unarmed and helpless before the threats of a technologically advanced dictator.

At least according to Mr. Stine. In reality it would probably be far more cost effective to just launch flight after flight of surface-to-orbit missiles until the evil space station was vaporized.

It is boosted into orbit atop a three-stage rocket. The spacecraft flies nose first in space, driven by the liquid fuel rocket engine. It flies tail first in the air, driven by the three jet engines. This means that the jet engine exhaust goes "upward", that is, in the opposite direction of the rocket exhaust.

The jet engines are mounted on "M" shaped supersonic wings fitted with conventional airplane control surfaces. Note that the control surfaces are on the upper edge of the wing, not the lower. The elongated nose cone of each jet engine doubles as a landing leg. Velbor points out that this is a poor design decision. A hard landing will transmit shock directly to the delicate mechanism of the jet engine turbines. They may explosively delaminate, shooting turbine blades at everything in line with the turbine plane. Which you may have noticed includes the fuel tanks.

The tail of the spacecraft is bulbous to increase the heat radiating surface area, and corrugated with liquid oxygen cooling pipes. In other words it is trying to do the same job as the heat shield on the base of the Apollo command module.

The three transparent blisters on the flight deck help the pilot to land by providing full ground visibility via a system of reflecting mirrors.

With the three man crew, two are always on duty while the third sleeps. In combat conditions all three are on duty. The craft is designed for a three-day mission, with a maximum life-support endurance of a week. It is armed with three missiles packing nuclear warheads.

Note that concept-wise, this is very similar to Boeing's DS-1 Satellite Inspector. Including the nuclear missiles.

Convair Space Shuttle

The Convair Shuttle was designed by Dr. Krafft Ehricke. From the vague hints I've found it was apparently intended to deliver repair crews to expensive satellites for fixing malfunctions and maintenance. Does not appear to have a lot of cargo capacity.

But it would be fairly straightforward to arm it with low-mass weapons.

Revell XSL-01

Revell XSL-01
Manned Space Ship
Stage III
Moon Ship
Thrust88,964 N
Specific Impulse1000 sec
Exhaust Vel9,810 m/s
Dry Mass4,667 kg
Propellant Mass5,584 kg
Wet Mass10,251 kg
Mass Ratio2.2
ΔV7,718 m/s
Initial Accel8.68 m/s
Stage II
Thrust2,224,110 N
Specific Impulse399 sec
Exhaust Vel3,912 m/s
Inert Mass83,189 kg
Payload Mass10,251 kg
PayloadStage III
Dry Mass93,440 kg
Propellant Mass122,016 kg
Wet Mass215,456 kg
Mass Ratio2.31
ΔV3,268 m/s
Initial Accel10.32 m/s
1.05 g
Stage III
Thrust8,006,796 N
Specific Impulse295 sec
Exhaust Vel2,895 m/s
Inert Mass61,961 kg
Payload Mass225,708 kg
PayloadStage II +
Stage III
Dry Mass287,668 kg
Propellant Mass332,030 kg
Wet Mass619,698 kg
Mass Ratio2.15
ΔV2,222 m/s
Initial Accel12.92 m/s
1.32 g

Revell model kit #H-1800 "XSL-01 Manned Space Ship" is probably the second most sought after out-of-production space-oriented plastic model kit (the first most being Revell #H-1805 "Space Station")

It was originally intended for a lunar expedition. Which explains why the upper section carries an honest-to-Heinlein atomic engine. However in 1969 it was repackaged as the "Space Police" ship in the Space Pursuit combination plastic model kit.

Actually it isn't a bad fit. Like all the other space fighters in this section it is a fighter ship boosted into orbit with a multistage chemical rocket. It certainly has enough delta V to be a fighter, given the nuclear engine and all. All it needs are weapons.

The booster was a two-stage rocket whose sole purpose was just to get the Moon Ship (stage three) from the ground into low Terra Orbit. "Halfway to Anywhere" strikes again. The original design had stage I and II chemical rockets using liquid oxygen and and alcohol.

For the plastic model kit, the designer had to shorten the stage I and II tanks to keep the kit within Revell's planned price range. The booklet says the overall length is 34 meters, I'm not sure if that with the shortened stages or not.

With the truncated tanks the designer was forced to use the more powerful (but insanely dangerous) oxidizer Liquid Fluorine, which has probably killed more rocket researchers than any other chemical. Or any chemist for that matter. It is sometimes used with liquid methane when you need the specific impulse of liquid-oxygen/liquid-hydrogen but cannot afford the voluminous fuel tanks required. Angle then doubled-down on danger by using hydrazine instead of methane. Hydrazine is not quite as deadly as its close cousin Unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (which Troy Campbell calls "explosive cancer") but it is certainly bad enough.

The MoonShip/SpaceFighter (stage III) does not play around with feeble chemical engines, it has a full blown nuclear thermal rocket. When I look at the mass budget, I find it difficult to believe it also has a full blown radiation shadow shield thick enough to protect the crew from a lethal dose. Even if it did, the Moon Ship's wings and propellant tanks stick outside the shadow, so they will backscatter harmful radiation all over the place.

Attitude control is by two monopropellant RCS engines that flank the nuclear engine, and by an internal flywheel.

Upon return to Terra, spacecraft uses aerobraking by a series of braking ellipses over a period of two days. The drags covering the hydrogen propellant tanks do most of the work. When the velocity slows enough, the drags and the propellant tanks are jettisoned. It then does a dead-stick landing using the wings and aerodynamic control surfaces exactly like the old NASA Space Shuttle.

You can find one or two more details at the main article.

StageWet Mass
ΔV Totals

Rocketpunk Orbital Patrol Ship

Orbital Patrol Ship
Exhaust Velocity4,400 m/s
Specific Impulse449 s
Thrust3.5×106 N
Thrust Power7.7 gigawatts
Total ΔV6,100 m/s
Mass Budget
Engine Mass7 mton
Heat Shield Mass15 mton
(15% re-entry mass)
Terra Recovery
parachute, retro,
landing gear
5 mton
(5% landing mass)
NonTerra Recov
landing legs
Luna, Mars
5 mton
(5% landing mass)
attitude jets,
electrical, etc.
20 mton
(20% dry mass)
farings, etc.
5 mton
(5% dry m)
Tankage body18 mton
(6% of
300 mton
hab module
cargo bays
25 mton
DRY MASS100 mton
300 mton
WET MASS400 mton
Mass Ratio4.0
booster rocket
? mton

This is a splendid spacecraft designed by Rick Robinson, appearing on his must-read blog Rocketpunk Manifesto. This was designed for his Orbital Patrol service, which he covered in three previous posts.

The important insight he noted was that if you can somehow get your spacecraft into orbit with a full load of fuel/propellant, it turns out that most cis-Lunar and Mars missions have delta V requirements well within the ability of weak chemical rockets. So you make a small chemical rocket and lob it into orbit with a huge booster rocket (heavy lift launch stack). This will be the standard Orbit Patrol ship.

It can also be boosted into orbit by a smaller booster rocket, then using the patrol ship's engines for the second stage. So as not to cut into the ship's mission delta V, it will need access to an orbital propellant depot to refuel. At a rough guess, you'll need 9,700 m/s delta V to boost the patrol ship into orbit (7,900 m/s orbital velocity plus gravity and aerodynamic drag losses). So the booster will need 9,700 m/s with a payload of 400 metric tons. Bonus points if the booster is reusable.

Actually, it reminds me a bit of the old Three Man Space Scout.

At a rough guess, Rick figures that if the ship is capsule shaped it will be about 12 meters high by 14 meters in diameter. If it is wedge shaped, it will be about 40 meters high by 25 meters wide by 8 meters deep.

In both cases, total interior volume of 1,200 m3 (of which 900 m3 is propellant), and a surface area of 800 m2

Present day expandable propellant tanks have a mass of about 6% of the mass of the liquid propellant. Rick is assuming that in the future the 6% figure will apply to reusable tanks as well.

If my slide rule is not lying to me, the 300 metric tons of H2-O2 fuel/propellant represents 33.3 metric tons of liquid hydrogen and 266.7 metric tons of liquid oxygen. About 470 m3 of liquid hydrogen volume (sphere with radius of 4.8 m) and 234 m3 of liquid oxygen volume (sphere with radius of 3.8 m). This is a total volume of 704 m3 which falls short of Rick's estimate of 900 m3 so I probably made a mistake somewhere.

Landing on Terra will use retro-rockets, the heat shield for aerocapture, maybe a parachute, and aircraft style landing gear for belly landing. Landing on Luna or Mars will be by tail-landing on rear mounted landing legs. That will also mean reserving some of the propellant for landing purposes.

Note that the heat shield is rated for the ship's unfueled mass (heat shield mass = 15% of ship's re-entry mass), there is not enough to brake the ship if it has propellant left. This assumes a "low-high'low" mission profile: start at LEO, go outward to perform mission while burning most of the propellant, then return to LEO or even land on Terra. So 15 metric tons for heat shield is for a ship with a mass of 100 metric tons at re-entry (ship's total dry mass).

If the ship is going to aerobrake then return to higher orbit, it will need more heat shield mass to handle the extra mass of get-home propellant. This will savagely cut into the payload mass, which is only 25 metric tons at best. For example, if the mission had the ship heading for translunar space from LEO after aerobraking, the extra propellant mass at aerobrake time will increase the heat shield mass from 15 metric tons to 31. This will reduce the payload from 25 metric tons to 8. But by the same token a ship that will not perform any aerobraking can omit the heat shield entirely, using the extra 15 metric tons for more propellant or payload.

Payload includes habitat module (if any) as well as cargo, since hab modules are optional for short missions. The gross payload is 25 metric tons, of which 20 is cargo and the other 5 mtons are payload bay structure and fittings. If you assume two tons of life support consumables per crew per two week mission; then the ship could carry a crew of five plus 12 mtons of removable payload, or a crew of 10 and 4 mtons of payload (the more that payload is consumables, the less mass needed for payload bay structure).

Patrol Missions
MissionDelta V
Low earth orbit (LEO) to geosynch and return5700 m/s powered
(plus 2500 m/s aerobraking)
LEO to lunar surface (one way)5500 m/s
(all powered)
LEO to lunar L4/L5 and return
4800 m/s powered
(plus 3200 m/s aerobraking)
LEO to low lunar orbit and return4600 m/s powered
(plus 3200 m/s aerobraking)
Geosynch to low lunar orbit and return
4200 m/s
(all powered)
Lunar orbit to lunar surface and return3200 m/s
(all powered)
LEO inclination change by 40 deg
5400 m/s
(all powered)
LEO to circle the Moon and return retrograde
3200 m/s powered
(plus 3200 m/s aerobraking)
Mars surface to Deimos (one way)6000 m/s
(all powered)
LEO to low Mars orbit (LMO) and return6100 m/s powered
(plus 5500 m/s aerobraking)

Aircraft Carrier Micro Fighter

This is from Investigations of a Micro-Fighter / Airborne Aircraft Carrier Concept. The study was performed under a contract from the US Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory. The idea was to make a flying aircraft carrier. Shades of Captain Scarlet's Cloudbase or S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Helicarrier.

This is for an aircraft, not a spacecraft, but it does have interesting features. I'm sure it will be fascinating to fans of Super Dimension Fortress Macross / Robotech. But if you write a novel using this as is, RocketCat will give you an Atomic Wedgie while screaming ROCKET ARE NOT BOATS!

Fighter Traffic Control

Since any mothership carrying large numbers of fighters often acts like a crowded airport, it will need the equivalent of air-traffic controllers. Or fighters will start colliding.

The Traffic Control Center (TCC) is the heart of the ship's fighter screen. All combat spacecraft are directed from this large room, from launch to recovery. The TCC is, in effect, a larger version of the communication room found aboard smaller carriers such as the Forge-class ships. It shares a lot of architectural elements with the standard Jovian ship bridge, and in fact can function as an auxiliary or battle bridge in case of emergency. When in use, the room is darkened and illuminated only by the glow of the various tactical displays and overall area situation holographic maps. The position of all craft within a few tens of thousands of kilometers around the ship is known and their vectors tracked at all times.

Space Fighters In Fiction


Gunship from Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's novel Footfall. See my related post Michael for additional detail.

“They take one of the main guns off a Navy ship. Wrap a spaceship around it. Not a lot of ship, just enough to steer it. Add an automatic loader and nuclear weapons for shells. Steer it with TV.” —from Footfall, pg. 354

In the novel these Gunships are referred to as “Stovepipe’s.” I was far less concerned with designing to match that narrative description than I was with designing the most compact spacecraft possible capable of the mission described. Michaels construction (including all its auxiliary spacecraft and subsystems) takes place in secret under wartime conditions, perhaps the moniker is derived from a code name picked randomly (that’s how the 1958 Project Orion was named), or perhaps dockworkers handling the vehicle sections, packed in featureless cylindrical shipping containers strapped to pallets, named the craft, and it stuck. See Aldo Spadoni’s commentary on character-delivered descriptions on my Michael post.    

I built my Gunship around the 5"/54 caliber Mark 45 gun.

Nuclear Round

The nuclear round fired by the Gunship would be something akin to the UCLR1 Swift, a 622 mm long, 127 mm diameter nuclear shell, weighing in at 43.5 kg.

In 1958 a fusion warhead was developed and tested. At its test it yielded only 190 tons; it failed to achieve fusion and only the initial fission explosion worked correctly. There are unconfirmed reports that work on similar concepts continued into the 1970s and resulted in a one-kiloton warhead design for 5-inch (127 mm) naval gun rounds, these, however, were never deployed as operational weapons. See paragraph 9 (not counting the bulleted list) under United States Nuclear Artillery.

Gunship Crew & Crew Module  

The text of the novel is unclear on the number of crew manning the Gunships, but my opinion is no more than 2 would be required, and dialogue in the novel tends to back this up. The loading mechanism is automated, so only targeting and piloting skills are involved. Considering urgency involved in readying Michael, I doubt an entirely new capsule, man-rated for spaceflight, would be considered. Michaels designers would fall back on tried and tested designs and modify them as required. In this case a stripped down Gemini spacecraft and its Equipment Module fits the bill nicely. The life support system matches the mission requirements. Leave off the heat shield (these are one-way missions), and reaction control system—the capsule never operates separate from the Gunship rig. Mount targeting and firing controls for the gun. Probably a single hatch rather than Gemini’s double hatch, and internal flat-screen displays rather than viewports—looking on this battle with naked eyes would leave the astronaut seared, radiation burned, and blinded.

“The exhausts of the gunboats were bright and yellow: solid fuel rockets.” —from Footfall, pg. 454

Eight SRBs akin to the GEM-40 allow options: they could be fired in pairs, allowing four separate burns, or two burns of 4, or a single burn of all eight – needs depending. The SRBs are strapped around a ten foot diameter 40 foot long core containing ample tank stowage for hypergolic reaction control propellants, pressurization gas, and nitrogen for clearing the breech and gun barrel. The reaction control system is used to aim the gun; propellant expenditure would be prodigious.

1UCRL - University of California Radiation Laboratory

From GUNSHIP by William Black (2015)

      The TFSS Salamis, leading the armada from Earth, now out past Altair, now over seven parsecs from Earth, made contact with one of the surviving picket ships, the TFSS Pompey, fleeing Earthward.
     “The rebel fleet is near,” the Pompey said in reply to a question from the armada. “God, is it big! We didn’t know there were that many ships in the galaxy.”
     The Salamis acknowledged, told the picket ship to continue toward home, absorbed the information stored in its computer banks, and went forward, probing, scanning, peering into the grayness with electronic eyes, searching for the telltale emissions of electronic and nuclear equipment.

     The heavy battle cruisers formed up. Like a huge swarm of another continuum gnats, the cruisers grouped themselves in the center of the battle formation. Around them, making one vast encircling flank, were the destroyers. Behind this shield of metal and paraglas, of flesh and bone, ranged the carriers, their great ports open, tiny two-man interceptors ready to leap out into space once Abli Juliene, Grand Admiral of the Federation Expeditionary Force, gave his commands.
     Those commands came. One after another two dozen interceptors burst from their mother ships, jetted forward ahead of the fleet at “max ack,” and vanished into the grayness lying before the starships from Earth.

     Despite the anti-acceleration forces of Contra-grav, Major Evan Branchi, pilot of the Wanda Love, commander of the TFEF “probe squadron,” lay crushed against his acceleration cot as the tiny interceptor’s plasma jets blasted into the grayness. Drugs circulating in his blood kept him awake despite the fierce acceleration that tried to steal consciousness from him. His eyes stayed open, peering at the screens and dials before him, watching the chronometer tick away the seconds.
     Here we go, Branchi thought, and here they come. They can’t be far away now.
     The chronometer reached its cutoff point. A signal was sent through the interceptor, back to the plasma jets that threw it forward. The jets suddenly ceased their atomic flaming. The Wanda Love fell forward.

     “Able Leader to Able Q,” Branchi said into his throat mike. “This is it, gang. Radio silence from here on out—unless we’re attacked. Otherwise, if you see anything, tell the fleet; don’t talk to me.”
     There were brief acknowledgements from the twenty-three other ships, then the radio gear grew silent.
     Branchi glanced over his shoulder to the young man who sat behind him.
     “How is it, Jack?” he asked.
     “Buttoned up tight, major,” Jack answered. “We don’t have a single leak that I can detect. The only emission leaving Wanda is the tight beam back to Shilo.”
     Branchi nodded, turned back to his instruments, and watched and waited.

     As the Wanda Love fell through Non-space she was little more than a derelict. Detection instruments outside her would hardly have known of her existence; drive cut off, scanning equipment reduced to a passive minimum, grav-control gear disabled, life support systems not operating. Her two man crew lived inside their spacesuits. Virtually the only electro-magnetic energy that escaped from the Wanda Love was a very tight radio beam aimed directly back toward the armada’s flagship. Only by passing directly through the beam would the enemy be able to detect it.
     Her job was to sweep in as close to the rebel fleet as possible, gather what information she could by passive detection gear, then turn back to rejoin the fleet. In the event of her discovery she would report what she had found to the fleet and then fight for her life. So it was with all twenty-four interceptors that fell toward the supposed location of the enemy.
     The elapsed time chronometer continued to sweep its dial as the Wanda Love fell farther and farther away from the massive fleet from Earth. Evan Branchi felt an uneasiness in the pit of his stomach, that same sensation that he had felt on his first “probe” mission and had hoped would pass with time. It had not left him; never really left him even while secure behind the lines, or even on Earth herself, for Evan Branchi knew, as men are given to know few things, that one day, sooner or later, a “probe” mission would not turn out right, that one of them would go wrong, and Evan Branchi would never again see the green of Earth’s hills, the blue of her sky.
     This one may be it, he said to himself, as he had said a dozen times before on a dozen near-suicide missions. Before he had been wrong, wrong a dozen times—but this one made thirteen. Branchi was not a superstitious man, not in the Federation’s tenth century, but still …

     Passive detection gear operating on subtleties that would have gone unnoticed amid the electromagnetic storm of space-time sensed something ahead in the grayness, something unnatural, man-made, something that meant enemy interceptors!
     “Do they see us?” Branchi's copilot asked, a tremor to his voice that betrayed his sudden fear.
     “How can they miss us?” Branchi asked, the shakiness within him solidifying into something that passed for courage, into whatever it was that made him one of the best interceptor pilots in the fleet. “They have the same equipment We do.” His voice was as calm and solid as the Rocky Mountains.
     “What do we do?”
     “Kill ’em,” Branchi said through his teeth, his hands dropping to the controls before him. Active scanning gear came to life, sharply outlining the enemy craft on his screens: sixteen rebel interceptors, bearing on a course that would take them Within a few kilometers of Branchi's path. Then the plasma jets fired; the radio broke silence.
     “Able Leader to Able Q,” he said. “Contacted rebel scouts.” He read off a list of coordinates for the benefit of the armada behind them. “Orders are to engage and destroy.”

     The Wanda Love, suddenly a living thing beneath his hands, cut a wide arc through the grayness of Non-space and swung to make a lateral attack on the enemy that had also come to sudden life.
     The two small interceptor squadrons were still hundreds of kilometers apart when they began to exchange fire. Energy cannon burst in the grayness, swinging through me space between ships. Sprays of electrical energy sparkled across metal hulls. Light flashed where there had been no light before.
     For an instant Branchi wished that he were on a larger ship, one big enough to hold force screen generators …
     The Wanda Love led the Federation interceptors in their rush toward death—and she was the first to feel the full force of the energy blasts of the enemy sweeping across her bow. Electric flame swept up across her needle-like shape, searing, then melting metal and paraglas. The Wanda Love exploded as a second fifth-level energy blast caught her hull—and Major Evan Branchi, TFSF, died as his spacesuit ruptured into the vacuum of Non-space.

From THE SKY IS FILLED WITH SHIPS by Richard C. Meredith (1969)

Attack Drone: Hell, yes! From personal protection drones, through the combat drones that make up the larger part of pretty much any fireteam (half-a-dozen slaved to each mechagrunt), through the wingdrones accompanying aerospace fighters, to the Imperial Navy’s AKV-drones, the Imperial military (and mercenaries, and law enforcement, and private security) does love its drones.

Now, some might say that being AI controlled, these aren’t drones, these are Mecha Mooks. Well, no, those are one step up the chain. Those are the autonomous mechagrunts and AKVs that the drones are slaved to, and which in turn answer to the actual people in the command chain. This isn’t mere force multiplication, this is force raising-to-the-power-of!

And that has been the name of the game ever since they were big, lumbering, steam-powered things with Stannic cogitator brains.


Space Fighter: Averted. Due to fairly inexorable laws of physics, ships that don’t have to contain meat and meat-support systems always outperform ships that do – which means the classic notion of a space fighter inevitably loses to the autonomous kill vehicle (AKV), which combines a cross between a missile and an attack drone with an AI – naturally-evolved brains also aren’t good at handling three-dimensional, relativistically-distorted combat environments in which microseconds count. Further kicking the trope in the teeth, they don’t look anything like space fighters – rather than an aerodynamic form-factor, except in very specialized aerospace machines with air-to-orbit capabilities – they’re unstreamlined roughly-tetrahedral machines with thruster clusters at each vertex for maximal maneuverability.

There are military starship classes called, as a set, starfighters, but they’re nothing like space fighters. Rather, they’re a tiny, sub-frigate-sized class of carrier, hosting four to eight of the above-mentioned AKVs clamped on to their outer hull – and after they get the AKVs to the fight, they hang back as a mobile command post, their own fitting being close to purely defensive. And they’re mostly used by the Shadow Fleet, scouting units, commerce raiders, and mercenaries – never on the wall of battle.


(Note: for the avoidance of confusion, this is not the same starfighter class as Raymond McVay has been posting over on the G+ fan community; so don’t be confused by the differences…)

“It looks like a blueberry croissant.”

“Blueberry croissant… of DEATH!”

– overheard at Golden Groves (Principalities) starport


Operated by: Empire of the Star (Imperial Navy, Imperial State Security, & Imperial Exploratory Service; reliable UARC-sponsored mercenaries)
Type: Starfighter, Orbital and Near-Space Operations
Construction: Ashen Planitia Fleet Yards

Length: 24.8 m
Beam: 60.4 m

Gravity-well capable: Yes
Atmosphere capable: Yes (depending on loadout)

Personnel: 2 nominal, as follows:

Flight Commander / Sailing Master
Flight Engineer

AI expert system support.

(Can operate with a single pilot.)

Additional life support capacity exists to support four passengers in addition, although this requires hot-bunking in three shifts.

Drive: Nucleodyne Thrust Applications 2×1 “Little Sparky” antimatter-catalyzed fusion torch drive
Propellant: Deuterium slush / metallic antideuterium
Cruising (sustainable) thrust: 10.2 standard gravities (9.6 Earth G)
Peak (unsustainable) thrust: 14.0 standard gravities (13.2 Earth G)
Maximum velocity: 0.3 c (based on particle shielding)


4 x hardpoint mountings for AKVs, typically Slasher-class

(Hardpoint mountings can also hold single-legionary drop pods, Piton-class, or covert ops equivalents.)


1 x standard navigational sensor suite, Cilmínar Spaceworks
1 x enhanced passive tactical sensor suite, miniature, Sy Astronautic Engineering Collective
1 x enhanced-resolution planetary surface-scan sensor suite, Imperial Exploratory Service (spec.)


“Flyswatter” point-defense laser grid, Artifice Armaments

Other Systems:

Artifice Armaments cyclic kinetic barrier system
Cilmínar Spaceworks Mark III long-duration canned/semi-regenerative life support
3 x Bright Shadow EC-780 information furnace data systems
Ashen Planitia 1-SF vector-control core and associated technologies
Cilmínar Spaceworks high-capacity thermal sinks and integrated radiator system
Aleph Null Systems tactical communications suite

Small craft:


The Hornéd Moon-class is a small starfighter intended for fast attack and fast insertion missions in planetary orbit and deploying to the surface. As such, it has atmospheric capability, and even the ability to land.

In overall form, it resembles – as the quotation indicates – a croissant or crescent moon of flying-wing conformation, with the thin “inside” edge of the crescent facing forward. The two forward-facing points of the crescent are rounded, and rise to a near-cylinder at the for’ard end, and a rectangular section of the central section is “humped” at the rear; this contains the drives, whose nozzles protrude from this rectangular shroud aft.

Atop the starfighter, paired hardpoints on the dorsal hull to port and starboard hold the AKVs, when mounted. Additional mountings near them permit jettisonable fairings to be used to permit atmospheric entry or departure when non-streamlined AKVs are carried.

In between them, atop and for’ard of the drive shroud, radiative striping mounted directly atop the hull, beneath protective shutters, provides heat dissipation. To provide additional control (to the reaction wheel system) when in atmosphere, a number of multiple-purpose aerodynamic control surfaces are mounted along the leading edge of the hull, and to two small vertical stabilizers at the port and starboard edges of the drive shroud. Deployable rollagon landing gear are fitted ventrally in a multiple tailwheel configuration.

The main body of the ship is entirely devoted to fuel storage, with multiple deuterium tanks wrapping around the small antimatter cryocels for maximum protection. Meanwhile, the starboard near-cylinder provides housing for the ship’s avionics, including (beneath the forward-mounted radome and associated shuttered ports) for the triple sensor suites and tactical communications systems.

The starship’s small habitable area is located in that to port; the forward-facing airlock (whose outermost section is covered by a retractable streamlining fairing and extendable airstair) at far port gives onto a short corridor providing access to, in order, the ship’s bridge (behind an open viewport for close-maneuvering use), a two-pod sleeping area, a small room tripling as galley, fab shop, and rest area, and a single-person ‘fresher at corridor end. Limited avionics and life support access is possible through panels in this area; however, there is no pressurized access to the main avionics bay in the starboard near-cylinder or to engineering systems; such access requires EVA. Likewise, if drop pods are carried, access to those (for pre-deployment boarding, say) is only possible through EVA.


From the questions box:

Dear Gentlesoph,
Having been reading your posts, I have a question about AKVs such as the ‘Daggerfan’ and ‘Slasher’ classes. With high-powered lasers capable of doing damage at one light second, how do AKVs survive the 300,000km journey into single kilometer range? As stated in your ‘Nonstandard Starship Scuffles’ post, military vessels use armor woven through with thermal superconductors dumping heat into ‘thermal goo’. I assume this armor/thermal management system applies to AKVs as well, although you also state that point-defense lasers will shred a vessel unfortunate enough to get into very close range. How can an AKV survive at single kilometer ranges long enough to inflict damage on the target? Thank you for your time, I look forward to more posts!

Well, there are two parts to this: how do AKVs close to skin-dancing range, and how do they survive when they get there? I’ll take ’em one at a time.

On the first point: with great difficulty.

If you take a wing of AKVs and throw them at a fresh battleship, all you’re doing is providing its point-defense computers with skeet; they’ll be chaff and charnel before they get anywhere near the inside of the BB’s point-defense zone.

What you have to do is wear it down first. That’s is the job of the non-carriers on your side of the fight: throw a lot of kinetics at the enemy to make their PD work hard. That does three jobs: one, it keeps the PD grid busy in itself; two, any of it that gets through may just take out a chunk of the PD grid; but most importantly, three, by making them run their point-defenses, you’re building up heat in their ship. Your non-carriers also have the job of pumping heat into their ship directly with the big lasers.

That heat, in turn, is going to eat away at their PD efficiency in a variety of ways. Most simply, it’s going to have to cut back on its firing rate once the heat sinks start filling, because otherwise the crew will cook, but also the hardware becomes less efficient, processor error rates go up, and similar badness ensues.

That’s when you send in the AKVs, and you send in a lot of AKVs mingled with a lot of chaff and decoys, swamping the capabilities of the now-degraded PD grid. They won’t all get through – you plan for a lot of them not to – but once the grid’s sufficiently degraded, enough will to ruin the BB’s day.

As for when they’re there? Remember, they’re described as operating within the point-defense envelope, which is to say, inside its inner boundary, which is defined by the minimum effective range of the PD – set by a variety of factors, such as the range at which firing the PD will seriously damage your own ship, but of which probably the most important is the ability of the PD to track the target and slew to fire on it. At the sort of hug-the-hull sub-km range AKVs like to operate at, it doesn’t take much velocity to generate a huge traversal angle, and what you can’t track, you can’t reliably hit.

(And it’s hard for your screen to fire effectively at the AKVs ruining your day, ’cause even discounting the effects of the AKV exploding at point-blank range, every miss will hit you.)

All of which is to say: While there are some subtleties and complexities to the tactics (defense AKVs, screening vessels sharing PD, etc., etc.), the short answer is it takes a lot of work and losses to get an AKV force within range of a target, but once you do, that target is dead meat.


"Vesta acquisition."

In response to the verbal from the autopilot, Dieter Ulans flipped his datavisor in front of his eyes and prepared to take direct command of the massive ring of lasers and reaction engines that was Hercules. He hit the juicer button and felt the rush as the drugs began to wash into his veins. "Com'mon jockey juice!" he whispered and then began to croon: "All my thoughts of you, you, you — all that I've sought is you, you, you." The tiny green symbols on the datavisor began to zip past his eyes at an increasing speed.

His subconscious easily absorbed and processed the information even as his conscious mind took in the blue numbers and symbols on the main screen that showed the gross situation as Hercules and five other ships of the Martian battlefleet began their final approach to Vesta Main Station. "Joey Kolnichok, I know you're here and I'm going to personally fry your tender little parts." The ship thrummed as the main three o'clock engine cut in and changed vector in response to a movement of Dieter Ulan's right ring finger. It was his former classmate he sought — Josip V. Kolnichok — the one who had beaten him out his bid for a cushy transport command and who had also cast aspersions on his loyalty to the company. This had cost Ulans two points on his profit sharing plan and that was a deficit he intended to make up by turning J.V. Kolnichok and the DesJardin into a bright, glowing gas.

"80-80. Ready track. Ready main. On my mark FC to you and...mark!"

A second green line began streaming across the datavisor as Ulans took control of the main laser fire control systems. Every time he blinked, the little green symbols paused. Every time he squinted his eyelids, a bright blue bullseye magically appeared where he looked on the main screen. Just tap your foot when your buddy shows, he thought, and you'll make him a star. He began to click his teeth together. His finger tips sweated in the close-fitting control caps. Only eighteen k-k's from Vesta and still no Company. What had they done — written the station off? The entire ship reached into his heightened awareness. The awesome engines designed to hurl inert cargo on multi-million-kilometer tracks through space. The heavy mining laser converted into a terrifying main weapon now slung in the cargo grapples. The thousands of bits of information from the ship's computers and sensing radars. Where the hell were they? "Come on, you Company fish, swim out into the pan."

From the introduction to the wargame BATTLEFLEET MARS by Redmond Simonsen

Night Killer II was not a beautiful vessel. Satarii fighters are sleek, polished for planetary re-entry, but a space-based interceptor need not be aesthetic. Had I attempted to land on Lot I would have reached the surface in ashes. Night Killer carried her missiles outside the hull in two cylindrical bundles. Radar sweeps and communication aerials were all exposed. Her drive was set on un-streamlined pylons spaced about her stern while the cockpit glass bulged beyond the curvature of her skin, ostensibly for wider vision with less distortion; the effect on the casual observer was that of a mutated hornet's head. And added to this were bundles of thrusters placed strategically about the hull to aid maneuvering. But regardless of her ungainliness, she remained an effective fighting unit, equal and in some ways more than equal to the darting black war craft of the Satarii.

From COMMON DENOMINATOR by David Lewis (1972)

"Pursuit fighters," I told the Ship. "Easily fast enough to catch one of our boats, if they can do it within their limited range. It's limited because they're the only kind of craft designed for dogfight tactics.

They're just enormous multidirectional motors in a spheroid hull with one pilot in the centre and a few missile tubes scattered between the motor vents. Fast maneuvering in space means killing momentum one way as well as building it up in another, so there's murderous acceleration and deceleration every few seconds, with the motor blasting in all directions, eating up hydrogen and putting incredible stress on the pilots. Even with all the aids — liquid suspension cocoons, special suits, body reinforcement, field-shields, the lot — it takes years of training to stand it for more than a few minutes at a time.

The American call fighter pilots Globetrotters, for some old game where you had to bounce a ball all the time. I've been in a fighter simulator once — I came out black and blue, and they say the real thing's worse.

And that's our hope — that Liang can hold them off, make them maneuver so much they'll have to give up, or just outrun them. That's what he's trying to do now, but he's got to be careful. They mustn't box him in and stop him maneuvering, that'd let them swarm over him like hornets, killing the boat or crippling it till the gunships catch up —"

From RUN TO THE STARS by Michael Scott Rohan (1982)
Exacting Class Starfighter
ΔV7,000,000 m/s
Specific Power450 MW/kg
(450,000,000 W/kg)
Thrust power9 terawatts
PropulsionICF Fusion
Thrust3,000,000 newtons
Exhaust velocity6,000,000 m/s
Dry Mass20 metric tons
Wet Mass40 to 65 metric tons
depending upon fuel
Length60 meters
(Whipple shield)
5 meters
(Internal hull)
4 meters
Heat radiator
width (deployed)
30 meters
Heat radiator
width (collapsed)
5 meters
Power plant50 MW Brayton-cycle
w/argon working fluid
ArmamentUV laser (3 turrets)
Spinal coilgun (2)
Exhaust plume

This is a departure from my regular work towards something more speculative; a true “spacefighter”, a small vessel capable of operating both in space and in an atmosphere. Each one of these is an enormously demanding task on its own, hence the hybrid craft must make a number of compromises to fully operate.

A military vessel first and foremost, the starfighter is not a comfortable ride. Variable thrust and gravity will send the pilot rocking, which the gyroscopic cockpit can only do so much to accommodate, and it has no life support, so he must remain in his space suit at all times. The craft is not meant to hold him for more than a few hours — ideally it is only operated from carriers or planetary bases during skirmishes. That being said, the frontal module can be ejected in case of an emergency, at which solar panels unfurl to provide enough power to operate antenna and coordinate a rescue mission. The starfighter’s minimal design lends to easy conversion to a drone or smart-ship, as this only requires putting a decent computer in place of the cockpit.

In battle, the starfighter serves chiefly as an interceptor or assault craft. As an interceptor, it shoots down incoming missiles and directs fire away from more vital ships. When on the attack, the onboard lasers might not be powerful enough to do significant damage to larger ships, but equipped nukes allow it take down a limited number of opponents of any size. Some militaries even prefer them to capital ships, as many can be built for the same cost as a larger vessel and each loss is less of a hit to the fleet, yet in their numbers they are harder to take down.

Firstly, I set up the ship so as to handle a continuous 24 hours of 5 G acceleration with a mass ratio of 2 when exhaust velocity is 2% c (maximum delta-v 1.5% c), which is probably well beyond how it'll generally operate. I figured it could moderate exhaust velocity by only partially igniting the fuel, letting it get that incredible thrust when needed. If helium-3 fuel is used at maximum exhaust velocity, delta-v is tripled, but then power limits acceleration to 1.5 G at most.

Second, the radiators are deliberately shaped to form a delta-wing when fully unfolded, as NASA pages I found on the matter suggested this was best suited for supersonic flight, and the flaps and slats on the side are used to increase lift at lower speeds where this configuration doesn't work so well. The radiators are also used as an aerobrake while landing, and directly dispose of much of the heat built up.

Lastly, the length required for the coilguns made me think they would have to be stationary mounts, making them somewhat less useful than the ship's missile and laser retinues, so they'd likely more often be used for accelerating missiles than as weapons in their own right. To help compensate, they're open on both ends. When the coilguns are to fire backwards, the projectile is moved to the front end, then accelerated back along the full length, letting it be used both ways.

From EXACTING CLASS STARFIGHTER by Zach Hajj (a.k.a. Zerraspace)


A one man fighter spacecraft would be a more effective weapon if you removed the fighter pilot, their life support, and their acceleration limits, and then replaced them with a computer. You would basically be converting the fighter spacecraft into a roving missile bus, and removing the logical justification for the existence of fighter spacecraft altogether. But it would be overwhelmingly more effective. Even over and above the fact you can send them on the equivalent of a suicide mission, since nobody living is onboard.

In other words, hard-science stories are far more likely to have drones in lieu of manned fighters.

If you are an author, try not to think about Burnside's Zeroth Law.


A major consideration behind constructing a spacecraft that is often glossed over is the brain of the spacecraft. In most cases, this is a crew module, or a remote control module relaying orders from somewhere.

But before we discuss crews, what about alternatives? Crew provide decision making, the brains of the spacecraft, as well as providing fine grained manipulation of equipment and tools for repairs, maintenance, and so on.

The fine grained manipulation could be accomplished by minidrones, automated repair bots and the like, though handling unexpected situations is rather tricky without a human or artificial intelligence.

Brains of the spacecraft can be replaced with remote control, or with an artificial intelligence.

Remote control can be spoofed or jammed, but there are countermeasures and counter-countermeasure. The main issue with remote control is the speed of light lag. Beyond high orbit of a moon, for example, the speed of light lag is too great for combat. Additionally, long term journeys have much greater potential for unexpected failure.

This means remote control is restricted to drones and missiles, remotely operated and ordered by the nearest capital ship or celestial body.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an interesting solution to the problem of having crews. Crews are expensive to train, take up precious mass and volume, and require power. On top of that, the heat they need to dump out can be a problem if you want to talk Stealth in Space.

However, AI is more than a series of algorithms running on a laptop. Currently, certain problems of space warfare are best solved with algorithms (see Misconceptions about Space Warfare), such as leading targets hundreds of kilometers away moving at multiple kilometers per second.

On the other hand, other classes of problems are best solved with intelligence and creativity. In particular, how to see through enemy deceptions, laying deceptions, handling unexpected scenarios and failures, and so on are all problems that algorithms would fail badly at. Anything creative or anything an algorithm is not explicitly designed for would throw it for a loop.

That means full blown Artificial General Intelligence is needed for actually commanding a military spacecraft if you want to go without crew. Additionally, it needs to be able to very carefully and precisely control minidrones to repair and maintain a spacecraft.

The field of AI today is nowhere near that sort of capability. However, even if it does progress to being usable in military scenarios, it is unclear if it would be less massive, voluminous, or require less power than humans. The first AIs will likely be extremely massive and require huge amounts of power, and it’s not clear how far they could be miniaturized.

Even when feasible AIs are developed, space militaries would be very hesitant to deploy AI-controlled spacecrafts without at least some human oversight or failsafe.


     Basic Assumptions:
     This paper was written using the following assumptions as a baseline.
     1. Physical laws:
     The laws of physics as we know them still apply. This means that spacecraft move in a Newtonian (or Einsteinian, though this realm is outside the scope of the paper) manner, using reaction drives or other physically-plausible systems (such as solar sails) for propulsion. Thermodynamics dictate that all spacecraft must radiate waste heat, and lasers obey diffraction. The only exception is FTL, which will be included in some scenarios.
     2. Technology:
     The technological background is less constrained. If a system is physically plausible, the engineering details can be ignored, or at most subject to only minor scrutiny. The paper will examine a spectrum of technology backgrounds, but will focus on near to mid-future scenarios, where the general performance and operation of the technology can be predicted with at least a little accuracy. A common term used to describe this era is PMF, which stands for Plausible Mid-Future. This term (coined by Rick Robinson) is difficult to define, but it assumes significant improvements in technologies we have today, such as nuclear-electric drives, fading into those we don’t, such as fusion torches.
     3. Environment:
     This paper will attempt to examine a wide variety of environments in which space combat might occur. However, it will make no attempt to examine all of them, and the scenarios described will conform to several principles.
     First, this is a general theory. Any scenario that is dependent on a one-shot tactic or highly specific circumstance will likely not be included, except during the discussion of the beginnings of space warfare, or to demonstrate why it is impractical in the long run. The recommendations made are not optimal for all circumstances, nor is such a thing possible. They are instead what the author believes would be best for a realistic military based on the likely missions and constraints. Picking highly unlikely and specific sets of circumstances under which they are not optimal is best answered with a quote from the author about one such scenario, posting on the Rocketpunk Manifesto topic Space Warfare XIII: “You need a blockade, a hijacking (innocents aboard a vessel trying to break the blockade), and a high-thrust booster on the hijacked ship. Two stretch the limits of plausibility. The third is ridiculous. Claiming that this justifies humans [onboard warships, see Section 2] is like claiming that because warships sometimes run aground, we should install huge external tires on all of them to help get them off.”
     Second, no attempt will be made to include the effects of aliens or alien technology, because to do so would be sheer uninformed speculation.
     Third, the default scenario, unless otherwise noted, is deep-space combat between two fleets. Other scenarios will be addressed, but will be clearly noted as such.

Nomenclature Note: For the following section, use of the word “drone” should be interpreted, unless otherwise noted, to refer to a full-size vessel that is remotely controlled from within a few light-seconds.  It is not a parasite, nor is it autonomous.  The author is not responsible for his actions if anyone attempts a rebuttal while ignoring the contents of this note.

Much debate has occurred over the subject of unmanned space warcraft, and their advantages and disadvantages vis a vis manned vessels.  While, as in all of these debates, it is sensitive to tech assumptions, analysis of the relative merits makes a very strong case for having the primary battle constellation composed of drones.

Most of the reasons raised for using manned spacecraft over drones break down into three categories: decision-making, maintenance, and flexibility.

Decision-making is based upon the theory that light lag is a significant factor in the effectiveness of a drone, and that putting humans onboard will therefore increase combat effectiveness significantly.  This might be true if the controller is far away, but for the scenario being described here, where the control ship is within a few light-seconds, it is entirely false.  This is because most events in space combat occur over timescales that are entirely different from those upon which human reaction times and light lag work.  Tasks such as kinetic defense will be automated, whether or not the vessel is manned.  Exchanges of long-range laser fire, on the other hand, will occur over much longer timescales then humans react at, while point-blank laser battles will be over in incredibly short times.  Particularly in deep-space combat, much of the decision-making can be executed by computers, subject to human-set rules, faster and just as effectively as if the humans themselves were doing so.  

Maintenance is the issue that is most open for debate.  Online, the divide occurs mostly based on past experience.  Those who have naval service almost always argue that it is impossible to remove humans from this task, while those who do not have such service believe it is.  If as an author, one desired humans onboard ships to fulfill Burnside’s Zeroeth Law (Science fiction fans relate more to human beings than to silicon chips) then maintenance is probably the best reason to give for the presence of humans.

That said, the author believes it is possible to overcome the issue with proper engineering.  Modern naval practice is not necessarily indicative of the limits of technology.  Warships have large crews for damage-control purposes (see below), and there is no particular reason to automate equipment when a large pool of labor is available.  Merchant practice is more relevant, and modern merchant ships have very small crews and low-maintenance equipment.  Spacecraft designers go even farther, with 10 to 15-year lifetimes before failure not uncommon.  During cruise, most of the ship’s systems are not going to be operational.  Those that are include the reactor and drive, upon which all maintenance will be conducted robotically anyway, the thruster system, which is unlikely to require much in the way of maintenance, and the computer systems, which are even less likely to require regular maintenance.  Most of the in-flight maintenance effort aboard a crewed ship will be devoted to the life support.  For those occasions when repairs are necessary aboard a drone, a crew from the tender can transfer over and conduct them.  The drone would be designed with minimal pressurized facilities for exactly that kind of repair.  Depending on the failure rates, there would come a point at which it makes sense for a crew to be permanently stationed aboard.  If the vessel requires an average of 80 man-hours a day, then a crew begins to be viable.  However, that is likely to be a very large ship, at which point the small crew necessary is almost an afterthought.

One thing that must be kept in mind when discussing this is that most thinking on this issue is entirely binary, as influenced by the current situation.  Spacecraft are either assumed to be continuously manned when in use, or to operate with no human assistance whatsoever.  While this is generally the case today, there are exceptions, most notably the Hubble Space Telescope.  The term used to describe such things today is On-Orbit Servicing, and it is a topic that is being closely studied.  

Flexibility really amounts to damage control.  The common use of damage control, though, rests upon a misconception about the nature of that task.  Damage control is not there to put the ship back together after it gets blown apart. That is the job of the shipyard. The damage control crews are there to make sure it gets to the shipyard. (This is not to say that damage control crews never fix anything. Just that they don't do what most SF authors seem to think.) Spaceships don't sink or catch fire. Almost all damage will come from direct hits and the immediate aftereffects, so there is no need for an onboard damage control team.  For more information on the mechanisms of damage in spacecraft, see Section 10.

There might be a small amount that humans can do in the way of damage control, but not all that much. "Humans can keep working when the computers fail" is another red herring. Humans will be giving orders to the computers. If the computers go down, it doesn't matter if the humans are still alive.  They might be able to bring the computers back online, but if the computer system is properly designed, the ship will have to be virtually destroyed before it goes down.  Humans, on the other hand, cannot be distributed throughout the ship in a redundant manner.  In fact, a drone is likely to be capable of continuing to operate with considerably more systems damage than is a manned vessel.

Some commentators on space warfare have imbued humans with a near-mystical and ill-described power to make decisions and do things better than a computer.  They always fail to mention exactly what said things are, and ignore the fact that the decision lag for drones as described here is actually quite minimal, as explained above.  Despite issuing many challenges to advocates of manned space warcraft, the author has never received a single concrete example of this ability that couldn’t be easily picked apart.  This idea has likely grown, as has much else, out of confusion between space flight and traditional air/naval combat.  The author does not wish to become involved in the debate over the relative merits of manned and unmanned aerial combat vehicles, but this seems to be of a type with the claims of the advantage to a man in the cockpit, but the grounds for it are far less firm.

If all else is equal, then a ship with a human crew will likely beat a remote-controlled one, although the vulnerability of the crew to hostile fire should not be underestimated. However, this only applies to the almost preposterous case of two identical ships, each designed for human crew, with one under remote control instead.

However, all else would not be equal in any realistic scenario.  Humans bring large penalties to the table.  The biggest of all is simply mass.  The amount required depends on the duration, ranging from somewhere around a ton per man for a few hours, to an estimated five tons per man for a long-term mission.  For a Plausible Mid-Future (PMF) vessel, the mass penalty of the crew would be highly significant, easily reaching a third of payload mass (weapons, reactors, drives, sensors, etc.) for a typical ‘naval’ crew.  This either significantly hinders the performance of the vessel in question, or drives up the price as bigger power systems, drives, and tankage are required to reach the desired level of performance.

An obvious suggestion is to go with a smaller crew.  If only one person is required to maintain the vessel, why not put him aboard alone?

The simplest reason is human factors.  There are very few people who could stand a six-month tour with no human contact without going insane.  Also, assuming that the single person in question also functions as command crew, the ship has sharply limited endurance at battle stations.  Naval experience has shown that efficiency declines sharply after more than six hours on watch, to say nothing of actual combat.  For a vessel capable of long-term independent operations, the minimum crew is probably somewhere between 16 and 30.  This includes multiple watches of officers, sensor operators, and helmsmen, technicians, and support staff.  While it would be entirely possible to make a vessel with a human crew that is not capable of independent operations, said vessel would sacrifice much of the operational flexibility touted by advocates of manned vessels.  A good example of this is the Russian Project 705 (Alfa-class) submarine, which was initially planned with a crew of 13 officers and one cook, and was eventually placed in service with a crew of 31.  Some of this growth is due to the primitive state of Soviet automation technology, but it shows that these numbers are somewhere in the ballpark for the minimum crew of a warship.  The Project 705 was designed as an interceptor submarine, kept in port until it was needed, and then sent towards the target, so the crew was not sized for long-term operations.  

A drone and tender model would allow significant reductions in the overall personnel requirements of the constellation.  One might point out that the same decisions would have to be made regardless of the location of the crew.  This is entirely true, but the actual number of decisions required to fight a laserstars (combat spacecraft built around a large laser weapon) is quite small.  Facing, thrust, and assigning targets are all that is required.  These decisions can easily be made by one or two men.  Most of the other crew is required due to the need for independent operations (such as sensor operators or second and third watches) or serves as support staff for the crew.  The marginal crew required for each drone is probably between four and six people, less than half of that required by the manned laserstar.

Large crews hold costs beyond the obvious.  Particularly for a space colony, technologically adept humans might be at a premium.  Any reduction in requirements to put said humans in dangerous jobs will be welcome, as, for that matter, would be a reduction in the number of people in the fleet in general.  At the same time, the reduction in the total number of people in harm’s way, and centralization of said people in a few ships, could reduce the human cost of war significantly.  As explained below, it is quite difficult to destroy a properly-used command ship.  It is entirely possible that if a command ship were to be trapped, it would surrender, and that such surrenders would be taken as a matter of course.  In such a scenario, human casualties from space battles would be almost unheard of.

It has been argued that a war with no human risk is inherently less moral, and the lack of casualties would increase the incentive to go to war, and that drones should thus be avoided.  The technical problem with this argument is that it is entirely based on wishful thinking, regardless of one’s moral position on the issue.  To quote Milo, posting in the Rocketpunk Manifesto thread The Last Battleship: “You want warfare (or "predation") to always require putting humans at risk, because that makes war more moral by giving people an extra incentive to avoid it. However, that does not mean that war (or "predation") will always require putting humans at risk. If the technology turns out such that this isn't necessary then, well, tough luck. The laws of physics don't exist to support your moral notions.”

The logistical costs of crews should not be underestimated either.  Supply rates will be a few kg/day/person.  The cost of shipping several tons per year for each crewmember in the fleet will likely be significant, particularly if the fleet is deployed far from home.

Another factor that pushes towards centralization of the humans in the constellation onto a few command ships is the strong economies of scale in crew quarters for a given level of comfort.  Things like exercise equipment and laundry facilities have the same mass for forty people as they do for one person.  While those amenities could be skipped for a single person, quality of life would drop dramatically, compounding the psychological problems mentioned above.

Two more criticisms are usually raised at this point.  First, the vulnerability of drones to hacking and electronic warfare.  Second, the vulnerability of a centralized command ship to a decapitating strike.

The difficulties of creating a reliable command net for the drones are highly overstated.  First, the drones will be using classified custom software, not the latest version of Microsoft Windows.  That alone will make seizing control from the outside much more difficult, although the enemy acquiring a copy of the code through espionage cannot be ruled out, and the possibility should be kept in mind by any user of drones.  In this respect, drones in space are no different than drones used by the military today.

Second, the communication system will be using the best encryptions available.  Cracking high-level modern cryptosystems generally takes lots of supercomputer time, far more then would be available in battle.  The keys would be changed between battles, which would render post-battle cryptography irrelevant.

Third, the communication system would be based on tight-beam lasers, with the drone programmed to automatically reject any signals that do not come from a vessel that was designated as a friendly before battle.  Those same lasers protect against jamming.  Each receiver would have a filter which only allows the laser frequency in question to pass.  The exact frequencies used would be highly classified, leaving broad-spectrum jamming as the only option.  Successful interference would require jammers along the line of sight between the drone and all friendly vessels (the entire constellation would be networked, allowing vessels to bounce commands even if the enemy were to block the direct laser) and very high power levels.  To give some idea of the power levels required, modern laser communications with narrowband filters can be used with the sun directly behind the transmitter.  The use of a particle cloud has been suggested (see Section 7 for more details), but this is impractical, as the particles would have to be deployed directly between the two vessels with a velocity that keeps them there for an extended period of time.  Furthermore, the networking mentioned above would easily defeat this approach, as control would shift to another ship with the only consequence being increased light lag.  Small communications drones deployed around the command ship could complicate this type of attack even more.  The lasers also complicate interception and decryption of the enemy’s transmissions.

Despite these, the possibility of drones being hacked cannot be totally ruled out, and cybersecurity will be an important concern for any user of drones.  Various measures can be implemented to prevent or mitigate the damage done by a hacker, including onboard one-time codes and clever hardware design.  While none of these are totally foolproof, they can reduce the chance of compromise to the point where it would probably be considered an acceptable risk.

Another step that could be taken to mitigate the effects of cyberwar is the use of human overseers aboard drones.  While this may sound like a reversion to normal manning, there are several important distinctions.  First, the crew is likely to be one or two people who have the primary responsibility of making sure the drone is not compromised in battle, instead of being concerned with the job of actually fighting the drone.  Second, they are normally carried onboard the tender, and only transferred to the drone for a maximum of a few days at a time.  This allows facilities aboard the drone to be very primitive, and thus low-mass.  If the drone is compromised, the overseer(s) push a button to switch to a backup set of computers which are not connected to the outside world in any way.  They would then take command, receiving orders from the tender through audio circuits which have no connection to the rest of the ship.  This approach sidesteps the operational problems of small crews while maintaining human control when necessary.

The size and presence of these crews would vary depending on the mentality of the operating power.  A single overseer would be effective at stopping hacking, but he also has the power to take control of the drone on a whim.  It is possible that the risk of an overseer turning traitor would be judged greater than the risk of a ship being hacked, in which case either a 2-man rule might be implemented, or the overseer simply not used.  The single-man solution would probably be used by states that have a high regard for honor and a great deal of trust in their personnel, such as Japan.  The US would be more likely to use a 2-man overseer crew, while the Soviet Union might well decide that it trusts computers more than men, and not even bother.

The vulnerability of a properly handled command ship is also highly overstated.  It is entirely feasible to keep the command ship out of range of the enemy without suffering serious light lag.  This is because weapon ranges in PMF scenarios are quite short compared to the size of space.  Lasers will likely have effective ranges measured in tenths of light-seconds at the outside (see Section 7).  If so, it is entirely possible to place the command ship a light-second or so away from the drones, completely out of range of the enemy’s lasers.  Kinetics do not have a specific range, but the large amount of time they would require to reach the command ship is a serious problem.  Launch velocities are quite low, and even velocities at the outer edge of what we expect to be practical are of little use against vessels at light-second ranges.  A projectile moving at 100 km/s, at the very outside of what might be called plausible on a tactical scale, will still take 50 minutes to cross one light-second.  Incorporating sufficient fuel, not to mention sensors, into such a projectile, is a significant challenge.  Even if it is not detected and destroyed before it takes out the command ship, it might well arrive too late to affect the battle.

The chance of an enemy being able to get to closer range with a well-handled command ship is minimal.  It would require them to make a pass through the constellation’s drones at close range, which is a form of mutual suicide.  For that reason alone, vessels will probably make oblique passes to reduce the risk of the enemy throwing stuff out the airlocks and into their path.  This precludes breaking past the enemy to attack his command ship.  The command ship itself will be on a different trajectory, one designed to give it the best chance of survival if the battle should go poorly.

An interesting point raised during discussion of drones is the potential psychological consequences to the drone operators.  Modern drone pilots apparently suffer more psychological problems than do front-line infantrymen.  It is possible that the same could apply to the operators of drones in space.  There are two things that might mitigate this, however.  The first is that, from the point of view of the operator, there is virtually no difference in the setting between being aboard the combat vessel and the command ship.  The drone will be controlled from a very similar interface to that on a manned vessel.  The second is that, particularly in a general war, the target is likely to be unmanned as well.  The exact effect of these factors on the psychological consequences is unknown, but the concept has story potential. However, authors like Grossman suggest that the problems of modern drone operators are not due to the inherent psychological stresses of killing, and are caused by some other mechanism.  Other research suggests that the mechanism in question is the fact that a drone pilot spends more time over the target and has a far better view than the pilot of a conventional aircraft, exposing them more intimately to combat.  It is obvious that such exposure will not occur with drone space warcraft.

Another suggestion made is that the use of drones is likely to result in better decisionmaking on the part of the operators, as their lives are not in immediate danger if things go wrong suddenly.  An example is a vessel approaching a freighter which suddenly sweeps it with its comm laser.  An onboard crew is significantly more likely to react hastily, due to the added stress caused by the danger to themselves.  This could make drones the vehicle of choice for virtually all missions where no face-to-face interaction is required.  Comm lags during orbital inspection-type missions are likely to be minimal, under 1 second round-trip.

All of the above might be rendered moot by political considerations, as can virtually any military decision.  As Rick Robinson put it, “Your laser star may well have a human crew because the true primary mission is to welcome foreign dignitaries aboard and show off your gleaming uber lasers.”  Do note, however, that the laserstar under discussion was the equivalent of an aircraft carrier today, rare and mostly used for deterrence.  For more common battle laserstars, the same considerations are unlikely to apply.

by Byron Coffey

3D artist Scott Halls has made an amazing website illustrating technical information about Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy. Above are the "Combat Wasps", which are a sort of armed drone. Left to right are the Kinetic Harpoon, Electronic Warfare, Fusion Torpedo, and Particle Beam Cannon Wasps. You can read all the details here.


(ed note: this is about atmospheric aircraft drones, but the same principle can be applied to space drones)

For decades, U.S. military air operations have relied on increasingly capable multi-function manned aircraft to execute critical combat and non-combat missions. Adversaries’ abilities to detect and engage those aircraft from longer ranges have improved over time as well, however, driving up the costs for vehicle design, operation and replacement. An ability to send large numbers of small unmanned air systems (UAS) with coordinated, distributed capabilities could provide U.S. forces with improved operational flexibility at much lower cost than is possible with today’s expensive, all-in-one platforms—especially if those unmanned systems could be retrieved for reuse while airborne. So far, however, the technology to project volleys of low-cost, reusable systems over great distances and retrieve them in mid-air has remained out of reach.

To help make that technology a reality, DARPA has launched the Gremlins program. Named for the imaginary, mischievous imps that became the good luck charms of many British pilots during World War II, the program seeks to show the feasibility of conducting safe, reliable operations involving multiple air-launched, air-recoverable unmanned systems. The program also aims to prove that such systems, or “gremlins,” could provide significant cost advantages over expendable systems, spreading out payload and airframe costs over multiple uses instead of just one.

“Our goal is to conduct a compelling proof-of-concept flight demonstration that could employ intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other modular, non-kinetic payloads in a robust, responsive and affordable manner,” said Dan Patt, DARPA program manager.

The Gremlins program seeks to expand upon DARPA’s Request for Information (RFI) last year, which invited novel concepts for distributed airborne capabilities. It also aims to leverage DARPA’s prior success in developing automated aerial refueling capabilities, as well the Agency’s current efforts to create advanced UAS capture systems for ships.

The program envisions launching groups of gremlins from large aircraft such as bombers or transport aircraft, as well as from fighters and other small, fixed-wing platforms while those planes are out of range of adversary defenses. When the gremlins complete their mission, a C-130 transport aircraft would retrieve them in the air and carry them home, where ground crews would prepare them for their next use within 24 hours.

DARPA plans to focus primarily on the technical challenges associated with safe, reliable aerial launch and recovery of multiple unmanned air vehicles. Additionally, the program will address new operational capabilities and air operations architectures as well as the potential cost advantages.

With an expected lifetime of about 20 uses, Gremlins could fill an advantageous design-and-use space between existing models of missiles and conventional aircraft, Patt said. “We wouldn't be discarding the entire airframe, engine, avionics and payload with every mission, as is done with missiles, but we also wouldn't have to carry the maintainability and operational cost burdens of today's reusable systems, which are meant to stay in service for decades,” he said. Moreover, gremlin systems could be relatively cost-efficient if, as expected, they leverage existing technology and require only modest modifications to current aircraft.

The Gremlins program plans to explore numerous technical areas, including:

  • Launch and recovery techniques, equipment and aircraft integration concepts
  • Low-cost, limited-life airframe designs
  • High-fidelity analysis, precision digital flight control, relative navigation and station keeping

They'll bite through your aileron wires. They'll insert toasting forks in your tyres. That is the tale of the Gremlins.

Imagine a pilot in an expensive fighter jet flying over contested airspace somewhere in the Pacific. A series of blips of appears on the radar: drones staging a coordinated assault. But they’re far out to sea for attack drones — too far, it seems, to make it back to any safe landing spot. How did they get out here?

Like a team of silver-suited circus performers, they encircle the jet in a precise and choreographed dance and begin a series of electromagnetic attacks, jamming the radar and the communications. The jet’s instruments begin to behave strangely. The pilot takes aim but there are too many of them. He’s been swarmed. As quickly as they appear, the drones are gone, vanished into the underbelly of a low-flying bomber that’s now climbing away. With his communications and targeting equipment fried, the pilot must return to base. He’s been effectively neutralized and the culprits are nowhere to be seen.

In what some might regard as a swipe at certain high-priced fighter jets, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, today announced a new program to develop distributed drones that can be recovered in the air via a C-130 transport plane, and then prepped for re-use 24 hours later. They’re calling them Gremlins.

“An ability to send large numbers of small unmanned air systems (UAS) with coordinated, distributed capabilities could provide U.S. forces with improved operational flexibility at much lower cost than is possible with today’s expensive, all-in-one platforms—especially if those unmanned systems could be retrieved for reuse while airborne,” DARPA program manager Dan Pratt said in a statement. “So far, however, the technology to project volleys of low-cost, reusable systems over great distances and retrieve them in mid-air has remained out of reach.”

Hear that expensive, all-in-one platforms? The Gremlins are coming for you.

The agency is looking for some sort of drone system that’s smarter than a missile but cheaper than a jet, good for about 20 uses. “We wouldn’t be discarding the entire airframe, engine, avionics and payload with every mission, as is done with missiles, but we also wouldn’t have to carry the maintainability and operational cost burdens of today’s reusable systems, which are meant to stay in service for decades,” Pratt said.

The term Gremlin refers to a mischievous, technologically-inclined goblin, taken to snipping wires on Royal Air Force, or RAF, planes. It came into popular usage in Britain during World War II, when RAF poets like Hubert Griffith turned the Gremlins into subjects of verse.

When you're seven miles up in the heavens,
(That's a hell of a lonely spot)
And it's fifty degrees below zero
Which isn't exactly hot.
When you're frozen blue like your Spitfire
And you're scared a Mosquito pink,
When you're thousands of miles from nowhere
And there's nothing below but the drink
It's then you will see the Gremlins,
Green and gamboge and gold,
Male and female and neuter
Gremlins both young and old.
It's no good trying to dodge them,
The lessons you learned on the Link
Won't help you evade a Gremlin,
Though you boost and you dive and you fink.
White ones will wiggle your wingtips,
Male ones will muddle your maps,
Green ones will guzzle your Glycol,
Females will flutter your flaps.
Pink ones will perch on your perspex,
And dance pirouettes on your prop;
There's a spherical, middle-aged Gremlin
who'll spin on your stick like a top.
They'll freeze up your camera shutters,
They'll bite through your aileron wires,
They'll bend and they'll break and they'll batter,
They'll insert toasting forks in your tyres.
That is the tale of the Gremlins,
Told by the P.R.U.,
(P)retty (R)uddy (U)nlikely to many
But fact, none the less, to the few."

Legendary author and 80 Squadron RAF pilot Roald Dahl is credited with bringing the concept to the United States, in the form of a children’s book, The Gremlins, published in 1943.

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