Thoughts on Sci-Fi starship combat

So I was thinking about how to do capital ship combat in my books, and was comparing my ideas to the common standards out there (Star Trek, Star Wars, etc), and realized that a lot of realism has been sacrificed in the name of cinema.  Star Wars is the worst offender, with a couple of Trek films actually being fairly close to what I would call accurate, such as The Undiscovered Country and Nemesis.

Why would a captain take his trillion dollar ship and park it next to the enemy, then blast the snot out of each other until one of them explodes?  A quote, I believe from Admiral Horatio Nelson, says that “no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.”  That was fine when ships were powered by wind and sail, but if we’re talking combat in space, we need to think about how our technology would be used.

Combat would, in my opinion, happen much like modern day.  Ships would have some close-in defenses (the US Navy’s CIWS for shooting down missiles), direct-fire lasers (the 5 or 3 inch guns) and long range torpedoes (cruise missiles or even Harpoon/Exocet).  The idea would be to not let your ship be hit by the enemy.  We must assume that any weapon would be packed with explosives, and therefore standing off to the longest safe range would be the most practical solution.  In addition, fighters and attack craft would be used to weaken or destroy enemy ships at range.

There is a concept for surface combat from the battleship age called the Immune Zone.  Very simply put, it’s a range of distance in which the ship’s armor (or in the case of my novels, shields and armor) can stop a particular gun’s shells.  In old-time surface combat, ships were usually designed with an immune zone constructed to resist the same type of shells that were being fired.  The lower range is that at which the vertical face armor could defeat a direct hit, and the upper number is the maximum range at which the ship’s horizontal armor could protect against plunging fire.  Within this range is a ship’s best chance for survival- it’s defenses are most effective, and it’s own shells are at optimum range as well.  Not exactly Immune, but you get the idea.  In my novels, minimum range is determined by shielding, and maximum is determined by point defense systems that would shoot down incoming torpedoes.  Within that range, the ship’s weapons are most effective while defenses are given their best chance of protecting the vessel.

Laser fire, in my mind, breaks down into two types- sustained beam and the Star Wars style jacketed energy blast.  Either way, there has to be a maximum effective range, determined by the ability of the beam or energy packet to hold together and be close enough to the enemy that he can’t simply just change course and have the incoming fire miss. Of course, there is room for some sort of high-tech long range laser that manages to hold itself together, in which case it might be better than the torpedo.  The laser couldn’t be spoofed, and if you could see your target and account for it’s possible movement, your beam could hit it.

Torpedoes, in my mind, are the premier space weapon.  They would be fire-and-forget, follow their target, and pack a serious punch.  They could be stealthy, and be launched, steered to a new vector, then activated, much like the modern sub launched torpedo.  Unlike Star Trek, where every torpedo that’s fired seems to hit, I would imagine a CIWS analogue that would track and shoot down incoming torpedoes.

I realize that most of these cinema oddities are done in the name of entertainment; crowds wouldn’t be very excited if a space battle consisted of watching a ship launch torpedoes into the distance, then try to shoot down the incoming enemy torpedoes.  Not nearly as much drama as a Star Destroyer and a Mon Cal ship blasting it out toe to toe.  Still, which battle would you rather be a part of, one where you stood a chance of your ship coming through with minimal damage, or one in which you were guaranteed a close range slugfest?

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