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Trek Literature "...Good words. That's where ideas begin."

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Old February 15 2013, 12:22 PM   #1
Jarvisimo
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Aircraft carriers & realism in space

Doug Drexler linked to an article on Foreign Policy on Facebook, entitled 'Aircraft Carriers in Space', an interview with 'with Chris Weuve, a naval analyst, former U.S. Naval War College research professor, and an ardent science-fiction fan'.

It's really interesting, and whilst not a lit subject, I wondered if the authors - who engage more realistically and deeply with 'space physics' and military policy and so on than the writers of the tv shows - would be interested in commenting on it.

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.
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Old February 15 2013, 02:04 PM   #2
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Re: Aircraft carriers & realism in space

There was a very interesting thread about a year ago regarding space fighters and would they be any use against capital ships with shields, computer guided weapons, FTL drive and inertial dampers.

The verdict was that TTF here was little point to fighters, but playing devils advocate, one or two of us made a limited case for them.
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Old February 15 2013, 02:24 PM   #3
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Re: Aircraft carriers & realism in space

Great quote: 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.
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Old February 15 2013, 02:25 PM   #4
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Re: Aircraft carriers & realism in space

Carrier-based fighters would work best for dropping fighters into atmospheric combat and recovering them after.

I've always seen space combat as more likely to be a mix of WW2 style capital ships and submarines... In dramatic terms submarines make sense because, like starships, they have to be self-contained against an inimical environment outside the hull...
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Old February 15 2013, 04:39 PM   #5
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Re: Aircraft carriers & realism in space

Δ Good point.

The main use for fighters I could come up with was strategic - whilst little or no use in space combat they are relatively cheap and mass produceable and deployment in numbers would force an enemy to spread their capital ships over a wide area to nullify their effect.
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Old February 15 2013, 05:02 PM   #6
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Re: Aircraft carriers & realism in space

I think using fighters at all is an outmoded idea. Even in the present day, there are more drone pilots than fighter pilots in the US Air Force. Drone technology has advanced to the point that there's little need to risk a person's life by sticking them in a fighter -- and in an SF/space-battle context, an uncrewed drone can perform better than a fighter, because it doesn't need to waste mass and power on life support and radiation shielding and can accelerate far harder.

The one advantage to live pilots in a space-combat situation is that there's no lightspeed time lag for remote control. Autonomous smart drones are another possibility, but there are ethical questions with taking humans out of the decision-making loop. Still, in such a case it might make more sense to keep the pilots in a well-shielded command ship that controlled an armada of drones that stayed within a light-second of it.
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Old February 15 2013, 05:42 PM   #7
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Re: Aircraft carriers & realism in space

I would love more allusions to drone combat in Trek: it makes so much more sense, for many of the reasons Chris outlines. Indeed, Cold Equations had drone bodes, and Enterprise drone ships, so why not low-cost drone 'fighters'? Indeed given the miraculous ability of a ship like Voyager to apparently manufacture shuttles ad infinitum, drones could make a quick and dirty way of putting capital killing weapons into places of maximum effect and zero survivability. Although such brute force is more reflective of the nihilism of the Romulan War, the TOS Federaton-Klingon conflict (as seen especially in Vanguard), the Dominion War and Destiny than any other 'period'.
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Old February 15 2013, 06:01 PM   #8
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Re: Aircraft carriers & realism in space

Jarvisimo wrote: View Post
Indeed given the miraculous ability of a ship like Voyager to apparently manufacture shuttles ad infinitum...
Nothing miraculous about it, at least no more miraculous than the replicators in the mess hall. If they could replicate food, they could replicate shuttle components just as easily. All you need is the raw materials and the pattern, and a team of engineers to assemble the components, as we were shown outright in "Extreme Risk." Heck, we're on the verge of a very similar technology today with 3D printing.


As for the use of drones in Trek, there have always been far fewer robots depicted in the franchise than there should be. Why don't they send down robot probes to survey new planets before risking a landing party? Where are the maintenance robots that keep the ship clean and perform repairs in hazardous environments? We don't even see Starfleet crews using waldos to manipulate mysterious alien technologies within quarantine chambers -- they just work with them by hand, usually right next to the warp core.
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Old February 15 2013, 06:32 PM   #9
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Re: Aircraft carriers & realism in space

Successful jamming or any other interruption of communication is all it takes to render remotely piloted drones ineffective. In science fiction, the sensibilities of the author determine whether fighters are practical in-universe. For example, AI was not an option in nuBSG, since it was too easy for the Cylons to usurp, and the consequences too grave.

Whether fighter craft will play an important strategic role in our actual future in the long term is impossible to predict, because of the dynamic nature of the evolution of countermeasures. However, fighters remain part of the US arsenal, and will do so for the foreseeable future, despite our increased reliance on drones. Outmoded weapons still matter, especially against soft targets. Even if fighters should someday fall completely out of favor in the US Air Force (a big if), other countries will still use them in theirs, I guarantee you. And, special forces use all kinds of weapons, whatever is effective for the particular mission in question.
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Old February 15 2013, 06:36 PM   #10
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Re: Aircraft carriers & realism in space

CorporalCaptain wrote: View Post
Successful jamming or any other interruption of communication is all it takes to render remotely piloted drones ineffective. In science fiction, the sensibilities of the author determine whether fighters are practical in-universe. For example, AI was not an option in nuBSG, since it was too easy for the Cylons to usurp, and the consequences too grave.
But surely it would be more interesting for a science fiction writer to portray a new mode of combat specific to space and future technology, rather than fudging space and future technology in order to justify clinging to WWII or Top Gun fighter-combat tropes.
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Old February 15 2013, 07:17 PM   #11
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Re: Aircraft carriers & realism in space

Christopher wrote: View Post
CorporalCaptain wrote: View Post
Successful jamming or any other interruption of communication is all it takes to render remotely piloted drones ineffective. In science fiction, the sensibilities of the author determine whether fighters are practical in-universe. For example, AI was not an option in nuBSG, since it was too easy for the Cylons to usurp, and the consequences too grave.
But surely it would be more interesting for a science fiction writer to portray a new mode of combat specific to space and future technology, rather than fudging space and future technology in order to justify clinging to WWII or Top Gun fighter-combat tropes.
That depends.

If it's done interestingly and imaginatively, then I wholeheartedly agree! I'm always interested in looking at science fiction that explores how the human condition might change under the impact of hypothetical technology.

On the other hand, if there's a heavy-handed and unfounded bias behind the shaping of that hypothetical technology, then that's a lot less interesting. The history of warfare has shown that even obsolete weapons matter, especially in particular instances. For a humorous example in SF film, from the boot camp in Starship Troopers, consider the throwing knife that keeps the hand from pushing the button. All humor aside, knives matter, even in the nuclear age.

Plenty of people find Star Wars interesting, so the idea that human-piloted fighters in space is per se uninteresting is a dog that don't hunt, as the saying goes.

While it's clear that it typically has been that way, it doesn't follow that the only reason to retain human-piloted fighters in SF would be to cling to WWII/Top Gun tropes. I mean, suppose there really are human-piloted fighters in space in the real world 500 years from now. Figuring out how they might actually be deployed, and why, would be an exercise worthy of applying one's imagination, yes? It might not look anything like Top Gun, even from afar. Maybe no one lives long enough to be an ace anymore. Maybe computer viruses and jamming are so effective that there simply is no alternative.

Kirk and Spock used bows and arrows against a Klingon with a hand phaser, and that Klingon was killed by a similarly primitive weapon, effectively wielded. The Enterprise was once even vulnerable to a real world interceptor in the 1960's, requiring the use of her tractor beam.

It's simply unreasonable to argue that fighter craft have no place at all ever in the Star Trek universe. But I'm not looking for Star Trek to imitate Star Wars, if that's what you're getting at.
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Old February 15 2013, 07:24 PM   #12
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Re: Aircraft carriers & realism in space

True enough!

However in the modern world one reason drones work well is that the people the US and other drone-operating nations are spying on, and dropping stuff on, are hardly equipped to neutralize them. Short of shooting at drones with small arms and the occasional rocket launcher, they cannot jam radio signals or otherwise disrupt the command of the drones from their home base. This is hardly an issue with the enemies of today, but should one nation face another that also has advanced ECM technology, drones will become useless especially in a combat role.

The list of potential, technologically-advanced US adversaries is really short these days, but should something ever kick off in China (as if, but bear with me), manned fighters would almost certainly be used to fight for air superiority first. Drones would be reduced to surveillance and remote operations where the odds of it being jammed or shot down are low. True autonomous combat for drones is a pipe dream right now, but if something reliable that doesn't result in Judgement Day comes along, sure - we'll have drones doing ALL of our force projection for us.

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Old February 15 2013, 08:03 PM   #13
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Re: Aircraft carriers & realism in space

Relayer1 wrote: View Post
There was a very interesting thread about a year ago regarding space fighters and would they be any use against capital ships with shields, computer guided weapons, FTL drive and inertial dampers.

The verdict was that TTF here was little point to fighters, but playing devils advocate, one or two of us made a limited case for them.
This discussion has come up more than once in Trek Tech as well, and it's always interesting. I think one common mistake that's made is the assumption that fighters would be deployed against capital ships, and that's not their function if they're to be considered analogs of modern fighters. Their function is to be air/space superiority fighters or perhaps attack/support fighters, which means they'll fight enemy fighters and perhaps ground forces. This is how they behave in series like Star Wars and Babylon 5 where fighters are common.

Capital ships are geared for fighting other capital ships and big targets, so there's no reason for fighters do to so unless they have numerical superiority, better tactics, or they have enough support (big ships) to pull it off.

Christopher wrote: View Post
I think using fighters at all is an outmoded idea. Even in the present day, there are more drone pilots than fighter pilots in the US Air Force. Drone technology has advanced to the point that there's little need to risk a person's life by sticking them in a fighter -- and in an SF/space-battle context, an uncrewed drone can perform better than a fighter, because it doesn't need to waste mass and power on life support and radiation shielding and can accelerate far harder.

The one advantage to live pilots in a space-combat situation is that there's no lightspeed time lag for remote control. Autonomous smart drones are another possibility, but there are ethical questions with taking humans out of the decision-making loop. Still, in such a case it might make more sense to keep the pilots in a well-shielded command ship that controlled an armada of drones that stayed within a light-second of it.
I'm not convinced it's entirely outmoded, and I think one other advantage of living pilots is their ability to learn, think and react better than drones with a degree of autonomic programming. A human pilot might succeed using a tactic that shouldn't work by all the logic of their situation, where a drone might not be able to view past its programming and eventually fail. I have often found this to be true with a lot of the chess programs I've tried, that the game is less rewarding because the AI's programming makes it less likely to make mistakes than even a skilled human champion. It's more likely to choose the best possible move in any given circumstance, with the result that most games become a stalemate.

That being said, though, the Battletech universe did have a highly sophisticated space defense system which was designed to protect the Terran system at all costs, and which included a high degree of automation and sophisticated programming. It was never designed to function entirely without human supervision, but the drones did benefit from upgrades like extra weapons and better engines to replace their normal crews, and the ability to function as pure weapons. They were also programmed in all of the known tactics that had been developed for traditional militaries at that point, which made the system a very difficult enemy to destroy.
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Old February 15 2013, 08:14 PM   #14
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Re: Aircraft carriers & realism in space

^It's a good point about the value of human adaptability, but there's little there that would require those humans to be jeopardized by sitting inside one-person guided missiles rather than in a bigger, more heavily shielded battleship. The reason for the aircraft-carrier-and-fighter paradigm is to project power beyond the horizon. There are no horizons in space. If you just want to shoot at stuff, it makes more sense to use missiles or drones. If it's a situation that requires human decision-makers on-site, then why not just send a larger ship? If it's a question of speed, a larger ship would presumably have more powerful engines and could go faster (although there would be some tradeoff from its greater mass).

In short, we just shouldn't start with the assumption that there will be fighters like there've always been and then make up rationalizations for it. That's backward reasoning. Space combat would probably be as different from aerial combat as aerial is from ground combat. It would be better to start by figuring out the conditions and parameters that would probably arise in space combat and then derive, from first principles, what the optimal strategies and tactics for dealing with them would be. If such an unbiased process somehow managed to produce one-person fighter craft as a viable response to a given situation, then okay, I'd be persuaded. But making up excuses to justify fighter craft because you want there to be fighter craft is just fighting the last war. It doesn't feel as creative or as honest to me.
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Old February 15 2013, 08:34 PM   #15
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Re: Aircraft carriers & realism in space

Christopher wrote: View Post
^It's a good point about the value of human adaptability, but there's little there that would require those humans to be jeopardized by sitting inside one-person guided missiles rather than in a bigger, more heavily shielded battleship. The reason for the aircraft-carrier-and-fighter paradigm is to project power beyond the horizon. There are no horizons in space. If you just want to shoot at stuff, it makes more sense to use missiles or drones. If it's a situation that requires human decision-makers on-site, then why not just send a larger ship? If it's a question of speed, a larger ship would presumably have more powerful engines and could go faster (although there would be some tradeoff from its greater mass).
Space is not empty. Star Trek provides all sorts of horizons in space: Hiding behind moons and planets, hiding in nebulae, hiding in sensor blind spots, being invisible to sensors, and using cloaking devices are just some of the ways that fields of view are limited in space.

As far why not encase each person in invulnerable armor, even in Star Trek there is opportunity cost. Replicators may eliminate scarcity for things like food, clothing, and shelter against weather on Earthlike planets, but they evidently cannot themselves alone solve the problem of the scarcity of exotic (super-dense?) materials required to construct advanced and magical Treknology. There are only so many Galaxy-class starships to go around. There are far more runabouts.

And even if you make the point of your spear first-class, there's always your rear that might be outflanked. Not every cubic parsec of space is equally well protected. Not every freighter has Galaxy-class shield generators (let's just say that none do).
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