Space Warfare, Modern

Unsystematic notes by Admiralett 4434 'Chariot' of Castaldo Violence Equities, NoCoZo

The Battleship Ineal
Image from Kentsuku CG world copyright

In this enormous chessboard of a battle, we were insignificant pieces, dwarfed in size and firepower compared to the vast horde of the coherent ship-swarm that was the local spatial manifestation of Caretaker. Thousands upon thousands of spheres ranging from millimeters to kilometers across, clustered together into functional units only vaguely analagous to what baseline humans might term dreadnoughts, capital ships, transports, cruisers, destroyers, surface bombardment, close-orbit supremacy gunships, ground supremacy gunships, mechanized armor, infantry, synsects, and nanoswarms....

With EMP and microwave saturation complete, unseen even to my expanded vision (taken from the locally-centered exponential weighted sum of the total available sensor platforms and processed for realtime tactical information), a constellation of microspheres and assorted odd shapes resembling ancient biological specimens fell: a giant, invading nanounit plague settling around the volume of the planet, smothering all resistance.
"Even with your limited memory, you must recall seeing this sort of thing dozens of times."
"Yes, Cara, and as I recall with my feeble mentation, you never use exactly the same tactics twice, yet the endgame always looks the same."
"Well, you appreciate that very limited simulation of warfare invented by your forebears called chess? Even that relatively simple game has more moves than can be easily totalled by your consciousness."
"It still always looks the same, or nearly so. But then, I suspect you don't unfreeze me until the endgame."

from 'dragon's teeth' by adam getchell

Sun Tzu began his art of war by listing five factors that determines the outcome of warfare: the relationship between superiors and their inferiors, the climate, geography, the personal characteristics of the general and logistics. In space warfare the second, third and fifth factors take on very different meanings relative to traditional warfare.

In space there are very few unpredictable changes in environment. Unless the fight occurs close to a star or planet, or is dependent on radiated energy for powering solar cells there is no weather. Solar storms and nuclear detonations might obscure signals to some extent, but this is a minor problem for modern communications. We hence turn to the other two factors, as well as how technology affects space warfare and the importance of stargates.


Geography becomes more complex in space. Space is 1) open, 2) big. Despite being trivial observations, it took both hu and ai several centuries to fully adapt from the 2+1 dimensional combat on Earth to true space combat.

The openness of space makes it harder to exploit the "terrain". If you can be seen, you can be hit. There are very little that can serve as cover. Planets, asteroids, large habitats and orbital junk gain strategic value by their ability to obscure parts of space in addition to their potential as bases or objectives.

The size of space is the factor that truly changes space combat from traditional combat. It is both a question of the distances involved and its three/four-dimensionality.

Distances being large, ships must use high speeds to reach targets, which means that when they meet they have significant relative velocities making contacts brief. An object nearly stationary in the reference frame of one ship will impact the other with a high speed, possibly doing fatal damage. However, since the distances are so vast physical contact is nearly impossible to achieve by accident - hitting something must be done deliberately over thousands of kilometres of distance with at least tens of kilometres per second (and often much more) velocity difference.

In three dimensions many more possible places become available to a moving ship after a certain amount of time than if it had been travelling two-dimensionally on a surface or even worse, along a one-dimensional road. This greater manoeuvrability translates into the "slipperiness" of space combat. It is impossible to hold lines, block or pin down the enemy, while evasive actions, circumnavigation and quick escapes are easy.

The size and dimensionality of space makes it possible to hide using distance. If an enemy doesn't know where you are and you do not emit any telltale radiation, the search volumes can grow so large that contact is nearly impossible. If a ship has sensors that can detect another ship at a million kilometres distance, and the hidden ship is within a 1 cube AU volume, the chance of finding it by sampling a random position is little more than one in a million. In interstellar space distances are so large that it is practically impossible to find anything hiding, something which has been exploited since the dawn of interstellar travel.

The size of interstellar space makes it possible to send entire fleets through enemy lines with little chance of being discovered before reaching their target. Borders have no meaning, blockades are nearly impossible unless tightly surrounding a planet or habitat.

To make matters even harder, space is truly four-dimensional. Everything is moving, and it is not just distances that matter but also their relative speeds and timing.

In a two-dimensional battle it is possible to encircle an enemy, but in space it is usually nearly impossible to englobe an enemy. The number of ships needed would be large, and as a general rule it is always possible to turn around any block in space. What can be done is to exploit orbital dynamics, so that placing a long-range weapon in the preferred path towards a target will force enemies to either move through the range of fire or bend away, forcing them into slow or less useful paths. This strategy was very successful in the Solsys Era as ships could not waste much fuel and largely moved along low-acceleration trajectories. Today many ships can spend enough fuel and acceleration to get back into the right trajectory, but the method still tends to slow them and can buy defenders valuable time.

Space combat is actually combat in phase space, the six dimensional space of position and velocity. The leader that can exploit the peculiarities of the local phase space will have a great advantage. Gravity acts by bending trajectories, different velocity vectors enable different kinds of attack and the asymmetries induced by stars and planets in visibility provide great creative material.

Planets, megastructures, orbital habitats and asteroids are sitting ducks. Their positions can be known with great accuracy, and they cannot dodge any incoming fire. Although planets and some megastructures are protected by their sheer bulk, in general such major structures are too vulnerable to have much military value. Instead military installations are kept small, mobile and placed in awkward orbits or deep space in order to make them hard to reach. Major structures in general are kept almost totally civilian in order to avoid drawing enemy fire, although in some cases more ruthless polities include sensitive military systems in the highest population regions hoping enemies are too humane to attack them. Most armaments of planets and habitats are intended for policing as well as deflecting incoming meteors and junk.

Information and Logistics

In space combat information is the scarcest commodity. The nature of space combat makes communications hard. It is not just the demands of stealth that makes it hard to communicate, but also the long delays. If the battle moves fast, messages will not be able to catch up with a fast ship before it is too late.

Lightspeed delays means ships have to wait for long periods of time before getting information about the status of each other. This makes giving orders even more complex, as an order may be received when it is no longer relevant or new events have superseded it. One solution that is commonly used is order sets, detailed instructions combined with information about what conditions the different orders are relevant. They act as programs for what to do when and where if something happens. But their performance is only as good as the strategy of their creator, its grasp of likely events and how they are implemented by the individual ships. In the end, space combat always depend on the abilities of individual ships rather than any central general - just as in economics, the centralised leader will lack enough information to make informed decisions, while the individual agents might lack overview but at least know what is going on.

Autonomous weaponry is a logical outcome: devices and ships acting on their own. But there is no fixed border between a tool, an autonomous device and a soldier. What happens is that leadership by necessity has to be distributed. In Sun Tzu's day the voice volume of the general was an important factor: if he could not be heard, he could not be obeyed. Today every ship has to be its own general - or contain a copy of the general.

Detecting where anybody is without being found yourself constitutes the central problem. It is the key to successful attack as well as defence. Sensor systems used in space warfare can be active, or passive. A ship in stealth mode is hard to discover without using an active sensor like a radar or ladar, and that will reveal the searcher's location like shining a beacon. Some arms systems use disposable radar drones to determine where everybody is, and then tightbeam it to the ships. But in general active sensors are vulnerable to countermeasures, jamming, radiation from explosions, hiding behind objects or in the vastness of space.

Passive sensors are harder to use but often necessary. The existence of a ship is impossible to hide perfectly, but discovering them in the world of modern stealth and deception technology is hard. Reflected electromagnetic radiation, heat emissions, plasma trails, neutrinos from drives, gravity waves from fields and occultations of remote stars can all reveal a ship's location, but can also be hidden using various means. These means can be pierced, but you have to know what to look for - creating yet another spiral of deception and counter-deception. Any piece of information about enemy capabilities and strategies is valuable as it helps figuring out what systems to look for, but look out: it could also be deception.

The best defence against this is not to give the enemy time to discover where you are. If you move at a relativistic speed, you move nearly as fast as your information. The enemy has very little time to prepare for you when you suddenly appear. The same goes for relativistic missiles, the bane of slowly moving targets. A missile moving at 0.99c will give the target only 1% of the flight time to prepare itself if the launch can be seen, and far less if it has to be detected by a sensor which then beams back the message. Combined with low-profile antimatter weaponry the result is nearly invisible weapons of mass destruction that in practice cannot be avoided if you don't move relativistically. Secure communications can be created with quantum cryptography, but the bandwidth is extremely limited. Like tightbeam messaging it also relies on both parts knowing where they are. If the ships do not know where their friends are, they cannot contact them without revealing their location. This is another factor contributing to the democratisation of space combat compared to planetary warfare.

The most feared aspect of information is perversion: being infiltrated with enemy code. Especially an enemy of a higher singularity level is often capable of insinuating dangerous information in broadcasts. It may not be subversive software per se, but could just as well be memes or disinformation. Many ships have extremely rigid security around their communications systems, and may even refuse communication except according to some pre-set schedule.

In a battle for a solar system, orbital superiority and information superiority have to be achieved. Without your control over space, the enemy will be able to go anywhere while you can't. Without your control over information, the enemy will know and you won't.


The basic question in space combat is specific impulse (abbreviated as Isp): how much acceleration can a ship achieve how fast for how long? This determines how quickly the ship can make its future position in phase space uncertain, as well as where it can reach. In the old days of the Solsys Era impulse was low, and space combat took very long time and involved predictable trajectories. Later Isp increased to the extent of enabling fast classical space combat, and finally to the level that space combat is strongly relativistic. Each of these forms of combat work differently. In relativistic combat information about the current state is hard to discover, in fast classical combat stealth, shielding and weapons are paramount and in the old slow combat planning and surprise.

Classical combat is practically never experienced today outside barbarian systems in the Outer Volumes. It is slow, and hinges on careful planning, surprise and targeting abilities. Battles often take place near planets simply because the ships cannot reach each other in interplanetary space. Evasive actions are hard to do, so incoming projectiles have to be destroyed far from the ship with particle beams or other projectiles. Long range accurate weapons have a great advantage, and the possibilities for stealth are great. This form of combat has been described as hide and seek with bazookas.

As the Conversion Drive became available ships could no longer easily hide their exhaust. Instead combat became extrovert: ships accelerated towards each other using high Isp, launched drones and missiles able to accelerate even more strongly and in short battlebursts the military software and hardware settled the struggle. Ships could not dodge and were easy targets, so shielding expanded. The problem was that shields cannot protect against everything, so the nature of the enemy's shielding often determined which weapons were effective.

Some groups have vastly different approaches, mainly due to superior technology. Keter is known for the "Moons and Gnats" tactics. They employ ISO warships (sometimes called warworlds), or other megastructures employing massive reactionless drives to move. These warships contain hyperturing capabilities and act both as motherships, mobile headquarters and constructors of whatever the hyperturings come up with. They are never sent frivolously; either they battle an inferior enemy that cannot strike at them, or the battle is so important that even megastructures can be risked. The other side of the tactic is the gnat fighter swarm. Using godtech a submillimetre-sized fighter can be made using magmatter and powered with matter-energy conversion. These microscopic fighters have the destructive capabilities of conventional nanotech fighters, but combine elements of missiles with flexible space fighters. A common approach of the governing intelligences (often copies of a single pilot entity residing in the moon ISO) is to convert part of the ship into energy for beam weapon firing, but if it can get close enough it will self-destruct and release its entire mass-energy on the target.

Reactionless drives have the advantage of allowing extreme accelerations, sometimes (when Halo Drives are employed) with usually minor forces on the ship. This created the "modern" sneak-rush-dodge tactics: ships sneak around, trying to find the enemy without revealing their positions. Once identified the ship accelerates to a high speed straight at the enemy, launching weapons and dodging possible incoming threats. Reactionless drives also enable extreme versions of "butterfly flight", wildly unpredictable fluttering of the acceleration vector that makes the ship hard to hit but also very noticeable and energy consuming when attempted using a reaction drive.

Reusable reactionless drive boosters are the preferred way of delivering ordnance to targets at relativistic speeds.

Nuclear weapons are less efficient in space than on planets, because ships are commonly well shielded and the radiation is quickly dissipated in the vastness of space. The X-rays that would have created a fireball on a planet will now just radiate away. Unless the detonation is extremely close to the ship (within tens of kilometres) it will merely be temporarily blinding and set up an obscuring cloud of debris (which can be useful). However, kinetic nuclear weapons are designed to accelerate a cone of fragments and particles at a target region and have a powerful "shotgun" effect that can deal even with a wildly dodging ship.

Antimatter weapons have roughly the same problem as nuclear weapons, but have the advantage of being much smaller. Tiny antimatter missiles are currently the most efficient and fast means of bringing large amounts of destruction to bear on a target. Antimatter explosions tend to produce clouds of ambiplasma, a mixture of matter and antimatter too hot and low-density to react quickly. These clouds have excellent obscuration abilities.

Drone weapons and missiles with limited autonomy are the most common weapons in modern space combat, since they can get close to the target and make local decisions fast enough to hit it. They can also set up a complex information network of allied equipment for one's side to exploit, although this may also be vulnerable to infowar.

Space mines have been developed, and can be used to protect strategic points in phase space. They are little more than stealthy targeting and weapon systems that wait for something to pass within range that does not have the right IFF code, and then reveal themselves in an attempt to destroy the target. Conventional beam, missile and nuclear mines are fairly accepted.

Ship-mounted beam weapons are mainly useful for defending against approaching missiles rather than killing enemies, unless they can be launched at close range by a drone. Much larger beam weapons are possible and may send beams across distances ranging from millions of kilometers to light-years. However, such systems are usually limited to large, fixed installations.

Modern fleets are able to replicate most resources during a campaign. Given enough energy from solar panels or conversion technology, and matter from an asteroid or other deep space object, nearly anything can be built. This makes space wars less dependent on strong industrial capacity at home, as the fleets can "live off the land".

Replicator weaponry is the logical outcome of flexible autonomous industrialisation. When it is used, time becomes essential: the group that first seeds a system with its technology will gain an exponential advantage over the latecomer, that can only be broken by superior tactics or some unexpected ace in one's sleeves.


One class of structure that has enormous military importance is wormholes. Often a system's strategic value is more based on which gates exist than the value of any planets or habitats. Achieving control over the gates is the number one priority in any form of interstellar warfare; without wormhole control a defender is cut off from outside help and an attacker from home. Hence wormholes are one of the few places where englobement can be attempted: defensive systems surround them, and unannounced arrivals are promptly dispatched.

Wormholes are also weapons in themselves. Even a small stargate is a massive spacetime warp whose energy can be released in a powerful detonation if it is too damaged. During the Version War wormhole destruction destroyed or severely damaged entire solar systems - This has generally led to such tactics being condemned and forbidden by treaty.

Wormholes change the distances involved in space combat and even the topology of war. Instead of physical distances it makes more sense to measure which stargate paths can reach the destination and what the conditions are at the intervening systems. By seizing a system on a strategic stargate path it becomes possible to completely divide an entire empire into two parts using very little force. It would be impossible to divide an empire into two by invading systems in a relativist manner along some dividing plane, since enemy fleets could still pass through the occupied region in interstellar space.

Wormholes are often imagined to be useful for tactical communications between a fleet and its base. Unfortunately a stable wormhole large enough for communication has a sizeable mass, several billion tons. This makes it impractical for nearly all military operations.

In recent times portable wormholes have been used in a few high level theatres such as the Paradigm War (where the two local ISOs maintained wormhole connections) and the campaign against the Amalgamation. During the Oracle War all wormhole connections in the region were closed to avoid damage to the Nexus.

Military linelayers were used during the Version War to bring a wormhole to a minor system close to the enemy target, expand it rapidly, and then let a fleet through. This had the benefit of allowing fleets to be active while the stargate was in transit rather than having to tie them up for a long relativistic trip. While it only risked a single ship, it also risked a very expensive wormhole and introduced a noticeable security risk if the enemy could seize the gate. Today the method is mainly used by the Laughter Hegemony, and is one contributing factor to the speed it has managed to expand.

Image from Michael Tan Copyright Image

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Development Notes
Text by Anders Sandberg
Initially published on 14 March 2001.