War In Space

What would war in space really be like?

sci fi often throws in its hat, but never seems much like real wars in any of the places we have had it (land, sea, air, long distance war). All science fiction seems like something thats wholely unmilitary or something that is just sea battles in space.

what are the issues of fighting in space? zero cover and high fragility of ships seems very important. assumeing no magic new technology before said war started(everything is just improvements on current technology). (say… earth vs china’s mars colony 2100AD).

I don’t know this is a totally factual question, but I want more proof than speculation… is there any research in the idea? any plans developed? any study of how war translates to new enviroments? any comment on the issues fighting in space that might be important? difficultys? weapons that would not work well or would work very well? reasons it would be impossible?

War in 2080 by David Langford takes a look at the issue from a factual point of view. It’s a non-fiction work that explains how space based combat would work (no Z-beams glittering in the darkness by the Tanhauser Gate). He covers everything from swords to beam weapons (including “death rays”), also interstellar drives (no FTL unless someone figures out a loophole in Einstein’s equations).

It’s even got photos of a 2,000 joule laser being tested! (Can’t see much, other than colored globs floating in air.)

It depends on what you mean by “fighting in space.” ICBMs travel outside the atmosphere for the most part, and there are various schemes (SDI aka Star Wars and the more recent missile defence program) that try to destroy the missiles in space.

Spy satellites are already an important part of the military operation. So naturally, both the Soviet Union and the US developed and tested missiles capable of destroying enemy satellites. Do a google search for “anti-satellite system” or “anti-satelite missile” and you’ll see plenty of examples.

The Soviet Union had a manned military space station at one point, the Almaz OPS, aka Salyut 3. It was primarily a reconnaissance platform, but it was equipped with a 23-mm gun for self defence. Apparently the gun was successfully test-fired in space. Here’s some info on the Almaz program:


I think that’s about the extent of space military technology. There are no colonies or natural resources in space to fight over.

One thing that pops to mind is you would not want weapons that had a recoil. Imagine an astronaut firing a machine gun in space. The astronaut would start spinning out of control in no time. For that reason alone you’d probably want lasers.

Also don’t forget that movie battles in space are not close to how it would work. Spaceships will not fly like fighter jets in space (unless you have some amazing sci-fi ship but it is unlikely). Further, maneuveriung in space can be counter-intuitive although that could be taught to would be starpilots.

There is no way you can form any sort of defensive line in space as the relative volume of space compared to your ships means that you cannot cover more than a fraction of the volume. Even planets would be hard to defend without a lucridious amount of ships.

A coupla more links, from Astronautix.com

Apollo LM CSD (Combat varient of the Apollo Lunar Module)

Space Cruiser (USN sub-launched manned sattelite destroyer)

Uragan Space Interceptor (Russian Spaceplane, may not have existed)

And, of course, the venerable Polyus.

If you’re interested in other forms of space combat (like zero-g infantry weaponry, or even hand-to-hand combat), just run an SDMB search for “gyrojet.” That should show some related threads.


A cheap and nasty weapon is the kinetic ant-satellite weapon, which would of course work against manned spacecraft as well.

Detonate a missile and spread a cloud of pellets in the orbital path of the target - nuts and bolts would do.
Given enough velocity diference between the pellets and the target just one or two pellets hitting a craft would disable, depressurise or destroy it.

For this reason I have been recommending (in our scenario) that all spacecraft in danger of attack be protected by several metres of kevlar and aerogel in the forward direction; but even this would not protect against a high energy impact.

SF worldbuilding at


Propulsion and steering would be exceptionally difficult, relying solely on thrusters since there is no medium to engage. Also, any shrapnel explosion would essentially retain its lethality at much greater distances since none of the fragments would slow down.

First side to transport the nuke to within a couple of miles of the battlefield/target wins, I would suggest.

Bloody hard to get anywhere near the enemy until someone comes up with the Holy Grail of a drive that doesn’t require unfeasible amounts of fuel to achieve a reasonable acceleration, I’d say.

Remember how big the Saturn V stage 3 had to be just to accelerate the CSM and LM from Earth-orbit to escape velocity? And that got the LM to the Moon with just enough fuel to achieve touchdown and take off again - a comparatively minor velocity change. Intercepting a hostile spacecraft on a different course with a crossing speed of several thousand mph would take a b-i-i-i-g burn. Planes can make banked turns against the air. Spacecraft can’t. They have to throw away all the kinetic energy they’ve painstakingly built up before they can reverse course.

And given two spaceships both with, say, super ion drives, with lots of acceleration potential per unit fuel mass (and a much more impressive acceleration than we can manage at present), it’s still impossible to turn and chase: By the time you’ve turned and begun the chase, your adversary, who’s been accelerating throughout, has built up a big lead, and it’s increasing. Your acceleration is as good as his, but his velocity is higher and stays higher. No atmosphere to put an upper limit on his speed (I’m assuming we’re not going to get near light speed).

I know you didn’t want sci-fi but,

Larry Niven’s “Footfall” has a pretty realistic-sounding space battle.

This is what a realistic space battle sounds like:

Hear it?

Apollo LM CSD (Combat varient of the Apollo Lunar Module)

Awesome. Talk about low-tech weapons.

“Hey, kid! Quit tagging that billboard. The United States Air Force has a job for vandals like you …”

Death rays.

Just like in “Moonraker”.

I swear I meant to type: “…realistic-seeming…”


Here is a site to reckon with; too busy reading it atm to comment further…

Funny, I just finished reading that book last night. Regardless of whether that battle was realistic (Niven’s pretty good at thinking it through, though, so it’s probably as good as you can get), it was a hell of a ride. GREAT climax to a very enjoyable book.

I’d imagine space combat will be rather quick and rare. Just finding and engaging your enemies would be a pain because of the relative distances involved.

The only plus is when we’re able to construct ships in space (orbital shipyards etc) the ships can be massively armoured to withstand space junk hits and radiation without having to worry about having to launch the sucker from earth.

Lasers might work best especially for very long range combat. Simply shoot a hull burning laser at your targets and wait a few hours until you hull them :smiley:

The Pournelle novel The Gripping Hand, sequel to Mote in God’s Eye, has two long sequences of ship-to-ship beam and missile warfare at interplanetary distances taking in to account the effects of relativity and the finite speed of light. Quite fascinating.

Contemporary space warfare is still in its infancy. As someone who makes remote sensing equipment (“scanners,” so to speak), we get approached often by military types. They’re concentrating now on using space mostly as a high ground for observation and communications. And each side hopes to monopolize it. Failing that, then the goal is to deny their opponent critical resources at critical times.

Both dominance and denial are achieved rather easily at this time. Space is such a hostile environment to begin with, it’s expensive enough to make something just tough enough to deal with the environment. Adding extra ruggedness just costs too much. More rugged means more heavy. More heavy means bigger rocket. Bigger rocket means exponentially larger costs…

So, ruggedness isn’t currently a requirement for most space systems. Therefore most of the satellites and all of the manned space vehicles are particularly vulnerable to a number of hazards.

Kinetic kill strategies are the easiest, but you have to trade off against two outcomes, neither of which are desireable: 1) The accuracy necessary to strike your target is incredibly high, and 2) too much debris in orbit makes space unsurvivable by your own spacecraft. You can use the shotgun effect to increase your chances of a kill, but then you’ve made a huge, dangerous mess.

One good role for kinetic weapons, though, is space-to-ground. You’ve heard of “Brilliant Pebbles” or some such? Basically, take a cheap steel rod, put some control fins on the back and a guidance system on the front, just enough to give it a couple meters or so accuracy, send it down on a target from on high, and BOOM. The reentry velocity gives the steel rod enough kinetic energy to mimic the effects of a bomb.

Then there are EMP weapons. These are liable to make the best ship-to-ship weapons in the near term, since semiconductors are so susceptible to electromagnetic pulses. There are two ways to generate them: with the interruption of a large current through a fat coil of wire, or with the detonation of a nuke. We know how to do both very well. And the former is easy to do in space.

Finally, solid state lasers are advancing every day, and the current problems are more engineering than science: scaling the lasing medium, dumping heat, ruggedization, etc. So soon, we will be seeing field and airborne testing of solid state lasers and you can safely bet there will be a test in space before long.

I doubt sincerely we will see anything resembling manned ship-to-ship combat of the Star Trek or B5 flavors for a long time to come. Not until space colonization has taken more than a tenuous start, and people start having fights over the mineral or logistic value of space real estate…

EMP Guns

Space Debris and Shielding

Brilliant Pebbles

Solid State Lasers

The main challenge in space warfare will be the distances involved. It’s easy to send your weapon (whatever it is) long distances without air or friction to slow it down, but it’s not so easy to make sure it hits when it gets there. If we’re talking about a war between Earth and Mars, you can see your enemy or their munitions coming months in advance, which gives you plenty of time to react (dodge if you’re in a mobile spacecraft, or deploy your defenses or shoot them down, if you’re defending something unmaneuverable like a planet). Energy weapons have some appeal to them, since you can’t see them coming, but then the problem becomes that you can’t guide them in-flight. If you know that someone an AU away is shooting lasers at you, you don’t need to see the beam coming to dodge it: Just maneuver randomly enough that your opponent doesn’t know where you’ll be sixteen minutes in advance (there’s an eight minute delay before he sees you maneuver, and another eight minutes while the laser beam is reaching you).

Well, then we just have to figure out what the minimum effective battle distance is. A few light seconds (for beam weapons)? A few hundred/thousand miles (for projectiles)? Just like we have to define the battlefield range for naval vessels, etc., as well as the sensitivity of detection methods.

Technically, cruise missiles/planes on earth can be seen coming from a long way off … but there are practical limits, based on size, stealth technology, altitude, etc. Space won’t have the altitude issues, but what about resolution size for radar? Will a 10-inch shell set off warning bells, or not be noticed? What kind of armor will ships have, and below what diameter projectile/qty. explosive will they not be concerned about? How fast is the radar sweep? Can something get in there between sweeps/before a man/computer could react? There’s no terminal velocity from wind in space …

Will nukes be allowed once more? Contamination issues/collateral damage are much less of a problem.

Would there be beam attacks from great distances, followed by projectile attacks at close range? Would fighters ever be useful? Are they too armor-light to worry about? What kind of maneuverability is possible? What g-forces could such small ships survive if they had to abruptly change directions? How accurate are fire systems going to be? Heck, our jet fighters flew relatively unscathed over Iraq for years, despite ground radar being able to “see” them and anti-aircraft weapons there to shoot them down.