Glimpses—Written Nonfiction

The Hammer of Thor, the Lightnings of Zeus

Being an Informal Examination of Offensive
Systems for Use in Deep-space Combat

Written and illustrated by Dave Bryant

Combat among spacecraft is unique. The distances, speeds, and energies involved make it utterly unlike warfare at or near the surface of a planet. The resulting problems and solutions of warfare in space are similarly unique, as are the offensive and defensive weapon systems that would arm contending vessels.
Leaving aside exotic speculative technologies in favor of physics and engineering as they are currently understood, only a few classes of armament provide the operational range and striking power necessary. This brief will cover those types in general terms; the reader is referred to more detailed documents for specifics.

Delta-Vee

The observant reader may note that the “look and feel” of space combat hinges on a single basic assumption: how fast are the drive systems in use? A milieu in which the best thrust a ship can develop is measured in single-digit g values will look very different from one in which hundreds or even thousands of g of acceleration are bandied about.
The former is more likely, at least for the foreseeable future; modern rocketry is hard-pressed to provide more than a handful of g, and that for only a few hours or days at best. As well, there are the limits of the human body to withstand high acceleration to consider. However, profound and sudden changes in the direction of technological development have occurred before — witness the profound effects of the invention of the microchip — so “high thrust” milieux are not beyond the realm of possibility by any means.

“Low Thrust” Universes

In these cases, combat in deep space resembles, more than anything else, modern warfare among nuclear submarines. Detection is difficult: in sub war, because of the murkiness of the ocean depths; in space, because of the sheer scale of the operational theater and the delay in information-gathering imposed by the speed of light. The overriding concern is not being seen, while striving to see one’s opponents.
Rarely do opposing vessels engage directly; instead, they make war by proxy, launching and recovering “smart” automated vehicles, seeking to put enough of them in the right place at the right time to meet the enemy. Ships may practice “sprint and drift” — altering their vectors in short, controlled bursts of acceleration to minimize their visibility. Only rarely would sustained thrust occur in a contested field.

“High Thrust” Universes

These will more closely resemble the depictions popular in video media, albeit only to a limited extent. While detection is usually no easier than in a low-thrust environment, the ability to traverse large distances relatively quickly and easily completely transforms the battlefield. Secrecy is less of a premium; aside from ambushes, sustained thrust is the rule rather than the exception.
Direct engagements are generally the goal, though even here thousands of kilometers would be considered close range. Large and expensive remote vehicles may still be present in various roles, but not as the primary weapons-carriers; instead, salvoes of more conventional-looking missiles and large ship-mounted directed energy weapons are the norm.

A Caveat

Another popular notion in movies and on television is the “space fighter”. Unfortunately, appealing as the concept is, it does not bear up well under close scrutiny. A low-thrust environment demands such long endurance from manned vehicles that it would be far cheaper to dispense with one- or two-man vessels in favor of unmanned robotic vehicles able to perform most of the same tasks nearly as well. A high-thrust environment demands such volume of fire from even small vehicles that it would be far more cost-effective to procure a smaller number of more capable “gunboats” or “torpedo boats” able to perform most of the same tasks at least as well.

Kinetic Energy Weapons

The simplest and best understood type of weapon is the kinetic energy weapon (KEW) — in short, guns. In addition to descendents of the firearms humanity has perfected over the last half-millennium, there are magnetic accelerators, better known in civilian applications as mass drivers and in military roles as railguns and coilguns. Magnetic accelerators use pulsed magnetic fields driven down pairs of “rails” or series of “coils” to accelerate projectiles to enormous velocities. They hold the promise to be far more powerful than conventional guns, albeit at the cost of requiring vast electrical input.
Despite the high pitch of development to which five centuries have brought conventional tube guns, and the potential of mass drivers, kinetic weapons would be virtually useless in most space-to-space engagements. Once a projectile leaves the barrel, its vector cannot be changed, a fatal weakness when firing at opponents thousands or even millions of kilometers away, moving at relative speeds that may range into thousands of kilometers per second. There are only two functions for which this weapon type has any real utility, and even then they are marginal: point defense and planetary bombardment.
Goalkeeper, used by several European navies, and Phalanx, deployed by the USN, are two examples of the former. A hopper-fed multi-barrelled autocannon is slaved to a dedicated electronics suite and tasked to destroy incoming projectiles. Sensors and targeting expert systems identify and evaluate threats, assigning priorities to them, at the same time laying the cannon and firing in a decision cycle too short for a human crew to match.
The need for systems to fill a similar niche aboard spacecraft is obvious, but the drawbacks of guns are serious and cast doubt on their uitlity in it. Engagement ranges are extremely close, and autocannon destroy targets by shredding and shattering them. In short order, the space around the defending ship will be filled with shrapnel traveling on the same path as the original object that was destroyed, probably at high enough relative speeds to be dangerous in their own right when they strike the defending ship.
Bombarding a target on a planetary surface is, in general, a much simpler mission, and many of the objections to tube guns are moot. On the other hand, there are cheaper and easier methods of achieving greater effects than even the biggest guns can manage. Simply dropping from orbit carefully aimed fragments of rock or artfully designed projectiles shaped roughly like crowbars will give that “deadfall” enough kinetic energy on impact to cause explosions at least as potent as any desired nuclear device, with much less radiation. This is, after all, exactly what happens when a meteor of significant size strikes a planet.

Directed Energy Weapons

Rather than solid projectiles, a directed energy weapon (DEW) emits pulses or beams. These devices are currently in the experimental stages, so it is difficult to estimate just how effective they will become, but there is little doubt enough potential is seen in them that development programs continue even in the post-Cold War world. Two general types exist — the particle accelerator weapon (PAW) and the coherent electromagnetic radiation emitter (CEMRE).
How common offensive weapons would be on deep-space warships depends heavily on other technological assumptions. If it is relatively easy for vessels to close the range on one another, they will be common. If it is difficult, and ships tend to conduct battles only across huge distances, meeting one another only rarely, offensive mounts will be rare.
On the other hand, point-defense mounts are very likely in either case. DEWs react more quickly than guns, are not limited by ammunition or recoil constraints, do not litter space with projectiles, and melt or vaporize targets rather than breaking them up. (Of course, an insufficiently powerful weapon would simply transform the incoming object into a still-hazardous lump.)
Because an energy weapon requires more time than a kinetic weapon to deliver a damaging amount of energy, it may be necessary to hold that weapon on a target for a full second or longer. Needless to say, precise fire control is a major issue for this class of armament.

Particle Accelerators

These are simply weapon-grade versions of the scientific instruments used throughout the industrialized world to investigate subatomic phenomena. These devices accelerate ions or subatomic particles to near-light speeds, increasing the particles’ mass through relativistic effects and imparting tremendous kinetic and radiation energy to them, and emit those particles in tight beams or pulses. For military purposes, there are two types to consider: the charged particle accelerator weapon (CPAW) and the neutral particle accelerator weapon (NPAW).
CPAWs usually fire electrons — essentially chained lightning, with all that implies. They are less effective in space, since the electrons would tend to repel each other, making the beam “fizzle out” relatively quickly, than they would be in an atmosphere, where air pressure would tend to keep them together.
NPAWs are strictly space-to-space weapons; while deadly in their element, even a relatively thin atmosphere would quickly absorb all but the most powerful beam. Mechanically they are nearly identical to CPAWs, but with the addition of an assembly at the muzzle that strips off an electron or adds a proton to each particle as it passes to make that particle neutral in charge; this may take the form of an ultra-fine screen, grating, filter, or laser.
There are two basic designs of particle accelerators, linear and cyclotron. The former simply lines up the magnetic and electrical elements, much like a coilgun. The latter arranges these elements in a toroidal shape, so that the particles swirl around, building up speed, before being emitted from the short linear final stage.
Linear devices are simpler and more resistant to battle damage; if an accelerator element is knocked out of action, it simply weakens the beam a little. However, the long beam path needed can represent a severe stricture on ship design. For these reasons, this type is better suited to large, powerful weapons making up primary armaments running the length of the hull — so-called “spinal mounts”.
Cyclotrons are more complex, but do not dictate vessel architecture as markedly. They are more affected by damage, since in addition to accelerating particles, the electrical and magnetic elements bend the particles’ path to keep them within the toroid, and the loss of an element compromises containment integrity. This type, then, should be relegated to secondary weapons of moderate power.

Coherent Electromagnetic Radiation Emitters

The familiar lasers and masers make up this category. However, in ship-to-ship actions, the best wavelengths are nowhere near those used in most modern designs. X-radiation (xasers) and gamma radiation (grasers) would be far more effective, but more difficult to generate.
Like particle accelerators, lasers require long beam paths, but unlike them, there is no alternative configuration available. The closest a designer can manage is to “fold” the path, reflecting the beam from one amplification stage to the next, if a material is available that will reflect the beam properly. The cost in output efficiency and component lifetime is significant, however, making this solution less than ideal for more powerful weapons. Like their particle accelerator counterparts, the latter are limited to the aforementioned spinal mounts.

Aiming and Laying Directed Energy Weapons

Because of the unwieldiness of most DEWs, relatively few would achieve the broad arcs of fire real-world tank or naval turrets enjoy. Spinal-mounted weapons in particular would be limited to very narrow firing arcs, and would require that the entire vessel be oriented in order to bear on a target. Smaller weapons, on the other hand, can make some use of a traversing mount, though it may not resemble closely a conventional turret.
CPAWs can be “slewed” through a limited angle by use of beam diverters similar in concept to the device used in a CRT monitor or television to aim the electron beam that excites the pixels. Some lasers can use beam folding to send their output through a movable reflector; variations on this concept resemble a disco ball or a parabolic dish antenna.
True turret-like mounts are the province of extensively “folded” lasers and of small cyclotron PAWs. The beam diversion techniques already mentioned can be used in tandem with such emplacements, adding flexibility and shortening response time. This combination is admirably suited to the point-defense role, and ships are likely to be studded with the small protuberances of defensive batteries, carefully sited to provide the best coverage possible.

A Note on Planetary Atmospheres

Normally, the beams or pulses emitted by an energy weapon firing in a vacuum are completely invisible to the naked eye, even if some or all of the energy is in the optical spectrum, since there is no medium to reflect, refract, or absorb it. In the unlikely event a spacecraft must fire energy weapons into or through a planetary atmosphere, however, matters may be very different. Even an atmosphere reasonably transparent to a given weapon presents some obstacle by virtue of its physical existence. A powerful weapon literally blows a hole through the air, causing an actinic flash and crackle-boom. The sound results from the initial blow-through, followed by the air rushing back to fill the sudden vacuum. Needless to say, firing any ship-to-ship energy weapon into a planetary atmosphere, regardless of its composition, is spectacular, to say the least.
As well, the absorption spectrum of that atmosphere must be taken into account — different gas mixes are transparent to, or opaque to, different wavelengths. In general, how far a weapon can pierce an atmosphere depends on three factors: the atmosphere’s opacity to the frequencies of the weapon’s beam or pulse, the atmosphere’s density, and the weapon’s energy output.
The effects of energy bleed into an atmosphere can themselves ravage the environment, not surprisingly. Though other radiation effects can occur as well, the most significant is thermal bloom, the conversion of absorbed energy into heat along the path of the beam. The bloom can, if powerful enough, cause air to turn to plasma, shock waves to radiate from the beam path, flash-fires even in regions or objects not normally considered fire hazards, and other unpleasantness.

Launched Ordnance

In the end, it is the remote object that is the queen of battle in deep space. Platforms able to carry the battle to the enemy, disabling or destroying him, perhaps without the opposing ships ever meeting directly, would be very much the rule. Just what form those platforms would take depends on other technology assumptions and on the specific role of a given platform.
If ships are able to close the range relatively easily, the delivery vehicles will look more like missiles as we know them today. They will launch in salvoes, streak across the distance separating the combatants as quickly or as efficiently as possible, attempt to achieve a solution on their selected target, and detonate close enough to it that significant damage will be inflicted.
If ships tend to remain at range, rarely finding themselves in proximity, they will seed the battlefield with stealthy, extremely “intelligent” and capable “ordnance buses” that function as small semi-autonomous combat spacecraft in their own right. These will attempt to sneak as close to an opponent they encounter as they can before being detected, then attempt to achieve a firing solution. When they do, they drop “submunitions”, short-range missiles that do much the same job as described above.
Any such weapon system is made up of four basic components: the launcher, the delivery vehicle, the electronics package, and the warload. Each of these areas is considered below.

Launch Systems

The storage and deployment of missiles or buses must consider access for maintenance, ease of launch, and efficiency of storage. These can be mutually contradictory goals, but a number of effective compromises have been reached even in the real world. Different advantages and disadvantages attend each.
Simplest is the disposable box launcher: a “cell” of launchers is loaded into a receptacle in the ship’s hull as a one-piece module, and depending on the size of the hull, the vessel may carry several cells. Such arrangements allow the carrying ship to fire any part of its warload in a single salvo, from a single warning shot to the entire load-out. It is also cheap and compact; there are no costly active mechanisms to take up room or maintenance. However, the weapons stored in the cells are usually not accessible at all, requiring that they be made maintenance-free, which is not always easy to do. Also, a hit on any part of a cell frequently destroys the entire cell.
Related to this is the launch array, which is a sort of permanent box launcher. Instead of being in swap-in modules, the cells are built into the ship, and the weapons are loaded into them individually. These are not quite as cheap and compact, but they are somewhat more resistant to battle damage. Otherwise they have much the same pros and cons.
A departure from this philosophy is the magazine launcher. A single launch mechanism is fed by an internal “magazine” of weapons arranged to follow one after another into the launcher, much as the rounds in a pistol or rifle magazine feed into the firing chamber. This is somewhat bulkier than a box launcher, since the feed and launch mechanism require space and can be expensive and maintenance-heavy, but the magazine itself can be compact and accessible to work crews. On the other hand, the ship can only launch as many missiles in a single salvo as it has launchers.
The rotary launcher is more flexible than a magazine launcher, but pays for this by being much bulkier and more complex and expensive. The launch tube is fed by a giant rotating mechanism, much like the cylinder on a revolver. Unlike a magazine launcher, which has no choice but to bring up the next weapon in line, a rotary launcher can skip a damaged or unsuitable weapon to bring another to launch position. However, its greater mechanical complexity is more vulnerable to battle damage.
The initial “kick” delivered by a launch system to push a weapon clear of the ship before that weapon lights off its own thrust agency can be provided in any of several ways. A hot launch system fires a small rocket booster or even allows the weapon’s drive to fire from within the launcher, which is heavily reinforced and equipped with blast diverters to prevent damage to the ship and launcher. Cold launch systems are similar, but use strap-on compressed-gas jets, akin to gigantic carbon-dioxide cartridges, instead.
The rarely used gun launchers function much like tube guns, firing the weapons at low pressures and velocities out abbreviated smoothbore barrels. Best of all, however, are railgun launchers; while comparatively expensive and energy-intensive, they have few moving parts, and launch velocity can be tailored to the situation; with other launch mechanisms, aside from self-hot-launching, launch velocity is fixed.

Delivery Vehicles

Since the actual structure and propulsion of a missile or bus depends greatly on the background technology and weapon’s intended role, little can be stated about them with any definition. However, in general, it can be said safely that there will certainly be variety; some will be designed for long range, others for speed, still others for a combination coupled with maneuverability. These will be used in different tactical configurations and to carry different payloads, whether warheads, decoys, recon packages, or whatever else the fertile imagination can produce.
Unless the vehicle is expected to penetrate a planetary atmosphere — rarely a requirement for ship-to-ship ordnance — providing an external hull is not only unnecessary, it is counterproductive. The extra mass, even if devoted to armor, will penalize thrust to a greater degree than any benefit derived from its presence is worth. Instead, an open framework containing the vehicle’s internal components is sufficient, though some design consideration may be given to “stealth” characteristics.
The overall shape of the vehicle may still be roughly cylindrical, of course, for ease of stowage within the launch mechanism of the warship carrying it. Once free of these confines, simple deployment mechanisms can alter the vehicle’s configuration significantly, most notably to open sensory or communication antennae or maneuvering-thruster packages.

Electronics Package

Sensors, guidance, and detonator make up the basic components of a missile’s electronics. An ordnance bus will have them as well, but enormously more complex and capable, perhaps on the same scale as the ships themselves.
How ships are detected and tracked will depend, again, on the available technology. Certainly radar, ladar, and passive thermal and optical sensors will have their place. How “smart” to make the weapon depnds mostly on how much each individual shot must be made to count. If a typical attack consists of large salvoes fired at close or moderate ranges, missiles’ brains will be small and cheap, and correspondingly simple. If achieving a solution is difficult and uncommon, carried out by individual weapons or small groups of them at long range, those weapons will be as “intelligent” as their creators can make them.
Detonators, however, have a simpler goal: be as close as possible to the target. Even so, there are variations, mostly dependent on warhead type.

Warload and Warhead

Only two classes of warhead can be considered ship-killers — thermonuclear and kinetic-strike devices. Conventional explosive devices do not have the power and flexibility required for deep-space combat.
The weapon of choice is what some authors call the “spurt bomb” or “squirt bomb”. A thermonuclear device is surrounded by thick rods of carefully formulated metal sticking out in all directions, like a hedgehog or a mace head. Upon detonation, the tremendous energy of the explosion is “pumped” into the rods, which act as “lasing” mechanisms, each rod producing a powerful coherent pulse of x-radiation or gamma radiation. In this way, the effective range of the explosion can be extended by orders of magnitude, perhaps thousands of kilometers for large warheads. Ordinary thermonukes have their place as well, especially for electronic warfare, but they are not as effective as their hedgehog cousins.
Kinetic warheads can be thought of as giant shotgun shells, for they come in the same basic pair of choices — shot or slug. “Scattershot” warheads spray out hundreds or thousands of small or moderate-size projectiles in the hopes that they will sleet through a target like so many meteors. Solid warheads may be nothing more than inert hunks of metal, or they might be far more sophisticated — much like the self-forging penetrators and high-explosive antitank (HEAT) rounds used by armies and air forces today. These look externally much like their simpler brethren, but are designed and formed to use the impact energy of a carefully shaped explosive charge or of striking an armored target to heat and melt the slugs, reshaping them into high-penetration darts, or vaporizing them into hot jets of plasma, to greatly increase armor penetration. Some designers may seek the best of both worlds by making each of the small projectiles in a scattershot warhead a penetrator of the sort just described. However, all kinetic warheads have one weakness in common: unlike nukes, they must physically strike their targets to be effective, a difficult and chancy prospect.

Conclusion

Like other fields of military endeavor and indeed most human activities, warfare in space is far more complex and difficult than it may at first appear. The laws of physics and the inimical environment itself are inflexible and unforgiving, demanding careful attention to detail both in construction of combat spacecraft and in their use. The weapons that function as both sword and shield for the ships that bear them are only one of several important considerations; others include thrust agencies and drive systems as well as command, control, communications, and intelligence (C-cubed-I).

Bibliography

This is only a small sampling of publications available on combat in space and related topics. Much of it is several years old, dating to the heyday of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as the “Star Wars” program, and of the first and second generation of science fiction role-playing games such as Traveller.

Advanced Technology Warfare edited by Ray Bonds for Salamander Books, Ltd., copyright 1985; ISBN 0-517-62945-3.

“Charged Particle Accelerator Weapons” by David Emigh, published in Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society issue thirteen by Game Designers Workshop, copyright 1982.

World Military Power, edited by Chris Bishop and David Donald for Aerospace Publishing Ltd., copyright 1986; ISBN 0-517-49597-X.

Perhaps the archetypical high-thrust fictional milieu is chronicled in the novels by David Weber centering on the character of Honor Harrington, published by Baen Books over the course of the nineties. Low-thrust milieux are represented in works by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle and in the serial graphic story Erma Felna, E. D. F., written and drawn by Steve A. Gallacci for the irregularly published anthology comic book Albedo. Ω

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