In Defence Of Space Fighters...

Latterly, I’ve been thinking about about space fighters and carriers. Conventional wisdom suggests that neither would have a role in a hard-science-fiction setting, but I strongly disagree with that assessment. As usual, there’s a lot more to these concepts than is often thought, and I think there is a lot of life in the manned space fighter yet. Which means that those flat-tops still have a place in space warfare.

The use of a ‘carrier’ is, in my opinion, without question. Even if you postulate some sort of drone-based work, they’ll have to be based out of something, a mobile base where they can be maintained/constructed/operated, and that’s going to mean a carrier, even if it just a drone carrier. Then we have the space marines! Ultimately, taking and holding something means boots on the ground. Whether human or robot. That suggests Commando Carriers, something like the helicopter carriers operated today. Different requirements, but a not-dissimilar design.

That keeps the carriers in service, then, but I’m going to go one step further and suggest that there will be space superiority fighters, that they will have humans on board, and that they will operate from carriers. Heresy for many in the hard sci-fi, crowd, I know. Normal ‘doctrine’ suggests that some sort of computer-based control would be the norm, or remote operation from a distant base, but there are two reasons why that could be problematic. The first is time lag. When the Soviet Union operated the Lunokhod probes on the Moon, they operated them with a two-second delay, something that made them challenging to drive. Operating the rovers on Mars is many orders of magnitude more difficult. Imagine trying to do that in a combat situation, if they were robotic tanks? You can’t wait seventeen minutes to decide which target to attack. You’ve to be close, close enough that you are probably already in the theatre of operation anyway, and therefore, vulnerable.

Fine, then they can be remotely operated. The concept of automatic combat-capable robots is worrying enough, but let’s not forget that if it is programmed, it can be reprogrammed. A talented hacker could conceivably hack into the First Fighter Squadron and render it inert, or send it careening off back towards its point of origin. Whilst certainly there can be defences, making such vehicles impervious to electronic attack is damn near impossible - and human supervision requires local presence without an unacceptable time-lag, putting us back to square one.

Let’s look at what a fighter is likely to do, anyway. Three roles suggest themselves. Intercept, Assault, and Aerospace. The first is designed to prevent against threats to the carrier, or to cover other vessels. The second attacks capital ships, launching close-in assaults. The third is tasked with close-orbital and upper-atmospheric defence, designed to reinforce or prevent planetary assaults, or for customs duty and interdiction. I’d argue that a mix of all three will be required in the space navy of the future, though doubtless penny-pinching politicians will try and multi-task!

(There’s a point here that is often forgotten in military science-fiction. Not everything will be built to the optimum level. Cliques in the military, or in government, will have their own pet projects that may or may not make sense. Corners will be cut to save money, resulting in inferior equipment or some designed to fill too many roles. Take a look at any military here on Earth and tell me that everything related to it makes sense. It doesn’t. Humans are fallible, and any fictional military should reflect that.)

Wars in space are going to take place in a hostile environment, and I’m not talking about the cold vacuum of space. Electronic warfare is a major issue today, and that’s going to get worse. Imagine trying to launch a bombing run on a battleship while the crew on board is attempting to trick your sensors, to steal control of your missiles, to send false signals through your communicators. All of that is going to be a factor, suggesting that either every pilot will also have to be a hacker, or two-seater vehicles will be the norm. Not Pilot/Navigator as in the RAF, but Pilot/Hacker.

Yes, I just suggested that the space fighters of the future will be crewed by late-teenage computer hackers using fast reflexes and expert systems to win their way through. I defy anyone to tell me that isn’t a cool concept. (My suspicion is that training times are going to go down again. When your job is to make the decisions and stop people breaking into your systems to stop them from being enacted, that can make for a far more focused training. I leave to everyone’s imaginations what that Fighter Pilot school looks like, but I still say that it is a pretty neat concept.)

Space fighters have been a part of science-fiction for a very long time. I’m not going to try and predict the future, but I do think that the concept of the mobile fighting base is here to stay. It just makes too much sense. It might look like the Battlestar Galactica, or it might look more like a mobile Starbase. I suspect, frankly, a big box with lots of room for VTOL-style landings and a pressurized space inside for shirt-sleeve maintenance and refuelling. Nevertheless, there is still room for them, even in hard-sf series.


  1. When I started Space Carrier Avalon, I intentionally set out to create reasoning for starfighters in the setting.

    It boiled down to three factors in that setting, which tied together:
    1) The whole concept of fuel efficiency tiers. There's nothing in the tech rules that stops a capital ship using the same acceleration as a starfighter - if they want to burn through what's supposed to be a six month supply of fuel in two hours. You can afford that level of power-to-weight ratio on something small you can't afford on a major capital ship.
    (While not to the extent that its present in the Castle Federatuon books, I expect this will be a factor in the future)
    2) Eggshells and hammers. Despite the massive size and scale of capital ships in the setting, they are extremely fragile versus the weapons available. When anything that is hit, dies, you want the ships taking most of the hits to be expendable.
    (Again, I expect that this will be a factor, though again not to the extent it is in CF. If/when we build space warships, they will almost certainly have access to nukes, and it will be a long time before we can armor against a direct nuke hit)
    3) Economics. A CF setting starship costs a significant chunk of a wealthy system's economic product to construct. Losing one HURTS, so again, they want the fight as far away as possible.

    Given the setting parameters, some form of expendable long-range parasite craft was inevitable. The size may not exactly be what we envisage as a 'fighter,' but the tactical role and crew size definitely make them starfighters.

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  3. There is a certain something about space fighters that I do find somewhat enthralling. Stories always work best when you place your characters at the moment of decision, and fighter combat is nothing but moments of decision, where one character - even one of a lower rank - does make a big difference. Having said that, something I built into the Triplanetary universe is that fighters are almost the equivalent of horse cavalry in the 20th century - something that has had it’s day.

    One of the key points that Glynn makes is that fighters are cheap, and quick to build. At the start of the Interplanetary War, I figure that the Mark I Interceptors were hastily converted orbital transfer shuttles, with missile ranks almost bolted on, as well as whatever electronic warfare systems as can be thrown in. This meant that the early victories were fighter-based, giving them a certain cachet, as well as long-term defenders - those who got their wings and have since gone onto flag rank.

    Looking into the future in a non-spoilery way, though, the Triplanetary Fleet is finally phasing out fighters. There is a drawdown in pilots - something which will come up in the next book, actually - except in aerospace squadrons, those intended to operate in atmosphere. (There fighters still have uses, mostly in terms of defending landing shuttles and close-range support. Orbital bombardment can lack...finesse.) The drone fighters I used in ‘Not In My Name’ were prototypes, with all that employed, and the manned fighter admirals managed to bury them for a while - but long term, the intention is for fast scoutships operating a half-dozen fighters, one pilot per fighter, at medium-range. While that is a while away, Mark II Drone Fighters will be coming in sooner than that.

    It all comes down to setting and technology. I honestly think that the space fighter should not be ruled out yet, and certainly it is quite possible - as is ably demonstrated in Space Carrier Avalon and its sequel - to create a universe that supports them as a concept. Ultimately, it’s all a matter of attitude, as well. I could make an argument that we should be using only drone fighters today, and certainly that the next generation of manned fighters is somewhat redundant, but Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals still want their high-speed jets...

  4. Space fighters would expand the detection range of a task force just like they do now. Recon is important as well as taking out the eyes of the enemy fleet. The other thing that fighters provide is cheap firepower. Risking a carrier or even a destroyer is expensive attrition while one little fighter can cripple or destroy a big ship. A swarm of them might be able to take down big ships that may not have enough anti fighter guns to defend them. Keep in mind more turrets means more space, fuel, maintainance, etc. Fighters might be the cheaper alternative. Plus in combat with a foe that doesn't know your capabilities every thing might look dangerous to them. Plus they might be better suited for close air support rather than risky orbital bombardment from a ship. That's my thinking anyway.