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.