Fighters in Space

Thanks to George Lucas and his Star Wars films, modern SF has developed a love affair with fighters in space. Lucas used WWII aircraft footage as reference material for the special effects teams working on Star Wars and the influence is clear.

This led to a lot of imitators and copycats, all loving the carrier and fighter in space motif. For me to really became too much when the SF program Space: Above and Beyond (which I refereed to as Space: Abort and Begone) aired. In the program, which really was just WWII set in space, during a briefing pilots are advised to remember that the enemy fighter can out climb the allied fighters. Out – fucking – climb in weightless space. What the hell are they climbing against?

There are reason why carriers and fighter make perfect sense for wet navies, but trying to put them into space just makes the writer look all wet.

First, Ships and Planes travel through different media. A ship has to push water, heavy incompressible water, in order to move. This requires a great deal of energy to get very little speed. The USS Lexington in WWII could go at an astounding 34.5 knots.  (39.7 mph) to do this speed required 150,000 standard horsepower. An F4F Wildcat cruised at 155 mph, could go as fast as 318 mph on 1200 standard horsepower.

Nearly ten times as fast on less than one-tenth the power.

In space, the carrier and the fighter are traveling through the same medium, vacuum. There is no intrinsic reason why a fighter would be so much faster than a carrier. (yes the fighter has less mass, but if you have motive power that accelerate the fighter that fast, you have it for the big ship too, just takes more.)

Another reason planes and carriers makes sense on planetary surface is that planets are curved. Planes give ships an over the horizon spot capability. (In fact before WWII it was thought that spotting and scouting was the reason for Carriers, and that fighting would remain the domain of the big gun ships. The Imperial Japanese Navy persuaded us otherwise.) A ship in space has no horizon to limit detection. No need for small vulnerable spotters.

The third element that makes the airplane useful to surface navies is that the plan can carry a weapon load-out capable of sinking a ship. Note that this is general not done with the plane’s machine-guns or cannons. The attack planes carried either bombs or torpedoes. (Today it is the guided missile carried by planes that make them deadly to ships.) In SF movies we don’t see attack craft with one or two big heavy ship killers; they always attack big target with the same guns they used on the enemy fighters. Damn silly.

In terms of physics and real world analogs, space combat is going to look a lot like submarine warfare. Lots of sneaking. (if that’s possible — it may not be.) Cramped tiny spaces, and long range missiles or torpedoes for killing their targets. Note that under the water, with everyone in the same media, we don’t have carrier and fighters.