Star Trek: Space Combat Maneuvering

Capital ships | Defiant-class ships | Fighters | Conclusion

Written: 1998.08.01
Last Revised: 2000.03.04

Federation starships swarm a Borg warship
A group of Federation capital ships swarm a Borg warship

Capital ships

Numerous subjective impressions of Federation capital ship space combat maneuvering abound. Some feel that their tactics resemble those of early 20th century naval dreadnaughts which wallowed about one another at low speeds, exchanging fire with multi-directional weaponry (eg. ST2, ST3, most TNG combat). Others feel that their tactics resemble those of late 20th century fighter aircraft (STFC, some DS9 combat).

In truth, neither model describes Federation capital ship SCM. Although their ships occasionally do wallow about and exchange fire like early 20th century naval dreadnaughts, they are capable of maneuvering more quickly. However, they do not dogfight like late 20th century fighter aircraft. Their maneuvering tends to be a compromise between these two extremes, similar to the maneuvering of light corvette-class naval warships. They maneuver in combat, but in large sweeping turns and gentle arcs rather than brutal twists, turns, and rolls.

Examples follow:

We also know that space combat maneuvering (and the effect of distance) is effective in foiling or delaying Federation targeting efforts (in spite of numerous Federation cultist "perfect targeting" claims), as demonstrated by the following examples:

Federation cultist objections:

In conclusion, it is important to remember that direct observation of every Star Trek space combat incident since ST2 has failed to reveal a single incident in which starships engaged in combat at the long ranges and relativistic speeds claimed by Federation cultists. Ship-to-ship fire invariably occurs at ranges of a few kilometres at most, and any long-range fire is invariably directed at constant-velocity targets such as planets. This indicates that maneuvering impedes targeting, which is logical since maneuvering targets are more difficult to hit at long range due to beam propagation delay. There have been many suggestions that extremely high relative speeds occurred before ST2 (in TOS), but all of these incidents are based on interpretations of dialogue, rather than direct observation. ST2 was the very first time we were able to directly observe space combat, rather than relying on conjecture based on dialogue. In that incident, as well as each and every subsequent incident, we observed close ranges and sub-relativistic relative speeds.

Defiant-class ships

The USS Defiant opens fire with its pulse phasers
A Federation Defiant-class heavy fighter, firing its forward phasers

The Defiant-class ship is somewhat unusual, in that it seems to represent a compromise between fighters and capital ships. It has better acceleration and maneuverability than a capital ship, but it is much larger and more heavily armed than a fighter.

In "Paradise Lost", the USS Defiant was able to execute strafing passes over the USS Lakota (with relative speeds in the range of a few hundred metres per second, similar to capital ships). However, a crucial difference between the Defiant and a capital ship is the fixed-axis forward-firing weapons on the Defiant. A capital ship doesn't need spectacular maneuverability because it has so-called "omnidirectional" weapon arrays. The Defiant, on the other hand, can only fire forward, just like a fighter. This means that it must point its nose toward a target before firing.

Accordingly, the Defiant misses its target far more frequently than Federation capital ships (for example, it repeatedly missed the 400 metre long USS Lakota in "Paradise Lost", even when firing from ranges of less than two kilometres- such targeting incompetence would be cause for disciplinary action if it were found in Imperial starfighter pilots). The fact that it can engage capital ships without requiring a numerical advantage (like fighters) indicates that its weapons are highly effective in spite of this problem. One way to explain their effectiveness in spite of severely decreased targeting flexibility is that they may be much more powerful than the omnidirectional weapons on Federation capital ships. This theory is not without supporting precedents: the alternate-timeline future Enterprise-D in "All Good Things" had a large fixed-axis cannon under its saucer section which demonstrated firepower superior to its omnidirectional phaser "strips" by blasting a hole all the way through the hull of a Klingon warship in a fraction of a second.

The theory also has support in physics. Real particle accelerators can achieve higher particle velocities with stronger magnets and increased length. An omnidirectional firing strip must produce almost all of its particle velocity at the point of discharge for obvious physical reasons (you can't accelerate a particle to high speed and then redirect it by at right angles without wasting the accumulated kinetic energy). Therefore, an omnidirectional phaser strip must accelerate particles over a very short distance. A fixed-axis weapon might extend deep into the hull of the ship, and therefore it would be capable of imparting more kinetic energy to the particle beam.


A Maquis fighter. Federation fighters are quite similar
A Maquis raider. Federation "Peregrine" fighters are very similar in performance and style, and may be based on the same spaceframe.

Federation fighters have been rarely sighted and rarely used. Their most notable appearance was in the DS9 episode "Sacrifice of Angels", in a diversionary role. A Federation fleet consisting of 600 ships (combined count of capital ships and fighters) went into battle against a numerically superior force of more than 1200 Jem'Hadar and Cardassian ships (again, combined count of capital ships and fighters). The Jem'Hadar tend to rely much more heavily on fighters than the Federation does, so one can surmise that the numerical 2:1 ratio was an exaggeration of the true tactical imbalance.

In any case, Captain Sisko hit upon the idea of having the fighters streak in ahead of the main force, attack the Cardassian portion of the fleet, and then immediately disengage in the hopes that the Cardassians would break formation and chase the fighters. This would weaken the Cardassian/Dominion formation by opening gaps in the "moving wall". It was hoped that the fighters would be able to survive long enough to accomplish this mission due to their speed and small size, which would make it difficult to target them.

This battle was interesting for three reasons:

  1. Since it was a tactical priority to break up the Cardassian/Dominion formation, we can surmise that capital ships are more effective while in formation. This is further evidence that capital ship tactics resemble those of naval warships rather than fighter aircraft, because late 20th century fighter aircraft did not maintain formation in combat.

  2. The fighters did have superior acceleration and maneuverability compared to the capital ships. This refutes Federation cultist claims about the Federation having somehow eliminated the inverse correlation between mass and maneuverability.

  3. Since the fighters were tactically useful and effective, we know that there is no technological or tactical reason for the paucity of fighters in the Federation. Their rarity must therefore be due to other factors, such as economics, politics, and sociology.

The last revelation is by far the most interesting. Why would the Federation avoid using fighters when they have shown that they can build them, and that they can be effective in battle? Let us look at a few possibilities:

  1. Economics: The ratio of cost to tactical effectiveness may be higher for fighters than it is for capital ships. It is hard to imagine why this would be the case- a hundred fighters can be split up among three star systems while a capital ship can only be in one place at one time. If a third of a fighter group is destroyed or damaged, the rest of the group can still fight while a capital ship would be completely out of action (or destroyed) by damage to a third of its superstructure. If the firepower or maneuverability of fighters were insufficient to make them effective or durable, then this would not matter. However, we have seen that fighters can damage capital ships (especially if they attack in large numbers), and that their maneuverability does make them difficult to target. Therefore, unless the difference in cost between capital ships and fighters is shockingly small, economics probably plays no role in the rarity of Federation fighters.

  2. Politics: Fighters will generally take casualties in battle, even battles in which you are victorious. A handful of high-powered weapon discharges can damage a capital ship or partially drain its shields, but they might very well inflict zero casualties on its crew. However, that same handful of high-powered discharges can destroy a handful of fighters. A large force of fighters would still overwhelm the aggressor, but they would take casualties in the process. Politicians abhor casualties, particularly in societies where the populace is unwilling to accept the logical consequences of war. Even if fighters are effective and useful, they may be considered an abhorrent idea simply because of the fact that individual pilots must face great risks.

  3. Sociology: The fighter pilot was romanticized in 20th century culture as a cocky and ruggedly individualistic warrior. This image clashes dramatically with Federation cultural values, which promote teamwork and social conformity over the sort of swashbuckling arrogance that typifies the fighter pilot image. One should not underestimate the importance of social conformity and obedience in the Federation- after the Maquis committed the unpardonable sin of ignoring Federation directives to abandon their homes, the Federation retaliated by sitting on its haunches while they were slaughtered wholesale by the Dominion.

One other advantage of fighters is that they can exploit gaps in the firing arcs of a large starship by approaching to extremely close range, as demonstrated in "Shattered Mirror" when the mirror-universe Sisko used this tactic against a much larger starship than his own tiny pirate vessel. This is similar to the tactic used by fighters against our Star Destroyers, or the tactic used by a Nebulon-B frigate against the Executor in the Battle of Endor.


Maneuverability and acceleration characteristics of Federation starships seem to vary in direct proportion to size and mass. They do not seem to make a strong tactical distinction between capital ships and fighters as we do, preferring to simply utilize all starships in a similar manner and for similar purposes. Therefore, the most important difference between their capital ships and fighters is the presence of omnidirectional firing "strips" on the capital ships, which greatly reduce the importance of maneuverability. Their absence on fighters and Defiant-class starships forces those ships to "point toward" targets rather than simply trying to remain in their vicinity, and it is for this reason that the Defiant is closer to a fighter than a capital ship in spite of its relatively large size.

As seen in STFC, their capital ships definitely lack the acceleration and maneuverability required to avoid light turbolaser fire, and we may even be able to hit them with heavy turbolaser fire (particularly in light of their size). The difficulty of targeting their ships will increase with decreasing starship size, so that Defiant-class starships and Peregrine fighters will be much more difficult to hit. It is for this reason that our fighters will probably be forced to engage their fighters while our capital ships engage their capital ships.

Fortunately, they use fighters very sparingly (including Defiant-class ships, which we like to classify as "heavy fighters"), for reasons which are currently unknown but which may involve foolish socio-political concerns. This illogical behaviour will make them even easier to defeat in battle, or in war.