Star Trek: Space Combat Maneuvering
Last Revised: 2000.03.04
A group of Federation capital ships swarm a Borg warship
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.
In "Maneuvers", the USS Voyager executed evasive pattern "omega three" when confronted by a primitive Kazon warship. This maneuver did not seem to involve any discernible change of direction, and not only did Voyager fail to evade subsequent shots, but it could not even keep those shots from repeatedly hitting the same 10m wide spot! This proved to be a serious failing, since the Kazon warship quickly breached the Voyager's shields in that spot, and sent a small projectile through it to breach the hull.
In "Best of Both Worlds", the USS Enterprise executed evasive pattern "riker alpha" when confronted by a Borg cube, and it merely turned to the left (at a rate which would have required several seconds for a 180 degree orientation change). Amazingly, this maneuver actually allowed the ship to evade a Borg weapon discharge!
In STFC, the relative speeds of the Federation starships and the Borg cube were in the range of ~300 m/s. The ships can obviously achieve far higher speeds than this, but extremely high relative velocities increase the difficulty of targeting, so this establishes the maximum relative speeds at which a Federation starship can maneuver while still being able to reliably target an enemy vessel (even one as large and unwieldy as a Borg cube). It should be noted that similar relative speeds were seen in later battles such as the battles of "Sacrifice of Angels" and "Tears of the Prophets".
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:
In STG, we saw a Klingon vessel repeatedly fail to hit a 600 metre long, heavily damaged vessel fleeting at low speed:
Note that the Bird of Prey misses by a very large margin- dozens of metres at the very least. The Enterprise is travelling in what is very nearly a straight line, as shown by the subsequent screenshot in which its orientation has barely changed.
The Bird of Prey misses again. Note that the distance between the BOP and the Enterprise has not changed by a large amount, thus indicating that the relative velocity of BOP and E-D is very low. Remember that relative velocity is the only thing that will affect the rate of closure and the difficulty of targeting. Absolute velocity is a meaningless concept in space.
The Bird of Prey misses yet again.
In "Arsenal of Freedom" we saw that a starship which decloaked for a full second could not be targeted by the Enterprise-D. This establishes a long targeting delay and raises serious questions about their computer systems. This would seem to suggest that a GCS targeting system requires a predictable velocity for at least one full second before it can reliably target anything, even at extreme close range.
In "Way of the Warrior" we saw DS9 repeatedly miss incoming Klingon warships with both phasers and photon torpedoes, in spite of the fact that those warships were following very predictable flight paths, usually straight lines. Some Federation cultists dispute the misses, claiming that the weapons were merely targeting other vessels off-screen, but some of the scenes were shown from the perspective of DS9 itself, and the torpedoes could clearly be seen heading for nothing but empty space, in spite of their vaunted guidance and targeting systems.
In "A Call to Arms" we saw DS9 miss numerous Cardassian and Dominion warships, as it did in "Way of the Warrior". One crippled Cardassian warship actually managed to ram the station's shields, even though it was more than 100 metres long and traveling in a perfectly straight line. Somehow, the DS9 targeting systems failed to hit it, even when it got into very close range prior to impact! As a result, the DS9 shields had to absorb the impact and explosion of the starship.
In STI, we saw two crucial Federation torpedo misses (see the STI Revelations page), against targets which were barely maneuvering at all.
Federation cultist objections:
Many cultists quote incidents such as The Wounded as examples of relativistic combat maneuvering, but they fail to comprehend the difference between relative velocities and absolute velocities. Relative to whatever frame of reference the Federation uses for commands like "absolute stop", the ships may have been moving at relativistic speeds. However, relative to each other, the ships were not moving at relativistic speeds. It is crucially important to remember that only relative velocities are important. If you are approaching your target at a rate of 100 m/s, it doesn't matter whether you are both travelling at 0.001c or 0.5c.
Some cultists also quote incidents like Journey to Babel as evidence of relativistic combat maneuvering based on flawed, circular logic (eg- we know the ship was strafing at relativistic speeds because it was travelling at relativistic speeds), but if one listens to Sulu periodically calling out the vessel's range on its approach pass, it is obvious that the ship cannot possibly be approaching at relativistic speeds. In general, relativistic speed incidents tend to be based on assumptions, conjecture and flawed analysis of dialogue rather than direct observation. Journey to Babel is merely one example.
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.
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 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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Michael Zwiers, for discussion regarding Federation fighters