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Starship Combat Tactics

Written: 2000.08.06

The goal of this document is to compare and contrast the naval tactics of Earth's seafaring navies, the Federation's Starfleet, and the Imperial star fleet. Before we begin, I would like to point out that this is not intended to be a comprehensive discussion of real-life naval tactics, so I do gloss over some details. I'm trying to show general trends as they might apply to fictional space battles rather than producing a full-blown essay on the history of naval warfare.

Tactics of Seafaring Navies

The history of warfare at sea has been characterized by the ever-increasing range and lethality of weapons technology. A brief summary of naval tactics throughout Earth's history follows:

The era of the ancient galley stretches back thousands of years to the earliest days of naval warfare, and it continued right up to the 16th century. Large battles typically involved hundreds of ships. The ships themselves were slow, flimsy and barely seaworthy, being propelled largely by oarsmen. This poor mobility meant that historical descriptions of galley battles were typically couched in the language of land warfare, with terms such as "flanking" and "encirclement" being common. The most destructive weapon was the ram. Incendiaries were sometimes used, but with spotty effectiveness and some risk of backfiring on their users. Battles were therefore fought at extreme close range, and ships approached each other head-on. There was no distinction between warships and troop transports, so each ship carried large groups of soldiers. Therefore, the use of boarders became common. The Romans developed specialized grappling hooks to secure enemy vessels, and boarding planks to facilitate rapid insertion of legionnaires who would fight their way on board. Near the end of the galley era, cannons and harquebuses came into common use, but the flimsy galleys couldn't mount cannons big enough to dominate battle. Even at the end of the galley era, battles were still dominated by boarding tactics.

A pair of two-deck frigates exchanging fire. Obviously, this scene comes from a movie rather than a documentary, but it looks cool.

Around the time of the 17th century, naval warfare entered the age of the so-called "ship of the line", or "fighting sail". Large battles of this era involved ships which were relatively few in number (dozens instead of hundreds), but large in size. These ships dispensed with oarsmen and shifted to a much larger, stronger hull with huge sails. This improved their ocean survivability, giving them far longer ranges than the flimsy galleys. The primary anti-ship weapon changed from ram and boarder to guns, with rows of heavy cannons firing out of gunports on the side of the ship. As a result, ships no longer approached one another head-on, but rather, they formed up into thin battle lines, which could be many miles in length. Ships began to differentiate into various specialized classes, dedicated to specific classes such as transports, fast couriers, and of course, the aptly-named Man 'O War. The importance of superior firepower was quickly discovered, as ship builders began to build two, three, and four-deck ships (meaning that they had many stacked gun decks). Naval officers eventually realized that importance of disrupting the enemy's battle line, and so they developed signalling protocols in order to create a command and control system that would allow greater flexibility than the "follow the leader" system currently in use. This C&C system allowed fleet admirals such as Horatio Nelson to break out of rigid "battle line" tactical dogma, permitting such famous victories as the Battles of Trafalgar and the Nile, both of which involved the co-ordinated action of two sub-groups instead of a single battle line.

In the 19th century, naval warfare entered the age of the iron-hulled steam-driven battleship. Large battles of this era involved even fewer ships than battles involving ships of the line: a handful of battleships with a destroyer screen was now regarded as a fleet. These ships had the range of sailing ships without their dependence on the wind, and they mounted both superior armour and firepower. Two important new technologies appeared: fire control and torpedoes. Fire control meant that they could aim without a line of sight by using ballistic trajectory calculations, and it greatly increased their effective weapon range. This range virtually eliminated the importance of fleet formations, since the distances between ship in an enemy fleet were now so small (relative to weapon range) that you could direct and concentrate your firepower toward any arbitrary point in the enemy fleet. It was for this reason that fleets in the battleship era cruised in formation but immediately broke up into columns when an enemy was sighted. Torpedoes struck the heavily armoured battleships below the waterline and could sink them, so protective destroyer screens appeared. Visibility and adequate scouting gained even more importance, and both were eventually aided by the invention of radar. The so-called "N-square law" meant that the fleet with an initial advantage would enjoy an increasing advantage as the battle wore on, due to the effect of attrition. Tactics of maneuver shrank in importance; despite the theoretical effectiveness of "crossing the T", it almost never happened and proved to be largely irrelevant. Tactics of this era were dominated by the big gun, and since the tactics of maneuver were no longer important, battles of this era were characterized by ruthlessly simple mathematics regardless of whether they took place at long range or short range: the fleet with superior numbers and firepower would generally be assured of victory, particularly if they could strike first.

The USS George Washington, a modern nuclear-powered aircraft carrier

On December 7, 1941, the battleship's reign as king of the sea came to an end, though some naval officers were slow to realize it. Hundreds of Japanese carrier planes attacked a fleet of American battleships at Pearl Harbour and decimated it, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of naval air power and ushering in the age of the aircraft carrier. I suppose I should concede that it's possible to assign other dates to the birth of the carrier age, such as the pivotal Battle of the Coral Sea, which was the first open sea battle in which the two fleets engaged exclusively through the use of carrier planes. But Pearl Harbour is such a legendary event in naval history (having become one of the few names that can also be used as a verb, eg. "he got him to lower his guard and then he Pearl Harboured him!") that I felt it was the best choice as the "official" start of the carrier age. By virtue of its infamy, it was the moment at which opposition to the carrier evangelism of men like Admiral Chester Nimitz finally vanished.

As before, this sea change (pardon the pun) was precipitated by increases in range (specifically, the range of naval aircraft compared to the range of battleship guns). Aircraft had existed for decades, but it wasn't until WW2 that they were capable of doing serious damage to a battleship. Battles of this era were characterized by extreme long range. Scouting was of absolutely paramount importance, and often made the difference between victory and defeat. Ranges had now increased to the point that fleets often did battle without ever seeing one another. Carrier planes were capable of attacking naval and land targets with equal aplomb, and apart from supporting amphibious troop landings, fleets no longer had any purpose other than the ferrying of aircraft to within striking range. Numbers of ships continued to shrink; a late 20th century aircraft carrier task force might consist of a single huge "supercarrier" surrounded by escort vessels and supply ships.

One development threatened the aircraft carrier's reign over the seas, and that development was the guided missile. The first guided missiles were the notorious Japanese kamikaze aircraft of World War 2. Their "guidance system" consisted of poorly trained "volunteer" pilots who manually flew their planes into their targets, and their effectiveness was largely predicated upon the difficulty of targeting incoming aircraft (not to mention the flimsy flight decks of American aircraft carriers). As guided missiles continued to evolve, they became automated weapons of extreme long range destruction, eventually transforming the tactical landscape. This required corresponding improvements in scouting techniques and C&C systems in order to improve targeting accuracy and ensure first strikes. The importance of scouting and C&C in an era of very long ranges cannot be overstated: during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, Israeli ships decisively defeated Syrian ships armed with longer-ranged missiles, thanks to superior scouting and C&C. The guided missile stood poised to reverse the long-standing trend of ever larger naval vessels, because it could be mounted on small ships and its potential lethality called the wisdom of the supercarrier into question (there was a lively debate between proponents of distributed naval force and concentrated naval force, ie- lots of little ships vs a few big ships).

And finally, it should be noted that despite the enduring importance of the submarine during the battleship, aircraft carrier and guided missile eras, there has never been what anyone would describe as a submarine era. That is because submarines by their nature are incapable of taking control of the ocean; they can attack shipping lanes but they can't defend them. They can't protect supply convoys or project national power by delivering troops; they can only act as raiders or instruments of mass destruction (eg. nuclear missile submarines), thus making them weapons of either sea-lane denial or nuclear terrorism, rather than instruments of legitimate naval control.

Federation Naval Tactics

Federation naval tactics are largely a hybrid between the tactics of ancient Rome and those of Horatio Nelson. Consider the following:

Some would counter these statements by referring to technobabble theory, but when theory and reality fail to intersect, theory is wrong. Non-canon speculation about very long effective ranges (either for phasers or torpedoes) sound nice, but it fails to explain why the tactics of Federation starship combat invariably follow the tactics of short-ranged weapons. If these unsubstantiated claims about very long effective ranges were true, then one would be left with no alternative but to conclude that the naval officers of all the major Star Trek navies are either suicidal or certifiably insane for refusing to take advantage of those ranges.

Imperial Naval Tactics

Imperial naval tactics are largely based on the battleship era, with some hint of tactics from the early aircraft carrier era. Consider the following:

Again, some might counter these arguments with technobabble theory, but again, what you see is what you get. They have fighters, but they can't use them the way terrestrial navies used them. They have torpedoes, but as anyone can see from ROTJ and TPM, they're obviously not ship-killers the way they were for submarines. They have guided missiles, but those missiles didn't turn space combat into long-range affairs of duelling missile platforms, the way they did for terrestrial navies and aircraft. It's not enough to affix a label to a particular weapon and assume it's precisely analogous to terrestrial equivalents; you must look at the way it's used, before you can begin to guess what it can do.

Technical Ramifications

The use of battle lines, ramming tactics, and balanced short-range gun/missile attacks in Star Trek leads us to the following conclusions:

  1. Anti-ship weaponry in Star Trek is not combat-effective at ranges exceeding ~10km, because battle lines form up at those ranges and cannot employ fleet firepower concentration without encirclement (also at that range). Torpedoes and phasers can physically travel farther than that, but targeting difficulties can limit effective range even when theoretical range is very large.

  2. Hulls, shields and structural forcefields are insufficient to nullify the effectiveness of ramming, because ramming attacks were so effective against undamaged, fully shielded Klingon warships in "Tears of the Prophets" (even when undertaken by miniscule 70m long ships). This suggests large disparities between Star Trek ships' ability to handle kinetic energy and electromagnetic energy.

  3. Combat maneuverability of capital ships is high enough to permit Nelson-style tactics of maneuver (hence the flanking maneuvers attempted by Jem'Hadar ships), but not high enough to permit fighter plane tactics (hence their use of combat formations).

  4. Based on the parallel use of phasers and photon torpedoes, the effective range of missiles seems to be far lower than their theoretical range. A likely explanation is that their limited AI and ECM (in addition to poor maneuverability) makes them easy to shoot down at long range, where the defenders have a lot of time to see them coming.

The use of concentrated gunnery tactics in conjunction with fighter harassment in Star Wars leads us to the following conclusions:

  1. Anti-ship weaponry in Star Wars is combat-effective at ranges of at least several hundred kilometres based on the unimportance of battle formations, even at long visual ranges such as those seen in ROTJ. This was demonstrated when the Rebel ion cannon engaged ISD's in the Battle of Hoth, and again when the DS2 superlaser engaged Rebel cruisers in the Battle of Endor.

  2. Weapons based on turbolaser technology dominate the battlefield in Star Wars, with scalability ranging as low as a hand blaster and as high as the awesome planet-destroying Death Star superlaser. Torpedoes are relatively unimportant, and seem to serve only as starfighter weapons.

  3. Starfighters, by virtue of their weak armament, cannot successfully attack capital ships without capship support. There is some apocryphal literature to support the opposite notion, but it originates entirely from the notoriously propagandistic New Republic descriptions of the exaggerated exploits of Wedge Antilles and his X-wing squadron. Canon support for this notion is nonexistent, and in the Battle of ROTJ, the fighters were used merely to "finish off" ships which have already been disabled by turbolaser cannonade, such as the Imperial communications ship and the Executor (also see the novelization, in which we heard Ackbar informing his bridge crew that "if we can knock out their shields, our fighters might stand a chance against them"- a far cry from the apocryphal nonsense of fighter squadrons pummeling the shields of warships).

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