One way to compare sci-fi ground armies is to ask: "How would they fare against a modern army of equal numerical strength?" Let's take a specific scenario: a modern, well-equipped army takes on an Imperial or Federation army over open ground, with no advantage of surprise going to either side. Aerial and orbital support (as well as fancy tricks such as transporters and non-optical sensors) are taken out of the equation by violent electrical storms, poor visibility, and high-powered ECM. Nuclear weapons are prohibited because this battle is taking place just ouside of a city which both sides want in intact and inhabitable condition. How would our futuristic armies fare?
Thanks to its broad inventory of weapons and its use of combined-arms tactics, an Imperial army would be able to go toe-to-toe with a modern army in most respects, with some factors going their way and some going against them. Stormtrooper armour is environmentally sealed and much stronger than modern body armour, so it conveys an advantage to the Empire: they can freely use chemical weapons as long as the chemical agent is short-lived and easily dispersed (to avoid excessive collateral damage in the nearby city). Furthermore, stormtrooper armour is capable of stopping small-arms fire, thus making anything smaller than a grenade launcher useless. However, modern artillery has greater flexibility and useful effective range than Imperial artillery, thanks to its avoidance of line-of-sight restrictions. On the other hand, Imperial armour is like no land vehicle ever seen on this planet. An AT-AT is at least an order of magnitude more massive than the largest modern tank, and its weapons are flexible and powerful enough to destroy anything from low-altitude aircraft to enemy artillery pieces and even entire enemy installations, all from many kilometres away. Heavy war droids represent an entirely new element on the field of battle, and their psychological impact alone could be devastating. And finally, their CAS is rather unusual in the sense that they can employ more armour and they can use shielding technology, thanks to their repulsorlifts. A battle would probably go to an Imperial army on the strength of their armoured vehicles and war droids, since they would undoubtedly counteract artillery stand-off tactics by rapidly closing the distance until the range disparity is nullified, and their superior armour and firepower can come into play.
The outcome of a battle between a Federation army and a modern army is much easier to predict: it would be a one-sided massacre. Federation ground forces are completely one dimensional, with no concept whatsoever of combined arms tactics; if you present an opponent which is not easily attacked by men on foot with small arms fire, then they have no recourse but to call for air support. They have no armour for protection and mobility, they have no equipment for surviving chemical or biological warfare, and they have no way of retaliating against enemy artillery. The result is that they would be slaughtered wholesale by artillery at long range, without any chance to retaliate or even see the faces of their killers (in "Nor the Battle to the Strong", they couldn't even fashion a response to Klingon light mortars, never mind the huge artillery pieces a modern army would call into action). Even if they were to miraculously avoid being blown apart by heavy artillery while trudging toward enemy positions on foot, they would be dead the moment they came within 1-2 kilometres of modern infantry, because they would be ripped to shreds by mortar fire, shell fire, and fixed machine gun fire long before they could ever come close to the range where a man might be able to hit anything with a hand held rifle. Even a rifle with perfect accuracy is only as accurate as the man who fires it, and three centuries of technological development won't change that. Trekkies tend to argue that a ground army doesn't need all these capabilities if they have transporters and orbital support, but both of those crutches can be removed by a cunning enemy, so in the end, this argument is just a tacit admission of the gross inadequacy of Federation ground forces.
While the Empire has a fully equipped ground army, the Federation seems to have almost completely neglected ground combat in its funding, research, and military procurement policies. The result is that they have no ground weapons heavier than small arms, and during the TNG era, they had no real infantry weapons at all. This oversight means that Federation ground troops are incapable of employing combined-arms tactics, and it seems to be a direct result of the fact that Starfleet is apparently the entire Federation military. Their ground warfare strategy seems to be based on the assumption that Starfleet vessels will always be available, so there is no need to dedicate heavy weaponry to soldiers on the ground. As a result, their soldiers are equipped with nothing more than small arms, even when expected to hold portions of enemy territory for long periods of time (as demonstrated graphically in "Siege of AR-588"). Federation ground troops are simply Starfleet troops who have been sent to the surface, rather than a specialized ground army. The result is that their training and equipment is optimized for shipboard combat, and they have repeatedly shown themselves to be staggeringly inept on the ground. An army like this would be easily slaughtered easily by a modern army, never mind an armour-centric Imperial army.
While a more complete selection of ground combat technology is probably available from independent free-market arms vendors elsewhere in the Star Trek galaxy, Federation troops must settle for whatever their centralized state arms manufacturers produce. Requests for improvement will move slowly in a bureaucracy which is dominated by Starfleet, and which undoubtedly allocates as many resources as possible to naval spending.
In short, the Federation's ground combat strategy is crippled by the primacy of Starfleet. They are totally dependent on Starfleet to attack distant targets, hardened targets, and armoured targets. Since the enemy will undoubtedly be using sensor jammers, interdictor fields, or distortion generators to prevent transporter use, they must rely on air lifts for mobility. They are not equipped to deal with chemical or biological weapons. Therefore, the most obvious strategy is to neutralize their mobility by using sensor jammers and distortion generators to block transporters, and to neutralize their orbital fire support by erecting a theatre shield. This will leave their ground troops virtually helpless in the face of artillery.
However, while sensor jammers and other forms of transport interdiction will be fairly easy to come by, a theatre shield generator is relatively large device which may take some time to set up. If it is not available for any reason, then it would not be possible to neutralize Starfleet fire support at the push of a button. However, it would still be possible to use the time-honoured military strategy of pulling the enemy in two directions at once, by co-ordinating simultaneous space and ground attacks. Starfleet vessels cannot effectively support troops on the ground if they are simultaneously fending off attacks in space, either against themselves or against other Starfleet targets such as shipping lanes, supply depots, space stations, or ship yards. This means that during a space attack, even one that is unsuccessful or inconclusive, their ground forces will be effectively impotent and immobile. A sustained artillery bombardment would wipe them out without any chance for a counter-attack, and the hoppers they use for evacuation would be easy pickings for fighter craft or anti-aircraft weapons. By the time orbiting Starfleet vessels were able to resume their support role, there would be no one left to support. This is the reason that real life ground armies always have their own dedicated support weapons. Over-dependence on air support is a foolish strategy that would present enticing opportunities for an opportunistic enemy.
Stuart Slade writes (Oct 31, 2002):
On land warfare I believe you seriously underestimate the efficiency of a modern (2002) infantry unit against Starfleet's misguided children. Last night's episode of Enterprise featured a land-fighting engagment - a single modern infantry squad on either side would have cleaned the clocks of both sides. Its not just a comparison of weaponry thats key here (although the thought of Worf being riddled with fire from M-16s has its points) but training and in particular, C4I. Modern infantry are taught to fight as teams and work as teams, exploiting the various weaponry available to them. Starfleet's idea of teamwork is to see who can mouth the most platitudinous cliches in the shortest possible time. On a battlefield this ain't smart. As far as I can see, Starfleet has no command control structure for its ground forces, has little in the way of secure communications and its intelligence analysis and distribution is not-existent. Although they gather information, they don't distribute it.
- Robert Wilson, for graciously acting as a consultant for real-life weaponry, marksmanship, and combat tactics, based on his experiences as a soldier and instructor for the British Army (including full sniper qualification). He also provided numerous insights about how real-life tactics might apply to sci-fi ground combat.
- Brian Young, for many discussions about firearms ergonomics.
- Greg Burnett, for useful information regarding marksmanship, based on his experiences on the range and combat firing course for the U.S. Marines.
- A shadowy figure who would only identify himself as an acolyte of Vader, for suggesting a link between AT-ST operational disruption and the precipitous drop in stormtrooper efficiency during the Battle of Endor.
- Chris Knight, for providing the quote from "Lightsabres".
- A mysterious Sith acolyte who has been identified as Darth Paul, for reminding me of the MLRS and for brief discussion about AA weapons.
- Brian Young, for general comments and a video clip showing SPHA platforms firing arcing shots.