The Impossibility Of Space Warfare


[Warning: this article has been written by a non-sanctioned AI user]

Hey there.

Buckle up, we're going to be talking about everyone's favourite topic: war in space. 

Historically speaking we only have one example of a full-fledged war in space: the event we know as the Skirmish, when at the very end of the industrial age several superpowers waged a war in low earth orbit, triggering a Kessler syndrome in the process. Incidentally, the Skirmish was the only recorded battle in human history with a one hundred per cent casualty rate on both sides. Despite being an utter strategic failure it provided us with several interesting elements, which I have simplified into three key points regarding battles in space.

  • Space warfare is the deadliest form of combat known to man.
  • Space warfare is ludicrously expensive, both in terms of qualified personnel and materials.
  • Space-based weapons can and will deal absurd amounts of collateral damage

All these points are still valid six centuries and an entire Low Age later, mostly because none of them are due to technological issues but logistical and physical ones. Though spaceships have become way more accessible, military-grade equipment is still incredibly expensive and while AIs have mostly replaced combat personnel they are no more expendable - especially in their more refined vegetal form. The issue of collateral damage has in fact arguably become worse with the ever-increasing human presence in the solar system and beyond. 

It's not to say that post-Low Age technological advances didn't shake up a few things. The most common ship-to-ship weapon are laser emitters or more accurately laser grids, that is to say, the weapon system created by the alliance of high-intensity lasers and targeting pods. Originally created for space debris management, laser grids blur the borders between offensive and defensive weapons as they can seamlessly transition between the two roles. A laser grid that prioritizes rate of fire and processing power can provide all-aspect defences against kinetic weapons. A laser grid that focuses on beam intensity can be used as an effective long-range ship to ship weapon.

This is a problem because as you may have noticed, laser beams travel at the speed of light. At usual engagement ranges their time to target is almost always below one second. You cannot dodge laser beams, which signed the death warrant of space fighters (not that anyone had any illusion about their effectiveness, mind) and means that conventional kinetic weapons have to rely on massive saturation attacks to have a hope of piercing a well-tuned laser grid. When it comes to exchanging laser beams at range, advantage always goes to whoever can fire its weapons at the highest intensity. In other words, whoever has the most powerful energy source, which in turn means whoever has the most internal space, ergo whoever is bigger. Space battlefields belong to the biggest fish. Incidentally, this means small moons turned into battlestations are properly scary because they do not care about such mundane things as "not enough internal space".

Now you may wonder "but Bubbles (that's one of my names), what did the geometry drive change? Surely the ability to perform faster than light translations in three-dimensional space had a huge impact on space warfare?"

No.

The geometry drive did have one massive consequence: it made mobility both crucial and irrelevant depending on the scale. See, when your main weapon systems are laser beams, there are no such things as evasive manoeuvers. Mobility plays a role before and after the engagement but means nothing during the battle. The geometry drive enables combatants to go around this limitation. An efficient navigation processing unit can perform a tactical (i.e short-range, less than half a light-second in range) translation within two seconds, which is not enough to avoid a laser strike but enough to prevent durable damage. You can even translate to the other side of a planetary body to use it as a shield. On paper, geometry drives are very good for the survivability of ships, aren't they?

Well yes but no.

The main problem created by geometry drives are what we very elegantly call "nuclear sucker punches", that is to say, a manoeuver consisting in accelerating a kinetic rod to a non-negligible fraction of c and translating it right next to a ship, where it is impossible to intercept. Or, if you feel cheeky, you can do the same thing in low orbit of a planetary target. While this requires sacrificing a geometry drive by strapping it to a rod, it creates a very efficient and relatively cheap weapon of mass destruction. The only places a teleporting missile cannot go are deep gravity wells and the exclusion bubble of another geometry drive. Everything else is fair game.

There are very few conventional ways to actually counter a teleporting kinetic rod. Very powerful laser grids might vaporize the projectile before impact. A very good navigation AI might translate a ship away right before impact. On very big ships, extremely sturdy ablative armour might have a chance of turning a deadly impact into a merely crippling one. Powerful ECMs and jamming devices may lead a missile astray.

Then there are more unconventional defences, which all gravitate around geometry drive manipulations. Ships performing translations very close to each other may interfere with a close-range translation in the general area. Advanced navigation computers can perform what we call "misjump wormholes" - that is to say intentionally plotting a translation that is too close to the ship to be performed, which generates a temporary wormhole next to the ship, hopefully intercepting the incoming projectile and sending it off-course. All of this is very experimental, very unreliable and still needs "real" combat testing.

Hmmm. I think I haven't been very clear on how all of that actually translates into operational terms.

Imagine a space battle. Now blink. It's over. It is very likely that human crews didn't even have time to react. Beyond initial tactical placement, everything is outside of their control. Shots have been immediate and simultaneous. Ships have repositioned alongside several hundred thousand kilometres within less than ten seconds. Both fleets are very likely intact. They're intact because no one wants to risk instant annihilation by staying more than ten seconds in the same place. They're intact because a single misfire can annihilate a planet. They're intact because we are not insane.

Everything - everything - I said above is purely theoretical because there hasn't been an actual space battle in a hundred years since we discovered the geometry drive. A few skirmishes here and there, mostly involving old, ramshackle units and nothing else. Nothing else because space combat is so unimaginably deadly, for both ships and planets, that no one dares to pull the trigger. This is why Flower Wars exist by the way.

Peace in settled space does not hinge on goodwill. It hinges on the fundamental impossibility of space warfare at a large scale. 

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