Air Forces In SPACE!

9 Mar

This is just something that was mentioned on the Space Opera Facebook page. It got me thinking.

One of the tropes of space opera is that almost all space warfare is based on the navy, rather than the air force (Royal Navy or USN). And that does make a great deal of sense. The navies have far more experience operating big ships and using them to project power. Even a giant supercarrier is a far cry from an air base on the mainland. The air forces are geared around launching fighters and bombers, helicopters and drones – all relatively short-ranged craft. We can send the RAF to bomb France without much difficulty, but getting the RAF to China is a great deal harder.

What sort of universe would make air force-based military units more likely than naval-based?

Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, a number of technological advances.

-Ground-based defences are significantly more powerful than might be expected. Operating a big ship anywhere between Earth and Luna, during wartime, is asking for trouble. A PDC can clear local space of hostile ships with ease – as far as this universe is concerned, sending a fleet against forts is a guaranteed way to lose a fleet. (We might also envisage orbital fortresses that are far tougher than superdreadnaughts.)

-FTL drives are easy to miniaturise and VERY fast. A relatively small craft (an X-Wing-like fighter) can enter or leave FTL without needing a carrier, then travel to a reasonable destination without exhausting the pilot. The fighters are fast in realspace too and very nimble. They’re the only ones who can get within attack range of a fortress or a PDC without being swatted out of the sky.

-I’d assume some form of FTL communications too.

Obviously, there will be some capital ships in this universe. There will be carriers, I imagine, launching their ships from well beyond the PDC range. But no carrier can carry as many starfighters as a planet. There’ll also be freighters and survey ships – in fact, with this sort of tech, freighters will be as cheap as cars today.

But most planetary assaults, assuming they take place, will require the starfighters to clear the planet’s defences before the assault force can land.

How does that sound as a setting for a story?

38 Responses to “Air Forces In SPACE!”

  1. Rich Olson March 9, 2016 at 5:06 pm #

    Reminds me a lot of the old Traveler RPG supplement, COACC (close orbital and airspace control & command IIRC). The idea that there would be in an advanced space society a separate military whose primary job was to attack / defend the areas right around planets.

    • David March 9, 2016 at 5:22 pm #

      Maybe add effective EM stealth technologies to the fighters and capital ships. Then have some kind of mass sensor, so big massive capital ships would be easy to detect, but small low mass fast moving fighters would be harder to detect and target.

      Particularly if the mass sensor was slow to respond and was a sufficiently massive or volume consuming to make it difficult or impossible to install on anything smaller than a planetary base or massive space station.

  2. Mark C March 9, 2016 at 5:15 pm #

    Effective gravitational sensors might also nullify the advantages of big ships…. apply a logarithmic growth of detectability against mass. Even if individual starfighters aren’t able to single FTL, maybe massive scaffolds with Life support and point defence for deploying fighters across large distances? Or the opposite – ACTUAL airbases that move with large semi permanent populations, interacting with local laws where they’re positioned – Movable at reasonably great expense so it’s not frequent?

  3. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard March 9, 2016 at 5:34 pm #

    Another thought on Space Air Force vs Space Navy.

    Jerry Pournelle (and IIRC Larry Niven) wrote an article relating to Mote In God’s Eye.

    The idea was that if the only real defense your spaceship had against attack was “avoid the attack”, then smaller space ships with small crews were the way to go.

    If we compare the WW1 & WW2 Navy warships with the WW2 Bomber aircraft, you’d see that the navy warships required larger crews both to fight other warships & to repair damage received.

    A WW2 Bomber aircraft could take some damage but the crew couldn’t be expected to repair the damage when in flight and the damage that a navy warship could take would destroy the bomber.

    Thus if your spaceship could not “take much damage”, then you’d want a small crew (similar to that of an AF bomber) rather than a large crew (similar to that of an Ocean Navy battleship).

    Obviously in that situation, the size of the spaceship would depend on what sort of “space drive” you have but above a certain size (& crew) all you are doing is creating a better target for your opponents.

  4. utabintarbo March 9, 2016 at 5:46 pm #

    Your theoretical universe sounds a lot like the Star Wars universe.

    • ander75it March 10, 2016 at 12:50 pm #

      I was about to say the same.

    • ThereItGoes March 10, 2016 at 3:32 pm #

      It really sound Star Wars like and not. The X-Wing Series by Stackpole and Allston comes to mind.

      However: If you have FTL Communication and almost instantanous FTL / FTL so that distance does not really matter.

      Would the Air Space doctrine not coalesce around the idea of the decisive battle? (Meaning a fighter pilot POV would be boring?)

      Because any Planet attacked could get reinforcements (FTL is so quick) from everywhere in the Galaxy while the PDC prolongs the battle till they arrive.
      OR FTL is not so quick, but then you need Capital Ships for prolonged operations away from base and the “Air Space based on planet” concept does not work anymore.

    • chrishanger March 10, 2016 at 8:55 pm #

      There are zillions of capital ships in SW.


  5. Jack Boone March 9, 2016 at 6:23 pm #


    Jack Boone


  6. Martin Conway March 9, 2016 at 6:23 pm #

    I’d imagine this would make asteroid-belt scenes much more fun

  7. Glen Romero March 9, 2016 at 6:23 pm #

    This universe sound good to me because as retired Air Force I’m tired of the Navy getting all the glory when in the US the Air Force owns space defense and attack. We also own Cyber space but that’s a different story. As for getting a bomber around the world it only takes 24 hours to get a bomber into an area half way around the world. There is aerial refueling involved but that isn’t hard to plan for. Part of a flight plan filed for any mission includes time for refueling.

  8. James Stubbins March 9, 2016 at 6:57 pm #


    Storyline sounds good, but super-massive orbiting stations will just create a class of super-tugs who can snap an asteroid into the orbiting station’s path.

    Like the new book, even if my character is only mentioned once. At least you haven’t killed him. He could provide linkage between new stories and some very old plot lines. Deep cover mission involved stern orders not to leave the planet even if imprisoned, his implants have the old network of Imperial spy rings, safe houses, and contacts embedded and ready to turn over to the new good guys.

    Or he could stay fat and become a consultant.

    Get a chance to see the eclipse?


    Date: Wed, 9 Mar 2016 16:42:24 +0000 To:

    • chrishanger March 10, 2016 at 8:56 pm #

      Unless the asteroid gets blown away before it reaches its target .


  9. Cathy Howat March 9, 2016 at 7:47 pm #

    Write it!

  10. Rob Godfrey March 9, 2016 at 8:11 pm #

    hmm how about the ‘Air Force’ being the people who have craft capable of real Aerospace action? Say, for example, that ‘Space Navy’ ships, to carry more and more agile craft. are not capable of in atmosphere or ground to orbit operations, so, for those tasks, your projected ‘Aerospace Force’ has heavier craft, (Warthog ground defense suppression style craft, heavy bomber craft, fighter bombers, wild weasel etc) that ARE capable of landing and taking off from a planet, and can pack more fuel etc.

    Gives a clear role for both types of vessel, and makes for possible rivalries of doctrine, while explaining why carriers don’t do it all still (even a super light FTL weighs something, and that ‘something’ could be spent on weapons or ECM or fuel or…) The Navy took ‘or something’ the Aerospace Force took the Aero part seriously. (It would also mean separate support doctrines,. the navy using ‘space artillery’ with their potential Marine Support Destroyers’ while the Aerospace guys fly CAP with Warthogs great great grand kiddie, for their ‘aerospace mobile forces’ )

    Where the Army fits in this I do not know, but they may take a post breakthrough role, moving in after initial suppression of orbit capable defenses to do the bloody work of pacification, and later garrison forces.

  11. Gerry March 9, 2016 at 8:23 pm #

    That sounds like a great idea!

  12. shrekgrinch March 9, 2016 at 11:05 pm #

    Star Gate SG1 and the spin offs had the US Air Force found and operate the US’ space navy.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard March 9, 2016 at 11:13 pm #

      Another thought that I had was that the “Space Force” may have begun from the Air Force but over time had to adopt traditions and other “working structures” from the Navy.

      Basically, overtime the “Space Force” had to operate more as a Navy would than how an Air Force would.

      Long missions outside of communications with High Command, large crews having to work together as a unit (more like a Navy Ship than an Air Force base), and in an environment that could kill you as fast as the Ocean would.

  13. Joel Li March 10, 2016 at 2:38 am #

    There is something about the whole “master of all your survey” that makes the Navy (especially in space) based Space Force concept so much more enticing.

    The Air Force and small fighter planes require a support base. Thus if the main character is a pilot, becomes part of a larger force, and such is no longer the main drive of the story, unless he/she is a super god like fighter pliot. Or is stranded away from his/her infrastructure.

    On the other hand, if the main character is the person in charge of the battle, he/she becomes too distant, as you will never bring your carrier into the fight which small planes rule unless you are desperate.

    On the other hand, if battles are fought with big ships aka Navy style. The main character can be part of the action and yet not part of a large infrastructure.

    Just saying. Which is why in TV and Books most often Captain is the sweet story telling spot. 😀

  14. duncancairncross March 10, 2016 at 8:11 am #

    Larry Niven wrote about this subject,

    Any science fiction story will lean heavily on the limitations of the technology,
    If you can slip in/out of “hyperspace” anywhere “quietly” then defense becomes impossible – unless you can be detected and destroyed while still in hyperspace

    If you have atom bombs and no “shields” then a large ship is just a bigger target,
    Limitations of your “shields” determine the type of ship

    David Weber’s “wedges” make for interesting combat,

    Another thing to bear in mind – cooperation and mindset
    A Navy is a different type of military force to an Army – a crew has to act as a team and the “Admiralty” has much less “control” over a ship than the high command has over an army unit

    So a “Naval” story is much more of a story of an individual team working together to achieve something

    An “Air Force” story (as in a “home based” Air Force) is a different type of story – central command and then individual action

  15. georgephillies March 10, 2016 at 6:23 pm #

    Read Fleet Tactics. If weapons are powerful enough that in a three on one engagement all units perish you want the units cheap. Find and read the RAND analysis of why the F-35 is a failure for Pacific Theater warfare…it may not be true, but you may find it provides structure.

  16. Jack Hudler March 10, 2016 at 8:45 pm #

    PDC – Whenever I read I read a book that uses orbital PDC’s.
    I’m always reminded of the old axiom; Fixed fortifications are a monument to man’s stupidity.
    A battlestation would have to be bristling with point defence, so much so that it would out compeat any offensive weapons it would need. Due to their orbital nature, an attacker can standoff out of range of any defense and hit the station with ballistically fired weapons.
    Therefore the end result is, don’t do it! Spend your money on movable assets (ala, They Shall not Pass.)
    Planet base defenses are (IMO) not practical, just test firing whatever weapon you build will blowout every window, rupture, mame, or kill people within a radius of the weapon. Remember air needs to get out of the way of that weapons output.

    FTL – If the FTL drive is small and allows jumping near gravity wells, then PDC and missiles are useless An excellent example of small FLT drives and the tactical advantage it offers, can be found in Ryk Brown’s – The Frontiers Saga series.

    From my POV, if both sides possess fast small FTL capable ships, they are possibly the ultimate in Mutually Assured Destruction.

    As for Air Force vs Navy, I don’t really see that as an issue.

    • Rob Godfrey March 10, 2016 at 9:24 pm #

      Planet based weapons can be practical, polar gun batteries (massive directed energy weapons for preference) would work, as would large missile launchers. However they are both vulnerable to counter battery fire (which then brings to mind a new type of boomer, sea to orbit capable, and stealthy until it strikes).

  17. The Depoed King March 11, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

    Have to figure out your stance on anti-matter and fusion bombs. Do you have them or not. If not why? If yes how are your planets and bases not destroyed in the opening salvo? Planetary shields tapping the earth’s core for power, a quantum singularity tap or a gravity array that pushes them away from base/planet like in the lost fleet series or a hyperbuoy formation that kicks them into hyperspace etc.

    The Deposed King

    • chrishanger March 11, 2016 at 7:03 pm #

      I’m tempted to say that there’s a MAD scenario underway – you can fry us, but we can fry you. Of course, this probably makes outright warfare impossible.


      • Rob Godfrey March 11, 2016 at 7:10 pm #

        Hmm, maybe center the ‘air force’ ‘navy’ dynamic around the bombers vs boomers debate that happened in real life, and have the combat be at ‘colonial’ or ‘puppet’ scale, a cold war scenario, if FTL flight times in hours where protected by the ‘air force’ and made up the heart of the civilisation and the travel time of ‘days’ needed slightly larger vessels you would have your ‘navy’ with submarine equivalents and air force with space B52s.. .Does that make sense?

  18. Austin March 12, 2016 at 5:24 pm #

    A bit late to the party, but another idea is that the inertialess drive in use (and it would have to be inertialess because reaction drives wouldn’t support fighter combat) scale worse than linearly in efficiency with mass. Something like Efficiency = 1/(m^2). So rather than taking 100x more power to provide a destroyer with a fighter’s acceleration, it would take 10,000x more. So the only way to get good accelerations would be with smaller units, because larger ships would have to dedicate more and more space to power production.

  19. hoshinerf March 14, 2016 at 5:56 am #

    Here’s my thoughts on it really. Some are statements some are questions.

    1. Distances and pilot condition wouldn’t be a factor if you consider a temporary stasis system built into the fighter. For longer traveling the pilot is put to sleep during the transition period and wakes rested X amount of time before returning to real space.

    2. The pilots wouldn’t be able to repair their ships on the fly, possibly an AI in the ship with nano-technology based “healing” repair systems would work decently with this. (Not an AI that has a robot body, R2D2 doesn’t need to make an appearance, but something like the JARVIS incarnation from the Marvel Universe).

    3. Austin has a great idea for the logical explanations on transiting mass. Expand it so that the only larger ships traveling are 40 or under person transports (like current air travel) and large super-frigates and it explains a lot. Super frigates could be mostly power core with outer docking ports for cargo containers, to explain away why humans couldn’t travel this way the immense power of the core contaminates everything with radiation and it must be decontaminated in orbit before being sent to the planet’s receiving facilities.

    4. Since fighters would be the primary combat ships they would need some form of inexhaustible / easily replenished ammunition. This can be covered by lasers or plasma cannons, but missiles would be heavily limited and expended quickly.

    5. Fighter pilots could be elite troops, like Special Forces commandos etc with higher discretion than typical Earth-based Air Force pilots maybe?

    6a. Biggest thought I’ve had, how many fighters would we consider to be a respectable sized force? Are we thinking hundreds of fighters broken into wings? Multiple Wing Commanders all belonging to different NAFs? 1st Aerospace Force, 2nd Aerospace Force etc?

    6b. Conversely, expanding on 5 and reversing 6, perhaps the fighter ships are extremely expensive and operate in small teams such as the movie Stealth. 3 fighters are enough to combat a planet and set up 360 degree blockades once taking airspace superiority until the planetary government surrenders? Thus bombardment weapons are taboo, fighters use their nimble abilities to get in close to orbital defense structures and take them down, aerospace abilities to bomb planet-based defenses, then take up position to hold the planet under siege until surrender. This way the Spec Ops goes further and the units are closer to Generals in their own right on the battlefield with the ability to also negotiate terms?

    • Rob Godfrey March 14, 2016 at 7:42 pm #

      if you have AI good enough to repair and maintain the ship why have pilots?

      • hoshinerf March 15, 2016 at 11:59 am #

        Repair and maintenance are simple tasks, effectively “Yes/No” tasks.

        “Is the engine working. Yes/No. If no then what portions of the engine are no longer in optimal condition?”

        The pilots would be the conscience, you wouldn’t need complex AI for repair and maintenance but you would for deciding targets and whether or not to fire on something, especially if the pilots were expected to negotiate surrenders etc.

        Just like with our current drone programs, we have a human to ultimately decide whether or not to fire because if we made automated weapons and they got out of control who knows how devastating that could be.

    • Charlie Thurman April 17, 2016 at 9:40 pm #

      In the stargate books it was Marine that were sent through the gates not Air Force.

  20. Veraenderer March 15, 2016 at 10:43 pm #

    A few thoughts of me to this topic
    1. The main problem of the fighters will be supply so either they don’t need much supply (Laser Weapons, Antimatter Reaktors etc.) or they have carrier support or they can warp themself back to their base resupply and engage again.
    2. A fighter in an atmosphere will have other requiremends than a space fighter –> a fighter which is designed to fight in an spezific atmosphere will have an advantage –> either either will space fighters bombard a planet from space (this means you can ignore this aspect), the defender will have the better fighters when the battle reaches the atmosphere OR the attackers and defenders have space fighters and atmosphere fighters (which puts the attackers space fighters at the begin at escort duty)

  21. Don Yu March 20, 2016 at 6:49 am #

    Way late buy my thoughts.

    I think Navy is about power projection with limited infrastructure and Air force is about target destruction at least time starting from same location.

    EG. In WW2 the difference between the Pacific theatre and European Theatre. Pacific is about limited places to have air bases so require movable air base (carriers) to protect and deliver the fire power into the enemy territory while European theatre had lot of land to turn into air bases to deliver the fire power and transport of army can be carried out if removing the D-day invasion.

    So the speed is the factor so if the vehicle takes couple of days to get to the target area then air force based force will be better choice but if it take more time then Naval based force will be better.

    Damage control is not that important since if so then there should be either navy or air force in the world. AI based repair system can be applied to both small vehicles to very large.

    There is missiles that can sink any ships in the world but there is navy’s job is more about power projection (Gunship diplomacy) in areas without friendly nations providing the infrastructure to support the military operation.

    • Glen Romero March 21, 2016 at 12:39 pm #

      That is an over simplified explanation. There is some overlap when it comes to projection of power. With the B-2 we can hit any target anywhere in the world within 24 hours thanks to areal refueling. During the second gulf war temporary air stripes could be set up or tore down in a matter of hours. Those ship killer missiles can be loaded on any fighter. Cruiser missile are both ship landed and aircraft launched.

      In case it doesn’t come out I’m retired Air Force. It has always been a sore spot for me that space ships have mostly been refereed to as navies when space is the domain of the Air Forces of the world. It’s actually in the our doctrine that the protection of space is the responsibility of the Air Force as well as cyberspace.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard March 21, 2016 at 2:26 pm #

        Chuckle Chuckle

        IMO Space Forces of the Future may the “children” of the various Air Forces of the world, but will have to adopt the mindsets and procedures of the various Ocean Navies.

        The mindset/procedures of a medium-to-large Navy Warship crew are very different that that of an Air Force bomber crew.

        The mindset/procedures of a medium-to-large “Space Force” Warship will likely be more similar to that of an Ocean Navy Warship than that of an Air Force bomber. [Polite Smile]

  22. Puffin April 7, 2016 at 12:32 am #

    I used to play Starfleet Command on the PC (based on Starfleet Battles, kind of Star Trek with dice). What struck me was how the battles were more like dogfights ala WWII planes rather than Battleship vs Battleship (relatively) static slogging matches. They seemed like big (if slightly clumsy) fighter planes… armed with phasers and the like.

    But… I don’t see how small fighters could carry much in the way of supplies – unless the pilots liked recycled food & water etc. Some sort of mobile base is needed (Cylon Basestar?)

    I’d also mention that in the mechwarrior universe, it seemed a regular task was taking out ground-based defences before the main attack arrived. That leaves unanswered how the mechs got past the presumably fully functioning defences in the first place, but then that would spoil things.

    • Glen Romero April 8, 2016 at 4:14 pm #

      As a fan of the old Battletech game, there was a whole game dedicated to that AreoTech. It details the how the the mechs got from point a to point b, buy talking about the jumpships and dropships. The original rules allowed for some interaction with aerospace fighters. Later in the game additional warships where added to the game but that during the Clan invasion which was the down fall of the game.

  23. Charlie Thurman April 17, 2016 at 9:28 pm #

    The logistics won’t fit. A 1000 times the speed of light it would take a several days to travel to Tau Ceti, trapped in the cockpit of a fighter. Add the air, water and food for the trip and the fighter is getting bigger. The thing would not be able to carry enough ammo and ordinance for more than one mission.. If it is damaged at all, the loss of any of the above would be next to useless. The pilot would be trapped several light years from home..One strike and there would be a useless piece of metal. Even on Earth the logistics of supporting a prolonged deployment requires a massive effort. Yoe would need ships to haul the supplies and men needed to transport everything over those distances. Plus, I don’t know about European Air Forces, but the US Air Force has not shown the dicipline and capability to handle such an operation. The have had to fire a number on missle officers because of lack of training. They were unable to launch their missles. They have been caught cheating on training exams, both in the field commands and the USAF Academy.They do seem to excell at building lavish facilities, complete with golf courses, at their bases. lf a planitary assault is needed , It will take more that aircraft. It will require a very powerful fleet. And no, I was not in the Navy.If the post seems a little disjointed my apologies. I am on medication that has blurred my vision, and my laptop cursor jumped on me a few time and I had to repair my post.

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