Guest Post: Billy Mitchell, Fighters vs. Ships, and "Ten Davids, Two Goliaths"

17 Jul

by Matthew W. Quinn

Once upon a time, large ships carrying cannon were the core of the world’s navies. At first, they were made of wood, but technology marched on. The Civil War’s Battle of Hampton Roads, in which the Confederate Merrimack (or as they called it, the Virginia) faced the Union’s Monitor, showed that wooden ships would fall before ironclads. The older ironclads were replaced by the steel "pre-dreadnought" battleships and ultimately by the dreadnoughts themselves. Though each new type of ship was more impressive than the last, they were all variations on a theme. Nobody thought of a weapon that would make gun-bearing ships themselves obsolete, or at least greatly diminish their role.

Nobody, that is, until American aviator Billy Mitchell. He believed that the airplane would be the decisive element in 20th Century warfare, trumping the great ships and their guns, and proved it with a series of demonstrations. Although his views were not popular with the U.S. military establishment, events soon vindicated him. The sinking of the Yamato, the biggest battleship ever built, by American aircraft in the waning days of the Pacific War, serves as the perfect example.

The great battleships were reduced to escorts for aircraft carriers, the new queens of the seas, and to shore-bombardment platforms. The vaunted U.S.S. Missouri served in this role in the Korean War and after extensive upgrades, in the Persian Gulf War.

Although Lindsay Buroker’s Fallen Empire series takes place in the future, it seems that the tyrannical Sarellian Empire did not learn from the past. The Empire maintained a military fleet consisting of enormous warships that the rebellious Tri-Suns Alliance avoided facing in open battle, instead engaging in "guerrilla tactics."

And one possible tactic an ill-equipped space guerrilla army could use is eschewing matching the enemy in big ships and focusing on fighters. In my Kindle Worlds novella "Ten Davids, Two Goliaths," set at the beginning of the rebellion several years before Buroker’s first novel Star Nomad (which you can read for free), the Alliance attack two Imperial cruisers on a training mission with many fighters, not rival cruisers. Fighters can be more easily kept in hidden bases (the primary Alliance hideout in Buroker’s story "Remnants" seems to be a fighter base), plus it’s much easier to recruit defecting fighter pilots than getting the crew of a larger vessel to agree to bolt. There were many pilot defectors during the Cold War, but no attempts by Soviet ships to flee. A dissident pilot can hide his feelings until he bolts; organizing a mutiny on a larger ship, especially in a police state like the Soviet Union (or the Sarellian Empire), is a much harder proposition.

So if you like space opera, I would recommend reading the Fallen Empire series, and if you want to see the war that took place before her stories begin, I would recommend you check out "Ten Davids, Two Goliaths."

16 Responses to “Guest Post: Billy Mitchell, Fighters vs. Ships, and "Ten Davids, Two Goliaths"”

  1. georgephillies July 17, 2017 at 5:08 pm #

    Mitchell showed what could be done against ships with no antiaircraft fire and no damage control. Worse, he sank the ships, meaning that it was impossible to evaluate how much damage each attack had done to improve naval construction. The Royal Navy in the med against the Italians had an opposite experience. The IJN against the Repulse and the Prince of Wales had a golden BB; one of the first weapons fired took out one of the battleship’s antiaircraft systems, more or less completely. Pearl Harbor was a major technical breakthrough, namely it was impossible to use airdropped torpedoes in water that shallow…until Genda found the solution.

    • Matthew W Quinn July 18, 2017 at 11:14 pm #

      Could you elaborate about the Royal Navy vs. the Italians in the Mediterranean? I’m not familiar with that theater of the war.

      About Billy Mitchell, even if those factors you described mitigated against blind acceptance of “air power uber alles” by the other officers at the time, by the end of the war his ideas were vindicated. Look at how one-sided Operation Ten-Go (the death ride of the Yamato) was. IIRC Coral Sea and Midway the enemy ships never saw each other–it was all carrier-based aircraft wrecking each others’ surface ships.

      • Tim July 19, 2017 at 3:38 pm #

        The RN in the Med was generally able to operate in the face of near overwhelming land based air power by the Italians and Germans. They did this with great difficulty but they did it.

        Except that Billy Mitchell advocated heavy bombers to the exclusion of everything else. He based this on his experiences in WW1 where it was extremely difficult to bring down the big planes so most always got through to the target. There was a belief among air power advocates at the time that if you bomb the enemy’s cities the morale of the civilian population would break forcing an end to the war. This certainly was not the experience in WW2 until the atomic bomb.

        As for the Yamato’s death ride; it was less about the dominance of air power than it was about sending 1 ship against the most powerful fleet in the world.

        My reading of military history is that it usually is combined arms that carry the day. There is a saying, I don’t remember where I heard it, that if someone comes to you saying he has the ultimate weapon, grab you wallet and walk away, quickly.


  2. Andrea Ungaro July 17, 2017 at 5:51 pm #

    Actually at least one ship did defect during the Cold War… Or tried to. See the story at

    • Matthew W Quinn July 18, 2017 at 12:01 am #

      I thought about including that in the blog except, except I did some reading and found the mutiny was to openly challenge the socialist legitimacy of the Soviet regime, not to defect.

      In any event, it proves my point–it’s a lot trickier to get many crew members on a larger ship to agree to defect than to persuade one fighter pilot to bolt.

      • ander75it July 18, 2017 at 9:41 am #

        Definitely. That’s why “The Hunt for Red October” is a film 🙂

  3. Anarchymedes July 18, 2017 at 9:36 am #

    Speaking of possible distant future warfare, I believe the ‘real’ Star Wars will be ‘hybrid’ ones: fought, basically, by supplying, training, and sponsoring the local troublemakers on the target worlds. This kind of warfare has already been used by the US (Nicaragua, for one), and Russia (Moldova, Ukraine). It’s cheaper, both in terms of money and personnel, it doesn’t involve heavy commitment (ships, fighters, etc.) and, most important, it’s deniable in every Galactic court (or whatever they’ll have then).
    And if the local troublemakers are too timid, there is always a way to fire them up by faking an attack from the target group, thus provoking a backslash. Once again: it has been done. Allegedly, Putin’s men blew up a few apartment buildings to create an excuse for the second Chechen war.

    • Matthew W Quinn July 18, 2017 at 12:15 pm #

      Good idea. I’m planning on writing future KW projects and the Alliance definitely has its shades of gray–according to one of the Empire’s cyborg soldiers, they deliberately attacked civilian populations because they couldn’t openly face the Empire’s military and there’s at least one suicide bombing mentioned.

      So false-flag attacks seem like something doable.

  4. Pyo July 18, 2017 at 5:49 pm #

    Well, this sort of big ship vs small ship musing come essentially all down to the universe the author creates. Plenty of settings where the technology simply works in such a way that fighters have no real chance against larger opponents. Sometimes they are useful for specific strategies or specific circumstances. And sometimes they are the primary weapon.

    Personally, but this is just a gut feeling sort of comment, with the distances involved in space fights I don’t see fighters/bombers being able to invalidate battleship strategies like they did on water. The ability to essentially drop something on the larger ships only works if they can’t just fire back, and presumably with scifi-sensors in the vastness of space that’s not too difficult to do.

    Also, and again this depends on the universe, but there’s really few reasons to assume a larger ship is going to be slower or less maneuverable, which is kinda the implication with fighters, usually. But physical constraints of air- or waterfights don’t actually apply. So unless the author adds another reason why this is so, it doesn’t have to be that way (might actually be the reverse, I’d say).

    • Matthew W Quinn July 18, 2017 at 11:10 pm #

      Fair point. In BATTLESTAR GALACTICA the battlestars carried vast numbers of flak cannon and even ship-killing “bow guns,” which is why the Cylons resorted to electronic trickery and spies to disable the Colonial fleet and then overpowered any ships remaining using numbers and missile spam.

      (That said, the number of times the GALACTICA jumps and a second later hundreds of Cylon missiles pass through where it’s been shows that even in that world, massed fighters are nothing to sniff at.)

      Good point about sensors and computers. More advanced sensors attached to computerized guns would allow flak to be much more accurate. Oncoming fighter-type craft and the missiles they launch could be “sniped” — there’d be less need for “spray and pray” unless the fighters or some space-AWACS have a good ECM/ECCM thing going. And owing to the greater distances, fighters will need to approach from much further off.

      About the ability of a larger ship to rapidly maneuver, even in a zero-gee environment mass is still mass, and you need more force to accelerate said mass. And once you get moving in a vacuum, you keep moving unless you start pushing in another direction. A bigger ship’s going to have a bigger engine to move it around, but depending on the thrust-to-mass ratios it might still be less maneuverable than a fighter.

      • georgephillies July 20, 2017 at 2:06 am #

        Or the space battleship might be far more maneuverable that the small attack ship.

    • Tim July 19, 2017 at 5:52 pm #

      The big advantage aircraft have over ships is the medium in which they travel, i.e. air vs. water. This enables the reletively expendable airplane to travel, in WW2, about 10 times faster than ships and so appear, attack then disappear again without the ship ever bringing its main weapons , big guns, into action.
      Aircraft sized boats did not share this advantage. PT boats and other light attack craft had similar weapon loads and range to the aircraft but were only about twice as fast. They generally fared poorly against larger warships except in specialized circumstances such as limited visibility or restricted waters.
      I would think that space would be more like the more like the latter situation with both large spaceships and small moving in the same medium, vacuum, and the vast expanse of space making it very difficult for the smaller craft to approach undetected.

      • Pyo July 19, 2017 at 6:11 pm #

        Yeah, but there’s so many factors there. Like, missiles essentially have unlimited range in space. So assuming your sensors are good enough to track a large ship, you can shoot from wherever, then run away, which would give the attacker fantastic advantages.
        Even if your sensors got great range, over huge distances you’d have to deal with problems like light-speed delay. So just a little too slow plus the lag and the attack is already on the way before you could do anything about it.

        Now the question is: how fast exactly is the missile, especially compared to ships?
        Does the missile have some type of maneuverability to make course corrections once closer to the target?
        Is the point-defenses automated and fast enough to shoot it down?
        Are the defenses so strong that a single missile won’t matter anyway and you need to somehow saturate it (like the typical energy “shields”)?

        What kind of technology allows the human inside the ships to avoid being ground into paste during maneuvers – because that’ll decide whether there’s a chance for the ship to evade, or whatever there isn’t.

        And so on and so on. I’m sure some people thought a lot more about this than I have. But it seems that there’s already so many variables and assumptions that it’s really tough to predict anything.

        Either way, for scifi, to me, consistency matters. And it needs to be somewhat plausible. So for example Weber does no doubt a decent job there, although I thought some of the later technology was a bit too convenient, so to say. But it works, and “rules” like the hyper-limit (or whatever it’s called) make for interesting tactical decisions to so they serve the story well, whether they make physical sense or not. And I’m not sitting here trying to deliberately poke any holes in his technology-setting so it’s all good.

  5. Tim July 20, 2017 at 6:01 pm #

    Totally agree with that Pyo. It all depends on how the author sets up his universe. Just keep it interesting and internally consistent.



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    […] occasionally one can learn from the comments section. Awhile back, Chris was so gracious as to host a guest post promoting my Kindle Worlds novella "Ten Davids, Two Goliaths," set in Lindsay […]

  2. REPOST – The Limits of an Analogy, or How Billy Mitchell might not be right INNN SPAAACE… | The Chrishanger - June 10, 2019

    […] occasionally one can learn from the comments section. Awhile back, Chris was so gracious as to host a guest post promoting my Kindle Worlds novella "Ten Davids, Two Goliaths," set in Lindsay […]

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