REPOST – The Limits of an Analogy, or How Billy Mitchell might not be right INNN SPAAACE…

10 Jun

Reposted with updated links.

The Limits of an Analogy, or How Billy Mitchell might not be right INNN SPAAACE…

By Matthew W. Quinn

One rule of Internet discourse that it’s wise to follow is to avoid reading the comments. There, protected by anonymity, all sorts of ugly commentary tends to flourish. If you value having a positive view of humanity, by all means stay away.

However, 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 Buroker’s Fallen Empire universe. I related the Alliance strategy depicted in that story to Billy Mitchell’s thesis on air power trumping capital ships and cited the case of Operation Ten-Go in which dozens of American carrier aircraft sank the Japanese super-battleship Yamato and several of its escorts, killing thousands of Japanese at a cost of a dozen or so of their own.

Well, not everybody agreed with my argument. The gentleman (or lady) whose handle was Pyo pointed out that the distances involved in space battle are vastly larger than those in an oceanic battle. A space-opera setting will also feature vastly more advanced sensory technology to track incoming enemies and combat in space lacks the drag imposed by water or even air that contribute to a capital ship being less maneuverable than a fighter. Pyo also pointed other variables like energy shields, rapid-firing point-defense weapons, etc. that wouldn’t have been a factor in WWII naval battles. The user whose handle is Tim pointed out that PT boats are the same size as aircraft and were much less maneuverable on the water. In a space battle all vessels are maneuvering in the same medium, depriving aircraft of that advantage.

Pyo in particular made a very good point, which I responded to by citing the example of Battlestar Galactica. Multiple capital ships bunched together could create a very effective flak barrier, while energy shields make it so you’d need many torpedo hits, not just one or two, to actually inflict damage. That’s one reason the Cylons resorted to trickery (human-appearing infiltrators, hacking and disabling ships) as much as they did in the Second Cylon War–disrupting the flak barrier, even for a moment, would be necessary for their missile-spam strategy to bear fruit. And in an environment without drag, a capital ship’s much larger power-plant could make it far more faster and maneuverable in relationship to attacking fighter-craft than an earthbound battleship would be against torpedo bombers.

All those factors come into play in my newest Fallen Empire Kindle Worlds novella, "Discovery and Flight." The story takes place before and after Buroker’s short story "Remnants," which you can find in the You Are Here short-story collection. "Remnants" describes the Alliance having to evacuate one of its bases after fending off an Imperial assault that devastates its fleet. "Discovery" tells the tale of that battle and how much more difficult the Alliance’s fighter-heavy space force would find multiple Imperial capital ships supporting each other against torpedo barrages instead of the two Imperial cruisers they managed to separate in "Ten Davids."

So if you want to see more of Lieutenants Geun Choi and Tamara Watson–along with the canon characters Alisa Marchenko and Bradford Tomich–or just want a fun military scifi/space-opera story, check out "Discovery and Flight."

5 Responses to “REPOST – The Limits of an Analogy, or How Billy Mitchell might not be right INNN SPAAACE…”

  1. Mike Hall June 10, 2019 at 10:49 am #

    Just a note to say that what Billy Mitchell actually proved is still subject to dispute so using it as an analogy has special problems. The navy rules under which he had to operate were rigged against him but having target ships that were stationary and had no damage control parties were highly unrealistic. Wartime experience was that high level bomber attacks on moving ships were almost entirely ineffective and that carriers were much more vulnerable to low level air attack than battleships. What’s more, Mitchell’s Project B was not even needed to demonstrate battleship vulnerability; WW1 mines and torpedoes had already done this and the RN’s 6 September 1919 demonstration attack at Portland had shown that battleships at anchor were easily hit by torpedoes (basically it set the plan for Taranto and Pearl Harbour).

    Historical warfare can be a good source of plot ideas but at the end it is all down to the detail of the technology the writer invents as to whether an analogy carries over. I suspect that the most important lesson from history is that nothing quite goes to plan, unexpected shit happens and your neatly ordered formation may end up scattered all over the system.

    The “fighters not battleships” in space thesis reminds me of the 19th century naval “Jeune École” theories so maybe one could have a plot based on the IJN’s giving up on this idea after the First Sino-Japanese War. Plus you can have a WW2 analogy to the Med, where the fighters have lots of land bases or the Pacific where they need their own carriers.

  2. Bewildered June 10, 2019 at 11:23 am #

    Looked up the original comments to see where this all started. 🙂

    While it’s true that authorial laws have a massive effect on the role starfighters play in a universe – just compare Star Wars and Star Trek for instance, history and reality give some general guidelines that authors can play with. And of course past imaginings by other creative minds show us possibilities that we can adopt, adapt, or outright reject.

    The terrestrial aircraft:naval vessel parallel doesn’t work precisely for obvious reasons – there is no air or water in space, however to argue that aircraft only beat ships that can’t fire back is to ignore the reality of modern combat starting with World War II. And what of submarines? Wouldn’t that criticism be better leveled at them? They were designed to kill enemies that couldn’t see them coming and this stealth focus continues today. Submarine parallels in SF are next to non-existent as far as I’m aware – DW’s spiderdrive ships being one of the rare exceptions.

    As for larger ships not being slower and\or less maneuverable per contemporary naval vessels, why not? Greater mass means slower acceleration and reduced maneuverability. Ships need to accommodate parts, fuel and other supplies for long range operations, as well as sleeping, bathing, recreational and other such facilities for crew. In short they’re mobile bases. Starfighters by contrast are small vessels designed around killing enemies, or another such specialised task. Their degree of superiority over larger vessels will vary with the rules created. Indeed some rules may even penalise them. The Honourverse for instance holds that the basic ship powerplant cannot be scaled down beyond a certain point thus LACs – more akin to PT boats or armed transport aircraft, are forced to rely on primitive inefficient fission power plants which cripple their combat capabilities. When alternative tech boosts their combat capabilities beyond ship tech they become lethal weapons, until the tech balance swings back the other way.

    Regarding advanced sensors allowing computerised guns to direct flak more accurately, doesn’t that assume starfighters aren’t also bobbing and weaving at higher speeds, varying their intercept point, and throwing out ECM or other decoy measures? While detection might be possible at extreme range combat will still occur at sub-lightsecond distances unless missiles which can penetrate the flakstorm are used. And what if stealth or cloaking is involved? Detection let alone accurate targeting then becomes far less likely.

    Multiple ships bunching together may create a very effective flak barrier, but depending on the level of bunching, the ship density could simply create a kill zone. Instead of doing trench runs – which look very cool but are well beyond unrealistic, or even approaching to extreme gun range for strafing runs, might not ‘torpedo runs’ or ‘cruise missile runs’ be possible? Starfighters, or heavier variants, could simply lurk at extreme range and mass launch strikes designed to overwhelm defences. If starfighters are equipped with stealth technology they could even bore in far closer than standard because of the degraded detection and accuracy of the ships’ combat systems. While it is true that capital ships could be faster and more maneuverable in relation to starfighters than terrestrial ships are to aircraft, that would depend on the ‘squish factor’. If it’s easier to protect a pilot against g-forces, or remote pilot starfighters, then that combat difference will shift. Starships need to fully protect their crew, and loose objects, yet crew occupy only a tiny proportion of space on a ship whereas the pilot will occupy a relatively large space in a starfighter. A turtle or hedgehog approach may also limit ship maneuverability – the standard cone of possibilities will be constrained by the movement of all other ships thus making targeting simpler unless ECM, decoys etc come into play, all in the hope that close proximity will permit dense flak fields, and yet space is vast beyond belief so the further a flak field travels the more it will scatter. By contrast a starfighter swarm could (partially) englobe such a formation and simply overwhelm it with standoff weapons at extreme range. If homing missiles aren’t viable for whatever reason then there’s always some sort of mass driver or railgun option. A small solid lump would be insanely hard to track, yet strike with nuclear explosion level hurt. Calculations would be harder than for seeking or lightspeed weapons but …

    Just some random thoughts by someone who grew up on Biggles books rather than big ship books. 🙂

  3. Lokiorin June 10, 2019 at 5:01 pm #

    I’d also suggest the “Lost Fleet” series by Jack Campbell if you want to examine what a potential fleet action would look like. Relativistic speeds against the vastness of space can mean that you see your enemy days or even weeks before battle and the actual battle boils down to a microsecond long firing passes spaced between minutes or hours of maneuvering.

    In reference to fighter planes, the agreement in this setting is that they are essentially useless and only suicidal, desperate or ill informed militaries would use them at all. In a space there is no resistance, and all ships are operating in the same environment. Fighter craft have no particular edge in maneuvering, and because of their small size they cannot carry the weapons, shield generators, or even power plants required for a serious threat. Paradoxically, bigger becomes better in space where having larger and more powerful engines is more important than being small and light.

    • Matthew W. Quinn June 10, 2019 at 9:31 pm #

      In fairness, “desperate” would apply to the Tri-Suns Alliance, especially early on in the rebellion. 🙂 They’re basically the Free Syrian Army IIIIN SPAAACE except the Empire doesn’t have a Russia and Iran backing them up.

  4. Roger M. Klingman June 11, 2019 at 2:44 am #

    Does anyone have a Post Box address for Chris Nuttall? My letter to Scotland was returned with a red sticker that said “Royal Mail, We were unable to deliver this item because X addressee has gone away” I do not do social media. Sincerely, R. Klingman


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