It’s a glorious thing, combat in space, or so Hollywood would have us believe. Star Wars shows us an analog of carrier warfare, with large ships (like Star Destroyers) launching out wing after wing of small craft (TIE Fighters and X-Wings) that duke it out amid the starry expanse. That other bastion of popular science fiction, Star Trek, also depicts space warfare in naval terms, as a dark, three-dimensional version of the ship-to-ship combat of yore. Most “smaller” universes ape these big two, so the general idea in modern minds is this: space battles look like WWII, but in space.
Ask anyone who has studied the subject in any depth, however, and they’ll tell you that isn’t how it would be. There’s a great divide between what most people think space combat might be like, and the form the experts have concluded it would take. I’m not here to “debunk”, though. If you’re a creator, and you want aerial dogfighting, then go for it, if that’s what your work needs. Just don’t expect the nitpickers to care for it.
Space is big
The first problem with most depictions of space battles is one of scale. As the saying goes, space is big. No, scratch that. I’ll tell you right now that saying is wrong. Space isn’t big. It’s so huge, so enormous, that there aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to encompass its vastness.
That’s where Hollywood runs into trouble. Warfare today is often conducted via drone strikes, controlled by people sitting at consoles halfway around the world from their targets. We rightfully consider that an impersonal way of fighting, but what’s striking is the 10,000 miles standing between offense and defense. How many Americans could place Aleppo on a map? (The guy that finished third in the last presidential election couldn’t.) Worse, how would you make a drone strike dramatic?
In space, the problem is magnified greatly. Ten thousand miles gets you effectively nowhere. From the surface of Earth, that doesn’t even take you past geostationary satellites! It’s over twenty times that to the Moon, and Mars is (at best) about another 100 times that. In naval warfare, it became a big deal when guns got good enough to strike something over the horizon. Space has no horizon, but the principle is the same. With as much room as you’ve got to move, there’s almost no reason why two craft would ever come close enough to see as more than a speck. A range of 10,000 miles might very well be considered point-blank in space terms, which is bad news for action shots.
Space is empty (except when it isn’t)
Compounding the problem of space’s size is its relative emptiness. There’s simply nothing there. Movies show asteroid belts as these densely packed regions full of rocks bumping into each other and sleek smuggler ships weaving through them. And some stars might even have something like that. (Tabby’s Star, aka KIC 8462852, almost requires a ring of this magnitude, unless you’re ready to invoke Dyson spheres.) But our own Solar System doesn’t.
We’ve got two asteroid belts, but the Kuiper Belt is so diffuse that we’re still finding objects hundreds of miles across out there! And the Main Belt isn’t that much better. You can easily travel a million miles through it without running across anything bigger than a baseball. Collisions between large bodies are comparatively rare; if they were common, we’d know.
Space’s emptiness also means that stealth is quite difficult. There’s nothing to hide behind, and the background is almost totally flat in any spectrum. And, because you’re in a vacuum, any heat emissions are going to be blindingly obvious to anyone looking in the right direction. So are rocket flares, or targeting lasers, radio transmissions…
Space plays its own game
The worst part of all is that space has its own rules, and those don’t match anything we’re familiar with here on Earth. For one thing, it’s a vacuum. I’ve already said that, but that statement points out something else: without air, wings don’t work. Spacecraft don’t bank. They don’t need to. (They also don’t brake. Once they’re traveling at a certain speed, they’ll keep going until something stops them.)
Another one of those pesky Newtonian mechanics that comes into play is the Third Law. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That’s how rockets work: they spit stuff out the back to propel themselves ahead. Solar sails use the same principle, but turned around. Right now, we’ve got one example (the EmDrive) of something that may get around this fundamental law, assuming it’s not experimental error, but everything in space now and for the near future requires something to push on, or something to push against it. That puts a severe limit on craft sizes, speeds, and operating environments. Moving, for example, the Enterprise by means of conventional thrusters is a non-starter.
And then there’s the ultimate speed limit: light. Every idea we’ve got to get around the light-speed barrier is theoretical at best, crackpot at worst. Because space is huge, light’s speed limit hampers all aspects of space warfare. It’s a maximum for the transmission of information, too. By the time you detect that laser beam, it’s already hitting you.
If you want hyperrealism in your space battles, then, you’ll have to throw out most of the book of received wisdom on the subject. The odds are severely stacked against it being anything at all like WWII aerial and naval combat. Instead, the common comparison among those who have researched the topic is to submarine warfare. Thinking about it, you can probably see the parallels. You’ve got relatively small craft in a relatively big, very hostile medium. Fighting takes place over great distances, at a fairly slow speed. Instead of holding up Star Trek as our example, maybe we should be looking more at Hunt for Red October or Das Boot.
But that’s if reality is what you’re looking for. In books, that’s all well and good, because you don’t have to worry about creating something flashy for the crowd. TV and movies need something more, and they can get it…for a price. That price? Realism.
Depending on the assumptions of your universe, you can tinker a bit with the form of space combat. With reactionless engines, a lot of the problems with ship size and range go away. FTL travel based around “jump points” neatly explains why so many ships would be in such close proximity. Depending on how you justify your “hyperspace” or “subspace”, you could even find a way to handwave banked flight.
Each choice you make will help shape the “style” of combat. If useful reactionless engines require enormous power inputs, for instance, but your civilization has also invented some incredibly efficient rockets on smaller scales, then that might explain a carrier-fighter mode of warfare. Conversely, if everything can use “impulse” engines, then there’s no need for waves of smaller craft. Need super-high acceleration in your fighters, but don’t have a way to counteract its effects? Well, hope you like drones, because that’s what would naturally develop. But if FTL space can only be navigated by a human intelligence (as in Dune), then you’ve got room for people on the carriers.
In the end, it all comes down to the effect you’re trying to create. For something like space combat, this may mean working “backward”. Instead of beginning with the founding principles of your story universe, it might be better to derive those principles from the style of fighting you want to portray. It’s not my usual method of worldbuilding, but it does have one advantage: you’ll always get the desired result, because that’s where you started. For some, that may be all you need.