Combat Overview

Endeavour’s mission is one of exploration and discovery. In an unknown and distant environment however, the vessel must be able to defend itself if needed. There are already known threats to the ISDC’s mission from other terrestrial deep space programs and potentially other alien species. Even under the best circumstances, first contact in some completely new language risks misunderstandings that might escalate to conflict.

In the vastness of space, the ability to detect and counteract a potential threat before it can inflict harm is vital. This can be achieved with asynchronous tactical capabilities: the ability to track without being detected or to deliver combat payloads while outside the weapons range of the threat.  Ideally, both.

Asynchronous Detection

Tactical sensors with the longest possible range might allow detection of a threat before counter-detection can be made, but this requires the use of passive sensor systems. Passive systems simply ‘watch’ space looking for emissions across the electromagnetic (EM spectrum). They interpret whatever emissions reach their detection pods and so their use does not give away the scanning vessel’s position.  

Active sensors systems use directed or broadcast EM or energy emissions whose interactions with objects in space are detectable. Active sensor systems make detection much easier and accurate but conversely require easily detectable emissions to function.

Prosecution

A vessel operating with the advantage of asynchronous detection needs weapons systems with sufficient range to prosecute that advantage. Given the capabilities of tactical sensor systems this may be in the range of hundreds of thousands of kilometers.

Directed energy weapons are the staple of science fiction and are increasingly deployed terrestrially, but neither detection or targeting systems can support accurate firing over distances in space. Passive sensors are not accurate enough for targeting except within visual range (a range of just thousands of kilometers). Ranging shots might assist with refining target location but the first shot would immediately identify the exact location of the firing vessel, completely reversing the tactical advantage.

Even with accurate targeting, the smallest error in the angle of fire is magnified by distance. Over a relatively short range of 100,000KM a variance of just 0.0006° in firing angle would miss the target by an entire kilometer. Targeting and sensor technology – current or in development - does not provide anything close to the capabilities needed for the use of directed energy as the vessel’s primary weapons system.

Guided Weapons

Weapons which can be guided close to their target and then use their own active sensor systems to home in on the target can deliver prosecution capabilities at required ranges. In the naval tradition the ISDC refers to these self-guided weapons as torpedoes.

Aside from a brief burst of energy at launch, self-guided weapons can maneuver themselves towards a target, so their track cannot be used to directly trace their source. Torpedoes will retain contact with the vessel during their early track, using data from the launch vessel’s more powerful passive sensors. The torpedo need only engage its own active sensor systems when relatively close to the target, where even though detectable, the torpedo’s small physical profile, speed and close range will be challenge to counter.

Combat Cadence

It is unknown what combat operations in space will actually look like. Simulations will begin to provide some idea, but given how little is known about the combat capabilities of species yet to be contacted, only mission experience will tell.

Combat is unlikely to resemble the battles depicted in science-fiction, however. Vessels blazing away at each other from within easy visual range is an unlikely tactical outcome. Even the theoretical use of defensive shielding technology (currently unknown to the ISDC) doesn’t alter the fact that a vessel would still begin inflicting damage on another as soon as it was within weapons range, rather than waiting for an (admittedly more telegenic) close-range battle.

Combat operations in space are therefore expected to occur at extreme range, relying heavily on asynchronous detection. Even if the target manages to detect its attacker, maintaining range gives either a greater chance to slip from detection and make another attempt at gaining tactical advantage.

Invisibility will be the most effective armour in space.

Not all combatants are expected to use the same weapons systems. Vessels which rely on directed energy weapons may choose active sensors to improve target acquisition but will likely still need to close range significantly before their weapons become accurate enough. And maneuvering directly towards an incoming torpedo would likely be an unsuccessful – and short-lived – tactical gambit.

Torpedoes are relatively slow compared to directed energy weapons, which operate at the speed of light. However, a torpedo presents a persistent threat until it can be outrun or neutralised. Still fast enough to easily overtake a vessel operating at safe impulse speeds, an active torpedo severely limits the maneuvering and tactical options available to a defending commander.

Asynchronous Technology

Contact with extra-terrestrial species has so far delivered little information on the tactical systems they use. It is anticipated they will deploy unfamiliar weapons technology which will likely be superior to our own. Conversely, terrestrial weapons systems may be so different to what other species are familiar with that they may struggle to defend against them, providing a countervailing tactical advantage.

Given these unknowns, asynchronous detection becomes even more important to ISDC commanders. Regardless of its technical superiority, a weapon that cannot find a target cannot inflict harm.

This raises questions about the likely detection capabilities of other species. The tell-tale emissions of a vessel are usually generated by propulsion systems and it is known that extra-terrestrial propulsion technology is significantly different to our own. If they also rely on passive detection a lack of familiarity with the detection profile of magnetoplasma-propelled vessels may put them at a tactical disadvantage. The ISDC at least has some experience with alien propulsion systems resulting from encounters on Earth.

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