Children of a Dead Earth started with the question “What would space warfare actually be like?” The game itself is the answer to the question, but in this post, we’ll also go over the answer, based on how the simulation turned out.
Modern warfare doctrines have very little on space warfare. There are a few public documents from the cold war era concerning satellite warfare, but they all hinge on several conceits that are not terribly relevant to full space warfare. In particular, they always assume Earth’s gravity and atmosphere as the main celestial body, and they assume that everything will stay in very low orbit, hugging Earth’s atmosphere. As a result, these doctrines are much closer to high altitude aerial warfare or ICBM warfare than actual space warfare.
There is always a tendency to want to take a certain kind of present day modern warfare and extrapolate it to space, or to try to find parallels. Would space warfare be similar to modern naval warfare, carriers launching fighters and bombers at each other, without ever seeing one another? Or perhaps like World War 2 fighter plane dog fights? Or maybe it would be similar to submarine warfare? Most soft science fiction takes this approach, but as it turns out, space warfare ends up being very dissimilar to all of these.
But there are similarities here and there.
For instance, the spacecraft sizes tend to be similar to modern naval carriers and destroyers. Yet, despite being similar sizes and masses, the masses distribution is radically different. An Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer masses at 9.80 metric kilotons, while a spacefaring Laser Frigate in Children of a Dead Earth masses at 7.71 metric kilotons, despite them both being 155m long. Whereas the majority of the missile destroyer’s mass comes from the hull, in space, the majority of the mass is in the propellant. This is due to the rocket equation, and the resulting need for extraordinary amounts of propellant to get any delta-v. Inside spacecrafts, it’s mostly just propellant tanks.
Similarly, the carrier and fighter model of modern naval warfare also translates over to space warfare well. However, fighters become drones, entirely remotely operated on the carrier (this evolution is already starting to happen in present day US Military doctrine with UAVs). And another important weapon shows up, the missile salvo, an evolution of the modern ATGW or ASM. A spacecraft carrying 100 nuclear missiles is just as common as a spacecraft carrying 100 drones, and it serves its own unique combat purpose as well.
A surprising parallel is found with World War 1 battleships. As point defense technology evolves, drones and missiles no longer rule the battle space. Indeed, very recent examinations of modern US Naval doctrine have suggested that as point defense technology advances, we may see a resurgence of battleship warfare as point defense technology outpaces missile and drone attack capabilities. In game, point defense in the form of lasers and projectile weapons both are very effective at anti-missile and anti-drone warfare, yet both can be overwhelmed given large enough salvos of missiles or drones. As a result, if you’re weak on drones or missiles, getting in close with the capital ships themselves is a viable tactic. The advent of better and better projectile weapons seals the viability of this tactic.
But while there are plenty of parallels, there are far more differences unique to space warfare.
For one, simple movement in space requires understanding of orbital mechanics. Everything is always moving, relative to nearly everything else in space. You can’t stop in space unless you land on a celestial body, and doing so usually costs so much delta-v that’s it’s not an option. Going in depth into the orbital mechanics will be covered in another blog post, but one should know that it does yield counterintuitive results. For instance, if in the same orbit as a target, you will never get catch up to them, and you have to slow down to catch them, or speed up to let them catch you. This is because decelerating increases your orbital speed, and accelerating reduces your orbital speed.
One byproduct of these orbital mechanics is the speeds in space are truly enormous, far greater than anything you’ll ever see on Earth. Approaching your enemy at 5 kilometers per second (about 10 times faster than machine gun fire) is quite common. High speed warfare makes missiles deadly, as the time to respond with point defense drops down to seconds or less. At the same time, high speed combat allows one to dodge incredibly easily. A small nudge in any direction when the enemy is 100,000 kilometers away means your enemy will miss by kilometers. Despite the high speeds, combat can take place at very low speeds, and indeed, this is often desired for capital ship broadside warfare. Approaching an enemy moving 5 km/s relative to you and entering their exact orbit to yield a relative velocity of 0 km/s is completely doable.
The scale and environment of space is unique as well. With no stealth in space, you will see your enemy half the solar system away, and you’ll be able to track their movements six months out or more. This makes surprise and deception nigh impossible in space, and warfare often comes down to nearly evenly matched fleets engaging in combat. With these enormous scales, skirmishes between two fleets in orbit around the same body may happen days or even weeks apart. For instance, two fleets in the same orbit, but one running retrograde, may experience five seconds of combat where the enemy zooms by at ridiculous speeds, and then ten days of downtime while the crew prepare for another five seconds of combat.
Delta-v, a measure of the total amount of velocity change one has, based on propellant left, is critical in space warfare. Capital ships tend to have much more delta-v than drones and missiles, but much lower acceleration. This means capital ships can dodge drone or missile intercepts by running them out of delta-v, and it makes for a very effective defensive strategy. On the other hand, if plotting one’s orbital mechanics cleverly, drones and missiles can still intercept capital ships using raw acceleration. Running enemy fleets out of delta-v is a very effective way to choose how pending battles will take place: at high speeds or low speeds, and where along their orbit.
A final surprising effect is caused by the lack of atmosphere in space: explosions are pitifully weak. Without an atmosphere, conventional explosives simply blast a thin layer of gas on their targets, nuclear weapons are reduced to nothing more than glorified flash bulbs. Of course, the amount of light released by nuclear weapons is still great enough that they can melt through thick armor at very close ranges, so nuclear missiles are still viable for combat. But their effects fall off so quickly in space that they are almost contact weapons rather than area of effect weapons. If a salvo of nuclear missiles can connect with their target, though, they can be quite devastating. Conventional explosives also only tend to be effective when used to detonate a payload of shrapnel at high velocity at the target.
That’s a high level overview of how space warfare actually unfolds. Later posts will examine it closer, the actual technologies used in combat, and how engagements play out second by second.