Raw Steel

Armor is one of the simplest things to manufacture, yet it holds some of the most complex results.

Capital ship with armor visualizer enabled, demonstrating which main armor tiles are damaged or destroyed.

A 5 cm plate of steel is rather easy to produce, but analyzing how well it will perform under a wide variety of types of damage in different orders is rather difficult.

There are three main methods of damage: projectile, photonic, and plasma. Generally speaking, given equal amounts of energy, plasma damage is the least effective in many cases, and projectile damage tends to be the most effective. These differences vary significantly and may even reverse depending on the type of armor, however.

When a projectile hits armor, there are numerous ways that it may affect the armor. If the projectile does not penetrate, it can fracture the armor anyways, either where the bullet hit or on the other side of the armor. It could spall fragments off the inside of the armor, which can cause damage to internal compartments. And all of these scenarios are possible too if the projectile does fully penetrate.

Different ways in which a projectile can affect armor.

Of course, with hypervelocity projectiles, in many cases, the projectile will shatter into plasma upon hitting. Not only that, the armor may shatter into plasma too. An interesting effect of this (which is modeled in Children of a Dead Earth) is that in certain cases, more armor can detrimental. Too much armor can get shocked into plasma or spallations and inflict even more damage than a thinner armor plate.

Laser damage is somewhat simpler. The primary method by which photons inflict damage is by ablating away the armor, causing material to melt, evaporate, or sublimate away.

Alternatively, a pulsed laser could be used to trigger shockwaves from the rapid expansion of the affected armor material. In this way, lasers can be used to inflict mechanical damage on the armor. A very thorough discussion on laser effects on armor can be found here.

Determining a model for how well a piece of armor reacts to every different scenario (or combination of scenarios) is rather difficult. On top of the different types of damage, there are many different kinds of armor materials and design choices.

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The armor visualizer clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of a drone projectile barrage.

Material properties that are important to armor materials follow.

The Ultimate Tensile Strength of a material is the capacity of that material to withstand tension, or being pulled apart. The Yield Strength, or the stress point at which plastic deformation of the material begins, is another metric which very important to determining the effect of mechanical damage.

The Density of a material plays a key role in resisting damage, particularly projectile impacts. One interesting point of note is that high density Whipple Shields perform worse due to a greater amount of Whipple Shield material being shocked into plasma, and hitting the main armor.

Against melt ablation by lasers, very different properties are used. Often, material strength is more or less irrelevant against laser damage. Instead, high Melting PointsBoiling Points, and Specific Heat Capacities are of crucial importance for armor to resist heating. All of these quantities allow the material to absorb more energy without failing.

Alternatively, some materials can get away with very poor heat resistance by instead having a very high Thermal Conductivity. If the material conducts heat away fast enough, a laser can dump energy into the material all day and never heat it up, as the material will conduct the heat away to surrounding armor tiles.

And of course, a number of other properties play a minor role in determining damage, like the Elastic Modulus and Shear Modulus. But generally when choosing armor, your main concern should be a high Ultimate Tensile Strength and a high Melting Point.

Aluminum Whipple Shields are easily cut through by a laser beam.

So with those properties in mind, what material is best to use for armor?

Consider the material used for a single monolithic plate. Common choices are metals like lightweight Aluminum and Titanium, or the very dense Depleted Uranium.

Alternatively, metal alloys like Steel, particularly high strength steels like Maraging Steel make for great armor. However, on Earth, high density is valuable for lower volume, but in space, low density armor is more important, as armor can and will drastically affect your spacecrafts mass ratio.

This means ceramics like Reinforced Carbon-Carbon or Boron Nitride see use everywhere in space. They tend to be somewhat weaker than many high strength alloys, but their low density and resistance against laser damage more than makes up for it. On top of that, they are extremely cheap. In practice, ceramic armor tends to be the most common spacecraft armor.

Synthetic fibers like Aramid, which includes Kevlar, Technora, and Twaron have exceptional strength against projectile damage while having very low density as well. On the other hand, they suffer badly against laser damage, having rather low melting points.

Then there are the more exotic materials. UHMWPE, or Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene, is a plastic which has enormous strength and incredible low density. Similar to Aramids, though, its melting point is rather low. Nanocomposites tend to very strong as well, but are difficult and expensive to manufacture. And of course, you can use Aerogel in game, though its usefulness as armor is questionable. Same with Metallic Microlattice.

A few materials are omitted, most prominently, Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs) and Carbyne. CNTs promise incredible strength, but with today’s technology, they are limited to bulk use. This entails essentially crushing a pile of CNTs together and hoping for the best, which performs very poorly compared to the strength of a single CNT. It is unclear if achieving CNT strength on a macro scale is possible or just a pipe dream. In all likelihood, they will likely be used as a way to bolster existing material strengths.

This particular capital ship uses Reinforced Carbon-Carbon and Silicon Carbide as its main armor layers.

But armor is more than just a single plate of the strongest stuff you can find.

Whipple Shields are simple, cheap, and very effective. They are a specialized case of Spaced Armor. A thin plate of low density material spaced out far off from the main armor can shock incoming hypervelocity projectiles into plasma. The purpose of the spacing is to allow time for the plasma to expand into a greater area, and thus spread its damage thin.

In practice, Whipple Shields delay the inevitable. When the enemy is dumping a thousand bullets per minute at you, your Whipple Shield is going to get demolished very quickly. However, they buy you a small amount of time (less than a minute), and those tens of seconds might be exactly what you need to get in close with more powerful, closer range weapons.

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Using a laser at long ranges to etch away an enemy’s Whipple Shield is not the fastest method of dealing with it, but it works.

Composite Armor is a fancy term for multiple layers of very different materials. As shown above, different materials perform better under different situations, so having composite armor is a way to have the best armor for each situations. In Children of a Dead Earth, each layer can be spaced out as well, combining Composite Armor with Spaced Armor/Whipple Shields.

Sloped Armor is simple, cheap, and absolutely crucial. Simply angling the armor plates can have a tremendous effect on survivability. This is not just because the effective armor thickness increases with the angle, but also because it causes projectiles to ricochet, deform, or deflect. Sloped armor is arguably the most effective defensive measure.

In practice, missiles with extremely pointy faces survived far longer against enemy point defenses than missiles with flat faces. I discovered this when one of my alpha testers pointed out that between two of the smallest missiles, one with a tiny flak payload and one with a tiny nuclear payload, the flak missiles were surviving at 10x the rate of the nuclear missiles. As it turned out, the flak payload with long and thin, and convex armor hull wrapped it into a point, while the nuclear payload with short and fat, leading to a flat face.

All missile designs were given a sharp nose after that.

Ever since that incident, missile noses were deliberately elongated into points, regardless of payload.

There are a few more design choices not in Children of a Dead Earth but should be mentioned for completeness.

Slat Armor uses a cheap grid around the armor to deform explosive projectiles. In space, however, most payloads are detonated before colliding, and explosive projectiles are already weak in space. Slat armor is easily defeated by Tandem Charges.

Reactive Armor layers the armor with explosives which detonate outwards when hit. While effective against incoming explosive payloads, again, explosive payloads are not used nearly as much as nuclear payloads and simple projectiles. Additionally, this armor needs to be outside of any Whipple Shield, lest the Whipple Shield blasts out numerous tiles with each expanding burst of plasma. Not a very effective armor if the enemy is carpeting you with bullets. Also defeated by Tandem Charges.

Electric Armor is two plates of armor separated by an electrical insulator, and one side charged. When a bullet hits and closes the circuit between the two plates, the electrical discharge will vaporize the bullet or even turn it into plasma. This would require an additional armor layer beyond the Electric Armor to shrug off the plasma, likely spaced out to let the plasma spread thin. While promising, this technology does not exist in any current form, and its limitations are unclear.

Radiators dark, crew dead. A swath of holes have been cut longitudinally through the majority of the craft’s hull.

That’s all for armor! Armoring your spacecraft designs is very simple, but the ramifications end up being very complex. And as with many designs, optimal solutions are never as obvious as you may think.

What to shoot?

We’ve explored how we launch projectiles at the target (Space Guns), now we will explore what we launch at the target.

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Point defense railguns firing tiny 10 gram bullets against a missile salvo.

The simplest projectile is a solid block of mass with a burning pyrotechnic tracer on it. But even a block of mass has several complexities.

The material of a bullet can also be varied to cause for differing effects upon hitting. However, for railguns and coilguns, launching the armature itself is more cost effective than using the armature as a sabot for another projectile. This means railgun and coilgun rounds are restricted to highly conductive and highly magnetic materials respectively.

The bullets need to be cylindrical because they are launched from a tube, but they need not be aerodynamic in space. This means any sort of shape is viable in space, not just a bullet or thin penetrator. Fat blocky bullets are a viable shape, as are launching thin plates, flat side to target.

Given that aerodynamics is not a concern, what is the ideal shape of a bullet in space?

A fin stabilized Kinetic Energy Penetrator.


The answer is rather complicated. Certain relations are obvious though. For instance, a thinner shape applies a greater amount of pressure, as the energy is concentrated into a smaller area, so it seems like thin penetrators would be ideal.

However, there are two issues with that.

One is that Whipple Shields shatter thinner projectiles easier. Whipple Shields are often judged primarily by their critical diameter. This is the maximum diameter of projectile that they can be hit with and still successfully shatter or vaporize the projectile so that it causes no major damage. Obviously, material properties and impact velocity are both important, but projectile diameter is the main factor. Thus, thin penetrators are often not really worth the extra damage since Whipple Shields are ubiquitous.

A single-stage and a multi-stage Whipple Shield after impact.

Conversely, high velocity projectiles can sometimes be too effective. Indeed, given a large coilgun, shooting extremely high mass, high velocity rounds, the bullets can often blast straight through the initial Whipple Shields, straight through the main bulkhead, through several filled propellant tanks, out the external bulkhead and Whipple Shield, and finally off into space again.

Because only the crew compartments are pressurized, a spacecraft can suffer complete penetration and still keep trucking at 100% effectiveness. Spacecrafts can even get blasted in half and both halves can still remain reasonably effective (assuming each half still has a functioning crew and powerplant). Or into thirds, or fourths, and so on.

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Cut in half but still threatening. Probably not for much longer though.

This is one reason why heavy redundancy in spacecrafts is necessary. A single lucky shot can immediately disable a ship if there is only one crew compartment.

On the other hand, one of my alpha testers went a different route. Rather than a single large capital ship with multiple redundancies, he preferred tons of tiny capital ships with zero redundancy. Either solution works, and has different pros and cons. More on this in a later post.

But back to projectiles being too effective. A projectile works best if it can penetrate the outer Whipple Shield and bulkhead, but is stopped there. That way, it can ricochet around, or if it shatters into plasma, it can inflict the most damage on the internals. In a sense, a larger area of effect is more important than simply raw damage.

Not only that, a projectile which passes straight through a ship fails to transfer much of its momentum to that ship, while a projectile that hits inelastically transfers all of its momentum. With very massive and very fast projectiles, inelastically hitting can cause tremendous torques on the impacted ship. Ships that spin out lose their carefully aligned targeting, and require precious seconds to reorient, which can mean life or death in a battle.

Or if the ship is particularly small, fast spins will splatter the crew against the inside of their crew compartments. This is actually one reason why I try to keep the crew modules near the center of ship mass, to reduce the torque on the crew in such a scenario.

Of course, if you don’t have enough power behind your bullets, you won’t penetrate the main bulkheads at all.

If your projectile is too powerful, then the obvious solution is to fire large, flat, plate shaped projectiles rather than thin penetrators. This reduces the pressure, and the damage area is increased. However, this can be tricky since large bores will mess with the performance characteristics of all projectile weapons.

Another solution is to split the projectile into smaller, less massive pieces right before hitting the target. Flak bursts were developed as anti-aircraft warfare, and they remain an effective way to distribute damage over a larger area of effect. A small explosive detonates the payload into a cylinder of fragments, and the detonation speed can be determined accurately (using the Gurney Equations). This allows you to have very fine grained control as to the size of this “sparse projectile”, and you can detonate it at different proximities to yield differently sized clouds of fragments.

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A flak barrage slices through a Laser Frigate.

Other payloads possible in Children of a Dead Earth include explosive payloads and nuclear payloads. Nuclear tends to be a very powerful but expensive option, though due to the lack of atmosphere, their damage is incredible within a few meters, and then it falls of painfully fast. Explosives are similarly restricted to very small areas of effect but are much weaker, though they are fantastically cheap.

Should your projectile have thrusters? You can put thrusters on the projectiles you launch, and this can greatly increase their accuracy, however, the mass of the rocket engine and propellant is very costly. From what I found, barrages of thousands of small “dumb” projectiles tend to win out against tens of large “smart” projectiles, though I’d be interested if someone managed to optimize them to be competitive.

Often, a laser battery can effectively point defense tens of smart rounds, but against thousands of incoming bullets, no laser battery can keep up. Generally, against point defense, either you saturate them with a storm of tiny bullets, or you launch full blown missiles with heavy armor and large delta-v stores to get through.

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Railgun point defense against a salvo of armored missiles. The missiles and their exhaust plumes are too small and dark to see, so they are each highlighted by the green circle.

There is another interesting aspect of projectiles that is often overlooked. Muzzle velocity is often optimized to be as high as possible. It increases the range and the impact damage. And even if it is too damaging, increasing the area reduces the damage without sacrificing range. It seems velocity should always be maximized.

Yet the equations for damage on Whipple Shields and Bulkheads are very nonlinear, and they have very different damage responses between hypervelocity and hypovelocity impacts. Indeed, Whipple Shields lose effectiveness for low velocity impacts, as the projectiles suffer little to no break up at low velocities.

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Whipple Shields perform the worst between the Ballistic Range and the Shatter Range, which is approximately 3 km/s.

This is one particular case where conventional guns and their low muzzle velocity are actually desired. When the enemy is packing multiple and/or stuffed Whipple Shields optimized against high velocity railguns and coilguns, low velocity conventional guns tend to be the trump card. This is one case of many where drones, which usually carry conventional guns, tend to make short work of the enemy.

Space Guns

In the prior post, Misconceptions about Space Warfare, combat was roughly explored.

The general idea was that missiles and drones dominate long range combat since given enough delta-v, they can go anywhere a capital ship can go. Projectile weapons tend to dominate mid range combat, when capital ships or drones are tens or hundreds of kilometers away. And finally, lasers dominate short range, but also see use for mid range precision damage.

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What it’s like on the receiving end of a drone projectile barrage. The occasional ricochet is also physically based.

Today, we’ll explore projectile weapons. The big three projectile launchers used most are Conventional GunsRailguns, and Coilguns. There are also Linear Induction Motors used (railguns are technically a specialization of Linear Motors), which do not see major use aside from electromagnetic catapulting.

At their core, projectile weapons are concerned with two things: how big of a projectile it can launch, and how fast it can launched.

However, there are a multitude of other considerations as well. Mass. Cost. Size. Power Consumption. Cooling speed and temperature. Turning speed and angle. Armor against enemy attacks. Ammunition mass, cost, volume, and volatility. These are all accounted for in Children of a Dead Earth.

Firing a railgun. Ganymede in the background.

Before we contrast our three weapons, let’s start with commonalities.

All three weapon designs end up being tubular shaped, and accelerate their projectiles down that tube. This means these weapons are Cantilever Beams, or beams supported at one end, and as such, they will vibrate upon firing, causing inaccuracy and possibly shattering the weapon if the stress is too great. This is one limitation alluded to in a previous post (Origin Stories).

Another consideration is recoil, which all weapons must have, lest they violate conservation of momentum. Recoil stresses can also damage the weapon, and must be accounted for. Unless you use a Recoilless Rifle. Recoilless rifles have the issue that they need an exit pathway for the exhaust gases, which is tricky to make work in a large spacecraft, especially if the weapon is turreted.

Diagram of a recoilless rifle.

Note: Recoilless railguns or recoilless coilguns have never been attempted, but they are hypothetically possible, if you wish to eject the rails or the coils. That would likely be more expensive than what it’s worth, however.

A final concern is cooling. All of these weapon designs can use simple radiative cooling effectively in space to cool down, letting their long, exposed barrels radiate away all their excess heat. This is actually quite effective, and it is uncommon for projectile weapons to require additional radiators beyond their own gun barrel (unless you count the reactors powering them, which is a different story).

Now the differences.

Conventional guns detonate an explosive, and use the expansion of gases from that combustion reaction to accelerate a projectile down the tube. It’s more or less a combustion rocket engine with a bullet stopping it up. The tube is nothing more than a container to keep the gases in. As a result, the tube is cheap, the explosive ammunition is cheap, and no external power is needed. The downsides are lower muzzle velocities (less than 2 km/s usually) and the ammunition is very volatile.

An ammo bay explodes, tearing the capital ship in half. Note the explosion is faint and spherical. Explosions in space lose all brightness and color microseconds after combusting.

Volatile ammunition is a problem not just for when your ammo bays get hit, but for lasers as well. Precision lasers love conventional guns, as they can heat up the tube, prematurely detonating the round, and also potentially shattering the weakened gun barrel in the process.

Railguns run current through a pair of rails with a sliding armature between them, and the Lorentz Force that results from the current loop accelerates the projectile armature. They tend to have much higher muzzle velocities (<10 km/s) and nonvolatile ammunition. On the other hand, they require huge power draws, and the rails/barrel tend to be much more expensive and massive. Due to the way the rails ablate from heat and friction, railguns excel with smaller projectiles, and suffer with larger ones. All things considered, smaller projectiles are easier to make more accurate.

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Designing a powerful 13 MW coilgun.

Coilguns run current through a series of loops, and use the magnetic field that results from these current loops to accelerate a magnetic armature down the barrel. They tend to have comparably high muzzle velocities as railguns, and also have nonvolatile ammunition. Their downsides are huge power draws again, but the coils/barrel tends to be somewhat cheaper and less massive than railguns. On the flip side, the ammunition is usually very expensive (unless you want to use cheap magnetic material like Iron, which yields much lower exit velocities compared to exotic stuff like Magnetic Metal Glass). In stark contrast to railguns, coilgun projectiles excel with larger projectiles, and suffer with smaller ones. This is due to Magnetic Saturation, where projectiles become saturated, and begin accelerating much slower, and it can only really be fought by using more and more massive projectiles (longer barrels do not help).

In a way, the three weapons tend to have their own niche in space warfare.

Conventional guns are cheap, and perfect for putting on disposable drones and small crafts without huge power supplies. Also, small crafts will be fast enough to get into range, as conventional guns have lower exit velocities and thus shorter ranges.

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Conventional guns are cheap, low power, and small, which makes them the ideal weapon for small drones. Ceres in the background.

Railguns and Coilguns both have comparable exit velocities and power consumptions, much higher than conventional guns, and they dominate the capital ship battle space.

Railgun projectiles, though, tend to be smaller, less damaging, yet more accurate. This makes railguns the main point defense projectile system against drones and missiles (though lasers tend to beat them out against drones). Railguns also enjoy prominent use against enemy capital ships, great for perforating Whipple Shields and wearing down main bulkheads. The main autocannons in any capital ship engagement.

Coilguns, with their expensive and massive projectiles, tend to be limited to select ships which can afford the mass of their weapons. They form the inaccurate but devastating heavy hitters of capital ship combat.

These are the main constituents of mid to close range combat. There are a few projectile weapon technologies that were passed over for various reasons, but should be mentioned here.

A two stage light gas gun. Much bulkier than its electromagnetic brethren.

Light Gas Guns are a weapon which is capable of reaching similar exit velocities as railguns and coilguns. They are based on the principle that the speed of sound in a light gas (like hydrogen) is much higher than the speed of sound in air. With that in mind, a projectile can be accelerated at the speed of sound in the light gas using an explosive piston compressing that gas. In a sense, a light gas gun is like a spring airgun, only it uses a light gas instead of air. They also have none of the high power requirements of railguns or coilguns.

The downsides of light gas guns are their large size, and large and volatile ammunition. Each round launched requires not just explosives to hit the piston, but also a significant amount of light gas to accelerate it. As earlier posts pointed out (Gasping for Fumes), light gases like hydrogen have terrible densities, requiring huge volumes. Your ammo bay, in addition to exploding if hit, is going to be prohibitively large, making light gas guns not particularly viable for space warfare.

A Ram Accelerator

Ram Accelerators are weapons which launch a projectile supersonically into a tube of combustable gases. Using scramjet technology, the weapon will accelerate even faster through the tube of gases. It has the advantages of a conventional gun (cheap, low power) with muzzle velocities comparable to railguns and coilguns. However, it requires additional combusting gases with each firing, giving it similar problems to light gas guns.

An Explosively Formed Penetrator.

Explosively Formed Penetators are modern day weapons (they currently see heavy use in Iraq as IEDs) which uses a huge amount of explosives shaped in a lens to form a jet of molten metal and launch it at a target. Although it is primarily used as a warhead (and referred to as a Shaped Charge in that case), it can be used as a long range weapon. It is competitive with coilgun and railgun muzzle velocities, at the expense of only being able to shoot an explosively shaped projectile, meaning no payloads can be used with this. One major issue is the vulnerable ammo bay, which is like conventional gun’s ammo bay, but much worse. One hit, and the bay will have enough explosives to instantly shred the entire ship apart.

The other major flaw is that this weapon is that it’s absolute laser bait. The weapon is large, and the explosives are only covered by a thin coating of material, which makes for an easy precision laser hit. Because the explosives must be detonated in the correct manner, a laser-induced detonation is likely to severely damage the weapon as soon as any protective armor is pulled back.

Helical Railguns are a cross between a coilgun and a railgun. These systems have very little literature written on them, and the technology does not exist in a practical form, nor have their limitations and promises been studied heavily.

Nuclear Launched Projectiles are a technology where nuclear detonations are used to fling projectiles at a target (one test yielded a whopping 66 km/s). The main problem is that this requires the gun to be very far away from your capital ships, a single-shot drone essentially. Very little research has been done into this sort of weapon, so its actual viability for warfare is unclear. It is likely to be extremely cost ineffective.

A Voitenko Compressor, the only known practical method for generating enormous velocities.

Finally, Voitenko Compressors are guns which uses explosives to shape a gas into a shockwave to launches projectiles at enormous velocities, 60 km/s or higher. It was developed in the 1960s but little progress has been made with it, as a firing of it destroys the entire weapon, as well anything surrounding it. This relegates its use to a single-shot drone, once again, if these problems can’t be resolved. In the future, it could end up being the most powerful projectile ever developed, but currently, it is not a viable technology.

That was a small survey of possible future technologies, and most were not implemented because Children of a Dead Earth is near future. Far future technologies do not have the same rigorous application of engineering analysis, and so there no data on these technologies’ limitations, scaling laws, or true performance.

But what do we actually shoot? There’s more to what you shoot than simply mass, even for small weapons. Even if you’re not launching a payload, or a small gyrojet, or even a full blown missile, the shape and material of your projectile still make a big difference on how it will damage the enemy. We’ll explore these in a future post.


Misconceptions about Space Warfare

I see a lot of misconceptions about space in general, and space warfare in specific, so today I’ll go ahead and debunk some. In the process, we’ll go through the moment to moment of space warfare itself.

Zeroth misconception, no, there won’t be stealth in space, let alone in combat. It is possible through a series of hypothetical technologies or techniques, but it won’t be possible for any reasonable spacecraft under reasonable mass and cost restraints.

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Point defenses firing at a salvo of incoming missiles. The missiles are indicated by the red interface dots, because they are so far away that you’ll never see them until the brief instant when they’re right on top of you.

Now then, on to the first real misconception. Wouldn’t missiles dominate the battle space, being fired from hundreds of thousands of kilometers away? Wouldn’t actual exchange of projectile weapons never happen in reality?

The answer is no, actually. There is a prevailing hypothesis that missiles will soon be the only relevant weapon on the battle space, and it is likely borne out of current trends in modern warfare. ATGWs are already starting to upend tank warfare, and Anti-ship missiles are doing something similar to naval warfare. Indefinitely extrapolating this trend would lead one to conclude warfare will soon be nothing but people sitting in their spacecrafts launching missiles at one another.

But this is not true. CIWS point defense systems are already starting to shift the balance away from missile strikes. As suggested in an earlier blog post, military strategists are even beginning to suggest the development of CIWS systems may bring naval warfare full circle, all the way back to World War I battleship warfare. This isn’t to suggest that missiles are useless. Indeed, enormous salvos of missiles are effective at overwhelming CIWS systems, and they are in game as well.

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A gunship immediately after suffering a nuclear missile salvo. The Whipple shield is mostly vaporized, and the inner bulkhead is glowing orange-hot. Still alive, though!

Yet we begin to see the limitations of each system. Point defense systems, railguns, coilguns, conventional guns, or even lasers, are power limited in this exchange. There is a finite amount of power to use when firing, except for conventional guns. Conventional guns suffer from low muzzle velocities, and high muzzle velocities are crucial to intercepting missiles coming at you at greater than 1 km/s. This power limitation is what prevents these point defense systems from being impervious to missile salvos. Power consumption is limited by radiator mass actually, as simply slapping down more nuclear reactors is easy, but trying to deal with the added mass of all the radiators needed to cool those reactors is much more difficult.

Missiles, on the other hand, are also limited by mass. A hundred-missile salvo is sure to overwhelm any point defense system, but the amount of mass this requires the launching ship to take on is enormous, and will kill its mass ratio. In the end, it turns out the Rocket Equation governs just how effective missiles and point defense systems are. In game, the systems ended up surprisingly balanced, with neither being a dominant strategy, with either being more effective in certain situations, and weaker in others.

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After the armor cools off. The silvery armor up front is the remains of the Whipple shield. Note the multiple holes near the glowing radiators, indicating the bulkhead was penetrated there.

Next misconception, wouldn’t lasers dominate the battle space? Lasers do not suffer from many of the inaccuracy problems that projectile weapons do, and move at the speed of light, so they are literally impossible to dodge. So lasers are the king of the battle space, right?

Wrong. Lasers suffer from diffraction. Badly. The power of lasers in space drops painfully fast with distance, and frequency doubling only ameliorates the issue slightly. Lasers are notoriously low efficiency compared to projectile weapons. But that’s not the main issue. When comparing hypervelocity projectile impact research with laser ablation research, one discovers a stark contrast in their efficacy. Laser ablation is simply less effective at causing damage than projectile impacts. Whereas hypervelocity projectiles cause spallations and cave in armor effectively, laser ablation is poor, with energy wasted to vaporization, radiation, and heat conduction to surrounding armor. On the other hand, at very close ranges, where diffraction is not an issue, lasers outperform projectiles easily. Unfortunately, nothing aside from missiles will likely ever get that close, and even then, they will likely be within close focus ranges for milliseconds at most.

Lasers still useful at long ranges, though. Lasers fill a very specific niche in space warfare, and that is of precision destruction of weakly armored systems at long distances. Lasers are very good at melting down exposed enemy weapons, knocking out their rocket exhaust nozzles, and most importantly, killing drones. While missiles have very few weak points, and can shrug off laser damage with thick plating, drones have exposed weapons and radiators, which makes them very vulnerable to lasers.

In terms of actually destroying enemy capital ships, however, lasers can cut into the enemy bulkhead all day with basically zero effect (I measured the ablation of a monolithic armor plate at one point, and found that the ablation was happening at micrometers per second).

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Lasers can’t really hold a candle to a sustained railgun barrage.

Final, misconception, wouldn’t computers just control everything in combat?

Yes and no, but mostly no. CIWS systems are already computer controlled, and all weapon aiming is similarly already controlled by the computer in game. Anything that has easily computable maxima are solved by computers in game. But there are numerous choices in combat which have no obvious local maxima, and these require human decisions. In other words, you the player and commander need to make these choices. As it turns out, the right or wrong decision can mean the difference between victory and failure.

In game, you won’t be aiming any weapons and firing them, nor will you be flying drones around. The computer can do both better than you, and so the computer will be in control of these things (besides, do you really think you could effectively aim at a speck of light 50 km away moving at 1 km/s at you?).

The enemy spacecraft is about 30 km away. You’re not gonna outperform the computer’s targeting software. That’s a planet’s city lights in the background.

What you will have control of are the higher level strategic decisions. The orders you give your missiles, drones, and capital ships are crucial decisions you must make in combat. Will you send your missiles in a beeline at your enemy, or perhaps order them to spend valuable delta-v dodging enemy point defense fire? Should you retract your radiators to reduce your heat signature to avoid enemy missiles, and risk the loss of your firepower for the precious few seconds? Should you hold your drones in reserve, close to your carrier, or send them guns blazing as the enemy capital ships approach?

Also as well, one of the critical choices you can make is what to target of the enemy. Each subsystem of every enemy spacecraft is simulated in real time. The reactors draw power, the radiators expel heat, the turrets and guns drain power, all in real time. If you want to disable the enemy’s ability to harm you, the obvious choice is to go for the weapons. But weapons are small, hard to hit unless you have a laser. Going for the enemy’s radiators might be an alternative strategy, with radiators being large, easy targets, although radiators, once armored, are surprisingly sturdy. Not remotely as strong as monolithic armor, but still able to take a reasonable beating of projectile and laser hits. Of course, maybe taking out of the enemy’s engines is more your style, the rocket nozzles being flimsy and poorly armored to allow them to gimbal easier. Plus, a ship that can’t move or dodge is a much easier target.

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This guy’s Whipple shield has seen better days.

But most importantly, orbital mechanics are king in Children of a Dead Earth. Indeed, orbital mechanics are the core mechanic of the game, even, counterintuitively, in combat. Once you reach weapon range, orbital mechanics lose most of their relevance, but everything up to that point hinges on orbital mechanics.

Your incoming speed and angle of attack entering combat, two critical attributes which govern how the combat unfolds, are determined entirely by your ability to use orbital mechanics to your advantage. How near or far you are from the nearest gravity well (planet, moon, or asteroid) has a huge effect on combat speeds. Additionally, evading the enemy before even entering combat is a big part of the game. If you can drain the enemy’s delta-v through effective orbital mechanics, they may fight at reduced effectiveness in combat. If you’re good enough, you might be able to run them out of delta-v entirely, and never even have to enter combat at all!

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Tightening one’s orbit around Venus in a delta-v gambit. Orbits deep in a gravity well force both you and your enemy to expend significant amounts of delta-v to both intercept or evade.

That’s all for now. Next time, we’ll dig into the science of the rockets themselves!

The Essence of Space Warfare

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.

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Head to head combat between two fleets of capital ships.

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.

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The basic stats of a Laser Frigate, a medium-large warship. Space Shuttle Orbiter for scale.

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.

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A highly periodic orbit around Luna.

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.

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A gunship fires three different projectile weapons at an incoming salvo of missiles in the distance. Neptune in the background.

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.

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A shrapnel payload impacts the side of a spacecraft and detonates. Ceres in the background.

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.