Aircraft Carriers in Space
Naval analyst Chris Weuve talks to Foreign Policy about what Battlestar Galactica gets right about space warfare.
Last month, Small Wars Journal managing editor Robert Haddick asked whether new technology has rendered aircraft carriers obsolete. Well, not everyone thinks so, especially in science-fiction, where "flat tops" still rule in TV shows like Battlestar Galactica. So FP‘s Michael Peck spoke with Chris Weuve, a naval analyst, former U.S. Naval War College research professor, and an ardent science-fiction fan about how naval warfare is portrayed in the literature and television of outer-space.
Foreign Policy: How has sci-fi incorporated the themes of wet-navy warfare? How have warships at sea influenced the depiction of warships in space?
Chris Weuve: There are a lot of naval metaphors that have made their way into sci-fi. They are analogs, models of ways to think about naval combat. When people started writing about science-fiction combat, it was very easy to say that a spaceship is like a ship that floats on the water. So when people were looking for ways to think about, there was a tendency to use models they already understood. As navies have changed over time, that means there is a fair number of models that various science fiction authors can draw on. You have a model that resembles the Age of Sail, World War I or World War II surface action, or submarines, or fighters in space. Combine a couple of those, and you have aircraft carriers in space. I’m not one who gets hung up on the real physics because it is science fiction. But all of these models are based more upon historical analogs then analysis of the actual situation in space.
FP: Let’s reverse the question. Has sci-fi affected the way that our navies conduct warfare?
CW: This is a question that I occasionally think about. Many people point to the development of the shipboard Combat Information Center in World War II as being inspired by E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman novels from the 1940s. Smith realized that with hundreds of ships over huge expanses, the mere act of coordinating them was problematic. I think there is a synergistic effect. I also know a number of naval officers who have admitted to me that the reason they joined the Navy was because Starfleet Command wasn’t hiring.
FP: How do these different space warfare models differ from their oceanic counterparts?
CW: Science fiction authors and moviemakers tend to gravitate towards historical models they — and their audience — understand. So, sometimes you end up with "submarines in space" — but a submarine is a vessel designed to hide under the water, which obscures your vision and forces you to use capricious sensors like sonar. Space, on the other hand, is wide open, and any ship putting out enough heat to keep its crew alive stands out from the background, if you have enough time to look. Other times we get "dreadnoughts in space," with gunnery duels like Jutland — but again, hiding is hard, so this battle should take place at extreme range. Or you get "airplanes in space," which largely ignores that airplanes work in the real world because they take advantage of the fact that air and sea have different attributes.
All of these models are fun, and some work better than others, but they all present space combat in a way that doesn’t really fit with the salient attributes of space. And lest I get a thousand emails from people who say I don’t understand how combat in their favorite universe works — yes, I do. My answers are necessarily approximations for this interview. Someday I should write a book.
FP: So how would actual space war differ from naval warfare?
CW: That’s hard to say, since we haven’t seen space warfare of the type we see in science fiction, and the results are very dependent on technological assumptions. But let me turn that question sideways: what are the salient features of naval warfare, and do these match up?
You can sum up the difference with the "two media and three Hs." The two media are the air and the water. Submarines operate in the water. Ships operate on the water. And aircraft operate in the air, though the limitations of the air dictate that aircraft can’t stay there very long, and must land either ashore or at sea to rest and replenish. This is self- evident, but naval combat is defined by these simple truths.
The "three Hs" are history, hiding, and hydrodynamics. For the first H, history, there were only two two types of warships: "battleships" and "scouts and auxiliaries." They usually didn’t call them by these names, but that’s a good functional description. The battleships fought, and the scouts and auxiliaries scouted and carried troops, materiel, messages, and the like. In the 20th century, though, we got changes: new weapons (torpedoes) that make a new type of ship, the escort, necessary, and new platforms (submarines and airplanes) that used the new weapon (and added aerial bombs). These new weapons had the frightening ability to, at least on paper, kill a battleship with a single blow. And one warfare area (surface combat) becomes three — surface, subsurface, and air. That’s historically how things developed, with different time periods having their own particular characters, as new technologies were developed and old ways of doing things were superseded. Science fiction navies, however, are often a mishmash of time periods, with all of the "cool bits" mixed together. So, they don’t make sense given the assumptions of the fictional universe or the non-fictional universe from which they were drawn.
For the second H, hiding, surface ships hide in four different ways: Behind the curve of the earth, behind the ocean interface where ocean surface meets the sky, by taking advantage of distance, and through the use of low-observability such as stealth technology. But in space, there is no curve of the earth or ocean interface to hide you from enemy radar, or even telescopes.
The third H is hydrodynamics: For a ship in the water, drag increases as the cube of speed. This is why ships have a top speed. As your speed increases, your drag increases exponentially, until you double the size of your engines but you really don’t go any faster. In space, your top speed is more about reaction mass, but you have other issues that have to do with how big ship you can build before it starts to collapse in on itself. As ships grow bigger, they have to devote a greater percentage of their total mass to holding themselves together. Hydrodynamics limits and defines surface ships and submarines, just as aerodynamics limits and defines airplanes. In the real world, this means that combat craft either go fairly slow like ships or go fairly fast (like airplanes — there’s not much in between. You see similar patterns in a lot of science fiction, even though they should be thinking in terms of acceleration over time, rather than top speed. As with most of these things, written science fiction is better than video formats.
FP: You seem particularly concerned about the "aircraft carrier in space" concept.
CW: I don’t think "concerned" is the right word. Let’s call it amused. Aircraft carriers are a particularly good model to illustrate how the differences between the ocean and the air really drive how naval combat works, and hence don’t work so well when converted to space. An aircraft carrier is built around three things: the flight deck, which functions as the airplanes’ doorway between the sea and the sky, and also the parking lot for the airplanes; the hangar deck, where essential aircraft maintenance is carried out; and the propulsion spaces, because you really want that flight deck to be moving fast to generate wind over the deck, which in turn makes it easier to land and take off. Everything about the "airport" aspects of an aircraft carrier point towards making it big: big engines, and big flight deck that is also elevated away from the turbulence of the ocean surface. So, since you need a big ship anyway, we decide to put a lot of planes on, plus extra fuel, command and control facilities, a hospital, a post office, and so on. You name it, an aircraft carrier has it.
But in space, you don’t need that doorway between the sea and the sky, because your "fighter" is operating in the same medium as the mothership. You don’t need a flight deck. You just need a hatch, or maybe just a clamp that attaches the fighter to the hull if you don’t mind leaving it outside. You don’t need the big engines or the big elevated flight deck. And hence it doesn’t make nearly so much sense to put all of your eggs in one basket. There might still be some efficiencies in grouping them together, but the fighters are probably more analogous to helicopters rather than F-18s. Almost every ship in the U.S. Navy carries a helicopter, or at least could temporarily. And before the emails start, Battlestar Galactica is one of my favorite TV shows.
FP: So it sounds like sci-fi space warfare is transplanted naval warfare, but a very mixed bag when it comes to realism?
CW: It is kind of a mixed bag, but "realistic" is a word that I have problems with. For a lot of these models, the assumption drives the conclusion. The ability of your laser cannon drives a lot of the problem. If you have a faster-than-light propulsion or communications capability, that also drives the problem. If you do a fairly simple extrapolation of current technology, what you end up with is space combat as sort of ponderous ballet with shots fired at long distance at fairly fragile targets where you have to predict where the target is going to be. You don’t end up with space fighters. You don’t end up with lots of armaments. On the other hand, if you look at the modern U.S. Navy and then go back 300 years, there are things now that would be incomprehensible to people back then. They would get some parts, but not others. Our scientific knowledge is greater than ever in human history, so there’s a greater chance that we have a complete understanding of the physics in the future. But then again, you don’t know what you don’t know. I remember seeing a submarine book when I was in high school. A Jules Verne type of book, with a submarine with a sled that hung underneath the sub, with some kind of contact sensor to let you know if you were close to the bottom. They didn’t know about sonar. It was a perfectly logical, perfectly clever solution to a problem. It also turned out to be perfectly wrong.
FP: What about ships turning in space like airplanes?
CW: Babylon 5 was closer in that it understood that there is no air in space and you don’t bank. But even on that show, the ships would be under thrust, and then they decide to go back the way they come, they would spin around and almost immediately start going in the opposite direction. That doesn’t work. They ignored the fact that acceleration is cumulative. But I do like that they can rotate in flight and fire sideways. Babylon 5 and the new Battlestar Galactica are far and away the best in trying to portray vector physics. There are a lot of problems with the way they do it, but I’m willing to give them an A for effort.
FP: Which are the most realistic sci-fi movies in portraying space warfare?
CW: There isn’t any show that does a really good job across the board. Some do better at different parts. For example, the new Battlestar Galactica is probably the best at depicting life on board a ship. That ship is very spacious compared to a U.S. Navy warship, but the inside of it looks correct. One of my all-time favorite TV shows is Star Trek, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation. But one thing that drives me crazy is that on Star Trek, you’re either on watch or off duty, when a real naval officer has a whole other job, such as being a department or division head. So he’s constantly doing paperwork. Most shows don’t get that right at all.
FP: And the worst shows for realistic space warfare?
CW: There are so many that are so bad. Star Wars is probably the worst. There is no explanation for why X-Wings [fighters] do what they do, other than the source material is really Zeroes [Japanese fighter planes] from World War II. Lucas quite consciously copied World War II fighter combat. He basically has said they analyzed World War II movies and gun camera footage and recreated those shots. Battlestar Galactica has other issues. One thing I have never understood is why the humans didn’t lose halfway through the first episode. If information moves at the speed of light, and one side has a tactically useful FTL [faster-than-light] drive to make very small jumps, then there is no reason why the Cylons couldn’t jump close enough and go, "Oh, there the Colonials are three light minutes away, I can see where they are, but they won’t see me for three minutes?" C.J. Cherryh’s novels address this a bit with the idea of "longscan," where you predict where they are going to be, but you might not know for some period of time what they actually did.
FP: So a universe of faster-than-light travel favors surprise attacks?
CW: It really, really does. You can go and mug somebody and they never see it coming. Of course, not all faster-than-light drives in fiction work the same way, but the Cylon drives certainly had that attribute.
FP: You have a list of factors that real navies must contend with, such as doctrine and acquisitions, that sci-fi navies don’t. Can you elaborate?
CW: The full-up list is pretty long, but the different pieces group nicely into six major areas: 1) strategic assumptions, 2) strategic goals, 3) fleet missions, 4) fleet design, 5) force size, and 6) force management. These are the sorts of things one needs to think about when designing a navy. Most science fiction does not cover the whole model; at best it might cover Fleet Missions and Fleet Design in detail, with most other areas only vaguely defined.
Another issue is that modern naval warfare is very much tied to a logistics. There is a lifeline to the shore, and on top of that, there is this support network across the world, such as satellite, meteorological support, and land-based aircraft. Air campaigns are planned ashore. This idea that Captain Kirk leaves on a five-year mission? We go to sea for six or nine months at a time, with continuous logistical support, and when we come back, the ships are pretty beaten up. They need refit. It’s hard to imagine these spaceships going out alone and unafraid without any sort of support. Most sci-fi authors ignore that, and haven’t thought about what would be needed. Interestingly, the sci-fi authors of the 1950s were better at thinking it though. It was a time when everyone was talking about how a hydroponics section would be needed to provide food on a starship. Maybe nowadays you can say you have a magic power source, or nanotech to produce the materials you need. But I really get the impression that sci-fi doesn’t really understand this stuff.
FP: The United States is in the midst of a major debate on what our defense policy, especially given shrinking budgets and the rise of China as Pacific sea power. Does sci-fi offer lessons on how the United States can resolve this?
CW: Fiction does not replace policy analysis. But science fiction is the literature of "what if?" Not just "what if X happens?" but also "what if we continue what we’re doing?" In that way, science fiction can inform policy making directly, and it can inform those who build scenarios for wargames and exercises and the like. One of the great strengths of science fiction is that it allows you have a conversation about something that you otherwise couldn’t talk about because it’s too politically charged. It allows you to create the universe you need in order to have the conversation you want to have. Battlestar Galactica spent a lot of time talking about the war in Iraq. There were lots of things on that show about how you treat prisoners. They never came out and said that directly. They didn’t have to. At the Naval War College, one of the core courses on strategy and policy had a section on the Peloponnesian War. It was added to the curriculum in the mid-1970s because the Vietnam War was too close, so they couldn’t talk about it, except by going back to 400 BC.