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October 6, 2012

Foreign Policy: Battlestar Galactica got space warfare right. Finally.

(Continued)

Q: How do these different space warfare models differ from their oceanic counterparts?

A: 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.

Q: So how would actual space war differ from naval warfare?

A: 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.

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