Friday, October 4, 2013

Chris Weuve On Wet Navies In Space

I was noodling around the Foreign Policy website today and was delighted to find an interview, first published last year, with US naval analyst Chris Weuve on how science fiction models naval warfare, including "Air Craft Carriers in Space". The models Weuve discusses come from popular culture: Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Star Wars and Babylon 5, and he makes some very clever and insightful comments on how science fiction models and sometimes anticipates trends in warfare of the day. Here's a taste:

" 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. "

Wargamers and military/SF nerds will find a lot to like in this article. Wargamers intuitively understand the idea of modelling reality, and those of us who remember games like Star Fleet Battles, or who play current games which draw Great War air combat a la Wings of War into the Star Wars X-Wing vs Tie Fighter franchise, have thought about the assumptions involved in translating air or naval games into space combat. One of the gaps I did notice in the interview with Wueve was David Weber's Honor Harrington series of space opera, which to my knowledge (and to my unscientific mind) is the most interesting and detailed thought experiment in what strategic and tactical naval warfare in space might look like. I'd welcome suggestions on author others whom you think "get it right".


  1. Love the Honor Harrington series. It was great fun. Louis McMaster Bujold had a series that was pretty good but it was more character driven and the space combat took a back seat to that part.

  2. Mike, you changed the font color on this to a black on a dark background. That was hard to read.

  3. Bugger. Thanks Chris. I'm still getting used to this new blog editor.

  4. Mike, you could do with a Google+ button (I see you've got on the other blog!). I see much I want to share ;)

  5. That was a very interesting interview! There were a number of points or questions that come to mind. One small point I would take issue with - there being no air means fighter craft would not bank. I don't see this. It seems to me it would bank in order to counteract the centrifugal effects of turning. I am supposing, of course, that the fighters are piloted - not 'drones.' Banking would have the effect of pushing the space-crew down into their chairs, rather than hurling them against the wall of their cockpit/control room.

    A pedantic moment here, too. Drag, proportional to the cube of speed, does not increase exponentially with speed, but geometrically (s^3, not 3^s). That said, the point about hydrodynamic limits to speed in water (and air) remains true enough. The operations of engines in space would be altogether different, being used to accelerate, decelerate or change direction. Battles (in my view) would take place at sub-light speeds, and have to be near planets or suns.

    But the big difference is in the field of battle. Terrestrial naval warfare is only 'conditionally' three-dimensional, and even then the main 3D component is in aircraft. I am not sure about missilery and ballistics - they operate in 3D but their effect is 2D. I think. But the 3D field is bounded buy the ground or ocean surface or sea floor, depending on arm. Extraterrestial battlefield would be (almost) unconditionally 3D, even given the proximity of a large planet or star.

    Battles in space might have a tendency to be a bit more like 'Aboukir Bay' than 'Trafalgar', with one side rather 'anchored' about a planet or maybe star system. Battles require a certain amount of cooperation between opposing armies, as Hannibal found out, chasing Fabius 'Cunctator' all over southern Italy, or Nelson did hunting Villeneuve all over the Atlantic Ocean. That won't be easy in space, except by threatening something strategically valuable to your opponent.

    I recall reading an SF spoof as a 10-year-old, in which a Martian fleet attacked Earth. From a smaller planet, the technology required to uplift their vessels was less sophisticated than that required by Earthlings, and their weaponry was in accordance: shanghais (catapults), bows and arrows and blowpipes. The invasion was not a success.

    Speaking of 'wet navies in space', have you ever encountered David Feintuch's 'Hope' series of SF novels? The central character is one Nicholas (Nick) Seafort, apparently modelled by the author upon Horatio Hornblower. I've read just two of them myself - the first (whose title I don't recall), in which Seafort, as the most junior lieutenant takes over a vessel after its more senior officers are killed in an accident or prove their incompetence (Lieutenant Hornblower); and the other was 'Voices of Hope' - a story told by several characters (not Nick Seafort, though he remains a major character) involving a kind of politically motivated urban renewal.

  6. That point about much of SF being 'what if we carry on as we are?' is well made. A good many dystopian and post-holocaust/post-apocalyptic SF sub-genres fall into this category. Some post-modernist critics see problematics in these sub-genres as pushing an ideological barrow. My own reaction to this tends to be along the lines of 'so what?'. As Terry Pratchett calls SF 'Fantasy with bolts', and Rosemary Jackson regards Fantasy as wanting, absent a subversive component in the storytelling, one would expect the author to be expressing an ideology of one sort or another. I've known at least one post-modernist to have mistaken a narrative device for the author's personal belief...

    All of which has almost nothing to do with your posting, of course... :-) Call this an Alfred Hitchcock moment...

  7. Thanks for the kind words. A few quick thoughts:

    1) I did another interview with Michael Peck in Foreign policy called "Enterprise vs. Enterprise," which compares the starship(s) to the aircraft carrier(s).

    2) A lot of the interview was drawn from a presentation I do at science fiction conventions called "Naval Metaphors in Science Fiction," where I discuss a lot of the issues Archduke Piccolo discussed in his post. (And yes, I misspoke -- drag is squared, propulsive force required is cubed.) Incidentally, Michael and I are working on a book based on the two interviews and some other things I have in mind.

    3) Michael and I had some limitations in word count, and that seriously affected the scope of the discussion. Hence I made a conscious decision to not talk about David Weber's work, but instead to focus on Battlestar Galactica. I agree, though, that David's stuff is first rate. I am one of the founders of BuNine, an organization best described as David Weber's private think tank. Since the interview with Michael came out, David and BuNine have produced _House of Steel: The Honorverse Companion_, which includes both a novella from David and a lot of background material, including an essay where David and I talk about the design of navies.

    4) BuNine is running a convention called (wait for it) Honorcon, in Greenville SC, the first weekend in November. This con is going to include a LOT of material like that in the Peck interviews, as you can see from the programming section. (I'm the co-chair of the Technology and Warfare track).

    5) For what it's worth, I have also been interviewed for podcasts a few times:
    -- May 10, 2013: Baen Free Radio Hour -- "Honorverse Companion Creators"
    -- Jul 21, 2013: Adventures in SciFi Publishing -- "DemiCon “Building a Navy” with David Weber and BuNine" (Part 1 of David, Tom, and Chris's panel at DemiCon 24)
    -- Sep 27, 2013: Adventures in SciFi Publishing -- "DemiCon “Working with David Weber"" (Part 2 of David, Tom, and Chris's panel at DemiCon 24)

    6) Other examples of science fiction I think is interesting from my perspective as a naval analyst can be found at my website, which also includes the essay I was best known before the Peck interviews, "Thoughts on Starship Troopers." The whole website is woefully out of date, and the Recommendations list online doesn't yet include John Hemry's "Lost Fleet" series, which gets a LOT of stuff right.

    Best regards!

  8. Not much 'into' Science Fiction, I'm finding this topic fascinating! More than once I have thought that a good bit of SF was really Science Fantasy: concepts like 'superlight travel', teleportation, 'tractor beams', deflector shields, among other, less 'hard', ideas being closely akin (in my view) to magic. Call it 'tech-magic'.

    Brian Caswell (as Australian writer) postulated in 'Deucalion' interplanetary travel that effective turned Einstein's theories on their heads, which was one approach, I guess, to building in the finite maximum speed (c) into the story. Cryogenics is another approach, which makes interstellar travel at least plausible. But I have occasionally wondered what the implications would be, given the capacity to accelerate inter-stellar vessels to, say, 0.9c. No simple matter, given that the vessel's mass at that speed would be about quadrupled, and yet a destination 4 light-years away would still take over a year to reach.

    A plausible approach to this problem was postulated in Poul Anderson's 'The Avatar' (not one of Anderson's best, in my view). This was the 't-machine', a huge tubular cylinder made from super-dense materials that spun upon its longitudinal axis. The effect was to 'warp' the Space/time continuum about it such that passing through the tube brought you (and your ship) out somewhere far away - light-years distant from where you began. How to get back? You had to hope you came out where there was another t-machine... You can see all sorts of fish-hooks in this idea, eh?

    Accepting the tech-magic of superlight travel, etc, the thought has occurred to me that the 'big aircraft carrier' idea is the way to go, at least for offensive operations. Large battleships would be unwieldy on account of the problems of momentum mentioned by Mr Peck, but fuel expenditure must equally come into consideration. The answer is to deliver transport small vessels (whose limited capacity would prohibit their making the trip themselves - Star Wars got that right, in my view).

    Furthermore, what sort of weaponry are we looking at? Lasers might be effective but strike me as likely too easily to be defeated, especially at long range (whatever long range means; I'll have to think further as to why as well). Fighters would be used to deliver weapons systems close to the enemy vessels whilst the 'big guys' stay well out of range behind some kind of shielding device (which need not be hugely sophisticated it seems to me - some kind of space going 'smoke screen' might be feasible).

    The concept is: the big ships bring the fighters within range; the fighters deliver the missiles, lasers or whatever weaponry that will deal to the enemy big guys. H'mmm: the precise equivalent of the type of naval warfare that was such a feature of the Pacific War 1941-1945...

    You know, I almost wish I could attend this conference. Attendees will have a ball, I reckon.

  9. Gentlemen, have you ever heard anything about a game called Eve Online?

    It is easily found through Google and it has been running for 10 years now.


Blog Archive