James Holmes

Taking a Page From Sci-Fi

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James Holmes

Taking a Page From Sci-Fi

What can science fiction tells us about present day military tactics and strategy? For one: an over reliance on technology can be fatal.

The Naval Diplomat’s pal Chris Weuve recently gave an interview that will be a crowd-pleaser for naval and science-fiction enthusiasts—two communities that overlap to a striking degree, for reasons that may be worth speculating about in a future post. The exchange is mostly about Battlestar Galactica. It’s on the long side, but read the whole thing.

Chris dwells mainly on the mechanics of space combat. For instance, he questions whether the aircraft carrier is the right warship to project skyward as the pattern for war in the heavens. In space, after all, the carrier and its fighter and scout wings operate in the same element, an empty void, rather than different ones, water and air. The Galactica’s “Viper” fighters need no catapults to fling them into space. Pilots can fly without worrying about whether that pesky Bernoullis Law will keep them aloft. Nor do fighters fall crashing to earth after suffering battle damage, incurring equipment failures, or running out of fuel. Crippled Vipers would simply drift off, much like ships adrift at sea—well, except for that suffocating and freezing-to-death thing. Space is a particularly harsh operating environment.

The aircraft-carrier concept largely works for me despite the differences Chris illuminates. The Galactica carries a contingent of unarmed “Raptor” scout craft capable of faster-than-light jumps, but its fighters are limited to sublight travel. (The enemy Cylons have stolen a technological march on our heroes, constructing “raiders” that manage to perform as faster-than-light fighter spacecraft. Infernal machines.) Vipers are built for speed, maneuverability, and a heavy weapons payload for close-quarters combat. These attributes consume space within their small airframes that might otherwise go to more ambitious propulsion plants. If fighters are the humans’ warfighting instruments of choice, they need a mothership to transport combat power from battle zone to battle zone. And catapults make sense, even though there’s no aerodynamic reason for them. They accelerate the Galactica’s Vipers to combat speed—furnishing a significant tactical edge from the moment the fighters clear the flight deck.

Another naval analogy for the battlestar and its complement of Vipers and Raptors is USS Ponce. This recently refitted amphibious platform dock now acts as a floating support ship for mine-countermeasures assets and other small craft unable to sustain themselves at sea for long intervals. These ships all operate in the same element, water, but lesser craft and their crews benefit from a forward-deployed repair, refueling and rearming, and logistics base.

Which leads me to the other reason the Galactica remains one of my favorite starships. The battlestars’ builders appear to have designed them in a non-cost-constrained environment. The ships can do everything, and cost is no object!! That’s every sci-fi geek’s (and every seafarer’s) dream—a man-of-war that can perform every mission, mount every offensive and defensive weapon, withstand attack because of its heavy armor and shielding, provide its own logistical support, and still offer a comfy place to lounge around in one’s off-duty hours. Captain Jean-Luc Picard tells an awestruck visitor as much in one of the Star Trek films. The economics of the 24th century, says Picard, are such that starships like the Enterprise can be built in large numbers with little thought about competing priorities.

The Galactica is an aircraft carrier. As I proposed above, it’s also a mothership. It’s also a battleship. The battlestars sport not just a secondary battery of cannon for fighting off Cylon fighters but a main battery of heavy guns for taking on Cylon “base ships,” or dreadnoughts. The ability to close with an enemy base ship for a knife fight comes in handy once or twice during the series. Being able to ignore the inescapable trade-offs among speed, armament, and protection is a fantasy all mariners entertain from time to time. They can indulge it in fiction.

One point on a different subject: Battlestar Galactica inveighs against certain hazards of high technology. “Network-centric warfare” has been a U.S. Navy mantra for two decades. But the Galactica escapes destruction at Cylon hands only because it’s an antique. It is the oldest capital ship in the Colonial fleet. Its skipper—Commander Adama, a veteran of decades of war against the Cylons—refused to upgrade its technology with networked computers. With no networks connecting individual computer consoles, the ship and its fighters are impervious to viruses of the kind the Cylons use to disable human defenses—including the defenses of scores of more advanced battlestars and their fighter wings. Lesson: golly-gee technology like GPS and networks is all very well, but let’s not become too dependent on it. The first thing a savvy adversary will try to take away in wartime is American use of satellites and the electromagnetic spectrum. Thinking about workarounds ahead of time constitutes a healthy habit for warriors. Failing to do so could bring about, well, a Colonial fate.

As a mathematician (another sci-fi-inclined crowd) might say, martial endeavors at sea don’t map to outer space on a one-to-one basis. But they don’t need to. Debating what filmmakers get right and wrong about space warfare helps us reexamine our earthbound profession in a new light.