US naval analyst on science fiction space warfare

NewImageForeign Policy magazine interviewed naval analyst Chris Weuve, a former US Naval War College research professor, about space warfare in science fiction.

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.

"Aircraft Carriers in Space" (Thanks, Todd Lappin!)


  1. I’ve found David Weber’s space battle descriptions in the Honor Harrington series to be compelling.  Distances play a huge role in the nature of battle, as do relativistic speeds for both weapons travel and for communication, and the nature of technologies that can act to protect ships from weapons.  Basically new technologies for protection force new developments in weapons and tactics, up to and including using one’s own ship’s defensive fields as a weapon against another ship depending on the distances the fields project relative to the opponent vessels.

    For on-screen battles, I like Babylon 5.  No banking in space without some actual reason, like the gravity well drives used in Minbari fighters. Fighters that humans use still reorient and then apply thrust.

    As much as I like Star Trek, the battles and distances don’t make a lot of sense.

    1. As much as I like Star Trek, the battles and distances don’t make a lot of sense.

      I think that you’re meant to just stare at Lursa and B’etor’s cleavage rather than analyze the physics of the battle.

      1. I guess I’m weird.  I didn’t find their decolletage attractive.  Like some of HR Giger’s art, their cleavage had this odd female-body-part-grated-into-machinery feel to my interpretation, which is more horror than hot.

    2.  One of my favorite scenes in Babylon 5 was a space battle that was not shown directly, but as a reflection in a window out of which Londo is watching the thing which he caused to happen with a mixture of horror and disgust. A marvelously complicated set-up.

    3. When I read Weber, I kept thinking, “haven’t I read almost exactly this battle in one of the Hornblower books?” Of course, back then battles took hours and days, and communication and intelligence were also very slow…

  2. “I’m not one who gets hung up on the real physics because it is science fiction.” he almost lost me right about there…
    As for Starfuries using constant thrust and pointing the wrong way while doing so sometimes… blame idiotic Executive Meddling and not JMS…
    I could keep pounding, but overall it was a pretty cool article and I don’t think the guy deserves it :)
    I still think the folk from Atomic Rocket and the Rocketpunk Manifesto would take his LOX money with deltaV to spare, though :)
    And my favorite military science fiction is, hands down, the webcomic “Schlock Mercenary”!

    1.  Most science fiction has a focus that is sociological rather technological focused. Getting hung up on real physics is almost always a mistake in these stories, since the physics are usually speculative of fantastic.

      1.  I get the feeling you’re talking about moving picture sci-fi rather than written word; to me the latter is ‘real’ sci-fi, and what we see at the cinema or on video is, too often, a poor imitation. Written sci-fi has always been enthusiastic about the science, even the pretend science, whereas TV Hollywood sci-fi could care less, just plundering science for cool buzz-words. It’s in the name of the genre, after all.

        1.  I’m more of a reader than a movie-goer, and the science in most science fiction iis almost always either a tool to talk about potential changes to society and psychology, or a commentary on them in the present day.

          Asimov, for example, had very little to do with science and technology in most of his books, except insofar as they could be used to comment on society and beliefs. I used to devour Analog like crazy, and the number of them that focused on “real physics” was… slim. It needed to be something people could imagine being real, but that was the extent of it. Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Anne McAffrey – none of them got hung up on real physics. Physics worked how it needed to to make the point they wanted.

  3. Space Battleship Yamato.  All gun.  All win.  Conspicuously missing from the interview, that ship could go from under the sea to orbit and shoot everything to bits.

  4. Funny, I’m just in the middle of reading the Second Stage Lensman book. I love this series, they even have ipads. (So of course I had to name mine Visi-Plate.)

    Also the Ender series seemed to make an effort to describe realistic space battles. 

  5. 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.

    Ha, nice try. Now, before we get into your mistreatment of canonical Star Trek combat, I think it might be educational for you to read a few of my fanfic novels. There’s one that involves a brief crossover into the BSG universe which nicely illustrates what you’re getting wrong about the tactical capabilities of both the USS Enterprise-D and the Galactica. I should warn you, the Riker-Starbuck scenes are rather explicit.

  6. Larry Niven, Protector. Them’s some patiently conducted, ruthlessly anticipated, wait-ten-years-and-see-if-we-hit-’em relativistic space battles there.

    1.  Many people miss the metaphor of redemption driving the Yamato series, as the Yamato was the ultimate symbol of Japan’s Imperial pride and then ultimate shame, but given a chance for redemption by saving the world.

  7. My favourite story about the overlap between the Navy and SF is mainly sociological and not technical at all.  One of the pro authors in the Star Trek universe had a day job of actually being the captain of a large metal can with hundreds of crew members running around inside.  Made for a great deal of insight into how these things have to be organised.

    When going to Cons she generally registered under an assumed name in order to avoid spending time talking with fans about her little patch of the Star Trek continuum: preferring to do this via correspondence.  The story is told that at one WorldCon someone else turned up pretending to be her in order to socially cash in on her prestige.  Some friends found out about this and offered to expose the fraud but she just got the impersonator’s address from the Con Office, smiled and said she’d deal with it after the Con.

    After the Con some guys from Naval Intelligence in sunglasses and trench coats turned up at the impostor’s house.  “We understand you’ve been impersonating a United States Naval Officer?…”

  8. I think that it is easier to be realistic in a book than a movie.  Heck most movies don’t show Earth-bound combat realistically, because it’s a visual medium and much of combat is about trying to be difficult to target, either by being unseen or distant. 

  9. Jack Cambells Lost Fleet series is really good in the space battles it has.  The battles take into consideration time distortion due to distances and speed that the fleets engage in.  Give it a try if your into space military books.  I’m still looking for other series as good as that one recently finished reading.

  10. Thanks for reminding me about the Lensman series, I ate those up as a kid. 

    I find the idea of space combat problematic. Debris would be difficult to control or predict and would be hazardous to any ship engaged in close battle, friend or foe. Space combat would likely be slow and boring from great distances, not close up and action packed.  

    In the real world we could have a real problem if countries deployed satellite killers in orbit, the Earth could be surrounded by a debris shield that would imperil any satellites or space travel perhaps for centuries to come. I believe China conducted a test with one several years ago. Let’s hope it never happens.

    Iain Banks’s Culture novels are probably my favorite approach to interstellar conflict. I recommend reading “Excession” if you haven’t yet.

  11. I think the closet analog we have to “space battles” is submarine warfare. Which might be why all the navel referances. You spend much of your time just trying to find the other guy while trying to stay hidden. Then get firing solutions. Wait some period of time while you try to figure out if you even hit your target.

    While the side by side broadside fusilade makes very colourful images, I can’t think that is all that realistic. Heck even today most advanced warfare is all about (think the new stealth fighters) staying hidden, detecting them as far away as possible over the horizon, firing missles, and rearming. The whole idea is to kill them so far away that they can’t even touch you. I can’t see how this wouldn’t translate to more of the same (without the involvment of some magic tech).

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