Old School Dogfighting

This page is about the speculative fiction trope. For airplane dogfighting, see aerial combat.

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Basic Information

Old School Dogfighting is what happens when sci-fi writers foolishly think that space combat1 will have a lot in common with World War Two style aerial combat. You've seen Star Wars - tiny fightercraft weaving in and out of larger vessels, getting in close and mixing it up, using the sci-fi equivalent of machine guns instead of more reasonable guided missiles.

Space Does Not Work That Way! Let's examine why outer-space dogfighting is crazy:

  • In space there is no stealth - even a tiny little fighter is spotted from minutes, probably hours, away.
  • Effective range of the big guns is huge. See the trope Space Based Weapon Has Cutoff Range for more details.
  • Spaceships move at incredible speeds, or at least, if they have any hope of traveling the void between stars in their own life time, they do. FTL and Subspace or Hyperspace might change that, but in hard sci fi, at least, ships move so fast you have to lead the target by thousands of miles.
  • Windows are weakpoints. Given the horror that is space exposure, why would you put yourself in thin glass canopy when you're expecting to be shot at?

Given those realities, using supercomputers to calculate targeting solutions is a much better idea than relying on human dexterity and eyesight. Most battles will be determined by massive warships beyond visual range.

So what sort of missions would space-fighters be good at?

  • As a Picket Vessel or for sensor sweeping from another angle (to put the last nail in the Stealth In Space coffin).
  • Surgical strikes, should a particular part of a vessel (or planetary facility, or the Death Star) need to be targeted from a closer range.
  • Shooting down other fighters, if anyone else is foolish enough to bring them in large numbers.

Although, honestly, all those missions can be done by unmanned drones or missiles (or orbital bombardment) more safely and effectively than by a fighter craft. Even in settings where Artificial Intelligence is limited for cultural reasons, a remote-controlled drone would be more effective than putting a man in a cockpit.

  • Human piloting performance is negatively impacted by the G-forces of acceleration.
  • The drone doesn't need oxygen, food, etc, so it's mass is less, and thus it uses less fuel.
  • If it's fuel does run low, it can power-down until recovered.
  • If you can't recover it, you've out money but not a life. No hard moral decisions.
    • No chance of the bridge crew mutinying over the abandonment of a few probes.
  • A machine is more likely to survive a micrometeorite impact (whether flak, shrapnel, or natural in nature) than a human riding in a machine.

Yet TV and Movies are full of space-fighters and dogfights, when even modern air combat features fewer gun exchanges and more long-range missiles. There's an obvious reason for that, however. TV and Movies need stars, and those stars need to be on screen, doing heroic things. In Space Everyone Can See Your Face. But let's say your RPG has the same requirement. The players really want to be starfighter aces. The Rule of Cool would suggest dog-fighting is acceptable, then.

Even in that situation, however, there's no reason for fighters in space to maneuver like fighters in atmosphere. There's no airfoil shape needed, and no air resistance. You can't bank, but you can turn on a dime. Your space-fighter is essentially in a free fall. You don't need to face the direction you're traveling, just the direction you're accelerating (and not even that if you have engines on more than one side of your ship). Think of the difference between Babylon 5 and Star Wars. If a Bab 5 Starfury were making Luke's run on the Death Star trench, they'd have gotten up to a good speed, then flipped over to face Vader and the Tie fighters that were chasing them. They'd fly backwards and be able to face (and point weapons at) the enemy. Biggs would have lived.


1. Atomic Rockets - discussion of the logic flaw that is space-fighters
2. Science Blogs - discussion of the physics that would apply to space-fighters.

Game and Story Use

  • A space opera game is likely to use fightercraft, and the attendant tropes, with one or more PC Ace Pilots. That doesn't prevent you from using realistic hard-turns in space, making guided missiles the main weapon, etc.
  • For a more realistic take on space combat, you might need to promote the PCs. Who'd want to be a lieutenant piloting a tiny little fighter, when you could be a captain or commander in charge of a huge space dreadnought?
    • Rather than making them all pilots from a single base or carrier, make them all captains in an armada.
    • The fleet will likely have a few Attack Drones, and maybe even a few armed shuttles for the rare situation that needs a small vessel but exceeds the limits of the drones' programming. Combat using such vessels will be rare and noteworthy, however.
  • The only realistic situation in which manned "fighters" might win out over RPVs would be if one of the currently mooted treaties controlling or prohibiting the use of RPVs in warfare was adopted, universalised and maintained into the future. It would be an act of colossal stupidity on the part of every signatory nation, but politicians being what they are…
    • Perhaps something like this might happen in the aftermath of a robot war.
  • Alternatively, use drones but have the "pilots" use remote presence to operate them - subjectively, it's as though the pilot is flying and dogfighting but in reality he's lying on a couch in the flight control centre with a wire plugged into his head (or whatever).
    • And then someone hijacks the signal to the drone! You can have a PC sticking guns on one of the shuttles to try taking it out, another PC trying to use information warfare to get the drone back or at least lock it down, and a third making sure the enemy doesn't fry the pilot through the connection.
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