Monday, 1 February 2016

Space Combat Part 2: Spinal, Broadside, and Turreted Weapons

Wherever nerds Science Fiction fans gather to debate the future of space warfare there are several debates that almost always pop up sooner or later, and which  seldom generate a consensus.    One of the most popular is the debate over fixed Vs turreted weapon mounts, with the fixed weapons divided into spinal mounts, and less commonly broadside mounts.  Related is the discussion over which of the three main direct fire weapons likely to be used in space combat - Laser, Particle Beam, and Kinetic - are most suited to each of the three mounting options.  In this blogpost I'm going to attempt a analysis of the specific strengths and weaknesses of each type of mounting, which weapon fits them best, and the tactical scenarios in which they offer the biggest advantages.  I'll also cover the worldbuilding needed to justify each option in your 'Verse.

The Spinal Mount

Definition: A weapon firing in a fixed forward arc, parallel to the direction of thrust, with limited elevation or traverse, and typically running through a significant portion of the spacecraft's length.

   Spinal or Keel mounted weapons are interesting because, unlike turrets or fixed weapons, they have no current real-world counterpart aside from fighter aircraft.  The sea going battleships that provide inspiration for many SF works used broadsides during the age of sail, and turrets in the era of Big Gun battleships, but a single forward firing weapon has never been used to my knowledge aside from a few submarines like the Surcouf, and that was neither common nor in line with the spinal mounts of SF.  If anything their closest analogy is the main gun of a turretless tank hunter.  Even that is a poor comparison given the role stealth plays in tank warfare, and the degree to which it is impossible in space.

   The rational behind the Spinal Mount is straightforward and pretty logical; the bigger the gun the better, right?  Most 'guns' in SF are in fact accelerators of some kind; railguns, coil-guns or gauss cannon, ram accelerators, and particle beams.  What this means is that muzzle velocity scales directly with the length of the weapon, rather than their being a optimum barrel length as their is with conventional firearms.  There are engineering limits, or those imposed by material science, but the highest theoretical velocity is as close to the speed of light as you can get.  A Spinal mount also translates the power of the weapon to the audience quite easily, especially when coupled with long recharge times and/or cool down.  The MAC guns of HALO and the Wave Motion Cannon of Space Battleship Yamato are pretty typical of this trope.

   There are a few disadvantages with the spinal mount, most of which revolve around the fact that the spacecraft must manoeuvre to aim the weapon.  Even if the finer adjustments are done internally rather than by the spacecraft's alignment it will still limit the speed that the spacecraft can edge widely separated targets.  It also means that if a enemy emerged unexpectedly from hyperspace the spinal mount might not have time to be oriented before it is destroyed.  Most spacecraft armed in this way are shown with only one main gun, with is a disadvantage if it breaks down or is disabled by enemy fire.  The spinal mount might well be a glass cannon, extremely dangerous, but needing other ships to contribute to its defence, especially if under attack by multiple enemy.

   While the time needed to aim, and the disadvantage of only being able to engage targets in the same direction at once are inescapable the problem of manoeuvrability may not be an issue.  A spacecraft equipped with a powerful gauss cannon, railgun, particle beam, or laser, will have plentiful electric power.  This can be used to power multiple thrusters distributed all over the spacecraft, rather than having them clumped together, and allowing acceleration in any direction.  With many fictional spacecraft the main drives are to large, expensive, or radioactive to allow this, but for more realistic low accelerations electrothermal or plasma based drives may do fine.

   The advantages are many.  A spacecraft can fit a larger spinal weapon than it could hope to fit into a turret, something likely to hold true for any size of spacecraft.  This is partially due to the fact that a turret has to turn, and so has limits on the mass and size of the weapon, and partially to the fact that recoil forces along the line of thrust can be absorbed by the thrust structure instead of by a complicated system of articulation.  This can also make the weapon more accurate as it will not have to cope with the vibration of turret articulation, or the fox in a unsupported barrel.  Greater muzzle velocity has the advantage of imparting a longer effective range on particle beam and kinetic weapons, helping to negate their inherent weakness.  Even if the energy they output is the same as a physically smaller weapon, the increased range will make them more effective at ranged combat, something there is likely to be a lot of in space.  And they do not need the cool down time shown in SF.  The most powerful might, but it should not be a surprise to find MAC gun like weapon with rapid fire capabilities. 

   Kinetic weapons benefit the most from a spinal mount as opposed to a turret or broadside since it helps to overcome their greatest weakness - low velocity.  Particle beams may also be common in this role since the long skinny shape of a particle accelerator fits the bill nicely.  Lasers on the other hand do not seem to be a good candidate.  Lasers do not benefit from having a longer physical shape, it is the diameter of the emitter that counts.  While there is an analogue - a spacecraft with a single massive mirror at the front - it has its own advantages and disadvantages, and does not really fit the description of a classic spinal mount.  Operationally it would be employed the same however, and have the advantage in rage over smaller turreted counterparts.

   It is this range benefit coupled with the low turning rate that define the use of spinal weapons.  They are the long ranged artillery of space.  If they can maintain range from the enemy the extra range might make them well right invulnerable, while if used in a defensive role that extra reach will fore the enemy to run a gauntlet of fire.  A battle between two of these spacecraft would be like a sniper duel - few tactics, with the one with the greatest accuracy coming out on top.  They would be at a disadvantage in any battle where there are multiple vectors of attack, or one that starts at close range. In a battlefield dominated by missiles they might not fare to well, but one that focuses on direct fire is likely to see them.

   The 'Verse that features spinal weapon can fall anywhere on the spectrum of scientific realism.  Given their long range and potential firepower it seems likely that any space force will have some in its ranks, and that they will form an important part of tactical doctrine.  One thing to note is that they become less attractive as the number and acceleration of ships increases as this brings out their weakness.  A jump drive that allows enemy to 'slip under the guns' as it were will also compromise them.  In any battle where missiles are unviable, massive firepower is needed from smaller ships, or the enemy will be engaged at extreme range a spinal mount is justified.  Another thing to remember is that a magnetic accelerator could be developed as a civilian cargo launcher on the moon, and repurposed as a weapon during a war, similar to in Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Even particle beams or lasers that fit the design requirements might be developed as part of beamed power stations.

The Turret

Definition:  A weapon or weapons mounted on or in an articulation that provides extreme ranges of traverse and elevation, as well as commonly housing the firing/loading mechanism and gun crew.

   The turret is one of the most common styles of weapon mounting in SF, and for good reason.  Nearly all wet navy guns are mounted in turrets, as are point defence weapons, and the main gun of tanks.  It was the invention and adoption of turreted main guns, along with the invention of the steam engine, that changed the face of ocean warfare forever.  A spacecraft armed with turrets can bring more of its weapons to bare on any enemy craft, and can do so regardless of its heading.  This is obviously important in a battle involving many spacecraft in close proximity, especially those capable of fairly pronounced manoeuvres and high acceleration.  Point defence weapons are far far more effective will a turret mount than without, allowing them to track incoming.

   There are two common mistakes with the representation of turrets in SF.  The first is the idea of a turret as a bolt on unit.  While this may be the case for smaller point defence units, it is almost never true of larger weapons.  Even the small gun turrets wet navy ships still use extend below the deck level, and old battleship turrets had more concealed than exposed.  The second issue is when turrets are placed in a position where the firing arc is limited by other turrets or by the hull of the spacecraft.  While the latter is to an extent unavoidable the former defeats the purpose of having a turret to begin with.  Yes, I'm looking at you Star Wars.

   Disadvantages of the turret are simple.  For any given weapon a turret to carry it will add complexity, mass, and power requirements to the design of the combat spacecraft, reducing the overall number that can be carried and increasing the cost.  Reduced accuracy can also be a problem due to vibration from the traverse motors, increased vibration in the flexible bearings, and flex in a unsupported barrel.  There amy also be a limit to the ammo that can fit in the turret, decreasing the overall firing rate.  Unique to spacecraft is the problem that recoil forces imparted on the spacecraft are not going to be constant, and will thus be harder to account for as they impact the trajectory of the whole craft.  

   Fundamentally turrets have a single advantage; they can be aimed independently of the spacecraft's orientation.  All the other advantages - reduction in number of guns needed to provide coverage in terms of point defence, ability to engage multiple targets in different directions etc are all derived from the former.  The advantage is most pronounced with point defence weapons, as they will face threats from many angles, and need to be able to track fast and close targets.

   Kinetic weapons are ideal for turrets given that unguided kinetics have short ranges, and it is in this envelope that turrets offer the biggest advantage.  Lasers also have a lot going for them.  Since the laser itself is likely to be in the main hull rather than the turret itself, with the beam reflected through a series of mirrors, there can actually be more turrets than the spacecraft can generate laser light for.  Whichever turrets are needed have laser directed into them, and the loss of a few to enemy fire is not such a disadvantage since the total energy output does not decrease.  Particle beams benefit the least.  This is both due tho their long skinny shape in most designs, and to the fact that bending a particle beam at any kind of angle will produce synchrotron radiation.  Tis could of course be overcome by having truely massive turrets or miniaturised particle beams.  In terms of point defence lasers are likely to be dominant given their accuracy at range, and the fact that a missile probably won't be too well armoured compared to a spacecraft.  Adaptive optics can also give point defence turrets quicker focusing and greater accuracy.  Kinetic point defence will be regulated to slower firing 'flak guns' that throw up a wall of shrapnel rather than targeting individual threats.

   Unlike broadside and spinal mounts turrets have the best chance of dominance in a softer SF 'Verse.  This is because they are best suited to short ranged, high relative speed combat where aim will have to be shifted quickly, and the spacecraft will be changing direction often.  They are also suited to battles where enemy spacecraft can emerge unexpectedly from hyperspace in any direction, and in which the spacecraft of both sides end up occupying the same volume of space.  Obviously force fields or shields help in this regard as they encourage ships to close to kinetic range where they can output more damage.  In a hard science 'Verse close quarters battles are unlikely as everyone will be seen long before they get into range, and with the ranges that are more realistic decrease the disadvantage of fixed weapons and emphasise range and accuracy.  Turrets will always be used as point defence installations however, so they will never be absent.  A lot of works also feature turret mounted kinetic guns as secondary weapons, like the Sulaco from Aliens; this is quite likly considering the relatively small size that kinetic weapons can have while remaining potent enough to be included.

The Broadside

Definition:  Weapons mounted at right angles to the direction of thrust, usually within the main hull of the spacecraft, and with limited traverse and elevation. 

   A fixed broadside battery is one of the most uncommon arrangements to be seen in SF, with turrets being far more common.  The only one that I can think of in visual SF is the gun deck aboard the Separatist ship at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith.  In written works the Black Fleet Trilogy by Joshua Dalzelle had what sounded like a fixed battery of laser weapons on the ship that acts as the setting for most of the first book, but it was never implicitly stated.  In the Honor Harrington books the beam weapons were, by memory, in broadside arrangement; a necessity imposed by the gravity drives used.  There are also the quite common examples in visual media where turrets are shown that would be unable to fire in any arc except that of a broadside.  Most of the turreted guns seen in the Star Wars movies fall into this category, with the Venator Class being a prime example.

   The scarcity of this arrangement is not unexpected.  With the prevalence of the 'Space is a Ocean' trope it is to be expected that a design philosophy that long ago gave way to turret armament should find little traction.  Where it is found it is most often for the visual effect, or because the work is intentionally trying to mimic the battles of the Napoleonic War transposed into space.

   There are not so many advantages to this type of design, and the conditions under which it become practicable are quite specific.  The main advantages are those shared by any fixed weapon mount.  Each weapon will mass less than an equivalent turret, and be simpler in construction.  It may be more accurate since it can be mounts straight to the spacecraft's structure via recoil absorbing mechanisms, reducing vibration.  Ease of access would also be a big factor, especially with advanced and perhaps temperamental weapons since turrets have never been known as spacious.  The weapon itself might also be more massive than a turret could cope with, or have a larger recoil force.

   Disadvantages are pretty obvious.  Limited traverse and elevation impose a greater need for manoeuvrability on the spacecraft, and run the risk that at close range or high traverse speed a more manoeuvrable target could stay out of the fire arc entirely.  This is partially avoided with lasers, since with adaptive optics they can have quite a good arc of fire without the actual emitter being articulated.  Since they cannot fire forward the spacecraft is at a disadvantage accelerating toward or away from a target, although this may not be a problem depending on the technology level of the 'Verse.  The broadside, and all fixed weapons, are at a disadvantage in a 'Verse where FTL can allow a enemy spacecraft to appear unexpectedly in any direction.  The need to rotate the entire spacecraft is going to slow down response times significantly compared to a turreted vessel.  Conversely the broadside is more attractive in a hard science 'Verse where you will always see the enemy coming.

   A broadside thus falls best into a 'Verse with fairly low accelerations and long engagement ranges.  It also becomes a lot more practical if the main offensive weapon is a missile attack from standoff range, especially if it is one involving tens or hundreds of missiles, and possible submunitions.  The ability to carry more weapons for the same mass than in turrets, coupled with the greater accuracy and potentially greater effective range would give the broadside ship a very good defence against missile spam attacks.  Against such an attack it is the volume, range, and accuracy of defensive fire that will stop your spacecraft from being ventilated by a hypervelocity penetrator, and in this regard the broadside holds the advantage.  Also, the greater the number of weapons, the more incoming can be targeted at once.

   Lasers or kinetic weapons would be the most practical.  Lasers would benefit from having many emitters, allowing more incoming to be targeted at once, and for kinetics it allows a greater overall rate of fire, important given their inaccuracy.  With kinetics it could also extend their offensive range by filling more space with metal than would be possible with fewer weapons and making it difficult to evade with low thrust levels; range would still be terrible compared to other weapons however.   Charged particle beams could interfere with each other, but a neutral beam wouldn't ave that issue.  The soft-kill ability of a particle beam might also prove handy against missile attacks; the beams could even be defocused to fill a huge volume of space with relativistic plasma, providing a potent radiation hazard for any incoming missiles.  But without exact numbers it seems impossible to give any of the three weapon types a clear advantage for broadside use; it depends doll on the details of the setting.

   Some of you might object to the idea that lasers are better with many emitters, and it is a common debate.  Do you use one emitter with longer range, or many smaller?  My reasoning is that in a 'Verse where missiles are a viable main offensive weapon they will broadly be able to fire enough missiles with enough submunitions that the extra range is not such a great advantage, more so since a accelerating missile at a half a light second or so is going to be phenomenally hard to hit, and could be travelling at a huge speed by that time.  In any case, a computer controlled array of smaller emitters can act as a single larger emitter to some extent, in the same way as many modern telescopes use mirrors composed of multiple segments.

   Although not strictly a 'broadside' a missile armed spacecraft might have its storage silos arranged in the same configuration to allow more rapid deployment.  With warfare based on missile spam the ability to unleash more missiles in less time might be the best chance at victory, and having the equivalent of a current VLS(Vertical Launch System) might be the ideal.  This could also look pretty cool visually while maintaining realism, so take notice Hollywood! 

  Well, there we go.  Part 3 is in the works, but no promises on how long it will take.  Anyone interested in a deeper discussion of this topic, along with the maths, can find a wealth of info on the Atomic Rockets website.  There is a lot there though, so this may be more helpful to someone looking at a overview of the subject.