Aircraft Carriers in Space

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

Science-fiction authors often model their space battles on historical naval conflicts — the Age of Sail, World War I or World War II surface action, submarines, or fighters in space — so a show like Battlestar Galactica ends up with thinly disguised aircraft carriers in space.

The influence also goes the other way though, as Chris Weuve points out:

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.

The Combat Information Center is that wonderfully telegenic room full of maps, computer consoles, and sweeping polar displays of radar and sonar echos:

Early versions were used in the second world war; according to Rear Admiral Cal Laning, the idea for a command information center was taken “specifically, consciously, and directly” from the spaceship Directrix in the Lensman novels of E.E. Smith, Ph.D., and influenced by the works of his friend and collaborator Robert Heinlein, a retired American Naval Officer.

After the numerous losses during the various naval battles off Guadalcanal during the war of attrition that was part and parcel of the Solomon Islands campaign and the Battle of Guadalcanal the United States Navy employed operational analysis, determined many of their losses were due to procedure and disorganization, and implemented the Combat Information Centers building on what was initially called “radar plot” according to an essay “CIC Yesterday and Today” by the Naval Historical Center.

That same article points out that in 1942 radar, radar procedure, battle experiences, needs, and the CIC all grew up together as needs developed and experience was gained and training spread, all in fits and starts beginning with the earliest radar uses in the Pacific battles starting with the Coral Sea, when radar gave rise to the first tentative attempt to vector an Air CAP to approaching Japanese flights, maturing some before the Battle of Midway, where post-battle analysis of Coral Sea’s results had given more confidence in the ability and to the process and the desire was bolstered by new procedures giving their measure of added confidence.

So, why wouldn’t we see aircraft carriers in space?

Aircraft carriers are a particularly good model to illustrate how the differences between the ocean and the air really drive how naval combat works, and hence don’t work so well when converted to space. An aircraft carrier is built around three things: the flight deck, which functions as the airplanes’ doorway between the sea and the sky, and also the parking lot for the airplanes; the hangar deck, where essential aircraft maintenance is carried out; and the propulsion spaces, because you really want that flight deck to be moving fast to generate wind over the deck, which in turn makes it easier to land and take off. Everything about the “airport” aspects of an aircraft carrier point towards making it big: big engines, and big flight deck that is also elevated away from the turbulence of the ocean surface. So, since you need a big ship anyway, we decide to put a lot of planes on, plus extra fuel, command and control facilities, a hospital, a post office, and so on. You name it, an aircraft carrier has it.

But in space, you don’t need that doorway between the sea and the sky, because your “fighter” is operating in the same medium as the mothership. You don’t need a flight deck. You just need a hatch, or maybe just a clamp that attaches the fighter to the hull if you don’t mind leaving it outside. You don’t need the big engines or the big elevated flight deck. And hence it doesn’t make nearly so much sense to put all of your eggs in one basket. There might still be some efficiencies in grouping them together, but the fighters are probably more analogous to helicopters rather than F-18s. Almost every ship in the U.S. Navy carries a helicopter, or at least could temporarily.

As always, amateurs study tactics, while the pros study logistics:

Another issue is that modern naval warfare is very much tied to a logistics. There is a lifeline to the shore, and on top of that, there is this support network across the world, such as satellite, meteorological support, and land-based aircraft. Air campaigns are planned ashore. This idea that Captain Kirk leaves on a five-year mission? We go to sea for six or nine months at a time, with continuous logistical support, and when we come back, the ships are pretty beaten up. They need refit. It’s hard to imagine these spaceships going out alone and unafraid without any sort of support. Most sci-fi authors ignore that, and haven’t thought about what would be needed. Interestingly, the sci-fi authors of the 1950s were better at thinking it though. It was a time when everyone was talking about how a hydroponics section would be needed to provide food on a starship. Maybe nowadays you can say you have a magic power source, or nanotech to produce the materials you need. But I really get the impression that sci-fi doesn’t really understand this stuff.


  1. Alex says:

    In all fairness to Star Trek, the ships kept on putting into assorted starbases for refit/resupply.

  2. I was on a carrier in the Navy. I am writing a science fiction novel and am trying to make the carriers as close to the Navy’s as possible.

  3. Alrenous says:

    I always thought the point of having huge spaceships was to have lots of space for supplies and machine shops. With the unobtainium engines they sport combined with the low structural requirements of space, you could make them big enough to contain the factory that made them in the first place, if you really wanted to.

Leave a Reply