The Science Of Planets: On Fighter Lanes
One of the most difficult things for new commanders is learning to fight within the constraints that have been established over the years, the limitations that make for efficient warfare. It never fails but that warriors are disappointed to learn that neither carrier nor starbase can control more than nineteen fighters at any given moment. And, more often than not, they rage against this apparently arbitrary limit without stopping to consider that this limit and, indeed, every limit exists for a purpose, that there’s always at least one logical reason.
For our analogy, we shall proceed to land warfare on Earth, in that time period known as “medieval”. On a field of battle, each force would have blocks of men, each block armed uniformly. At the front, one might have pikes, for example, and behind the defensive wall created by these pikes would be a formation of archers, who fired projectiles at range over the heads of their defenders. Because the defensive formation was so dense, the archers would often be firing blindly, yet even so they would do terrible damage to the enemy. Archers were lightly armored and all but useless at close range, and so they became the most valuable targets; pikemen were heavily armored and defensively armed, making them nearly invulnerable to enemy melee forces.
If friendly cavalry were to advance through these troops, the horses and armor alone would kill or maim dozens of friendlies, and one couldn’t leave space between formations without creating vulnerability in the defensive wall. Instead, the foot soldiers were drilled intensely in marching and formation. The pikes, if not in immediate combat, could shoulder their weapons and sidestep, opening narrow lanes for the horse to pass through. Once clear, they would reform their defensive wall.
At this point, of course, the archers would be unable to see the friendly cavalry units. Spotters and disciplined fire control became vital; there is little more disheartening to an attacker than to see friendly fire striking one’s allies. Undisciplined archer units would be useless at this stage of a battle; their fire was masked and so the power they brought to the field was extremely limited.
Therefore, this same maneuver, that of opening lanes, could be employed to place archers temporarily at the forefront. This would grant them freedom to fire aimed volleys, making their fire far more deadly.
Maneuver of this sort, whether by countermarch or open files, became an art, one practiced incessantly in professional armies. One unit could march through another in battle, permitting battlefield replacements and rotation of the injured or exhausted. Units could change facing on the fly, and reinforcements could be sent to any point on a defensive line. For this reason, experienced and well-drilled troops possessed a tremendous advantage over the unskilled and the disorderly.
Now, advance your thinking a few thousand years. Think of beam weapons on fighter defense as your archers; think of fighters as your horse and pikemen. The fighters will advance only through pre-sited lanes toward the target, and the defensive fire will blanket all of the rest of space. Friendly fighters who drift out of their lanes will die to friendly fire; just as bad, they’ll block that fire from hitting enemy targets. By the same token, two friendly fighters in the same lane would mask each other’s weapons, and each would be vulnerable to the same blast of incoming defensive fire, granting no advantage. On the off chance both survived — and in the face of a plasma cannon blast it would be both or neither — they’d collide when one was on its return journey.
Remember too that both launching platform and target are moving, possibly at near-relativistic speeds, and any independent fighter piloting would lead to that ship being lost, unable to return to its carrier and without fuel or arms after its attack run. And yet, none could mask the friendly beam weapons, so they could not travel on the most direct path between vessels, but rather would move just outside this zone to a narrow ring outside the armament path.
The dimensions of this ring varies depending on the size of the ships, but due to beam diffusion only a limited portion of the arc can be allocated to any single fighter lest a single blast eliminate more than one. Further restricting this space is the need for evasion; without the potential to maneuver, a fighter would instantly fall to any opponent in a similar lane; each fighter, therefore, would require several narrow flight options in its course. Even this rudimentary level of coordination was impossible in the days before battle computers, of course; fighters are hardly pikemen, and the restrictions are quite complex.
The scope of this course is at a larger scale than the mathematics involved, and so we will simplify the discussion thus: Only nineteen and a fraction different slots around the rim ring of the paths between vessels are practicable at any reasonable efficiency, and since we cannot profitably deploy a fractional fighter, simple geometry limits us to nineteen fighter lanes at a time. And, as neither side particularly regrets shooting down an opposing fighter, both will use the same lanes.
Space battles, cadets, are very different from the simple pictures we see on a VCR plot. Remember this and your lives will be more effective, and perhaps even a bit longer.
For additional reading on formation tactics, we recommend “A System Of Military Tactics”, Daniel Fisher, 1805.