[Sci Fi Brainstorming]Star Fighters, Pros and Cons


Jacob Possin
Validated User
Imagine a scifi universe where FTL is not tactical(if it exists at all). Basically it takes a lot of time and is not useful in combat directly. So, in such a world what are the pros and cons of Star Fighters? I know that they would be very small and thus easy to destroy, as well as not being able to carry much reaction mass or whatever fuels the engines. Let me know what some of the practical applications of fighters would be as well as their practical limits. I really don't have much more in my mind for the setting so we could build outward from there, but for now it is just that FTL is very slow and only used strategically not tactically.


Hiding in a snowdrift
Validated User
For starters, are your fighters crewed or drones? If they're drones, they have a longer stretch of activity, because they don't need meatbags or all the crap that goes with them, providing more room for fuel, sensors, armaments, etc.

If you're going with more of a hard science feel, emissions control becomes a consideration. So your ships send out fighters for reconnaissance instead of giving away their own position. This also works for tactics, as fighters don't need to do much damage to make a hostile warship explode in sensory data to advertise its presence--targeting radars, thermal/radiation pulse from explosions, thermal blooms from maneuvering engines, etc.

Brad J. Murray

RPGnet Member
Validated User
If your sf is hard (and if it's not you can hand wave any of this away) fighters are a hard problem.

First they need to be launched from a station or other vessel -- they are going to have a relatively short range in order to generate high Gs and have any kind of utility. If they carry a lot of reaction mass, you might as well just call them space ships. Nothing fightery about them.

Okay, so given that, why put a human in them? Even now our aircraft can outperform our pilots and I can only image that gulf broadening. Given their short range remote ops is probably viable and even if it's not, autonomous software is not out of the question if we're already in space and shooting people there.

So now I've got a short range, high performance vessel. It's going to be fairly cheap -- just motors, some rmass, a computer, and a weapon. So what would be the advantage of putting a reloadable/rechargable weapon on it? Maybe it's not that cheap, so it's really a platform for getting very short range high performance ordnance into close range or from unanticipated angles. Missile platform -- I can see that being re-usable. If the mission is expected on average to be one way, I'd probably also put a warhead on it and sacrifice the vessel itself at some point. I presume that the point of these things would be to overwhelm point defense weapons by putting lots of targets in the minimum number of defense arcs. Maybe a ton of jamming kit works too.

Hmm, maybe that's a key "fighter" mission -- wild weasel. Engage point defense fire control and weapons black out coverage in a region that you can then swamp with long range missiles.

But I don't see humans in them.


Brilliantly Crazed
Validated User
Starfighters are difficult to make sensible. I liked what they did in Battlestar Galactica, where the Space Opera weaponry made sense because the engagement started at kilometers (rather than thousands or millions of kilometers) due to the Jump Drive. And Jump Drive was slow enough that battles took place without either side teleporting all over the place.

Now, that said? If you're doing low-or-no FTL, travel times within a system are LONG. Your best bet for a setting that allows rapid response and short travel times with many worlds is to put a gas giant like Saturn in the habitable zone of your star system. Really, it's amazing how many problems that solves. Many habitable worlds can be hours or days apart rather than months, and the low gravity means that getting into orbit is remarkably easy.

Now, do you want to have human pilots? Say both sides avoid drones because of the dangers of jamming. And as for AI, could be anything from cultural bias to fears of the Fighter AIs questioning why exactly they're working for you.

If you want to take a halfway compromise between human pilots and AI, the simplest option is to have your human pilot's brains be in an encased life support module. So when they go on a mission, they pull their brains out of their bodies and then become one with their ship. Then they can have a relatively normal civilian life while still getting most of the advantages of an inhuman body.

Another option is special genetic engineering for pilots. They're still humanoid, but have a number of enhancements and cybernetic uplinks that make them much more capable of handling acceleration and interfacing with the ship. This will make them more than a bit transhuman at other times too. So that option works best if you have a Star Ranger sort of scenario: they travel around, they do their missions, and SOMETIMES that ends in Space Combat.


Validated User
I can see a variety of models that you can 3D print as you need them. A lot of them are basically missiles with other missiles mounted on them, plus specialized widgets necessary for the current mission. They're all run by AI, with absolutely minimal interaction with humans.

I can see a model that's basically a floating mine being pretty popular. You have your combat hub print up shit tons of the things. Each one flies out to some strategically useful location, then just powers down and floats. The good ones have an albedo that matches their surroundings, put off almost no heat, and operate on radio silence. Their AIs are programmed with some set of triggers, from someone flying by without the right transponder codes to a general transmission from home base to just being told to destroy anything that comes through a certain corridor. When activated, they'd burst very suddenly to life, moving and turning with acceleration that'd smoosh meat pilots, then using their hacking capabilities, whatever weapons they've got on board, and eventually finishing with a suicide run into whatever vessel they need to destroy. Any wreckage can be used to hide additional drones.

Old One Eye

Registered User
Validated User
Weapons > defenses. If a starfighter can destroy a dreadnaught with one shot, then weapon platforms will tend to be smaller.

Miniaturization of sensory systems. With tactical distances beyond sight, superior sensors is a huge advantage. Starfighters will need comparable sensors to big ships.

To have them manned, AI will need to be worse than a human's judgment. And drones will need to be unfeasible whether due to jamming being easy or tactical distances between allied craft being so large the signal lag time becomes an issue.


Registered User
Validated User
The only role I can see for them is to provide immediate human decision making capability. They're not there to fire weapons, instead they accompany weapons (missiles) to the target area and then the pilot provides last minute directives to the ordnance. This could be useful given the vast distances involved - the missiles might take weeks or months to arrive, with the target able to see the incoming attack and react. In fact, the pilot would be able to adjust to changing factors the whole way in, constantly dealing with counter measures deployed by the target.


Brilliantly Crazed
Validated User
I'm still on a 'Human-AI Hybrid' kick for this. Enhance your humans so that they're better than the fighters again, and able to take the acceleration. So your fighters may basically be missile platforms with sensors and electronic warfare rather than X Wings but that's alright, plenty of cool fight potential with that.

So here's a thought. In Mass Effect, they mention that the Prothean fighter crews had a Samurai Sword relationship with their ships. Lets say that the pilot and ship develop an enhanced gestalt mind through a neural link as they train together. Each fighter will have it's individual quirks and tricks that are as much a result of the pilot as the fighter itself.

It lets you have it both ways. You can tell dragonrider type stories, but with a pilot and fighter instead. And, if the ship AI is incomplete without the pilot, it gets around the rather intense ethical issues that come from designing a mind only for war and killing.


Registered User
Validated User
Another source of inspiration you might want to look at is the Star Carrier series of novels by Ian Douglas. The larger starships in those have FTL to travel between star systems and if you're very careful and have a good idea of the layout of the star system you might be able to use it to do a micro jump within a system before combat, but once the enemy is engaged, everything is limited to relativistic drives using basically microscopic singularities to accelerate and steer. So you can jump to a combat zone by FTL, but combat speeds even with AI assist is limited to fractions of c, even if they're decently high fractions.


Registered User
Validated User
I'm partial to the way Transhuman Space handled "fighters", rather Autonomous Kill Vehicles (AKVs). AKVs can be loaded with a low sapient AI, teleoperated, or even have a ghost onboard (the setting is brain-uploadingly futuristic). They are essentially really smart cruise missiles. Depending on their power plant they can remain active for years just waiting to pick up an IFF signal or transponder from an "enemy" ship.

Even in less hard SF settings autonomous vehicles make way more sense than manned "fighters". Autonomous "fighters" can act as a screen for the mothership and cover an escape with kamikaze tactics if need be. No one has to explain to little serial numbers XM41256-a and XM41256-b why serial number XM41256 isn't coming home. Besides they can handle far higher g maneuvers than a human piloted ship. They can execute maneuvers that would turn a human pilot into paste.

In everything but the operaiest of space opera I tend to say the only viable space weapons are autonomous killbots with one-shot weapons like kinetic impactors or bomb-pumped lasers and then point defense weapons that are meant to disable those autonomous systems before they can get in range for an unavoidable firing solution. Most actual fighting would be autonomous systems trying to intercept other autonomous systems. The manned "capital" ships use electronic warfare systems, dazzling lasers, and sensor decoys to help their interceptors destroy incoming drones.
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