Starship Combat Tactics
The goal of this document is to compare and contrast the naval tactics of Earth's seafaring navies, the Federation's Starfleet, and the Imperial star fleet. Before we begin, I would like to point out that this is not intended to be a comprehensive discussion of real-life naval tactics, so I do gloss over some details. I'm trying to show general trends as they might apply to fictional space battles rather than producing a full-blown essay on the history of naval warfare.
Tactics of Seafaring Navies
The history of warfare at sea has been characterized by the ever-increasing range and lethality of weapons technology. A brief summary of naval tactics throughout Earth's history follows:
The era of the ancient galley stretches back thousands of years to the earliest days of naval warfare, and it continued right up to the 16th century. Large battles typically involved hundreds of ships. The ships themselves were slow, flimsy and barely seaworthy, being propelled largely by oarsmen. This poor mobility meant that historical descriptions of galley battles were typically couched in the language of land warfare, with terms such as "flanking" and "encirclement" being common. The most destructive weapon was the ram. Incendiaries were sometimes used, but with spotty effectiveness and some risk of backfiring on their users. Battles were therefore fought at extreme close range, and ships approached each other head-on. There was no distinction between warships and troop transports, so each ship carried large groups of soldiers. Therefore, the use of boarders became common. The Romans developed specialized grappling hooks to secure enemy vessels, and boarding planks to facilitate rapid insertion of legionnaires who would fight their way on board. Near the end of the galley era, cannons and harquebuses came into common use, but the flimsy galleys couldn't mount cannons big enough to dominate battle. Even at the end of the galley era, battles were still dominated by boarding tactics.
Around the time of the 17th century, naval warfare entered the age of the so-called "ship of the line", or "fighting sail". Large battles of this era involved ships which were relatively few in number (dozens instead of hundreds), but large in size. These ships dispensed with oarsmen and shifted to a much larger, stronger hull with huge sails. This improved their ocean survivability, giving them far longer ranges than the flimsy galleys. The primary anti-ship weapon changed from ram and boarder to guns, with rows of heavy cannons firing out of gunports on the side of the ship. As a result, ships no longer approached one another head-on, but rather, they formed up into thin battle lines, which could be many miles in length. Ships began to differentiate into various specialized classes, dedicated to specific classes such as transports, fast couriers, and of course, the aptly-named Man 'O War. The importance of superior firepower was quickly discovered, as ship builders began to build two, three, and four-deck ships (meaning that they had many stacked gun decks). Naval officers eventually realized that importance of disrupting the enemy's battle line, and so they developed signalling protocols in order to create a command and control system that would allow greater flexibility than the "follow the leader" system currently in use. This C&C system allowed fleet admirals such as Horatio Nelson to break out of rigid "battle line" tactical dogma, permitting such famous victories as the Battles of Trafalgar and the Nile, both of which involved the co-ordinated action of two sub-groups instead of a single battle line.
In the 19th century, naval warfare entered the age of the iron-hulled steam-driven battleship. Large battles of this era involved even fewer ships than battles involving ships of the line: a handful of battleships with a destroyer screen was now regarded as a fleet. These ships had the range of sailing ships without their dependence on the wind, and they mounted both superior armour and firepower. Two important new technologies appeared: fire control and torpedoes. Fire control meant that they could aim without a line of sight by using ballistic trajectory calculations, and it greatly increased their effective weapon range. This range virtually eliminated the importance of fleet formations, since the distances between ship in an enemy fleet were now so small (relative to weapon range) that you could direct and concentrate your firepower toward any arbitrary point in the enemy fleet. It was for this reason that fleets in the battleship era cruised in formation but immediately broke up into columns when an enemy was sighted. Torpedoes struck the heavily armoured battleships below the waterline and could sink them, so protective destroyer screens appeared. Visibility and adequate scouting gained even more importance, and both were eventually aided by the invention of radar. The so-called "N-square law" meant that the fleet with an initial advantage would enjoy an increasing advantage as the battle wore on, due to the effect of attrition. Tactics of maneuver shrank in importance; despite the theoretical effectiveness of "crossing the T", it almost never happened and proved to be largely irrelevant. Tactics of this era were dominated by the big gun, and since the tactics of maneuver were no longer important, battles of this era were characterized by ruthlessly simple mathematics regardless of whether they took place at long range or short range: the fleet with superior numbers and firepower would generally be assured of victory, particularly if they could strike first.
On December 7, 1941, the battleship's reign as king of the sea came to an end, though some naval officers were slow to realize it. Hundreds of Japanese carrier planes attacked a fleet of American battleships at Pearl Harbour and decimated it, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of naval air power and ushering in the age of the aircraft carrier. I suppose I should concede that it's possible to assign other dates to the birth of the carrier age, such as the pivotal Battle of the Coral Sea, which was the first open sea battle in which the two fleets engaged exclusively through the use of carrier planes. But Pearl Harbour is such a legendary event in naval history (having become one of the few names that can also be used as a verb, eg. "he got him to lower his guard and then he Pearl Harboured him!") that I felt it was the best choice as the "official" start of the carrier age. By virtue of its infamy, it was the moment at which opposition to the carrier evangelism of men like Admiral Chester Nimitz finally vanished.
As before, this sea change (pardon the pun) was precipitated by increases in range (specifically, the range of naval aircraft compared to the range of battleship guns). Aircraft had existed for decades, but it wasn't until WW2 that they were capable of doing serious damage to a battleship. Battles of this era were characterized by extreme long range. Scouting was of absolutely paramount importance, and often made the difference between victory and defeat. Ranges had now increased to the point that fleets often did battle without ever seeing one another. Carrier planes were capable of attacking naval and land targets with equal aplomb, and apart from supporting amphibious troop landings, fleets no longer had any purpose other than the ferrying of aircraft to within striking range. Numbers of ships continued to shrink; a late 20th century aircraft carrier task force might consist of a single huge "supercarrier" surrounded by escort vessels and supply ships.
One development threatened the aircraft carrier's reign over the seas, and that development was the guided missile. The first guided missiles were the notorious Japanese kamikaze aircraft of World War 2. Their "guidance system" consisted of poorly trained "volunteer" pilots who manually flew their planes into their targets, and their effectiveness was largely predicated upon the difficulty of targeting incoming aircraft (not to mention the flimsy flight decks of American aircraft carriers). As guided missiles continued to evolve, they became automated weapons of extreme long range destruction, eventually transforming the tactical landscape. This required corresponding improvements in scouting techniques and C&C systems in order to improve targeting accuracy and ensure first strikes. The importance of scouting and C&C in an era of very long ranges cannot be overstated: during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, Israeli ships decisively defeated Syrian ships armed with longer-ranged missiles, thanks to superior scouting and C&C. The guided missile stood poised to reverse the long-standing trend of ever larger naval vessels, because it could be mounted on small ships and its potential lethality called the wisdom of the supercarrier into question (there was a lively debate between proponents of distributed naval force and concentrated naval force, ie- lots of little ships vs a few big ships).
And finally, it should be noted that despite the enduring importance of the submarine during the battleship, aircraft carrier and guided missile eras, there has never been what anyone would describe as a submarine era. That is because submarines by their nature are incapable of taking control of the ocean; they can attack shipping lanes but they can't defend them. They can't protect supply convoys or project national power by delivering troops; they can only act as raiders or instruments of mass destruction (eg. nuclear missile submarines), thus making them weapons of either sea-lane denial or nuclear terrorism, rather than instruments of legitimate naval control.
Federation Naval Tactics
Federation naval tactics are largely a hybrid between the tactics of ancient Rome and those of Horatio Nelson. Consider the following:
Roman-style boarding tactics are still used. Tractor beams and transporters are clearly analogous to Roman grappling hooks and boarding planks, and it isn't uncommon to use boarders in an attempt to overwhelm a target in the heat of combat. For example, in "Way of the Warrior", we saw Klingon warriors board DS9 and attempt to seize control of the station while it was still exchanging fire with the Klingon fleet. The Klingon warriors even fought using bladed weapons, just as their Roman legionnaire precedessors did. Contrast this with the era of Horatio Nelson and subsequent periods, in which the range and lethality of weaponry became such that it was virtually impossible to approach and board a ship without having to completely disable it beforehand.
Ramming is still the most powerful weapon available, albeit a weapon of last resort. In "Tears of the Prophets" (described on the Battles page as the Battle of Chin'toka), hopelessly outmatched Jem'Hadar attack ships (ships roughly 70-80% larger than the Falcon) eschewed energy weapons and torpedoes in favour of ramming attacks, which proved to be devastatingly effective against Martok's ships. Contrast this with the era of Horatio Nelson and subsequent periods, in which the range, accuracy and lethality of weaponry became such that the approach necessary for a ramming attack would be suicidal.
Missiles have not dominated the tactical landscape, in spite of their theoretically extreme range. Although they seem to be capable of accurately hitting targets from many thousands or even tens of thousands of kilometres away, fleets do not engage one another with long-range missile exchanges. Instead, they generally approach to gunnery range and then open fire with both energy weapons and missiles at the same time.
Battle lines are still in use, albeit modified for a 3-dimensional battlefield. In the fleet engagements of "Sacrifice of Angels" and "What You Leave Behind" (described on the Battles page as the Third Battle of Bajor and the Battle of Cardassia Prime, respectively), fleets formed up into a "wall o' ships" and faced off against one another at close visual range. Land engagement terminology such as "flank", "line", and "breakthrough" could be heard repeatedly from the command staff. The disruption of the enemy formation is a tactical imperative, as described by Captain Sisko in "Sacrifice of Angels". Contrast this with the battleship and aircraft carrier eras, in which the range, accuracy and lethality of weaponry became such that fleet formations lost their importance. Also contrast this with air combat, in which formations actually squander the advantage of maneuverability and are thus only used for slow, ungainly aircraft such as bombers.
Fleet firepower concentration is beyond their capabilities, as seen in "Sacrifice of Angels" and "What You Leave Behind." In those battles, tactics of attrition and the ruthless mathematics of the N-square law didn't apply because battle lines couldn't concentrate their firepower on individual ships. Each ship simply fired at the nearest ship in the opposing wall. Departure from the relative safety of the battle line was suicidal for a capital ship (as seen in "Sacrifice of Angels") because a ship would now be close enough to the enemy formation that multiple ships could concentrate their firepower on it. Only small ships such as fighters and Defiant-class ships could survive departure from the battle line, since the enemy ships could not accurately target them. Another example of their inability to concentrate firepower at long range was seen in "Tears of the Prophets", in which only the handful of ships closest to the "power generator moon" were able to fire on it.
The only examples of fleet firepower concentration occurred where encirclement (a ground combat term) was possible. For example, Klingon and Dominion fleets in "Way of the Warrior" and "A Call to Arms" fired on DS9 only after approaching to ~10km and encircling it.
Some would counter these statements by referring to technobabble theory, but when theory and reality fail to intersect, theory is wrong. Non-canon speculation about very long effective ranges (either for phasers or torpedoes) sound nice, but it fails to explain why the tactics of Federation starship combat invariably follow the tactics of short-ranged weapons. If these unsubstantiated claims about very long effective ranges were true, then one would be left with no alternative but to conclude that the naval officers of all the major Star Trek navies are either suicidal or certifiably insane for refusing to take advantage of those ranges.
Imperial Naval Tactics
Imperial naval tactics are largely based on the battleship era, with some hint of tactics from the early aircraft carrier era. Consider the following:
Boarding is not a useful combat tactic, and only occurs after the target vessel has already been disabled (as seen in ANH), or has already surrendered.
Ramming is not a useful combat tactic, and is never used or even attempted in any of the canon films. Three ISD's accidentally rammed the Executor while decelerating from hyperspace (ref: SWE), but they merely exploded against its shields. Official literature describes "robot ramships", but these weapons (essentially huge guided missiles) are designed for deceit and piracy rather than wholesale warfare, and were used once in battle, against a light cruiser.
Battle lines are not used. Fleets travel in formation which break up when combat is joined, as seen in ROTJ. The Rebel and Imperial fleets began exchanging long-range fire without any regard for formation, although Emperor Palpatine's decisions ultimately led to an Imperial defeat despite what was probably superior firepower. Piett's ships engaged long-range fire with the Rebel fleet as described in the ROTJ novelization, but they apparently targeted smaller ships before larger ships for the purpose of prolonging Palpatine's dramatic demonstration. Even Jerjerrod chose his targets in the same manner, aiming the first superlaser blast at the Liberty rather than the far more massive and heavily armed Rebel flagship Home One. On the other hand, Ackbar wisely concentrated his fleet's firepower on the Imperial flagship Executor first..
Tactics of maneuver are non-existent. Capital ships simply exchange fire with enemy capital ships, without regard for formations or "flanking", "encirclement", or "breakthrough" maneuvers.
Torpedoes are not used in capital ship combat. Despite apocryphal descriptions to the contrary, there are no canon sightings or descriptions of any capship missiles. Capital ship combat seems to be conducted exclusively with turbolasers, which isn't surprising given the lack of damage caused by proton torpedoes in ANH (Red Leader's torpedoes barely scratched the DS exhaust port surface structure) and TPM (Naboo torpedoes were ineffective against the TradeFed battleship).
Fighters exist but they are incapable of carrying the fight to the enemy unaided, so a fighter attack can only complement the big guns, rather than replacing them. This was seen most strikingly in the beginning stages of the Battle of Endor, when hordes of Imperial fighters and bombers attacked without support and swarmed over the Rebel fleet, but were unable to destroy or seriously damage a single warship. It was seen again in TPM, when the Naboo fighter squadron fought a hopeless battle to destroy a TradeFed battleship (a battle that Qui-Gon obviously expected them to lose) despite having the element of surprise (the battleship didn't launch its own fighters until the attackers were already within naked-eye visual range).
Combat can occur at very long visual ranges (made longer by the sheer size of Imperial warships, which makes them easier to see at a distance), as seen in TESB when the Rebel ground defenses engaged Imperial ships in orbit. It was seen again in ROTJ when Rebel and Imperial warships exchanged fire at long visual range and then closed to less than 10 km ("point-blank range") as the battle intensified.
Again, some might counter these arguments with technobabble theory, but again, what you see is what you get. They have fighters, but they can't use them the way terrestrial navies used them. They have torpedoes, but as anyone can see from ROTJ and TPM, they're obviously not ship-killers the way they were for submarines. They have guided missiles, but those missiles didn't turn space combat into long-range affairs of duelling missile platforms, the way they did for terrestrial navies and aircraft. It's not enough to affix a label to a particular weapon and assume it's precisely analogous to terrestrial equivalents; you must look at the way it's used, before you can begin to guess what it can do.
The use of battle lines, ramming tactics, and balanced short-range gun/missile attacks in Star Trek leads us to the following conclusions:
Anti-ship weaponry in Star Trek is not combat-effective at ranges exceeding ~10km, because battle lines form up at those ranges and cannot employ fleet firepower concentration without encirclement (also at that range). Torpedoes and phasers can physically travel farther than that, but targeting difficulties can limit effective range even when theoretical range is very large.
Hulls, shields and structural forcefields are insufficient to nullify the effectiveness of ramming, because ramming attacks were so effective against undamaged, fully shielded Klingon warships in "Tears of the Prophets" (even when undertaken by miniscule 70m long ships). This suggests large disparities between Star Trek ships' ability to handle kinetic energy and electromagnetic energy.
Combat maneuverability of capital ships is high enough to permit Nelson-style tactics of maneuver (hence the flanking maneuvers attempted by Jem'Hadar ships), but not high enough to permit fighter plane tactics (hence their use of combat formations).
Based on the parallel use of phasers and photon torpedoes, the effective range of missiles seems to be far lower than their theoretical range. A likely explanation is that their limited AI and ECM (in addition to poor maneuverability) makes them easy to shoot down at long range, where the defenders have a lot of time to see them coming.
The use of concentrated gunnery tactics in conjunction with fighter harassment in Star Wars leads us to the following conclusions:
Anti-ship weaponry in Star Wars is combat-effective at ranges of at least several hundred kilometres based on the unimportance of battle formations, even at long visual ranges such as those seen in ROTJ. This was demonstrated when the Rebel ion cannon engaged ISD's in the Battle of Hoth, and again when the DS2 superlaser engaged Rebel cruisers in the Battle of Endor.
Weapons based on turbolaser technology dominate the battlefield in Star Wars, with scalability ranging as low as a hand blaster and as high as the awesome planet-destroying Death Star superlaser. Torpedoes are relatively unimportant, and seem to serve only as starfighter weapons.
Starfighters, by virtue of their weak armament, cannot successfully attack capital ships without capship support. There is some apocryphal literature to support the opposite notion, but it originates entirely from the notoriously propagandistic New Republic descriptions of the exaggerated exploits of Wedge Antilles and his X-wing squadron. Canon support for this notion is nonexistent, and in the Battle of ROTJ, the fighters were used merely to "finish off" ships which have already been disabled by turbolaser cannonade, such as the Imperial communications ship and the Executor (also see the novelization, in which we heard Ackbar informing his bridge crew that "if we can knock out their shields, our fighters might stand a chance against them"- a far cry from the apocryphal nonsense of fighter squadrons pummeling the shields of warships).