Steven Den Beste has a nice artcle up that gives a brief introduction to historical navy tactics and promises to lead to a discussion of future space navy tactics. He writes:

There are a lot of battles in this series. Ship battles are sometimes one-on-one, sometimes between small groups, occasionally one-on-many, and sometimes between large groups of ships. It got me thinking about the entire idea of how fleet actions between space navies might actually be fought, or if such a thing actually even made sense.

I was always very dissatisfied with ST:TNG ship-to-ship battles. With the ship capabilities and weapons capabilities they had, all the emphasis on maneuver and on closing with the enemy made no sense at all. And if anything, the Star Wars battles were even worse. (So far as I can tell, no one in that galaxy a long time ago, far far away, ever invented the missile.)

As SDB notes with respect to modern navies, the prominence of carriers and aircraft have made most forms manuvering and tactics pointless. It doesn't really matter what formation your ships are in when you're fighting against an enemy fleet that's over the horizon and your primary weapons are cruise missiles and fighter-bombers. There are some tactics involved with submarine warfare, but subs don't operate in groups and basically just need to stay silent.

As for futuristic space combat, there haven't been any popular TV shows, movies, or video games that have given a realistic depiction of what such battles will be like. Weapon ranges will only increase, and space has very little "terrain" -- not even a horizon to hide behind. Further, absent the ability to bypass energy conservation laws, weapons will get more powerful relative to ship hull integrity, and nuclear weapons will probably be commonly used. (There will be no atmosphere to pollute, and opposing fleets will be far apart.)

Futuristic space combat will probably be quite boring. Whichever fleet sees the other first will unleash their full arsenal and then beat a hasty retreat. No ship will be able to dodge a missile, and no ship will survive an impact with a megaton nuke. Incoming missiles may be shot down, but that won't be easy to do since missiles will be unimpeded by atmosphere and able to travel at very high velocity. In fact, it seems likely that in most circumstances both fleets would be destroyed.

The optimal combat ship, then, would be packed with the absolute most number of nuclear warheads possible and have a minimal human crew (zero, probably). Arsenal ships would guard a fleet of non-combat ships armed with chaff and defensive guns (like the Phalanx), and when the fleet is engaged the non-combat ships will flee and the arsenal ships will be destroyed covering their retreat. Whichever side still has missiles left at the end will be the winner.

SDB has more on weapons, and assumes that no nuclear missiles will be used. He says the threat of escalation would prevent their use, but I'm not so sure, considering that the physical side effects would be much less than when nuclear weapons are used on earth.



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