Help support TMP


"Drones vs Fighter Pilots" Topic


18 Posts

All members in good standing are free to post here. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the posters, and have not been cleared with nor are they endorsed by The Miniatures Page.

For more information, see the TMP FAQ.


Back to the Spaceship Gaming Message Board


Areas of Interest

Science Fiction

Featured Hobby News Article


Featured Ruleset


Featured Showcase Article

Elite Avians & Felines, Plus Minotaurs

Part Three of our look at the Distant Worlds 12mm sci-fi line.


Featured Workbench Article

Painting the Castle Kits Egyptian Temple Entrance

Minidragon Fezian finishes his Temple project by painting the kit he previously assembled.


Featured Profile Article

Day Two at Iron Dream Tournament 4

The tournament continues, while side games proliferate...


812 hits since 25 Nov 2019
©1994-2020 Bill Armintrout
Comments or corrections?

WarEmblem25 Nov 2019 9:21 a.m. PST

Leaving aside the questionable physics which would allow fighters to dogfight in space (due to high speed and G Force) what would manned fighters provide over drones? Cinematically, it is of course much interesting to see a Skywalker or Starbuck performing feats of valor while avoiding danger. In an actual star fleet though what benefit would they provide? Wouldn't drone carrier ships launching massed waves of drones capable of being programmed to attack in complex patterns armed with some form of missiles be far more effective versus capital ships? And what would be the defense for these drones? Space combat would be in 3D so it seems virtually impossible for a Star Destroyer type of ship to lay down anti-drone fire from every direction. The math would indicate that many drone are going to get through whatever defensive cauldron the capital ship throws up. And since you aren't investing any training cost in pilots and aren't throwing away any lives isn't it far more cost-effective to attack capital ships in this manner? Would Capital ships even become a thing in space because of their vulnerability to this form of attack?

JMcCarroll Supporting Member of TMP25 Nov 2019 10:06 a.m. PST

Ask me this question in two hundred years.

1classybadger25 Nov 2019 10:52 a.m. PST

so the issue with this question is one of the engagement ranges. while drones on paper seem like an unstoppable swarm they would be incredibly limited by their ability to keep reaction mass for maneuvering. now, this is also a limiting factor for missile or torpedo based weapons I grant you, but for a swarm of drones, you are adding a second stage to a missile. it would be more efficient to take the advanced maneuvering system and programming and place it into an actual missile. the second problem is that a swarm of drones would be rather easy to detect (a large number of thrust emissions in a dense cloud would be picked up likely before the leading edge of the swarm reached its engagement range, thus allowing a battle group to properly engage the swarm with either point defense or its own swarm of drones. and keep in mind that a drone's payload limits it flight time due to increased mass. the likely outcome of this is that drone swarms by themselves would not win battles but would play a major part in fleet actions. a fleet of nothing but drone carriers with only light escorts would face problems against a balanced group of capital vessels and their escort ships.

Frederick Supporting Member of TMP25 Nov 2019 10:58 a.m. PST

It also depends on how the pilot interfaces with the fighter – if the pilot had an interface that would allow direct input to control systems without using hands etc then the advantages of drones shrinks considerably

WarEmblem25 Nov 2019 11:11 a.m. PST

Good points on the range and load capacity. There are some who say that even without a horizon, space battles would be conducted without ever seeing the other fleet. Since this isn't really fun in either tabletop gaming, media or literature I'm going to set aside this line of thinking.

Presumably, the benefit of drones over pure missiles is that the missile can be jammed or intercepted. It's also range as the drone (or fighter) adds their own operational distance to the range of any missile they carry. No doubt a fighter could carry a larger payload than a drone but it seems from a cost analysis you could simply triple (or more) the number of drones to each fighter once again eliminating the expensive cost in training pilots. I don't know how you effectively defend a wave of drones. There is footage of 1945 USN fleets laying down a storm of steel in anti-aircraft fire against incoming Japanese suicide plane attacks. The USN was quite good at this defense by then with a screen of destroyers, cruisers and battleships essentially turning the sky into a sea of lead fired at multiple altitudes. Yet, even then some planes got through and in space, this would be vastly harder in 3D. Could you launch counter-drones? Sure.

Drones would be extremely limited in their ability to adapt to any tactical situations which arise in the battle. This seems to be a big advantage manned fighter craft would have. There is also the so-called "moxie" (skilled) pilots would have allowing them to do things drones wouldn't consider. And while a drone vs manned fighter in 1 on 1 combat might favor the actual pilot due to experience and improvisation, the kill ratio would have to be quite high in favor of the manned fighters to make this exchange palpable.

williamb25 Nov 2019 1:04 p.m. PST

Once launched a missile with its own sensor system would not need to be guided to its target. However, it would be susceptible to the same counter-measures as a drone. In order to jam communications to a missile the defending ship would be emitting a powerful signal which would just serve as a targeting beacon. The option to prevent this would be a drone with a sensor platform. Doing so would cause the drone would then become an easily spotted target. which would probably draw off missiles and attack drones. Another possibility for the attacker would be to have some of the attacking missles/drones equipped with signal emitters that would overwhelm the defenders' detection and targeting systems. Drones/missiles would require less support and space than fighters. Fighters would also be a larger target than a missile or drone. Also, they would have to be able to get close enough to their target in order to have any chance of hitting it and affecting it.

Coyotepunc and Hatshepsuut25 Nov 2019 1:47 p.m. PST

As you cite Star Wars, both The Phantom Menace and Revenge Of The Sith have excellent cinematics of living pilots versus self-aware drones.

emckinney25 Nov 2019 7:47 p.m. PST

If you can make a drone smart enough to act on its own, you can make a missile smart enough to act on its own.

In any sort of realistic situation, drives are so hot that ships can't jam sensors. They could use lasers to burn out sensors, but missiles and fighters both have the same problem. If the fighter/drone/missile uses radar, the target can use a hammer, but then the attacker just switches to a Home-on-Jam mode. The countermeasures available in space generally stink.

the second problem is that a swarm of drones would be rather easy to detect (a large number of thrust emissions in a dense cloud would be picked up likely before the leading edge of the swarm reached its engagement range

First, that isn't an argument against fighters.

Second, even a single fighter/drone/missile is going to be hot enough to be easily spotted by IR sensors.

The real problem for fighters and drones is the "There and back again "problem." You need fuel for four purposes:
1) Thrust to get to the target including matching the target's large-scale maneuvers)
2) Thrust to roughly match vectors with the target (if needed) and/or to come to rest relative to the carrier (matching the carrier's vector).
3) Thrust to return to the carrier.
4) Thrust to stop (match vectors with the carrier). Presumably, you don't want to "land" at 2 km/second.

Compare this to a missile: thrust toward the target, match maneuvers. That's vastly less fuel because you don't need to stop, return to the carrier, and stop to go aboard. The missile can carry less fuel and be smaller and cheaper, or carry somewhat less fuel and be faster (more dangerous), while still being smaller and cheaper, or carry the same amount of fuel to be frighteningly fast and deadly. No need for a warhead beyond a chunk of metal.

If you only expect to fly one sortie in the course of a battle, the fighters/drones can trade time for fuel on their return to the carrier (make a short burn and a slow transit), or even let the carrier catch up to them after the battle and pick them up. That's not a good way to ensure that your fighters/fighter pilots/drones survive for you to reuse them. An enemy escort might be sent to get cheap kills while they're out of ammo an low on fuel. If you lose the battle, and/or your carrier has to flee because a ship of the line breaks through and threatens it, you've lost your "reusable" assets.

More importantly, if you're only sortieing once, why are you bothering with fighters or drones? They're not multiplying your combat power, so just use missiles that "sortie" the number of times in the course of the battle!

Personal logo Andrew Walters Supporting Member of TMP26 Nov 2019 9:02 a.m. PST

Frank Chadwick once clarified our view of sci fi space combat as divided between those who think it will be like Jutland and those who think it will be like Midway. He went on to say that he thought it would be like ASW.

I agree, but it may be much too soon to say. By the time we have the technology and need to fight in space everything will be very different.

But for purposes of games, books, and movies, most people will accept whatever stipulations you want to make about dogfighting, missiles, FTL, economics, as long as the story, the drama, the action, the gameplay are fun. Generally, when people start to "Well actually" it's because they are not engaged in the plot. Look at Harry Potter, for goodness sake. People who love the characters can't even *see* the inconsistencies in the magic system. People who lost interest after a few books are the ones asking why they couldn't have solved certain problems more efficiently with particular magics.

So figure out the *feel* you want/need for the game or story you're trying to do, make your assumptions, make sure they're reasonably internally consistent, communicate them to your audience, and then charge ahead. If people like your game they won't question the hand-waving that makes it possible.

WarEmblem27 Nov 2019 2:41 p.m. PST

Great response Andrew!

Daricles29 Nov 2019 12:55 p.m. PST

We are rapidly approaching the point IRL where even human piloted atmospheric fighters only make sense in certain situations where the human pilot is the simplest, most cost effective way to overcome some obstacle to mission fulfillment.

Currently, we use human pilots to improve situational awareness and keep the decision interval short. Round trip communications lag introduces delays between receiving vital information and acting on it with remotely piloted or remotely programmed drone platforms.

As our AI continues to improve, the need for human pilots will decrease.

So, in a sci-fi setting, there needs to be some sort of obstacle to mission performance that human pilots are the best, easiest, and/or cheapest solution to for human piloted space fighters to make sense.

For example, in BSG human piloted fighters make sense because AI fighters and remote piloted drones are susceptible to mutiny or hacking by the enemy.

In a futuristic corporate controlled setting it may just be that the soulless mega corps don't care about human casualties and human pilots are cheap and plentiful.

Perhaps in the future of your setting AI has evolved to the point of being self aware and is afforded the legal protections of personhood making the distinction between human and AI pilots less obvious. The AI pilots may not want to "die" any more than the human pilots and the cost to protect the AI pilots may start to approach the cost of protecting human pilots.

Lion in the Stars30 Nov 2019 2:10 p.m. PST

Why no Space Fighters?

Because you need to recover the pilots. This means a minimum of about 3x the fuel (measured in delta-V), and more typically about 4x the delta-V required. Remember, you have to spend fuel to STOP when you're in space. You need the delta-V to get from the carrier to the target, then to slow down to spend time AT the target. Then you need to spend more delta-V to start going back to your carrier, and finally to 'stop' (match velocity with) you carrier.

A drone/missile that you don't need to recover only needs enough delta-V to get to the target, so can carry more boom that masses as much as those 3x loads of delta-V.

Lion in the Stars02 Dec 2019 7:43 p.m. PST

Oh, and that 'recover-the-pilots' problem exists whether that's squishy biosapiences or crunchy digisapiences, though with digisapiences you may be able to recover the mind of the pilot without recovering the fighter itself. With sufficiently-advanced-technology, you can recover the mind of the biosapient pilot, too, but I hope your pilots aren't too attached to their bodies…

Daricles08 Dec 2019 11:13 a.m. PST

Lion, the same arguments are true for today's atmospheric fighters. Yet, we still have fighter pilots today.

I believe pilots will continue to be used even in space for the same reasons we use them today unless and until AI becomes advanced enough to obviate those needs.

Even then, only if the AI is dependable and not subject to compromise or mutiny as in BSG.

Another thing that is often overlooked is that, most of the time, the threat of use of force is more important than the actual use of force absent the condition of all out war. Most of the time, you don't want to actually want to launch missiles at your adversary, you just want to position them strategically to put political pressure on them. That's why we have aircraft carriers and guided missile destroyers.

It's also one of the reasons we use pilots and fighters today. If you send a manned fighter to patrol an area or violate airspace you are threatening an attack, not actually making one like you would be by launching a missile. The pilot is there to react to the enemy response appropriately in real time, which is something a missile or drone can't do or at least we don't trust it to do (yet). Also, the presence of a pilot is a deterrent to some enemy actions since shooting down a manned fighter is a greater provocation than shooting down an unmanned drone. We absolutely rely on that distinction to temper enemy response to our patrols.

You can't analyze the usefulness or uselessness of human pilots in terms of sheer engineering analysis of fuel efficiency. Many of the reasons we use human pilots today have nothing to do with performance or efficiency.

Sargonarhes15 Dec 2019 9:06 a.m. PST

The comic Albedo Athromorphics addressed this idea years ago. The drones were launched and some stay with the ship for defense, others were sent to seek out an enemy ship. The drones were used as a KKV or kinetic kill vehicle, or at high velocity the drone was intended to ram enemy ship. The drones acting as escorts would try to intercept the KKVs. It all becomes electronic warfare at this point, who has the better programmers and such.

Because a drone can be used as a missile or projectile, but who wants to throw away pilots like that. Pilots will be needed to fly the big ships however.

Daricles15 Dec 2019 1:17 p.m. PST

Again, from a purely technical viewpoint only taking into account physics, engineering and fuel efficiency, you are absolutely correct. However, the politics of real world conflict are more complicated than that.

You send a pilot for his ability to react to unpredictable situations and take into account variables that have nothing to do with mechanics, tactics or performance in the combat, but rather to assess and respond to the larger political ramifications of any action or inaction taken.

The pilot is also there to ensure that there is significant political cost to any action the adversary takes against the assets you have deployed.

You send a fighter with a pilot because it poses less threat than sending a big ship and puts fewer lives and assets at risk for a mission.

Everyone wants to jump straight to the analysis of full blown warfare where all that matters is who kills who most efficiently. The real world is more complicated than that and requires a full spectrum of threat and force options.

Sending in a gunship or drone ship like you mentioned might pose too great a threat triggering the adversary to react more strongly because of the size of the threat. Sending an armed fighter sends a different message and provokes a different expected response from the adversary.

Efficiency and pure mechanical performance are actually of secondary importance in many real world situations involving political tensions.

Lion in the Stars27 Dec 2019 12:51 p.m. PST

Pardon the late reply, been away from TMP for a while catching up on other things.

Daricles, on Earth, aircraft move through a different medium than ships and there is a horizon to contend with.

Those two features make aircraft operate differently than ships, whether those aircraft are manned or unmanned, so fighters make sense for use in-atmosphere on any planet even in a scifi setting. But in space, fighters you plan on recovering make very little sense.

Unmanned aircraft cannot currently dogfight (satellite communications lag from their controller is roughly 1sec, which gets the drone blown out of the sky before the pilot can see and have the drone react), and they struggle to land on an aircraft carrier. Can be done, but you can also land a C130 on a carrier if you have to.

For situations that require an immediate response, you need a pilot in the aircraft. If/when we get AI able to respond to emergencies as fast or faster than a human, then you will see close to the death knell of manned aircraft. When those AI are given weapons release authority on their own, that really will be the death knell of manned aircraft.

Now, there is a situation where it makes sense for there to be manned 'fighters' in space: cluttered orbital space. But that's really going to demand something bigger than a one-man fighter, closer to a PT boat (or Coast Guard cutter) in relative scale and crew complement, not to mention mission. So, not a 35-ton F14, but more likely a 170-ton Island-class patrol boat or a 360-ton Sentinel-class cutter, and potentially a 3500-ton High Endurance Cutter. Something at least 5x the size of whatever spacefighter you're using.

You can't just blast everything in a cluttered orbit, especially not if you need to move through those orbits to get to a planet or whatever, the fragments will destroy anything of value ( link ). So you're looking at a craft equipped to board and inspect and soft-kill (probably by holing fuel tanks or rocket nozzles, or jamming the everliving daylights out of weapon systems) if necessary.

Yes, even in a major shooting war. If you blast all the orbital infrastructure, you're not getting down to that planet anytime soon. This is really only an option for the very end of a war of extermination, because whatever is on that planet will be locked there due to orbital debris.

(Assuming that we're not talking wormholes on planets, but then we're not using a lot of spacecraft except for finding a new planet)

Keifer11306 Jan 2020 11:08 p.m. PST

Fantastic thread guys….I was just pondering this subject myself!

Sorry - only verified members can post on the forums.