Last month, Small Wars Journal managing editor Robert Haddick asked whether new technology has rendered aircraft carriers obsolete. Well, not everyone thinks so, especially in science-fiction, where "flat tops" still rule in TV shows like Battlestar Galactica. So FP's Michael Peck spoke with Chris Weuve, a naval analyst, former U.S. Naval War College research professor, and an ardent science-fiction fan about how naval warfare is portrayed in the literature and television of outer-space.
Foreign Policy: How has sci-fi incorporated the themes of wet-navy warfare? How have warships at sea influenced the depiction of warships in space?
Chris Weuve: There are a lot of naval metaphors that have made their way into sci-fi. They are analogs, models of ways to think about naval combat. When people started writing about science-fiction combat, it was very easy to say that a spaceship is like a ship that floats on the water. So when people were looking for ways to think about, there was a tendency to use models they already understood. As navies have changed over time, that means there is a fair number of models that various science fiction authors can draw on. You have a model that resembles the Age of Sail, World War I or World War II surface action, or submarines, or fighters in space. Combine a couple of those, and you have aircraft carriers in space. I'm not one who gets hung up on the real physics because it is science fiction. But all of these models are based more upon historical analogs then analysis of the actual situation in space.
FP: Let's reverse the question. Has sci-fi affected the way that our navies conduct warfare?
CW: This is a question that I occasionally think about. Many people point to the development of the shipboard Combat Information Center in World War II as being inspired by E.E. Doc Smith's Lensman novels from the 1940s. Smith realized that with hundreds of ships over huge expanses, the mere act of coordinating them was problematic. I think there is a synergistic effect. I also know a number of naval officers who have admitted to me that the reason they joined the Navy was because Starfleet Command wasn't hiring.
FP: How do these different space warfare models differ from their oceanic counterparts?
CW: Science fiction authors and moviemakers tend to gravitate towards historical models they -- and their audience -- understand. So, sometimes you end up with "submarines in space" -- but a submarine is a vessel designed to hide under the water, which obscures your vision and forces you to use capricious sensors like sonar. Space, on the other hand, is wide open, and any ship putting out enough heat to keep its crew alive stands out from the background, if you have enough time to look. Other times we get "dreadnoughts in space," with gunnery duels like Jutland -- but again, hiding is hard, so this battle should take place at extreme range. Or you get "airplanes in space," which largely ignores that airplanes work in the real world because they take advantage of the fact that air and sea have different attributes.
All of these models are fun, and some work better than others, but they all present space combat in a way that doesn't really fit with the salient attributes of space. And lest I get a thousand emails from people who say I don't understand how combat in their favorite universe works -- yes, I do. My answers are necessarily approximations for this interview. Someday I should write a book.