On the Taxonomy of Spaceships

Yup, spaceships again.  Between Star Citizen, the new Halo, the new Star Wars, a couple of key mods for Sins of a Solar Empire that I keep up with and have done some voice work on, and Destiny, my mind has been buzzing with them.  I’m a huge nerd who thinks of things in my free time like “if I were a shinigami what kind of Zanpakutō would I have?” and “I wonder if I’d rather be a ranger or a mage” and “if I were a Jedi in the New Jedi Order, what kind of ship would I have?”  And alongside that sort of inane theorycrafting and imagination comes obvious questions, like “would I want to captain a cruiser or a carrier?”  But then, what exactly is the difference?

It would be a stolen and recommissioned Imperial II-class Star Destroyer named Sanguine, by the way. In case you were actually wondering (I bet you weren’t).

There are lots of different ship classes in science fiction, and I’m not talking about the designated name for a particular frame (like Victory-class or Firefly-class).  I’m talking about classification of ship roles.  You have your cruisers, your destroyers, your frigates and corvettes, your dreadnoughts, and all sorts of other roles.  But something that always confused me is exactly what the differences are between them.  If you had shown me two ships and claimed one was a destroyer and one was a cruiser I wouldn’t have really understood what that actually means and what roles they employ in a battle.  How is a battleship different from a battlecruiser?  Is there any difference between a star cruiser and an assault cruiser, and if so what is it?

So like any good geek I did research and actually enjoyed doing it!  And the knowledge I’ve gained I want to spread for anyone who is interested, whether that be due to simple curiosity or you’re developing a story or RPG setting.  Because knowledge is power.

Before we get to the meat of the topic let’s look at a bit of history.  When science fiction writers were exploring space they drew a natural comparison between space travel and the maritime Age of Sail; both feature long voyages on large vessels through “alien” terrain that human beings can’t freely traverse.  As such, naval terminology entered the lexicon very quickly, and as a result spaceships are classified by similar naval systems.  That’s also likely the reason why the branch of the military that deals with spaceships in fiction is very commonly called the Navy.

Naval warfare, particularly way-back-when in the 17th Century or so, was rather stringent and refined.  The British in particular had very strict guidelines on ship classification, roles, and tactics.  As time went on the definitions for particular warships and roles blurred until we hit modern day navies.  Back in the day, like 17th Century back, a common tactic was the naval “Line-of-Battle,” introduced by the Portuguese in the 15th Century.  The idea is that your fleet would very literally line up in a single-file row and turn their broadsides toward the enemy.  This gave all ships within the line free sight to fire on the enemy fleet without fear of hitting an ally.  Battles could play out with enemy fleets sailing parallel to each other and firing into one another, though the ideal situation had your line slicing perpendicularly through the enemy’s line at some point.  Ships that could survive standing within the line were thus referred to as “ships of the line (of battle)” or “line-of-battle ships.”  Other ships existed that were not ships of the line, and they usually had other tactics to employ and jobs to fulfill.  (This is important information for later; I promise.)

“Everyone keep firing to the left!”

Let me touch a bit on capital ships and flagships.  William S. Lind explains the concept of a capital ship extremely well; “These characteristics define a capital ship: if the capital ships are beaten, the navy is beaten. But if the rest of the navy is beaten, the capital ships can still operate.  Another characteristic that defines capital ships is that their main opponent is each other.”  In short, a capital ship is a ship that doesn’t need the rest of the fleet to function, and can operate independently of a fleet while being the main target of other capital ships (not that they are impervious to the fire of other ships, but that generally capital ships will seek each other out for direct confrontation).  Note that this definition refers strictly to independence in a large-scale engagement.  Plenty of other vessels can operate independently in other scenarios, such as patrol, but in a large-scale battle they would not be able to combat the enemy fleet if the capital ships fell.  Capital ships are generally some of the largest and most heavily armored ships in a fleet.  However, they should not be confused with flagships.  A fleet can have multiple capital ships within it; the term simply describes the capabilities of a particular vessel.  But an individual fleet will only ever have one flagship at a time, the “lead” ship, which the admiral/general/fleet commander resides on and operates from.  Flagships are often capital ships (as they generally want to be the biggest, most powerful ship in the fleet), but by definition whichever ship has the fleet commander on board will fly the flag and thus be considered the flagship.  Usually, this is a specifically designated vessel but the title can jump around as needed between ships.

So, from here on out I’ll be explaining the various classes of ships, their histories, and how I would personally define what the role a spaceship of that kind would take.  I’ll also provide specific examples of each ship type as I go.  A word of warning, though; even in the real world rules are and were constantly being broken.  Ships technically designed as one type of vessel may perform the operations of another type equally well, or some countries may have different rules from each other and thus classify two vessels of almost identical capability differently.  Not only that, but as technology improves the various classes can become so alike that it can be very difficult to draw a line.  A further problem (which comes up very often in sci-fi) is technological superiority; that is, a ship classification in one species’ navy may not be equal to the ships of the same classification in another species’ navy.  For example, one navy’s corvette may be large enough and powerful enough to be more than a match for another species’ destroyer or cruiser.  What’s important when we talk about ship classification is the comparison of ships within the same navy.  So while that corvette may be a cruiser as far as the alien race is concerned, what’s important is that the species that built it considers it a corvette.

Just remember that this guide exists as just that; a guide.  It is not a strict law, the rules of which can never be broken.  Feel free to break these rules if it makes sense for you to do so.

Let’s go from the smallest ships to the relative largest.  For each class I’ve bolded particular characteristics that stand out to me and help cement the ship’s role.  I’m just going to be going over warships, so things like freighters or single-pilot ships will not be getting the once-over.

Corvette

The word “corvette” comes from the Dutch word corf, which means “small ship,” and indeed corvettes are historically the smallest class of rated warship (a rating system used by the British Royal Navy in the sailing age, basically referring to the amount of men/guns on the vessel and its relative size; corvettes were of the sixth and smallest rate).  In complete honesty I have not found much information on what role corvettes tended to employ; or at least nothing extremely concrete.  By all rights, early corvettes are essentially just smaller, less effective frigates; they were more lightly armored and armed than frigates, while not being as quick or maneuverable.  They were usually used for escorting convoys and patrolling waters, especially in places where larger ships would be unnecessary.  Corvettes could also be used for taking out larger vessels already crippled by other ships, almost making them akin to scavengers.  Later corvettes in modern navies (around WWII) started filling a niche as antisubmariners, minesweepers, and trawlers (it might be more accurate to say that those kinds of vessels started being called corvettes, but the effect is the same).  In many ways, corvettes existed just to have a ship or two (or ten) available; being smaller and more lightly armed meant that they were cheaper to construct, and that is important when discussing anything in history.  It takes money and resources to build things, so you can’t just build a bunch of the best thing.

The Tantive IV, a CR90 corvette, was the famed consular ship owned by the Royal House of Alderaan. It’s the blockade runner first seen in Star Wars: A New Hope. This is a perfect example of technological superiority; the Imperial I-class Star Destroyer Devastator, despite being a much larger vessel of a more combat-oriented variety, was able to out-speed the corvette relatively easily and capture it. (Star Wars)

In Sci-Fi – Corvettes would be the smallest warships, designed for escort and patrol, anti-mine, or anti-stealth.  They would be used where larger ships with more firepower are not deemed necessary (such as backwater worlds or low-risk areas) or where a larger ship would be unsuitable for deployment.  Corvettes might be outfitted to have some sort of stealth or cloaking system for reconnaissance or spec ops missions; naturally it would be easier to cloak a smaller ship than a larger one (though plenty of examples of large stealth ships exist).  In some series they are likely to be diplomatic vessels due to their small size and speed, particularly seen in Star Wars, and can commonly act as blockade runners (again; their small size and speed makes them ideal for slipping through a blockade, where a larger ship presents more of a target).  They would, ideally, never be used for direct combat in large scale engagements due to their extremely light armor and weapons, but may be employed in a battle to lay down or destroy minefields, uncover stealth ships, act as stealth ships on their own (for whatever purpose needed), or for dispatching already crippled vessels.

An SDV-class heavy corvette of the Covenant Empire, notable because it is the only Covenant warship known not to have shields. In Halo: Reach we encounter a small advanced fleet composed of approximately 4 SDVs and a single CSO-class supercarrier; the corvettes were thus acting as an escort group for the larger capital ship. The Covenant’s technological superiority meant they could send such vessels against the UNSC without much fear (even though destroyers would traditionally fulfill that role better), and in fact we see corvettes acting as an advanced fleet again in Halo: Forward Unto Dawn when most of humanity had no idea of the Covenant’s existence. (Halo)

Frigate

“Frigate-built” was a term used in the 17th Century describing a warship that was built to be quick and maneuverable.  They were often too small to stand in the “line of battle” and usually had only one weapons deck (but sometimes two).  By the 18th Century the term had been modified slightly to include ships that may be as long as a ship of the line but were still designed for speed and had lighter weaponry, making them useful for patrols and escorts.  The 19th Century brought armored frigates to the world, which were actually regarded as being the most powerful warships at the time.  They were still known as frigates because they were lightly armed with only one deck of guns.  Modern frigates are generally used as escorts for other warships and convoys.  As I mentioned earlier, frigates and corvettes really are very similar in their designs and roles; frigates just tend to be larger (and thus more expensive to build) and had more firepower, so they could engage in direct combat more effectively.

Paris-class heavy frigates of the UNSC Navy above the planet Reach. We see a multitude of frigate types in the series. Paris-class were designed almost exclusively for direct space-based combat rather than escort, but the Stalwart-class light frigates and Charon-class light frigates are more variable in their roles, able to carry a complement of marines and other troops for planetary defense as well as fleet defense. (Halo)

In Sci-Fi – Based on their history, space frigates would probably be best defined as smaller vessels with light armament and armor (but more powerful and larger than a corvette), suited for speed and maneuverability.  They’d often act as patrol and escort vessels, whether for a merchant convoy, a single capital ship, or a fleet.  Their agility and maneuverability means they can move to redeploy and protect other ships better than larger, slower moving vessels.  You’d likely see a strength-in-numbers strategy with them.  Frigates, unlike corvettes, would more commonly see direct battle and would probably not be found with stealth drives in most settings; they are simply getting too large by that point.

Captained by Commander Shepard, the Normandy SR-2 was a frigate built after the design of the SSV Normandy SR-1. Like her predecessor, the Normandy SR-2 was a stealth ship, able to completely mask its heat signatures at sub-light speeds (though visual identification was still entirely possible). Like all frigates the Normandy SR-2 was extremely fast and maneuverable, able to weave through the debris of a battlefield with little effort. (Mass Effect)

Destroyer

Destroyers are comparatively modern ships.  Historically, they were designed after the emergence of torpedo boats (quick, frigate-like ships which employed newly invented self-propelled torpedoes as their main arms) in the late 1800s.  Torpedo boats were faster and more maneuverable than larger ships, able to bear down on a battlecruiser and take it out with its torpedoes.  Destroyers were originally designed as, and named, torpedo boat destroyers, but at some point became referred to simply as destroyers when their roles expanded.  They went through many iterations, but were essentially smaller cruisers designed with the sole purpose of hunting down and destroying torpedo boats, and had much more powerful weaponry as well as torpedoes to fulfill this purpose.  As such, they were employed as escorts for larger, slower warships (to protect those warships from torpedo boats).  They were designed to have the long range and speed to keep up with their fleet, and over time this fact plus their multi-purpose capabilities meant that destroyers began seeing more use as advanced scouts for a fleet as well as direct fleet combatants, anti-submariners, and anti-submarine patrolDestroyers operated in destroyer divisions or units composed of multiple destroyers in order to carry out these tasks.  By WWII destroyers began filling in a niche as (what I’ll very simply call) anti-everything vessels, extremely powerful high-value targets due to the number of guns they would field.  In fact, this pushed several countries to develop smaller corvettes and frigates as anti-submariners in order to take some of the heat off of destroyers.

Galor-class ships are Cardassian vessels that have long skirted the classification between cruisers and destroyers, but ultimately have been classified as destroyers by Starfleet. They most often operate in a destroyer group of three vessels. (Star Trek)

In Sci-Fi – Destroyers would be much like their naval counterparts; ships smaller than cruisers (and usually larger than frigates, though not always) but armed to the teeth with a multitude of weapons.  They’d mostly act as escorts for larger fleets (and likely not for single warships, but exceptions would certainly exist) but can be seen operating in destroyer-only divisions as well.  You could expect to find destroyers fulfilling all sorts of roles because of how multi-purpose they are, even roles that could be fulfilled by other classes that are designed for that purpose.  It would, however, be rare to find a destroyer acting on its own in most circumstances; destroyers are not capital ships and do not operate as patrol craft.  They do not operate independently as a rule, though I know of at least one case in fiction where a super-destroyer acted as an independent ship.  Science fiction, as I mentioned previously, breaks a lot of rules.

The CPV-class heavy destroyer of the Covenant navy. These vessels are used by the Covenant largely for ship-to-ship engagement and glassing operations (that is, a form of bombing or scorched earth tactics). CPVs also have the capacity to function as occupational vessels if needed, cementing their worth as multi-role vessels. We see entire fleets (read; destroyer groups) in Halo Wars. (Halo)

Cruiser

In the Age of Sail “cruiser” was a term used to describe ships which underwent “cruising missions;” that is independent scouting, raiding, and commerce protection missions.  These “cruiser warships” were normally frigates and sloops because there simply wasn’t anything else available at the time.  By the mid 1800s ships began being constructed that were specifically designed for this sort of work, and as such were called “cruisers”.  They could be smaller, like a frigate, or larger, but it was not until the 20th Century that they were consistently scaled to be larger than a destroyer but smaller than a battleship.

The original Enterprise was a Constitution-class heavy cruiser. Its capacity for extreme range and independent operation made it a perfect vessel for deep space exploration, but the ship still had the firepower to put up a fight when needed. (Star Trek)

Cruiser roles in the late 20th Century included anti-air defense, shore bombing, and commerce raiding, depending on the navy.  However, the increasing firepower of aircraft made it so that individual cruisers could no longer operate safely, pushing navies to have their cruisers operate in fleets.  Because of this, cruiser fleets were also specialized for particular roles (like anti-submarine or anti-air) and the generalized cruiser fell out of use.

In Sci-Fi – Cruisers are medium-sized vessels, able to operate independently but also commonly seen within a fleet.  They would have the capacity to be used as anti-fighters, planetary bombers, raiders of enemy supply lines, and scouts.  However, they would also be the class of ship most likely to engage in non-combat roles such as exploration or even colonization due to their ability to operate independently for extended periods.  I would not expect cruisers to commonly be used in front-line assaults of an enemy fleet; that role is better left to other ships.  However, they have the firepower, size, and better defensive capability to go up against other ships when needed and it’s not uncommon to see cruisers making up the bulk of fleets in some settings.  It is however, in my admittedly amateur opinion, not the ideal choice; better to fill in that space with destroyers or battlecruisers and battleships.  Cruisers can be considered capital ships in some settings (and in fact, some settings treat any ship over a certain size as a capital ship, regardless of role).

The Pillar of Autumn was a modified Halcyon-class light cruiser. Its redesign inspired a new class of vessel known as the Autumn-class heavy cruiser. The UNSC is a good example of a navy whose fleets were comprised mostly of cruisers. This was likely due to the kind of warfare that the UNSC dealt with before the Human-Covenant War; most combat was against small Insurrectionist groups, and so extremely powerful and formidable warships were unnecessary. Thus, when the Covenant attacked it was cruisers that had to do most of the fighting. The UNSC did have at least one class of battleship commissioned after the Human-Covenant War. (Halo)

Battlecruiser and Battleship

Battlecruisers (or battle cruisers) are the first vessels in this article to commonly be considered capital ships.  They are similar to battleships, having a similar armament and size, but were generally faster and not as heavily armored by comparison.  Originally fielded by the UK in the early 20th Century, battlecruisers were designed to combat and destroyer slower, older armored cruisers through heavy gunfire.  As time went on (around WWI) they began seeing use as general-purpose ships alongside battleships by all manner of countries.  Unfortunately, battlecruisers were generally inferior to battleships, and in the Battle of Jutland this was perfectly exemplified as both navies lost battlecruisers but no battleships; the light armor of the battlecruisers made them easier targets for heavy guns.  As technology improved battlecruisers were designed with heavier armor.  At the same time, battleships began becoming faster.  These similarities would ultimately cause a blurring between the two classes, and by 1922 the Washington Naval Treaty considered battlecruisers and battleships functionally identical.  The Royal Navy continued to refer to pre-treaty battlecruisers as such, and WWII saw a re-emergence of modernized “cruiser-killer” battlecruisers.  However, only one such vessel actually survived the war, cementing again their general inferiority to battleships.

The CCS-class battlecruiser forms the backbone of the Covenant Navy, and as such provides a powerful example of a battleship-like battlecruiser. They are still considered capital ships despite the fact that they were often fielded in extremely large numbers (but then, battleships in our day were actually fielded in very large numbers as well). (Halo)

The term “battleship” is a contraction of phrase “line-of-battle ship” from the Age of Sails.  If you remember, ships of the line were the largest and most powerful ships that a navy could field and were strong enough to stand within the line of battle.  Modern battleships arose from ironclad battleships in the late 19th Century, and battleships were for decades considered the most powerful type of naval warship.  They were characterized by very heavy armor and large-caliber guns, making them key capital ships.  So influential were they that treaties such as the Washington Naval Treaty were designed, partially, to limit the number of battleships that a particular country could have.  They represented naval might and power, and battleships were so influential in their strength that the simple existence or presence of a fleet, even without leaving port, could create psychological victories for a navy (called a fleet in being).  Battleship tactics often saw other vessels, such as destroyers or cruisers, employing scouting and raiding missions in order to locate enemy fleets before the battleships came in to sweep aside the enemy.  Despite these strengths, battleships were susceptible to smaller weapons such as torpedoes, mines, and aircraft missiles (and thus required the presence of smaller escort ships such as frigates and destroyers to protect them; it’s all circular).  If your battleships fell the fleet would fall, as is the accepted definition of a capital ship.  Presently there are no battleships currently in service anywhere in the world.

Imperial-class Star Destroyers, despite their name, are really more akin to battlecruisers or battleships; they represent the technological might of the Empire, and even the presence of one in a system could instill enough fear in a population to quell any potential uprising. They form the backbone of the Imperial Navy, much like the CCS for the Covenant, and they are also able to operate independently when needed; all rather un-destroyer-like characteristics. (Star Wars)

In Sci-Fi – Despite their unfortunate history, battlecruisers in space tend to operate similarly to battleships, and I would argue there is not much distinction between the two owing, partly, to the blurring of both vessels in our history.  Battlecruisers and battleships, thus, often act as the heavy hitters in a fleet; they are the main combatants and are protected by other vessels such as frigates and destroyers.  Being that they are capital ships, an engagement is usually won through battlecruisers and battleships.  If a distinction is made between the two classes then battlecruisers would likely be quicker and less heavily armored than battleships, and in some settings are not even considered capital ships at all.  But again; rules can be blurry and broken at the whim of any author.  Regardless, battlecruisers and battleships are the truly massive, anti-“large vessel” ships in a fleet.  They are meant to take a lot of punishment and dish out that punishment in kind.  One particular term I see fairly often is “star cruiser.”  In my mind, a star cruiser could either be the equivalent of a cruiser or a battlecruiser; that distinction is likely decided by whether or not star cruisers are considered capital ships, since that then determines the general capabilities of those vessels.  As a general rule I would be bold enough to claim that star cruisers are equivalent to battlecruisers, and named as such because space.

40K is a good representation of a setting where battle cruisers may not be considered capital ships; at the very least in the Ciaphas Cain novel
40K is a good representation of a setting where battlecruisers may not be considered capital ships; at the very least in the Ciaphas Cain novel The Traitor’s Hand it is blatantly stated that a particular lord general had to temporarily use an Armageddon-class battle cruiser as his flagship as “none of the capital ships were ready to break orbit in time.” (Warhammer 40K)

Carrier

Aircraft carriers, like destroyers, are very modern classifications.  They are the one vessel in today’s navies that almost anyone can pick out at a glance without fear of mistaking them for something else.  This is due to their extremely obvious design; a very large, flat deck suitable for landing and deploying aircraft.  Put as simply as possible, carriers carry aircraft (whether plane or helicopter depends on the ship).  Historically, the concept of utilizing seagoing vessels for airborne operations was considered as far back as the early 1800s (though with balloons rather than planes).  It was not until the early 1900s, with the invention of seaplanes, that actual aircraft launched from a ship become prominent.  Back then, an aircraft with floats was launched from a modified cruiser or capital ship with a catapult, then recovered by a crane after it would later land in the water.  Semi-successful uses of ship-borne craft in 1914 showed the world how effective such assets could be in war, and heavier-than-air craft started becoming more valuable for the world’s navies.  By 1922, with the Washington Naval Treaty, battleships and battlecruisers (which most navies had too many of to be legal under the new treaty) were being converted into carriers.  The flat-topped design did not become prominent until the late 1920s.

The CAS-class assault carrier is particularly well armed for ship-to-ship combat. However, the vessel’s extremely large size and multiple hangers allow it to carry hundreds of fighter craft, troop dropships, and boarding craft. Being an assault vessel and capital ship it needs to have the extra firepower to personally punch its way through a blockade in order to disperse its payload onto the planet’s surface. It very well exemplifies the Covenant’s technological superiority over the UNSC; a giant ship with a nearly unending amount of fighters that can also rip apart anything the UNSC throws at it. (Halo)

No one can deny the value of single-fighter aircraft.  Planes provide a new dimension from which to attack and defend, and can carry payloads ranging from missiles to bombs to supplies for ground troops.  Aircraft were extremely effective compared to even the best guns as they were more accurate and had the benefit of extreme maneuverability.  That said, carriers suffered from a lack of personal offensive and defensive ability, and relied on their aircraft or the rest of their fleet to protect them.  Even so, their aircraft can be considered an extension of themselves and the reign of the battleship was brought to a close when U.S. ship-borne craft sunk numerous Japanese super battleships, the largest battleships ever made.

In Sci-Fi – Carriers tend to be some of the largest capital ships around due to the need to hold and transport large numbers of fighters, bombers, and other craft.  Typically, though not always, their hull-mounted armaments are light; carriers usually rely on the large numbers of fighters they carry (when operating solo) or their fleet for defense and attack of other ships.  The ability to carry craft does not make a ship a carrier by default; many frigates and cruisers, for example, will carry a complement of fighters or a few ground vehicles.  In order to be considered a true carrier the vessel’s main role needs to be the transport and deployment of smaller craft (or troops; as far as I’m concerned not all carriers are extremely large and I would classify troopships and assault ships as small carriers).

Dreadnought

It’s difficult to talk about historical dreadnoughts without also talking about battleships.  The first dreadnought was the Royal Navy’s HMS Dreadnought, a large and heavily armored battleship that ran on steam turbines (and thus made her the fastest battleship at the time).  Dreadnought operated on an “all-big-guns” philosophy, giving her more heavy-caliber guns than any other ship at the time instead of smaller, quicker-to-fire secondary guns.  Her creation was extremely influential in her time, and she spawned a new variant of battleship called “dreadnoughts” (and battleships made before her were designated “pre-dreadnoughts”).  Thus, strictly speaking, dreadnoughts are just particularly large and powerful battleships.  As such they carry the same characteristics of battleships; they are capital ships, represent naval power and influence, and would need a fleet to protect them from smaller vessels and weaponry.

The Executor-class Star Dreadnought, also known as the Executor-class Super Star Destroyer, was one of the largest (if not the largest) warships fielded by the Imperial Navy. Over 11 times as long as an ISD (that’s 19km), the Executor was Darth Vader’s personal flagship and inspired fear wherever it went. It was, unfortunately, taken down by a single pilot in a doomed fighter, but this just shows the vulnerability of larger vessels to smaller, quick-moving craft. (Star Wars)

In Sci-Fi – Dreadnoughts are just about always gigantic ships; massive vessels that dwarf even the largest battleships or battlecruisers.  The role they fulfill is exactly like a battleship or battlecruiser; complete dominance and superiority.  Intimidation, even more so than with battleships, is the name of the game when it comes to dreadnoughts.  When you have a multi-mile long ship bearing down on a fleet you know the enemy’s morale is precarious at best.  Due to their large size they can often carry a large number of secondary craft, like a carrier, but their extremely powerful armament would tend to exclude them from that definition.  A dreadnought carries a bunch of craft because it can, and this adds to its lethality.  But its true strength is its overwhelming firepower, plus its usually resilient armor.

Other Terminology

Whew.  We’re about 5000 words in and I’m starting to lose steam, but let’s go over a few other things before I end today.  You may have noticed some terms floating around that I’ve used but not really elaborated on, like “heavy” and “assault.”  Those terms actually mean something, and so I’m going to take the last part of this article to explain them.

Armored: This is very self-explanatory and I don’t think I have to spend many words on it.  An armored vessel is one with more resilient-than-normal armor than others of its classification.  They can, theoretically, take more punishment.

Assault: By definition, an “assault” in warfare is usually the first phase of any particular attack.  You can have aircraft assaults, or spaceship assaults.  However, sci-fi lexicon also seems to borrow the term from the concept of amphibious assaults.  These are operations where ships land ground (or air) forces upon a particular location through some sort of landing site like a beach; D-Day in World War II is a prime example of this.  Assault vessels, therefore, are designed for assaulting an enemy planet, installation, space station, etc.  They are usually designed to carry large numbers of troops, vehicles, drop ships, supporting aircraft, and the like; they assault the planet by being the first ships to touch down and dispense their payload and then get the hell out of dodge while the ground forces do their thing.  Sometimes they need the brunt force of a fleet to allow them to get to the planet in the first place, but then you have ships like the Covenant’s CAS-class assault carrier that can do that job themselves.

Acclamator-class assault ships were used during the Clone Wars to great effect, allowing for the rapid and powerful deployment of clones onto a planet. Acclamators are a good deal larger than frigates, which classifies them as cruisers or even small carriers (considering their transport role). Despite their main function as troop transports a fleet of Acclamators could engage in a Base Delta Zero, the bombardment and total surface destruction of an entire planet. A single ISD, by comparison, could do that by itself in less than a day. (Star Wars)

Light and Heavy: I described the Halcyon-class (from Halo) as a light cruiser, while the later Autumn-class is a heavy cruiser.  So what’s the difference there?  Generally speaking, whether a particular vessel is light or heavy refers to the payload of its weapons.  Sometimes the resilience of its armor may come into play (again; exceptions exist), but overall a vessel’s status as light or heavy is dependent on its guns.  A light vessel has a lighter armament, while a heavy vessel, naturally, has a heavy armament.  As such, you’d expect heavy vessels to be more useful in an engagement.  Light vessels, meanwhile, would probably see more use in non-combat and support roles.  At the very least they are less specialized for direct large-scale engagements.  The various frigate classes in Halo are perfect examples of this; the Paris-class is a heavy frigate and very specialized for space combat.  The Charon-class and Stalwart-class light frigates, meanwhile, were more jack-of-all-trades ships that saw more use as ground-support vessels and fleet support.  Of course remember; sometimes you gotta make do with what you have available.

Super: I think this one is fairly self-explanatory as well.  A super vessel is, for lack of a better word, just a bigger version of whatever classification of vessel it is we are talking about.  Because of their increased size they almost always have much better armor and much stronger weapons than the “normal” variant.

The Covenant’s CSO-class supercarrier is the largest non-Forerunner ship we’ve seen in the series. Visually based very similarly on the assault carrier (and I really don’t like that, if I’m to be honest) it was almost 29 kilometers long and powerful enough to take on entire fleets on its own. Super indeed. (Halo)

And there you have it.  Hopefully you have a better understanding of space combat and ship classification.  I know I learned a lot by doing this; already I’ve starting thinking about things differently.  Just the other day I finished the Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium omnibus and I had a better appreciation for some of the scenes in the last book (The Traitor’s Hand) that described a battle taking place in the planet Adumbria’s orbit.

Please don’t hesitate to use this information however you see fit.  I hope it brings a sense of realism and authenticity to your games and I hope you appreciated my attempt at a comprehensive guide to ship taxonomy.  With any luck it did someone somewhere some good.

197 comments

  1. in the star wars expanded universe. Luke Skywalker was Given a Flagship to command Rouge squadron with the Flurry. Leia got a captured Imperial Star Destroyer, Han Solo had the Mon Remonda a new advanced version of a standard Mon Cal cruiser to command against Warlord Zsinj and his Two Executer Class Super star destroyers. of course he had Rouge and Wraith Squad with him at the time. Lando Calrisian was given command of a captured ISD twice During the Dark empire comic strip .Wedge Antilles eventually got to command a capture Super Star destroyer in battle against another Superstar destroyer in a traditional all Big Guns Naval battle.

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    • The problem is, all this about “maneuverability” goes out the window in zero-G, the largest ships are as fast and maneuverable as the small ones, to the extent that any space vessel would be “maneuverable”. An uncomfortable fact that no sci-fi game I know of takes into account. Realistic movement in space games would not do very well, I think …

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      • I disagree quite a bit. Mass and momentum still exist in space; a multi-million ton cruiser is going to take longer (and need more energy) to turn than a much smaller corvette.

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  2. Great article

    The first time I was ever saw ranks like these in a game was the Homeworld series. It followed a fairly conventional format – fighter/ corvette/ frigate/ destroyer/ cruisers and carriers/ mothership/miscellaneous support vessels.

    Every series is a bit different however. In Homeworld anything a frigate or larger was considered a ‘capital ship’. I think this is mostly because ‘fighter’ is considered a class of ‘ship’ all on its own. In space, there is of course no real distinction between ‘ships’ and ‘aircraft’. So in Homeworld fighters and corvettes were the small, maneuverable ships. By the time you got to frigates, you already had large, lumbering ships hundreds of feet long. One of the sequels also introuced the ‘microship’ class below fighters – autonomous drones too small for a human crew. These would be used for repair, surveillance, and projecting shields.

    It also had the position of ‘mothership’ above carriers or cruisers. These were kilometers long vessels, heavily armoured but only lightly armed. Extremely slow (often they couldn’t even be moved at all in a battle) they were used for producing the rest of the fleet. In long range space expeditions, you’d want a mothership along. Obviously there is no real comparison on Earth, but think of it as a giant, mobile shipyard/small city.

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      • The Omega and Nova class are essentially the same ship with different center sections. I never considered the Nova to be separate class, rather a “shore bombardment” destroyer (It’s turret layout doesn’t lend itself to going toe to toe with an Omega or Sharlin class). The Minbari Warcruisers are heavy cruisers or battlecruisers. The Minbari never build a massive battleship because it doesn’t lend itself to their way of fighting. Minbari warcruisers are pretty agile compared to the cruisers of other races. Most of the ships mentioned here are WWII classifications. In Sci-Fi, you rarely have a *true* carrier. Instead you have a Star Destroyer/Battlestar style-ship that carries fighters in addition to its own formidable armament.

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  3. For an article about sci-fi spaceships, there is a disappointing lack of reference to eve online. Eve has already made its name in pop culture, and features all the above ship classes and more, with players giving each class its rightful treatment.

    Most importantly, since we’re talking sci-fi, you forgot the final, largest class of ship: the Titan.
    These guys are so huge that they function less as combat ships and more as mobile space stations. It mainly serves as a forward logistics nexus that can provide supporting fire from behind the cover of the main line of battleships.

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  4. A lot of this information can be learned by playing through the “TIE Fighter” video game. Additionally this is a game that definitely needs a next-gen remake.

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  5. A lot of this info can be learned by playing the “TIE Fighter” video game. You get very familiar with the ship classifications through the various escort/attack missions. Additionally this is a game that definitely needs a next-gen remake.

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  6. Almost all science fiction ‘spaceships’ are a joke from an engineering standpoint. They usually have an aerodynamic look or a ‘sleek’ appearance. All of which is completely the opposite of what is required on a number of levels. The closest ships that I can remember being even remotely conceivable are the ships described in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s ship in “A Mote in God’s Eye”, and maybe the Nostromo in the film Alien.

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    • Depending on the setting you’re talking about, aerodynamics can come into play. A lot of ships in SciFi are also used in atmospheric combat. Not only that, but ship design (whether its sleek or bulky, spherical or linear) is important in combat, cost, and psychological edge. Sleeker, less bulky ships have less in the way of raw material needed to construct them. In the case of the ISD, the triangular shape makes sense. It allows the ship to fire all batteries forward in an overwhelming frontal assault, while also having an unmistakable profile, striking fear into those who see the ship, possibly ending battles before they’ve even begun.

      I am curious though, what is required for viable star ships? I only have a laymans understanding of engineering, so if you wouldn’t mind going into more depth, I would be most appreciative.

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      • Now that’s a can of worms. The “engineering for future space” conversation has been going on a long time. I can’t right now, as I’m out and about, but when I get back in tonight, I will dump a few resources that I use regularly (most written by very good engineers). It really is amazing stuff and will test your conceptual limits. Something as simple as a laser, which is sci-fi staple, is amazing complex (but fun to know about).

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      • I would say the air is soo thin, and the weight soo heavy, wing shaped designs would be virtually useless in upper atmosphere combat. They would just create weak points and extra weight. For example, let’s say a vessel is climbing out of the atmosphere at an inclination. It would take quite a bit of time to gain distance and altitude. Another vessel however, could use reaction wheels to point at a higher inclination, even virtually straight upward, clear the atmosphere, and catch up to the vessel with wings while they’re still struggling with the atmosphere.

        Even if you reach a point where space travel is easy, there will still always be that factor of it being even easier and more versatile when less mass is involved.

        Also think of it like this: birds fly because their bones are hollow. bulk them up, and they could no longer fly, they’d be too heavy. The same principle applies to armoring vessels. There’d be no way to reliably armor a vessel while keeping it relatively light weight. You reach a point where the air is soo thin, it doesn’t make much of a difference or is even detrimental to design, you could have better focused elsewhere.

        I also wouldn’t expect a 19KM vessel to EVER land. It’s basically logistically impossible. planets aren’t smooth enough to level the landing gear across miles of land, and too round at the same time that the vessel would have to conform to the curve of the planets surface. It’s like how many large sea life are soo large, that they can’t survive being transported outside of water, not for breathing reasons, but because they are simply crushed under their own weight and their weight can’t be distributed evenly.

        There would also be very little excuse to land. These type of ships would be better off simply 100% space based, with smaller utility vessels taking up planet based roles.

        Some of the largest costs of space travel, is initially getting all that mass off the ground and into orbit.

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    • EVEOnline was released in 2003, there were a whole lot of classified starships in Sci-Fi before that. In fact, EVE does a horrible job with it. In that world, ships are built to fit the class, not the role.

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  7. Loved the article in terms of what it meant to do, and that is to distinguish the classification of sci-fi ships from franchises we know and love and try to put it into terms of historical naval classification.

    As a student of history though I have one thing to nit pick, that being the “star destroyer” and all its various classes. Its always irked me that some seem to take the term Star Destroyer literally and think that the Imperial is a destroyer when in fact its usage in the movies and old expanded universe is more of that of a capital ship. For me the more historical analogy to the star destroyers are the WW1 dreadnoughts. As stated by prior posters, the HMS Dreadnought launched in 1905 revolutionized naval warfare by making battleships be primarily consisting of all big heavy main guns with secondary batteries of lesser armaments and heavy armor. This began an arms race between Britain’s Royal Navy and Germany’s High Seas Fleet in which both countries out did the other in launching more battleships with bigger guns that were dreadnoughts given their overall big gun heavy armor design but with different classes, such as the Iron Duke Class dreadnought.

    To me the Victory, the Venator, the Imperial, the executor, and all other types of star destroyers are just sub classes of one type of ship, the dagger looking star destroyer whose design brings to bear practically all its fire power in forward overlapping arcs of fire.

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  8. Very nice article. Good job of covering the historic basis for the different ship classes and their different functions. I wanted to mention two things. The first is about carriers. As you say, aircraft have a lot of value supporting and attacking ships. The problem is that aircraft operate in air and ships in water, two very different environments that produce very different design and operating characteristics. In space, the “fighters,” and “bombers,” operate in the exact same environment as the “ships.” So while the whole space fighter thing is cool, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The big spaceships with big thrust can be just as fast and maneuverable (or more so) as the little spaceships with little thrust. Something like patrol boats/PT boats with short legs, one punch, and little protection would be workable, but those would be highly expendable in any straight up fight with bigger warships. The other thing is the battle cruiser/battleship issue and ship design in general. Like most people, I used to accept the argument that the battle cruiser model was discredited after experiences in WW I and WW II. But then I realized that (with the sole exception of the Soviet Sverdlov class light cruisers) every warship built since WW II has used the battle cruiser model. No armor belts, no armored turrets, no armored citadels in the superstructure. (In fact, we can no longer build such heavily-armored warships since the tricks for welding such thick armor have died along with the workers who once knew how to do it.) The supposedly discredited model is the one that actually became universal. (in another example of different operating environments impacting characteristics, it’s a fact that for a sea-going ship, the longer the ship is the faster it can go with a given amount of propulsion. That’s because oceans and seas have waves and swells, and that’s why warships tend to be long and lean rather than short and wide. But, again, that’s not going to apply in space.) But some things do carry over to space. Sleek, rounded shapes make sense for spacecraft as well as for ships and aircraft, not for aerodynamics but for simple engineering reasons. Edges and corners are where stress accumulates. Water tanks are round because edges crack, and the edges of hatches are round for the same reason. Spacecraft, subject to strong acceleration and deceleration (as well as impacts), will want outer structures that distribute stress and deflect anything that strikes them.

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    • I always had that problem in Starfleet Battles/Starfleet Command – Fighters are *neat*, but there’s actually very little legitimate use for them in a universe where capital ships are faster than fighters. My own tendency was to eliminate carriers entirely, but supply defense platforms with fighters and/or PTT ships as apropos.

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      • I can actually see the design paradigm being a common element in space warfare. Even small ships have some sort of life support space and devices and long period capabilities, while military aircraft are nothing but a gun slapped on a hilariously inefficient propulsion system and a spot for a pilot to sit for a few hours. Similarly, carriers in space warfare would probably be distinguished as the living quarters, power and oxygen source, and long-range engines and defenses for smaller fighter craft that can only operate autonomously for an hour or two. Oddly enough, this was a detail in the Star Wars movies.

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    • Just in case you are actually the person the name you use here claims you to be: I really liked the lost fleet, and their realistic approach to space combat did make me rethink how I thought about space warfare in a sci-fi setting.

      For those unaware: Jack Campbell is an author who has written a number of science-fiction series focused on space warfare. I can recommend “the lost fleet”(series) to anyone interested in military science fiction.

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    • The lost fleet series is a favourite of mine, it is very realistic and interestingly portrayed – the battles are the best I have ever read. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in military sci-fi.

      Space fighters could actually make sense though, as thrust to mass ratio is a ‘square on cube function’, meaning that as size increases, mass cubes, whereas available rear facing space for thrusters only squares, meaning that the smaller the craft, the higher the thrust ratio. However, that may be rendered irrelevant by thruster designs that can be ‘stacked’ inside the ship – which seems to be the case in the books.

      One thing I never quite got with the books is how a ship at rest is more vulnerable than one at speed ‘a sitting duck’. Doesn’t that only apply to ships in a frictional medium (ie water) which use their speed to deflect the medium and make them turn – in space there is no frictional medium to push against and only the thrust of the engine can change directions (which is the same no matter the speed – relativity also plays a part in this). It makes for some interesting plots, but as much as I have looked into it, I cannot find a reason as to why that is so. It would be great if someone could explain if it actually is true or is simply a plot device.

      Please don’t see this as criticism, I am just very interested in the books and the actual physics of a space battle.

      If you are the author, Jack Campbell/John G. Hemry, I would like to thank you for all of the enjoyment I have derived from the lost fleet and its spin-offs.

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    • The point of space fighters would be to have a way to get up close to large enemy warships to damage vulnerable points while using their agility to avoid large projectiles – it’s just like the sort of things you see in sci-fi, like Luke destroying the Death Star. A fighter would be slower than a capital ship, but more manouverable.

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  9. Nice and informative little writing and it is spot on with the historical references. However what I had hoped for was more of the “where they get it wrong” or “where it gets confusing” -kind of examples. Meaning cases when science fiction makes no sense with the naming of ship types. Babylon 5 with its Hyperion cruisers, Omega and Warlock destroyers comes to mind. Same with some ships in Star Wars. A dreadnought half the size and firepower of a destroyer? In general I hoped for more examples and references (other than Halo, as pretty as the UNSC ships are). And since you had Warhammer 40 000, the text could use MOAR DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA!

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      • This exactly is what I think. The term “star destroyer” seems to refer to any large wedge-shaped cruiser or warship. It’s more a colloquial term. And naturally, as you suggest, destroyer is a very dangerous-sounding and threatening term.

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  10. Great article. Well done on the research and the writing. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

    There is one thing I wanted to lend some input on, however. I believe that you left out a very important item on Cruisers, and therefore a distinction on the difference between Battlecruisers and Battleships. If you notice on modern navies, Cruisers often have one or several scout/boarding/attack craft located onboard the vessel (such as helicopters/ospreys). In this capacity they are able to perform a very limited role as a light carrier as well. In my opinion, the distinction in Sci-Fi between a Battlecruiser and a Battleship would be whether or not the ship relies more on supporting aircraft or massive armament to deliver a payload. Nothing like the numbers of craft on a Carrier, mind you…but maybe one squadron of attack craft. Where a Carrier would have several different types of craft to field (fighters, bombers, torpedo planes, etc)….a Battlecruiser might have one or two purpose built squadron. Example: Battlestar Galactica.

    Cheers!

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  11. Having pictures of actual ships would improve the article. They are real, they were all built by the same species, and they were what those classifications were made for. It would ad perspective and make the whole thing easier to follow. Nice read though.

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  12. One of the things that i have found interesting in reading this is how over time a function of a ship has changed from history to the future. for example, the corvette class. i never knew that historically frigates were faster. most of the time in Sci-Fi corvettes are the fastest ships period. they may not have the armor or weapons of their bigger slower fleet mates, but good luck trying to hit one. its one of the reasons why in starwars i always thought that the star destroyer got the drop on the blockade runner and damaged it before it could get to full speed and get away.

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  13. If you are really interesting in SciFi naval classifications you should check out the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. It is very much based on the “wet navy” classification of the late 19th century and the main character is from a futuristic Great Britain-esque empire. Space battles take place in the “Wall of Battle” and Battleship+ ships are defined as “Ships of the Wall”. Destroyers, Light / Heavy Cruisers, Battlecruisers and even Battleships all have defined characteristics based off 19th century navy doctrine. The author uses some interesting technology to make the ships operate similarly to older “Age of Sail” vessels while keeping them decidedly futuristic. Ex: Ships run on fusion reactors and gravity drives but need hyper-sails to move FTL, gravity shielding allows ships to put impenetrable fields above and below them meaning they have to rely on broadsides and chase armaments to hit one another. It is a very interesting series and really good at classifying the differing ship types.

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  14. A giant series that you didn’t take into account is the Honorverse. Very large series in SciFi…especially space opera genre. This series has a really good breakdown of the different classes as well.

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  15. Reblogged this on datanode.net and commented:
    When I’m not deep in a dungeon with a mace and a bad case of gelatinous cube, I’m soaring in the stars. This is a pretty good breakdown of explaining what all those big ship names mean in Sci-Fi.

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  16. A factor that does not seem to be mentioned yet, is the effect of advancing technology on the ship types.
    For instance, the Dreadnought was the largest and most heavily armored ship of the line, at it’s time. But with the advancements the existing Dreadnought class ships became less than “largest” and were only a little more than slow Cruisers by the time WWII started.

    Some of the science fiction stories have this effect as part of the scenario. It is the cause of some of the apparent contradictions.

    Also, some type names have other baggage. The name “Dreadnought” now has a bad rep for not living very long. If only because it draws the fire of all of the enemy at once.

    Thanks for the write-up. 😎

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  17. some ground forces vehicle I enjoy are the metal gears rex, ray, arsenal gear and shagohad. I enjoyed Batman’s tumbler bat mobile. I also like the techno drone from the ninja turtles TV show. and the various ground vehicles deployed in star wars. as for Soldiers I like Super soldiers grown like the clone troopers and the Snake Family augmented with super serum, nanomachines and advanced power armor suits like Samus, Megaman and Master Chief,. and I like cyborgs like Robocop. and terminators programed to serve humans rather then punish enslave or kill humans.

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  18. I will argue that “heavy cruiser” as used in Star Trek blurs the line between cruiser and battlecruiser. Given that in canon Trek (all variants) we only ever saw one Federation ship larger than the current to it Enterprise, and the Enterprise-D and -E were clearly ships of the line while the Constitution class was described as the premier ships in the fleet, that makes it look like the heavy cruiser in Trek terms is a ship of the line and at least a battlecruiser.

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    • Dear Jeff,
      I had a good time reading this article and a bad time trying to email its address to friends in Spain.
      All my messages were being rejected as spam. I tried everything: different accounts, different devices, different ISPs… until I tried sending the message without the web addresses. That worked. It was the web addresses that spanish e-mail services ono.com and telefonica.net were blocking.
      Eventually I managed to circumvent the blockade by sending the web address inside a file attached to the e-mail message, but that doesn’t solve the bigger problem: Why is your website blacklisted as spam? Maybe your website fell into one of those common WordPress exploits, and got infected and turned into a spambot? Or maybe is it just because the ugly-sounding domain? Hope you get over this inconvenience.

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      • If I had to guess anything it’d be the domain name, though I hadn’t seen anything to suggest that the Internet would actually filter it as spam. Spain’s laws may be different, though.

        Not sure how to fix that problem for you; at the very least I can tell you that Google searching “Critical Shit” will give you my blog’s home address as one of the first couple of options.

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    • In Star Trek III The Klingons identify Enterprise as a Federation Battlecruiser. The thing is the Federation doesn’t like to consider its vessels warships so my guess is they chose to class them as Heavy cruisers rather then Battlecruisers. Kind of like how in Deep Space Nine the Defiant class was officially an escort but unofficially a pure warship because the Federation didn’t build warships officially.

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  19. Hello Hageshii01,

    Thanks for the write-up. I share an interest with you for the accuracy of science fiction storytelling. I’ve written a paper on the plausible limits for the size of a terrestrial planet and the distance it must lie from a given star class in order to support life. If you’re interested in reading it, send me an email.

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  20. Interesting article. My little addenda to it:

    Frigates – Went through a period in the mid-20th century of confusion due to US Navy classification of vessels as frigates and reclassified as cruisers (being different from everywhere else in the world). I believe much of the reason for the confusion in science fiction is the history of the frigate in the United States (where many writers hail from). The Constitution class were the US’s most potent early warships, and lacking ships of the line, these frigates were well-armed and excellently built for their type. Main distinctions in modern use for smaller types (corvette, frigate, destroyer) tends to be political as these ships are now nearly all general purpose and not dedicated to a specific role.

    Cruisers – These were very much rated by the British as well (1st-4th rate, as well as distinct Protected and Colonial types). This was reformed to light and armoured. With the Washington Treaty though, the limit of cruisers being 10 000 tons, with 8″ being the maximum for heavy cruisers, and 6.1″ for light. Throw that out the window though, since the US Brooklyn class and Japanese Mogami classes displaced well over 10 000 tons while still being listed as “light cruisers” due to armament (although Mogami later received 10 8″ guns) {Yes, both nations cheated}. These days, classifications aren’t used, since the only cruiser users really are the USA and Russia. Science Fiction cruisers likely use the terms to cover the broad size gap between traditional smaller ships (destroyer or less) and the larger battleship types.

    Battlecruisers – Their reputation fell due to being used as battleships. Their lower armour meant they were much lighter. They were also much cheaper, hence HMAS Australia being Australia’s flagship, and HMS New Zealand being paid for by the NZ government. They were designed to be faster than the Armoured Cruisers then in use, and to outgun them. Conceptually the design succeeded as was shown by the Battle of the Falklands. However, their size threw them in with the main fleet, and they were used as fast battleships. A role they failed dreadfully at. The Germans in WW2 had ships classed as “battlecruisers”, but built more as small fast Battleships. Btitain gave up on building battlecruisers after the Washington Treaty, and the US’s Alaska class were “Large Cruisers” to avoid the stigma of being called battlecruisers. Last ship to be called this designation widely is the Russian Kirov class.

    Dreadnought: The “All Big-gun ship came about as a result of the inefficiency of the mixed type pre-dreadnoughts. These usually had several turrets of 11-12″ guns, with casemate batteries of 9-10”. In battle, fall of shot observations were used for fire control, and there were errors in correcting battery fire. The “All Big Gun” philosophy meant a uniform large battery (usually backed by numerous quick-firing low calibre mounts to see off torpedo boats). With the decommissioning of the pre-Dreadnought type battleships. the distinction was no longer required, and could be seen as simply battleships.

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  21. The problem with this analysis is that it perforce presumes that the Galactic Empire has no sub-battleship warship classes at all, and ignores what we actually see Star Destroyers doing – that is, interdiction (as in the boarding of the Tantive IV and various pursuits of the Millennium Falcon), patrol/reconnaissance (the opening scene of The Empire Strikes Back), and escorting heavy capital ships and battle stations (all three of the original trilogy movies, the Death Star in A New Hope and Executor in TESB and Return of the Jedi). They’re exactly what they say on the tin; they fill the destroyer role. That they happen to be ludicrously powerful on top of that doesn’t change that at all.

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  22. i’v seen that site. I don’t know where or how someone would get the resources and engineering skills to build the dyson sphere.

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    • Larry Niven taught us that to build a Ringworld would take the entire resources (read: planets) of a solar system.
      To build a Dyson Sphere would take the resources of *several* *nearby* systems as well.

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      • The beauty of something like Ringworld/Halo/Dyson Spheres is that an entity capable of that kind of tech endeavor likely has access to other tech endeavors (like, say, matter replication, direct energy-matter conversion, material engineering, FTL, etc) so if belief has been suspended that far, why not go all in…

        That said, they seem remarkably inefficient. Harnessing a star’s energy using that much effort seems to not balance out. If you can build the sphere, surely creating a build-your-own singularity is a megasuperadvanced hadron collider away

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  23. One point I need to make: the term “flagship” in normal naval terminology applies to any vessel functioning as the command vessel of a flag officer(as opposed to simply having a flag officer aboard, as a guest or for transportation). Therefore, in any given fleet, there may be one flagship, or there may be a dozen, depending on how the fleet is organized. For example, at The Battle of Jutland, the British had something like 7 flagships among the battleships alone, much less the various squadrons of lesser ships. There was a single fleet flagship, but each squadron and division had their own flag officers and therefore flagships. This extends to many sci-fi settings as well, especially any based heavily on real-life naval history(David Weber’s Honorverse being an excellent example).

    One odd exception is Star Trek. In ST, the Enterprise serves as the “Flagship of the Federation”, which is a separate and special designation used even when the ship operates alone and is commanded by a non-flag officer. The ST universe does have regular flagships on occasion as well.

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  24. There’s another classification of ship you didn’t consider, which I will get into below.

    A good example of ship classifications and how they differ from navy to navy would be the Macross anime (an by extension, the first third of Robotech, which was comprised of the original Macross series).

    When the alien ship that became the SDF-1 Macross crashed to Earth, it was a 1200m craft built primarily to support its main weaponry. Humanity, afraid that aliens would come looking for it, rebuilt it as their main vessel, and built a bunch of smaller carriers and destroyers that, in their ignorance of the true nature of the enemy, surmised would be capital ships.

    The Zentraedi enemy, however, had as its smallest scout ships, corvettes of 500m-720m length (depending on source material). The primary vessels in the fleet were destroyers & carriers 2-3 km long, with a larger cruiser type (that was a composite ship, that could separate its forward third and act as two ships), and a battleship 4-6 km long. It also had ships with a similar role to the human’s salvaged Macross, half the size of a destroyer, but with one heavy energy gun.

    Which gets us to the other class of ships that shows up in SF space fleets…

    The MONITOR.

    The class type named for the USS Monitor, it is a ship built to be a bombardment system or superweapon, usually 1 or 2 guns greater than normal ship armament. Often, these are spinal mount weapons, with the ship’s engines, armor, and defensive weapons built around around the main armament. As such, it may be bigger than a capital ship (if the weapon is truly huge), or smaller (with most of the power being diverted to the weapon when in use).
    The original Monitors were designed for naval blockades and shore bombardment, and not really suited for being part of a fleet battle alongside capital ships. In fact, as capital ships developed the ability to use monitor-style weapons, the designation slowly disappeared. This wouldn’t necessarily be true for space vessels.

    Examples of monitor vessels from SF would be the aforementioned SDF-1 Macross, with its main gun capable of vaporizing several ships that get unfortunately lined up within its half-light-second range, and its Zentraedi counterpart.
    From the Star Wars extended universe, the Tarkin from the Marvel-era comics, and the Darksabre, from the post-RotJ novels, would both be monitors, as their armament was a ship-borne version of the planet-busting cannon used in the Death Stars. Even the Sun Crusher could be considered a monitor of sorts, though the idea of a weapon that powerful in a 1-man craft was such poor writing that, as a gamemaster, I felt like slapping the author for being a munchkin.
    The Death Stars themselves, because of their additional armament and fighter wings, would be combination dreadnoughts & carriers. One can’t really call them battle “stations” because from the entomology of the term, a “station” is immobile, or requires being towed to its sentry point, and the Death Stars were capable of traveling under their own power.

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  25. For other learned discussions on sci-fi ship clases look at some of David Weber’s discussions. Some are parts of anthologies, some are stand-alone articles, and some are on web sites. They mostly deal with the ships of the Honorverse, but the concepts apply to any fleet.

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  26. […] Not to be outdone, fellow WordPress blogger, Jeff Venancio at CriticalShit.org penned a treatise “On the Taxonomy of Sci-Fi Spaceships”. Jeff walks us through what it means when we hear about a “class” of starship, such as a frigate, a corvette, a cruiser, or a dreadnought. He gives us background on their equivalents in naval history, and how they’ve been adapted for sci-fi. It’s a great read. […]

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  27. The thing that I see all space ship/space war-ship concepts get wrong is the lack of cooling. Here you have a vessel, with some kind of power plant that develops giga or tera watts of power or even more, and there is no provision for cooling the ship except for what happens to radiate at the skin.

    Every bit of energy generated by the power plant, ultimately ends up as heat in the ship, except for energy emitted as beamed weapons or communications, and perhaps a tiny bit of energy which might be absorbed and used for photosynthesis by plants on board.

    The things need huge radiating wings/fins/panels. The Space Shuttle, which was **tiny** by the standards we’re discussing, had to use the payload bay doors as radiative surfaces to get rid of waste heat. If the payload bay doors would not open, the shuttle must return to Earth within a matter of hours, or cook the crew.

    As spacecraft grow in size and capability, the energy generation and volume grow much faster than the surface area from which all that waste heat can be radiated.

    There is no convection to cool spacecraft. There is no conduction to cool spacecraft. There is only radiative cooling.

    The Death Star was no problem. Everybody on board was dead a few weeks or months after launching, cooked in their own juices as the spherical shape has so little surface area, relatively speaking, that it could never radiate enough heat to keep itself liveable.

    Of course, heat transfer equations are complicated, and one can play with the numbers, by asking how much power does a spacecraft at tech level X really generate. And maybe the tech is high enough that they can concentrate the waste heat at the skin of the vessel and keep the outer surface considerably hotter than the liveable interior. That might explain why all the craft in “Star Wars” seemed to have a pearly glow regardless of the actual ambient lighting.

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    • Or – as was discussed on various Traveller mailing lists – they dump heat into some substance that then gets jettisoned. So spacecraft have an “exhaust” after all. Then comes the question of ease of detection: can you point the exhaust away from the bad guys? Otherwise it’s be like shining a searchlight at them. 😉

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  28. that’s what the thermal exhaust vent on the first Death Star was for. the Second Death Star just put vent covers over them.

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  29. All of the erudite and excessively detailed minutiae of the comments aside, this was the best diversion I have encountered in many a cycle. Thank you for the effort, it is much appreciated!

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  30. The main thought I had is that ship classifications are often a lot more fluid than is suggested here. The most obvious example here is the Frigate. In modern usage, it is one of the smallest independent commands in the modern navy (the US Navy does not have any corvette’s I believe). On the flip side, Frigates during the Napoleonic War were second in size only to the Ship of the Line in terms of power and were considered plum assignments. After WWII, the U.S. navy revived the frigate classification for a large warship that was similar to guided missile cruisers. In the 1970s they were reclassified as cruisers for what were essentially political reasons. Likewise, the latest batch of Arleigh Burke Class destroyer actually displaces more than the Ticonderoga class cruiser; the Zumwalt class destroyer will actually displace considerably more than the Ticonderoga which might be the last cruiser class the Navy fields for the foreseeable future.

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  31. Very nice article. I enjoyed it!

    I would like to point out that in science fiction there is one possibly-good reason for the existence of a “carrier” class of ship: faster-than-light travel.

    In Star Wars, tiny one-person fighter ships can be equipped with hyperdrive, so a strike force can just jump where it needs to go. But in many or most SF universes, there is a minimum size of ship capable of FTL travel, and fighters are too small; thus, carriers. For example, in the Battlestar Galactica universe, the Galactica was capable of hyper-jumps while the Vipers were not. In the Honor Harrington series, carriers and supercarriers ferry many “LACs” (“light attack craft”) across interstellar distances, and then launch all the LACs once they arrive.

    Since carriers and the craft they carry travel in the same medium, space, there is no need for a “runway”, especially in SF universes that have tractor beams. Despite this, the Battlestar Galactica has two runway-like “landing bays”, one to port and one to starboard, and Vipers fly inside and “land”. I used to think this kind of silly, but it does kind of make sense if you imagine a “combat recovery” of all surviving Vipers in a battle urgently landing in the bays, followed by the Galactica making an emergency hyperjump to escape from a bad situation.

    P.S. I recommend this article: http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/09/28/aircraft-carriers-in-space/

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  32. I dislike the idea of applying 17th century naval terminology to spaceships. I like to see more forward looking and original terminology more suited to the space environment. Star Destroyer is a good start, it defies the conventional meaning of destroyer and emphasises that it is a starship. Even better is something like Battlestar, totally original classification unique to space. Unfortunately I haven’t seen a lot of attempts at this outside of those two examples.

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