Anyone who ever watched a WW2 movie with dogfights between fighter planes, then saw Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica will know that dogfights in space are just awesome.
Of course, with no atmosphere, dogfights in space are also not going to happen like the movies. Sorry. Don’t believe me? Others have spent an enormous amount of time thinking on this concept, so get yourself a drink of your choice and head over to Atomic Rockets – make sure you do it on your own time, because if you are genuinely interested, you’ll spend a lot of time there!
Now one reason advanced for fighter planes and aircraft carriers in our history is the problem of horizon, and weapon range. Ships at sea are limited by the curvature of the Earth (radar provides a bit of extra reach); having aircraft to patrol puts your ‘eyes’ massively further out, and equipping them with missiles allows ships to engage the enemy without ever having to fire a shot themselves.
In space, it is argued, there is no maximum range for your weapons (no atmosphere, remember? Energy beams go on forever, and shells / missiles can keep going until they smack into something). The apparent limiting factor for weapons is the amount of ammo you can carry (for shells and missiles) and the amount of heat you can dissipate before you melt (for energy beams).
Likewise, just like the ocean away from a coastline, space is pretty empty. Seriously. Spotting a target against a star field is not difficult, nor is using infrared to pick up the heat radiating from it (don’t believe me? Go back to Atomic Rockets – you missed some bits. I’ll be waiting.).
So, we have weapons with unlimited range, and no limits to visibility. Alas, this spells doom for fighters as we know them, right? I mean, bigger ships with better defenses and armour are so much more survivable, so fighters are a waste of effort, right?
Because nobody has been able to prove Einstein wrong, nothing can go faster than light. Yeah yeah, I know, it’s science fiction, but hey – let’s at least accept that science has a role to play. Targets obviously don’t WANT to be hit, so they are going to be manoevring – where your target was at the time of firing may not be where it will be when your ravening beam of directed energy crosses the gulf of space. So to try and hit your target, you need to predict an area, a patch of space that it is most likely to be in, and fill that area with shells / missiles / laser beams / coilgun accelerated titanium skulled frogs, or whatever. It’s called deflection, and fighter pilots have been doing it in dogfights since the first pistol was carried aloft in a flimsy craft in WW1.
Now, I’m not an engineer but I can pretty much bet that due to ammuntion constraints / recharge rates / heat dumping, that area is going to be pretty small, unless you accept very low probabilities of a hit.
Big ships are going to be less able to manouevre (well, maybe not, they may have bigger motors, but don’t bugger up the narrative flow NOW of all times), so if they want to keep their own chances of being hit down, they have to maintain a longer range. Fighter class ships will be lighter and zippier, so they can keep that chance of being hit at an impressive minimum.
Here is where it gets clever. The fighter can pick a range near the big ships where it is unlikely that they can be hit, but the target, being so much larger, is still well within the fighter’s engagement envelope. And even if they can’t carry heavy beam weapons (unless they are powererd by fusion collapses, but that is part of my story so you’ll have to wait for that one) they can carry enough shipkilling missiles that they can’t be ignored. Nor can their kamikaze capacity.
So what do you, as the target, do? Why, carry your own fighters of course, that can go out there and keep the enemy away from that engagement range sweet spot. And lo and behold, fighters are BACK!