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Planetary warfare

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I noticed this in a recent story in Asimov's, but it's something I've seen in a fair bit of other sf as well:

In a science fiction story, say there are some soldiers on the surface of a planet, and say there's a spacefaring organization (such as an opposing military force) that wants those soldiers dead.

Almost invariably in sf stories, what happens is the spacefaring organization lands a bunch of soldiers on the ground and the two sides fight it out. And as often as not, the plucky fighters on the ground get the upper hand through courage and luck and authorial fiat and end up winning.

It seems to me that the incredibly obvious solution is for the spacefaring organization to drop things on the ground-based soldiers. If the ground-based soldiers don't have surface-to-air missiles or the equivalent, then bombs dropped from aircraft are sufficient. If the ground-based soldiers do have some sort of anti-aircraft defense, then rocks dropped from orbit should do the job.

Of course, that would eliminate the plot, not to mention the protagonists, of a lot of stories, so it's become a genre convention that combat has to be carried out on the ground.

But it's not a genre convention I'm fond of.

(Yeah, yeah, you can finesse it. You can say there are civilians present on the ground, or say there's a specific artifact/MacGuffin that needs to be retrieved rather than destroyed, or whatever. But most authors in my experience don't bother.)

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The exception that sprang to my mind is Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle's Footfall. Though definitely on the pulpy side, the book tries to do real science and real warfare, and certainly has this particular issue correct (an alien invasion of Earth in which they do, in fact, drop things).


I expect it's Honor that prevents them.


Yep, that's shared peeve. Much more so in movies than in books, but maybe I just find it easier to be annoyed in movies.

I think Brin has both ground troops and war-from-above in his stuff (Uplift War flutters around my memory here). You don't need only rocks, after all: carrying all that mass around from orbit (which might have weather/wind issues to good targeting) or just plane-height can be a hassle: chem & energy weapons work too.

You'd think authors knew nothing of their own war history, eh?

I hate knowing anything about this, too. Yargh!

*shakes head and runs off to get a cookie instead*


Even I, having seen any of the "Alien" movies a total of zero times, am familiar with the phrase "take off and nuke the site from orbit."

Much depends on why, exactly, the spacefaring organization wants to obliterate the surface soldiers. The rocks-from-orbit approach might muss up valuable infrastructure and ecosystems, if the spacefarers had their eye on the surfacer's world as a nice new place to live/exploit.


On Babylon 5, planetary bombardment (really big rocks from orbit) was illegal among the space-faring races. I believe it was considered worse than nuclear weapons. Of course, on a much smaller scale, you can target a lot more accurately.


In Van Vogt's Slan stories, published in the 1940s, this was such an obvious problem that Van Vogt made it a cultural taboo to drop bombs from a flying machine. The reason was that the world had nearly been destroyed by bombs centuries before and the trauma was so deep that no one would dream of doing it again. Without this excuse, hand to hand combat would be silly in a culture that used spaceships.
Warfare gets more efficient, not less, so if you anachronistic combat in a story, the author must come up with believable excuse for including things like swords, kung-fu and even artillery in a story set in the future. (I am reminded of the scene in Indian Jones and... where Indy shoots the big swordsman. The sword was a stupid idea in a culture where pistols are common.)


Heinlein's _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_, I think it was, had the Lunies (sp?) dropping rocks on Earth. Dunno how realistic the science was, though.


I know next to nothing about military strategy, but I do agree with Dan P. that this all depends on what the goal of the spacefaring organization is (as well as their level of technology). If it's total annihilation, then yes, use the nukes. If it's not, then I think sending in ground troops eventually becomes necessary. With current technology, you can't actually conquer territory from the air. You can soften up your opponent with air strikes, but then you have to send in the ground troops. Witness Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Even in FOOTFALL, the aliens send in ground troops.

I think Scott Westerfeld had a very nice depiction of orbital/ground combat in his novel THE RISEN EMPIRE. In that novel, the objective is recovering a hostage, so they can't simply nuke the site. They have railguns so accurate that they can target a single individual from orbit. But even then, it's not easy.


You can say there are civilians present on the ground

Civilians are frequently a direct target of bombing, under the heading of morale.

Interestingly, at least with intraplanet battles, very few wars are fought to preserve the capital stores of the enemy. One wishes specifically to destroy capital stores (bridges, factories, housing developments, farms) so that they can be rebuilt under the guidance of the conquering party or simply left fallow so that raw materials can be extracted with little domestic interference.

The actual question always has to be "Why bother attacking another planet?" Dragging resources up from said planet's gravity well is likely to be very very expensive, and one is also likely to pass free resources (uninhabited planets, asteroids, whatever) on the way to the enemy. It's generally better for everyone to meet in space and do the pshew pshew stuff at one another.

Plus, if one has enough energy and capital at hand to actually launch interplanetary militaries, one has likely already figured out ways around overproduction, acrimony over resources, the need for occasional economic-rule-resets and other things that generally spark wars for territory.


I mostly agree with you, Nick, except that last bit:

if one has enough energy and capital at hand to actually launch interplanetary militaries, one has likely already figured out ways around overproduction, acrimony over resources, the need for occasional economic-rule-resets...

This is a little like saying that once you've learned to cross the Atlantic in great numbers or fly heavier-than-air craft, you've probably already figured out ways around famine, plague, wars over transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation, etc.

I expect we are, as a species, ingenious enough to keep coming up with new reasons for war. I expect we will also keep cycling between symbolic war (counting coup, sports, stockpiling missiles) and total war, skating the razor's edge of annihilation (or perhaps falling off it).


Good comments all around. And yeah, I think the "What's the goal?" question is essential.

In the Asimov's story that sparked this entry, as far as I could tell the goal was annihilation of the entire village on the ground, including the children; the attacking soldiers didn't take prisoners and seemed happy to knock down houses with their tank-like vehicles, and there wasn't anything in the area that the attackers needed to avoid destroying, so I couldn't figure out why they bothered to land at all.

The "Why bother to attack a planet?" question is also a good one; I started to touch on that in the original version of this entry, then deleted that part 'cause it was starting to ramble. (Like that's ever stopped me before.) If two space fleets meet in a star system halfway between their home systems, it seems relatively unlikely to me that there's a good reason for them to land on a planet and have the infantry duke it out; that would be like two oceangoing fleets meeting in mid-ocean and then landing soldiers on a nearby island so they could fight there. In the water-ships version, sometimes the island itself has strategic value (see Midway and Iwo Jima); I'd guess (though I'm talking through my hat here, so feel free to correct me) that the question of whether a planet (or, more likely, a moon) can have strategic value in that sense depends mostly on supply-line issues, which may depend a lot on what kind of FTL technology (if any) the warring sides use, as well as (as Nick noted indirectly) on how easy it is for either side's ships to enter and leave a gravity well. I think it wouldn't take much justification for me to be willing to believe that a planet was worth attacking in this context, but it would take some.

Also figuring into these questions are the size of space (which reduces a given planet's value as an observation post unless you have some sort of long-distance hyperspace observation capabilities) and the size of a planet (which means that really taking over the whole place, as you can do with an island, isn't really feasible).


This is a little like saying that once you've learned to cross the Atlantic in great numbers or fly heavier-than-air craft, you've probably already figured out ways around famine, plague, wars over transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation, etc.

And indeed, we have! Hundreds of millions more people are well-fed today than could have even been contemplated today -- despite the fact that millions of tons of food are destroyed each year and millions of hectares of land are left fallow to keep prices high. We are more than capable of having cities with 10-20 million residents with no plagues. We haven't had a big trans/con war in recent memory (and I'd contend that wars about sectarian fine points are no more really about those fine points than the war on Iraq was about Bush's hope to bring parliamentary democracy to that country).

The obstacles to eliminating all hunger/preventible disease are not technical obstacles, but obstacles of political economy -- obstacles currently unraveling themselves in a variety of ways, including the spasms of latter imperialism. We're in process.

As far as planets, my point is that on the way to whatever planet full of belligerents we're supposed to land on and attack with axes, we're likely to find whatever resource we wanted anyway. If the Atlantic Ocean was full of whales made of gold and filled with spices, there wouldn't have been much need to land on the American continents.


If the Atlantic Ocean was full of whales made of gold and filled with spices...

Now there's an alternate-history point of departure!


If the Atlantic Ocean was full of whales made of gold and filled with spices...

Well for all we know it is; it's not as though metal mammals stuffed with parsley are going to float.


Interesting point, Amy. From what I've heard, bombarding a planet with large asteroids easily could get worse than bombarding it with nuclear weapons. Some of the larger asteroids out there can make the Tsar Bomba look like a firecracker if one hit the Earth.


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