Even better, since there’s been a whole lot of articles about this written recently and not so recently on the blog, go here and scroll back as far as you like.
So, while it now seems to have disappeared from the Internet, my article on Non-Standard Starship Scuffles appears to have come in for some little criticism:
First, for having FTL in it; and
Second, for assuming that space battles will take place in open space, the commenter apparently not seeing any reason why they would ever take place except right next to whatever strategic nexus point they’re fighting over.
To a degree, on both points, I’m inclined to question the reading that gave rise to those comments because on the first, well, while there is mention of FTL communications with observation platforms to improve one’s longscan for tactical advantage, the ships themselves don’t – can’t – move at FTL speeds, and indeed, the entire rest of the article would be exactly the same if there were no such thing as a tangle channel.
On the latter, though, I first note this:
Reaching the inner engagement envelope implies either that one party is attacking or defending a specific fixed installation (such as a planetary orbit, drift-habitat, or stargate), or that both parties have chosen engagement. It is relatively rare for such battles to take place in open space otherwise, since in the absence of clear acceleration superiority, it is usually easy for the weaker party to disengage before entering their opponent’s inner engagement envelope. The only way to guarantee that an opponent will stand and fight is to attack a strategic nexus that they must retain control over.
…but let’s ignore that for a moment. Here’s why starship battles, whenever possible, are conducted in open space despite this, and why the inconclusive engagement-avoidance-and-retreat is also more common than the aforementioned at-nexus-point battle.
Because in space, a weapon once fired continues on until it hits something. Hopefully that’s its target. If it isn’t its target. hopefully it’s a clean-up fluffship, or something big and ugly enough not to care (like the star), or some Oort cloud object no-one cares about.
But the bigger the solid angle subtended by an object from the point of view of the fighting starships, obviously, the greater the chance that it’s going to be shot right in the face by misses, not to mention ricochets and debris. And the closer you are to an object, the greater the solid angle it subtends, by the inexorable laws of geometry.
This is why the defender has a strong preference for going out to meet the attacker, because letting what you are trying to defend get all shot up as a side effect of the process of defending it generally makes defending it in the first place somewhat moot.
This is also why many attackers have a preference for luring the defender out to meet them: because firstly, Omnicidal Maniacs aside, you may want to capture some of those defensible assets reasonably intact and avoid any unnecessary effusion of blood; and secondly, because being casual about smacking relatively fragile civilian habitats and inhabited planets in the backdrop with starship-class weapons is the sort of thing that leads to bad press, unwanted reputations, and awkward interviews in front of war crimes tribunals.
All of which is to say: naval strategists have a term for admirals who plan their defensive engagements at point-blank range rather than maintaining a healthy strategic depth. That term is idiot.