We loved Battlestar Galactica's nuanced approach to foreign affairs, wartime politics, and classicism, but how likely is it that its portrayal of a futuristic aircraft carrier will translate into our spacefaring military future? Foreign Policy interviewed naval analyst and former U.S. Naval War College research professor Chris Weuve about how science fiction has influenced military design and what shows like Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, and Star Trek: The Next Generation get right and wrong about military operations in space.
FP spoke to Weuve about the influence of naval warfare on science fiction depictions of space warfare and vice versa. One of the key points that Weuve brought up is that medium matters; when many science fiction creators translate naval conventions to space, they sometimes ignore that those connections exist because there are two media through which vehicles travel at sea: air and water. Not so when traveling through space:
FP: You seem particularly concerned about the "aircraft carrier in space" concept.
CW: I don't think "concerned" is the right word. Let's call it amused. Aircraft carriers are a particularly good model to illustrate how the differences between the ocean and the air really drive how naval combat works, and hence don't work so well when converted to space. An aircraft carrier is built around three things: the flight deck, which functions as the airplanes' doorway between the sea and the sky, and also the parking lot for the airplanes; the hangar deck, where essential aircraft maintenance is carried out; and the propulsion spaces, because you really want that flight deck to be moving fast to generate wind over the deck, which in turn makes it easier to land and take off. Everything about the "airport" aspects of an aircraft carrier point towards making it big: big engines, and big flight deck that is also elevated away from the turbulence of the ocean surface. So, since you need a big ship anyway, we decide to put a lot of planes on, plus extra fuel, command and control facilities, a hospital, a post office, and so on. You name it, an aircraft carrier has it.
But in space, you don't need that doorway between the sea and the sky, because your "fighter" is operating in the same medium as the mothership. You don't need a flight deck. You just need a hatch, or maybe just a clamp that attaches the fighter to the hull if you don't mind leaving it outside. You don't need the big engines or the big elevated flight deck. And hence it doesn't make nearly so much sense to put all of your eggs in one basket. There might still be some efficiencies in grouping them together, but the fighters are probably more analogous to helicopters rather than F-18s. Almost every ship in the U.S. Navy carries a helicopter, or at least could temporarily. And before the emails start, Battlestar Galactica is one of my favorite TV shows.
There are, however, things that BSG does get right; Weuve credits the show with having the best portrayal of life aboard a ship. The rest of the interview is a pretty fascinating read, looking at everything from shipboard coordination in E.E. Doc Smith's Lensman novels to the movement of ships in Babylon 5.