Why do we call them 'destroyers' anyway?
|10 min read
Reactor-Axe-Man's avatar
By Reactor-Axe-Man   |   
13 28 2K (1 Today)
Published:
It's a common trope in sci-fi that Space is an Ocean [WARNING - TV TROPES LINK], and so when we talk about spacecraft classification, naval terminology creeps into our work.  I think some of this is unavoidable.  For one, the Space is an Ocean meme is a powerful one, and it's been heavily reinforced over decades of use.  The other is that while I personally expect any future space forces to evolve from the Space Commands of existing Air Forces, once you get the ability to build large space-going warships and send them days or weeks out of contact from home, the Navy's organizational model starts making more sense over the Air Force model (pace, SG Universe.)

But that's not what I want to write about.

I think this 'creep' has extended so far that we've forgotten (or just didn't know), what all of those ship classifications even mean, or haven't taken a good look at whether a particular wet navy ship type even makes sense in space.  The term 'destroyer' is perhaps the worst offender.  We get destroyers in sci-fi that range from small escorts to titanic capital ships. (I'm looking at you, George.)

Since sci-fi Space is an Ocean models invariably build upon conventions established for such recent events as the Battle of the Jutland, the rock-paper-scissors paradigm of naval combat that dominated in that period may have been lost, and with it, just what exactly made a destroyer what it was and why.  Battleships rule the waves, with armor that only another battleship could defeat, and large bore cannons which could in theory strike their targets over the horizon.  If you wanted your Navy to compete, you needed to build battleships, which were crushingly expensive burdens.  (Look back to the period for commentary on how the naval arms race prior to WW1 was driving countries to ruin for examples of this.)  Then along came the torpedo, a powerful, relatively cheap weapon that could sink one of these behemoths, and could be deployed by relatively tiny, fast, and cheap swarms of torpedo boats.  The Battleship, especially the post-Dreadnought models of the type, could not effectively engage torpedo boats with their big guns.  Thus entered the Destroyer, short for Torpedo Boat Destroyer.  It was much smaller and cheaper to build than a ship of the line, was fast enough to chase after its quarry, and had lighter guns that could track and sink the torpedo boats.  Battleships sink Destroyers and other Battleships, Torpedo Boats sink Battleships, and Destroyers sink Torpedo Boats. Rock, Paper, Scissors.  The Destroyer had a specific purpose, otherwise it would have never existed.  Submarines being torpedo boats that could go underwater just meant that the Destroyer still had a reason to be as naval warfare technology moved on.

Does your Destroyer have such a purpose?  It's something to think about.  A Destroyer in a space setting could be a 'Fighter, Drone, and Missile' Destroyer, heavy on the point defense systems and acting as a consort to a larger and more important vessel.  That makes perfect sense and justifies the class.  If your Destroyer can stand in the line of battle, with a primary anti-ship armament and good protection, and even carry a few of its own fighters or troops along for the ride, you might want to reconsider its classification.  Make it a cruiser, or, if it really is just a battleship in destroyer clothing, call it something that reflects that role.

For my own setting, I've adopted naval ship classes that seem to have a purpose.  Here's a list and the reasons for their existence.

  • Battleship - Space Control ship.  Heavy armament and stout protection.  If you don't have anything that can stand up to it available, you have to concede the space it can control. Thus, Battleships can take control of orbital spaces, or even entire solar systems without firing a shot if the defenders don't have a comparable amount of tonnage and throw-weight to resist them and the willingness to do so.
  • Carrier - Interface Fighter and Strike Craft mothership.  In my setting, there is nothing a Space Fighter can do that a drone missile carrier can't do better, but when it comes to planetary real estate, a fighter that can operate in low orbit as well as within the deep atmosphere has greater utility.  They can be Johnny-On-The-Spot for close air support, ISR, and air superiority in a way that orbiting warships providing for these roles cannot.  For one thing, in low orbit, a warship will only pass over a given location on the ground for about 10 or 15 minutes, maybe 4 or 5 times a day depending on the latitude and the inclination of the orbit.  Because Interface Fighters and Strike Craft have a reason to be, so too the Carrier, to bring them to low orbit, recover them after their mission, and return them to service.
  • Cruiser - A cruiser is more or less a scaled down Battleship.  Battleships are expensive to build, man, and maintain, and if your setting has lots of places to go, the amount of space you can actually control will be limited by your ability to put something there that can take care of itself.  The Cruiser, being smaller, is less expensive to build, man, and maintain, so you can build more of them to control more space, reserving the Battleships for the really important locations and to keep them available to mass for a decisive engagement.  Wet Navy cruisers tended to be faster than battleships, but in a Newtonian physics based space setting like my own, one's 'speed' in the end comes down to propellant fractions, which can be the same for any given size or class of spacecraft.  Instead, a Cruiser is built for long endurance independent operations, trading a little firepower and protection for the ability to maintain a presence somewhere and control space where a Battleship isn't worth sending instead.
  • Assault Ship - A troop carrier.  Their job is to transport ground based combat power to target worlds and deliver them with organic interface craft.  They may carry interface fighters and strike craft as well as landers,  they may even have their own space to surface weaponry for fire support, but most of their displacement is given over to housing troops, their vehicles, their gear, and their supplies.
  • Tanker - Just what it says on the tin.  The Tanker carries reserves of propellant and reactor fuel to replenish the fleet.  Since propulsion within a system is by reaction drive, massive quantities of reaction mass get consumed, and it is the Tanker's job to keep the fleet fueled.  Tankers usually carry harvesting craft to find sources of hydrogen, deuterium, and helium-3 and have their own processing plants to turn raw materials harvested into useable propellants/reactants.  An army marches on its stomach, and so too a fleet maneuvers on what is in its tankers.
  • Logistics Ship - A military version of a freighter, usually identical to existing civilian merchant classes, with perhaps a slight upgrade to armament, communications, and protection.  Warships need spare parts, replacement missiles and other expendable stores, water, and food.
  • Tender - A repair ship.  These carry fabrication plants, raw materials, and technical shops to maintain, repair, and in some cases even rebuild parts of spacecraft to keep the fleet in the fight away from their home stations.
  • Frigate - A scaled down Cruiser.  You can build and operate 2 or 3 frigates for the same expense as a Cruiser, so you can at least 'show the flag' in more places, and in remote systems even control them.  Most Frigates have a small organic troop contingent embarked on board as well as small landers to transport them, allowing them to occupy or provide security for outposts and small colonies. The Frigate is the Swiss Army Knife of the fleet.  It doesn't do any particular job very well, but it can do a little of everything, and because you can build lots of them for the same price as a Battleship, your ability to at least influence large volumes of space is much greater than a powerful warship that can only be in one place at a time.
  • Destroyer - Also called an Escort.  The purpose of the Destroyer is to eliminate any missiles or small craft which threaten its consort, usually a Battleship, Carrier, Assault Ship, Tanker, Tender, or Logistics Ship.  It does not have an appreciable anti-ship armament, and would be helpless against even a Frigate.  They have to be fairly agile in order to provide coverage, or if necessary, position themselves to eat an anti-ship missile instead of letting their charge get hit.
  • Corvette/System Defense Boat - A scaled down Frigate, usually optimized for an anti-ship role.  Since a corvette/SDB is unlikely to have a direct fire armament that can seriously threaten larger warships, they typically incorporate a significant fraction of their weapons displacement as anti-ship missiles and will engage in packs.  This gives them limited combat endurance, but offers a cheap way to punch well above their weight in an engagement.  Think of them as the wet navy Torpedo Boat.  (Ironically, Destroyers are not built to engage them, but a Frigate or another Corvette/SDB would serve admirably in this role.)  Corvettes and SDBs may also be assigned to convoy escort duties, sometimes led by a Frigate or a Destroyer.  Their job is to intercept commerce raiders away from the convoy, and destroy them with salvos of anti-ship missiles.  The original wet navy Corvette was meant to operate in home waters in a patrol role, and with a fairly strong for its displacement anti-ship capability.  A System Defense Boat is simply a Corvette without an FTL system, making them more in line with the original wet navy concept.


Comments28
anonymous's avatar
Join the community to add your comment. Already a deviant? Log In
dsivis's avatar
Makes so much sense...
4-X-S's avatar
4-X-SHobbyist Artist
A more creative not necessarily realistic model would be something similar to a bee hive or computer network. You have command units that does the thinking, and communication, you have other variety of units that under control, some are utility, some are weapon, others are special tasking. Instead of battle ship or mining fleet, you get a swarm of remote or automated warheads, or space power tools.
Reactor-Axe-Man's avatar
Reactor-Axe-ManHobbyist Digital Artist
I dunno, that seems to invite the single point of failure attack strategy, especially if it's obvious which ship is the command unit. Focus all effort on killing that one, and the rest will fall.
4-X-S's avatar
4-X-SHobbyist Artist
Command unit is not in an hierarchical order, there are multiple command units spread uniformly, consider the rate which IT technology develops, command infrastructure can be implemented into most of the units, the only difference is command unit are assigned always in a limited number to form an order, once a command unit destroyed, another passive unit will take its place. It is like the master / slave setting in digital electronics. Also all units have identical physical and very similar EM signature. Of course we can add a mega size crewed mobile fortress that can manufacture those units. Now Im not arguing about how it works better or worse, Im trying to come up a rather original idea for space vehicles.
Reactor-Axe-Man's avatar
Reactor-Axe-ManHobbyist Digital Artist
Still, there will be less command units than combatants, and they are the keys to the battle. There's no point in wasting fire on the drones when you can crush the heads of the IT hydra.
Gatomon41's avatar
Enjoyable article :)  I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees the importance of having alot of frigates in a space setting.
Reactor-Axe-Man's avatar
Reactor-Axe-ManHobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you! Let's face it, frigate commands were romantic and exciting in the days of Wooden Ships and Iron Men, more so in the sea-romances written about them, and if you're going to write a sci-fi romance in the days of Alumo-Titanium Ships and Diamondoid Men, they probably have a place there, too.
fmilluminati's avatar
fmilluminatiHobbyist Digital Artist
"Space is an ocean" is probably one of the most destructive and misleading tropes that has ever been used in sci-fi.  It not only leads to 'boats in space', but it dis-educates the public so they have no idea how spacecraft actually work or are supposed to function.  There is almost nothing about naval warfare that translates properly into space.  There are no 'frigates' in space, no 'battleships', no 'destroyers' - none of these things make sense in the context of space warfare.  There are especially no 'fighters' and 'carriers'.  

Personally, I would like to find the individual that started the 'space is an ocean' trope and pummel them a couple times in the face.  I'm sick of watching space-boats with magical (and physically impossible) 'artificial gravity' in every space movie / tv show.  It would be the same as if in every WWII movie the Germans wore bright purple hats with feathers because the directors / producers / artists were too stupid to know what the WWII German uniform looked like.  Eventually, it would ruin the genre, just as 'boats in space' has ruined space sci-fi.  
Gatomon41's avatar
There's a good reason why Niven and Pournelle didn't make up extra terms in "The Mote in God's Eye".  In their essay explaining the creative process ("Building the Mote in God's Eye", which could be found in Niven's N-Space collection), they pointed out they could have easily just made up terms that would correspond to the roles of leadership.

The reason why they didn't (if I recall correctly) was because it didn't help the reader if they had to explain every single new term.  And in writing, one should always show and not tell.  It's much more effective just to use a single identifiable term for an Emperor, instead of using the word Posnitch, and derailing the story to explain how that's supposed to equate to "emperor".

It's basically the same reason why SF (from the hardest to softest) use terms like Destroyer or Battleship.  In one single word they can communicate more than several long lines of dialog to explain the role of the ship, and all without dragging the story out.
fmilluminati's avatar
fmilluminatiHobbyist Digital Artist
I see your point.  The flip side to this issue is though, if I took a 21st century reader and somehow teleported them to the 22nd or 23rd century - or another universe, there would be other terms they have to learn.  Disorientating the reader communicates that idea that the world they are reading about isn't familiar.
Gatomon41's avatar
I think the aliens and starships would give that away.
fmilluminati's avatar
fmilluminatiHobbyist Digital Artist
I don't see us discovering aliens any time soon. :D

As far as spacecraft, while they will be bigger and more capable, I'm sure, we have those now, so it wouldn't particularly shocking to see a larger one.  Think of it this way, what would a turn of the 20th century person be more bewildered by?  The a modern oil tanker, or an iPad connected to the internet?  The oil tanker is just a bigger boat, the terms would be completely foreign, as the iPad and the internet are ideas they wouldn't even have conceptualized in their time.  
frazamm's avatar
It may be disruptive and misleading but it was the most understandable. If things get too complicated, and people do not understand it might not sell, and those considerations matter most to executives. Cost is likely to also have affected deck orientation. We might not have seen sci-fi take off if 'space is an ocean' hadn't existed.

Nowadays, with effects being relatively 'cheaper' it might be possible to start demolishing the trope. I am not defending it, but if it hadn't been for it, I wouldn't have been interested in sci-fi at all. I guess it served a purpose.
fmilluminati's avatar
fmilluminatiHobbyist Digital Artist
Space Odyssey 2001 did quite well without the "boats in space" idea.  I think deck orientation has simply been an expression of laziness and ignorant on the part of Hollywood, which is not surprising.  I'm not sure Hollywood is getting any smarter, so even with better effects, they will probably be too stupid to fix the "boats in space problem".  

However, I do agree with you about the other part of the trope - "ship classes" in space - it does make things a bit easier for audiences; and technically, it's not as blatant of a problem as "boats in space", and can be explained rationally.
Reactor-Axe-Man's avatar
Reactor-Axe-ManHobbyist Digital Artist
I think going forward, as we actually start to move out into space commercially, on a much wider scope, we'll see this trope wither on the vine just as more people get exposed to the realities of space travel.
fmilluminati's avatar
fmilluminatiHobbyist Digital Artist
I sure hope so, in my darkest dreams I see people watching "boats in space" as their in-flight movie while sitting in the rotating habitat section of a spacecraft heading for mars.  "If only we had more unobtainium, we could create gravitons!"  Oh, so sad.  
sandor6's avatar
I share your frustration with the "space is an ocean" trope. It's as frustrating as "space is WWI/WWII dogfighting." Then you get ridiculously popular things like Star Wars that manage to combine both tropes. Even when media SF makes an effort to get things right, they can't seem to get past these, and particularly the ever-popular idea of spacecraft decks being laid out like an ocean-going ship. This one doesn't even make sense if you have magitech artificial gravity - who's going to pay for gravity generators that operate perpendicular to the thrust vector?!? But then the writers of the supposedly realistic movie Gravity have apparently never heard of a plane change or delta-V, so I've given up hope of Hollywood or the gaming industry ever getting it right.
My suspicion is that Gene Roddenberry bears a lot of blame for popularizing space as an ocean. The Enterprise wasn't aerodynamic, but the decks were laid out wrong and it had that absurd bridge right on top. It seems to have spelled the doom of rocketship-style spacecraft whose designers at least understand which direction the thrust goes, and what that means for the internal layout.
The use of naval terminology doesn't really bother me, though, if only the writers using it could get the basic physics right.
Also, I'm just going to drop this link right here for the benefit of anyone who hasn't visited that site.
NyrathWiz's avatar
NyrathWizHobbyist Digital Artist
Thanks for the link.

I will note that there is a page in the Atomic Rocket website that devotes tons of verbiage to the topic of creating classifications of space warships, though none with such authority as Reactor-Axe-Man.
here: www.projectrho.com/public_html…

There is also a quote from Reactor-Axe-Man on another page, under a different name. ;)
sandor6's avatar
You're most welcome. Thanks for the fine site!
fmilluminati's avatar
fmilluminatiHobbyist Digital Artist
"My suspicion is that Gene Roddenberry bears a lot of blame for popularizing space as an ocean."

I suspect as much also, for the same reason you pointed out.  Hence my intense dislike of Star Trek.  Of course, I have to admit, I love the stories of Star Trek, but every time I see a Star Trek space vehicle, I want to throw things at the screen it's being displayed on.  :D
Reactor-Axe-Man's avatar
Reactor-Axe-ManHobbyist Digital Artist
:iconnyrathwiz: has a DA page, too.
sandor6's avatar
Ah, good point! Thanks, I'd forgotten about that.
Reactor-Axe-Man's avatar
Reactor-Axe-ManHobbyist Digital Artist
I'm on the same page with you on matters of magic sci-fi tech.  My own work has been about getting away from those tropes.  Even in my commissioned works where they apply, I've stepped in and tweaked them where I could to fit a more 'realistic' portrayal of spacecraft.

However, I do have to disagree about no frigates, battleships, et cetera.  They are about roles, and regardless of whether or not Space is an Ocean (and I do not think that it is), a Battleship in space fills the same role as a Battleship in the water.  It's the largest type of combatant a nation can field, the term coming from the original 'Line of Battle Ship' and just as easily 'Wall (or Sphere or whatever formation you think best) of Battle Ship' in a 3D combat.  Space-going Cruisers and Frigates are simply smaller versions of Battleships in their composition as offensive space control platforms.  They exist because Battleships sensibly will be expensive to build, crew, and operate, and for these reasons you can have fewer Battleships (and therefore control less space with them) than you can with larger numbers of smaller combatants.  The role of the wet navy Cruiser and Frigate was for independent operations, the cruiser generally being larger, better armed, and having more endurance, but the Frigate a capable small combatant well suited to patrols, 'show the flag' operations with allies, neutral powers, and potential adversaries, and independent commerce raiding.  We call certain private boats and types of motorcycles 'cruisers' for the same reason I call medium-sized space battleships cruisers.  They're roomy (but not huge), well equipped, and are built for long range (read: high endurance) trips. I don't see those roles going away even in a setting limited to a single solar system.  Call them Space Control Ships or System Dominators or Arsenal Platforms or whatever you like, we use naming conventions like 'Battleship,' 'Cruiser,' 'Frigate,' and yes, 'Destroyer' as a convenient personal shorthand to our audience to bring them up to speed quickly.  All I ask is that our conventions be internally consistent and sensible to that with which we are comparing them.

As creative types, we love the worlds we create.  We love our fluff.  I'm no exception to that.  What I find disturbing, even objectionable, is when I find so little consideration put into the fluff.  For a setting like Battle Fleet Gothic, where we have kilometers long Gothic Cathedrals IN SPACE , the threshold of absurdity is gleefully leaped over - the setting is not only conscious of how ridiculous it is, it revels in the gloriously overblown cheese of itself.  I'm good with a 40K Imperium of Man 'Destroyer' being three times the size of a Nimitz class carrier and capable of glassing small moons by itself.  It fits.  It fits because ships that are only a kilometer long are the small fry of the Battle Fleet Gothic universe dominated by Gothic Basilicas hundreds of times (by volume) bigger and more ostentatiously ridiculous.

And that's really what my little essay was about.  It was a cri de coeur to both myself and my fellow sci-fi enthusiasts to maybe step back a moment from their own works and think things through a little better.  I think the caveat of de gustibus non est disputandum applies, but as someone who enjoys sci-fi games, books, movies and TV shows as much for their fluff as their primary contributions to the visual and literary media, a well reasoned and internally consistent fluff is a signifier to me that the creative person behind their works actually cares about what they are doing, is as interested as me in the genre, and isn't just doing this because this is how they earn their daily crust.
fmilluminati's avatar
fmilluminatiHobbyist Digital Artist
" My own work has been about getting away from those tropes."

That's why I always appreciate your art. :D

"However, I do have to disagree about no frigates, battleships, et cetera."

The problem is, these terms signify certain roles, and there are really no wet navy roles that are analogous to space warfare.  That being said, we do still use naval terms in aviation, despite 100 years of flying.  So, I must grant that case could be made for using a few naval terms, and it's possible that some wet navy roles may develop in space in the future, though sites like Atomic Rockets have convinced that that's highly unlikely.  Generally though, it does make sense to differentiate between different classes of spacecraft, as I'm sure with the progress of spaceflight we will see more of in the future. 

In my own writing / art, I've looked at using different terms to designate various types of spacecraft, but I haven't put together a consistent system that I really like - yet.  


anonymous's avatar
Join the community to add your comment. Already a deviant? Log In