Star Trek focuses on large, slow (in local space, anyway) ships which behave like battleships.

As a counter-example, Battlestar Galactica was in an "aircraft carrier universe", where the big ships don't fight as much directly, but instead send out squadrons of fighter craft.

Aircraft carriers in real life had already asserted their dominance over battleships decades before Star Trek was made.

So I was wondering if Roddenberry (or any other staff) had commented on why they chose this.

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    If I had to guess/reason, it'd be the research aspect combined with the fact that actual space exploration had less of a focus than planetary exploration. But interesting question. – Napoleon Wilson Nov 15 at 15:10
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    @dean1957 But why the Battle of Jutland instead of the Battle of Midway? The question is not "why naval battles" but "why a particular type of naval battle". – Almo Nov 15 at 15:52
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    @dean1957 Actually, Star Wars is a lot closer to BSG than Star Trek in this regard - most capital ships seem to be hybrid battleship-carriers. – Luaan Nov 15 at 16:46
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    An important reason might be that filming a lot of flights and fights of small spaceships was expensive by the time of the original series. Production of a battleship universe - with very few actual different space scenes - is simpler and cheaper. – Pere Nov 15 at 19:08
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    You need to take this question to Worldbuilding to get some real Battleship vs. Aircraft Carrier in Space flame wars. I'm team battleship, by the way. There are no control surfaces in space, small craft will be annihilated by lasers, ergo battleships. – kingledion Nov 17 at 2:32

13 Answers 13

up vote 68 down vote accepted

I suspect that this started with Roddenberry's vision of the Enterprise.

He had some specific requirements...

"We're [...] out in deep space, on the equivalent of a cruiser-size spaceship. We don't know what the mode of power is, but I don't want to see any trails of fire. No streaks of smoke, no jet intakes, rocket exhaust, or anything like that [...]. It will be like a deep space exploration vehicle, operating throughout our galaxy.

Roddenberry further specified that the Enterprise would operate mainly in space, have a crew of 100-150, and be incredibly fast.

Wikiepdia

The very specific design informs how large other ships (Federation or otherwise) would tend to be, unless the demands of the plot require otherwise.

Recall that this is intended to be an armed exploration vessel and frigate/cruiser sizes are kind of traditional in that role since the crew complement and hold sizes (probably not factor in Trek) would require a minimum size for extended (5-year) missions/voyages.

  • I've upvoted many of the good answers here. But this addressed my question best, about what the team themselves were thinking. Thanks everyone! – Almo Nov 16 at 16:10
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    This is a quote from the book The Making of Star Trek by Steven E Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry, published in 1968, citing a section from a Memo that the Great Bird of the Galaxy wrote in pre-production on the tv series in 1964. – Ed999 Nov 16 at 16:34
  • I would suspect the lack of fighter craft also has to do with the special effects budget. This is the same reason they have transporters and only use shuttles when it's plot-critical. A space battle with one stock ship and one opposing ship and they're not even shown on screen at the same times is cheap and easy. A convincing fighter attack would be significantly more expensive. – Perkins Nov 19 at 20:39
  • But my question was what Roddenberry and his team stated publicly; I'm not looking for possible other reasons. It's true, budget was probably a big factor. But I'm not aware of the creators ever stating this. – Almo Nov 19 at 22:29
  • It's worth adding that if the Enterprise was based on the very original ship, the HMS Enterprize, then it is effective a cruiser-type ship used for battle and exploration, famous in the civil war (expanded universe books tend to focus on it, and it's shown in ST: Enterprise). The USS Enterprise as an aircraft carrier didn't occur until much later. This might be Roddenberry's basis. – SSight3 Nov 21 at 10:32

Aircraft carriers dominated battleships in naval fights. But there's reasons for that. The question you need to ask yourself is "would aircraft carriers dominate battleships in space too?"

First, realize that aircraft carriers are no longer the king of naval battles. Missile cruisers are. Missiles have all the reasons why aircraft came to dominate naval battles, but better and cheaper. They are used for their force projection capabilities, not naval combat efficiency, strictly speaking.

But let's assume Roddenberry didn't have this insight. Which advantages did airplanes have in naval combat?

  • They're very fast. Well, Roddenberry's spaceships are virtually unlimited in speed and acceleration anyway, and there's no clear scale between speed and mass or size. Really, with military ships, bigger and more massive ships seem to be faster than small and light ships. This is actually how naval ships work too, to an extent — the longer the ship, the faster it is (for the typical "battleship" hydrodynamic design); the more engines, the faster. The thing that made battleships slower than battlecruisers was the mass of armor — battlecruisers were pretty much the fastest ship in part thanks to their size. Aircraft broke this balance because they weren't ships. But the same isn't true of space fighters — they would be the same space ships, just smaller. There are still some benefits you could get from fighters, but it's definitely not even close to the asymmetry between aircraft and naval ships.
  • They could provide intelligence from well beyond the horizon. That was their original use, in fact: finding enemy ships. Naval combat was often decided by who could concentrate their fleet against enemy ships — and that required finding the ships in the first place. Needless to say, there's no horizon in space — intelligence is rarely limited by terrain.
  • They could punch way above their weight. A single craft with a single torpedo could sink an entire aircraft carrier — that's massive asymmetry. At the same time, it was very hard for ships to shoot down aircraft. This again isn't true in space in the slightest - Roddenberry's spaceships are protected by shielding that (usually) needs to be overwhelmed with raw firepower. You can't hit them "below the belt" and take them out with a fighter-carried torpedo.

These are pretty strong arguments against space fighters; you'd really need something special to enable space fighters, and then some extra heap to say why you'd want to use fighters instead of missiles.

But I don't think that's what Roddenberry was actually thinking about when writing Star Trek. Rather, I think the main thing would be his ideas about humanity and society. People flying around solo in fragile fighters just doesn't fit. It reinforces the idea of "ace" fighters struggling individually, with many becoming pretty much disposable. That works great for the world of Battlestar Galactica, which is really mostly "our world, the same kinds of people, just with extra magi-technology"; but not for Star Trek's utopian (subjective, needless to say :) ) vision of the future.

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    @Almo - Star Trek pretty much doesn't 'do' inertia [other than the 'jump around the bridge whilst under fire' trope]. They zip around as they like, in & out of warp. They're only 'slow' to manoeuvre because slow looks best on screen. Flipping them 90° in half a second makes them look like models. – Tetsujin Nov 15 at 16:59
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    @Almo Your claim that fighters still turn and accelerate faster than space battleships is nonsense. There aren't any space fighters or space battleships yet, no nobody knows how they behave. We can only calculate how they should behave. Among vehicles that operate in the same medium, the larger ones can have a larger proportion of engine mass and space and so can turn and accelerate faster. Space fighters and space battleships would operate in the same medium, and thus the space battleships should turn and accelerate faster. – M. A. Golding Nov 15 at 17:11
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    @Almo - there's no sign we will ever make artificial gravity either - you're not seriously using actual physics to argue about a TV show where we clearly see they have artificial gravity & no inertia ? – Tetsujin Nov 15 at 17:32
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    @Almo In the novelisation of the first Start Trek movie, the Enterprise accelerates from a stand still to half the speed of light in a couple of seconds (probably not the first such incident, just the first that came to mind). Regardless of how technically feasible that is, it clearly shows that inertia and momentum isn't a big deal for Rodenberry's spaceships. Since you're asking a question within the Star Trek universe, that's all the evidence you need. Even if fighters were capable of even higher accelerations, it still isn't anywhere comparable to aircraft vs. naval ships. – Luaan Nov 15 at 18:00
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    @Almo Inertial dampers are an explicit, canon thing in the Star Trek universe. Granted, they seem to be introduced with TNG rather than being explicitly mentioned in TOS, but TOS ships' behavior is consistent with the presence of inertial dampers. While the real world might not ever nullify inertia, in the Star Trek universe they certainly can, and their ships are designed around that fact. – R.M. Nov 15 at 18:42

They behave like the traditional role of cruisers

A battleship is a dedicated large heavily armed and armored warship designed to work with a larger fleet. It is designed to be a heavy weapons platform (ie. it's got big guns) and take a beating from similar weapons. It requires a larger fleet for fuel, supplies, and auxillary work like scouting, anti-submarine, etc.. Very rarely do we see Starfleet vessels acting like this.

Cruisers are large, fast, long range, well armed and decently armored vessels. They're large and diverse enough to be capable of independent action for long periods of time away from major port. They have enough weapons and armor to defend themselves from most of what they're likely to encounter, and fast enough to run away from anything else.

It's also been said Roddenberry considered Starfleet more like a Coast Guard than a military Navy, the Enterprise is like a large coast guard cutter.

Exploration, scientific expeditions, raiding, diplomacy, humanitarian efforts, rescue, anti-piracy work; they are the jack-of-all-trades of the fleet. And in Star Trek we usually see ships acting alone.

Note that this is the traditional role of cruisers. The traditional cruiser role has been taken over by destroyers which have been getting larger and larger. In a modern fleet, cruisers have become large specialist ships (anti-air, anti-surface, anti-submarine).

Roddenberry may have been influenced by romantic Age Of Sail stories of frigates sailing alone, "Horatio Hornblower in Space". One ship out there on its own. One captain with all the weight of responsibility on them. They must make good decisions, resolve the hard problems, and save their ship and their crew. There's nobody else.

And in universe the Constitution class, which includes the original USS Enterprise, is referred to as a heavy cruiser.

Technical and budget limitations

This is one of the biggest constraints. In 1966 special effects were extremely limited. Even shooting a single ship slowly orbiting around a fuzzy planet was a stretch on a TV series budget and schedule. Having a single, large, apparently slow moving ship was cheaper and easier. Swarms of fighters would be well beyond their ability.

Battlestar Galactica came out in 1978 benefiting hugely from Star Wars. Obviously the technology had improved, but also culturally. When Star Trek came out sci-fi was considered to be something for kids like Buck Rogers serials. Budgets were very limited for a serious, philosophical sci-fi show for adults. Star Wars showed you could make a (somewhat) serious, big budget sci-fi for adults.

Starfleet is not a military

Battlestar Galactica is a show about a war for survial. Aircraft carriers are offensive weapons. Their primary purpose is to project power over the horizon. The carrier itself is very vulnerable. Battlestars, particularly the reboot, act more like hybrid battleship/carriers which can both throw and take a punch.

Their aircraft are vulnerable and expendable. A few aircraft being shot down is cheaper than risking the whole ship. That doesn't fit with Roddenberry's vision of Starfleet's respect for all life. It would require an unconvincing GI Joe / A-Team style show with lots of violence but somehow nobody gets seriously hurt.

Roddenberry was emphatic that Starfleet was not a military. That Starfleet vessels were not ships of war. That their arms were for defense, not offense. In particular energy shields gave a buffer for diplomacy, the Enterprise could suffer some hits without taking any real damage or casualties giving more time for diplomacy or subterfuge. It allowed the writers to show the Federation using diplomacy even in the face of violence.

A Slower Paced, More Philosophical Show

The slower pace of a large ship allows for a more thoughtful story. People walking around from room to room consulting each other, debating topics, making careful decisions.

In contrast to hot-head pilots isolated in their small craft, making fast decisions, yelling at each other over the radio, solving problems by shooting them.

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    Among other things, this draws out the significance of the quote @Paulie_D found in which Roddenberry specifically describes the ship as a cruiser. – bgvaughan Nov 16 at 0:11
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    You do not need to look so far. In the season 1 episode, A Taste of Armageddon, in 1966, Anan Seven describes the U.S.S. Enterprise as a cruiser ("target the star cruiser now orbiting"). That's pretty much an in-universe acceptance of the description. – Ed999 Nov 16 at 16:09
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    @Ed999 True, but then again, what the ships actually do is more important than what they're called; Imperial Star Destroyers might have "destroyer" in their name, but they sure as hell don't fulfil the roles of modern naval destroyers. – Luaan Nov 17 at 6:27
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    Its probably also worth noting neither show depicts a particularly realistic vision of space battles. Should we ever end up in a future with them (lets hope not!) they would likely be over absurd distances, hundreds to thousands of kilometers (Theres no sneaking up in space). and at the 'shorter' hundreds range, use beam weapons, and the longer range hurling very heavy chunks of stuff very very fast , possibly nuclear propelled for maximum acceleration to achieve sheer kinetic brutality. Close up brawls would be rare I suspect, and thats how both shows ships work. Fun to watch, not realistic – Shayne Nov 19 at 9:14
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    @Perkins Wrath of Khan is interesting because it happened while Roddenberry was still alive, though I don't think he has directly involved. It's one long engagement and has been described as Horatio Hornblower In Space. The ships are very close. Reliant makes use of false flags. Her opening shot is the equivalent of a point blank broadside. They play hide and seek in a "storm". It's one of the first times we explicitly see that the ships turn slowly and it's an important factor in the battle: "I've deprived your ship of power and when I swing round I mean to deprive you of your life." – Schwern Nov 19 at 22:51

I would suggest the jutland-vs-midway comparison is fundamentally missing the theme of the series and becoming confused because of that.

At heart, Star Trek is about The naval explorer, harking back to Age-of-sail.

One or more tall ships, a close-knit crew working together for years, visiting strange lands and meeting strange people, Pushing back the frontier. Working through hardships together. Even the routine updates of the Captain's Log draws parallels to records of the Logbooks of explorers in the age of sail.

That source by nature doesn't focus on combat, though those ships were reasonably armed for what they'd expect to encounter. Instead, the ships have Boats and Gigs for transferring the crew to shore and back as Star Trek uses Shuttles.
They have a few cannons and the crew have armaments available because who knows what they might encounter, but they're not going to war and the ship is not fundamentally a warship.

With a nod to that generally non-combat nature of the ships, the armour/weapons balance leans towards the durable. Meaning that combat between two ships in Star Trek tends towards a battleship style slugfest.

Given the resources then, there are no fighters. That's the wrong genre and doesn't fit the exploration theme in the first place (Why does Marco Polo or Columbus have or need air support?) So any combat is necessarily either ashore, or between the ships themselves.

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    It has to be mentioned that Roddenberry explicitly references the Horatio Hornblower novels in his early descriptions of the show. – DJClayworth Nov 16 at 19:35

For storytelling reasons, Roddenberry tried to remove all drama from routine operations. The Galactica reboot's storytelling savored its first FTL jump, with the fear, jump prep, fancy key and all that. After that, it was dropped from the storytelling and not re-explained every episode. They could get away with that because Galactica was a serial: writers presumed you'd seen the whole series. Star Trek was episodic: Optimized so a new viewer could start at any eposide. Anything complicated would need to be explained to a naïve viewer, to the boredom of all others.

So Roddenberry designed transport that didn't need a lot of explaining! Like the near-deus-ex-machina transporter, he wanted a ship that could just do it: was interstellar-fast (no screen time explaining hibernation pods) and agile (able to come to speed instantly and turn effectively). This broke the carrier-fighter model: such a ship is practically immune to small figher craft.

The big burly carrier gets his 112 fighters launched, and the enemy starship captain simply says "helm, go Warp Five for 10 seconds and stop." Suddenly they're halfway across the star system.

The fighter CAG says "aw hell, they did it again" and somebody else on radio jeers "Saw that comin'." The fighters will have to fly at top speed for an hour to get to the starship's new location, or else spend 30 minutes landing on the carrier, the carrier warps to the new location and launches fighters again. The starship can do this all day.

The best the carrier can hope for is that the starship makes a mistake or they are able to catch one flat-footed. But meantime, with all those flight ops, it's far more likely the carrier will make a mistake first.

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    This assumes fighters don’t have ftl. This isn’t true in Star Trek (at least as of tng) as even the smallest runabouts have warp. – RoboKaren Nov 17 at 18:14
  • Unless of course that big carrier can peel off a few rounds into the starships warp drive, although more often than not landing a direct hit on the warp drive, could lead to an antimatter whoopsie and crater the whole ship, while the fighter pilots sit in the launch bay cursing they yet again never got a chance to see action. – Shayne Nov 19 at 9:19
  • The question is about why Roddenberry made this choice. It's not a general worldbuilding question. – Almo Nov 19 at 15:25
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    @Almo you're right, I breezed right over that. Fixed. – Harper Nov 19 at 17:28
  • The whole point of having the starship in the first place is for it to engage in some military operation. If it's playing tag with fighters, it's probably not going to be able to do that. The "immunity" you've described is similar to the sense that any military unit is immune as long as it's not committed to a battle. And if going to warp costs fuel, that's another issue. – Acccumulation Nov 20 at 20:44

The answer: BUDGET.

Roddenberry had a vision similar to Battlestar Galactica, with a carrier ship launching shuttles and fighters—this is largely because he served in the Navy during World War II, on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (hence the name). In pre-production, Roddenberry discovered how prohibitively expensive a fleet of models would be, so he scaled the show back—the ship became more of a heavy cruiser, capable of fighting battles itself, and the shuttles were famously replaced with the transporter beam. (The first shuttlecraft model didn’t appear until episode 16 of season one, and even then they could only film it from certain angles—imagine what a fleet would have cost!)

For an idea of what Roddenberry’s original vision of starship combat would have been like, see the Star Fleet Battles pen-and-paper tactical game, which is based on Roddenberry’s original treatment for the show.

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    Sorry, but Roddenberry wasn't in the Navy. (Maybe you're thinking of Heinlein?) Roddenberry served in the Army Air Force. He was a B-17 (bomber) pilot. pacificwrecks.com/people/veterans/roddenberry/index.html – Jamie Hanrahan Nov 16 at 12:20
  • I have played SFB, quite a game. Took 8 hours to simulate about 10 seconds of combat! :D (Seriously, good game, just very hardcore) – Almo Nov 16 at 16:04
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    I can't comment on the rest of it, but I'm about 95% certain the show's budget really is the entire reason. Remember, transporters weren't in the original design - they were added because they didn't have the budget to create shuttlecraft for the show. – Izkata Nov 16 at 19:32
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    This is almost certainly the correct answer. Budget was also the reason why transporters were invented. Roddenberry simply couldn't afford lots of starship models being built and shot (as stated in The Making of Star Trek). Heck, they couldn't even afford building one to-scale shuttle prop in time for the pilot (only afterwards). – Damon Nov 19 at 11:57
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    @Damon They didn't actually "afford" building the shuttle prop even then! AMT paid that bill in exchange for the rights to make the Enterprise, etc., model kits. – Jamie Hanrahan Nov 20 at 20:38

From a character and storytelling point of view:

In the "aircraft carrier" paradigm (as seen in the Galactica reboot and also in Star Wars), a combat engagement would involve a flurry of fighters in rapid-fire action almost too frantic to take in, while the ship itself is more-or-less in a stand-off position and its commander would be making strategic decisions at a comparatively slow pace. The action is in a dozen if not a hundred or a thousand places all at once. Watching the fighters is borderline sensory overload, but watching the commander at work would be comparatively boring.

In the battleship paradigm, the captain is directly involved in tactical maneuvers; the outcome of a combat engagement hangs heavily if not entirely on his skill and experience. The action can be focused on one place: the bridge, and it can be focused on one person: the captain.

In TOS (which essentially created the template for the Star Trek universe), the ship's captain is a central character, as is the Enterprise itself. The captain (Kirk) is dynamic, courageous, heroic, and central to the conflict and its resolution. The drama only works when the pacing is right - the captain barks out orders, the crew obeys, the ship responds, and ultimately, the enemy falls to the captain's superior tactics.

It's a "battleship" universe not because of any inherent properties or combat strengths/weaknesses of aircraft carrier-like spaceships vs battleship-like spaceships, but because of the needs of storytelling - who/what is central to the kind of stories Roddenberry wanted to tell and the way he wanted to tell them.

  • The question is about why Roddenberry made this choice. It's not a general worldbuilding question. – Almo Nov 19 at 15:24
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    @Almo: the OP may not have known it was a general question, but IMO it is. Main characters have to have interesting things happening to them, carrier captains spend their careers without interesting things happening. Scouts and fighter pilots have interesting things happen to them, but they aren’t peaceful people. Also in dangerous environments they tend to have short lifetimes. Cruisers are big enough to not be jumpy and small enough that it’s not unreasonable to have the the principal decision makers be part of the exploration. – jmoreno Nov 20 at 0:14
  • @Almo I'm at a loss to find any supporting content right now, but I do recall reading behind-the-scenes accounts of the show's origins and seeing clips of Roddenberry talking about Star Trek. His concept was about the ship and her crew. In its day, all shows had central stars; the central figure in Star Trek had to be the ship's captain. All action revolved around him, so space battles had to be ship and captain vs ship and captain. Also, the show had constrained budgets for sets, props, and effects. It was, after all, a 1960s western in space. – Anthony X Nov 20 at 0:27

One possible reason is that space fighters would very probably be totally impractical in real life war between civilizations from different planets and different star systems.

Submarines travel in a single medium, water. Surface ships travel at the interface between two different mediums, water and air. Airplanes travel in a single medium, air.

Thus both submarines and airplanes have much more freedom of vertical movement than surface ships that are stuck at the interface between water and air.

Because water is many times denser than air, it offers many times more resistance to vehicles travelling through it than air does. Thus a tiny fighter plane with a tiny engine can travel many times faster in air than a nuclear submarine can travel in water, or a giant battleship or aircraft carrier can travel on the surface of the water, despite the larger vehicles having many times larger engines.

But there are no mediums in space. There is no interface between two mediums in space because there isn't even a single medium in space. Space is simply an empty vacuum that offers no resistance to vehicles. And there are no different mediums in space for tiny fighter spacecraft to travel much faster in one medium than giant space battleships can travel in another medium that is just a few feet away.

Space battles are likely to be fought at very long ranges and the separation between two space fleets in a space battle is likely to be many, many times the volume filled by the formation of either of the space fleets. Each space fleet will occupy a vast volume of space, but each of the space fleets will be very tiny compared to the vast distances between the two fleets as they shoot at each other.

Space warships will not move among and between enemy ships to blast them because any space ship, whether vast battleship or tiny fighter, will be vaporized before it can get anywhere near any enemy battle fleet, let alone get among and between the enemy spaceships.

Space battles will be fought by space fleets in formation with the two fleets separated by vast distances. There won't be any rapid maneuvering by individual ships in dogfights during fleet battles.

So if Gene Roddenberry, Gene L. Coon, and other Star Trek creators thought about the reasons why small airplanes tended to dominate WWII naval battles, they would have realized those reasons don't apply in outer space.

11-16-2018 Responding to comments.

Imagine a fleet of a thousand space warships arranged in a grid 10 x 10 x 10, each ship separated by a thousand kilometers from its neighbors so the explosion of one won't damage the others. The fleet would form a cube 10,000 kilometers on a side.

The fleet is heading straight for an enemy planet. The fleet can begin exterminating all life on the enemy planet as soon as it gets within firing range. So the enemy planet will have to surrender once the fleet gets close to firing range.

Meanwhile, a similar defending fleet is traveling from the planet toward the invading fleet. I assume that the two fleets will want to decelerate at rates calculated to make them stationary relative to each other at what they consider to be optimum firing range.

Another option would be for the two fleets to pass through each other, then decelerate to a stop relative to each other, and then accelerate back toward each other, repeating several times.

But if a ship is damaged or destroyed as the fleets head toward each other, the shell of rapidly expanding plasma from it will continue at the same speed and will be so dense compared to interstellar or even interplanetary space that it will be like a brick wall for any ship in the other fleet that rams into it. A ship that smashes into such a cloud of vapor is likely to produce another cloud of plasma that will damage or destroy any following ship that smashes into it.

And the defending fleet will not dare to pass through the attacking fleet for fear that the attacking fleet won't stop to engage the defending fleet but simply continue toward the target planet. The defending fleet will have to decelerate to remain stationary relative to the attacking fleet, even if it means reversing course and heading back toward the planet to keep up with the attacking fleet.

So the two fleets will fire on each other at firing range, which may be about 100,000 to 1,000,000 kilometers. Thus it will take about 0.3335641 to 3.335641 seconds for targeting data about a target fleet to reach one fleet and 0.3335641 to 3.335641 seconds for the ray guns fired in response to that firing data to reach the target fleet. A total of 0.6671282 to 6.67128 seconds.

So how far can a ship's secondary lateral propulsion system move it sideways in 0.6671282 to 6.67128 seconds? Would that be far enough to get out of the cone of destruction of even the tightest ray gun or laser after expanding for a distance of 100,000 to 1,000,000 kilometers? I suspect that no matter what sort of lateral evasive maneuvers the fleets could use, it would be very improbable for a ship to avoid a ray from an enemy ship.

The defending fleet would certainly have to keep the main axis of their ships and their main propulsion systems pointed toward the enemy fleet, and so be unable to use them for evasive maneuvers. If the defending fleet turned the main axis of their ships 90 degrees away from the enemy fleet so they could travel very fast in evasive maneuvers, the computers in the enemy fleet would no doubt be programmed to detect the first such rapid lateral evasive maneuver and instantly accelerate the ships in the enemy fleet to zoom through the space just vacated by the defending fleet and head toward the target planet.

Then by the time the defending fleet could turn the axis of the ships to pursue the attacking fleet the attacking fleet could be out of range of the pursing defending fleet, and the defending fleet would only be capable of following the attacking fleet helplessly until the attacking fleet came within range of the target planet and the target planet instantly surrendered to the attacking fleet.

And no doubt it would be against the laws of war for the defending fleet to attack the attacking fleet once the planet surrendered, because that might cause the attacking fleet to blast the planet, destroying all life in a single second of attack, before turning to fight the defending fleet.

Note that in TOS starships fired on each other at distances specified as tens of thousands of kilometers or hundreds of thousands of kilometers in various episodes. Perhaps at distances ranging from 10,000 to 200,000 kilometers. At the speed of light a phaser beam would strike the target 0.06671282 to 1.33424 seconds after the targeting "space radar" beam hit it, giving even less time for lateral evasive maneuvers to get the target ship out of the cone of the phaser beam.

Of course in TOS it is quite probable that starships' "space radar" systems and phaser beams use subspace radio radiation that travels many times faster than light, giving even less time for evasive maneuvers.

Note that the closer a starship gets to an enemy starship, the stronger the enemy phaser beams will be when they hit the starship. If the starship is hit at 128,000 kilometers and then at 64,000 kilometers, the enemy phaser beams will be four times as strong at 64,000 kilos as at 128,000 kilos. At 32,000 kilos phaser beams will be 16 times as strong as at 128,000 kilos, at 16,000 kilos they will be 64 times as strong, at 8,000 kilos they will be 256 times as strong, at 4,000 kilos they will be 1,024 times as strong and so on.

At 32 kilos phaser beams will be 16,000,000 times as strong as at 128,000 kilos, at 16 kilos phaser beams will be 64,000,000 times as strong as at 128,000 kilos, and so on.

And of course the closer two enemy starships get the less time they will have to evade each others phaser beams.

So it would be suicidal for starships to fight at the kilometer or less ranges that they often seem to do in the later movies and television shows, unless they have defensive force shields that are many millions of times more powerful than those in TOS.

IN the days of wooden fighting warships, the ships usually fought at distances of tens or hundreds of meters, and the ships of two different fleets could be mixed together in a melee. But in the 19th and 20th centuries cannons became more and more powerful and their ranges multiplied, so that in World War One and World War Two battleship guns were usually fired at distances of several kilometers.

So it would certainly have been possible for the creators of TOS to imagine that centuries in the future space ships would fight with ray guns at distances thousands of times greater than those in WWI and WWII, and it would also have been easy for them to understand why small fighters lie the carrier aircraft of WWII would not be useful in space wars.

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    No! You simply cannot fight space battles like that, except solely fictitious ones. Any type of real-space ranging and detection systems are going to use electromagnetic carrier waves, which can't exceed the speed of light. If the fleets are at such vast distances from each other, the target will have moved a significant distance before your phaser fire can reach it. All your shots will therefore miss. The ships will have to be quite close before opening fire, to overcome this drawback. – Ed999 Nov 16 at 16:21
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    Gene Roddenberry himself recognised the flaws in your argument. In 1966, in the episode A Taste of Armageddon, he explained his own tactical thinking for space warfare. And it is logical. The only possible solution to the problems of evasion/defence represented by force field defences and warp speed manoeuvering is to materialise your weapon over the target by transporter, so that the target cannot see it coming! – Ed999 Nov 16 at 16:25
  • @Ed999 I have added to my answer in response to your comment. – M. A. Golding Nov 16 at 18:50
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    It should also be noted that phasers routinely miss other capital ships on the show - they don't seem to be all that accurate :) – Luaan Nov 17 at 6:30
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    @Luaan Only when they list the ship slightly to the right. Riker Alpha is clearly an unbeatable move, if it works for Han Solo and Riker, it's good enough for me! – Ruadhan2300 Nov 19 at 9:28

It was never a choice of battleship vs aircraft carrier.

Roddenberry's concept was a ship and her crew on an adventurous exploration of the galaxy, pitched to the network as "Wagon Train to the stars". It was the 1960s. The most popular shows on TV were westerns featuring heroic leading characters. Although set in space in a science fiction future, Roddenberry still had to fit his show into the established narrative mold to be accepted by the network and the audiences of the time. Yes, he drew inspiration from the ship's namesake, CVN-65 and her WW II predecessor, but NCC-1701, despite its military capabilities, was first and foremost a ship of discovery and diplomacy, not an instrument of war. He also faced the challenge of telling his stories on a limited budget.

So, he created a heroic captain (first Robert April, then Christopher Pike, and finally James Kirk). Although intended as a vehicle to bring the crew to their next weekly adventure, the ship was essentially another character. The captain had to be at the center of all the stories, as much as the ship itself. Although a dramatic show, and drama is about conflict, relatively few episodes actually involve military conflict. The stories are more about ideas, people, and social issues. The stories Roddenberry wanted to tell didn't call for epic space battles, and he didn't have the budget to pull it off anyway - remember this was pre-CGI 1960s - practical effects, physical models, a small primary cast and relatively few extras. So, on the rare occasion there was a space battle, the "action" took place on the Enterprise bridge. There was no narrative need or practical means to depict a swarm of "fighter" craft engaged in pilot-on-pilot combat.

Star Wars came a decade later, had a big movie budget, and benefited from some advances in special effects (motion controlled cameras being a big one). Its story revolved around a young hero finding his place in bigger world and making his mark as a fighter pilot. Battlestar Galactica followed, also with a big budget, and featuring young-ish fighter pilots. Both were all about military conflict, so patterns of our modern military were extrapolated into their outer space settings.

The original Star Trek is modeled very much after the age of exploration and, in particular, the heyday of the Royal Navy in the early 1800's. Watch the movie Master and Commander and see if it doesn't make you think of Star Trek, down to the boatswain's calls that show up more in both of those shows than in most WWII movies (even though they're still used in real life to this day).

The culture among the officers of the Enterprise is much more like an English sailing vessel than a modern warship. The idea that a ship would have a single doctor who would be a confidant of the captain is something straight out of the early 1800's, and Spock can be seen as an analogue of Darwin on the Beagle. And it is hard not to see a little James Cook in James Kirk. (Scotty is the exception, hailing as he does from the age of steam.)

It makes sense that Roddenberry would model his onboard culture based on this era not just for dramatic reasons, but also because he is depicting an age of exploration. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, people were going on multi-year naval exploratory missions; by the time of the aircraft carrier, they were not. (Notice that Star Wars, where the war machinery has more of a WWII feel, is set in a galaxy that seems to be fully known to its denizens. Yes, there are obscure planets, but no sense of an expanding frontier.)

And, as DJClayworth said in a comment, Roddenberry explicitly referenced Horatio Hornblower, the fictitious captain of a British sailing ship during the Napoleonic Wars.

  • I expect ST is meant to reflect a much earlier "Age of Sail", since by the 1800s the globe had been pretty well explored (and colonized). Think Magellan more than Jack Aubrey -- an explorer, diplomat, warrior, settler, and (to some extent) scientist. – Andrew Nov 23 at 9:01
  • Well, I was wrong just to say "Early 1800's", since Captain Cook was a figure of the 1770's and before. But Magellan was an independent explorer, not an officer in an organized fleet as Cook was and Kirk is portrayed as being. The ST era is one in which there's still exploration to be done but they've gotten pretty good at "sailing". – Mark Foskey Nov 23 at 16:06
  • It depends on which aspect you focus on. In the 1800s there was little in the way of terra incognita left to explore (at least by sea), but in Magellan's time half the world was unknown. He had no idea what he would find ... although, as it turned out, he found people much like any other, fighting one another and armed with sharp spears. – Andrew Nov 23 at 17:55

Aside from the 1966 FX cost and technical issues mentioned, Rodenberry's focus was on drama, not outer space action like Star Wars. The Enterprise was simply a vehicle to get the characters into new dramatic situations with new adversaries every week, like the western TV shows "Wagon Train" and "Rawhide".

As a kid watching the original run I remember getting a little frustrated at the scarcity of phaser and photon torpedo action.

  • +1, Yes it was a SitCom (situation comedy) like any other, the situation was the bridge and connected places of a starship and the comedy was in silly accents and quips by the core cast. Some blasting and warping was just to set the stage but truly it was just TV. – KalleMP Nov 20 at 12:25

There is a presumption in your question that is probably an error.

You asked 'Aircraft carriers vs. Battleships'. Both of these are military vessels. Why would a show about peaceful space exploration model its ships on either design?

A better observation is that the Enterprise is modeled on a ship that Jacques Cousteau might use to explore the Antarctic with, that just happens to have a bunch of weapons because space is a dangerous place. The shuttle craft are rather like Zodiacs, in that they are used to make landfall, and transport scientific equipment around.

I have always thought it would be interesting if they did a show set on an actual federation warship. Even the peace loving federation would have a few actual warships (similar to the defiant) stashed away for emergencies. This is were your question would likely be relevant, since it could have fighters, missiles/torpedos, and 'big' guns for defense.

  • Although I agree and I commented about this under the Q, the reality is that the Enterprise vessels are equipped to protect themselves and on occasion do battle so there is some "military" aspect built into it. It's just that Enterprise vessels being an exploring research vessel makes them on the defensive, rather than on the offensive, which IMO is why the notion between types of vessels compared in the Q is valid. Now of course after several Treks we know they have other vessels that are more on the offensive. – Darth Locke Nov 19 at 22:32

Another factor: Whether you use large craft or small comes down to how hard they can hit and how well they can defend themselves.

The Enterprise uses energy weapons (yes, they have photon torpedoes but those are charged from the warp drive), their weapons are very accurate and their shields are good.

In such a universe fighters would not function well at all other than by mob tactics resulting in a lot of dead pilots--something the Federation would not be inclined to do. You get more effective bang for your buck by building the biggest ship you can. (However, in practice you don't go with one super-ship because you need it to be in many places.)

Looking at Earth we see the same forces at work.

When offense was the gun and defense was armor a little craft could neither hit hard nor survive enemy fire. The big ships ruled the seas.

Then along came aircraft. Since they used one or two heavy weapons dropped from pylons they actually could hit harder (but once only, then they had to return to their base) than even the big guns and at a much greater range. Their maneuverability provided enough defense. The aircraft carrier became the king of the seas, the battleships weren't worth much anymore.

Then along came accurate missiles. Now the aircraft's maneuverability wasn't enough, surviving to range to drop on the enemy wasn't likely. The same technology that denied the aircraft the ability to approach also made it so they didn't need to--they use standoff missiles. I disagree about the missile cruiser being the king of the seas now--the missile cruiser's ability to defend itself is limited by the horizon, aircraft with modern weapons can approach to launch range with impunity, the defender has less than a minute to use it's sophisticated missiles to kill the fairly crude beam-riders. Of course the ship can go dark and if the engineers did their job well (no signal leakage) the beam-riders miss--but that leaves the ship wide open to the sea-skimming cruise missiles that are also coming in.

  • The question is about why Roddenberry made this choice. It's not a general worldbuilding question. – Almo Nov 19 at 15:24
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    @Almo The point is it might not have been a deliberate choice but a reaction to other choices already made. – Loren Pechtel Nov 20 at 3:10

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