Realistic Combat: Better Is No Guarantee

I recently realized that some science fiction readers and also those curious about the machines of war sometimes have a skewed notion about how military systems should be compared. I find this by reading people’s thoughts about books/movies I know and also reading through the questions about planes and ships in Quora. People ask things like: Is the Defiant ‘better’ than a Klingon Bird of Prey? Or: Was the Spitfire a ‘better’ fighter than P-51 Mustang. If you know much about the topic, then these are strange queries. They beg the question, “Better at what?” It would be like if someone asked you, “What’s ‘better,’ a kitchen oven or a barbecue grill?” This would incite the reply, “Well, I hope you aren’t lighting fires in your kitchen oven.”

With the machines of war, “better” is always a relative term, and the machines, while seeming to be similar, are often built for varying purposes. We cannot compare them with a simple answer of, “This one is better.” We seem to have a culture that demands things in the most simple black and white terms. People skip the details and go straight for the bottom line. Unfortunately, highly technical machines and warfare in general are far more complex than just the bottom line. Skip the details, and you’re begging to be confused by a result you never expected. It all makes me wonder how we got to this point.

A Culture of Over Simplification (or I Blame Star Wars)

Enter Star Wars. The bad guys wear black, and have all the advantages. Their fighters are better, their ships are bigger, and their forces more numerous. The good guys must win through sheer grit and determination. It’s a literary construct owed to the notion that the good guy is only as good as the bad guy, so you must make the bad guy really powerful. It’s quite simple to understand, but therein lies the problem. Realistic combat is never as simple as that. Usually, one side has advantages that the other doesn’t, and vice versa. Realistic warfare is a complex tapestry of strengths and weaknesses and the face of it can shift wildly in a moment’s notice. When penning a combat scene with any plausibility to speak of, it’s important to realize that one side that is better in one aspect doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory. Battle is never as simple as a single quality.

Is Better Really Better?

Battle of Thermopylae

History shows this repeatedly. In the Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans were far better trained and were better motivated. In two ways the Spartans were better, but even that wasn’t enough. Being heavily outnumbered and many other reasons, they lost that battle. Having numerical superiority, the Persians should have won easily, but they didn’t. They struggled against a talented enemy who defied their understanding of armed conflict. Both had advantages, but these qualities weren’t enough to produce an expected result. Another example: after completing a perfect 16-0 regular season the New England Patriots football team entered the Super Bowl. In just about every measure, they were a better team than their opponent, the New York Giants. The Pats should have won easily, yet they still lost after a series of improbable plays. Better wasn’t quite enough for a guarantee of victory because in conflict, better is a relative term. As Al Pacino said in the movie Any Given Sunday, “You find out life’s this game of inches, so is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast and you don’t quite catch it.”

What Does Better Mean?

P-40B Warhawk
During WW2, the American P-40 served in the Pacific against the much-vaunted Japanese A6M Zero. The P-40 performed poorly against the Zero and this has led to a great many people believing the P-40 was a terrible airplane. In fact, it was quite good and served in nearly every theater of WW2. Jump to the present and (some) flight simulators model the P-40 as a flying brick, barely able to turn at all. This is a case of people having too crude an understanding of what better means. In truth, the P-40 was quite maneuverable, a very good fighter. But when compared to the nimblest fighter of the entire war, the A6M, it fell short. That doesn’t mean the P-40 wasn’t maneuverable at all, just not as maneuverable as the A6M (honestly, nothing else could dogfight as well as the A6M). An accurate comparison shows the difference in maneuverability was actually quite small. In technological warfare, better doesn’t necessarily mean orders of magnitude better. It usually means a fractional difference, a tiny one, where the difference between life and death is measured in milliseconds. The comparison between victor and defeated is often a razor’s edge.

It’s Man or Woman, Not The Machine

Lt Col. Carey Jones

When people see a great photo, they often say to the photographer, “You must have a great camera.” This is insulting to a photographer. There’s much, much more to taking a picture than just having a great camera. The F-4 Phantom fighter and the Mig-21 fighter met on the battlefield many times in the 70s and 80s. Which was better? I would say the F-4, but does that mean F-4 pilots had it easy because their foe wasn’t orders of magnitude better? Did they enter battle with no risk at all? Absolutely not! The Mig-21 was still a great airplane. If a Phantom pilot is half a second too slow, the Mig could easily shoot it down. The F-4’s advantages were not so great that they couldn’t be overcome by a talented pilot. Anyone entering battle is still brave and heroic even if they have an advantage. In all things, it’s the man or woman that make the greatest difference, not machine. The differences in equipment help us understand outcomes, but it’s always the human being that is the decisive factor. In stories of combat we don’t need gigantic differences between spaceships or mecha to make a battle interesting. Star Wars was easy to understand, but it also wasn’t believable. A literary technique, used to simplify understanding of the scenario, took the real drama away. Realistically described combat, with lives on the line and a razor’s edge between better and best, and all the complexities of warfare, is thrilling and plausible all at once.

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Unfinished Business

Photo by: Sarah Potter

Violet’s husband, George, hated her live-in sister’s parrot, Bobo. Violet hated the animal too, who cursed most vilely. George had sworn an oath to kill it someday.

Three years slipped by after George’s untimely death, but since then a falcon took up residence. Each afternoon she could see the shadow of it, a waiting sentinel. Violet often wondered if George had reincarnated. Silly perhaps, but she couldn’t help the persistent feeling.

One day, Bobo escaped the house. Mere seconds passed before the falcon swooped in and pinned down the squawking bird, violently yanking out colorful feathers.

Violet smiled, “Good boy, George.”
Written for the Friday Fictioneers:

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An Unreported Affect

Photo by: Dale Rogerson

As I stared at my own reflection in the window, I took pity on him. Of course, he didn’t reflect anything at all.

“It must be frustrating,” I said. “Stuck like that.”

“You have no idea,” said the cloud of vapor. “I cannot feed at all, yet I can still feel the hunger.”

At one time, the thing would have killed me, but it remained harmless while still sick. “It’s a shame no one knows how your kind are affected. How long are you stuck as vapor?”

“No one knows. It’s not like scientists are studying how COVID-19 affects vampires.”
Written for the Friday Fictioneers:

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Spaceship Shields in Science Fiction

The Necessity of Shields in Space

In so many science fiction stories involving spaceships, they almost always include shields on the vessels. Even in a real world scenario they’re important to have. Outside the protective magnetosphere and atmosphere of our planet, cosmic rays lurk. If a spaceship’s crew is exposed to them long enough, more than a few weeks, they will sicken and die. And let’s face it, a trip to Mars is going to take more than a few weeks. Then there are those pesky micrometeorites. Depending on the speed of your ship and the speed of the meteorite, something the size of a sand grain can hit with the power of a bullet, or a howitzer shell. So, whether considering science fiction or real spaceships, it’s good to have shields.

Spaceship Shields in Science Fiction

Often, in a scifi show, we hear a phrase like, “Shields at 42%!” I’ve been wondering about that and why it would work that way. Obviously, it adds dramatic tension, but would it really work that way when spaceships and their shields become a reality? I tend to think not. I’m not an engineer, so anyone who is out there can correct me, but I believe shields would either be working or not, operating at 100% or not at all. I understand that you could shift energy from one shield to the other in the trope, but why build in that capability? While in a battle, why not just run the whole thing at max capacity? Then you could focus on maneuvering and not bother with that detail. If your power plant could not run all shields at max, that would suggest you need a bigger power plant.

If we consider electronic components that we have now like the diode, for instance, they work at spec until they burn out and don’t work at all. Same for capacitors, resistors, etc. When the power supply on my computer died, I didn’t get a message saying, “Power at 42%, Captain.” It operated at its rated power level until something, perhaps a diode, stopped working and the power supply croaked. Shouldn’t shields operate similarly?

Plausible Spaceship Shields

When I wrote, The Huralon Incident, I imagined shields that were directed by a number of emitters. The devices project a small shield each until they absorbed more energy from a weapon than they could handle, and burn out. That’s it. Either it’s working or it’s not. These emitters would cover a ship, so even when you lost one, only a small portion of total shield protection went down. In such a case the report wouldn’t be, “Shields at 90%, Captain,” because that wouldn’t be very informative. The report would be like, “Emitter down on the ventral port quarter, Captain.” This would work better because the Captain now knows not to present the ventral port quarter to the enemy’s weapons.

So, what do you think? Does the idea of shields, that when hit, decrease in strength by degree make sense or not? How would you imagine a shield working? Let me know in the comments.

If you’re interested in a different way to see how shields might work in the future, check out my book, The Huralon Incident. It’s a military space opera with detailed space battles, a superspy, nanites, humor, sociopolitical world-building, and plenty of descriptions of food. You can find it below:

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The Hard Life

Photo by: Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

My interview with famed monster killer, Gepard Baptiste, proved quite bizarre. Often, he paused to shoot out the cafe window, killing slobbering beasts with too many mouths, tentacles, and bat wings.

“It’s a hard life,” said Baptiste, devouring a spoonful of expensive bluefin tuna ceviche.

“But the pay is good?”

“I accept nothing, save the odd snack,” he said, wiping the finest gooseliver foie gras from his mouth. “I must go. I am needed at Cafe DuMont. A most challenging location.”

“Are there many monsters there?”

He looked like a man facing death. “The leg of lamb is often under spiced.”
Written for the Friday Fictioneers:

Author’s Notes:

Bluefin Tuna is one of the most expensive fish you can buy. “Bluefin tuna sashimi is a particular delicacy in Japan. For example, an Atlantic bluefin caught off eastern United States sold for $247,000 at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo in 2008.”

Ceviche: a dish made with raw fish. I am not a fish lover, but I do like ceviche.

Foie Gras: A French delicacy. “foie gras is defined as the liver of a duck or goose fattened by gavage.”

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The Strangest Case

FBI agents Dunbar and McKinney stood on the dock near the boat in question. The pizza deliveryman had long since fled his bicycle in terror. After the deliveryman’s outrageous claims, the two X-File cases agents had been dispatched .

Both of them stood watching as Piranha continued diving into the pizza box.

“This has got to be our strangest case ever,” said Dunbar.

“Why?” said McKinney. “Because piranha learned how to order pizza?”


“Because they filled in the order form with no misspells?”


“Then why?”

Dunbar rubbed his chin, “Isn’t it strange that piranha ordered the Vegetarian Special?”


Written for the Friday Fictioneers:

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The Workaround

Photo by: Dale Rogerson

Beside the door, a string of garlic hung.

An older woman answered the door. “Yes?”

“Good evening!” said Bill. “I’m Bill. This is Joseph. Can we interest you in home security?”

“It’s nighttime!”

“Never too late for security, madame. May we come in?”

The woman squinted. “Lots of vampires these days. You can enter if you chew on garlic first.”

“An excellent precaution, madame,” said Joseph. “Vampires are terribly allergic.” Both he and Bill chewed.

She allowed them in and went to start tea.

“Told you this would work,” whispered Bill.

“True,” said Joseph. “But we’ll need a lot more antihistamine.”
Written for the Friday Fictioneers:

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Necessary Things

Photo by: Roger Bultot

Randy sat beside a blanket with assorted objects he hoped to sell. The small business supported him pretty well through his homelessness. He’d been drug-free for five years, but now he wondered if those years eating magic mushrooms was coming back to haunt him.

“It’s simple,” said the child’s high-chair. “We’re aliens. Shape-shifters. Whenever a human touches us, we become whatever thing the person needs most.”

“So what happened?”

“A poor child’s parents couldn’t afford me.”

Randy turned to another alien. “And you?”

“My person had diabetes. Needed regular testing.”

“And what’s your story?” said Randy, turning to the penis pump.
Written for the Friday Fictioneers:

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The Obvious Faux-pas

Photo by: Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Elaine loved shopping at Down Island Traders. Despite the rustic exterior, everyone in the “in-crowd” shopped there. As she entered, she stopped, shocked by what she saw. The woman sitting at a table with a latte obviously had antennae, and gills on her neck. Elaine just stared.

A salesgirl said, “Problem, miss?”

Elaine angrily gestured at the alien. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“I realize she’s an alien, miss, but we’re open-minded here. Aliens are welcome.”

“Oh, I don’t care about that.” Elaine waved dismissively. “I’m VERY open-minded.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

“Socks with sandals? Faux-pas! That has GOT to go.”
Written for the Friday Fictioneers:

Author’s Notes:

Knowing nothing about fashion, I had to look this stuff up:

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The Measure of an Alien

Photo by: Ted Strutz

The first known human-alien amalgamation occurred in Roanoke, VA in 1879.

The wealthy widow, Imelda Pitts, had been wooed by bachelors from across the county, desiring her mostly for her money. The men organized demonstrations of physical strength before her house. Others strutted about in their fine clothing. All failed.

A “curious stranger” arrived. A fellow of strange pallor and an unseemly count of limbs. He clearly exceeded all others in her gaining her favor.

When asked if she shunned her own kind because he possessed an “attribute of extraordinary measure,” she replied, “No, but the omelette he serves me in my boudoir is unsurpassed.”
Written for the Friday Fictioneeers:

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