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As can be seen in the below image from Revenge of the Sith, capital ships tend to engage one another at close range:

Space battle in Revenge of the Sith

Within the Star Wars universe, capital ships typically engage each other at what I consider to be unnecessarily close range reminiscent of the broadside battles of 18th century warships. In the 18th century, such range was necessary due to a lack of accuracy. In the Star Wars universe, it would, I believe, be an advantage to attack at long range as the nature of space means that accuracy and energy loss would be almost non-existent at range due to the vacuum and consequential lack of particle resistance. In addition to this, attacking from multiple kilometers away would instill both shock and surprise over the enemy.

The combat doctrine of warships in the Star Wars universe is nonsensical, yet I doubt that I am the only one to make these observations. Is there ever any explanation as to why capital ships attack at close range? and, if so, then why?

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    How do you propose to film a battle sequence that occurs over the space of several kilometers? Sounds like thrilling imagery. – Catija Nov 8 '15 at 3:52
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    They are forced to engage at close range. Their weapons are manned by Storm Troopers. – Major Stackings Nov 8 '15 at 3:59
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    Ridiculously short range throughout. In the (now Legends) X-Wing book series (somewhat based on the original games), they mention that Proton Torpedoes have a targeting (lock-on) range of about 2km (although they can travel much farther than that... for whatever reason). Guns are usually "zeroed" at less than 500m, probably only 250m, although the bolts travel farther. This is mostly a result of George Lucas wanted combat reminiscent of WWII fighter combat (although note that even in WWII, capital ship combat was at longer ranges, at superseded by carrier operations). – Clockwork-Muse Nov 8 '15 at 13:57
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    Given that they're fighting in space, it's almost imperative that their weapons be designed with short range. Otherwise, what would happen to all the shots that missed? There would just be stray shots floating around all over the galaxy for months after any significant battle, long after the fighting had stopped. That's always a problem that's never addressed with energy weapons in scifi... – Darrel Hoffman Nov 8 '15 at 17:24
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    @ChrisL how do you propose to have advance awareness that a laser beam is coming at you at the speed of light? From your position, the beam will appear to instantly span the entire distance from its origin to you, regardless of how far that happens to be. – Dan Henderson Apr 6 '16 at 20:31
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Within the Star Wars universe, capital ships typically engage each other at what I consider to be unnecessarily close range reminiscent of the broadside battles of 18th century warships. In the 18th century, such range was necessary due to a lack of accuracy.

Yes, Star Wars has more to do with 19th century naval combat than 21st century. The reasons are: regenerative shielding, slow "lasers", and awful targeting computers.

NOTE: For this answer I am only using on-screen canon. No EU, novels, Clone Wars, etc... it's hard enough to make sense of Star Wars without all that extra and often conflicting information.


In reality we have astonishingly accurate smart weapons. A Tomahawk missile can hit a 1 meter target from 500 miles away. The Advanced Gun System can fire an unguided shell 100km with accuracy within 50 meters.

The Star Wars universe, despite having mastered human level droid intelligence, consistently lacks reliable targeting computers. Star Wars accuracy is closer to early WWII technology.

In the opening of A New Hope we see an Imperial Star Destroyer having a hard time hitting the unmaneuvering Tantive IV. The guns on the Falcon are computer augmented but still manually aimed and have a hard time hitting TIE fighters. At the Battle of Yavin the computer can't hit a 2 meter exhaust port. We see anti-starfighter guns on the Death Star blazing away but rarely a hit. Darth Vader gets a lock on Luke and begins firing yet still misses.

In Empire Strikes Back, three Star Destroyers and four TIE fighters at point blank range only manage to knock out the Millennium Falcon's rear shields. In Return Of The Jedi, dozens of TIE Fighters swarm past the Falcon yet she and the severely outnumbered Rebel starfighters survive the battle.

For whatever reason, targeting computers in Star Wars are terrible.


To add to the problem, Star Wars weapons are incredibly slow.

Despite calling them "lasers", the weapons in Star Wars are fairly slow moving masses of probably some sort of plasma. We can see them whipping by, so they're slower than a bullet. Even missiles are demonstrated to be only barely faster than a Jedi Starfighter in RotS.

Their "lasers" are "dumb" weapons, they have no internal targeting. They can't correct their course if the target changes course. While there's no wind or bullet drop to worry about, this still means that the longer the range the more time the target has to dodge. High rates of fire (Star Wars capital ships fire much faster than capital ships in reality) and short ranges would compensate for this.


Even with bad accuracy, in reality it's still beneficial for a warship to fire at its maximum effective range if nothing else than to try and outrange the enemy. It would also give them room to maneuver, stay in formation, and escape. In WWI, where warships would hit with as low or lower than 1% of their shells, they still fought at range.

But they relied on armor to protect themselves. Armor which could not be repaired in battle. And armor was not perfect, any hit would do some damage, even near misses would cause splinter and structural damage. And much of the ship was outside the armored citadel or exposed on the deck.

Now add shields into the mix. Some starfighters and most larger ships have shields which must be taken down before hits begin to do damage. Most are capable of recharging their shields. In order to be effective, it's not enough to hit your enemy, you have to hit them faster than they can recharge their shields. Combined with inaccuracy, this means attacking at close range.


We only see two instances of anything like fleet battles in the whole Star Wars canon: the Battle of Endor in RotJ and the Battle of Coruscant in RotS. At Endor the strategy is clear:

Lando Calrissian: Yes, I said closer! Move as close as you can, and engage those Star Destroyers at point blank range!

Admiral Ackbar: At that close range we won't last long against those Star Destroyers!

Lando Calrissian: We'll last longer than we will against that Death Star! And we might just take a few of them with us!

Lando's plan is to brawl with the Star Destroyers so the Death Star can't pick their ships off. It's also clear from Ackbar's comment that range is a deciding factor in survival.

This is also support for the terrible targeting computers. The Death Star's superlaser is so inaccurate it cannot fire into the melee without risking hitting its own ships.


At Coruscant, when we join the battle, Grievous has already achieved his goal of capturing Palpatine. Now he needs to escape. Unfortunately for him it seems he took too long and the initial surprise has worn off. Republic reinforcements have arrived and his fleet is trapped. When we join we're already well into the battle and it is a brawl. There are no longer battle lines, just individual ship actions at very close range. I see three overlapping explanations.

One is that both commanders appear to have lost control of the battle. Through damage, communications jamming, exhaustion, or loss of flagships, nobody is in control of their fleets anymore. We certainly don't see Grievous doing much commanding, he's more concerned about he Jedi and Palpatine. Most sci-fi and fantasy battles have this problem, everyone is running/flying around pel-mel with no lines, formations, or unit cohesion; they're all fighting uncoordinated, individual battles. This is a great way to lose the battle. The out-of-universe explanation is the filmmakers have no idea what a real battle looks like and/or think smashing two armies or two fleets together looks cool.

Another is the Republic have deliberately engaged at point blank range in order to trap the Separatist fleet. We don't know the range and effectiveness of interdiction technology at this point in the war. The Republic must prevent the Separatists from escaping with Palpatine, up to and including physically blocking their exit paths.

Finally, the Republic commander may have decided this is too good an opportunity to pass up. They've got the Separatist fleet pinned deep inside Republic territory. Republic reinforcements are pouring in. Crippled Republic ships are close to home and can be repaired, but crippled Separatist ships will be lost. Now is the time to inflict maximum damage, so they close to point blank range and pound away at each other's shields knowing a battle of attrition will benefit the Republic.


In conclusion, Star Wars space battles probably have more in common with 19th century naval tactics than 21st century. Slow projectiles, advantageous defensive technology, and bad targeting computers means Star Wars capital ships must rely more on how much firepower they can throw out per minute at point blank range than on accuracy.

This is in line with British Napoleonic and WWI era tactics. British commanders practiced rapid gun drill to get off their broadsides faster than their enemy and defeat them with "weight of shell". At the Battle of the Nile, Nelson charged and broke the French line, relying on poor accuracy and heavy wooden hulls to protect him. Once there, the British anchored and engaged the French at point blank range firing broadsides from both sides of their ships simultaneously for hours.

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    Yes its amusing how they combine mind-blowing hyper-advanced technology with the same combat tactics, styles and weaponry deficiencies of the WW2 era. – user4493605 Nov 13 '15 at 14:12
  • It's quite shizo-tech, but it makes for much better visuals and drama when bravery and relying on personal skills are more important than positioning and relying on technology. – Philipp Apr 4 '16 at 14:54
  • Off topic, but this is also a great example why Star Trek wins the fight vs Star Wars :D – Derek Jan 6 '17 at 4:25
  • To the individual ship actions: During the Battle of Trafalgar Lord Nelson deliberately closed in to the French/Spanish fleet offering them perfrect broadsides at his lead ships in order to break their battle line and engage them in a general melee fight. As he knew that in this situation his gunners would be much more effective than the French/Spanish. So engaging at point blank range might be a valid tactic depending on the cirucmstances. – Adwaenyth Jan 16 '17 at 10:25
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It was to do with strategy

The image you are referring to is the Battle of Coruscant in Revenge of the Sith. Now, there isn't much of an explanation in canon, but if we look into the Legends material, there are some interesting pieces of information that may explain why:

  • At the start of the battle:

    the Separatists managed to jump right on top of the Coruscant Home Fleet, catching them completely by surprise. Most of the Republic ships, caught off-guard with their shields down, were destroyed instantly

    this shows they took out the majority of the defensive armies around Coruscant and then probably headed towards the actual planet

  • then

    Outside, the Republic fleet closed in on the Confederate ships and positioned themselves in a defensive screen around the planet.

    so the Republic Army had positioned themselves around the planet

    Grievous tried to create the impression that his strike was borne of desperation, as he haphazardly dispersed his warships to target communications satellites, orbital mirrors, and random targets on the surface.

    and to do this, it makes sense to position your fleet close to the planet

  • But possibly most important:

    Separatist landing craft were deployed onto the surface of the planet, unloading hundreds of thousands of battle droids to create an elaborate diversion while Grievous prepared a raiding party intent on capturing the Supreme Chancellor. Chaos ensued throughout the city, with much collateral damage inflicted in the fighting

    and if you want to deploy those craft, especially considering the whole planet is surrounded by a Republic Fleet, you want to have your main artillery in a position to ward off enemy fire! That position would be right up near your enemies, hence why they were engaging each other at close range.

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    Oh please. The real answer is "the writers are not sailors and don't know". Also parsecs are not a measurement of time and the sounds R2D2 makes are not binary. – Gaius Nov 8 '15 at 13:56
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    So the Separatists used the "come out of hyperspace too close to the target" strategy that would later serve Admiral Ozzel so well? :P – Andres F. Nov 8 '15 at 15:00
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    @Gaius this answer isn't an out of universe critique but an attempt to provide some in universe explanation – Often Right Nov 8 '15 at 22:00
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    @andres-f there's a difference between jumping out of hyperspace within your enemy's sensor range so they can see you coming and get their shields up before you reach firing range, and jumping out of hyperspace point blank and firing on the enemy before they can get their shields up ;) – thegreatjedi Jan 11 '16 at 0:45
  • Could you elaborate on the last part in bold? I don't understand what you mean at all. What main artillery? What was in a position relative to what that makes it "a position to ward off enemy fire" in what way? And earlier by "armies" did you mean "spaceships"? – Dronz Mar 30 '18 at 4:50
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Because the films were created by a filmmaker, and not a naval historian, fighter pilot, astronaut, engineer, etc. Your comparison with a broadside is particularly apt, though indeed you're not the first to make it.

On the other hand the shape of the Star Destroyers seems like a decent choice; the sloped shape gives you a large surface to mount weapons on without giving you a very large cross-section. (Of course, a sphere might also be a pretty nice shape too, since thing you could mount weapons pointing in all directions).

Edit:

an advantage to attack at long range as the nature of space means that accuracy and energy loss would be almost non-existent at range due to the vacuum and consequential lack of particle resistance.

You're also correct here. There's no stealth in space (except by being cold and unpowered, which means no life support or maneuvering), and all attacks would be from extreme range (hundreds of thousands of kilometers for missiles, millions or billions of kilometers for lasers if your focusing is good enough). The Star Wars universe has FTL travel and communications though, so we'll give them a pass on that; if you know where they are then you can arrive right next to the ships you're attacking before they see you coming. I'm not sure why you'd want to though; you could just as easily send FTL missiles.

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    while this may be largely correct, a good answer would attempt to answer this from an in-universe perspective as well, as the answer to every question is really, "because it's a movie/book". – phantom42 Nov 8 '15 at 14:54
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    True, but there's a point at which there is no in-universe explanation for things. The movie is a movie, it has to show moving things on a screen. Thus the events of the story are written so that there are things to show on the screen. – db48x Nov 8 '15 at 15:09
  • Because hyperjumps are imprecise. Rather, we should be impressed they have AI droids so easily, than that they don't launch hyperspace missiles. – Joshua Nov 8 '15 at 16:18
  • "There's no stealth in space" is incorrect, stealth in space would work just as stealth does today. Stealth is about using careful geometry to reduce how much energy is reflected back at the target so you appear to be background clutter. This works for both active (ie. radar) and passive (ie. heat). Space is big, unlike in an atmosphere you have to search a sphere (which is even bigger) which makes even pointing your sensors in the right direction difficult, and things move really fast. It is remarkably difficult to detect a small, low albedo object in space. – Schwern Apr 4 '16 at 15:10
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    Stealth doesn't work in space because everything you do generates heat. Your engines, life support, power generation, etc. Your entire ship is constantly radiating in the infrared, and that infrared light can be detected from across the solar system. In an atmosphere you can dump heat by convection, but in space you can't stop radiating heat or you'll cook (take a look at the immense radiator fins on the ISS, for instance). Thus searching for a small low-albedo spacecraft is quite different from searching for a small low-albedo asteroid. – db48x Apr 4 '16 at 20:38
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The latest movie, The Last Jedi, does some quite a lot to answer this in an in-universe way (WARNING: SPOILERS)

This answer is currently based solely off what I remember from watching the movie, so no Official Canon links etc. Feel free to edit them in or link them in the comments and I'll add them.

The Raddus survives a long period (Just short of 24 hours if I remember correctly) of long-range fire by various star destroyers and the Mega-class battleship that Snoke uses, the Supremacy. It would only become vulnerable to this kind of weaponry after running out of fuel.

Which shows that Shields make long-range fire ineffective, as they recharge faster than the long range weaponry can damage them. Most damage dealt is as a result of fighter support disabling various systems on said capital ship to cause it more damage.

This means long range battles engaged between capital ships would just boil down to who runs out of fuel first. And before hitting that point, a good commander would just escape into hyperspace...

Unless their happens to be a hyper-space tracking device on the pursuers. Cue plot of TLJ, where you can only run until you run out of fuel!

This answer is currently based solely off what I remember from watching the movie, so no Official Canon links etc. Feel free to edit them in or link them in the comments and I'll add them when I see them.

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The Battle of Coruscant was an exception to the rule of long-range combat. The reason in-universe for this is unknown, possibly desperation of Separatist commanders. In The Rebel Alliance Sourcebook, it is stated that a maneuver such as the one featured here is employed only if one commander has no hope of victory. This was certainly true for Grievous after the arrival of Republic reinforcements. By comparison, the Battle of Endor took place at extremely long range, as even after Ackbar orders the fleet to close to point-blank range, the fleets were still several kilometers apart.

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    Still with "Lasers" in empty space even a few kilometers qualify as "close range". Really. – Ghanima Nov 12 '15 at 20:21
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    When your ships are kilometers long, several kilometers is point blank. – Schwern Nov 29 '15 at 22:06
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"Normal" turbolasers had an effective range.

An imperial class star destroyer were normally outfitted with something like:

  • Medium turbolasers
  • Taim & Bak XX-9 heavy turbolasers
  • Borstel NK-7 ion cannons
  • Phylon Q7 tractor beam projectors

They developed "long-range turbolasers" to take "advantage to attack at long range" but were faced with some short-comings:

Long-range turbolasers had a significantly longer effective range and were far more powerful than typical ones, allowing ships equipped with them to engage enemy craft from a distance at which the enemy could not respond, though at the expense of even greater power drain; even when mounted on an Imperial II-class Star Destroyer, the drain was quite noticeable.

So long range attack was not always an effective (or even possible) option for capital ships.
Strategy/tacics would also come into play. But that is another layer built upon the possibilities of their existing equipment/armament.
Republic cruisers look like they were built for broadside combat in regards to their armament positions.
For the greatest combat effectiveness, they relied on more broadside tactics to make more efficient use of their resources and equipment.


Contrary to what others may say:

  • I believe the Death Star did not have many (if at all?) "anti-starfighter guns" because the empire supposedly refused to believe the possibility that a small starfighter could be of any danger to their massive space station. They did have a lot of turbolasers everywhere, even in the trenches.
  • I believe the targeting computers were "fine", but not amazing. Many ships might have "manual" or assisted targeting because they probably were not built for combat (and could not spare the money on an automatic tracking turret).
  • Storm troopers are supposed to be the elite soldiers of the empire, but you don't see them hit much either.
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    Where did you get the quote from? Can you add a link/reference? – Wad Cheber Jan 10 '16 at 23:13
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One possibility is that their shielding (stealth) technology is more advanced than their detection (radar) technology, so BVR (beyond visual range) weapons are useless against anything but known, stationary, targets.

We also see in Rogue One that

rebel fighters penetrate all the way to military bases on Eadu and Scarif before anyone on the Empire has a clue that they are under attack

The out-of-universe real reason, of course, probably has more to do with exciting cinematic visuals.

EDIT: OK, I did some more research and the EU mentions cloaking devices (massive power drain) and gravity sensors (expensive, rare), so the subject is a lot more complicated.

0

Perhaps one of the reasons they fight close is that the other side can't use weapons that are too powerful for you to handle. If they use it, the backlash wil hurt the other side as well.

In other answers there is mention of no-one being able to hit pursuing ships with their lasers, I think however, that it is mentioned several times that shields redirect lasers to a different point so as to be harmless to the ship being targeted. This might look like a miss, but it is a redirect really.

  • Welcome to SFF.SE! However, your answer appears to be largely speculative, as indicated by your use of words such as "perhaps" and "I think". Your answer would be improved if you could provide more definitive statements backed by source(s). – Null Apr 4 '16 at 15:14

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