I keep seeing this situation in Star Trek series:

"Captain, they've raised shields!"
"Now they're charging their weapons!"
"Captain, they're targeting our engines!"
"OK Ensign, evasive maneuvers."
"Shields are holding, Captain, we're at 25%."
"They're coming about for another pass!"
"Captain that one took out our warp drive, shields are offline as are phasers"
"Ensign, target their weapons array with a photon torpedo."
"Captain, they're hailing us..."
"Ok, belay that, put 'em on-screen."

& from this point they're possibly boarded, taken hostage, all kinds of bad outcomes that they have to come back from. One might imagine that a well-equipped cruiser would drill for such eventualities. I'd imagine it more like:

"Captain, they're raising shields!"
"Folks, you know what to do - defend the ship!"
All over the ship the crew work together as a well-oiled machine. Shields go up, phasers take out the bad guys' weapons & engines faster than the other guys can react, while simultaneously the helmsman takes them through a series of seemingly random maneuvers designed to make them a very slippery target.
"OK hail them, see why they made an aggressive move on us."

Any reason why it's always the former & never the latter case?

  • 69
    Because part of self-defence is self-control. In the latter example Starfleet is the aggressor, killing potentially dozens of aliens over a simply shield protocol misunderstanding.
    – Valorum
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 15:04
  • 64
    Crossing shows here, but something like the latter example is what caused the Earth-Minbari war in Babylon 5. Millions killed over a cultural misunderstanding because the Earth ship was overaggressive to what it perceived as a threat but was really a gesture of openness.
    – Roger
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 15:21
  • 38
    I think it's great practice, given that you're flying the strongest ship in Starfleet, that you never be the initial aggressor. The Enterprise can stand to take a hit, and should, if doing so affords further opportunities to defuse the situation with minimal loss of life. After all, its mission is peaceful, and the Federation exercises many non-interventionist policies.
    – Ross
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 15:47
  • 14
    I can only assume that the cost of a photon torpedo is a lot more than the cost of repairing that mostly unimportant bit of the ship that gets destroyed every other week :)
    – delinear
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 15:50
  • 17
    You're all missing the simple answer: a movie in which the Federation starship simply blasted the other ship(s) at the first sign of a possibly hostile action would lack dramatic tension :-)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 18:37

9 Answers 9


It is because of the policies of the United Federation of Planets. The TNG Technical Manual has this to say on the matter, (For those following at home: Section 11.6, 'Tactical Policies').

Starfleet draws proudly on the traditions of the navies of many worlds, most notably those of Earth. We honor our distinguised forebears in many ceremonial aspects of our service, yet there is a fundamental difference between Starfleet and those ancient military organizations. Those sailors of old saw themselves as warriors. It is undeniable true that prepairedness of battle is an important part of our mission, but we of Starfleet see ourselves foremost as explorers and diplomats. This may seem a tenuous distinction, yet it has a dramatic influence on the way we deal with potential conflicts. When the soldiers of old pursued peace, the very nature of their organizations emphasized the option of using force when conflicts became difficult. That option had an inexorable way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Today, peace is no easier than it was in ages past. Conflicts are real, and tensions can escalate at a moment's notice between adversaries who command awesome de- structive forces. Yet we have finally learned a bitter lesson from our past: When we regard force as a primary option, that option will be exercised. Starfleet's charter, framed some two centuries ago after the brutal Romulan Wars, is based on a solemn commitment that force is not to be regarded as an option in interstellar relations unless all other options have been exhausted

(bolding mine, italics are verbatim)

Further down the page it says:

A starship is regarded as an instrument of policy for the United Federation of Planets and its member nations. As such, its officers and crew are expected to exhaust every option before resorting to the use of force in conflict resolution. More important, Federation policy requires constant vigilance to anticipate potential conflicts and to take steps to avert them long before the escalate into armed conflict.

Later on (I'm not going to type the full quote because my fingers hurt from typing all of that!) they state that "there are situations in which a starship and her crew can be considered expendable". So the Federation places a very high price on peace /over/ immediate loss of life. Logically speaking going to war causes more loss of life in the long run, so if you take the aphorism "The lives of the many outweight the lives of the few", then it is also a rather logical choice.

So the crew are just adhereing to policy meant to preserve the peace (And I have no doubt that Picard would have valued and cherished these policies very highly).

  • 1
    All of the answers are like this - i.e. the Federation would rather hold back their weapons and reach diplomatic solutions, or not risk hitting civilians. However the OP is right - there are situations where they are clearly in battle and still only fire very occasionally. e.g. youtube.com/watch?v=B1L3URogjWI Yesterday's Enterprise - Picard spends an awful lot of time not ordering to fire weapons, knowing they are in mortal danger, meanwhile being updated on the damage being caused to Enterprise. They even destroy one of the Klingon ships, so it's not about sparing lives...
    – komodosp
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 0:33
  • It's about being able to find another way out, instead of violence. The hope is that if you do not consider violence first, then perhaps other options will materialize. Picard's character is built on this pretty heavily, so is the Federation, and (At least before season 3 / 4) the show too. The ship is to be considered expendable if it being destroyed will ensure some sort of peace. I don't see the above clip as very relevant -- they are providing a distraction so the other ship can leave. The reason why they destroy the ship is because it is an entirely different universe, and they are at war
    – Aster
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 22:20
  • An interesting discussion in comments, but getting a bit long and off-topic; I've moved it to chat where you can continue as long as you want, Aster and @EvilSnack.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Nov 23, 2021 at 18:39
  • @Randal'Thor Page not found, so this discussion is lost for all time. Thanks!
    – Aster
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 0:15
  • 1
    @Aster There, fixed.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 6:52

The reason is the mindset that the Federation drills into its cadets. At least in the non-cowboy eras (as the TNG people call Kirk’s era) the Federation has a strict policy of being peaceful.

Thus the mindset to uphold peace and not provoke others has to be drilled into those that join Starfleet.

For the reason for this, you can thank Klingons and other aggressive species like Cardassians. Many species have a Babylon 5 Minbari-like attitude of "open the weapons ports" (ever heard of any Klingon who does not have a loaded weapon ready?). Thus in order to avoid provoking full-out war when meeting any new aggressive species, Starfleet vessels have to be passive. Thus you need to analyze the situation, take evasive maneuvers and make sure the shields hold. Most aggressive species reconsider their approach if they see that a few salvoes won't bring that one down... and even more so they are deathly calm when dealing with you while asking you with what right you fire on a Starfleet vessel. That has to be unsettling to all but the most warlike species. Especially if you think that "can take a pounding" equals to "can dish out a pounding if they deem it necessary and not unworthy of their attention".

That is at least how it came over to me. By not reacting to aggression by making a panic-like first aggressive move themselves, Starfleet can unsettle the would-be aggressor and bring it to try to talk with Starfleet. And if we are all honest, diplomacy is where Starfleet's real strength lies (otherwise the Federation wouldn't consist of that many different species and former empires).

  • 33
    The cultural aspects you mentioned are even true in real life. In certain places in the USA like Appalachia and the Deep South, openly carrying a pistol on one's belt or having a visible shotgun or rifle strapped to the back of one's pickup truck is not considered to be aggressive behavior. Actually drawing the weapon and pointing it at someone is, and is a great way to get yourself shot. Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 16:46
  • 63
    Regarding cultural issues, it's instructive to realize that for most species on Earth, showing their teeth is an active threat ("be careful - I'm able to bite you!"), whereas for humans, we call it "smiling" and do it to be friendly.
    – R.M.
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 17:49
  • 6
    @R.M. yepp. Also if I'm not incorrect some more primitive cultures still have the "show teeth = aggressive" mentality even on earth.
    – Thomas
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 18:00
  • 39
    Diplomacy may be a strength of Starfleet, but I wouldn't say it was their "real" strength. Their "real" strength is the ability of any one of their engineers or science officers to jerry rig any system into any other system and produce some entirely new effect in less than 15 minutes. jwz.org/blog/2016/11/star-trek-mad-science Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 18:48
  • 11
    @Thomas Maybe one could have rationalized that until DS9, but this is pretty much in universe proof positive that it's pretty much all starfleet engineers: "Keevan: That's a communication system. It needs repair, but I'm willing to bet that you brought one of those famed Starfleet engineers who can turn rocks into replicators." imdb.com/title/tt0708592/quotes?item=qt0473208 Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 21:18

There is an entire episode of DS9 (Rules of Engagement) that explores what happens when they don't delay until the last possible moment. Worf, in command of the Defiant, destroys a civilian Klingon ship in the middle of a battle. The plot is centered around the fact that he decides to fire before the ship is fully decloaked. Here is a quote from the final scene.

WORF: When the ship decloaked, I should have checked the target before I fired.

SISKO: You're damned right you should've checked. You fired at something you hadn't identified. You made a military decision to protect your ship and crew, but you're a Starfleet officer, Worf. We don't put civilians at risk or even potentially at risk to save ourselves. Sometimes that means we lose the battle and sometimes our lives. But if you can't make that choice, then you can't wear that uniform.

  • 15
    "We don't put civilians at risk or even potentially at risk to save ourselves." This is rich coming from Sisko. Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 18:53
  • 9
    @zabeus Alternatively, that's powerful coming from Sisko, who has learned that lesson better than most.
    – J Doe
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 19:00
  • 4
    @Azor-Ahai Not related to this but he put civilians at risk to force a maquis fighter to surrender. Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 23:33
  • 19
    @zabeus A smoker is the wisest and most informed person to say "don't start smoking, it is horrible for your health."
    – Lan
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 0:38
  • 6
    This episode was not about not waiting until the last possible moment. It was about not waiting at all. But the question is asking about those times when you're being targeted and fired at already. Completely different circumstances. Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 11:51

The Federation is one of the big dogs. They don't have to bring maximum force to bear just to barely scrape together a win in combat — in nearly every hostile encounter they are capable of shrugging off many blows, and disabling the opponent at will. This means that they can afford to put off attacking for the sake of achieving a better resolution.

This is particularly important for the Federation, whose power is mainly derived from from diplomacy — they need their reputation of being level-headed and willing to talk things out. This is how they keep their members tied together and convince others, even enemies, to join up.

Yes, this policy means that they will occasionally lose ships that could have survived if they were quicker to violence, but the benefits are worth the cost.

And, with so many spatial anomalies and whatnot out there, a policy of being quick to violence probably wouldn't make a huge difference to the overall safety of a star ship anyways.

  • 2
    I think this hits the mark. We've seen the Enterprise (of various suffices) take salvo after salvo from enemies and still function. A record unmatched by any vessel in Earth's history. Reading OP's question I realized that if the Enterprise can so easily handle barrages, it would be a massacre if it entered the fray guns blazing. It is like a boxer that will let his opponent take a few shots before hitting back.
    – Lan
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 0:42
  • 1
    @lan There HAVE been vessels in history (during the 2nd world war) that also took salvoes after salvoes and still were in almost prime fighting conditions (the largest battleships of the large nations).
    – Thomas
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 6:18
  • @Thomas did they do it over a hundred times? TNG is 178 episodes, let's say the Enterprise was attacked while in pacifist mode 100 times. It was the quantity of times it has taken salvos I was referring to. Sorry for the confusion.
    – Lan
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 12:49
  • 4
    I think this is an important point. There are a very few examples (e.g. The Borg) against stronger enemies, and there are a few with equivalent strength (Romulans, etc) but in most cases The Federation is actually stronger than the people they are interacting with.
    – Tim B
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 13:26
  • 1
    The Tamarians also seem to be stronger. I disagree about the Romulans. At least in the 24th century, they seem superior to Federation ships. Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 14:07

The answer is simple. If they didn't wait until the last second thus putting the ship and entire crew at risk, there would be no episode. In fiction, the story line and dramatic tension trumps logic.

This is a standard thing with writing for sci fi TV series and films. The riters aren't interested too much in logical consistency, only the fans are. The creator of Babylon 5 was once asked how fast a certain ship could go and his answer was "as fast as the speed of plot". Everything happens to facilitate or resolve an interesting (hopefully) story in 40 minutes.

Or there might be another explanation. Patrick Stewart was once asked by an interviewer why the missions always went wrong. Why were there no boring missions in which they went down to the planet, carried out some successful diplomacy or research or whatever and then went home again. Stewart's answer (I paraphrase because I don't remember the exact words) was "there were thousands like that but we didn't show those episodes.

Maybe most of the time, the Federation ship does defend itself in time, but its too boring to show on the telly.

  • This isn't a real explanation - they could easily fire more often and still keep the drama, simply by increasing the strength of the enemy shields! Same result, but it wouldn't look like the Enterprise crew are sitting around on their arses... I know the special effects might be more expensive but they could have some of the torpedo and phaser shots "off-screen".
    – komodosp
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 0:38
  • Yes it is. It's a basic point of TV drama that the idea that the characters in it have any agency of their own is an illusion. Everything happens because that is the way the writer and director think it should happen.
    – JeremyP
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 8:40
  • True, but what I mean is, they could keep the drama and tension but still have the characters behaving sensibly simply by making the enemy more difficult to defeat (or at least throw in a line about the phasers being damaged which would explain the infrequent firing)
    – komodosp
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 11:44

I think it all comes down to this:

Most Star Trek stories depict the adventures of humans and aliens who serve in Starfleet, the space-borne humanitarian and peacekeeping armada of the United Federation of Planets.


They are not an army at war. Peacekeeping works that way. For a reference UN peacekeeping operations: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peacekeeping

  • 3
    Well, yes, this is what the existing answers say. Can you offer some examples of this from the show? Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 14:26
  • 1
    @Gallifreyan The other answers are not pointing out that it exactly and only a peacekeeping operation, which I find important. They only point out to some of the ways it does affect, and how it is a political strength. Many answers even have an approach as if this would be a way of solving conflicts similar to war. Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 14:45
  • "Peacekeeping" doesn't mean "let the obvious enemy fire first and massacre you, thus destroying the peacekeeping forces and allowing the bad guys to win".
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 8:41
  • 1
    @IanKemp The idea of peacekeeping is to create peace by not fighting. It would be a wrong mind set to think that they have an enemy. UN does this all the time and the operations of it are a great reference: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peacekeeping This is also why I think that pointing it out is so important. It is not even by a little search and destroy mission. Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 8:55
  • 1
    +1 for mentioning the UN peacekeeping. My understanding is that UN peacekeeping forces operate under similar mandates to avoid aggression if at all possible.
    – xdhmoore
    Commented Mar 12, 2017 at 5:18

As spelled out in the other answers, there is both an in-universe explanation and an out-of-universe explanation.

In-universe, Starfleet is about peaceful exploration and contact, with weaponry carried for defensive purposes only. Consistent with that philosophy, they shouldn't go around making pre-emptive strikes against threatening opponents if a situation can be resolved non-violently. There are plenty of TNG examples of encounters between the Enterprise and various Romulan ships where there is clear threat of an impending battle but is averted through diplomatic dialogue.

Out-of-universe, there would be no dramatic tension and no story if the Enterprise simply trod over its less capable opponents. Consider Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics... he wrote them to avert the stereotypical robot-kills-creator storylines prevalent at the time. Although it was thought that such an invention was too constraining to write good stories, it proved to be the reverse - the most interesting stories came out of the nuances that could be explored. The principles of the Federation does something similar - it creates the necessary framework for entertaining and evocative stories.

  • 1
    I believe there would be an almost equally productive middleground. Double the shield capabilities so the shots on the other cheek are not debilitating and then have a few very dramatic weapons that one can shoot across the bows (even directed away from the field of battle) after the first enemy shot to indicate the strength of firepower to angry opponents.
    – KalleMP
    Commented Mar 12, 2017 at 17:43

I truly think that the only reason we see a delay from the captains is because they are looking for a pattern in the attack and trying to end the conflict with one swift motion. This being through peaceful means or by perfect dominating force. If the enemy opens fire before the federation ship has a chance to open a dialogue then they are being attacked by surprise. I would say the delay we see is from physical limitations of the ship and the surprise attack. If physical limitations were not a factor they would simply make a doomsday device in the replicator or they would be omnipotent gods like Q.

Not the only but, the biggest problem that I would guess is phaser range. Space distances are enormous and phasers have a travel time. I located some data for an example. The ranges involved here are 500 km to 4,000,000 km. (Source) Speaking in distance these are very large even at the lowest range but, it’s not even close to how far a light year is which is 9,460,730,777,119 km. The travel time of a phaser was answered in this question. On the upper limit of the range of the phasers it would take 13 seconds (500 km is much faster) for a phaser to reach that target. I used distance divided by 299,792, which is the speed of light. The angle of the shot on a 2d plane would need to be precise within a hundredth or a thousandth decimal place to make sure your shot wasn’t a glancing blow. At 4,000,000 km it will be very easy to miss something 3 km big somewhere in space that far away. At 500 km it only needed to be off by .5 degrees for an object of 3 km big. (Did this math on a 2d plane using basic trig with very large triangles.) I am sure the computers in the future can do this math incredibly fast and efficient but, there is still a human pushing the button. Depending on the enemy’s sensors they are actively trying to dodge your 13 second shot. The other problem with this enormous distance is starship movement. Starships are in a nearly no friction and nearly no gravity inertia movement. When you put magic warp drives and tractor beams in the mix this gets convoluted quickly. This is one example of the problem with space combat there are others that we see on the show but, there are also some they don't cover.

Federation captains are worried about the safety of their ships and the safety of the people on board before any sort of diplomatic ventures start. In all the series when confronting someone they aren’t familiar with they want to hail the other party but, only if the ship is safe. All rules of engagement aside if the ship is in danger they fire and in TOS they fire a lot more than TNG. It also seems like the stakes are incredibly high so a moment of hesitation might be warranted and even necessary.

  • 2
    There's an awful lot of guesswork and supposition here. Can you back this up with some actual evidence?
    – Valorum
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 21:25
  • Maybe, which parts are the most guessy?
    – Byrd
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 21:26
  • 2
    I'd start with all of it from top to bottom and work my way downward from there.
    – Valorum
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 21:27
  • I'll try my best I won't focus too much on trying to find individual episodes because I might not ever finish seeing as how fairly open end this question is.
    – Byrd
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 21:37
  • I spent a lot of time trying to clean this up. I think I addressed any assumptions and clarified my statements better any other suggestions or confusing statements that are seen I can edit those too.
    – Byrd
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 22:59

TL;DR: The behavior you describe is what Gene Rodenberry would have liked to believe Starfleet would behave like; but we can surmise that's not what actually happens in that universe.

It's Federation propaganda. To see why that is, let's take this issue out-of-universe first.

Remember Pericles' famous Funeral Oration, where he describes the virtue and magnanimity of the resplendent Athens? Or the frequent speeches by US presidents explaining how they strive to bring peace and freedom to different parts of the world? Well, that's propaganda: Pericles was busy building his long Pirean double-wall, planning for war after he makes off with the funds of the Delian league. And the US invades, changes regimes and bombs and kills millions to further its domination and its ruling class' economic interests; it is hated and feared for this reason around the world. But no empire describes itself, imagines itself as ruthlessly applying naked force - they tell their story differently.

Gene Rodenberry aimed to describe an idealized humanity in space; but the dominant ideology in the US shows up in his creation - as no one is unaffected by the processes of socialization (or inclucation) of his/her surrounding society and the state governing it. And while Rodenberry did not intend Star Trek to be propaganda, the forward-projection he made (and was expanded and extended by the rest of the creative team) carried both good and bad (if I may use such terms), both what is consciously acknowledged and what is glossed over, swept under the rug or flat-out denied.

We thus find the Federation to be a militarist Human-species-supremacist command society, which is mildly bellicose and more than mildly expansionistic. I won't go into the details of that analysis here (you can follow the link), but suffice it to say that the broader facts we learn from the series (especially TNG and DS9) support it quite well, albeit through the resolution of contradicting evidence. With that being the case, you can rest assured that Star Fleet, like any navy/military, does not typically wait until the absolute last moment before firing; and it is not led by poet-philosophers captaining the ships (Plato, anyone? Yes, another authoritarian strand) like Picard or Janeway. If they don't actually shoot first it's probably because they're hacking into the other ship's system or have a wider political machination in play which calls for avoiding combat.

The thing is, we (whether in the US or not) would not cheer for this kind of protagonists, for that kind of behavior. It's not because there would be no story - you have quite a few interesting episodes about the Klingons or the Romulans, or the Cardassians, who do - supposedly - shoot first. It's just that viewers would not tolerate (justifiably so, I suppose) that from those characters with whom they're supposed to identify. So a different yarn is spun.

The sword is drawn - the navy upholds it

  • 3
    An answer of little value, written by someone with an unchecked bias of hatred against the US, who likely has never lived there. The epitome of bias, to form such a vitriolic opinion about a place about which you know so little. You despise and fear the culture that created the fiction, and so you transfer that hatred to the creation, finding reasons to continue justification of that hatred, namely by dismissing any attempt at an idealized imagination of the future as "propaganda".
    – user79520
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 13:08
  • 2
    Changing facts to suit your agenda, considering only your side of the story as an observer in the present day, from a society that only exists as a free democratic society because of the allegedly interventionist and expansionist desires of the US. Your society, which created corporate law as a way to facilitate the profitability and deniability of blame of the slave trade, which until a few years ago still enforced apartheid upon a large foreign nation, and have still forced your imperialistic cultural attitudes upon the native residents. Criticisms from such people are quite amusing.
    – user79520
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 13:09
  • And the justifications and defenses you will describe about how everything was done properly, and all accounts have been settled because enlightenment was found within the past 10-20 years, have nothing at all to do with you believing your own culture's propaganda.
    – user79520
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 13:09
  • While you undoubtedly have some valid points to make - the points are lost when you attempt to vilify the individuals of an entire country and anything they create, simply because you have a bad opinion or bad impression formed by whatever propaganda companies passing themselves off as news agencies have been feeding you your entire life.
    – user79520
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 13:10
  • 1
    @user314159: As for the rest of your accusations - they oppose my premise regarding the nature of the Federation. And while that's a legitimate argument to have, it's not actually what the question is about, so the place to have it is elsewhere. You reject my premise and that's fine, we'll agree to disagree.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 13:27

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