In Star Trek VI, the main Klingon baddie captains a prototype Bird of Prey that can fire torpedoes while it is cloaked (normally, cloaked ships cannot fire and have no shields, due to a combination of energy use and spoiling the cloaking effect). To combat this, Spock and McCoy retrofit a torpedo as a "seeker missile", homing in on the "exhaust" of the BoP.

However, there's another possibility. We have seen phasers on Federation ships fire and change targeting very rapidly. Kirk could thus have centered on the last origin of a torpedo, and targeted the nearest phaser banks onto points on a grid. Cloaking obviously doesn't prevent weapons from working, just their targeting systems. So, target a grid area around where the ship was last known to be (based on a torpedo launch, with as many phaser banks as can hit that grid, and if one hits you have a new target. You could configure the phasers to fire in short bursts on maybe 25 points, working inward from the outside or in a random pattern; it wouldn't take long and one's bound to hit a ship maneuvering around you with thrusters only.

Was this overlooked, or am I overestimating the ability of the TOS-era weapons? I admit I've only ever seen the "beam" phasers fire and retarget quickly on TNG-era ships. The 2009 Star Trek "reboot" phasers fire more of a "packet" of energy than a beam, and very rapidly, so you could very easily target a grid pattern, but that's not the style seen in any other ST movie.

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    Well, this was done in Nemesis. – Xantec Oct 28 '11 at 22:47
  • ^yep, because even though it can be done, by the time you've managed to hit a target with phasers and fired a torpedo, the cloaked vessel has moved on. – Jared Oct 30 '11 at 22:03
  • Ah, Nemesis: so much potential...lost. – Chad Levy Oct 30 '11 at 22:41
  • Battleship anyone! – AidanO May 15 '13 at 14:44
  • Pulse phasers are a thing in the pre-reboot series as well. The Defiant and other DS9-era ships had them, iirc. – JAB Dec 1 '15 at 13:47

Hardware Limitations

The simplest answer is also the most elusive. One of the reason you do not use phasers as a cane to tap around in space to find enemy ships is that it takes time to charge, use and recharge the phaser arrays on Federation ships. While their recharge time during the series varied wildly, on average, it was not likely to be fast enough to allow an effective blanketing of space enough for detection of enemy vessels. Most Federation ships have 4-8 phaser banks, hardly enough to cover an area sufficient to relay information useful for targeting. More on that in a second.

First Limit: Activity and Activation

Since the discharge of a phaser means it is not ready for combat, trying to use the phasers, even at reduced power to blanket an area effectively AND then scan that area as well for more sophisticated targeting would take both power and an effectively running sensor array.

Cloaking Technology Advantages

It was possible to track cloaked vessels poorly by certain emissions, notably, from the impulse engines waste gas emissions, it was still unlikely that you would be able to target the ship well enough to shoot at them, so the cloak must actively prevent ships from gaining a lock, even if they were able to phaser-locate them. The cloak did not just block line of sight targeting from any and all normal spectral emissions, it also blocked subspace field emissions detection.

Sensor Technology: The basics

Sensor technology in the Alpha Quadrant was based on the idea of gathering information at faster than light speeds by penetrating and gathering information from subspace. A ship is always gathering subspace information because that information can travel faster-than-light, giving ships the opportunity to know about things around them that affect the space-time continuum deforming the fabric of space.

This would include objects with great gravitational effects such as stars, planets, black holes (which would be completely invisible otherwise) or artificial means of inducing space time fluctuations such as subspace-distorting-drive systems. With this faster-than-light sensor array, and the supporting computational power required to parse that information, they would have time to maneuver around and target anything that disrupted subspace.

Starship sensor arrays have to always be receiving subspace information about a target in space already for faster-than-light targeting to even take place, so the cloak doesn't just hide the ship physically from sight, it also hides its submersion into the subspace field, so a seeking ship's sensors are unable to detect the deformation of the space-time continuum, that allows sensors to detect that ship in the first place.

The odds of hitting that ship are...

What that means is even if you could phaser-echo-locate the ship, you would have to target it by hand because you would receive no support from the sensor array systems (which are the primary means of a starship getting information about its position in relation to another ship). This means you would have to be shooting blindly based on a signal received in real time, at light speeds.

Your chances of hitting it would be very, very low because you would only receive a second of information and would have to guess the direction, momentum and speed of the ship in that single second with a single bit of information (very difficult to do, weapons triangulation usually takes at least three points of information to effectively target anything.) At near-light speed, assuming a battle at impulse, you could miss by several thousands of miles even if your reaction time could be reduced to a fraction of a second.

What surprises me, is that more torpedoes were not configured to track ships by the energy emission signals. Likely after Kirk's time, this emission detection loophole was closed, so gas emissions from a ship's reactor could not be used a second time, refining the cloaking device's utility even further.

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    All very good, but the photon torpedoes fired by the BoP were not cloaked. They were visible from the moment they came out of the tube on the BoP. That means the Enterprise would know the point of origin. It would require sitting around waiting for the BoP to shoot at you, but you could at least return fire in a pattern around the torp's point of origin (which would also be the BoP's last known bearing), and if the phaser hit, at the very least you'd see the beam stop, if you didn't highlight the BoP's shields or hull with the energy spike. – KeithS Oct 31 '11 at 21:08
  • The torpedoes are not cloaked. The shooter is moving at impulse speeds. What is the point of trying to target by hand, because unless you are responding in a tenth of a second or less, you will miss by thousands of miles? Knowing where the torpedo is launched is useless with human reaction times for targeting. If you are going to vote it down, please make an effort to rationalize WHY what I said does not work. – Thaddeus Howze Oct 31 '11 at 21:29
  • The shooter would have to be pointed roughly at the target, meaning thrusters only. The battle shows the BoP moving relatively slowly around the Enterprise, and at relatively close quarters. And I didn't vote your answer down, I'm just commenting. – KeithS Nov 1 '11 at 13:59

The following is mostly speculation.

On the TV or movie screen, ships usually appear to be very close together. In "reality", though, space battles tend to take place at substantial distances, say a few hundred or thousand kilometers. If you were looking out through a window, you wouldn't even be able to see the other ship or ships, or at most you'd see tiny moving points of light.

Phasers are coherent beams that don't dissipate much over long distances, and photon torpedoes don't dissipate at all, so if your ship is cloaked you'll want to keep some distance between you and the enemy.

If you know where an enemy ship is, you can target it. If you can't see it, the odds of hitting it with an effectively random shot -- or even with a regular grid of shots -- are miniscule, and probably not worth the energy cost. And a near miss doesn't do you any good (or the enemy any harm).


Space is vast. Even if a ship is only 10km away, that means it could actually occupy anywhere in 3-dimensional space within 10km. That's 10km * 10km * 10km, a very large volume and for phasers to hit all of that it would have to be very diffuse indeed.

(Technically, it would be 4/3 Pi*r cubed since it's radial distance away, but treating the spatial volume as a cube simplifies the math)

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    Yes, except we're talking about a situation in which you know where it was just previously, because it fired a torpedo at you so you know the point of origin. The ship can only move so fast around you while still being pointed at you, so firing around a grid centered on where the ship was just located should result in a hit; that hit can then be targeted as it will result in a decent amount of detectable energy. – KeithS Oct 28 '11 at 21:43
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    @KeithS: unless the ship does the Picard Maneuver! – Wikis Oct 28 '11 at 22:07
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    It's the visible area that's relevant, not the volume. If you fire your phasers in a given direction, they'll hit anything on a line from your ship out to whatever the range of your phasers is. – Keith Thompson Oct 29 '11 at 1:39

On the one occasion we see this technique being used (in ST: Nemesis), it's wholly effective, but largely due to dumb luck and the sheer proximity of the enemy vessel.

PICARD: Worf, prepare a full phaser spread, zero elevation. All banks on my mark. Scan for shield impacts and stand by photon torpedoes.

WORF: Aye, sir

The ship ROCKS again.



[The Enterprise fires her phasers simultaneously -- the energy beams shoot into space -- And the Scimitar's shape is momentarily illuminated as one of its shields is hit.]

enter image description here

This only works because Picard is already aware that the Scimitar is firing from the same plane at the Enterprise. I think we can reasonably assume that under normal combat conditions, the Klingons (or whoever) would maintain a more erratic strafing run style of attack, coming in from multiple angles and then retreating until phaser banks were at full charge again, rendering themselves a far more difficult target to locate by firing blindly into space.

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