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Torpedoes in the Star Trek universe are so advanced that they are capable of warp and variable-yield explosions.

In fact, they are so powerful that their yields are measured in isotons, which is roughly 2.6 megatons per isoton, and at maximum yields of between 25 and 80 isotons they're significantly more-powerful than modern-day nuclear weapons.

And yet, they often miss. Their guidance systems are seemingly akin to the early generations of submarine-fired torpedoes that had to fly in a straight line. They are apparently unable to maneuver.

Is this severe limitation explained in the show's canon?

19

Space Combat in the Alpha Quadrant


Distance is under-represented in space opera

One of the things that you are rarely shown in Star Trek and indeed in most space operas is the vast distances capable of being created with just a few seconds of combat at near light or light speeds. You do not see this during the show mostly due to dramatic license.

For example: The distance to the moon is about 240,000 miles and at light speed this distance is covered in 1.5 seconds. At light speed that would seem very fast, but remember in the time it took for the beam of light (or a phaser or torpedo) to cover that distance, the target in the same time can add that distance in a different direction in the same time.

Despite the fact that pilots and weapon's officers appear to be involved in the combat on Alpha Quadrant ships, the fact of the matter is for weapons to be effective, they are more often than not computer-assisted to allow for the speeds capable of being reached and at the distances involved, humans would barely be able to compensate for the differential between two vessels moving at near-light speeds.

The most effective combat between Alpha Quadrant ships has to take place at ranges less than one light second, because these ranges would be the most effective ranges to use their weapons. Even stranger, that most battles, particularly the ones during the Deep Space Nine series would be less than a few thousand miles apart, basically point blank ranges, making combat particularly messy, destructive and final. Check out the battles during the Dominion War and you will see combat taking place at ranges of 1,500 KM or less.

Counter-measures

The species of the Alpha Quadrant would likely use several tiers of countermeasures/defense against attack.

  • Passive countermeasures - passive countermeasures include technology that prevents ships from being effectively scanned, shield against the ship giving away information about its status or crew complements - this status is operational as soon as a ship goes into Yellow Alert, and is heightened under Red Alert.

  • Passive defenses - Passive defenses include the armored hulls of most ships, while shields are the primary defense of a starship, their hulls are supertough composite materials capable of being struck by powerful weapons and surviving. Inside ships, isolation fields which compartmentalize the hulls of vessels preventing the loss of crew and atmosphere and allow crew members to continue working in areas that would otherwise be in-hospitable.

  • Active countermeasures - would be the tactical use of computer sensor systems to scramble torpedo targeting and breaking targeting locks by other ships. Those locks would have to be re-established periodically as computers onboard the target ship, search for opportunity to lock on to other vital areas of the ships.

  • Active defenses - these would include systems such as point defense phasers, designed to be fired to destroy incoming torpedoes before they can reach their optimal arming and detonation stages. While these would not be effective against other ships, they would be sufficient to destroy the containment of a torpedo rendering it inactive (and non-explosive).

It is likely that each race, depending on its proclivities might have more or less experience with one or more of these types of countermeasure/defense types. For example:

Romulans would likely be strong in countermeasures but weaker in point defenses since they make an effort to know more about enemy ships using spies and they fighting the Klingons would be less likely to meet a photon torpedo in average combat. So their skills at confusing ship targeting systems may be significantly higher.

Klingons will likely spend more on defense and less on their countermeasures since they prefer to enter into straight up fights against the enemy. So their ships likely pack more defense systems, reducing attacks from torpedoes or other small ship combat, since they fight against other Klingons and Romulans who use small ships and the Romulan torpedoes, which are both slow and amazingly powerful. Later Romulan vessels use the same disruptor technology the Klingons use because of their long range and relatively low power requirements.

The Federation may be one of those which will spend equal efforts on sensor countermeasures and defense platforms.


In summary

In the same manner modern navies use technology to attack their opponents, such countermeasures would exist in the Alpha Quadrant, even if they did not receive the acclaim that weapon systems get.

Tactical officers would be trained in ways to make their ship less easily struck using the ship's sensor array to confuse the targeting systems of both enemy ships and enemy weapons platforms such as torpedoes more likely to miss.

Considering their devastating yields, it would be in the best interest of the defending ship to force as many high-yield weapons to miss the ship and its shields as possible. Electronic countermeasures would require significantly less power than shields or other point defense technologies.

One of the things that was most effectively shown in the recent new Star Trek (2009) were the phaser-based point defenses which were far better represented than at any time in the past. As a former military person, it was gratifying to see a more realistic display of the layered technologies required for weapon-bearing ships to be effective. Star Trek's space battles always seemed so simple and had none of the complexity modern militaries use in combat today.


In games:

When Star Trek, in the form of Starfleet Command video games by Interplay tried to bring their space battles to computerized games, many of the difficulties became more apparent depending on the weapons used and the races involved. The two things to be considered were the optimal ranges of a weapon and the maximum ranges of a weapon.

Optimal ranges deal with where the weapon is likely to be most effective and resistant to countermeasures. Maximum only deals with the possibility of being able to hit the target.

Depending on the weapon, it became a critical issue to find your weapon's sweet spot and keep your ships in yours, while denying your enemy his optimal range. Combat rarely resembled the show with distances being on average further apart than the ranges in the shows would represent.

The famed game Star Fleet Battles displayed how weapons used by Alpha Quadrant races would have made battles against different forces quite variable and again different from what was seen on the screen.

12

Well, you have to consider a couple of things. First, the target is typically also moving at warp or high sublight speeds. Two bullets fired at each other can easily miss each other with only the slightest variation.

Second, enemy targets are also likely to employ any number of countermeasures, such as jamming or spoofing the torpedo's guidance system, much as modern day missiles can be jammed or spoofed.

Another option which really never appears in the tv shows, but which is prevalant in the Star Trek PC games is the concept of using smaller powered phaser banks stationed at key points on the ship to shoot and destroy incoming torpedoes and missile weapons.

So while yes, a torpedo moves extremely fast and offensive technology is highly advanced, so too, we must assume, would countermeasures technology advance.

  • I guess what I am asking is are torpedoes generally unable to maneuver - as explained in the show itself? – Chad Levy Oct 28 '11 at 21:12
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    @Paperjam: No. They can maneuver. See the end of Star Trek 6. – Jeff Oct 28 '11 at 21:46
  • @Jeff Thanks, I'll check that out. – Chad Levy Oct 28 '11 at 21:51
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    @Jeff - That was a custom-fit torpedo containing emissions-seeking equipment, modified by Spock and Dr McCoy while under fire. All information from TOS up until that moment suggests that torpedo targeting in the 23rd century was similar to submarine torpedo targeting in WWII; you calculated the enemy ship's trajectory and fired a torpedo that was "preset" to follow a path that would intersect. Even today with active homing torpedoes, they have to be pointed at a target in front of them when they go active in order to acquire it and home in. – KeithS Oct 31 '11 at 21:18
  • @KeithS: I know that the homing was a custom job. But there's no way they could have jury-rigged a maneuvering engine capable of those radical turns in that short period of time - the torpedo obviously had some capability for maneuvering built-in. – Jeff Oct 31 '11 at 23:50
5

Remember that even the most advanced weapons we have miss a great deal of the time. As is said during fighter combat training, "if missiles hit their target 100% of the time they'd be called 'hittiles'". On top of that, torpedoes seem to be "collision weapons"; they detonate on contact instead of sensing that the target is "close enough" (like AAMs and SAMs do).

It all boils down to two things that are common in all combat:

  • You don't have perfect knowledge of what the other person will do, and
  • There is a performance envelope inherent in any maneuverable system that cannot be exceeded.

In fighter combat, you are told that when your opponent is behind you and is lining up a shot, "jink"; that is, move erratically. Change your plane of motion and rate of motion. By doing so, you spoil the "predictive" picture that your opponent's fire control computer is presenting to him as he lines up. It's implied that "probability mechanics", the ability to predict events with better-than-probabilistic reliability due to knowledge of all possible influences on the event, is not a science that any race possesses.

Also, in fighter combat, you are taught that missiles can be evaded by outmaneuvering them. You force them, at the last second (almost literally), to turn tighter than they can turn in order to hit you (or at least pass close enough to put you in their "kill zone"). The same theory applies in naval warfare, except that torpedoes don't have to go Mach 3; just 80 knots, meaning they can both outrun AND outturn most targets.

In space, you're back to a very fast-moving but slow-turning torpedo (except the one in ST VI, which also seems to have been slowed down considerably). Large capital ships don't move very fast, but there are "evasive patterns" taught to helmsmen and captains that can spoil a shot by fooling the targeting computer of the opposing ship.

3

The torpedoes have advanced, but so have enemy systems. The torpedoes could very well be locking on, but then be inturrupted by the enemy's sheilding or flase locks.

Perhaps the torpedoes can't be manuvered once they leave the ship.

  • Do you know if any mention of this in the show itself? I've only recently started watching TNG on Netflix and can't help but roll my eyes every time one misses. – Chad Levy Oct 28 '11 at 21:13
  • In one of the last episodes, it shows Worf testing a new guidance system. One of the torpedoes misses its target and he shows his frustration. So apparently, the targeting is only as good as the person operatin the weapons system. – OghmaOsiris Oct 31 '11 at 22:48
  • You know what, that reminds me of another episode (or maybe the same one) where he and Picard had to go retrieve a malfunctioning torpedo lost after a test. The rest of the episode was terrible (something about the crew de-evolving...*sigh*) – Chad Levy Nov 1 '11 at 18:56
  • Um... That episode was awesome. QED. – OghmaOsiris Nov 1 '11 at 19:00

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