This question is with respect to starships battles in Star Trek TNG and DS9.

In many episodes, the Enterprise (or other Federation starship) is fired upon, but they don't retaliate quickly enough. They take multiple shots in the meantime, or the commanding office issues an order to the security officer to fire a certain kind of weapon with a certain intensity, while they take another hit before the order is conveyed and executed. Or there's an explosion on the bridge which throws the security officer away from his console before he can punch the appropriate button.

This results in the ship taking significant damage, losing their shields, losing the tactical advantage, or even being boarded or destroyed. I understand that this can be a plot device, but I find it illogical, as compared to the below alternatives:

  • The commanding officer can have a console with buttons for various kinds of weapons at various intensities (phasers, photon torpedoes, etc) so that precious time is not lost orally conveying an order, understanding it on the receiving end, and executing it, or risk having the security officer thrown away from his console by an explosion before he can execute the order. In a crisis, you don't want multiple people in the chain before something can get done.

  • Another option might be a Fire All Weapons button for use in a dire situation. When pressed, this would fire all weapons at maximum power targeted at the parts of the enemy ship that are likely to cause the most damage. This way, firepower is not limited by human reaction or decision times, such as issuing an order, pressing a button each time, or targeting each individual burst of a weapon. What's the point of having so much firepower if it can't be used as quickly as possible in battle, when fractions of a second matter?

  • A further extension is that the captain can activate this mode ahead of time. When active, the minute the ship takes one hit, the computer immediately retaliates at maximum power against the attackers. The captain would decide when this mode is appropriate to use.

Maybe you have other ideas on how ships can respond faster in battle. The point is not to fixate on the exact list of ideas, but to ask: is there any logical reason why Federation starships are so slow to react, losing the tactical advantage, and risking their own destruction or takeover?

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    I'd probably start removing the explosives right under the console first. Then add some additional shielding to the warp core and think about stuff such as automated point defense (l/ph)asers, that don't have to be operated by hand. Once that's done, let's talk about firing back quickly. ;) – Mario Aug 7 '14 at 6:59
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    A present day warship, when fired upon, is perfectly capable of independently deciding to fire its own weapons (Seawolf, Phalanx, etc, once online are autonomous). No human could react fast enough (there is approx 3 seconds before a sea skimmer is detected to when it hits you). It's purely a plot device. – Gaius Aug 7 '14 at 7:14
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    It's a matter of priorities. Federation ships aren't battle- or war-ships. The existence of the Defiant-class proves that Starfleet is putting very, very little effort into ensuring the tactical superiority of the majority of their fleet. – ApproachingDarknessFish Aug 7 '14 at 7:29
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    @KartickVaddadi I agree with you that, as techniques for conveying such an idea go, this is a fairly clumsy one. – lea Aug 7 '14 at 7:44
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    It's the same thing on Klingon-Warships and Klingons don't consider themselves to be peaceful. Same goes with the Dominion. This can't be explained with something that would only go for the Federation. – Einer Aug 7 '14 at 9:58

This stumps me. It is indeed very hard to understand. I've been a part of both military and civilian units (humanitarian, commercial and one scientific survey group -- as a leader and a follower) in hostile and semi-permissive environments. In either case we practice "immediate action drills". Only in the military case do we practice offensive drills.

The core training and preparation cycle is the same.

In the military case the main place we spend our time is on offensive operation rehearsals and contingency planning/practice. In the civilian case the main place we spend our time is on setup/teardown of the operational site, surveys of the area, operational planning related to whatever the point of the trip is, etc. But in both cases whenever entering an environment where hostility is likely to be encountered we spend a lot of deliberate time practicing immediate action drills.

What are these drills of which you speak?

To understand, we need a slight correction...



It is a way for a group to plan its first few moments of tactical reaction long in advance of actual contact. So, for example, if we find ourselves in a near ambush, everyone knows without anyone giving an order that the thing to do is turn and charge the enemy firing line immediately. (Non-fighters are to stick as closely to a fighter as possible; if there is a designated principal, then we form a shell around that guy but the basic maneuver is the same.) The act of being ambushed is the assault order.

The delay required for someone in charge to make up their mind about what to do, make all elements aware of that decision, everyone to actually understand what the order is (by no means certain when the poo is flying), and finally for everyone to start actually moving is a death sentence. This delay is the very reason why surprise attacks like ambushes, raids, and covered flanking movements are so successful.

The immediate action in the case of a far ambush is the opposite. Immediate action in the case of an IED, loss of communications, loss of visibility, break in contact (where two sections of your group become separated), crowd-covered shooters, grenade-in-the-car, etc. are all planned in advanced and rehearsed. This is also true for static installations like your base camp, housing area, dining facility, hotel, etc. They all should have immediate actions planned in advance, though complacency is a hard thing to overcome in some environments (when the gap between the last attack and the present day/locale exceeds some emotionally significant threshold -- and there is never any telling what that threshold is going to be).

Life is always played in hardcore mode: No more Marios

The reason for all this practice is that the defining moments of most fights are the very first moments, and you never get a chance to relive them. Pre-planning your moves in those initial moments prevents unit-wide paralysis while everyone waits on the commander to show up and say "Ah, we're being shot at? Hrm... well... let's see here... lemme check a map and call the boss... Hrm... yep. I think we should shoot back and start moving." -- which is essentially the phenomenon you are puzzled about in the Star Trek universe.

Even in really horrible places the vast majority of the civilian contracts I've taken never involve any actual hostile contact. In those that do maybe we'll be doing something operational for 100 days, and only 1 or 2 or those days see something bad happen (there are rare cases where every day is an adventure, but that is really unusual).

By contrast, in just about every show the Federation gets involved in some sort of hostile action. To think that I spend so much time preparing for events that almost never happen, but the Federation believes that good intentions and an appeal to reason will protect them from things that happen all the freaking time and therefore don't practice is sort of ridiculous. Previously I mentioned the "emotionally significant threshold" of time/distance from the last bad incident. Considering near-death experiences are something like a weekly affair for the main case of a Star Trek series I'm shocked at the level of unpreparedness.

And to tie this off...

I have no freaking clue why this is the case. Perhaps it is because they are "non-combatants" who merely are interested in science. But this falls apart when we consider the various Federation wars and the fact that their "scientific ships" are overflowing with shields, huge phasers, planetary bombardment devices, photon torpedoes, and the like. I don't recall Jacques Cousteau having his ship similarly equipped when I was a child.

A more likely answer is that they have a major doctrine problem, a burdensome political process to live with, and most Federation officers are essentially living in denial. This actually seems plausible, considering all the wacky interplay between politicians, high-ranking Federation officials, foreign officials, and random acts of backstabbing plot-thicknessness encountered throughout the series and the movies. It simply may be the case that the Federation's naval assets could very easily become a dominant tool of belligerence in the galaxy were it to redefine its mission that way, and this might scare the bejesus out of politicians and neighboring factions alike. In this sort of environment in the real world we see military arms redefined as police forces, or as research divisions, or as "internal security units" or whatever, and training doctrine deliberately written in a way that prevents tactical units (and especially the leaders of those units) from experiencing many of the situations necessary to really extend their methods of thought and command to encompass the tactical realm more fully.

The tactical engagements in Star Trek could perhaps be made much more interesting were this taken into account. The Federation was victorious against a Klingon incursion, after all, so its not like they don't know how to do this sort of thing -- perhaps they are politically afraid to, because much like the United States today, it could easily ignite an inner war of ethos between the "Federated Empire" and the "Federated Republic" concepts of what the Federation should be.

In any case, I really think it would be awesome to exploit this duality as a plot device. The point this question brings up about them appearing to be constantly underprepared and late to the punch is a great entry point to this sort of political plotline.

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    This reads like a rant. There's certainly a good answer in this mess, struggling to get out. – Valorum Sep 5 '15 at 14:12
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    @Richard Sorry you feel that way. I don't know what I would appear to be ranting at (?). My intent was to provide some background information that most people here lack. It is certainly overly long, though "long" != "rant". Any suggestions? – zxq9 Sep 5 '15 at 14:18
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    Long doesn't necessarily equal rant, but without a central thesis, this is basically a "stream of consciousness rant" against what you see as something illogical. Clearly there must be some level of in-universe logic to it. – Valorum Sep 5 '15 at 14:52
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    I think several things account for the difference between your experience and Starfleets. One is: "whenever entering an environment where hostility is likely to be encountered". maybe Starfleet doesn't consider the universe to be a place where "hostility is likely to be encountered". We get to see the exciting ones in the show, but probably 99.999% of Starfleet's encounters are peaceful. – DJClayworth Sep 24 '15 at 18:12
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    zxq9's answer is tactically sound. My personal tactic for ambush is to run away, since I'm not going to be carrying a weapon. This is known as a tactical repositioning to the rear. – Howard Miller Oct 27 '15 at 19:34

The answer is simple on the surface but complex beneath: Starfleet is not a military organization, except in extremis. At every turn, a Starfleet captain is going to attempt to use the least amount of force to deter an opponent from continuing their aggression. If they can avoid loss of life on both sides of a battle by convincing the aggressor that they've taken on a tougher target than they thought, but without actually having to seriously damage them, so much the better. So they will fire warning shots, shots to disable, and so on, rather than pumping out their full power, all at once, and risk destroying an opponent who may be reacting out of ignorance, fear, or misguided intentions, rather than active belligerence.

Only when faced with a foe known to be implacable, like the Borg or the Dominion, do Starfleet captains behave differently, and even then, they rarely fire the first shot. In "Errand of Mercy", even on the brink of war with the Klingons, Kirk only returns fire when fired upon.

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    This is a great answer but you need to back it up with a quote or a reference. – Valorum Aug 9 '14 at 23:30
  • Like that time the Enterprise is attacked by someone using lasers that can't harm the ship – Izkata Aug 10 '14 at 1:42
  • -1 for this answer. The question does not say that it's good to fire the first shot. It does not say that it's always right to retaliate with full force. Your answer assumes that it's never right to retaliate with full force, which is not true. There are some situations where retaliating with full force is the difference between living and dying. And it's up to the captain to decide when to do so. – Vaddadi Kartick Aug 13 '14 at 5:31
  • In other words, arguing that retaliation should always be slow is illogical (as Spock would say :) ). Please read the question again, since it seems that you've misunderstood it. Thanks for your help. – Vaddadi Kartick Aug 13 '14 at 7:16

Starfleet is not a military organization, and is expressly intended not to fight except as a last resort.

To back this up, the issue is explicitly addressed in an early episode of The Next Generation, in which Picard talks about an incident where a Federation ship is ferociously attacked out of nowhere by a ship of an unknown species. The Federation ship doesn't retaliate, and it turns out that this species had previously been attacked by a third species, and had mistaken the Federation for them. The new species goes on to be friendly to the Federation.

I forget offhand whether the captain doing this was Picard himself.

It also illustrates the point that for most of Starfleet's encounters (not necessarily the ones shown in the show) the Starship is significantly superior to the other vessel, and doesn't need to retaliate.

Out of universe, it's always more dramatic to have:

Helmsman: Captain, we're under attack from an unknown vessel.

Captain: Return fire


Helmsman: Captain, we were attacked by an unknown vessel which was destroyed three milliseconds later by our pre-programmed weapons response system.

Captain. Oh well, carry on.

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It's pretty obvious that combat on Star Trek is modeled on naval warfare:

  1. In TOS, we would continually hear that annoying ping sound while on the bridge;
  2. their primary weapons are torpedoes;
  3. they have helmsmen at what they refer to as the conn (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conn_(nautical)).

As anyone who watched submarine movies can tell, combat is quite slow and deliberate. If an enemy fires a torpedo at you, the commander has time to issue orders to the various stations: "Change heading to 023. Make turns for 20 knots. Deploy countermeasures. Flood torpedo tubes 1 thru 4. etc." Crew are not going to spontaneously take these actions without orders.

The reason why orders to retaliate are so slow on Star Trek, is because of this naval warfare business that they're trying to mimic. In this sense, Captain Picard is no more different than Captain Ramius.

But on Star Trek, the naval style of warfare starts breaking down for the following reasons:

  1. Ships are extremely close to one another in battle (makes for nicer visuals);
  2. weapons hit almost instantaneously at such close ranges;
  3. cycle times between salvos are very short.

If Star Trek space battles were to happen at much larger distances (way beyond visual range), and if torpedoes were guided mini-spacecraft (like their submarine counterparts*), then slow, deliberate naval tactics would probably make more sense.

[*] Ever since I started playing submarine simulation games, it always bugged me that early Star Trek "torpedoes" were nothing more than unguided fireballs.

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As already said by many others, Starfleet was not a military organization. Their mission was peaceful exploration and the weapons were to defend themselves. Just like today, they'd want a "human in the loop", hold up... "person in the loop" to make the final decision to fire.

In a diplomacy situation, and the Federation considers everything diplomacy, anything can be considered a hostile act. You don't want an automated system or jumpy Ensign charging a weapon, raising a shield or even initiating a scan without permission.

The Enterprise D has the luxury of taking a few hits. While smaller Starfleet vessels might be in danger, the Big D is used to being the biggest, baddest thing around. Often, the bridge crew calmly stands by as their opponent has a little temper tantrum against their shields, like a parent watching a child flail away uselessly. Weapons are often deployed surgically just enough to disable their opponent. This is the most common use of ship weaponry on the Enterprise D.

That said, once they make the decision to go to battle they could be faster. In Yesterday's Enterprise, when the Federation is supposed to be in a losing war, Picard is still calling out precise shots. It's only when he tells Worf to fire at will that they get something done.

There is an Enterprise episode where they address their slow reaction times, Singularity. Reed pushes for something more comprehensive than merely "battle stations" and the "tactical alert" is born. Weapons are charged, hull plating is polarized, and critical systems are secured. The ship is ready for combat in one command.

By TOS and TNG this had become the yellow and red alerts. Yellow alert appears to not include shields. Yellow alert is a precautionary measure and you might be at it for a while. Shields take a lot of energy, interfere with sensors, block transport, and generally disrupt the normal goings on in the ship. And raising shields can be considered a hostile act. So no shields. In Wrath Of Khan Kirk orders yellow alert on the approach of Reliant but no shields. And Riker loves to yell "shields up!" whenever yellow alert is called.

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    Evolution of alert status -- that's good stuff to note. It indicates the Federation had at least thought about this, but perhaps were principally and bureaucratically constrained in ways that still made tactical engagements problematic. – zxq9 Oct 28 '15 at 4:07
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    OTOH, I disagree wholeheartedly with the concept that a commander should just sit there "because his ship can take a few hits". History books marinade in a pool of blood spilled by commanders who underestimated their opponents. In missions where you are exploring new places you have no idea what you are facing by definition. But that is me citing a mistake the Federation may be making; it doesn't mean the Federation isn't making the same exact mistake due to an ironic sense of false superiority. I find it more likely that the politicians are hedging against its military arm instead, though. – zxq9 Oct 28 '15 at 4:12

I think. One possible answer was federation star ships weren't battle ships in this sense.

A little extra time to respond to weapon fire can be good to weigh in other likely options.

Anyway, respective weapon systems might take some time to load, besides of this.

However, I agree. In some of the situations it was best firing back about the moment you were hit. Thus, I assume that mainly this was some sort of diplomacy.

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    I've removed your your signing off with your name. This is not a discussion forum, nor a letter. Your name and pertinent info are always attached to your questions, answers, and comments. No need to "sign" them. Also, this seems more like a comment than an answer, in that it doesn't cite any canon or other reference. I suggest checking out the Tour to get a better idea of how to ask and answer questions here. Plus, the Tour will get you your first badge. Knowledge and renown. And it only takes a couple minutes! – Meat Trademark Sep 5 '15 at 15:46
  • Having said the above, which I stand by, I like your point "A little extra time to respond to weapon fire can be good to weigh in other likely options." That served well on the new (2005) Battlestar Gallactica on a few occasions. Take the tour, stick around, don't be discouraged. – Meat Trademark Sep 5 '15 at 15:54
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    There's a time for diplomacy, and there's a time when you need to fire quickly to survive. Ships need to support both. I don't believe the "not battleships" argument, since they have such powerful weapons (quantum torpedoes, phasers, pulsed phasers, shields, etc). Whether the Federation likes war or not, they have to be able to defend themselves. As for time to respond, again, there are situations when you need to think, and situations when you need to react quickly, and ships need to support both. – Vaddadi Kartick Sep 12 '15 at 6:49
  • What I still like to add - a battle or some other kind of conflict in space is unlike anything we know of. If you engage in senseless exchange of weapons fire and your ship is destructed, space kills you. – Steve Ford Sep 24 '15 at 17:51

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