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EDIT3: Thanks for very varied answers. I with I could approve two answers and not just one. The question was answered, by both Omegacron and Nate Watson. While Omegacron's answer is much better formatted, Watson's had more relevant examples. My question is about kinetic projectiles like simple shells and debris, not about nukes or chemical weapons, which almost everyone here insists on bringing up. However, these two answers, as well as Jim2B's, paint a complete picture about Federation hulls. Which is "nowhere near as tough as the theory behind them claims"

I've had a discussion with someone, a silly what-if - NCC-1701-x Enterprise vs Battlestar Galactica 2004.

We've been unable to conclude who would get the upper hand - Galactica with it's huge size, incredibly thick armour, rain of metal fire, nukes and armour-piercing explosive rounds that could level Pentagon in a hit, or Enterprise, with it's shields, high-tech, and great, but highly concentrated firepower.

The main problem is that we just can't remember a fight or an example where a Federation ship bigger than a shuttle was hit by a projectile physical. So we can't judge how will Galactica's rain of steel would affect the Enterprise. Our rules were "on-screen events > theory/words" (for example photon torpedoes are said to destroy small planets in Voyager, but in a fight, they struggle to breach shields) and that both ships are moving at a speed they usually are shown to fight at. Slowly.

The only example of physical hit vs shields that I can remember was when the Enterprise-E bumped into a Mogai's wing and lost more than half of it's shield strenght and took minor internal damage, in the movie Nemesis, and I'm pretty sure there were ships destroyed by debris in DS9 and First Contact. I also remember (vaugely) Romulans threatening the Federation with nukes, something the Federation took seriously (on a semi-related note).

I'm looking for an answer compatible with TV shows and movies, not the theory behind them, and I'm looking for both examples where the the damage was mitigated as well as when it was catastrophic.

Also, this is not a Galactica vs Enterprise question, I've only mentioned it because I thought some context would be useful.

EDIT: I am fully aware of Star Trek's inconsistencies, this is why I am asking for examples of both shrugging off the hit AND when it did catastrophic damage. I know there are both. And once again, this is NOT Galactica vs Enterprise.

EDIT2: This is not about nukes! This is specifically about not nukes - kinetic projectiles, be it ammo or debris or meteors or garbage. Not nukes, not chemical weapons, not energy-based weapons. Nukes are different from plain kinetic projectiles. They explode and generate heat, emit radiation, and make a shockwave. a) most of it goes into emptiness, b) space already has a lot of radiation, c) only in atmosphere tl;dr nukes usually are not that dangerous. Now, a small but very very fast projectile can pierce a ship.

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    “NCC-1701-x Enterprise” — NCC-1701-X? The Next Next Next Next Generation? – Paul D. Waite Jun 25 '15 at 10:22
  • @PaulD.Waite -x as in -NULL or -A or -B or -C or -D or -E or -F or -J – Petersaber Jun 25 '15 at 10:23
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    Aren't photon torpedo's physical nukes? They don't seem to be effective if shields are up, wouldn't this apply to Galacticas nukes too? EDIT - they're a matter/antimatter reaction so...em. But another thought. Enterprise has the transporter. Galactica doesn't have any defense against beaming everyone out into space, does it? – DavidS Jun 25 '15 at 10:30
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    @DavidS well, transporters are known to fail when they have to beam through thick materials like bedrock or radiation-resistant metals, and Galactica's hull is so thick it could fly through some really radioactive regions of space, and when hit directly with a nuke the radiation was never a concern. We assumed the hull is too thick for transporters to work. Also, has Federation ever beamed an opponent into space? – Petersaber Jun 25 '15 at 10:43
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    @Petersaber photon torpedoes cause kinetic damage, on the scale of a nuclear bomb, as seen on the enterprise series. the source of the explosion is different from a nuke, but kinetic damage is still kinetic damage. the shields block all kinetic damage, which is why disruptors, and beam arrays, are used first to lower/disrupt shield frequencies to allow the kinetic damage torpedoes to hit the ship its self. – Himarm Jun 25 '15 at 13:28
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They seem to vary drastically between models.

The Galaxy class seems to be ludicrously non-durable. In "Cause and Effect", the ship was destroyed multiple times by simply having the Nacelles grazed by another vessel.

The Intrepid class seems to be extremely durable, despite its design flaws. Voyager was able to survive up until the end of the "Year of Hell", and then it was a high speed collision with another vessel that finally destroyed it. It withstood meteor showers, dozens of temporal torpedoes, numerous sections being destroyed, etc. I'm ignoring the episode where the ship was nearly destroyed by cheese, because the bio-neural circuitry was an experimental after-construction modification. We also saw it survive traveling at Quantum slipstream speeds for short flights, which was good, because such speeds were above the ship's fitted operating limits.

The NX-01 was initially terrible, but got a major upgrade. We saw in "minefield", that a single mine was able to destroy a sizeable chunk of the vessel. Yet in the Xindi arc, after it got some upgrades, it withstood dozens of hits in one episode, yet was able to avoid complete destruction.

The Defiant class was tough, as we saw it take numerous direct and keep flying, and saw this happen multiple times.

Their shuttles seem to have sturdy hulls, but touchy components. We've seen a bunch of shuttle crashes where the hulls were barely damaged, but the internal components rendered the vessel inoperable.

The sovereign class was pretty bad. In Star Trek Nemesis (I'm sorry for reminding you of that movie), we saw the ship nearly destroyed by one vessel. And this wasn't even a top of the line vessel they were fighting. This was a vessel that was slapped together out of what the Remans, a slave race, were able to obtain. In the end, it only survived because of help from 3 additional vessels.

The Constitution class seems to be pretty good. We saw one get pulled by the Tholians into the mirror universe, and survive without much damage. We saw one survive an Ambi-plasma encounter in the animated series (yes, it's only sort-of canon, but I'm counting it).

So overall, Federation vessel durability seems to vary based on vessel class.

Also, to people who say that the bio-neural gel packs were part of the vessel to begin with, and not a feature added after construction, we know that Voyager is an intrepid class, which means it's a standard design, of which there's at least a dozen other vessels of the same design. Yet, in "State of Flux", Torres states that no other Federation vessel would have bio-neural fibers. This means bio-neural circuitry was unique to Voyager, and not part of the Intrepid class in general. And the pilot episode explicitly states that certain parts of the computer were replaced with biological tissue, which means that standard circuitry was installed prior to switching. Make what you will of that.

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    actually the scimitar was a massively advanced warship designed specifically to fight sovereign class (that's what the E is) federation vessels. The Enterprise E, plus 3 romulan warbirds, only defeated the scimitar after the E rammed into the ship. which, btw the E actually managed to survive running into another ship which makes it one of the sturdiest enterprises we have seen to date. The Remans had backing by high level members of the romulan senate, and access to their advanced technologies, not backwater tech, as these senators conspired with Shen to overthrow the romulan senate. – Himarm Jun 25 '15 at 16:10
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    How severely you undersell the Enterprise-E's durability compromises your answer. You're criticizing the Enterprise-E for being nearly destroyed by a ship that was larger then it, could cloak while firing, and, by the way, was armed with 52 disruptors, 27 photon torpedo launchers, and a thalaron biogenic weapon. Outside of a Borg Cube, the Scimitar is probably the most lethal ship any version of an on-screen Enterprise has ever faced. So... yeah.... -1 for that. – Ellesedil Jul 1 '15 at 15:42
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    @Ellesedil exactly why i also -1 this, the scimitar was designed as a warship with the capacity of fighting the federation, specifically... the flag ship the Enterprise E. – Himarm Jul 8 '15 at 13:07
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    I'm not saying the Scimitar was not a significant threat. It was an immense opponent. I'm saying that E should have been able to handle it without any major issues, and failed to do so. – Nate Watson Jul 8 '15 at 21:10
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    I don't understand. Why would you expect the Enterprise-E to "handle" another ship that was expressly designed and constructed to destroy it "without any major issues"? That simply does not make any sense. You seem to also ignore just how much much more armed the Scimitar was over the E. What this ends up doing to your answer is throw the rest of your personal analysis into question, which is already highly subjective (I find the Galaxy class analysis dubious, but it isn't nearly as bad as the Sovereign). Lastly, there are better answers here already. So, that results in a downvote from me. – Ellesedil Jul 9 '15 at 0:04
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Although it's always possible that large debris or other solid objects could damage the hull of a Federation vessel, it's highly unlikely that solid weaponry would have any effect.

Projectile Weapons

In ENT episode S03E24 "Zero Hour", a shuttlepod from the NX-01 is fired upon by a WWII-era P-51 Mustang with no discernible effect. The shuttlepod did not have shields, and its hull was composed of an early ditanium alloy with polarized hull plating.

In TOS episode S02E23 "Patterns of Force", the NCC-1701 is attacked by a chemical rocket with a nuclear warhead. The NCC-1701 was attacked by chemically-propelled missiles again in episode S03E10 "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky". In both cases, the missiles were simply vaporized by phasers before ever reaching the ship.

In contrast, it's stated in TOS S01E21 "Tomorrow is Yesterday" that a 20th-Century nuclear warhead (circa 1969) could do significant damage to a Constitution-class vessel which is already heavily damaged with only secondary systems operative.

In DS9 episode S04E08 "Little Green Men", a 24th-Century Ferengi vessel is able to pass through an atomic explosion with no damage whatsoever. However, the status of the ship's shields at the time is unknown and may have been a factor.

Given that the technology of the 24th Century is far more advanced than most of these given examples, it seems evident that bullets, missiles, and even most nuclear weaponry, would be fairly ineffectual against the Enterprise D or E in combat.

Space Debris

Repeated strikes in the same area may pose more of a threat, however. During the alternate timeline of VOY episode "Year of Hell, Part II", the NCC-74656 finds itself being pelted by micro-meteoroids when its deflectors fail. It is stated that the meteoroids will eventually punch through the hull if the shields cannot be restored. By the time the deflector shields were reactivated, the hull was already in pretty bad shape.

enter image description here

It's important to note, however, that this was an extreme case and may not be a reliable example. By the time of the meteoroid shower, the hull integrity of the ship had already been severely compromised from several confrontations against Krenim vessels utilizing chroniton torpedoes.

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    Good answer... to another question. Too much nukes, too few kinetic projectiles. Galactica's guns are hardly WWII-era P-51's, too.... is there a single race in Star Trek that used physical projectiles as their primary weapon? I wonder – Petersaber Jun 25 '15 at 16:56
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    @Petersaber, as far as I know, the ENT incident with the P-51 is the only on-screen occurrence of someone shooting a Star Trek vehicle with bullets of any kind. Beyond that, it was all missiles or energy weapons. – Omegacron Jun 25 '15 at 17:25
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    @Petersaber - found something from a Voyager episode and added it. That's probably the best we'll find in anything canon. – Omegacron Jun 25 '15 at 17:44
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    Just watched that ENT episode. The shuttle took minor system damage from low-velocity primitive projectiles and it's armour was full of holes. Not exactly what I'd call durable. – Petersaber Aug 19 '15 at 18:56
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    I guess my short-term memory is just as bad as long-term. But you've got to admit, flak is significantly weaker than railguns, and the damage was there – Petersaber Aug 20 '15 at 6:54
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Federation starships are quite durable since they are composed of a material called Tritanium. Tritanium was an ore known to be 21.4 times as hard as diamond. The Borg also used Tritanium in their hull designs.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Technical Manual (Paperback) by Rick Sternbach, Michael Okuda indicate the hulls of Federation ships were a hollow structure reinforced with structural integrity force fields for faster than light travel and woven composite materials using duranium and tritanium/titanium alloys.

  • Tritanium alloys makes it possible for Federation starships to maneuver at .5c without shields (but needing structural integrity) and still not be severely damaged by matter they strike in space. Coupled with the internal structural integrity field, a Federation starship is quite durable even without shields.

  • Tritanium alloy was a widely-used construction material. The bulkheads of Enterprise were composed of tritanium. (ENT: "Dead Stop") In the 24th century, Federation starships, specifically Galaxy-class, Intrepid-class and Raven-type, also had tritanium bulkheads. (TNG: "Where Silence Has Lease"; VOY: "Year of Hell, Part II", "The Raven", "Repentance")

Federation starships use a layered defense structure: structural integrity field, hull, additional armor, and shields make their ships remarkably durable. Additional factors can increase their durability. These factors include:

  • The overall mission of the ship: Ships of the line tend to have increased defensive capacity. They will have additional defense systems such as hull plating armor. Therefore they will be most effective against weapons the largest variety of weapons.

  • Resistance to multiple weapon systems: Most of the species in the Star Trek Universe use energy-based weapons and secondary weapons with kinetic effects. These secondary weapons will do more damage to materials than shields, hence the reason many species have at least two weapons, an energy weapon (phaser, disruptor) designed to damage and ablate shields and then a heavier weapon (photon torpedo) to damage the ship and its armor.

  • The age of the vessel: Generally the older the vessel, the less likely it is able to withstand technology from more advanced eras. The Federation is known for its scientific development and ship redesigns were almost always being considered especially once the threat of the Borg and the Dominion Wars were underway.

  • The era of the ship: Federation ships durability vary widely depending on the era they were from, the quality of the weapons of that era and the enemies being faced. In the TOS era, weapons and armor seem pretty evenly matched so once the shields were defeated, most weapons were able to damage or even cripple enemy ships.

  • In the later TNG and DS9 eras, the offensive firepower of ships seemed to exceed the damage-absorbing capacities of shields and armor. The increased number of ships engaged in firing on a single ship made it possible to drop a ship's shields in a single volley making them vulnerable to being disabled or destroyed.

  • Please note that destroying a ship completely and damaging a ship's systems so it can no longer fight are not necessarily the same thing. Nor is targeting a particular subsystem like the propulsion nacelles on a Federation starship.

To defeat a Federation ship, you need to drop its shields and keep them down, blast away its armor, then penetrate it's hull, deactivate it's power supplies (reducing the structural integrity field) then you can destroy it.

  • A ship's shields are designed to stop all forms of incoming matter or energy. Since a Federation ship can deflect space-born matter even under warp, this implies its capable of deflecting multi-megaton, physical strikes all the time because that is what the Deflector Array was designed for.

  • Shields alone should make a Federation starship proof against most types of physical attacks unless those attacks can travel much faster than the speed of light, and pack quite a bit of physical mass in each strike.

Different species go about this in different ways:

  • Klingons drop a single shield and then send boarding parties to kill the crew and disable systems.

  • Romulans use the cloaking device to bring multiple ships to a combat scenario, then unleash overwhelming firepower after uncloaking using their powerful disruptor weapons. Smaller strike cruisers will also use Reman boarding parties.

  • Cardassians use coordinated attacks to overwhelm shields and then target specific systems forcing their enemy to surrender.

  • The Dominion used fighters to soften up ships, reducing their shield capacities then the larger warships could carve them apart. Dominion ships will also use kamikaze attacks to do more damage to important subsystems if they can see a shield is down.

  • The Borg use overwhelming force, tractoring ships, reducing their mobility, then launching torpedoes to drop shields. They will also use their cutting beam to destroy the hull of most starships to reach important systems within a target ship.

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    The above is only true if the ship has plot armor. Federation ships in a mass battle are frequently one-shotted for the sake of dramatic value. U.S.S. Grissom was literally blown to atoms with "one lucky shot". – Frank Lazar Aug 1 '16 at 22:09
  • You have to consider the distance at which each shows' weapons are usable. Star Trek's weapons have considerably higher ranges than BSG. – Derek Dec 27 '17 at 12:21
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There is no reason to even consider the Galatica a threat to a ship in the star trek universe. The Enterprise shields' primary objective in battle is to deflect kinetic damage, the damage caused by Nukes, or the various forms of torpedoes in the star trek universe. In Enterprise, the early forms of torpedoes they used, Spatial torpedoes would regularly just bounce off of more advanced ships deflector shields. This is what would happen to the nukes shot by the Galatica. torpedo bouncing off shields at 2:33

If some how the federations ship shields were down, again the ships can polarize their hull plating, again as seen on Enterprise, which would absorb the kinetic damage from enemies weapons. the prime layer of defense after shields is the structural integrity field.

This has been shown as what absorbs the shock of torpedoes that hit the ship past shields, and why a 690 gigaton explosion, only blows out a tiny hole in the hull.

Battle tactics

  1. The Galaticas preferred type of combat is to simply parallel enemy combatants so that they can fire as many guns as possible on the enemy ship, as well as having more cannons to defend against fighters.

enter image description here

  1. The enterprise, is a far more mobile space vehicle, as it can fight at both high sub light speeds, as well as while at warp. typical strategy in a startrek space battle is to keep moving and keeping your most sheilded side towards your enemy, while trying to keep hitting the same part of your enemy's shield to lower it, and then fire torpedoes. which can move at warp, or near warp speeds making them essentially non-shoot down able.

How strong is the Hull of a starfleet vessel.

enter image description here

This is the kelvin getting hit by multiple torpedoes with its shields fully down. While heavily damaged we can see the ship has not completely fallen apart.

How strong are photon torpedoes? A photon torpedo would do approximately 690 Gigatons In comparison, currently the largest tested nuke on earth, the Tzar bomb, was only 0.05 gigatons.

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    Enterprise could also probably just drop its shields, then use the transporter to beam the torpedoes directly onto Galactica's bridge. – Liesmith Jun 25 '15 at 13:48
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    And yet when the Enterprise nudged slightly some random debris later in the movie, at relatively low speed, with shields up, it took hull damage. Also, these missiles nearly incapacitated Kelvin if I remember correctly. – Petersaber Jun 25 '15 at 14:35
  • @Petersaber the enterprise ran into a full on half of a ship, and the kelvin was hit by multiple torpedoes, from a ship 300 years in the future, with weapons 5x-10x stronger, and still managed to ram itself into the narada. Thats quite a sturdy ship. So yes if the galatica somehow rammed into the enterprise, it would probably Fk it up real bad, but since the Galataca is moving at a snails pace, this would never happen. – Himarm Jun 25 '15 at 14:53
  • @Himarm Galactica is surprisingly fast. And don't forget Narada was a Borg-enhanced mining vessel, not a warship. Why would Kelvin ramming Narada do so much damage it was disabled long enough for it to be captured, while Galactica ramming a ship one-third (or one-sixth, depending on which one) of it's size would not destroy it? Why was the Temporal Destroyer destroyed by Voyager? Why would kamikaze Jem'Hadar be so incredibly effective in DS9 if ramming was not a thing? I've asked for examples of damage shrugged off and catastrophic damage, and you've only given me one of the former. – Petersaber Jun 25 '15 at 15:04
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    Well, it's funny. We see tng and ds9 One shot ships with photon torpedoes, yet the Narada couldn't, but then it rips the fleet apart. Plot armor on the Kelvin. As for the Galactica Ramming, the Enterprise was able to hold the star gazer in place from warp with a tractor beam. – user16696 Jun 25 '15 at 15:07
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Not Very

In-Universe

When fighting the Jem'Hadar, the USS Odyssey redirects all power from shields to weapons.

USS Odyssey redirects all power from shields to weapons
USS Odyssey redirects all power from shields to weapons

Due to the lowering of the USS Odyssey's shields, the Jem'Hadar start performing suicide ramming attacks against the ship. The assumption is that operational shields make this sort of attack ineffective. There are multiple other instances of such attacks being shrugged off while shields are operational while ramming tactics are used once shields have fallen.

Presumably all Galactica attacks, including ramming would prove similarly ineffective while shields remained operational.

ST: Galaxy class ships can have a max compliment of 3,000 people, a top sublight speed close to $ c $ , nearly unlimited $ \Delta V $, and nearly unlimited acceleration (probably due to manipulating inertial mass).

(anyone know why my LaTeX formulas aren't working today?)

BSG: Galactica crew compliment runs about 5,000 souls, so it runs about 5/3 the volume of a ST: Galaxy class ship. I can't find any references on maximum velocity, total $ \Delta V$, or maximum acceleration. I assume they're much less maneuverable that the ST: (fantasy) value of "unlimited'.

Out of Universe

Both show's weapons, defenses, and propulsion run at the "power of plot." Meaning neither show is consistent with the portrayal of those things nor are they consistent with real physics as we know it.

What this means is that who would win the engagement and what tactics would prove effective depends entirely upon which writers were writing the script.

  • Speaking of sizes, Galactica is 1438 meter long, while Galaxy-class is around 600 meters. As for ramming Jem'Hadar - see season 7, they decimated battle-ready Klingons... Odyssey is a good example – Petersaber Jun 25 '15 at 16:54
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    Delta v is acceleration. Also, I think LateX only works on Math Stackexchange. – Junuxx Jun 25 '15 at 17:54

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