Engineering a starfighter


Rear Admiral
So, I'm an engineer by training, and as such, I think a lot about how things work. Now I realize that Wing Commander ships were probably designed more by artists than engineers and were more about cool look rather than function, and so this is probably way overanalyzing something that shouldn't be overanalyzed...but if I can't do that here, where can I do it?

I won't get into all the physics of why a ship should be shaped like it is, but one thing that I've pondered a bit (especially since playing Standoff, which tried to realistically place gun mounts) is gun placement.

Obviously, from the pilot's perspective, guns mounted closer to the centerline are preferable to wingtip mounted guns. They don't need to have convergence angles set, they are easier to aim, they have a higher chance of both gun blasts hitting a target, and you generally get more range. From an engineering standpoint, having guns closer to the main mass of the ship would in most respects be easier as well, because you don't need to put massive devices far from the center of gravity (reducing moment of inertia of the ship and also stresses on the structural members during maneuvering), and you don't need to run fuel or high voltage or other high energy lines over long distances from the reactor or power source to the gun (and long high voltage lines give you significant energy losses and inefficiencies).

And yet we see ship after ship with its guns mounted out on the wingtips. Just sticking with canonical ships, we see the Hornet, Raptor, Salthi, and Krant from WC1, and the Sabre and Sartha from WC2, the Bearcat from WC4, etc. all with their guns ridiculously far out on the wingtips, while other craft like the Scimitar and Rapier have their guns moderately far out. Meanwhile, the ships that have their guns on the centerline (the Ferret, the Epee, the Broadsword and Crossbow) all are excellent gunnery platforms, whose guns are more effective, pound for pound, than comparable wingtip mounted guns on other craft. It's not canonical, but we see the same phenomenon in Standoff with the Gladius and Stiletto and Sabre and Raptor, all of which suffer from wingtip mounting of their guns.

So why do it? Granted, WWII fighters (which were in many cases the inspiration for Wing Commander) had wing-mounted guns, but this was because you didn't want to have to shoot through the propeller (although some WWII fighters did, notably the Zero and Bf-109). Once everyone switched to jets, cannon became mounted on or near the centerline.

I can only think of a few reasons why a gun in a starfighter should be wingtip mounted. First, it could be a matter maintenence...maybe it's too hard to service a gun mounted in the main hull. I doubt this.

Second, it could be a heat issue...maybe some guns heat up a lot and can't be too close to the rest of the craft. The problem with this idea is that the guns that are noted as giving off lots of heat, the neutrons, are often mounted near the centerline (e.g. on the Rapier, the Crossbow, the Raptor, in the bomber turrets), whereas the "cooler" mass drivers are often mounted out on wingtips (e.g. in the Raptor, or, to a lesser degree, in the Scimitar).

Third, it might be a question of bulk. Certainly in the Raptor and the Scimitar, the mass drivers seem to be massive and need a lot of structure to support them, and maybe there isn't room for them close in. But then again, we seem those same mass drivers mounted on the centerline right under the cockpit on the tiny Ferret, and near the centerline on the Dralthi II.

The other possibility I can think of is that some guns give off some kind of electromagnetic field that is harmful or disruptive to other ship systems, or that they give off a field or radiation that would be harmful to the pilot.

But neither of these theories hold up. If you limit yourself to WC1 and WC2, they might hold water...we see mass drivers and neutrons on the centerline, but NEVER lasers (except in the Dralthi...but the Kilrathi might not care about harming their pilots).

I know I'm overanalyzing. But it's fun. Thoughts?
Very interesting!

I saw this on Aerospaceweb which mentions gunsight improvements:

Although most fighters used early in World War II still employed guns firing through the propellers, the importance of synchronization systems faded as the war went on. The growing size and number of airborne guns made it impractical to carry them directly in front of the cockpit, and improvements in gunsights allowed the guns to be moved further from the pilot without loss of accuracy. The heavier armament was instead moved outboard into the spacious wings that were much stronger and more rigid than those used on the fragile planes of a generation before. In many ways, this approach was a return to the earliest attempts at fighter design since the guns were placed outside the propeller arc but angled inward to converge at a pre-determined point ahead of the nose. Wing-mounted guns became standard on most fighters during the war, although some German and Russian planes still retained fuselage-mounted guns in addition to those on the wings.

I wonder if time might also play a role and certain configurations were favored at different times?
Regarding moving the guns to the wings to eliminate complicated synchronizers, there was another method where they would run the run barrel through the center of the prop.

One thing worth mentioning is the outboard-style mounts boast some absolutely monstrous energy weapons. It seems that the closer they are to center the smaller they are. Lasers are also the only weapons consistently mounted far outboard in WC1/2 designs. Neutrons and Particles tend to be close to centerline with a couple exceptions. Mass drivers go wherever they feel like it.
I've always thought of it as an odds game - if you spread your guns out over a wider area they are more likely to hit *something* even if not at full force. If you spread the long-range weapons out farther (WC 1/2 lasers, particle cannon on the Sabre) means that while you're not usually going to hit with a full blast, the long distance plinking is far more likely to hit since it's harder to dodge and covers a much larger volume of space. You're not likely to kill much at range, but it does make keeping shields on a wily Sartha low if you're still flying Hornets, and it's pretty decent for interrupting torpedo runs as well.


Obvious exception for the Bearcat - with wing gun clusters that appear to be 25m apart or worse and no centerline guns to cover the void, it's often possible to bracket your target without landing a shot if you're in close enough - even from the side aspect if they're in an Arrow. I think that it's the only Confed fighter with that arrangement on the weapons loadout - even the Excalibur's wing mounted guns are in pretty tight with the Reaper cannon to pick up slack, and what the Excal mainly flew against... it was pretty point+shoot even with autoaim off.
What if the power was wireless? We surely see wiring throughout Wing Commander ships, but what if you refined wireless power for 700 years and used it for certain applications? It'd be easier to manufacture, and requirements of the system might make it better to space guns out.
really really dont want to go to work in the am

If I were to make up a reason for some guns being wing tip mounted, I would say it was radiation. Certain gun types on certain Star Fighters proved problematic to shield the pilot from bursts of radiation. Wing tipped mounted (x ray or particle radiation emitting) guns increased the distance and lowered the effective dose to the pilot... yada yada yada

Also it could be an airframe stress thing. Placing something that was heavy near the center line would lengthen air frame life. If a new heavy weapon was suddenly needed late in the design of a star fighter it would most likely be placed near the center line. This would be done to keep from changing too much of the star fighter. And reduce the man hours needed to re design it (keep cost down).
It could be as simple as designers belonging to different schools of thought on if wing mounted or center-line guns are better with some trying to split the difference.
Privateer 2 offers a good mix of ships with wing and fuselage-mounted guns. I'll count flying head-on into a Veldor with four Stream II lasers on the centerline as being one of the most terrifying experiences, more than a Jalthi. Still, it's surprisingly easy to tackle once you figure out the trick. I certainly don't count the four wing lasers on my Drakkar as any worse, even when fighting Skulls.

Another thing is distraction. I can't fly a Faldari or a Jendevi because the muzzle flash from the dorsal-mounted guns are distracting. Maybe it's something that you can learn to deal with, but I personally can't fight when every shot from my guns throws off my vision, especially in a game where manual gunnery is so important.
Ok lets engineer/geek out!!!!

The maintainance issue is a good one. Especially if there is large bulk, or multiple service angles required.

heat issue.. Also a good point considering the primary cooling mechanism is blackbody radiation or intentional vapor loss cooling. This would limit shots though and we know there is no shot limit. Plus heat generation is due to inefficiency in design, power generation, and power transfer. If they improve these less energy is wasted as heat.

Bulk isnt a very good reason since as you move weapons further out, as you mentioned before, the structural integrity requirements for high-G maneuvers makes this impractical and turns the nimble fighter into a lumbering hulk.

EM shielding concerns. Again this means their engineering isnt very good. But hey they are shooting lasers and neutrons so I can concede they had to make tradeoffs. And shielding costs mass. But I think the reactor's EM would be much more of a danger to the pilot than the weapon systems regardless of types of each unless using a high energy ionizing radiation weapon (neutron/xray etc). But if they are only "hot" due to power applied, like an Xray tube, then again, its poor design that would necessitate this.

The muzzle flash is a good one, only if your firing projectiles/particulates. Muzzle flash is the result hot/ionized, etc particulates thermally or diffusively scattering after leaving the confines of the acceleration/confinement tube/barrel. One reason its so pronounced for us is we are in an atmosphere where the mean-free-path is so short that hot atoms flying out scatter pretty rapidly widening the flash. Also a reasion plasma weapons wont work in our atmosphere unless really dense. For directed energy muzzle flash means your cooking off your weapon system with poorly contained/confined energy. IE your laser is burning an optic! In space I would expect a muzzle flash form a cannon to be more conic and narrow.

Wireless power is great in theory, but often requires very very careful engineering to minimize power loss. If your shooting kW of energy or higher I would expect massive heating of adjacent systems, even unintentionally. This would likly be due to the wavelength limitations imposed by the size of the weapons. higher frequencies are often more efficient but more objects will act as antennai/resistors in the transfer. This is just a can of worms and not worthy of a post here as it would take a looong time to explain the tradeoffs.(and Id have to brush up on my power theory)

My first thought when I read this question was targeting and parallax. Your shooting something very far away with a small area bullet/laser.
Now I accept that to be practical any such weapon system will have a limited tracking ability (computer servo'ed barrels of even a degree would significantly improve abilities to hit) So for this argument the X-wing would be one of the best designed ships, assuming it had some auto-targeting.

As for ship design, I always thought the most efficient design would be a sphere, with stubby wings mouting thrusters only, and a single large enegine. This would be the most manuverable, compact, and easily armored ship. Person and critical systems are as close to CM as possible. But such an ugly little pointy ball!
A sphere is fine for deep space operations, but as both the Confederation and Kilrathi want their fighters to at least be capable of flying through, and in some cases fighting in, atmosphere, it's not surprising they have aerodynamic shapes.
I'm not entirely sure how deep you want to go into the "realistic" direction concerning space combat, so please don't be angry if I tell you now some things that are likely to make me look like a killjoy or something like that. I enjoy SciFi but I like the scientific approach and the engineering aspects to space as well (I am an engineer myself).

The idea of using manned fighters in space is pretty bad to begin with. The same is true for the use of those energy weapons, regardless of whether they shoot neutrons or light. So I'm not sure where to begin...

Well, I like debating that topic, and I actually think that Wing Commander did some things a bit right (or at least a bit less wrong than a lot of SciFi out there).

Please look at the page I will post down at the end of this post in case you don't know it yet, it covers a lot of the discussion and I want to talk about some pages there in order to look at what Wing Commander did, which is quite interesting.
I will return tomorrow, though, because my time is running out today.
Here is the link:

Even if you disagree with the points stated there (which would be a bit difficult to explain though, it is done rather well) it is worth a visit. I had lots of fun reading it.
I had forgotten the atmospheric capabilities. Excellent point.

And Aginor, I wholly agree with your points. Otherwise I wouldn't bother modeling and painting so many of these little suckers.

What I would like to see is a nice elegant "realistic" ship design, but I think they would just be boring near-spheres. But that too is highly dependent on the tech and core components.

Reminds me of "the space shuttle design/scale being roughly based on the width of a horses rear" =)
Who knows? All good points....none of which are probably the designers thoughts. It was more of a "This thing looks cool!" nuff said
I'm an undergraduate aerospace engineering myself so it's nice to see others sharing the same hobby. I'd love to contribute more to this post but I'll leave a quick comment for now.

I really loved the rapiers from the Wing Commander movie. While not aesthetically pleasing, they were quite practical. Nose mounted cannon, "wings" that really only served to carry weapons and a very bare fuselage which did the absolute minimum of holding it all together.

The confed handbook mentioned they could sustain atmospheric flight. Rightly so, this thing is designed to work in space. However it does have a decent amount of thrust, the "wings" are essentially a flat plate so they'll generate some lift, but it'll be very restricted in what it can do.

This is part of the reason I loved the departure from the "anime ships" as Chris Roberts apparently put it. Gave WC a very real edge.
OMG Wall of text!!!!

Well, I guess I promised to talk about this, so here I am:

I want to talk about weapons. And as I already mentioned that isn't the easiest topic.

Starting with Lasers:
Lasers are really cool. They have a few problems though. One is that they get really bad when you try to shoot at some distance. The good thing is: Lasers are not getting worse due to the inverse square law. The do however get worse due to diffraction. And yes, we do have diffraction in space.
So even if you assume that you have a rather large energy source it isn't very likely that you can fire further than a few thousand kilometers. (and still hit the target with some energy). That sounds far, but in space it really isn't, because space is HUGE. So while you might thing that a Wing Commander-like combat distance would be no problem (and this might be even true) it is nothing compared to the distance a real space ship would fire its weapons.

Well you might say "then build a better laser!" It isn't that easy because I'm talking about a theoretical limit. But there is still a thing you could do! Build a huge mirror and focus the laser.
You might have problems hitting something that flies really fast and/or really far away (because your sensors can't work faster than lightspeed), but you could hit a target and do damage.
Ok, so why not? The problem is heat. You might say: "What is he talking about? Space is cold!" Well.... technically, space is NOT cold. It isn't warm either. It is empty. So why is this a problem?
Because lasers are not very efficient. In fact you can't build a laser (not even theoretically) that has an energy efficiency over 65%, actually it is already very hard to build one that has an energy efficiency over 20%. So if you build a laser that has enough enery to destroy some inches of steel in a distance of, say, a few kilometers, you would generate giant amounts of heat in your ship that you have to get away. And that means to radiate it.
So basically your laser weapon is
a) HUGE (we're talking about mirrors of 50 meters diameter and such things)
b) has even bigger radiators in order to not melt the mirror or your space ship
c) has a huge reactor

So laser is bad. And even worse when you want to build a small ship. Btw: The heat problem is one that we encounter quite often and it is one of the main reasons why fighters (i.e. small ships) don't make sense in space combat.

Ok,ok, there is more.
Plasma? Ok. So, what is plasma? It is basically some sort of hot gas that is ionized. So there are charged particles floating around.
While this might sound deadly, it isn't really that bad. Ok, it is hot. Big deal. It doesn't hurt you if you don't touch it directly because there is nothing in space that conducts the heat to you. Also it tends to dissolve in space, because it is a cloud of particles in a vacuum und wants to dissolve. You know, pressure and entropy and such things. And you need A LOT of energy to turn gas into plasma, you would need a lot of "ammo" (gas tanks) for it and you could only use magnetic fields to "shoot" it in order not to destroy your own ship. Magnetic fields are subject to the inverse square law, so they become rather ineffective for a bigger range. Also you need even more energy for those.
Funny fact: Space is plasma. It is not very dense though. Ok, in fact it is even less dense than the "best" vacuum we can produce here on earth, so it is basically what I like to call "holy-sh**-thin". Just sayin'.
I can't see how plasma guns could help us here, sorry.

So let's move on to the rest of the guns. (Note: I always wondered why there are photon cannons in WC, because photon cannons ARE Lasers. So two kinds of laser guns? Also ion cannons are the same thing as either particle guns or plasma guns. Whatever.)
You could shoot neutrons, or protons, or both in some sort of ray.
So you are basically emitting what we call alpha radiation. In a ray. See the problem? How do you stop? You can't just cease to emit radiation. Also all of those particles disperse quite fast and you have to carry them with you all the time.
Protons have the problem that they are charged, and you can deflect them with a magnetic field and their range is very low (inverse square law again). Also even a sheet of paper stops alpha rays. I'm not even talking about a steel armor.
btw: Gamma rays are electromagnetic rays (so the same thing as a laser) with very small wavelength, some 400nm or so. So they have the same problems as those.
Neutrons are better than protons because they aren't charged. The problem is: If they aren't charged, then you can't accelerate (fire) them with magnetic fields. So... Not very good.

There is one cannon left I think: The stormfire.
We know it is cool. And it is even the most realistic. You can't block fast moving metal parts with magnetic fields and such things (and don't mention Magneto from X-men, deflecting, let alone stopping bullets via magnetism is ridiculously hard). The only problem is hitting your opponent because they are so slow... Also you need ammo. But they keep going on and on because there is no friction in space, so their range is basically unlimited. They are subject to gravity though (that is true for all of our guns here, but bullets are slower), so in some cases aiming would be quite hard. Especially when more than two gravity sources are around. No computer can do that accurately as far as we know, and certainly not in real time. But hey it's the future. Probably they solved the three-body problem.
Btw: If you accelerate that bullet fast enough it can be small because the kinetic energy grows more from speed than from mass since it is 1/2 m*v² (m being mass, v velocity). And since your ship's speed adds to the relative bullet speed it would be rather effective. So rush you opponent full speed in order to increase impact energy.


So talk about missiles.
Missiles are good! In fact it would make sense to use ONLY missiles and don't carry guns at all.

Missiles carry their own fuel, missiles can correct their course, countermeasures and cloaking don't really work in space so they are likely to hit, and they can carry their explosive stuff etc. VERY near. And near is good.

Just aim at the heat. A spaceship produces A LOT of that.


I have to stop now, I have some work to do.
But I will go on with a few more things if you wish, I like talking about that topic even if everything says: Wing Commander is far from realistic. (It way cooler than reality though^^)

I won't tell you bullshit, I read most of that on the mentioned website or learned it in university or from books, but it makes sense when you look behind it. I just gave it a little Wing Commander context. Feel free to correct me though.
Agreed. While most Sci-Fi enthusiasts(me) are loath to admit it,
Only bullets and missiles make sense. But they are boring... Then again, when BSG first started up I was annoyed they only used bullets and missiles. Except when considering the fact that in space inertia is a @#$#. Meaning If you want to dogfight, you have armor or maneuverability. As the Japanese learned in WW2, making a fighter with minimal armor often means one or two shots will rip it apart, its highly manuverable... but made of glass. Plus in space, bullets don't slow down with range!(ok a tinny bit but negligible over Km's). So you put a lot of armor on it and its eaiser to shoot, or you make it highly agile, but it breaks fairly easily.

Nearly everything we have other than bullets and missiles are just too inefficient, due to our present material science, or in many ways even due to the limits of physics. Transferring/converting energy is often VERY inefficient. But I might assume we develop better conductors, and more efficient means of energy transfer.

Another problem with firing off any charged particle as mentioned above is not only are they charged, but, the charge on your ship builds. You either have to dissipate it, or you start building charge. If your firing off enough protons to do any amount of harm then your starting to build a fair amount of electrons on your ship... Perhaps alternatively fire Electrons and protons?... All you might really do is annoy their more sensitive transceivers/sensors. Unlikely. Armor wont even notice your hitting.

And yes, really big mirrors, or really big lenses are needed for high power, long range lasers to have a waist small enough to do any damage. Plus another problem is disbursement of armor. The act of hitting will ablate armor cause a plume to scatter and defocus the beam. So it better be a really powerful pulsed laser that does it damage in the first few mili, if not nano seconds before the plume renders it ineffective.(There is a calculation someone can play with) Though, If firing short High power pulsed lasers, Q-switching(or similar styled pulse laser) is likely the way to go to get the peak power density needed, with an off duty cycle long enough, (fractions of a second) to allow the plume to disperse for a second shot to do damage... Still a laser would be a very short range weapon (km's)

Also, targeting systems were mentioned. A human could designate target and allow firing, but the computer would have to do the targeting and firing when a solution is achieved for targets further than a couple hundred meters, (if that) With projectiles, energy weapons, or missiles. So, as with today, as much effort would have to go into target acquisition and lock as weapon systems.

And as an aside on engineering starfighters/weapon systems===========
A fun weapon Idea I was playing with was a countermeasure "engulfer" missile.

It works by firing over 2 chaff pods at the target. These pods move at different velocities to space themselves out longitudinally between the launch platform and the target, but rather than accelerating toward the target, they accelerate, then decelerate(at different rates from eachother) and at a set range from target fire off a hot chaff cloud towards the target. The first, or last, one explodes right before hitting the target. Now when I say fire/explode I really mean disperse in a cone very slowly toward the target. The purpose is to fill the scanning solid angle with a lot of reflective "hot" and possibly charged junk. As the junk cloud gets closer it starts filling more and more of the scanners area adding a lot of noise. And ideally you can make the sheets extremely thin to pack more into the deployment vehical.

Granted they can use range finding to discriminate, fairly easily, but the sheer amount of noise it adds could help screen fighters and especially missiles that are chasing the chaff pods going in cold. The fronts of fighters and missiles would be designed to be as radiation insulated as possible to reduce heat signatures, and have a low forward observing cross section. But fighters are expensive, so just send in the missiles. You get a lot more bang for your buck.
Also granted the chaff works well against both sides. SO its main use is to make a quick getaway possibly while firing missiles to slow pursuit by forcing them to manuver to avoid the chaffs and chaser missiles. Though such a getaway only works if your ship has more acceleration than theirs. Or for blockade running... though blockades in space... hehe.
actually bullets and missiles don't make sense in space either.. when at 1000mph it would take weeks just to get to the moon.. you don't hit targets in space with a bullet or a missile pretty much ever.

that said.. the most boring game ever conceived of would ever been moon shuttle lander 4000 so I like laser guns and mass drivers in space.
The one thing I did like in WC1 was that mounts/guns could be shot off during battle, same was true for WC2 right? I think in WC3 they could be shot off too, or at least damaged pretty good. Maybe they didn't have shields out that far on the wings....Whatever the fact may be. It doesn't really matter much for game play I guess.