Which Sci-Fi Starfighter is the Most Combat Ready?

Source: Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977

Sure, an X-wing looks cool, but it and some of your favorite sci-fi ships don't exactly have high safety ratings.

Large scale sci-fi battles are often inspired by World War II-era naval skirmishes, where massive ships come within sight of each other and open fire. Similarly, dogfights between two or more small fighter craft usually resemble airplane battles set in space. Pilots jet around at blinding speeds while diving and ascending to gain the advantage, which usually means getting behind an enemy right before locking on and shredding bad guys to space bits.

Fighting in Outer Space

Well, sorry to disappoint you, but an actual battle in space would be far different from ones that take place in Earth’s atmosphere. There would be numerous factors that fighter crafts would need to overcome in order to fight each other. For starters, pilots would need to control their acceleration so that they’re not crushed or incapacitated by the g-forces. The same goes for slowing down, because the only way to stop your momentum in space is to apply the same amount of opposite thrust (and possibly fuel) as what got you to your current speed.

Pilots will need to be constantly mindful of their speed and acceleration rates to avoid collisions with other ships, traveling past enemies, and hitting debris. Since there wouldn’t be gravity to pull away debris, they would pose a tremendous threat while floating in space. Colliding with even a small speck at over 1,800 miles per hour (the speed of a bullet) could tear both the starship and its pilot apart.

Forces meet head-to-head. Source: Serenity, 2009
Forces meet head-to-head. Source: Serenity, 2009

Isaac Newton’s third law, which states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, would be fully realized in space. Without atmosphere, aerodynamics wouldn’t play a role in flying or maneuvering. So, chasing a ship wouldn’t necessarily give you a tactical advantage. Your enemy could flip over and turn around to fire back while still moving backwards at the same speed.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Any debris from a destroyed or disabled ship will continue to move in space at the same velocity. So, unless you do something to push it in a different direction, the remains of a destroyed craft will hurtle toward wherever it was going, including the friendly ship or space station you were trying to protect.

With all that in mind, we took a close look at some of the most iconic fighter craft in sci-fi history to determine which ones are the most space combat worthy. While we can’t account for everything, the one factor we purposefully overlooked were laser weapons. There is no out-maneuvering a beam of energy moving at the speed of light. You’d be hit and probably killed before you could do anything about it.

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X-Wing vs TIE Fighter (Star Wars)

Aesthetics aside, neither iconic fighter from the Star Wars universe are fit for space battle using physics and technology we currently understand. For instance, a TIE fighter would fall like a rock in atmosphere if it didn’t have repulsorlift antigravity devices that allow anything to fly or hover regardless of shape. Similarly, the X-Wing wouldn’t do much better without a canard to compensate for its heavy rear section.

X-wing pursued by a TIE Fighter. Source: Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977
X-wing pursued by a TIE Fighter. Source: Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977

But unless they’re expected to fly in atmosphere, aerodynamic wings wouldn’t serve a purpose, no matter what their configuration is. One could say that the X-Wing shape could spread the gunfire apart, but space fighters probably wouldn’t have fixed forward gun placements anyway. Firing forward would slow the craft down. Also, attacks can come from any direction, so it doesn’t make sense to have guns that only point forward. Real space fighters would likely be equipped with turrets, and the recoil from firing those guns could be used to steer, accelerate, or slow down the vehicles. On that note, something like the Millennium Falcon would be a more efficient design.

Cutaway illustration of TIE Fighter. Source: Wookieepedia
Cutaway illustration of TIE Fighter. Source: Wookieepedia

That’s why the TIE fighter has a slight advantage in combat. Its spherical shape makes it a flying turret. So, it can easily twist and turn to fire while adjusting its direction and momentum. However, its wings — which serve as solar panels and heat radiators — completely cut off the pilot’s peripheral vision, negating much of its advantages. These wings are also large, obvious targets that can easily be destroyed.

In fact, the TIE fighter’s compact design is full of vulnerabilities. There are so many that they shift the odds heavily in the X-Wing’s favor. The craft was designed by the Empire to be mass manufactured cheaply for swarming attacks. Perhaps as a result of this mentality, there isn’t much in the way of safety features apart from an ill-conceived ejection seat that would leave the pilot hurtling endlessly across the galaxy if used.

Moreover, all of the major components are placed closely together, including a “high pressure radioactive gas fuel tank” located directly under the gun, which happens to be right under the pilot’s seat. Meanwhile, the ship’s lone access hatch is right above the cockpit. Also, unlike X-Wings, TIE fighters don’t have shield generators, a droid slot for calculations and repairs, or hyperdrives.

Add everything up, and what you have is a fighter ship that you only have to hit once, practically anywhere, to destroy or disable. Even though an X-Wing would require a lot of maneuvering to line up a good shot, the attached droid could help do the calculations. They would only need a couple clean hits to significantly reduce the swarm, especially if the TIE fighters are in close enough formation that they end up crashing into each other’s debris, which they sometimes do.

Earthforce SA-23E Mitchell-Hyundyne Starfury. Source: Babylon 5
Earthforce Starfury. Source: Babylon 5

A better design would take the best aspects from both the X-Wing and TIE fighter, which is what the Starfury from Babylon 5 does. Each of its four wings, shaped like an X with the main ship at its center, has an engine capable of both rear and forward thrust along with stabilizers. A fusion reactor provides power, so pilots don’t have to worry about sitting on high pressure radioactive fuel tanks. Designed for space-only combat, the ship is highly maneuverable and can be equipped with a variety of weapons.

It’s not perfect, but the Starfury’s design gives it a clear advantage compared to the Star Wars craft.

Humans vs Machines (Battlestar Galactica 2004)

Colonial Viper in combat. Source: Battlestar Galactica (2004)
Colonial Viper Mark II in combat. Source: Battlestar Galactica (2004)

Although the Viper Mark II was obsolete when the Second Cylon War broke out (Mk VIIs were in use when the robotic Cylons launched a surprise attack), it proved itself to be a formidable fighting craft. Designed with a multitude of thrusters – including reverse thrusters – and a computer-operated reaction control systems (RCS), the craft was capable of flying in space as though it were in atmosphere. However, pilots would sometimes deactivate the computer assistant to pull off zero-gravity maneuvers, including quickly inverting the ship to shoot pursuing enemies without changing course.

Aside from its aging systems, the Viper’s main limitation was its human pilot. They were susceptible to mistakes, fatigue, and blacking out from excessive g-forces. However, this limitation was also a significant benefit, since Colonial pilots usually managed to out-maneuver Cylon Raiders despite being heavily outnumbered. Biology also happened to be a limitation that Raiders shared, as it was eventually discovered that the fighters have oxygen breathing organic parts instead of being completely mechanical. This likely prevented Raiders from pulling off maneuvers that would damage its organic components.

Cylon Raider. Source: Battlestar Galactica (2004)
Cylon Raider. Source: Battlestar Galactica (2004)

Like the Empire from Star Wars, Cylons relied on swarming tactics, but had the benefit of being nearly immortal. Although Raiders weren’t as intelligent as other Cylon models, each ship had a consciousness that is uploaded to the mothership if the craft is destroyed, which was then transferred to a new fighter. While the resurrection process was described as traumatic and painful, it allowed the ships to learn from past encounters and adapt to future ones. However, repeated deaths caused some Raiders to develop grudges, leading to erratic behavior.

But the humanoid Cylon John Cavil may have had a good point when he lamented about how the biomechanical race was limiting itself with its biological design. Raiders were essentially winged Cylon heads that were loosely modeled after human fighter craft. In fact, previous versions of the Raider from the first Cylon War required a separate pilot, the same way Vipers do. If the designers had better embraced their robotic roots, then perhaps the Raider could have been able to see and fire in all directions while using its faster-than-light drive to move around.

Federation Fighters (Star Trek)

One might argue that the USS Defiant from Deep Space Nine might have been the ideal starfighter, given its heavy armaments, cloaking technology, and its ability to fire phasers in a 360-degree arc. Inertial dampeners from the Star Trek universe compensated for any pesky g-force issues. But the ship was an escort class vehicle outfitted with equipment meant for much larger vessels. So, it had more in common with large scale starships than light fighters.

The Defiant also doesn’t count because only one was ever built, and its design had so many flaws that it was nearly abandoned. It was too overpowered for its size, and the craft nearly shook itself apart during its first test flight when its engines were pushed to full power. The prototype ship was only taken out of storage to fight the Dominion.

USS Defiant and others battling Dominion forces. Source: Star Trek: Deep Space 9
Federation battling Dominion forces. Source: Star Trek: Deep Space 9

The Federation Attack Fighter is a better comparison, but it’s technically a modified cargo transport that wasn’t originally designed for battle. While a large number were deployed during the Dominion War, they were rarely shown dogfighting with other fighters. Instead, they usually flew in tight formations and launched strafing attacks against larger ships. Even so, with one phaser bank with two forward emitters and several torpedo tubes, these fighters were once described as “lightly armed shuttlecrafts” when compared to Dominion forces. The fighter’s best use was as a testbed for experimental or nonstandard weaponry.

Drone Warfare (Guardians of the Galaxy)

A well-designed space fighter craft will be one that is small, adaptable, and takes the limitations of organic pilots out of the equation whenever possible while preserving their sense of creativity and improvisation. So, with all things considered, the Sovereign race from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 wins out.

The Sovereign fighter fleet is comprised entirely of remote-piloted drones numbering in the hundreds. They may be lightly armored, but they form massive swarms that can maneuver through space. If a ship is destroyed, the pilot simply switches to another one, hopefully a little wiser from the experience.

Sovereign fleet attacking. Source: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 2017
Sovereign fleet entering attack formation. Source: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 2017

The movie also shows that the control signal has incredible range, with pilots able to perfectly maneuver ships from tens of thousands of miles away, even through a planet’s crust. However, the main problem with the Sovereign fleet is that its pilots are terrible. Despite having vastly superior numbers, they have trouble hitting a single spaceship at close range. It probably doesn’t help that Sovereign commanders are willing to shoot at valuable, highly volatile, fleet destroying batteries as a matter of principle.

But to be fair, the weak point of a human space drone fleet will probably be its pilots. These crafts may be built to perform at incredible speeds, but that doesn’t mean human operators can. Missing shots might be a real problem when ships are moving at 10,000 miles per hour or faster. So, targeting and navigation in space will likely need to be computer-assisted. Better be nice to those droids, because you’re going to need them.

Which of these iconic starfighters would you take into battle? Personally, we wouldn’t be able to resist jumping into an X-Wing cockpit.

Contributing Editor

Steven is a pop culture junkie who regularly binges on sci-fi TV shows, movies, books, and video games before completely overthinking them.