There are three major methods of avoiding the Laser Problem.
- The first is to try and find a sweet spot between relative acceleration and engagement distances.
- The second is to decrease the effectiveness of lasers in the setting.
- The third is to decouple laser power from drive power.
We'll go through the advantages and disadvantages of each solution from a writing and worldbuilding standpoint.
|Ah, lasers. So elegant yet so frustrating.|
Trying to balance relative acceleration and engagement distance is where this iterative process breaks down. Each step towards making spaceships move a significant distance relative to the effective range of lasers requires a disproportionate sacrifice from other parameters. You'll find your warships with silly engine masses, very high thrust-to-weight ratio despite low exhaust velocity and implausibly inefficient laser technology. In-universe, all it takes is one person to think outside of the box to break down the balance the author has achieved.
The first solution is possible, but trying to achieve it is not pleasant.
The second solution try leveraging multiple factors into the equation to tone down the effectiveness of lasers.
The most obvious factor is armor. If warships are armored enough to stand up to laser beams at long range, then they can approach to short ranges and start maneuvering against each other. Unlike the balance between relative acceleration and engagement distance in the first solution, the balance between armor and laser effectiveness is much less driven by mathematics, but by in-universe design and technology. Justifying a super-material's existence is also much easier than trying to write-in a super-inefficient laser.
Another way is to complexify the laser weapon system. Laser accuracy, beam stabilization, lens warping, beam wander, waste heat management, wavelength-dependent efficiency, debris damage... all these are generally ignores or considered as minor issues when discussing laser weapons. By highlighting them or increasing their effects, you get a 'free' reduction in engagement distances. For example, a laser weapon system that has 0.05 arc-seconds of accuracy would only hit a 100x20m target 8% of the time, and even then, only hit the same spot of armor (cumulative penetration) about 0.005% of the time.
A popular idea on sfconsim-l threads a few yeas ago was trying to shoot up the focusing optics of the opponent's ship. Getting even a fraction of an incoming beam focused in the wrong direction would wreck havoc on the laser generator. This would lead to a relatively interesting contest of peek-a-boo - the lasers would have shutters that allowed outgoing lasers to be shot. An opponent would have to time their shots to try and shoot up the optics, try and whittle down the shutters, or stare down the opponent if they got the upper hand. It became complex and fun when multiple opponents were involved, and even more so if they were separated by more than 300000km (light lag effects).
|Just imagine the shutters being armored plates.|
The third solution is probably the most effective, and gives the greatest freedom in terms of game balancing.
The idea of decoupling laser power from rocket engine power relies on electrical energy not being readily extracted from the exhaust, or that the laser does not consume electricity.
For engines that are difficult to extract energy from, you only need to take a look at this exellent Engine List.
Examples include Orion-style nuclear pulse propulsion systems, where the exhaust cannot be 'diverted' for electric power generation, low-temperature nuclear thermal rockets like NERVA, where exhaust is not ionized and only waste heat can be utilized, or the classic chemical propulsion systems of today.
The point is not to make it impossible to extract electrical energy from the engine, but to reduce the fraction that is possible down to an acceptable percentage.
Lasers themselves can be operated without electrical power. Examples include chemical lasers, that combust fuels as 'ammunition', or bomb-pumped lasers, which are ejected and fired like missile warheads.
|A real-world chemical laser, plausible for low-tech or near future SF settings|
Hopefully, this has spurred you to look again at your own work, check whether you have the Problem, and explore solutions for it as described in this series of posts.
Don't hesitate to ask questions in the comments below!