The Warp Strafing Fallacy

There’s an idea Trek vs Wars circles that warp strafing (a ship at warp attacks a sublight target) is a potentially viable tactic for Federation ships to use against their Imperial counterparts. There may be some merit in exploring this idea, but, before doing so, it’s important (as always) to look at the evidence.

There are a number of occasions where this tactic might have proven useful, yet for whatever reason has not been used. Significantly, virtually every battle seen on Star Trek takes place with both vessels either at warp or at sublight speeds. The most damming evidence against warp strafing comes in the form of two Deep Space Nine episodes, Way of the Warrior and A Call to Arms.

In both episodes, large fleets attack the station with the intent of boarding/capturing it. The Klingons in Way of the Warrior want to capture Cardassian leaders holed up on the station, whilst the Dominon want to seize the station for themselves in A Call to Arms. On both occasions, their fleets close to point-blank range and slow to sublight speeds prior to engaging the station, and both fleets suffer a number of casualties.

So why, if there is an option to attack at a safe distance, do The Klingons and Dominon close to point-blank range and slow to sublight speeds? One claim is that they did not want to risk destroying the station, but presumably both the Klingons and Dominon would have some idea of what the station could take and react accordingly, adjusting their weapons. In the case of the Dominon, they wanted to prevent a strategically important minefield from being established by the Defiant, which was unshielded and unable to maneuver without risking destruction, yet no attempt was made to fire upon her from warp.

In the Deep Space Nine premiere Emissary, we see the fateful battle between the Borg and Federation forces. Given the highly dangerous nature of the Borg, and given their known course, why didn’t either side attempt a warp attack? This happens again in First Contact.

Another counter to the idea that warp strafing is a viable option comes from the film Nemesis. As the film enters its final act, Shinzon has the Scimitar attack the Enterprise whilst both ships are at warp. The Scimitar disables the Enterprise’s warp drive, forcing her out of warp.

At this point, warp strafing would make perfect sense. The Enterprise was restricted to sublight speeds and the Scimitar could have used warp attacks to make easy and safe attack runs against her. One possible counter is that Shinzon wanted to avoid destroying the Enterprise, but as with previous examples, all he would need to do is adjust his weapons (either yields or rate of fire) accordingly.

Instead, the Scimitar drops out of warp, and closes to point-blank range (so close in fact that, despite her cloak, she is hit repeatedly) and then continues the battle!

Another possible counter is that the Rift they were flying through would interfere with warp drive, but the Enterprise expected to sail straight through it!

So why is this supposedly perfectly valid tactic not used on a number of occasions where it would prove extremely useful?

The most obvious answer would be a targeting issue. A ship moving at warp would is not operating in normal space and could be subject to sensory distortions that affect its ability to target objects in normal space, unless the range is quite small (the greater the distance, the more difficult the feat). Another (related) problem would be that ships are not generally stationary targets, and tend to move, which would throw off targeting solutions.

Of course, this doesn’t explain Way of the Warrior or A Call to Arms, and the immobile Deep Space Nine. It’s position is known and is not going to change, so why did Klingon and Dominon forces close to within point-blank range (exposing themselves to enemy fire)?

The problem may lie with the interaction of objects at warp with objects in normal space. I’ve seen theories that warp drive uses mass lightening to allow ships to utilise the technology – if this is true, the impact from weapons fired at warp may not carry any greater effect than weapons fired from close range – added to targeting issues, it negates it as a viable option.

Another possibility is that some sort of ECM or jamming technology is being used. It doesn’t tend to be explicitly mentioned in the show (though Sacrifice of Angels does mention it), but it remains possible that jamming could make it decidedly difficult to hit even a stationary target.

It might even be a combination of factors. Problems with targeting caused by firing through the boundaries of normal space and subspace, combined with jamming, would explain the absence of warp strafing in the TNG era. It would also explain why warp attacks on sublight vessels occurred on a few occasions in TOS – jamming technology evolved to the point where the tactic simply wasn’t effective any more.

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