Who would win in a fight

Who would win in a fight? An Imperial Star Destroyer or the Enterprise? Show your work.

That was an actual question on a job-application I filled out sometime around 2010. I saw it for the silly it was and gave a completely serious answer. Not too surprisingly, I didn't even get a phone-screen for that one.

Because I keep bringing this oddball question up, and the answer causes some minor debate, I figured I'd write down my answer here to save myself from having to repeat myself a lot.

On the surface this looks like a Carrier (SD) vs Battleship (Enterprise) debate, and we all know how that fight went down in World War 2. But it isn't that fight. The Enterprise is more of a Guided Missile Cruiser with a hefty energy-weapon mounted, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

No, the core difference that guides tactical assessment is the minimally automated, heavily crewed 1970's derived technology behind the Star Destroyer as it compares to the heavily computerized minimally crewed 1980's derived Enterprise. The Enterprise has some of the assumptions behind the computer revolution built into its worldbuilding. That matters.

The main offensive armament of the Star Destroyer is its crewed fighter-wing backed up by a large number of crewed point-defense energy mounts. Very WWII.

The main armaments of the Enterprise are the photon torpedoes and the versatility of the phaser array. All of this is computer-mediated for firing plan.

One thing to note. The development of the US Navy's Phalanx CIWS (Sea-wiz) system coincided with Episode 4. This is the terminal defense system for surface ships, and very much had mass of WWII era fighters as a threat. Also incoming missiles, but that's for another story. For those of you who aren't familiar with that system, this is a fully self-contained fire-control and weapon system that allows automated track and fire of airborne (and surface in newer blocks) threats. No crew needed except to say go. Yes, this system is designed to auto-smite swarms of early jet-fighters using guns.

Yes, this weapon-system is given to Guided Missile Cruisers. The Guided Missile Cruiser itself was built to host smart munitions for attacking land and sea based targets. Targets such as Aircraft Carriers. Consider the 1945 Carrier and fighter wing vs. a 1985 Guided Missile Cruiser. It is likely that the Cruiser can sink the carrier with precision munitions from over the horizon. The fighter-wing, if it got launched in time, can mess up the Cruiser in vengeance though. Assuming it gets past the Phalanx.

It is no stretch to think that the Enterprise phaser-array has a fly-swatter setting that can be run by a single tactical officer. Now, like Phalanx, if you spam enough fighters at it you can overwhelm the defense systems. This opens the door to the win condition of the Star Destroyer. Now, the commander of the SD will need to get creative in drawing off the photon torpedoes. But if the Enterprise's torpedo tubes are dry, and the Commander is willing to burn their entire fighter-wing they can get the Enterprise shields down and do major damage. Could win, but it wouldn't be battle-worthy after.

Nice idea, but the real analysis comes in fielding these two large weapons systems. For that we need to look beyond simple specification and at economies of logistics and tactical doctrine.

Imperial doctrine holds that SDs travel in combat groups. United Federation of Planets mostly aims for independent action, and don't really do combined operations much at all outside of actual wars.

Crewing a Star Destroyer is way, way more intensive than an Enterprise class ship (fighter-wing + all those crewed turbolasers + trooper compliment add up to a lot of crew), and the ships are designed in a way that degrading the crew also degrades both point-defense and fighter effectiveness. At the same time, an Enterprise-class ship is fought mostly by computer, with humans providing tactical direction and support in keeping the fighting systems operational. Degrading the crew on an Enterprise-class ship may reduce tactical direction, but mostly reduces damage control.

Crew demands mean that fielding an SD is more expensive than an Enterprise. That's a lot of food, medical, mail, and whatnot to keep it operational. And yet, the Empire is consistently able to do so. That speaks to a large population base to draw recruits/conscripts. Rather larger than the 'peaceful' UFP space.

This tells me that at the opening of hostilities the Empire would have a marked advantage over the UFP. They have the hulls needed to mark each UFP Enterprise-class ship with two or more SDs in the early phases, which would overwhelm the point defenses of the UFP ships. This puts the UFP on the back-foot operationally.

Now, the UFP is rather more computerized than the Empire, and no less ruthless in the face of Certain Doom. The UFP would have their version of a Death Star being made before too long, and weapon systems designed to pot-shot SDs from so far away the SDs wouldn't be able to get their fighters launched (Star Trek photon cruise-missiles perhaps). But not before suffering heavy losses.

Who would win in a fight depends a lot on what kind of fight you want to talk about.

One on one: the Enterprise in most cases.

In an actual war: the Empire, more often than not.

Some disclaimers on this analysis:

  • Little gets nerds het up more than a versus comparison, so I'm not enabling comments on this. If you disagree with me, yell at me on Twitter (@sysadm1138).
  • The Trek worldbuilding mostly kept up with the era the shows were written. The 1960's Enterprise was very manual. Next Generation and Deep Space Nine are products of the computer revolution, and deliberately set a century or so after Kirk's era to justify the changed worldbuilding. This era is where I base my analysis.
  • Debates on the realism of the Star Wars universe versus the Star Trek universe are entirely appropriate, and I'm deliberately not paying any attention to it here. I've yelled about Star Trek's worldbuilding elsewhere in case you care to hear about it.