War Theory: An Analysis of the Technology of the Dune Universe [Part 1]

By Daniel Duffy 10 Apr 2017 0

Dune is unique among science fiction works in that it creates a society whose military has some profound limitations and at first glance appears to be hopelessly backward. Interstellar warriors fighting with swords would appear at first glance to be an oxymoron. Yet these limitations ironically are the result of the advanced technology of defensive force shields. While it may take the reader a while to get used to some of these concepts, Dune warfare is logical and makes perfect sense within the limits set by shield technology. The four main weapon systems of the Dune universe; shields, blades, projectiles and lasguns; form an interactive rectangle with each other and with the four modes of transport through land, sea, air, and space. All these tactical factors are altered by the special circumstances associated with fighting in the deep desert of DuneWarfare in the deep desert of Dune is therefore a-typical of warfare throughout the empire.

This article originally appeared on Dune2K.com, and has been generously donated to The Wargamer by the author. We were unable to reach anyone from the original source website with regards to re-publication. Header image courtesy of Jamga.



The definitive weapons technology of Dune warfare is the defensive shield. All other tactical aspects of Dune warfare result from the extensive use of shields to protect soldiers, equipment, vehicles and facilities.

1.1 History

The theory that led to the development of the defensive shield was published by Holtzman in 3,832 BG. Shields were adopted by all imperial military forces within 100 years of the theory's publication. Shields quickly replaced lasguns as the primary weapons system. Shields had therefore dominated warfare for nearly 14,000 years prior to the arrival of Paul and his family on Arrakis.

1.2 Description

A defensive shield created by a Holtzman generator provides the wearer, ground car, thopter or spacecraft with an almost perfect defense against projectile weapons traveling faster than the strike speed of 6 to 9 cm/sec (0.13 to 0.20 mph). The only way to penetrate a shield is with a slow moving sword thrust or an equally slow moving projectile. The energy of a blow which impacts at a speed greater than the strike speed is dissipated as radiation without transferring the inertia of the impact to the user of the shield. For example, a nearby flak explosion would have no effect on a shielded thopter. Shields conform to the topographic surface of the wearer or the craft utilizing a shield and do not form a projected surface or "bubble". Therefore there is no aerodynamic drag on a thopter when using a shield while in flight.


1.3 Special Shields - Half Shields

A shield can be modified to provide only partial protection to its wearer. This is usually not a choice of the wearer who is often a sacrificial gladiator fighting for entertainment. But it does show that shield configurations are flexible and can be shaped to a particular task. However, it seems likely that typical military usage requires a complete shield providing all around protection.

1.4 Effects of Shields on Warfare

With the introduction of shields came the return of hand-to-hand combat in Human warfare. Except for the Fremen (see below) every fighting force in the Dune universe abandoned the training and tactics required by firearms in favor of martial arts emphasizing individual prowess. The most extreme form of martial arts, the Weirding Way, was developed by the Bene Gesserit. At the height of their power, a Sarduakar warrior could match the in-fighting skills of a Bene Gesserit adept. Equal in skill were the sword masters of the Ginaz whose training appears to have been more narrowly focused on fighting with the blade. Some of the Ginaz, like Duncan Idaho, were superior to Sarduakar.

Much of what we take for granted in modern warfare would be missing from warfare in the Dune universe, though fighting in the deep desert of Arrakis sometimes comes close. Aerial bombing, artillery and missile barrage, and shooting with firearms would all happen occasionally or not at all. The exception to this rule is the deep desert of Arrakis where live shields can call a berserk worm down on the wearer.

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1.5 Shield Limitation #1 - Firing Out from a Shield

As mentioned above, shields deflect all fast moving objects impacting on the outside of the shield. Conversely, fast moving missile weapons cannot be fired from within a shield. This causes a shield inversion and the resultant impact radiation cooks the shield wearer very quickly (see "Dune Encyclopedia" article on Shields). All shielded soldiers, ground cars, thopters, naval vessels and spacecraft are also equipped with secondary firearms and projectile weapons.

However, these missile weapons are _rarely_ used outside of Dune's deep desert since the user has to drop his shield to fire, thus making himself vulnerable. There is usually not much point in exposing oneself in a vain attempt to shoot ineffectually at a shielded target. The vast majority of battles fought throughout the imperium occur entirely with blade weapons and without a single shot being fired by either side. Hand-to-hand melees, not fire fights, are the dominant form of combat in the Dune universe. Missiles are typically reserved for unshielded targets of opportunity. All projectile weapons should be considered secondary and auxiliary to blade weapons.

1.6 Shield Limitation #2 - Lack of Air

A second limitation on shield use is the exhausting effects on the wearer when deprived of sufficient oxygen for any significant length of time. While shields do allow some molecular interchange across their boundaries, the amount of fresh air reaching the wearer is usually insufficient during strenuous activities such as hand-to-hand combat. The air inside a shield goes stale after only a few minutes of combat (refer to Paul's training exercise with Gurney). Only those soldiers in superb physical condition can hope to survive the rigors of extended duration shield fighting. Like the heavy plate armor of the late Middle Ages, the wearing of a shield can also be physically taxing. It is probably fairly common for a soldier to break off from a melee, turn off his shield to allow him to catch his breath, and then return to the fight. However, doing so could make the soldier vulnerable to firearms and projectiles. The physical stamina needed for prolonged shield fighting may be a significant difference between elite warriors and ordinary soldiers.

Paul and Lovely Feyd

1.7 Shield Limitation #3 - Calling a Worm in the Deep Desert of Arrakis

A live shield will always attract a giant worm in the deep desert areas of Arrakis, driving the beast into a maddened, killing frenzy. No one wearing a shield in the worm zone has ever survived such a worm attack. Only shielded thopters can fly over the wastelands without fear, and even then the pilot must be careful when flying low to the ground. To wear a shield in the deep desert is practically suicide. This makes the deep desert a radically different combat environment than the rest of Arrakis which lies outside of the worm zone (the mountains and settlements of the northern basins as well as within the true worm line near the northern polar cap) - and all of the other planets of the empire.

Warfare in the deep desert is therefore dominated by personal firearms (Maula pistols, stunners and heavier ordnance) and projectile weapons. The inhabitants of this area, the Fremen, have a unique advantage over all other opponents in warfare dominated by firepower both in terms of unit tactics and individual expertise. When engaged in the open desert, and unable to use defensive shields, Harkonnens and Sarduakar were invariably defeated by superior Fremen firepower and fire control.

Outside of the worm zone (in the fortifications, towns and villages of the settled basins) the Harkonnens and Sarduakar could use their shields against unshielded Fremen. However, this did not confer a decisive advantage. Again, firearms and missiles can only be fired after the soldier or weapons platform has dropped its shield. If that was done, the shooter would soon fall victim to superior Fremen firepower. The inability to fire a projectile weapon from behind the safety of a shield explains why the Harkonnens and Sarduakar outside the deep desert didn't just mow down attacking Fremen with firearms and missiles.


The only hope of meeting the Fremen on anything approaching equal terms would occur only if the Harkonnens and Sarduakar kept their shields on and engaged in hand to hand combat with blade weapons. However, once Paul and Jessica had trained the Fremen in BG in-fighting techniques (the Weirding Way), even shielded troops would be no match for ferocity and fanaticism of the Fremen warriors and their crysknives.

Note that the Fremen, though contemptuous of shields, were not ignorant of their use and did employ them as the tactical situation required. For example, at the opening of the Battle of Arakeen, Sarduakar ground cars sortied against Fremen deployed in the adjacent Shield Wall, firing projectile weapons at the Fremen. The Fremen on this occasion wore body shields to protect themselves from Sarduakar missiles. The Sarduakar ground cars, noting the ineffectiveness of their barrage, quickly withdrew. This of course occurred prior to the atomic blast and the subsequent charge of Fremen mounted worms into the Arakeen basin. Once worms had entered the picture, the Fremen would have turned off their body shields in order not to madden their own worms. It is likely that in other actions near the end of the desert revolt, when the Fremen were making their final assaults on Harkonnen towns and villages outside of the worm zone, the Fremen wore shields. It is almost a certainty that Fremen wore shields during the off-world fighting of Paul's jihad.

There is also a psychological element to the fact that the Fremen typically fought unshielded. All soldiers, even highly trained elite warriors, want to live. Wearing a shield becomes second nature, without a shield the soldier would feel extremely exposed to attack. Therefore, facing berserk Fremen who disdained shields must have been very unnerving, even for Sarduakar.

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1.8 Special Shields - Pseudo Shields

The pseudo shield is a weapon specially designed for Arrakis. It does not form a true shield surface, but instead generates and greatly amplifies the radiation which drives a worm berserk. As such it is typically planted with a timing device so as to call a worm at the most opportune time. It is possible that they were also used against Harkonnen fortifications in the deep desert. These fortification would have to rely on physical defenses instead of large shields for fear of calling a herd of berserk worms down on the fort. Placing a pseudo shield just outside the fort would be an effective way of directing a berserk worm against the defenders.

1.9 Shield Limitation #4 - Shield/Lasgun Interaction

Prior to development of the Holtzman defensive shield, lasguns were the dominant battlefield weapon. However, when a coherent beam of light from a lasgun impacts on a shield, subatomic fusion results. The resultant atomic explosion travels back along the path of the beam engulfing both attacker and defender in a cataclysm of atomic proportions. A personal body shield/lasgun interaction would result in a mutual explosion in the tactical nuke range (approximately 0.1 kiloton). Larger shields produce proportionally larger explosions.

1.10 Special Shields - Planting a Shield

Planting of live shields as a defense against an opponent armed with lasguns is typically a desperation tactic by the losing side. However, it can be an effective deterrent to future use of lasguns, not just because of the destruction in causes but its similarity to banned atomic weapons. After Duncan planted a live shield, the resultant explosion greatly discouraged further Harkonnen use of lasguns. Even an accidental lasgun/shield interaction risked violation of the Great Convention, and the wrath of the other Great Houses.

Atomic explosion

1.11 Shield Limitation #5 - Static Fields

A shire sized static electrical field supposedly shorts outs a shield generator, but that has been difficult to achieve in practice. A coriolis storm can generate enough static charge to render shields inoperative. Paul took advantage of this fact during the battle of Arakeen. Once a path through the shield wall had been blasted by atomics, the storm which entered the Arakeen basin effectively knocked out every major shield of the defenders. Small individual shields on personnel and equipment sheltered from the storm probably survived. Hence Paul's warning not to use lasguns to clear away rubble from the atomic blast.

1.12 Body Armor

Physical body armor, in addition to the Holtzman shield, is rarely worn for several reasons. Most blade weapons have a molecular mono-filament edge, like a fixed strand of shigawire, which slices through all but the hardest (i.e. expensive materials). Fremen crysknives, ground from a worm's tooth, have such an edge naturally. Poisoned blades are also fairly common in the Dune universe. Lastly, armor restricts the wearer's movements and speed of action without significantly adding to the defense of the wearer.

1.13 Shields - Less than Perfect?

There is no such thing as a "perfect" defense. Given enough mass and/or energy, any defensive shield or system can be overwhelmed. Unless shields are based on some exotic physical laws, they can also be shattered if enough mass with enough kinetic energy are thrown at them. The fact that the weight and impact of a berserk worm can destroy a shielded target or individual would indicate that shields have a "breaking point". However, the amount of mass/energy needed to defeat an individual shield is typically prohibitive. Perhaps a high density/high velocity round could penetrate an individual's shield. But such an approach would be as impractical and cost prohibitive as using a depleted uranium shells against individual infantry on the modern battlefield. Exposed airborne thopters, as opposed to individual soldiers who can take cover easily, may be more vulnerable.

Thank you for reading Part 1 of this multi-part article. We'll be posting the rest in the coming days/weeks as Daniel is working on a brand new analysis along this theme looking at the Martian's from War of the Worlds. If you found this interesting and would like to see more, do let us know in the comments below!



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