War Theory: An Analysis of the Technology of the Dune Universe [Part 3]

By Daniel Duffy 17 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 Dune. Warfare in the deep desert of Dune is therefore a-typical of warfare throughout the empire.

This is Part 3 of the series. [Part 1 | Part 2]. This article originally appeared on Dune2k.com and was generously donated to The Wargamer by the author. Header image courtesy of Mark Molnar



Infantry remains the "queen of battle" in the Dune universe. Every other weapon , craft or vehicle exists either to support infantry operations or transport infantry to the battle zone. Shielded infantry mostly fight in hand-to-hand melees with blade weapons. Combat with fire arms is relatively rare outside of the worm zone of Arrakis. The armies thus equipped rely on long term professionals, skilled in martial arts and sword play.

Firearms are a great equalizer. Men of otherwise inferior strength and skill can still be effective on the battlefields dominated by firearms. However, in a combat environment dominated by the physical exertion of hand-to-hand combat, the strength, skill, and speed of the individual soldier are primary factors. Ancient history is replete with examples of small, but highly trained and disciplined, armies routing unskilled barbarian hordes while suffering minimum casualties. As in pre-gunpowder warfare, most casualties occur to the defeated side, and then mostly after it has broken and fled.

6.1 Ground Cars and Weapons Platforms

Transport by shielded ground cars is fairly common outside of the worm zone. The ground cars utilize suspensor drive and are equipped with secondary missile weapons. They resemble a cross between a modern Humvee and Luke Skywalker's land speeder. Able to carry a squad of soldiers over all but the most difficult terrain, they are the "armored" units mentioned by Duke Leto. However, they are troop transports, not armored fighting vehicles. The only real "tank" in the Dune universe is a Fremen worm.


6.2 Suspensor Mobility

Suspensor borne infantry are the alpine troops of the Dune universe. Buoyed by belt suspensors, this type of infantry can quickly traverse even the roughest terrain. The use of suspensors appears to be one of the few tactical advantages enjoyed by the Harkonnens and Sarduakar over their Fremen enemies.

6.3 Fortifications

Shields, being an effective defense against projectile weapons can be enlarged to protect key buildings such as the governor's palace at Arakeen. However, there is no evidence of entire cities or towns being shielded. The energy costs to shield large areas are probably prohibitive.

There is apparently three ways to break into a shielded fortification. First is treachery from within, such as when Dr. Yueh sabotaged the house shield generators prior to the Harkonnen assault. Second would be crushers dropped from orbit. Here is an example of enough mass and kinetic energy to overwhelm a shield. However, assuming the invaders want to occupy the defender's economic assets intact, crushers are probably reserved for isolated forts and facilities. A crusher dropped on the Arakeen palace would have also have leveled most of this important city.


The third method is an old fashioned storming of the fortification by infantry. As shields apparently repel each other upon contact, attacking infantry would have to turn off their shields as they slowly walk through the fort's shield. This of course makes them vulnerable to defenders' secondary firearms until the attackers are inside the fort's shield and can turn on their body shields again. Since the defenders have to drop their shields in order to fire at the attackers, the defender's are also vulnerable to firearms. Therefore, shielded forts are augmented with physical fortifications to allow cover for the defenders. An infantry assault on a shielded fort would start as a fire fight until enough attackers had breached the fort's shield to allow for a shield/blade melee to begin. In any case, attackers would need overwhelming numbers and can expect heavy losses when trying a direct assault on a shielded fort. As such a well constructed and shielded fortification, like a medieval castle, can be considered virtually impregnable.

The Harkonnens especially relied upon fortifications to protect their military and economic assets from Fremen raiders. Very few Harkonnen forts were in the deep desert where worms could be turned against the defenders either by their own defensive shield or by the use of Fremen pseudo shields. As far as the Harkonnens were concerned, there wasn't anything in the deep desert worth defending except spice mining operations. However, this excessive reliance on a defensive strategy was one of several factors in the Harkonnen defeat. Having lost mobility, they surrendered the initiative to their Fremen enemies.


6.4 Army Size and Organization

Given the cost of equipping, training and transporting a professional military force in the Dune universe, and the fear of the ruling houses of arming their citizenry, Great House armies are relatively small compared to the population of the planets that are being conquered. For the most part, the pyon serfs hide their heads during fighting and return to the daily grind of their lives afterwards - though they may have a new ruler and tax collector. The ten legions used in the attack on Duke Leto represented an extravagantly large combat force of 300,000 fighting men, and probably represents the extreme upper limit of a planetary invasion force for the Corrino empire.

The main organizational unit used by all armies in the Dune universe is the legion consisting of 30,000 combat troops divided into ten brigades of 3,000 men each. The brigade appears to be the primary maneuver unit. Tough smaller unit organization is unclear, it appears that the smallest tactical unit is the three man fighting team, at least for the Sarduakar.


One of Duke Leto's primary means of planetary defense, air power in the Dune universe is distinguished by its limitations compared to modern air power. Though the actual aircraft, ornithopters propelled by jets and bird wing flapping, are superior to modern air planes, the presence of effective defensive shields greatly reduces their effectiveness in traditional combat roles.

Dune Spice Workers 07272015

7.1 The Thopter

Ornithopters, combining both the speed of modern jets and the agility of modern helicopters, are the primary means of air transport. Thopters range in size from small scouts to large carryalls. All are typically shielded and are armed with auxiliary missile weapons. However, these are seldom used because of the risk posed to the thopter when the shield is dropped to fire. The primary function of the thopter is that of troop transport. A thopter assault would resemble a more rapid version of a modern airmobile (heli-borne) operation.

Limitations on firing missiles from within a shielded craft explain why the Harkonnens and Sarduakar could not just bomb and strafe the Fremen with impunity from the safety of shielded thopters. A thopter would have to drop its shield to fire, exposing it to the equivalent of Fremen SAMs. The results would be similar to Afghan rebels shooting down Russian helicopters with Stinger missiles.

7.2 Reconnaissance

The primary role of the thopter is reconnaissance. Providing a birds eye view of the battlefield is essential to planetary defenders whose satellite network has been knocked out by their enemies. Shielded thopters in effect provide essentially secure scouts, immune from enemy counter action.

The one exception to this rule are the thopter spotters used in the deep desert of Arrakis to detect worm sign during spice mining operations. These thopters, hovering in place around the spice blow, do not dare turn on their shields for fear of calling worm faster and from a farther distance than the sonic vibrations of the sand crawler would. This makes them vulnerable to Fremen SAMs, as Paul demonstrated to Gurney and his smuggler friends. Once the Fremen began using "ancient" missile weapons against unshielded crawlers and spotters, they could easily stop spice mining on Arrakis, threatening the stability of the entire empire.


7.3 Tactical Support of Ground Troops

Direct tactical support of ground operations in the modern sense of bombing and strafing enemy troops rarely happens in the Dune universe. Such attacks would be relatively ineffective against shielded opponents, except for the occasional unshielded target of opportunity. As mentioned above, such an attacking thopter would have to drop its shield to fire - thus exposing itself to SAMs and air-to-air missiles from other thopters. Tactical support would therefore be limited to airmobile operations, with landings of sword wielding soldiers in an enemy's flank or rear - and counter operations by the defender directed against these airmobile assaults.

7.4 Interdiction of Supply Lines

Attacks on enemy supply lines are also limited to the equivalent of the airmobile operations described above. Compared to modern armies, the logistical "tail" of an army in the Dune Universe is relatively small given that a steady supply of ammunition is not a major concern. Given the relatively small size of armed forces in the Dune universe, most armies would probably live off the land for food and other supplies whenever possible. Naturally this is not possible (except for the Fremen) on a barren world like Arrakis.


7.5 Air Superiority

Air-to-air dogfights are almost unknown in the Dune universe. Shielded thopters are nearly immune to missile attack. Though high density/high velocity ordnance may overwhelm a shield's defense and energy weapons such as the pillar of fire could be utilized against thopters, these weapons remain both expensive and largely ineffective. Destruction of enemy thopters by air attack primarily consists of raids against enemy thopter bases by thopter borne infantry. Raiding each others nests appears to be the most effective way of either destroying thopters on the ground or wrecking their support facilities.

(Note: As mentioned above it is possible that shields are less than perfect and can be overwhelmed by a sufficient mass with enough kinetic energy. While such a projectile weapon would be impractical against individual infantry, it could be effective against airborne thopters. The fact that the Harkonnen thopters chasing Paul and Jessica fire air-to-air missles indicates that air-to-air missiles may have some effect against even shielded thopters.)

7.6 Strategic Bombing

Strategic bombing of cities and military facilities would be limited by the presence of shields protecting important ground targets and the vulnerability incurred by the thopter when it drops its shield to bomb. Terror bombing of unshielded civilian areas is probably a common tactic. Against fortified military assets only a crusher dropped from orbit as a chance of doing damage. Crushers, not thopters, are probably the primary means of carrying out strategic bombardment.


On an ocean planet such as Caladan (the physical mirror image of Arrakis) with its large oceans and small land masses, ocean transport would be very useful. Like modern hovercraft vessels, troop ships floating above the waves on suspensors can ferry large numbers of troops to critical points on the globe. While air transport is the fastest mode of transport, naval transport is the most cost effective. Not even a thopter carryall can match the holding capacity of a large naval transport.


8.1 Amphibious Assault

Should Caladan or a similar oceanic world be invaded, ducal marines could conduct Inchon-like amphibious assaults on the flanks and rear of the invaders. Naval transports are shielded and are also equipped with auxiliary missile weapons which are rarely used for reasons already described. It is likely that these ships could be submersible to avoid being tracked from space. There would probably be no other types of combat vessels in the modern sense (battleships, destroyers, cruisers, attack subs, etc.) acting as weapons platforms.

8.2 Thopter Carriers

One other useful possibility for a naval vessel would be the thopter carrier. Immune from attack behind its shield, a thopter carrier would provide a usefully mobile thopter base. Shields prevent most of the traditional air power missions (such as aerial dogfight, strafing and bombing). Therefore, the usual method of destroying enemy thopters, raiding enemy thopter bases with airmobile infantry, is not possible against thopter carriers.

Come next week for the fourth and final part in our analysis of the strategy, tactics & technology of Dune. We'll  be looking at the impact of Space technology, as well as looking at the Fremen and "desert power" in particular, before Daniel offers his final conclusions.



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