Military Theory: An Analysis of Warfare & Technology in the Dune Universe09 Dec 2019 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 article first appeared on Dune2K.com, and has been generously donated to Wargamer.com by the author. We were unable to reach anyone from the original source website with regards to re-publication. Header image courtesy of Jamga. This article was originally published as four parts, however as an experiment we've merged them again into one as it was originally published.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the Dune universe, the oldest weapons in Human history have returned to primacy. These include a wide variety of swords, short sword, rapiers, kindjals and throwing knifes. A properly thrown knife can penetrate a shield, but this action requires a level of eye-hand coordination and muscle control usually found only among Bene Gesserit adepts.
Often blades are tainted with acid, poison or soporific. Fast acting poisons or other chemicals designed to kill an opponent outright or slow down his reactions are certainly common in the gladiator arena. It is not known how common poisoned blades are among the rank and file of the mercenary armies of the Great Houses or among the Sarduakar. It can be assumed that poisoned blades are more extensively used by criminal houses, like the Harkonnens.
Unique among blade weapons in the Dune universe is the Fremen crysknife. Crysknives are ground from a worm's tooth and have an extraordinary strength and sharpness. However, the crysknife is brittle compared to other blades and have been know to "chip and shatter". Crysknives are also imbued with religious meaning and cannot be unsheathed without drawing blood. Crysknives can be "fixed" so that they disintegrate when away from the magnetic field of its owner's body. Usually only the handle remains after the wearer's death.
Primitive lasers were first invented circa 14,200 B.G., approximately 24,400 years prior to Paul's arrival on Arrakis. The power of early lasers was relatively weak and they were primarily used for scientific measurement and surveying. Within 100 years of their invention, lasers had become powerful enough to be used by weapons platforms in space and on the ground, though individual soldiers still relied on firearms. During Mankind's colonization of space, which began shortly afterwards, the lasgun became the primary weapon for all military forces, dominating warfare until the introduction of the body shield more than 10,000 years later.
3.1 Tactical Uses (Elite Troops and Criminal Houses)
As described above, it is extremely dangerous to employ lasguns in a tactical environment dominated by shields. The resultant sub-atomic explosion is deadly to both attacker and defender and is virtually identical to an illegal atomic blast. It would seem that each ordinary trooper has the means to lay waste an entire city by accident resting in his lasgun holster. Why then are lasguns used as extensively as depicted in the Dune Chronicles? First, criminal houses like the Harkonnens aren't very concerned about legalities and find that lasguns make excellent terror weapons when used against helpless pyons. The Atreides rightly feared the possibility of a Harkonnen lasgun with a timed trigger mechanism being fired at their shielded palace. Such an action would be in keeping with Harkonnen methods.
Lasguns are also extensively used by elite troops such as the Sarduakar. Being superbly trained and highly disciplined, the potential for an accidental lasgun/shield interaction is greatly reduced. The aristocracy of even noble houses like the Atreides are equipped with lasguns. Though House Atreides relied mostly on skill and shields instead of lasguns, the Duke's own thopter carried a lasgun (hence his warning to the spice miners that he would cut open their crawler with a lasgun if they didn't hurry to escape). The Fremen were also familiar with lasguns, using cutterrays to carve out their sietch sanctuaries. In "Dune Messiah" Paul's body guard consists of men armed with lasguns.
For the most part, use of lasguns is strictly prohibited in combat (except by criminal houses such as the Harkonnens), but remain widely used for engineering and industrial purposes.
3.2 Safety Mechanisms
Though nowhere mentioned in the Dune Chronicles or the Dune Encyclopedia, it seems likely that lasguns were also equipped with some sort of safety mechanism which prevented them from firing at an active shield. This safety device would prevent the discharge of a lasgun when pointed at the source of the characteristic radiation signature given of by a shield (perhaps the same radiation which drives a worm berserk). Shields also give off a visual shimmer which can be detected by the naked eye. This would explain why Duncan had to _bury_ his shield. The pursuing Harkonnens would be unable to detect a buried shield's radiation signature as their lasguns traced through the sand dunes. Furthermore, the pursuing Harkonnen thopters did not fire on Paul and Jessica's fleeing craft for fear that the two occupants were wearing undetected body shields.
Mental conditioning may also play a part in ensuring lasgun safety. Psyche blocks and conditioned inhibitions are fairly common in the Dune universe. It is possible that ordinary troopers, as part of their training, undergo mental conditioning which makes it impossible for them to knowingly fire on an active shield.
3.3 Lasgun Return to Dominance
During the long reign of Leto II, shields were effectively banned by imperial fiat. This act is similar to the effective banning of firearms by Japan's Tokugawa shogunate. As a result, lasguns returned to the forefront of imperial warfare. Lasguns dominated the military actions of Miles Teg and his contemporaries. Why shields did not make a comeback after Leto's death remains a mystery.
4.0 FIRE ARMS AND PROJECTILE WEAPONS
While fighting is primarily done with blade weapons in the Dune universe, firearms and projectile weapons are also available. These weapons are secondary to the primary shield/blade weapons combination and are rarely, if ever used outside of the worm zone in Arrakis. Typically, only targets of opportunity, and unfortunate pyons, fall victims to firepower.
4.1 Personal Firearms
Personal firearms are primarily represented by what today would be considered side arms. Two in particular are prominent, the maula and the stunner. The Fremen maula is a pistol firing spring loaded darts. The stunner employed by Sarduakar and Great House troops appears to be a non-lethal weapon utilizing darts. It should be noted that stunners is a slow-pellet weapon which could penetrate a shield depending on the shield settings and relative motion between shooter and target. Such a slow velocity projectile would have very limited range and would be effective only in close hand-to-hand melee. Long arms are not specifically mentioned but may exist as larger versions of the standard side arms. However, in an environment dominated by shields it would appear to be a waste of time and money to equip and train soldiers with rifles.
4.2 Artillery and Missiles
The inability to fire projectiles from within a shield explains why artillery would not be that useful against the Fremen. Once Paul had seen to it that the Fremen were armed with "ancient weapons" such as guided missiles, the innate Fremen superiority in projectile weapons would be made apparent in effective counter-battery fire. Harkonnen artillery did prove useful in sealing the fate of the Duke's men who had retreated to the caves around Arakeen for a last stand. The Baron's comment about needing the metal rather than letting Rabban keep the artillery was more a statement of his contempt for any fighting man who might need such ancient weapons against "rabble" Fremen, rather than an accurate description of HH economic needs.
Paul, on the other hand, understood the different tactical rules imposed by the deep desert of Arrakis. In addition to training the Fremen in BG martial arts, he provided them with "ancient" missile weapons for all tactical situations. These missiles, like the German 88s of World War II which could be used in both an anti-tank and anti-aircraft role, would have multiple functions against a variety of targets.
4.4 Pillar of Fire
During their escape to the desert, Paul and Jessica witnessed fire fights between Harkonnen thopters armed with lasguns and defending ground troops (either Fremen or retreating Atreides soldiers, the book isn't clear on this point). The ground troops appear to be using pillars-of-fire in an anti-thopter role. Primarily a visually signaling device, the pillar-of-fire plasma torches appear to have been modified as a kind of flame thrower. The potential exists to damage even shielded thopters with the heat generated by the pillar's plasma torch - radiant heat being unaffected by the presence of shields. However, their effectiveness is limited by its short range and slow speed which allows a skilled thopter pilot to evade.
5.0 ATOMICS AND THE GREAT CONVENTION
One of the most unique aspects of Dune warfare is that its is governed by rules. Millennia before the events in "Dune" these rules and regulations were laid out in extensive detail by the by the Great Convention. Methods of warfare and assassination were prescribed and certain weapons, especially atomics, were banned outright. Forms a procedures for initiating combat and issuing challenges were spelled out. Such was the level of acceptance of these rules and forms b the Great Houses that even criminal houses like the Harkonnens never openly flaunted them.
5.1 Limitations on the Use of Atomic Weapons
Each Great House possessed atomic weapons capable of vaporizing a dozen other Great Houses. These are typically based off planet in deep space orbits to prevent them from being taken out in a first strike. According to the rules of the Great Convention, any Great House which initiates the use of atomic weapons for any reason will be attacked in turn by all the other Great Houses. As such, they are never used.
Even Great Houses defeated by conventional warfare will restrain from using atomics even at the moment of direst need. Typically a defeated Great House is allowed a kind of exile with honor on Tupile (which may be one planet or dozens). To use atomics to stave off defeat is to forfeit everything.
Atomic armed Great Houses appear to have survived both Paul's Jihad and Alia's regency. Apparently many (if not most) of the great Houses accepted Paul as their new emperor. In an address to the Arakeen War College, Paul mentions the nervousness caused in his empire by the wide spread ownership of atomics. Only those reluctant to do so, or who saw the revolt on Arakis as an opportunity to declare independence from the empire, appear to have been the targets of the Fremen Jihad.
5.2 War of Assassins
Assassination of nobles and high government officials is allowed so long as the methods remain in conformance with the rules of the Great Convention as spelled out in the "Assassin's Handbook". Poisons in food and drink are a constant concern even in peace time. Hence the reliance of poison snoopers in the dining halls of the Great Houses. A more effective assassination tool is the remotely operated hunter seeker. However, a well trained target can defeat a hunter seeker. The need for an operator to be in close proximity to the hunter seeker requires elaborate preparations.
6.0 LAND POWER
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.
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.
7.0 AIR POWER
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.
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.
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.
8.0 SEA POWER
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.
9.0 SPACE POWER
The Battle of Corrin in 88 BG was the last major space battle in imperial history. Fought with atomic missiles and torpedoes (the Great Convention would not be ratified until 337 AG) the victory established House Corrino (which took its name from the battle) as the imperial house. With shields available to all combatants, atomic warheads provided the only means of effective ship-to-ship combat. However, the establishment of an effective monopoly on space travel by the Guild ended space combat forever.
(Note: I part company with the Dune Encylcopedia's description of the Battle of Corrin. The idea of "boarding parties" armed with swords assaulting spaceships traveling at relativistic speeds is ludicrous - unless you assume a Star Trek-like transporter, which does not exist in the Dune universe.)
9.1 The Guild
The Guild monopoly makes deep space combat impossible. The reasons for this are both technological and political. When folding space time and using their limited prescience to plot a safe course through non-space, a Guild navigator essentially takes his ship "nowhere". While traveling from one star system to another, a heighliner, its passengers and cargo have no real existence. Therefore, combat in interstellar space is physically impossible under these conditions.
Furthermore, a threatened heighliner could easily escape attack by dropping back into the untraceable void of non-space. Not that any Great House would be foolish enough to attack the Guild, even when transporting an invasion force. A subsequent Guild embargo would financially ruin any attacker. The actual planetary assault would be made by a rival's space fleet transported to the invasion site within the hold of a behemoth Guild heighliner.
Each Great House has a mini-fleet of its own, and can hire transports, frigates, cruisers, etc. as needed. These shielded vessels conduct the actual invasion, relatively immune from interception or ground fire. Since a spacecraft must drop its shields to fire missiles, orbital bombardment rarely occurs. However, derelict ships are occasionally welded together to form "crushers" which are then dropped on an enemy position.
Use of remotely piloted shuttles armed with modest lasguns is possible. This would allow a defender to take out a large shielded spacecraft at minimal cost. Unfortunately, the resultant explosion is too much like the use of atomics, banned by the Great Convention. This could bring the wrath of the other Great Houses down upon the defender.
9.2 Attack Frigates and Monitors
The work horse of any planetary invasion force is the attack frigate. During the Zabulon conquest, the Fremen invasion force consisted of over 200 attack frigates carrying thirty legions. With each legion comprising a force of soldiers and support troops of approximately 50,000 (see below), each attack frigate would carry approximately 7,500 troops. By comparison the total crew and passenger list of the HMS Titanic came to just over 2,000. Attack frigates must be huge vessels by any standards. Yet they remain the largest spacecraft which can land and take off in one piece.
Larger than frigates, monitors are ten section space warcraft which are heavily armored and shielded. Too large to take off united, each section separates prior to lift off.
Crushers are derelict spacecraft welded together into one massive object which is then dropped form orbit on planetary fortifications. Crushers appear to be the primary instrument of "strategic" bombing and probably provide enough mass and kinetic energy on impact to overwhelm a shield. They leave no radioactive fallout and would therefore not be confused with atomics. However, derelict space craft are probably hard to come by, making crushers relatively expensive to use.
10.0 DESERT POWER
The deep desert of Arrakis should be considered an arena for "naval" type operations. This vast and featureless expanse of sand covering over 2/3 of the planet's surface can be considered as an ocean with the various sietch's, villages and towns as islands in that sea. The primary means of transport and combat in this area are the giant worms ridden by the Fremen. Shai-hulud provided the desert equivalent of a naval transport, the desert power described by the Duke and achieved by his son.
10.1 Shai Hulud
Riding a tough-hided worm, which did not need shielding, the Fremen could rapidly traverse to sand "oceans" of Arrakis - striking at will against enemy bases and fortifications. Worm riders in a sense act no different than marine units conducting amphibious operations. The monster all other men on Arrakis feared, the Fremen used as a pack animal. Shielded bases or ground forces utilizing shields would not withstand an assault by a berserk worm. The Fremen could direct the worm towards a shielded Harkonnen base. After the worm had completed its attack, a Fremen infantry assault could mop up the surviving garrison.
There are basically four types of offensive strategies depending on whether the attacker is directing his assaults against the defender's military units or economic assets, and whether these attacks are raids or persistent occupations. (A few examples: Grant's operations against Lee in Virginia were a persistent attack aimed at enemy military assets, while Sherman's March through Georgia was a persistent assault on enemy economic assets. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was raid directed against an enemy military asset. LeMay's bombing campaign against Japanese cities in turn was a raiding strategy directed against economic assets.)
Muad'Dib reintroduced the concept of guerrilla warfare to the empire. With secure sietch bases mostly immune from enemy counter action (the Sarduakar raid on Sietch Tabr being an exception), and the superior desert mobility provided by Shai Hulud, Fremen warriors could launch raids against fixed Harkonnen assets with impunity. Imperial forces, like the Americans in Viet Nam and the Russians in Afghanistan, never successfully adapted to this type of warfare.
10.3 Stopping Spice Production
The Achilles heel of the Corrino empire was spice production. Riding worms across normally impassable desert terrain, the Fremen could strike at will against both fixed and mobile economic assets. Far more important than the Harkonnen towns and forts were the mobile spice mining operations. In addition to spice mining staging areas, the operations themselves were attacked with increasing success as the desert revolt escalated. Since the spotter thopters attached to the crawler were there specifically to look for worm sign, a direct attack on by worm riding Fremen was not practical. Usually fake, spice blows were spread out to attract miners to a site were an ambush was prepared. Given the pressure to increase since production, the Harkonnens had little choice but to often take the bait. Though they undoubtedly would escort spice miners with armed troops, Harkonnen mercenaries and Sarduakar usually found themselves in what today would be called a hot landing zone.
11.0 THE FREMEN JIHAD
The following is an attempt to quantify the population of the empire immediately prior to and during the Fremen jihad:
11.1 The Empire
After his successful invasion of Arrakis, the Baron mentions to Nefud that there are 5,000,000 people living on Arrakis. By this he means the people of the towns and villages. He is later stunned to hear from Thufir Hawat that the Fremen account for at least an additional 10,000,000. Given a total population of 15,000,000 on a planet as harsh as Arrakis, it is reasonable to assume that a typical world of the empire has a population much larger - perhaps by as much as an order of magnitude. An average planet's population could therefore be approximately 150,000,000.
In "Appendix II The religion of Dune", there is an indication that the number of Landsraad worlds was approximately 13,000 (80,000,000 dead in rioting at an average of approximately 6,000 per world). This religious rioting occurred during the CET conference immediately before the establishment of the Guild monopoly on space travel (circa first century BG). The Fremen jihad occurred approximately 103 centuries later. During this time we can assume continued steady growth of the empire. Given the socially rigid and technologically conservative nature of the Corrino empire, this growth was probably gradual instead of exponential. It would be reasonable to assume an empire of 15,000 to 20,000 heavily and moderately populated worlds by the time of Muad'Dib. Not included in this total are all of the small colonies, smuggler bases, research facilities, etc. which could bring the total number of inhabited worlds to about 100,000. I believe a reasonable estimate of the empire's population at the start of the Fremen jihad would therefore be approximately 30,000,000,000,000 (30 trillion).
11.2 The Fremen
With a total population of 15 million Fremen and converted townspeople (who fought alongside the Fremen in the Battle of Arrakeen), Arrakis would appear at first glance to have too small a population base to launch a major war of conquest. Given the warlike nature of the Fremen and their minimal logistical needs it is quite possible that Muad'Dib could field a force of 5 million. During WWII Great Britain achieved a similarly high ratio of soldiers to civilians. It is also reasonable to assume that Fremen women fought alongside the men, greatly increasing the available pool of recruits (and providing the origins of the Fish Speakers).
A typical legion of the time represented an infantry force of about 30,000 soldiers. The "tail" to the legions "teeth" would include logistics, engineering, medical, staff, communications, other support battalions, pacification cadres, Qizarate missionaries, propagandists, clerks, accountants, spies (and spies on the spies) - as described by Stilgar in his Zabulon computations. On average, a legion and its support formations would probably number approximately 50,000. An army of 5 million would therefore be able to field approximately 100 legions.
A typical Landsraad planetary defense force probably equaled 1 to 2 legions per world. Thufir Hawat never expected the Harkonnens and Sarduakar to invade Arrakis with a force larger than 10 brigades (1 legion equivalent). The 10 legions used to attack House Atreides on Arrakis was an incredibly large and expensive force by contemporary standards. The small sizes of the Landsraad military establishments was dictated by the cost of arming the mostly mercenary Landsraad forces and the great expense of Guild transport.
The Fremen faced no such financial constraints. Being religiously motivated volunteers made them considerably cheaper than Landsraad mercenaries. Guild transport was free since Muad'Dib controlled the spice. Conversely, the Fremen's opponents would be denied Guild transport and be isolated on their individual worlds, unable to coordinate a common defense or shift resources to meet a new Fremen offensive.
Korba mentions that the 12 year long jihad had brought 10,000 worlds into "the shining light" of Muad'Dib's religion. This is probably a round number and not a precise figure since all but a fraction of mankind had been conquered by the jihad. Assuming the number of worlds conquered by the jihad is closer to 14,000, the Fremen would have to conquer an average of nearly 1,200 worlds per year or 100 per month. If the Harkonen/Sarduakar invasion of Arrakis is any indication, this may not be as improbable as it sounds. The defeat of House Atreides by an overwhelming invasion force was accomplished in a matter of days or weeks. A military force of 100 legions with unlimited transport could attempt it.
More realistically, it can be assumed that only a small percentage of the Fremen legions were actively engaged in combat at any one time. However, this is counter balanced by the fact that many planets and their ruling houses could see after the first wave of Fremen conquests that resistance was futile. Most would probably surrender, publicly embrace Muad'Dib's religion, and accept a token Fremen garrison. Many Great Houses probably saved their skins in this way, surviving until Alia's regency. The vast majority of the 61 billion civilian casualties (0.2% of the estimated imperial population of 30 trillion) cited by Paul probably occurred during the first years of the jihad.
Tougher opponents such as the Ixian Confederacy or Zabulon would be either co-opted by negotiations or crushed with overwhelming force in a short brutal campaign (30 legions were used to conquer Zabulon). Post conquest peace would be maintained by pacification cadres, the Qizarate priesthood, native militias commanded by Fremen officers, locally recruited constabularies and the occasional Fremen garrison. Given the number of planets conquered by the jihad, it would be a rare world which had a Fremen garrison larger than one brigade.
This posting has focused to a large extent on the conditions affecting warfare on Arrakis, especially within the deep desert worm zone. This was done because most of the combat portrayed in Dune takes place in this arena. The reader should never lose sight of the fact that these conditions were unique and radically different than those found on all the other worlds of the imperium and even in the settled regions of Arrakis. A much simpler set of rules governs combat throughout _most_ of the Dune universe:
Ground combat is almost exclusively between groups of shielded soldiers armed with blade weapons. Though often carried into battle by ground cars, suspensors, amphibious ships and thopters; combat always occurs after both sides dismount to fight on foot. Mounted warfare is mostly unknown as is the use of lasguns, firearms, missiles and artillery. Shielded fortifications are essentially impregnable and provide a secure refuge against all attacks except possibly crushers dropped from orbit or treachery within.
Air power is severely limited to two roles: reconnaissance and airmobile operations. Strategic bombing, ground support, interdiction, and air superiority are not practical in a combat environment dominated by shields. There are few if any dogfights between shielded thopters. Air raids are essentially airmobile hit and run raids where soldiers are dropped on enemy installations and thopter fields, raiding each other's nests as it were.
Sea power, on oceanic planets, consists almost exclusively of shielded amphibious transport ships. It is probable that these ships are submersible to avoid detection from space as they maneuver to launch surprise attacks against an invader's rear areas. Though there may be the occasional thopter equivalent of a carrier, all other fighting ships as we know them do not exist.
Space combat is not possible for technical and political reasons. The primary role of shielded attack frigates and other space vessels capable of planet fall is to act as secure troop transports for blade wielding infantry. Occasionally crushers are used to blast fortifications from orbit, but they are very expensive and rarely used.
Armies are small and consist of highly trained full time professionals and mercenaries. Training and transport costs make larger armies too expensive. Entire planets can be attacked or defended with only a legion equivalent. Combat is usually for limited ends, with even completely defeated Great Houses being offered exile with honor.
We hope you've enjoyed this (rather lengthy) analysis of how warfare works in the Dune universe!