War Theory: An Analysis of the Technology of the Dune Universe [Part 4]

By Daniel Duffy 24 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 4 of the series. [Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]. This article originally appeared on Dune2k.com and was generously donated to The Wargamer by the author.


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.)

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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.

guild navigator

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.

9.3 Crushers

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.

desert power by toadz d650voe


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.

the sandworm riders by isra2007

10.2 Razzias

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.


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.

Butlerian Jihad 01 1

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.

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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.

Thanks for reading this debut series of articles, and thanks to Daniel for donating it to us. Stay tuned next week as we'll be kicking off a new mini-series, this time looking at War of the Worlds!



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