The Original Series
During TOS, there is actually very little information given about photon torpedoes. Even the very nature of the weapons themselves is unknown – some of the behind the scenes material even indicates that they are not physical missiles at all but rather a cloud of matter and antimatter enclosed within a sort of magnetic forcefield of some sort. If this were the case then the ship would be able to fire photon torpedoes for as long as the ship’s matter / antimatter fuel held out – there would be no concern over wasting ammunition or anything like that. Neither option is ever supported within an actual episode, though.
Star Trek II
Star Trek II is the first time we ever see a photon torpedo as an actual physical object, when we see them being loaded aboard the Enterprise. They are a rounded oblong shape, approximately 2 metres long somewhat under a metre across, and about half a metre tall. Just big enough, in fact, to serve as a coffin for Spock at the end of the film.
This is our first indication that there must be limits on how many of these things a ship can carry because of the physical volume limitations. And indeed, the fact that the torpedo is lowered into the bay from above means that the Enterprise’s ammunition storage must be in the connecting neck between the saucer and engineering hull, which means it must be relatively small.
Star Trek VI
Star Trek VI gives us our first indication of how many torpedoes the Enterprise can carry. When the ship apparently fires two photons at Chancellor Gorkon’s cruiser, Kirk asks Scotty what is going on. Scotty checks some sort of log which shows this :
Deep Space Nine
In Deep Space Nine’s first episode, “Emissary”, we hear the following :
|Kira :||"All right, then, let's give them our answer. Fire six photon torpedoes across Jasad's bow."|
|O'Brien :||"We only have six photons, Major."|
|Jasad :||"What are their defences?"|
|Cardassian :||"According to our scans, an estimated five thousand photons, integrated phaser banks on all levels."|
The Next Generation
Whilst TNG and beyond would introduce nomenclature indicating many different types of photon torpedo had come and gone, the same basic casing remained in use throughout. Here we see a TNG photon torpedo aboard the Enterprise :
According to the TNG Technical Manual, the casing measures 2.1 x 0.76 x 0.45 metres. Whilst the manual is not canonical these figures do match up to what is seen on screen, so I will presume that they are accurate.
The Tech Manual also gives a figure of 275 as being the number “normally stored aboard the ship”. Which, again, is not canonical.
Whilst we never do actually see the weapons magazine of a galaxy class, we do get a canonical number for the photon torpedo loadout of the ship. It comes in the season five episode “Conundrum”. The crew have lost their memories and are trying to work out what kind of ship they are aboard. Worf access the computer and says :
|Worf :||"I have completed a survey of our tactical systems. We are equipped with ten phaser banks, two hundred and fifty photon torpedoes, and a high capacity shield grid."|
The TNG Tech Manual indicates that up to ten can be fired in one burst like this, though I believe five is all we ever see on screen. But at this rate the ship could exhaust all of her ammunition in less than thirty bursts from each of the two main tubes.
Or then there is “Half a Life”, in which we see the ship launch five torpedoes in less than a second, followed by another equally rapid cluster a few seconds later :
At an average rate of say three per second each, the two launchers of the Galaxy class could go through the entire ammunition stock in under 46 seconds.
Of course, this isn’t an error as such. It’s not uncommon for a weapon to be able to exhaust its ammunition rapidly - both a modern assault rifle and a modern fighter jet's cannon firing at their maximum rate will empty their ammunition supply in a few seconds or so. Naval ships generally have more endurance than that, but even they can usually shoot out their entire ammunition supply quite rapidly if they were ever to really let rip at the maximum possible rate of fire.
What I do find strange is that they have so little endurance when it would be so easy to have so much more... but we will discuss that later.
The USS Voyager is of the Intrepid class. Roughly half the length of a Galaxy class and thus approximately one eighth of the volume, the Intrepid class carries a small number of photons. We are told the following in "The Cloud" :
|Chakotay :||"We have a complement of thirty eight photon torpedoes at our disposal, Captain."|
|Janeway :||"And no way to replace them after they're gone."|
Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale
Here’s the thing about science fiction ships. They’re almost all mindboggling huge. It’s seldom realised just how big they are, even by the people who create and write about them. And I’m not just talking about the miles-long ships that populate many films. The Galaxy class, for example, is almost absurdly huge.
Currently the largest warships in the world are the US Nimitz class Aircraft carriers. Each of these behemoths weighs in at a massive 100,000 tons, and has a total internal volume in the region of three hundred thousand cubic meters. Each has the facilities to house seventy or more modern fighter jets plus six thousand crew members, along with thousands of tons of fuel, supplies, weapons, etc. They have been compared to a small town floating on the sea.
In volume terms, a Galaxy class Starship is approximately fifteen times the size of a Nimitz class aircraft carrier.
But of course a Galaxy class is not an aircraft carrier. Perhaps a better comparison would be something like a modern missile warship, such as the Arleigh Burke class destroyers. These ships mass about eight thousand tons. Each has 96 missile launch cells – and whilst each of those normally holds a single missile, they can hold up to four smaller missiles, for a total load of 384.
And in volume terms, a Galaxy class Starship is approximately two hundred times the size of an Arleigh Burke class.
It’s hard to illustrate just how absurdly under-armed Federation ships are for their size. Here's one approach.
I mentioned the dimensions of a standard photon torpedo earlier. Here is one put next to a person :
It’s common to posit that the Federation doesn’t stock Starships up with large numbers of photons because they’re the good guys – these are not ships of war after all, but ships of diplomacy and exploration.
I think I’ve demonstrated above that this really isn’t a good explanation. Certainly I can see why Starfleet wouldn’t want to put three hundred thousand torpedoes into a galaxy class. It’s an easily achievable proposition, but at that level we are talking about giving over a good chunk of the ship’s volume to photon stowage. In an organisation that isn’t driven by combat capability, I can see why they would avoid it.
But five or ten thousand? That’s so vanishingly small compared to these ships that it’s absurd to suggest that unwillingness to commit the volume needed is the reason. And then there is the fact that Starfleet are not the only organisation out there. Let’s say that it is simple pacifism on their part. What stops the Klingons loading up their ships like this? What stops the Romulans doing it? The Cardassians? All of them employ ships that could comfortably take tens of thousands of torpedoes in even a small fraction of their volume. Yet apparently, they never do.
In the end, it comes down to the way these things are depicted. Producers and art departments love their giant ships, because it makes for an impressive visual image that speaks of power and awesomeness. But nobody ever really follows through on what that would mean in terms of the capabilities. It’s not a great catastrophic flaw, but it’s always bugged me. Maybe now it will bug you too!
|Yellow text = Canon source||Green text = Backstage source||Cyan text = Novel||White text = DITL speculation|
|Copyright Graham Kennedy||Page views : 9,642||Last updated : 1 Jan 1970|