Winchell Chung, owner of the stupendously awesome Atomic Rockets website (check out his Boom Table) hates space fighters with the fury of a billion burning suns. He cites numerous writers on the infeasibility of such weapons, pointing out that drones and missiles can do the jobs of space fighters far more efficiently, among other things. Ever since the first Star Wars movie popularized the concept, space fighters have become a mainstay of science fiction.
I agree with Chung’s assessment that space fighters make zero sense as a real-life weapon, but I adore the trope nonetheless thanks to incessantly playing Wing Commander II and Starfox 64 as a kid (it’s an aileron roll, by the way.) Thus, I have come up with how I would justify space fighters in my own setting.
Keep in mind that I am not trying to justify space fighters from a hard sci-fi perspective — the above links establish pretty conclusively that they’re useless. Rather, I am coming up with contrivances that would make space fighters and similar weapons not only viable, but preferable. I could just say “a wizard did it,” but I want something more logical.
First, I would borrow the concept of Minovsky Particles from the classic anime Mobile Suit Gundam, though I wouldn’t name them as such. These particles damage delicate electronics, block radar, and confuse guided weaponry, forcing battles to close range with weapons aimed by human eyes. This setup lends itself well to space fighters, since the combat and communications advantages of drones would be negated by the particles.
Next, I would make the local culture quite hostile to most forms of AI. Fearing “killer robots,” the government develops extensive electronic warfare capabilities aimed not only at stopping AIs deployed by an enemy military, but also enforcing AI regulations at home. These weapons make most forms of AI useless against the planet’s military; if you’re going to face them, you have to do it manually.
Let’s face it — space fighters are just like lightsabers and the Force: the stuff of fantasy. But fantasy makes space opera good; otherwise, we’d just be reading about the life and times of a drone. Who wants to read that? People read and watch space travel stories for the adventure and excitement, not the science; they are essentially fantasies with more tech. So one should put aside rationality and embrace the romance of the space fighter and its home base, Starship Luxurious.