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"Drive me closer! I want to hit them with my sword!"
Commisar Fuklaw, Dawn of War [1]

While current military organizations possess the technology to accurately target things over the horizon or out of visual range (most noticeably in the case of missiles and even in the case of snipers), most advanced civilizations have lost the secret. Those that do manage to retain the secret tend to develop the technology to the point of Roboteching.

Although not exclusively, this presents a particular problem for armed spacegoing vessels, where the loss of this rather useful bit of technology invariably leads to confrontations and battles against other vessels at near-point-blank range. And God help you if your opponent is packing an Invisibility Cloak. This has also led to a common starship design configuration where most of the ship's weaponry is placed broadside-style along the flanks of the ship's superstructure. It has also brought about the need for super-advanced, highly technological warlike civilizations to engage in Old School Dogfighting.

Named after the supposed famous quote of Col. William Prescott in the battle of Bunker Hill: "Don't fire 'til you see the whites of their eyes!" This was justified at the time because they were using notoriously inaccurate 18th-century muskets and they had almost no ammunition, so every bullet had to count. In reality, the command was routinely given to soldiers in many battles: no army had very accurate guns or unlimited ball and powder -- or arrows, for that matter. The saying is famed, and associated with Bunker Hill, by Americans because it was the first battle of the nascent American nation.


Not to be confused with Eye Lights Out or By the Lights of Their Eyes, for literal eye lights.

There are four discernible reasons for this phenomenon:

  • The trope is often a function of practical visual cheats by filmmakers rather than a mistake. Star Trek often refers to a vessel being "300,000 kilometers away and gaining" but still presenting a real threat to the Enterprise. A representation of this actual distance is near impossible without some sort of visual trickery. Television is also a visual medium that emphasizes "Show, Don't Tell". In order to get a sense of the size of the two or more spacecraft they need to somehow be next to each other. The cheat may be required to get around logistical problems in portraying a situation accurately: in the case of Star Wars, special effect technological innovations during the time of the original trilogy hadn't reached the point where one could plausibly represent the flight path of missiles through a vacuum other than in the most rudimentary way.
  • Many filmmakers hearken back to naval or submarine combat as the closest metaphor for space combat available, and consequently use visual devices and images consistent with the representation of eighteenth-century seagoing vessels shooting at each other to place space battles on film. Of course, they might do that just because they know Space Is an Ocean. As it is, naval vessels have had the capacity to engage with guns at ranges of tens of thousands of meters since the late nineteenth century, albeit it took a while for fire control to make firing at said ranges accurate rather than spray and pray. Even torpedoes, relatively slow and short-ranged weapons, have had 10-20 kilometer ranges since at least the 1940s. Nowadays guided/homing missiles give the capacity to engage targets at hundreds of kilometers.
  • Averting this trope probably isn't much fun to watch, as a battle between starships where the enemy ship isn't blown up right before your eyes can be a bit dull. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 'The Wounded', two ships fire at each other at a range of over 100,000 kilometers. The characters watch the exchange on a screen with little symbols representing the ships and the shots. The fight is, needless to say, quite boring. Andromeda uses this and gets around it somewhat by showing the eventual collision of the missiles with the ship (sometimes. Other times, the dot representing the other ship just disappears), or just showing the battle if they're close enough for Anti-Proton blasts (less than 5 light seconds away, usually).
  • The trope may also have a tactical justification as follows, as drawn from Mass Effect: most ships aren't going to start shooting each other in deep space for no reason; they'll start shooting at each other because one ship stands between the other ship and something it wants. For the ship on defense to actually defend its charge, it can't go anywhere. By contrast, space battles where the combating ships are the only factors will usually take place at extreme ranges. Some examples on this page fit this situation; notice that in the Babylon 5 instance of aversion, the objective of the aggressors is to destroy the ships. Of course, this is still an imperfect explanation when the setting features FTL independent of fixed nodes, which Mass Effect has in the form of Mass Relays. The example of aversion in Star Wars regarding the ion canon below illustrates this problem, where the Star Destroyer comes out of lightspeed anywhere it damn-well pleased, but the Star Destroyers or other ships in freeform-FTL settings still approach the target very closely instead of firing on the defending ships from afar.
    • Similarly, because space is so huge, no weapons that don't approach the speed of light would actually hit the enemy within a reasonable amount of time, assuming there isn't any countermeasures that can be deployed in the 15 minutes between being fired upon by a sublight missile and actually being hit. And even at the speed of light it is still about 8 minutes to get to the sun and several hours to exit the solar system. Space is big.

When the phrase is used, is often changed to reflect the enemy. For instance, in Transformers, it's "the wires of their optics".

See Short-Range Long-Range Weapon for more generalized examples of this trope.

Examples of See the Whites of Their Eyes include:


Anime

  • Taken to its logical conclusion by Outlaw Star, where space combat takes the form of ship-to-ship fisticuffs.
  • Justified in SOME Gundam series, where the use of Minovsky Particle makes using radar difficult to impossible.
    • At the same time, it's still a rather blatant anachronism. World War II tanks were often able to hit targets multiple kilometers away in combat just relying on their primitive gun sights. And most modern gun sights aren't radar based.
      • Minovsky Particles interfere with all electro-magnetic phenomenon. In MS Igloo it was finally demonstrated that even visual sensors are impaired at great range.
  • Averted for the most part in Toward the Terra. Several space battles are shown to be taking place at such distances that the opposing sides can't even see each other. The real reason close mobile suit battle happens is because most mobile suits seem at least somewhat capable of dodging cannon fire.
  • Averted largely in Starship Operators where the trainee crew who mans the ship for the majority of the show stress the ranges involved in combat early on. Several of the enemies ships play with this concept, running in stealth mode (drifting into a "no miss" range and attack angle, featuring extremely advanced stealth) or just just plain running in (featuring a nigh invincible bow designed specifically for ramming other ships).

Comics


Film

  • The Star Trek films, where most ship-to-ship combat took place with the captains of each vessel within spitting distance of one another. The inherent superiority of visual targeting is illustrated perfectly in Star Trek: Generations where a Klingon warship locks onto the Enterprise by using what looks a lot like a periscope.
  • Star Wars, where it seems impossible to target a Star Destroyer with a superstructure one mile long unless you are able to see it out the window. Missiles are restricted to fighter-sized starships, are deployed only at visual range, and tend to operate in a Cool but Inefficient manner. Advanced missile weapons (such as proton torpedoes) have insufficient targeting accuracy to hit anything more agile than a freighter (unaided).
    • This is generally hand waved in the books as a result of having much better ECM than targeting systems. Missiles are tricky because they only carry so much fuel, and if they go ballistic are trivial to intercept with counterfire. Missiles don't tend to be carried on capital ships because heavy turbolasers pack a similar punch, can't be shot down, and don't have to worry about ammo.
    • Except for one occasion: in The Empire Strikes Back, a ground-based ion battery fires very effectively on a Star Destroyer in orbit above Hoth. And the writer got around the fact of a Star Destroyer's ability to target ground-based installations by indicating that a planetary energy shield prevented anything but a direct ground assault to dig the Rebels out.
    • The trope is justified a few times as well, such as in Revenge of the Sith where the attacking force was attempting to invade the planet (see "tactical justification" above) and in Return of the Jedi where the objective was to obtain protection from the Wave Motion Gun obliterating their ships. The battle in Attack of the Clones, with the two armies no more than a few hundred meters apart and charging at each other, however, is right out.
    • Also, in Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader's apparent tactic was to attack the Rebels from outside their sensor range, so they couldn't raise the shield (which is why he was pissed when Ozzel came out of hyperspace too close). They also display incredible accuracy in the EU, where a Super Star Destroyer fires on a worldship from outside the solar system.
    • Averted partially in Tyrants Test, specifically the Battle of ILC-905, where missiles are used, and barrages do manage to allow a few to penetrate the flack. Justified over normal tactics due to the enemy ships being very resistant to standard weapons.
    • The missiles used only against Star Destroyers is justified in many novels: missiles are much more expensive than lasers (which use a little fuel), have a huge firepower, and a typical fighter only carries a dozen, so it's ridiculous to use them against fighters, except aces.
  • Starship Troopers (movie version), where futuristic humanity, in possession of portable small-yield nuclear weapons, prefers to send footsoldiers en masse into battle with weaponry largely incapable of hitting a target other than at point blank or very short range. On the other hand, this is only to be expected when you're employing the Redshirt Army, all of whom are equipped with Cool but Inefficient weaponry.
    • Completely subverted in the original book: Narrator states that the Navy can blow the planet into smithereens, but they need M.I. (Mobile Infantry) to make precision strikes against certain targets, an example being the main character (and narrator) a part of Scare them into cooperation battle in the beginning of the book and the main battle near the end of the book has Capturing enemy commander as it's only real purpose (it's clearly stated that they didn't even have to fight for this planet this way - they could just blow up the rest of the bugs using mass destruction weapons). Another thing is the fact that the book is a sort of manifest against Redshirt Army.
    • Indeed. The book explicitly says there's more effective ways to kill an enemy, but sending in the MI sends a message: We can and will just walk right up to your face and kick your ass, and there's nothing you can do to stop us. And that's just with our foot soldiers.
    • To be fair, we see Infantry operations on four occasions: First, as a show of strength against Bug opponents that the humans had completely underestimated; second, to clear out entrenched Bugs from sub-surface fortifications after most of them had been wiped out with airstrikes; third, on a search-and-rescue mission through what was supposed to be secured territory; and fourth, on a retrieval mission which required the location, identification and capture of a specific bug. Aside from the initial screw-up, none of the missions could have been easily accomplished remotely.
  • Independence Day, where advanced alien shielding technology is not matched by a comparable technology providing the ability to target and destroy enemy fighters outside visual range. On the other hand, your advanced technology is probably Cool but Inefficient anyway if it can be hacked by a TV repairman using Apple OS.
    • This troper got the impression that the aliens' tactics were based on the fact that Old School Dogfighting is fun when you're cheating. Until the humans exploited their lack of IT security, the only danger to them was that if they were careless they could crash into the ground.
  • Transformers (movie version), and in particular the Decepticon known as Starscream. Whilst primitive Raptor aircraft employed by the US Air Force were designed with the capability to lock and fire at ground-based targets outside visual range, this advanced alien warrior apparently is unable to target and hit the Hoover Dam's power station unless he's stationary and in robot mode. On the other hand, he's Starscream. He may have just wanted to add a personal touch.
    • His mission is to retrieve the MacGuffin AND to free Megatron. He might've figured it's better to announce his arrival when he's close enough to cover for Megatron's escape.
  • Spaceballs, where the crew of the Eagle Five successfully jam Spaceball One's radar by visually locking onto, and firing a giant raspberry jam jar at, the capital ship's radar dish. Having said that, this somewhat backfired given Dark Helmet was able to ascertain the jammers' identity from their choice of weapon: "There's only one man in the universe who'd DARE give ME the RASPBERRY ... LOOONNNNE STARRRRRRR--*clunk*

Literature

  • Note that in literature this trope is commonly averted, since it's relatively easy to describe in a narrative fashion the causes and consequences of interstellar warfare without actually showing it subject to the physics of the conflicts themselves.
    • In The Culture series of sf novels by Iain Banks, this trope is deliberately Subverted and played with in that the titular Culture, one of the most progressive and advanced interstellar societies, totally avoids the use of ground combat and traditional soldiery, and instead prefers to go to war with starships that are essentially big engines with weapon nodules at both ends, and which are capable of causing stars hundreds of light years away to go nova.
      • This strongly informs the outcomes of several of the novels, especially the first, Consider Phlebas, due to the fact that aggressor societies tend to trip all over themselves in attempting to fight the Culture on conventional terms, using starships as methods of conveyance of troops towards Culture habitats, while the Culture merely evacuates their population to a safe distance and either commandeers or detonates the enemy ships on approach.
    • Distinctly averted in Tom Clancy's The Bear And The Dragon novel. American fighter-bombers launch specially designed bombs from almost a hundred kilometers away, using satellite imagery and AWACS to guide them in the rest of the way. Since AA and SA Ms don't have the same range, the enemy doesn't even have a chance to know the attack is coming, much less defend against it.
    • Averted in Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. The battles take place across entire star-systems at good fractions of light-speed (and even then it can take days or weeks for a single battle to finish), and while ships do have lasers for last-ditch defense, most of the action uses drones (big missiles), with a backup of 'fighters' (though these are probably closer to motor-torpedo boats in that they require 3 crew, and can fit up to 12).
    • The Honor Harrington series averts this consistently and without mercy. Starship engagements take place almost entirely at ranges that need to have the commanders looking at the little glowing maps with little explosion icons popping up for a hit. Probably a byproduct of the fact that this sci-fi writer is trying to demonstrate he has a sense of scale just fine, thanks.
      • As the series progresses, new technologies that extend the range of ship weapons make the Kingdom of Manticore Navy one of the most dangerous navies in the region.
    • Justified in the Miles Vorkosigan series. The ever-escalating race between space weapons and the defenses to stop them has resulted in extremely short ranged weaponry.
    • John Carter of Mars. Despite the incredible range of Martian rifles everyone still carries and uses swords/spears. An honor code exist which means no Martian can take on someone with a superior weapon.
    • Averted in The Lords of Creation series where it's pointed out that such as system as above wouldn't work, as "the cheaters would win too often."
  • In the second Artemis Fowl book, while watching goblins approached, Butler asks, "Do we wait until we see the whites of their eyes?" Commander Root responds, "Goblin eyes don't have whites."
  • In the Ciaphas Cain book Death or Glory, this is averted. As Cain notes:

  Contrary to what you might see in an episode of Attack Run, starships in combat seldom approach to within point blank range of one another, exchanging fire at distances of hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres.

  • Also averted in CS Friedman's In Conquest Born, where the idea of getting close enough to an enemy ship to be able to attempt to capture it was considered insane. Which made it all the more stunning when they pulled it off.

Live Action TV

  • Averted once in Babylon 5. When the Narn fleet was ambushed by a team of Shadow Vessels, the initial salvos of the battle took place very far from each other. The shots were cleverly edited together to maintain the necessary sense of danger. By the end, they had closed to spitting distance, but a lot of Narn vessels didn't make it that far.
    • To be fair, JMS does explicitly state in the DVD commentaries that he and the production team knew that space combat between large ships would realistically occur at extreme range but that they had to make some concessions to having an exciting TV show rather than a physics documentary.
  • Star Trek uses and averts this a lot (particularly the latter in the Original Series). However, in many battles (especially big ones), a lot of fighting is done at extreme close range. As mentioned in the "The Wounded" example above, rendering an accurate battle in a visual medium that is in some way exciting can be difficult.
  • Used and averted in Andromeda, where on the bridge, they call out the distances and mention distances measured in light seconds, and have unexciting displays where symbols fire at each other. However, the CGI battles are usually done up close and personal.
  • In Battlestar Galactica, they heavily rely on Old School Dogfighting, and ships often fire at relatively close distances, even despite homing missiles. Even nuclear weapons are deployed at this sort of range.
    • May be somewhat Justified Trope in that Cylon ECM is usually enough to make any kind of guided Colonial munition worthless, necessitating a close-in gun battle.
    • Also Justified by the presence of FTL that cannot be jammed or traced. As demonstrated by the Colonial fleet surviving multiple Cylon attacks by the simple but effective tactic of jumping away every time the Cylons show up. In such a situation the only realistic option for an attacker is to jump in practically on top of their target, so they can hit them before they jump away. Since both sides rely heavily (but not exclusively) on fighters which must be launched and then get close to the target (presumably since their own guns have unspectacular muzzle velocity) this means positioning your capital ships very close indeed. Of course all of this assumes your target will want to run away (and you want to prevent him), but if he thinks he can fight back you may want to reconsider your attack anyway.
  • Played for laughs in Whose Line Is It Anyway?, where Ryan's suggestion for an "uninspiring battlecry" was "Don't shoot till you see the whites!" Then Wayne enters the scene as a soldier presumably under Ryan's command. Admittedly, you'd need to be at close range to discern the enemy's race...

Tabletop Games

  • In Warhammer 40000, even the biggest artillery units have a maximum range which is, to scale, several hundred meters.
    • By contrast, in Battlefleet Gothic, a space combat game set in the same universe, the main batteries of larger ships have ranges of several Earth diameters. Needless to say, model and "ground" scale differ!
      • Yes and no. The game often featured multiple planets on the (2 dimensional) field of play, so presumably the distances were in light minutes. Depictions in text have them fighting at much smaller ranges. Occasionally, less than one kilometer.
      • On the other hand, in Gaunt's Ghosts: Sabbat Martyr a space battle takes place using massive distances. It even has a crewman reflect upon how close a particular (huge) enemy ship must be since he can see it as a gleaming dot in space
    • Gameplay and Story Segregation. In order to actually use most of the infantry weapons in the setting beyond the hand-to-hand combat ones, the tabletop would need to be several meters across. To use the artillery would need dozens of meters... It's depicted reasonably accurately in most of the fluff and the accompanying novels.
    • There's an article somewhere that describes exactly how the scale changes as you increase the distance on the table. Melee range (two inches or less) is a couple meters; infantry weapon range (two feet) is a few hundred; and artillery range (up to six feet) is something like twenty kilometers.
      • So it's a logarithmic scale of distance?
  • Star Fleet Battles, the tactical tabletop adaptation of ship-to-ship combat in the Star Trek Original Series universe, regularly uses this trope. Well, they don't make hexsheets in "square lightyear" sizes, do they?)
    • Hexes are 10,000 kilometers wide (the earth takes up a three-hex diameter sphere), no ramming allowed and practical combat range is under 20 hexes (one planet at a time on the map).
      • Given that the earth is slightly under 13,000 km wide, this could be could be considered a mild case of Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale.
        • Actually, the earth takes up the center hex, the others are atmosphere (1 hex of planet, 6 of atmo), which is even more stupid, since the Earth's atmosphere is under 200km "deep", not 10,000.
          • Earth plus atmosphere is a single hex. Maybe you were thinking of the small gas giant?
        • More like Acceptable Breaks From Reality. The designers know this (and that ships don't 'orbit' at light speed and that moons are normally more than 10k km from the planetary surface...)
        • Is 10,000 km as point blank range really the "The Whites of Their Eyes"?

Video Games

  • Homeworld, the computer game, where your capital ships, whilst equipped with point defense weaponry, cannot target an enemy ship visible on radar tracking, which is out of visual range.
    • That said, distances in the battles are measured in tens to hundreds of kilometers. The Mothership itself is something like four to six kilometers on its longest side, for goodness' sake. So this might actually be an aversion - visual range is just a freaking long distance.
    • Not even close, hundreds of kilometers is nothing in space.
  • Supreme Commander: The few guns capable of shooting with semi realistic artillery ranges (up to 71 km) are so damn expensive as to not be worth building. And most of them are game enders if they are built. A completed Mavor will make your enemies weep. Most of the game's units have an effective range of a few hundred meters, despite the fact that even the smallest targets are robots taller then trees.
    • The prequel, Total Annihilation is much more forgiving about this sort of thing past the first tier, although tank battles still escalate to a mass of tangled metal if their respective armour is sturdy enough.
    • Actually, Supreme Commander was notable for avoiding this trope. Even the weakest weapons have a range of half a kilometer. Additionally, conventional artillery pieces have ranges exceeding one kilometer (for example, the UEF's Duke cannon has a minimum range of 3 km).
  • Command and Conquer 3 includes walking artillery units for the GDI that can fire the length of the map. However, for game balance purposes, they can only do this when a sniper is close enough to paint the target with a laser designator.
    • Juggernauts could fire across half the map in their normal attack mode in the last mission of the NOD campaign. This was so they could pound the Threshold tower's defenses, but any juggernauts had this modified range (cue pounding of their ion cannon structure, which is another sidenote altogether...)
  • In Eve Online the range of ship weapons varies depending on the size and type of the weapon. Small ships usually have a max weapon range of few dozen kilometers for long range weapons and a few kilometers for short range ones. Large battleships can potentially hit targets from several hundred kilometers away (although their close range weapons still require getting very close, especially for such slow and hard to maneuver ships). Large scale space battles tend to consist out of two large groups of ships about 100 kilometers from each other, blowing up the other group by focusing fire to one ship at a time.
  • Star Control 2 has some spaceships that can hit enemies from the other side of the map (Earthling, Druuge), and a few who can only hit at what's effectively melee range (Zot-Dot-Pik, Ilwrath).
  • In Mass Effect 2, this is the modus operandi for Vanguards, due to their main unique class power.
  • Sword of the Stars can go from BVR combat where the enemies are only visible through the sensor display to close-in fighting where ships maneuver around each other. According to Word of God, though, this is merely an abstraction for the players' convenience. Everything actually takes place at stellar ranges and even "knife fights" with small mount weapons don't actually take place in WVR. The sequel will further avert this as weapon ranges will now exceed sensor ranges, requiring the use of battle riders as scouts/spotters.
  • Universal Combat is perhaps one of the best arguments for why this is a good thing to have. Behold!

Real Life

  • During The Vietnam War, American jets carries carried the Sparrow missile which was designed to shoot down Russian bombers beyond visual range. Unfortunately, due to a fear of friendly fire, commanders instructed fighter pilots to only fire on a hostile aircraft after visual identification , completely negating the technological advantage of the long range missile. The missiles were completely ill suited for tracking maneuvering targets in a dogfight and achieved a kill rate of under 10%.
  • During The American Revolution, an American officer (knowing the muskets of the day were crap and that they were low on ammo), instructed his men to not fire until they saw the whites of their [The British Army] eyes.
    • This was most likely caused by the very long reloading time. Shooting at very close range was could maximize enemy losses and even probably break the enemy before the close quarters combat started, still leaving defenders time to put bayonets on. In time required to reload an XVIII-century musket charging soldiers could cover about 200 meters, roughly the whole practical range of such weapon.
    • This was also the basis for 'thunder fire' tactics of XVII-century Swedish musketeers who preferred to fire at very close range but with three or even four ranks at once. With such firepower they were able to break even the charge of heavy cavalry.

Notes

  1. Now an Ascended Meme!
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