Strike craft are small and nimble voidcraft with a variety of militarized uses. Some are mere scout and reconnaissance craft with weak self-defense weaponry, many are interceptors, and others are fighter-bombers or dedicated attack craft with impressive payloads. Strike craft are the descendents of fighter aircraft and wartime sloops, which were early combatant voidcraft no longer in use.
Arcjets make the best overall engine for a small and nimble outrider. They provide the craft with an excellent thrust-to-weight ratio and good performance in all flight regimes, but are not able to match the specific impulse of a deep space shear drive.
Whether such a vehicle is able to achieve atmospheric interface and fly as an aircraft is entirely up to its designers. Many strike craft are capable of this, but there are compromises to be made. In flying through an atmosphere, it’s preferable to use control surfaces such as ailerons and elevators to aid in maneuverability; cold gas thrusters have limited performance here. Payloads might need to be reduced for the more versatile mission profile. Fly-by-wire avionics and backup hydraulic systems need to be able to account for the transition from zero pressure to high pressure in a granular way. Most importantly, ablative or magnetic shielding is absolutely imperative to survive re-entry. Considerations like these add cost and complexity over pure voidcraft or pure aircraft designs.
The good news is that microfusion reactors can burn for many hours, even days. Once gliding within a dense atmosphere, an arcjet can use intake gases as propellant, provided they are of a suitable chemical composition and the engine is not burnt hot enough to fuse atoms into dangerous compounds over populated locales.
Whatever the design parameters and mission profile, strike craft are limited in range by the fuel reserves of their microfusion reactor—typically lasting 12-24 hours—and the propellant store that provides delta-v in the vacuum regime. Carrier berths or planetary airfields must never be too far away.
Combined with the introduction of Stardust (Compound K5) for life support, strike craft are an attractive choice for pirates, mercenaries, and militias due to their relative affordability next to naval vessels. This has enabled the significant rise in the number of smaller commands throughout The Bary, who would be unable to afford rated vessels with shear drives, but can easily pick up a handful of single-seat fighters. Consequently, rather than committing state military forces to fringe operations, the Barystates have found hiring mercenaries as proxies to be politically beneficial, enticed by the plausible deniability of contract hires in delicate matters. They may even be hired as privateers if a political statement is to be made.
Why Not Drones?
Drones to this day see widespread use in the civilian sector, and as utility craft in the military sector, particularly in deep space.
The Novani favored drones as strike craft early on, until they faced the intense radiation and magnetic flux environment of the Dowager planetary system. In what became known to military historians as Forrester's Folly, the Admiral of the Republican Fleet’s 1st Expeditionary Force lost a full third of his attack drones to Dowager’s charged particle environment during his blockade of Sibyl. The drone’s systems had not been sufficiently hardened against the gas giant's powerful radiation belt, and many of their delicate computer systems simply burned out. Other drones suffered constant malfunction or operated with reduced effectiveness. What remained of the initial drone force was cut off from command signals by the Royal Navy’s ECM, and was swiftly decimated.
Attempts were made by the Republican Fleet and their defense contractors to rectify the weaknesses of Forrester's early drone squadrons. Thicker electrostatic shielding was applied. A retrofit to older and hardier computer systems was also tested.
In their assessment of Sibylean ECM, the Novani found that it was all too easy for the Royal Navy to “flood the zone” with signal noise; moreso in a defensive posture. Sensor data could be filtered and interpreted to gather a better idea of the tactical picture. But that hardly mattered if the drone controller could not also maintain a stable remote connection. To that end, Republican computer scientists pursued fully autonomous drone programs. These efforts were abandoned in frustration, due to how unreliable their decision trees tended to be, particularly when paired with the more resilient but computationally slower hardware.
Thicker radiation shielding and redundancy added considerable mass to the machines, at which point the engines needed to be bigger. The Novani were discovering that there were fewer and fewer reasons on the board to not use human pilots, short of the time sink beget by their training.
The final nail in the coffin for drone doctrine and the explosion in fighter deployment across The Bary was the advent of superluminal travel. This, in particular, is what makes drones a poor contemporary doctrinal choice. As distance from their command center increases, the speed of light becomes a limiting factor. This can already be crippling when drone distance to a mothership is measured in light seconds. With signals lost through impossible electromagnetic redshift, a command & control connection is no longer possible.
The superluminal velocity of any object that transitions through a hyperlane (also known as a Lambda Lane or Filament) is inversely proportional to its mass. That is, the asymptotic floor is the speed of light, and rapidities reverse, unlike in normal spacetime. The lighter a vessel is, the faster it travels down a lane. Naturally, then, it can be understood that if a squadron of fighters can travel the same distance one thousand times faster than the carrier that launched them, this makes fighters the spearhead of force projection and overall military strategy around the ends of these cosmic freeways. They can be dispatched quickly over vast distances to perform reconnaissance, conduct first strike attacks, establish staging areas for a full fleet to make an assault, and so on.
Classification of strike craft in The Bary is fairly standardized along a spectrum that ranges from a pure strike mission to a pure skirmish profile. All pilots across The Bary are taught to understand the differences between the roles strike craft can possess to make the best possible engagement assessments in situ.
The doctrine of strike craft does vary, arguably more so than naval vessels. In rare cases, the strategies underwriting these craft are so unorthodox that they may require some unique sub-classification. Tacticians won’t bother classifying foreign aircraft or voidcraft based on their own nation’s definitional standards. To keep things simple, they identify other, similarly sized strike craft based on the generic classification spectrum instead. Barystates that utilize aberrant short-form naming designations may do so out of a desire to obfuscate the capabilities of their fighters to the layman, but a name does not redefine the fundamental role of the craft.
The words “strike craft” and “fighter” are umbrella terms for a one or two seat combatant, the descendants of both jet aircraft and sloops, under which the following classifications describe their specialties. Generally speaking, fighters are meant to attack other fighters and bombers directly or harass lone capital ships with strike missions. As mentioned, fighters can generally be laid out on a strike-skirmish spectrum, from pure strike capability, to strong dogfighting potential, and multi-role in the center.
At the near end of the strike-skirmish spectrum, firmly in strike role bounds, are fighter-bombers. Skirmish capability with other craft is sacrificed for the purpose of maximizing payload capacity and optimizing for a strike mission. Fighter-bombers focus entirely on carrying and delivering their ordnance. They will typically not include anything for a direct contact profile beyond self-defense munitions like light cannons and countermeasures. Not very fast or maneuverable in comparison to other fighters, the fighter-bomber is largely defenseless without an escort of dogfighters to balance out the capabilities of a strike package. Fighter-bombers are primarily intended to strike larger strategic targets, such as enemy naval assets or space stations. Fighter-bombers are particularly distinct from torpedo bombers in that they preserve the size and agility of a fighter, which helps protect them from enemy naval ships. This also makes them suitable for use on all carriers, which torpedo bombers can be too large to serve upon.
Strike fighters have an intermediate design principle that makes the strike mission their strength, but unlike a fighter-bomber, other capabilities are not completely ignored. Strike fighters will typically preserve some measure of anti-fighter ability, whether that be increased thrust or agility, a more robust anti-fighter weapons loadout, or some lesser combination of the two. This means that unlike a fighter-bomber, strike fighters have some more independence in low-to-moderate threat environments. Strike fighters can serve as their own escorts against minimal enemy resistance, but against dedicated interceptors and dogfighters, they will struggle to survive. The sole defining characteristic of a strike fighter compared to a multi-role fighter is that the strike fighter is not primarily intended to attack other fighters. They lack sufficient agility, thrust, and/or anti-fighter weaponry, preserving just enough to not be hopelessly outmatched.
As the name implies, multi-role fighters are capable of a broad range of missions, aiming to be adept at engaging enemy fighters and simultaneously suitable for a light strike mission. Being a multi-role craft doesn't necessarily mean the spaceplane is equally good in all criteria, only that it is designed with the minimization of standout weaknesses in mind. Multi-role fighters are a compromise that makes them more economically, logistically, and strategically efficient, being perfectly sufficient for 70-80% of all mission profiles.
Approaching the far end of the strike-skirmish spectrum, interceptors are a specific type of strike craft dedicated to long-range intercepts against any enemy threat smaller than a naval vessel, although in groups a pack of interceptors can muster enough firepower to deter corvettes or frigates. Interceptors are particularly handy against long-range missiles, fighter-bombers, torpedo bombers, and fast attack outriders. Interceptors are capable of high thrust-to-weight ratios and favor long-range engagements. They may flex into ship harassment roles as a result of this emphasis on “kiting,” but this odd mission profile will generally be the only strike mission they are proficient at.
The ultimate skirmisher with a dedicated anti-fighter mission, dogfighters are designed to engage enemy fighters, outmaneuver, and outgun them. They tend to be light, nimble, and generally lacking in heavy weaponry, leaving them solely reliant on their agility to dominate the anti-fighter role. Despite their light weight, they are often deceptively well-armored around critical areas, allowing them to suffer multiple hits and continue to engage. The functional line between a dogfighter and an interceptor is that the interceptor will generally preserve some minor strike capability via its missiles, and will stand-off at long-range, whereas the dogfighter is meant to close in for its engagements.
Strike Craft Doctrines
Novani Republican Fleet
The Novani Republic maintains the largest military force in The Bary, and produces the majority of its combat pilots. Their sheer numbers steadily trickle down to fill the plurality of slots in the various mercenary and privateer commands of The Bary. With tenacious competition from the Sibylean Knighthood and the Commonwealth’s mysterious Keepers, they can hardly be said to be the best trained or most capable of all pilots. Novani veterans aren’t to be taken lightly, but the Republican Fleet largely relies on the weight of numbers, and the Fleet’s early pilot training programs can leave something to be desired.
Although not as individually capable as Sibylean or Commonwealth machines on average, Novani fighters are manufactured to a high degree of quality with a particular eye towards streamlined maintenance and reliability. During the early establishment of the Fleet, it utilized fairly simple designations like “F,” “A,” “B,” etc. In the wake of their armistice and détente with the Sibylean Kingdom, the Republican military-industrial complex looked to this new market. Wanting to push for increased international visibility of private contributions to the Republican Fleet, companies lobbied Novani politicians to switch to the current system. Now, rather than designating a craft by type or role, the Fleet now designates a strike craft with an abbreviation derived from the primary defense contractor that designed it.
Due to the sheer size and scope of the Republican Fleet, fighters of all types are found within its ranks, as well as its military exports. Fighters of Novani design are the most common in the hands of mercenaries, privateers, and private security forces, due to their perfect balance of capability and affordability. Novani strike craft are capable in whole, but also make for good common salvage, often in the recovery of their top-notch microfusion and thruster assemblies. The Novani are known for aggressive maneuver doctrines, as a result of their particular edge in reactor and engine technology affording their ships and fighters some of the best thrust profiles available. Their pilot corps are particularly aggressive in skirmishes, for better or for worse. On one hand, they can often outmaneuver and overwhelm under-prepared opponents with superior numbers and tactical flexibility. On the other hand, they frequently push themselves out too far, leaving themselves exposed to counterattack.
A famous quote from CDR. Reyes, owner of the mercenary outfit Darkstar Security Solutions, sums up Novani strike doctrine: “Forget everything the Fleet taught you about tactics. That bull-headed aggression works when you’re just a faceless rookie piloting one of another few thousand fighters that are replaced as fast as you die. Here, your Fleet pension isn’t going to cover worth a damn the twenty million coin loss we take having to replace you and your ship. You’re not invincible, and our bank account isn’t bottomless. I will not pay out of my pocket for the consequences of whatever bollocks strategy the Fleet’s flight academy taught you.”
Sibylean Royal Navy
The Sibylean Kingdom, both for philosophical and historical reasons, bestows all their fighters with a K prefix, short for “knight,” regardless of their battlespace role. This reflects the historical mission of the Sibylean Royal Knighthood, which was to protect the Kingdom with unyielding defiance. During the Novani-Sibylean War, the newly conceived Royal Navy used makeshift outriders and sloops to great effect. This tradition carries into today’s Sibylean strike craft, alongside their smaller naval vessels. The Sibyleans do not utilize particularly specialized fighters, rather preferring to adopt versatile strike craft that can take on many offensive or defensive missions.
Pilots and commanders of the Knighthood are an elevated social class all their own. On a more equitable level, any commanding officer of a Sibylean Royal Navy vessel, no matter its size, and no matter their veterancy, is by definition a knight or dame. Regular naval rank and veterancy prevail in deference. But in the background, all fighter pilots, ship’s commanders, and commanding officers of squadrons or fleets (eg. admirals) serving or retired command great respect among the masses.
Contrary to popular belief outside the Kingdom, admission to the Knighthood is not restricted to those of noble blood. In fact, it is the highest honor that can be conferred upon a commoner short of becoming one of the Queen’s choice Councilors. The Royal Knighthood is really a historical idiosyncrasy; a cultural synonym for the Royal Navy’s commanding officer corps. A disproportionate number of men become squires — co-pilots and naval flight officers (NFO) with an entry-level ensign or coxswain rank — as a stepping stone toward their own flight command. The ultimate result is that the reserve of knight lieutenants and captains skew slightly male.
The rigorous officer training programs of the Sibylean Royal Navy are known to produce some of the better pilots and commanders in The Bary. Retired Sibylean knights and dames are particularly sought after by mercenary commands, both for their individual piloting skills, but also to serve as training instructors for other pilots.
This has all given pilots from the Kingdom an international reputation for being particularly pompous and proud. But this isn’t really the case. There is an intense cultural demand for excellence within the Knighthood, such that a lack of merit or proficiency is seen as a massive embarrassment, culling out the chaff. It is often preferable to save face at the first sign of struggle and find a different occupation within or without the military that suits an individual's talents. In this way, the pursuit of a command is the ultimate meritocratic hell in a society that usually stresses equity among commoners. Some say this system is too rigid and doesn’t allow for necessary dissenting opinion, leaving Sibylean tactical doctrine stilted. But the Royal Navy goes to great lengths to keep the Knighthood strong, and its fighter pilots in particular remain a fearsome force.
Geminese Self-Defense Force
While the Geminese do not maintain a particularly large standing military, they do have a reputation for producing capable and devoted warriors, as well as highly engineered strike craft and naval warships with powerful railguns. The GSDF maintains an uncomplicated naming system for strike craft, simply using the “M” prefix, for “model,” for all their fighters, regardless of doctrinal role. Culturally and religiously, the Geminese do not fancy themselves to visit suffering onto others, and short aggressive sounding designations such as “fighter,” “attacker,” “striker,” among others, are eschewed.
GSDF fighters are constructed and designed very similarly to their naval ships, and doctrinally applied much the same. Somewhat slow and ponderous compared to their peers, they make up for their lack of maneuverability with highly advanced guided magnetic accelerator weapons. GSDF fighters tend to specialize in certain roles, but rarely fully commit to those roles, often falling under the classes of interceptors or strike fighters. The Geminese feel that dogfighters and fighter-bombers are weapons of conquest, useless except to maybe directly attack near-peer fighters and naval assets, whereas interceptors and strike fighters are useful for policing shipping lanes and providing orbital security. GSDF fighters are valuable, not for the voidcraft themselves, but for the highly advanced magnetic accelerators they carry, which are highly sought after for retrofitting onto more capable fighters, particularly interceptors.
GSDF pilots are fairly well disciplined. Technical proficiency is not enough to become a fighter pilot in the GSDF, with the final test before graduation being a full-scale yearly training exercise, simulating a 20 day-long orbital defense scenario, pitting students against venerable instructors commanding aggressor squadrons. The goal of this scenario is two-fold: first, to give students necessary experience in realistic combat situations, and second, to evaluate students for a tendency to act erratically or panic in combat. The goal is not necessarily to win the scenario, but rather, to prove that students can keep a cool head when it matters most. Those that pass graduate and move onto fleet squadrons. Those that do not may either choose to drop out and pursue a different Military Occupational Specialty, or undergo a separate psychosocial course to increase their ability to manage themselves under stress, then repeat the combat exam. Former GSDF pilots rarely end up in mercenary commands, but those that do often find themselves in senior positions, where their calm demeanor under fire is utilized to help keep rookie merc pilots from going off the rails when the lead starts flying.
The Feronian League maintains the second largest standing military, although it is far less scrupulous than the rest of the Barystates. The strike craft of the Feronian Guard vary the most wildly in terms of the quality and capability of their equipment. This is largely because the Feronian League equips itself from a wide range of domestic corporate suppliers and maintains a practical attitude toward regular ship maintenance. For example, replacement parts are standardized so that they may come from a corporation not involved in the vessel’s original design.
The Guard designates their strike craft with several prefixes. The S prefix stands for “sentry,” a unique handle for craft that are roughly comparable to a bulky multi-role fighter. These sentry-type fighters excel in long-duration orbital patrols, with an additional design objective to directly engage smaller naval craft. This operational strategy has roots in early corporate warfare over the rich deposits on the binary worlds of Cinder and Cindra. It is also meant to deter any recon fleets that may try to sneak into the Saffron system by way of a hyperlane.
These sentry fighters are unusual in that they tend to be particularly heavy, allowing them to carry the maximum amount of strike ordnance for their weight class at hyperlane bottlenecks.
The G prefix, or “guardian,” is very closely aligned with the traditional role of a dogfighter. Its primary purpose is to escort and protect strike packages. The P prefix, or “paladin,” is similarly most closely related to a fighter-bomber in usage. Typically heavy and carrying a lot of ordnance, paladins are the muscle that make up Feronian strike groups. Finally, the W prefix, or “warden,” can be compared most closely to standard multi-role fighters.
Despite the heterogeneous nature of their military, Guard pilots are no pushovers. Unlike the populous and wealthy Republic, the Feronian League doesn’t have the same gargantuan economy to fall back on in the event of military losses, and treasures what forces it does have highly. To that end, it takes great effort to train officers to the best of their ability, while embracing unconventional tactics and tightly controlled aggression. Feronian pilots are keen on exploiting opportunities in combat, but always knowing their limit, and refuse to allow enemies to gain the upper hand for a counter-attack. Due to the proclivity of their ships to high thrust, and their weapons preferring close range engagements, Guard pilots are particularly feared by all but the Sibylean Knighthood in a dogfight. Mercenary commands like to hire on former Guard pilots as tactical advisers and as escort pilots, though they are not as highly in-demand as Sibyleans.
Salvaged Feronian ships are not particularly prized, but they are easy to repair, adaptable, and for less successful private interests, they are cost-effective.
Keepers of the Commonwealth
The Keepers of the Commonwealth are the fewest in number, but from what little outsiders know of their capabilities, that hardly matters. Coming across a freelancing Keeper is rare, and they seem to have incredible reaction times and tactical proclivity. This would all make a substantial difference if they were placed in the average fighter, but the fighters used by the Keepers are far from ordinary. The Commonwealth is the only Barystate able to field true stealth fighters in any meaningful capacity, giving them a massive edge over their opponents.
This stealth advantage has limits. A stealth fighter must maintain its reactor in a low-power state to remain hidden from thermal scans, limiting maneuverability in stealth mode. It must not run active sensor sweeps. Finally, while impressive, Keeper stealth capabilities are not perfect, and a Commonwealth engine block will be picked up within about 50 kilometers line-of-sight of any naval-grade sensor system.
Because the Empyreans live in and around the debris fields from ancient starship wrecks, they have a huge degree of natural spaceborne cover that they may maneuver stealth fighters through. By hiding in this debris, these stealth fighters silently tail incoming vessels, ready to pounce on them at a moment’s notice, without their prey knowing what lurks in the carcasses of the ships around them.
Keepers have been derisively described as a hive of wasps by the very few survivors of their engagements. Like a hive of wasps built right above a doorway, they effectively control many of the routes through the Barycenter, and yet, seem to have no interest in projecting force outside of their own borders.
The only personnel more coveted than a Sibylean Knight is a Empyrean Keeper. Suffice to say, a Keeper who willingly chooses to leave the Commonwealth is few and far between, and the number who have decided to join a private command can be counted on one’s hand.
Commonwealth fighters are the holy grail of salvage: not a single functional wreck has ever been recovered. The Commonwealth goes to great extents to protect their technology, and places auto-scuttling systems in each fighter should it be incapacitated. Oddly, these fighters don’t seem to mount ejection seats or any other kind of survival equipment, instead ensuring that the pilot is consumed with the ship as it is scuttled. This extreme devotion to secrecy perplexes admirals and sociologists alike.