Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Empire-Class Dreadnought 2.0 - Inspirations

So, for my playtest, I've completed a new version of the Starhawk and the Typhoon, two vehicles already available in GURPS Spaceships 4.  For the third "iconic" Psi-Wars vehicle, I have chosen the Empire-Class Dreadnought from GURPS Spaceships 3.  The Empire-Class has served as our primary "imperial" warship, the dread conqueror and the powerhouse to beat.  It has showed up in playtests and in Tinker Titan Rebel Spy, my short-lived Psi-Wars campaign.

The Empire-Class Dreadnought isn't too bad as far as GURPS Spaceships creations go.  It lacks major issues and, in fact, taught me a lot about spaceship design.  It has perhaps an unrealistically large hangar, and it lacks missiles and armor, which tend to be the mainstays for more realistic ships, but it makes up for it with superb firepower, including an astonishing spinal cannon and very powerful force screen.  This makes it both a terrifying threat, a planet-conquering troop-transport, and a cinematically satisfying opponent to take on, as once you defeat or bypass its screens, even a relatively small fighter can take it out with a well-placed torpedo.

With the recreation of Vehicles in 4e, the goal now is to rebuild it in Vehicles, but also to re-imagine it from the ground up, rather than just "converting" the existing ship.  To do that, I want to dive into what it is, what inspired it, and what role it serves in its fleet.


The core Empire-Class Inspiration: the Star Destroyer

The obvious inspiration for the Empire-Class dreadnought is, of course, the Imperial Star Destroyer, which is probably the most iconic spaceship of Star Wars, maybe falling behind the Death Star and X-Wing, but I bet it's close.  The great, looming behemoth that stormed onto the screen in a New Hope and then kept going and going fired the imagination then and now.

While I spend a lot of time complaining about Star Wars vehicles here, I need to give it some praise.  First, the wedge-shape design is actually pretty smart when you understand firing arcs.  We like to think of a turret as able to "fire in any direction," but that's really not true.  On a tank or a similar vehicle, yes, but as soon as you have two turrets, they start to interfere with one another.  If you picture a "long" tank with two turrets side-by-side, it quick becomes clear that you cannot fire both forward or both backward, but you might be able to fire both "broadside," and we see that with battleships.  However,  you could stagger the turrets, so that one was slightly higher then the other, in which case, one has a less limited arc than the other, and both can "fire forward," increasing the number of arcs you can fire in.  The Star Destroyer seems a study in this principle, its wedge design meant to facilitate the "stacking" of turrets so that the maximum number of them can "fire forward" absolutely demolishing anything directly before it.

The Nebula-Class Star Destroyer;
What a Star Destroyer with a less prominent bridge might look like
The problems with the Star Destroyer are pretty well documented.  The core problems mostly focus on its space opera origins, and how it pretends to be a naval vessel.  It has this enormous superstructure that seems to serve no purpose: in the real world, we use the castle to elevate sensors higher so we can see over the horizon, but this is unnecessary on a spaceship.  Similarly, all its weapons are on the "top" of the ship, and none on the bottom, which makes sense for a naval vessel, but not on a spaceship.  It also has this great, enormous window where the bridge is, making it a prime target: in principle, this should be replaced with sensors and the "bridge" buried in the ship, but for me and the space opera nature of Psi-Wars, that's a bridge too far.  I want to see my heroic commodore standing astride his bridge looking out upon the battle.

A bigger problem for me is the size of the Star Destroyer.  These monsters start at a mile long and each film introduces yet larger incarnations.  This is not unrealistic: a galactic empire should have the industrial capacity to manufacture millions of mile-long ships without a problem.  We might even expect to see such warships in a realistic setting: Revelation Space features mile-long warships, as one needs that much mass to get a ship  up to near light speed.  No, my objection here is that I don't really know what all that space is used for.  Star Destroyers have relatively wimpy collections of starfighters at only ~72 (that's about three squadrons; the modern and much smaller Nimitz-class carrier has up to 90 fighters, and modern fighters are much bigger than TIE fighters, so why does a mile-long Star Destroyer have so few)?  It carries a substantial number of troops ( about 10,000) but not nearly enough transport capacity to get them all down quickly.  It seems to have huge engines, and that's what I would expect to take up most of the space: generators, engines and hyperdrive, but Star Wars has shown that hyperdrives can be quite small, so unless it's mostly a giant troop transport, I don't understand what purpose is served by being a mile long.  People have complained that Psi-Wars ships are "too small" compared to Star Wars, but honestly, that's because a million ton ship is "big" by any other setting's standard, from Dreadnought to EVE.

The lack of point defense on a Star Destroyer is, perhaps, excusable in Star Wars, but it really isn't in Psi-Wars, where the presence of isomeric (aka nuclear) torpedoes will destroy a ship, they need some kind of defense against missile attack!  Fighter cover counts for a lot, but it should be able to defend itself as well.

Real-World Inspirations

The obvious inspiration for the Imperial Star Destroyer and, by extension, the Empire-Class Dreadnought, is the WW2 battleship, but I would argue that this is incorrect.  The battleship was a focused ship: it was all about armor and firepower and nothing else.  The Empire-Class is about firepower, speed and fighter transport.  As lightly armored as it is, it's more of a battlecruiser than it is a battleship, and its role as carrier makes it a puzzling hybrid, but not an unprecedented one.

After WW2 proved that battleships were dead, the US Navy intended to phase out battleships entirely, but the Marine corps objected.  They had seen how useful a battleship sitting off of a coast could be. A battleship in this context might be seen as floating artillery support, which is vital for any military advance, especially one as fraught as an amphibious assault.  So, the Navy conceived of a hybrid meant to fulfill both the role of battleship and carrier, a "battlecarrier" if you will, and the logic of it remains sound: the front of the vehicle would be all firepower, laying down that artillery support for an amphibious assault, while its rear acted as a landing platform, allowing it to launch close air support for said amphibious assault.  Unfortunately for the marines, the project was canned.

Fortunately for us, such vehicles still exist, and we call them "aircraft cruisers," such as the Kiev-Class aircraft carrier.  Most such vehicles are probably better described as "helicopter carriers" as they don't really launch much in the way of F-14 Tomcats or other exciting vehicles that one might make a movie about.

The other real-world vehicle I would cite as an inspiration are the Nimitz- and Ford-Class carriers, not because their mission profile matches that of the Empire-Class dreadnought, but because they are the largest and most impressive naval vessels the planet has ever seen.  They are gargantuan, called "Super-carriers," they displace twice the tonnage of an Iowa-Class battleship.  The presence of a single super-carrier can redefine local politics, and they act like floating mobile bases.  I see a similar role for an Empire-Class Dreadnought: once it orbits your world, it begins to bend the politics of your world into its orbit from its sheer firepower and presence.

Other Fictional Inspirations

If I had to look elsewhere in the Star Wars universe for better inspiration for the Empire-Class Dreadnought, I would look no farther than the Venator-Class Star Destroyer or "Attack Cruiser" which fits its mission description better. Where the Star Destroyer has some nebulous hangar in its bottom, the Venator has an explicit and obvious launch deck, which fits its role as dual attack/carrier better in that we can see that it's part carrier.

Beyond Star Wars, I struggle a bit, as the role of the Empire-Class dreadnought is to be, you know, the Capital Ship, so in principle any capital ship will do, but I do draw inspiration from the Cruisers from Strike Suit Zero, not because they're especially appropriate, but because of how they interact with fighters.  While it's very difficult for a fighter to single-handedly destroy one, the turrets and various weakpoints remain vulnerable to fighter attack.  While this does not necessarily make "good sense" from a realistic military perspective, it makes a lot of sense from a gaming perspective.

I also find myself looking into the games Dreadnought and EVE for additional inspiration (EVE especially uses real-world stats, which makes conversion a snap).  I've been advised to look into Fractured Space, and I may well do that.  These don't really inform the design of the Empire-class Dreadnought, but they may well inform the design of other vehicles.

Empire-Class Dreadnought Mission Profile

The Empire-Class Dreadnought is the centerpiece of the Imperial Navy.  Its primary purpose is to project imperial power from any point in space to worlds.  As a result, it needs a very fast, very powerful hyperdrive, and sufficient fuel to make multiple sequential jumps if necessary, allowing it to respond quickly to crisis.  Once it arrives at a world, it must be able to quickly establish orbital dominance.  It uses several wings of fighters and bombers as well as its own capital-ship killing firepower to do this.  It can then position itself for orbital bombardment and planetary invasion.  It must carry at least a brigade/legion worth of soldiers and support vehicles, as well as close air support wings, and firepower with sufficient reach to attack a planet from at least low (100 mile) orbit. 

Once entrenched in its orbital supremacy, it must be able to act as a command post for ground and orbital operations.  This requires a large FTL communication array, allowing it to act as a hub for an FTL relay (it will often be beyond the core imperial infrastructure), and extensive scanners and communicators able to coordinate everything in orbit around a world.

It must be capable of acting independently for very long periods of time. This means it needs considerable fuel reserves (both for its jumps and for its fighter complement) and sufficient food onboard for months.  It will use a standard Fusion reactor, given their decade-long fuel supply.

The primary weaknesses of the Empire-Class dreadnought are light armor and relatively slow speed.  "Slow" is only in real space and only in comparison to corvettes: it should be quick enough to out maneuver most other capital ships.  As for armor, it will sacrifice armor for speed (both hyperspatial and in real-space) and supplement its armor with a force screen and point defense capable of turning aside a capital-scale isomeric torpedo assault.
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