The second instalment of Bobby Abernethy's A Brief History of Space Combat, prequel to his award-winning Red Nightfall and Grey Dawn. The next instalment will be published on this blog on Friday, 17th August.
2098-2115: The Age of Cannon
The Solarians had been building their own warships long in advance, and on May 16th 2098, re-entered the Saturn system with a fleet of Constitution-class battleships. The Constitution-class, as the first true space warship, represented a revolution in ship design. The five battleships were driven by a bank of four solid core nuclear thermal engines, compared to two on the first ramships, and with newer reactors, they were twice as fast as ramships while being the same size as the old mining ships. Each ship had a crew of twelve. The Constitution-class carried six cannon, each firing a ten kilogram projectile at twelve kilometres per second at a rate of two rounds per minute. The cannon aboard the two newest ships, SRS Republic and SRS President Hart, were independently targetable, giving them an immense advantage over their Commonwealth opponents. Another innovation was the addition of Whipple shields as armour, giving the ships substantially higher protection against cannon shot.
The Battle of Fornjot on the edge of the Saturn system saw the destruction of twenty Commonwealth ships for no Solarian losses. Admiral Connor was killed in the fighting, and the Commonwealth retreated to the Jupiter system to plan its next move. In the mean time, Admiral John Kirkland of the Solarian Republic Navy had no reservations about using terror tactics to take the Saturnian moons. Rather than repeat the Battles of Titan and Mimas, where Commonwealth forces had successfully broken out of their besieged garrisons and seized the spaceports from the Solarians to allow the Commonwealth to land troops, Kirkland ordered the Commonwealth Army bases bombed from orbit. Since many were situated near population centres, nearly twelve thousand civilians were killed in these bombardments. Kirkland then successfully seized the now-defenceless spaceports, and began landing his own significant garrisons from the Solarian Republic Army.
Earth’s response was ten Commonwealth-class battleships. Operation Elsinore, launched on December 1st 2098 under Admiral Matthew Thomas, saw twelve of these new ships enter the Saturn system. The counteroffensive had been planned for September, but was delayed as every ship was modified with independently targetable cannon. Aside from an increase in crew numbers from twelve to twenty four, the Commonwealth-class was almost identical to the Constitution-class.
Though a grand, decisive battle was anticipated due to the Commonwealth’s edge in numbers and accuracy, the first naval engagements between cannon-armed battleships proved to be tactically inconclusive. In space, a fleet cannot surprise another, and since neither side had a speed advantage, there was little scope for bold tactical manoeuvres. On the few occasions when Commonwealth and Solarian fleets met each other in force, both sides would approach in long wall formations to concentrate cannon fire against the enemy.
Since both sides had yet to develop practical targeting radars and fire control systems, the vast majority of shots, fired at an evading target from a ship that was evading herself, missed. Concentration of fire on to a single target was almost impossible. Even if a shot hit, Whipple shields and heavy compartmentalisation meant that the one-hit kills from cannon fire that had been the norm in the ramming years were now unheard of. Engagements could last well over an hour. Furthermore, if a commander disliked the way the battle was going, his ships could retreat simply by reversing from the combat zone, pulling away from the enemy’s fire while the opposing force would have to fly into his own fire, in effect increasing his own range and striking power while reducing the enemy’s. Though engagements such at the Second Battle of Titan and the Battle of Enceladus were strategic Commonwealth victories, they remained tactically inconclusive. Admirals would occasionally experiment with an elongated wall so that the flanks might swing round, encircle the enemy and fire upon their unarmed broadsides and sterns. However, in all but one of the four battles in which this manoeuvre was tried, ships in the enveloping wall found themselves dangerously isolated from each other, forcing the manoeuvre to be broken off. The nominal Commonwealth victory at the First Battle of Phoebe saw the successful double envelopment of the Solarian fleet, but the Solarian commander successfully reversed his ships from the combat zone with the loss of only one battleship. For three years, Commonwealth and Solarian fleets chased each other all over the Saturn system, and in this time, only three battleships were destroyed: The Solarian ships Triton and Congress, and the Commonwealth ship Centaur. By mid-2101, the number of battleships in the Saturn system had risen from ten Commonwealth and five Solarian to forty Commonwealth and thirty-seven Solarian, yet there still appeared to be no end in sight. Earth, Mars, and the Jupiter system were wracked by pro-Solarian terrorist bombings.
The main battles were fought on the colonised moons of Titan, Mimas, Enceladus, Iapetus, Tethys, Rhea, Dione, and Phoebe. Commonwealth and Solarian army forces fought bloody yet indecisive battles across the moons. While the Commonwealth held the spaceports and so could easily be resupplied, the Solarians were able to keep their armies fighting by perfecting the technique of dropping supplies from orbit. Hoping to beat the Solarians by starving them off the moons, in 2099 the Commonwealth government issued letters of marque, legally commissioning privateers, and also developed the first fast, lightly-armed vessels designed to raid merchant convoys. Thus the frigate was born with the Captain-class, quickly followed by the Solarian Porter-class. The Solarians were the first to develop a fast, armoured ship that could operate alone and see off threats to convoys with the Perry-class cruiser. The Commonwealth’s Repulse-class came soon after.
In 2099, both sides recognised that they might soon have to assault a planet or moon from orbit. They had both successfully landed troops on the Saturnian moons, but this was only after they had control of the spaceports, either because the moon had surrendered, or because of the garrison they already had on the ground breaking out and seizing the spaceport (as was the case with Commonwealth troops at the First Battle of Titan and the Battle of Mimas). Therefore, both sides sought to develop a doctrine and a landing craft that would allow them to land troops on an unproved field on a defiant planet or moon. This led to the development of the Commonwealth’s C-350 Ulysses and the Solarians’ CA-24, orbit-to-surface-to-orbit transport aircraft that remain in service to this day. An orbital assault is still considered the most difficult to plan and most logistically demanding military operation.
The destruction of the Commonwealth’s Convoy HQ-57 in June 2100 highlighted the crippling dependence on battle carriers for logistics. Operating close to Saturn, five Solarian frigates successfully executed a slingshot orbit around the planet that allowed them to surprise the incoming convoy. Four ships of the new seven-ship Revenge-class were destroyed in transit, along with twenty merchant vessels and five battle carriers. This loss of supplies forced the Commonwealth to withdraw its troops from Titan, and in November the Solarians claimed victory at the Second Battle of Titan.
This setback devastated Commonwealth morale and its Admirals worked to find new ways of winning. Naval strategy had always been focused on outgunning an opponent, but since the production rates of Solarian and Commonwealth shipyards were so similar, each side was able to check the other’s advantage within a few months of it being unveiled. From 2098 to 2101, the Commonwealth had moved from six cannon on the Commonwealth-class, to eight on the Bellerophon-class, to ten on the Queen Charlotte-class. Each of these was swiftly followed by the Solarian Valley Forge, Bunker Hill, and Yorktown classes. There was a corresponding increase in the size of cannon, moving from a ten kilogram shot fired at twelve kilometres per second, to fifteen kilograms fired at thirteen kilometres per second, and finally twenty kilograms at fifteen kilometres per second. These were countered, however, by new Whipple shield designs. Where they had once been simple thin bumpers spaced apart, every second gap was now “stuffed” with a high strength filler material. The Commonwealth had always hoped to catch elements of the Solarian fleet in a position where they could be defeated in detail, but because neither side had a speed advantage, Solarian fleet elements had always been able to safely retreat and remain well out of Commonwealth cannon range. This state of affairs was particularly disadvantageous for the Commonwealth, which needed to force the Solarians from the system before it could claim victory. The Solarians, meanwhile, could keep the war going simply by having ships near Saturn.
The Commonwealth fleet at Saturn under Matthew Thomas’ replacement, Admiral Erin A. Jimenez, now sought a decisive battle to destroy the bulk of the Solarian fleet. By 2104, Jimenez had access to twelve Victory-class battleships, the successors to the Revenge-class.
Named after the preserved man-of-war on Earth that had been destroyed by a pro-Solarian terrorist bombing, the Victory-class made use of a series of technological innovations that gave it a distinct superiority over Solarian ships: Each ship mounted an incredible fourteen Mk. 2103 20/15 cannon, capable of firing tandem shot. Resembling an abnormally long cannon shot, tandem shot was designed to penetrate Whipple shields using a system of stacked submunitions. As it approached the shield, a submunition would detach from the tip of the shot, breaching the first layer. The second submunition would then detach to breach the next layer, and so on until the shot’s integral radar detected that the shield was fully breached. The remainder of the shot would then collide with the unarmoured hull. Furthermore, improved cannon gimbals increased the range through which each cannon could be traversed and elevated, increasing each ship’s field of fire. This allowed the ships to fire from safely outside the field of fire of Solarian vessels, allowing them to get off the first decisive shots while the enemy turned.
The Victory-class utilised a revolutionary closed-cycle gas core nuclear thermal propulsion system. These “nuclear lightbulbs” gave the Victories a decisive acceleration and endurance advantage over any other ship. This meant the Victories had no need for battle carriers to ship them to Saturn. Furthermore, the extra power supplied by these engines decreased the recharge time of each cannon, increasing their rate of fire to twelve rounds per minute compared to nine on the Revenge and Yorktown classes.
Finally, the Victory-class had superior protection to any other battleship at the time. The class mounted the first spacecraft point-defence systems in the form of four 20mm rotary guns, designed to put up a “wall of shells” fuzed to explode in front of an incoming shot. Furthermore, the water ice used as reaction mass in the engines was now stored in a tank that completely surrounded the crew section, rather than the external tanks used on earlier ships. The ice acted as secondary armour if a Whipple shield failed, and the removal of external tanks also reduced the ship’s size and target profile. This also saw the transition to the more familiar modern cigar-shape of a warship.
To hide their capabilities, the Victory-class battleships were moved into the Saturn system by battle carrier in October 2104. Intercepted Solarian transmissions revealed that on February 6th 2105, a Solarian convoy would enter the system at the same time as their repair base at the Saturn-Fornjot L2 point approached that position. Jimenez ordered the entire Commonwealth battleship fleet to sortie while her frigates and cruisers guarded the moons. Though this would normally be an insane course of action that would allow the Solarian fleet to attack the undefended moons, under these circumstances the Solarians risked the destruction of a vital convoy and support base, and the Solarian fleet under Admiral Abel Lindgren moved to intercept.
The two fleets met over Tarvos. With fifty Commonwealth battleships versus forty-eight Solarian, it was the largest naval clash of the war. Positioned on the flanks of the Commonwealth fleet, the Victories were able to use their superior field of fire to attack the centre of the Solarian wall. The Solarian centre crumbled and the Commonwealth exploited the gap to sweep round and attack the port wing of the enemy fleet. Outflanked, the Solarian port collapsed as ships failed to support each other and desperately sought a way to retreat. Twenty Commonwealth ships, including four Victories, held off the starboard wing of the Solarian fleet. After half an hour of fighting, the ships of the port wing were destroyed or fled, and the Commonwealth fleet chased the starboard wing for two hours before breaking off. At the end of the battle, thirty-four Solarian ships had been destroyed, with Lindgren killed aboard his flagship Simpson. It was this victory that saw the Commonwealth Navy Space Service renamed the Commonwealth Navy at the expense of the nautical fleet, which to this day is known as the Commonwealth Navy Nautical Branch. The remaining Solarian ships retreated from the system, and the Commonwealth awaited the arrival of fresh battle carriers for their older ships for the advance to the Uranus system to end the war.
The offensive never occurred, however. In the thirteen Kuiper belt objects colonised by the Commonwealth after the war began, the colonists had become increasingly hostile to the degrading standard of living and tax increases brought about by the war effort. The Mata Riots of 2103 caused Earth to dissolve the colonial governments in Kuiper and declare martial law under General Joseph Gonzales. After an attempt by Commonwealth troops to seize an arms cache on Haumea ended in bloodshed, the Kuiper Congress declared independence and the formation of the Confederate States of Kuiper on July 26th 2105. When it became clear that the Kuipers had already been secretly building their own fleet of battleships, the Commonwealth diverted forces from Saturn, putting off the offensive indefinitely. Thus began the Kuiper War of Independence.
Though the Commonwealth had naval superiority, it was unable to make headway on the ground. The primary naval engagements were commerce raiding and counter-raiding by Kuiper and Commonwealth frigates and cruisers. Captain Carolyn Foulds of the Confederate States Navy soon emerged as Kuiper’s first well-known naval hero. Commanding the frigate CSS Bonhomme Richard, she scored the first Kuiper victory against a Commonwealth vessel by capturing HMS Drake on August 24th 2105. She later captured HMS Swiftsure on January 7th 2106. The capture of a modernised Queen Charlotte-class battleship gave the Kuipers access to the Commonwealth’s latest propulsion, armour, and weapon systems, and caused hysteria on Earth.
The Solarians, who had been facing imminent defeat only a few months before, covertly supplied weapons and training to the Kuipers. The Kuiper victory at the Battle of Ward on Haumea and the capture of three Victory-class battleships in port at Varuna by Confederate States Marines the next day persuaded the Solarians to re-enter the war in April 2108.
Since the Kuipers declared themselves co-belligerent with the Solarians rather than allied, the Confederate States Navy and the Solarian Republic Navy never fought together. On July 27th, 2108, Commonwealth and Solarian warships met again at the Second Battle of Phoebe. With all the Commonwealth’s Victory-class ships deployed in Kuiper or at Earth, the two fleets of nine ships were equal, and though they exchanged fire as they approached, the walls simply passed through each other. Modifications to armour and weapons by both sides following the appearances of the Victories meant that neither side suffered a loss of ships. However, the Commonwealth now decided that the primary naval battle would now be fought in the Saturn system, while the Kuiper campaign would be won on the ground. Leaving significant land forces and a small number of frigates and cruisers to protect commerce in Kuiper, the bulk of the Commonwealth Navy was deployed to Saturn.
Despite the successful expulsion of the Solarian fleet (which did not take significant losses) under Admiral Josephine de Grasse from Saturn at the Third Battle of Titan, and the subsequent surrender of Solarian Army forces on the moons, the year 2108 continued without any decisive naval battles. The sole Solarian success of note was the capture of a convoy of sixty-three Commonwealth merchant vessels on August 9th. This proved to be a major blow to Commonwealth commerce and severely impacted their operations in Kuiper. Furthermore, though the Solarian Navy had introduced its own “fourteener” battleships to counter the Victory-class, it was found that these ships, despite their power and shock factor, were slow and unwieldy compared to smaller ships equipped with gas core nuclear thermal engines. Ultimately, the Victories and the Solarian Peter the Great-class would be the only fourteener classes built during the war. The optimum design, it was found, was a smaller “tenner” battleship, which carried only ten cannon but was considerably faster and more manoeuvrable than a fourteener. Extremely expensive to operate, fourteeners were later only used as Admirals’ flagships in the largest battles.
The Solarians having rebuilt their fleet, the Commonwealth lacked the numbers to invade the Republic and bring an end to the war. Instead, the Commonwealth Navy was forced into a reactionary defensive strategy in the Saturn system. The pattern of indecisive engagements that had characterised the first stages of the war resumed. The Solarians were only able to land troops on one moon, however, and launched the first orbital assault at the Second Battle of Iapetus. There, they besieged the Commonwealth garrison from September 5th 2108 right until the end of the war. It was here that the Commonwealth Marines earned their tough fighting reputation, and the Marines still bear the moon and the word “Iapetus” on their crest.
After over two years of inconclusive chases and commerce raiding, the naval war began to assume a degree of coherence in February 2111. The Commonwealth’s situation in Kuiper degraded rapidly, both on land and in space. More and more convoy escorts were detached to the Kuiper belt to control the situation, and consequently, Commonwealth convoys in and around Saturn became ever more vulnerable. Desperate for a quick victory, the Commonwealth fleet under Admiral Heidi Parker repeated the strategy of catching a Solarian convoy near a repair base and forced a Solarian fleet to sortie. Parker and de Grasse met at the Battle of Calypso on August 5th 2111. Seven Queen Charlotte-class battleships and seven Yorktowns met in a desperate, bloody battle that saw significant casualties on both sides but no ships lost. Tactically and strategically indecisive, the two fleets limped back to port.
In Kuiper, however, the war reached its climax. Nineteen Commonwealth battleships, including four Victory-class ships, sailed to Haumea in an attempt to break the Confederate States Navy’s blockade, destroy the C.S. Army on the ground and relieve General Tom Cornwall’s force. On September 4th 2112 with twenty-four battleships, including every Peter the Great-class ship, de Grasse outmanoeuvred the Commonwealth and met Admiral Charles Graves over Haumea. After hours of manoeuvring by the two walls, the Commonwealth’s starboard wing and centre met the Solarian port and centre in a two-hour battle. Since de Grasse had been refuelling and rearming when the Commonwealth arrived, many of her crews her still aboard Haumea Spacedock, and many ships had unmanned guns. This may explain why no Commonwealth ships were destroyed by enemy fire during the battle. Regardless, the battle did not go well for them: the Commonwealth’s approach meant that the unarmed and lightly-armoured sides of the leading ships were exposed to fire from the Solarians, which they could not respond to. Many of de Grasse’s undercrewed ships, however, suffered severe beatings of their own.
The question of why Graves only committed his centre and starboard to the battle has perplexed naval historians for decades. The generally accepted explanation is that Graves hoped to outflank the Solarian fleet by forcing them to commit the majority of their forces to the port wing so he could swing round on their starboard flank. The presence of all four of his Victories at his starboard and a larger number of faster tenners at his port support this. Ultimately, de Grasse did not take the bait, and relied on her superior numbers to deal with the Commonwealth starboard while keeping her wall extended.
After two hours, with six of his ships badly damaged or suffering reactor difficulties, Graves took the decision to break off. Rather than pursue, de Grasse continued firing from long range, concentrating on the most badly damaged ships. At 1832, two and a half hours after the battle began, the Victory-class HMS Terrible fell out of formation with severe reactor damage. Without time to make repairs and unable to tow her from the battle zone, Graves ordered the ship scuttled. Terrible was the only fourteener destroyed in the war. Graves had suffered nearly double de Grasse’s casualties, while the Solarians had only suffered two ships damaged.
The loss at Haumea forced General Cornwall to surrender to the Kuipers on October 19th 2112. On December 1st, the Commonwealth agreed to an armistice with Kuiper. Scattered fighting and commerce raiding, however, continued in the Saturn system for another two years, particularly on Iapetus, before the last ships were expelled by the Commonwealth and an armistice was signed with the Solarian Federal Republic on June 12th 2115.
The Treaty of Rhea, signed on October 16th 2115, ended the Twenty Years’ War. The Commonwealth recognised the independence of the Solarian Federal Republic and the Confederate States of Kuiper. Although negotiations with the Kuipers were mostly cordial, the Solarians refused to give up their claim to the Saturn system, and negotiations nearly broke down several times. Neither side would recognise a compromise solution. Finally, the powers were agreed to Article 374 of the treaty, which reads, “On the question of the territorial status of the Saturn system, the Commonwealth Union, the Solarian Federal Republic, and the Confederate States of Kuiper shall agree to disagree.” Solarian irredentism and Commonwealth intransigence over the Saturn system has been the primary cause of interplanetary conflicts in the past one hundred years.
Another treaty adopted at the Rhea Peace Conference was the Interplanetary Convention for the Prevention of Space Piracy. During the war, attacks on commerce by independent raiders, quickly dubbed “space pirates” by the media, had exploded as warships were diverted to war zones. Around a quarter of these pirates are believed to have been privateers working for the Commonwealth, Kuiper, of the Solarian Republic. Nevertheless, the idea of outlaws operating armed, independent ships was too much for the powers, and all three agreed to cease issuing letters of marque and to actively work to stamp out piracy. Because of the impossibility of remaining concealed in space, and the strengths of Commonwealth and Solarian navies, the vast majority of pirates were killed or imprisoned within two years of the Convention being signed. The last anti-piracy campaigns by the Confederate States Navy and Marines took place around Makemake in 2120 against the pirate fleet of the notorious “Black Ben” Barber, a flamboyant spacer who took it upon himself to embody every popular culture stereotype of pirates.
Including those killed in the Massacre of the Twentieth of April, the Twenty Years’ War is believed to have resulted in three million, seven hundred and eighteen thousand deaths. The majority of these are from civilians killed in the Massacre and in the Saturn system.
Next instalment (Between The Wars: The Age of Explosives): Friday, 17th August.