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The overall background and setting of this question: a mashup of Star Wars and the Freespace video game franchise.

Note: There's a comprehensive reference wiki on Freespace (easily searchable on Google) in case you need to look anything up.

The question: Can you set up a fleet of blockade-runner freighters (Millennium Falcon or similar) so they outperform the equivalent value in single-seat fighters in 95% of sci-fi combat scenarios?

Important background info - The scenario in question uses nonstandard physics common in classic sci-fi fighter squadron combat games:

  • Spaceships don't accelerate up to relativistic speeds on sub-light engines like they would in regular space. Instead, they have a maximum speed where acceleration drops down to 0 (similar to air resistance). Consider it similar to fighting in-atmosphere with no gravity.
  • Engines are completely electric and require no propellant. For all practical purposes, no one runs out of fuel in the middle of combat. "Afterburners" in that context simply dump inefficient amounts of power into the engines to maximize acceleration and top speed at the cost of overheating or running out of energy.
  • Missiles are a lot slower than you would expect. It takes an extremely agile and light missile to have a good chance at hitting an interceptor; anything faster than a heavy assault craft (on full afterburner) could probably outrun or dodge the average missile.

Features of a typical "Millennium Falcon" comparable blockade-runner transport after being combat-modded:

  • 2-3 anti-fighter turrets
  • Additional forward-fixed primary (energy weapon) mounts in 2 arrays: anti-fighter (for dogfighting) and anti-capital (for hammering large ships when you're out of missiles).
  • Cargo space has been thoroughly repurposed. The canonical Millennium Falcon features only a small rack of missiles. For purposes of discussion, militarized blockade runner transports convert all of their cargo bay space into missile launchers or extra powerplants to support better shields and primaries.
  • Extremely durable (compared to any single-seat fighter), able to repel a large wing of incoming light fighters on its own and eat the damage. This actually happens in the Star Wars movies, where the Millennium Falcon single-handedly repels a squadron of Imperial fighters.
  • Modified for speed and agility. They don't call these "blockade runners" for nothing. Acceleration and speed varies from "superiority/multirole fighter" (X-wing in Star Wars, Myrmidon in Freespace 2) to "just below an interceptor" (A-wing in Star Wars, Perseus/Valkyrie/Horus interceptors in Freespace). Maneuverability is comparable or slightly below a superiority/multirole fighter. While a blockade-running transport has much more mass than a fighter, it has room for a larger engine and powerplant which should make up for it.
  • Requires minimum of 2 crew members to operate properly; up to 5-6 recommended.
  • Costs several times what a single-seat fighter costs. Credit for credit, a blockade-runner transport is valued the same as a wing (4-6) of single-seat combat craft with similar tech level and tier.

Advantages of canceling the single-seat fighter program and building combat-modded blockade-runner transports instead:

  • Higher durability per unit with no significant downgrade in speed or agility translates to a steep decrease in lost ships and pilots.

  • Save money on FTL engines, which don't grow on trees and are probably one of the more expensive pieces. If you're using a swarm of fighters, you either have to cough up money for FTL engines on each one or use a dedicated carrier - neither of which are cheap or economical. Using blockade-runner transports means you can carry the same amount of firepower contained in a wing of fighters on a single FTL engine.

  • More independent and self-sufficient. A single-seat fighter has no bathroom, which means the pilots would typically have to eat a special diet (or starve) to avoid needing to take a dump. There's no room for eating on a single-seat fighter obviously, which further limits its operational range. Meanwhile: a blockade-runner transport could obviously be stocked with enough supplies to last a week (even if you turn most available cargo space into missile racks), and it has real living quarters and bathrooms. This means you aren't constantly tied to a base or carrier.

Intuitively, facing a swarm of militarized blockade-runner freighters should be a nightmare. They can pack missiles heavy enough to threaten capital ships (anything up to and including a large destroyer) in bulk while being fast and agile enough to dodge much of what those capital ships could fire back with (except perhaps a hitscan beam cannon, which would take out perhaps 1-2 blockade runners before being targeted and disabled).

Sending in fighter wings against the blockade-runners doesn't help much. They have enough defensive power to shrug off energy attacks from a fighter. You might do a lot of damage if you can camp a wing on the transport's tail and continuously hammer it, although good luck with that considering a blockade-runner handling is close to whatever you're sending at it. Blockade-runners are too fast and agile to reliably hit with light anti-capital missiles, but their shields and hull are just heavy enough that it would take numerous anti-fighter missiles to down them.

Another major problem that blockade-runner swarms pose against carrier-fighter tactics: Each blockade runner is able to fend off fighters while focusing fire on capital ships. Typical fighter vs. capital ship and fighter tactics include sending slow heavy fighters with anti-capital ordnance covered by superiority fighters to prevent interception. Using blockade runners eliminates the need for cover, since the turrets already provide that. Interceptors become obsolete, largely unable (short of ramming attacks) to distract the blockade runners from hammering their carriers out of existence.

The question: Are there any major problems with this setup, or do blockade runners become the next superiority fighter, interceptor, strategic heavy assault craft, and bane of the Empire at the same time?

Update - I added a fully worked through example of what a combat-modded Corellian freighter might look like in Freespace 2 with both anti-capital (missile-focused) and heavy assault (primary-focused) configurations. Bear in mind that a militarized freighter would have specs significantly higher than a traditional garage-modified blockade-runner:

  • Cargo space fully converted to missile bays on the missile variant; the heavy assault variant converts half of its cargo space into an extra powerplant and the other half into a missile bay.
  • 550 hull, 2000 shields. Same hull and over double the shields of the Ursa, the most durable ship available to the player. The combat-modded freighter doesn't have more hull than the Ursa because it needs to minimize weight for agility - in fact, its overall armor is probably lighter and the extra hull strength is attributed to more overall bulk and size. Shields are the big winner, considering you can fit a much larger powerplant. The heavy assault variant would have perhaps 2600 shields (close to triple that of an Ursa), supported by the extra powerplant.
  • 2 anti-fighter turrets (1 on top, 1 on bottom), probably Prometheus (Standard) for range and projectile speed with balanced energy cost. Those will cause serious damage to incoming fighters before they get close enough to damage you. The heavy assault (anti-fighter) variant doubles the turrets (2 on top, 2 on bottom) and upgrades them to the higher DPS (more costly) Kayser.
  • 2 extremely large secondary slots (each with the maximum 100 loadout space). A fleet of blockade-runners with Trebuchets and Cyclopses becomes more of a blockade-break than a blockade-run. The anti-fighter variant has only 1 large secondary bay, which will probably be loaded with Trebuchets (to help take down large ships) or the more flexible, multirole Tornado swarm missile that provides a good balance of damage and agility.
  • Speed and agility profile would be similar to the Myrmidon with slightly lower absolute maximum speeds: average maneuvering and acceleration, max velocity 70 (regular energy allocation) - 80 (fully allocated to engines), maximum afterburner velocity 120.
  • Primary loadout: A ring of 6 (anti-fighter) primaries in the center. The missile variant would typically carry something with lower power consumption like Subach or Prometheus (Standard); the anti-fighter variant sports a ring of 6 Kaysers. Additionally, 4 primaries are bolted on the sides and fitted with the Maxim cannon (effective against capital ships).
  • Power generation profile: The missile variant will typically have about 10% more primary energy generation than the Ares strategic assault fighter (known for having the best primary energy generation of its type). While a blockade-runner transport has a much larger powerplant than anything you would fit on a fighter, most of the extra power goes to shields and engines on the default configuration. The heavy assault variant (with dual powerplants) fixes this problem, boosting the overall primary regeneration rate to perhaps 130% more than an Ares fighter.
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  • $\begingroup$ Pilot: "sorry sir last I checked there wasn't any swamp here..." Yoda: "hmmmm... Feel the force... Ohhhh my midichlorian it's light." Director: "Cut! Yoda you forget to smile..." $\endgroup$ – user6760 Nov 27 '19 at 2:47
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    $\begingroup$ So I don't think that these ships render single seat fighters obsolete, but they do fill an important niche of their own in space combat doctrine. I'd argue you're designing a pretty good scout / recon boat there... $\endgroup$ – Tim B II Nov 27 '19 at 4:38
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    $\begingroup$ So, obvious answer: both star wars and freespace are set up so that space fighters are practical and ww1-2(ish) style combat is standard. Its a key part of both settings. Problems which seem to make fighter combat less reasonable will be nerfed, so your idea would be effectively impractical for reasons of divine intervention. I wonder if this question would be better posted on the scifi SE site instead... $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Nov 27 '19 at 11:18
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure its a fair comparison since...you know... the Falcon has plot armour $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Nov 27 '19 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ Look at the game "homeworld" for practical tests. It fits your physic system and both ship class are represented. $\endgroup$ – GlorfSf Nov 27 '19 at 16:21
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Combat profile

That's your major problem. The Falcon is a great ship, and quite good at fighting fighter craft. However, in the Star Wars expanded universe, there's a lot of problems that come up with small freighters like the Falcon. And the main one is combat profile. You see, a ship like an X-Wing, TIE Fighter, or A-Wing has a sleek profile and can reorient at will, very good when fighting against capital ships and fighters. The Falcon does not. The shields are good for dealing with stray fighter shots.

But against Capital-class ships? No dice. No matter how good the shields are, a light freighter would be obliterated by the main guns of something like even a Victory-class Star Destroyer. A squadron of star fighters can evade the guns easily, but light freighters have a much harder time. That's the main reason why this wouldn't be as good as you think, though there are other reasons.

Massed missiles sounds great, but you don't need a fleet of freighters to do that. Mirrax Terrik took out the Super Star Destroyer Lusankya in her one ship using a cargo hold full of proton torpedo launchers. (Did cost a bit, but that's not an issue considering she's friends with Talon Karde and her father is Booster Terrik.) Honestly, putting the launchers it small freighters isn't a great idea, it works best among scattered small ships.

However, would this work against just a squadron of fighters? Yes, very well. This would be referred to as Lance-class light frigate, something designed especially to take out fighter squadrons. Even the legendary Rogue Squadron would rather run than face these. However, it wouldn't replace the single-seat fighter squadrons as the all purpose space superiority fighters.

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    $\begingroup$ Interestingly enough, combat profile is often brought up in advanced commentary in the Freespace reference wiki - and the Millennium Falcon (and similar Corellian freighters) would actually receive good marks for its flat pancake-like profile that's only an easy target from the top or bottom. I'm planning on updating my question with a worked-through example based on Freespace game mechanics to show just how dangerous a properly modded blockade-runner freighter is. $\endgroup$ – user1258361 Nov 27 '19 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ The question is never 'How deadly can you make it?', it's 'How deadly can you make it while being efficient?' $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Nov 27 '19 at 18:57
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In Star Wars, fighters win overall. Personally I like the idea of ships like this instead of fighters in a more realistic setting, but for Star Wars it is harder to make this work outside of niche cases. The Millennium Falcon is mostly effective because it is somewhat unique and can pretend to be a regular freighter, not because ships of its class are generally superior to starfighters in pitched battles.

The problem with realistic space fighters is that they really don’t make sense in light of the nature of space as a battlefield. Given the fact that you are operating in the same medium as a capital ship, the advantages of an design like fighters aren’t really as evident. What you’d wind up with is closer to a torpedo boat than a proper fighter, and bigger designs are generally superior overall in cases like this(PT and missile boats weren't all that useful).

This really doesn’t apply to Star Wars because of a few key assumptions that have been made, which allow fighters to be superior. A bit of this idea does survive, in that capital ships are actually theoretically capable of accelerations that match fighters, but they never make use of this in combat because they also need to power their heavy shields. Star Wars fighters tend to devote most of their energy output to their engines rather than their shields or weapons. When combined with a smaller inertia, this allows them to accelerate much faster. As shown dramatically in The Empire Strikes Back, while a star destroyer can catch the Millennium Falcon in a straight line, it cannot change course as easily due to its greater inertia. A freighter would still have this advantage, and would be able to divert energy to a greater degree than a fighter. Notably in the same way that a star destroyer can catch the Millennium Falcon, it can catch a TIE fighter by devoting the majority of its power to its engines(which was a trap in A New Hope, but it doesn’t change the energy situation).

The second factor is one that would give fighters a slight edge against your heavier designs. It is about the nature of shield coverage. There is an interesting theory about Star Wars capital ships based almost exclusively on the movies and Clone Wars series that fighters can fly under most of their shields(with perhaps a lighter dedicated bridge shield that has to be brought down). Thus while capital ships can slug it out with each other, they are much more vulnerable to enemy fighters who can bypass most of their shields. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of fighters that get close enough to do this will almost certainly be shot down, unless flown by Jedi or extremely talented pilots. This is where your runners would be at a disadvantage, because while they might be able to take a hit from the capital ship, they would be far more likely to be hit in the first place and thus less likely to survive their attack runs over time. The fact that every lost ship would be a larger loss in both people and equipment is also a major downside.

The third and worst factor for your designs in Star Wars is that ships like the Falcon are almost certainly quite vulnerable to something like proton torpedoes fired at close range. Given that these torpedoes are a threat to smaller capital ships, they would likely be fatal to something like this. Han Solo is lucky that the Empire doesn’t rely on fighter/bombers like the Rebel Alliance. Here you would have to argue that your freighter’s point defenses would be capable of shooting the fighters before they can launch their missiles or forcing them to shoot at long range and then dodging or shooting down the missiles. It’s not for nothing that the Empire seemed to stop using nearly all of their smaller ships by the time of the movies, at around the same time the Rebel Alliance started using missile armed fighters in serious numbers. In Star Wars Rebels the Empire relies mostly on smaller armed freighters and frigates. By the time In the films they rely entirely on star destroyers and TIE fighters. Torpedoes also have to be fired at close range, because they are less maneuverable than fighters in terms of endurance. While they can turn tight once, but can’t maneuver erratically enough to avoid being shot down except when used cleverly, as in the Lusankya example. In that case, the missiles were fired blind from numerous freighters that used targeting data from X-wings, so that the freighters would not register as hostile on sensors until it was too late.

The last important factor about SW fighters is the economics of it. The main thing that makes fighters more useful is a vastly lower construction and operating cost that is probably better from a cost benefit standpoint. It is not for nothing that the Republic during the Clone Wars built their capital ships as carriers first and warships second when they needed to maximize military power in the shortest amount of time. The Rebel Alliance went a step further and built a fighter force that were all fully capable of striking independently with hyperdrives that make endurance less relevant(as SW FTL is extremely fast). While they still need bases, those bases can be far away from their targets(like Yavin or Hoth).

Capital ships are relevant because they allow one to project power, in much the same way that modern surface vessels are still relevant despite the fact that aircraft are also generally superior. This doesn’t really apply to freighters, which can’t really protect power on their own either. There are roles for small ships that can carry passengers, but they aren’t going to replace frontline fighters in Star Wars.

TLDR: In a Star Wars like setting, you need a way to neutralize missiles and give your freighters longer term survivability when attacking capital ships. The problem is that these desires are sort of opposite. Better missiles would help your freighters attack capital ships safely but would also doom themselves in the process. Better shields is a non-starter, because a capital ship will always be able to chew through them.

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All these ships have the same fundamental problem: The squishy bit in the middle.

What sort of craft performs best at that scale is simply a matter of which one best handles the requirements of the squishy bit in the middle.

Acceleration is a key factor. They're all limited to the same fundamental acceleration, that being the limit of what a human body can handle. However that acceleration limit is variable depending on the orientation of the acceleration relative to the body. One of the things that a larger vessel could potentially do is have self orientating seats and harnesses to make sure the crew are always aligned appropriately to the movement.

There are the usual issues with regards to crew comfort, level of armour, output of larger drives, higher mass etc etc. Most of which favour a larger vessel. But fundamentally anything you can do to protect the crew from the acceleration will be the greatest combat advantage you can give in a dogfight situation.

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Your blockade runner is the equivalent to the torpedo boat, if the empty space is replaced with torpedoes, engines and shield generators: small, fast, cheap, and pack damage enough to hurt capital ships. The defense against them is firepower (like star wars turbolasers or star trek photo torpedoes) and smart formations: one capital ship covering the other, fighters nearby. Or maybe dense minefields and mirv(multiple reentrant vehicles) missiles like the ones in Master of Orion. These blockade runners are the missile corvette massacre swarm that used to be the dominant strategy in Stellaris.

About their use as actual blockade runners instead of torpedo boats: They don't have huge cargo bays, like the big slow merchant ships, so they can't carry bulk cargo around, only valuable, small cargo. If the blockaded planet needs bulk cargo, like a capital world needing food/food precursors or magical energy rocks, the blockade runner won't solve. If you are shipping troops around you won't be able to carry the big ground combat vehicles nor large numbers of space marines.

There are situations where fighters will be better, when you need massed firepower in tiny mobile platforms, like in fleet-fleet combat. There are situations where blockade runners are better, like shipping VIPs, precious rare guns, small replacement ship components and as couriers.

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It comes down to what do you have less of: Pilots or Resources

Below is a to-scale size comparison of the x-wing fighter vs the Millennium Falcon according to canon sources. Based on rough estimates, the X-wing probably has a displacement of ~500-1000 cubic feet whereas the Corellian freighter has a total displacement of ~280,000-350,000 cubic feet.

enter image description here

Let's try to be fair and say that the inside of the freighter is ~70% open spaces (corridors, living areas, cargo bays, etc.) and that making 1 big ship with big parts is simpler to manufacture than lots of little ones with little parts which might make the freighter 3x cheaper per ton.

Even at these generous allowances, the freighter is still ~42x as expensive as the fighter, and I think we can all agree that 42 x-wings would absolutely decimate the Millennium Falcon no matter how you change its loadout.

That said, 42 experienced pilots and 100-150 ground crew may not be as easy to come by as the 3-4 crewmen and 2-3 ground crew needed for the freighter. If you have an army of clones or droids at your disposal then the smaller fighters are a huge tactical and economic advantage, but if you have a limited number of able bodies, the larger ships can bring a lot more firepower to bare per person.

As for how this relates to game mechanics:

Most video games tend to be somewhat realistic in the threat level of ships of various sizes, but not cost. They scale the cost to unrealistic proportions in order to balance the game out. That said, there are a number of great ship building games out there like Space Engineers, Empyrion, and StarMade where you can really feel the price of ships skyrocket as you get bigger. A ship attacked by an equal mass fleet of smaller and equally well made ships in any of these games generally results in an overwhelming defeat against the bigger ships, but you still see lots of big ships because players are generally each faction's most limited resource.

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I would say no, lightweight blockade runners won't make single seat fighters obsolete, because single seat fighters will probably never have any use in space warfare. So thee probably will never be any single seat space fighters for any developments to make obsolete.

In the last few hundred years naval tactics have gone from boarding enemy ships to capture them to pounding them with cannons from a distance of only hundreds of feet to shooting the cannons at longer and longer ranges, eventually at horizon distance, to attacking with carrier aircraft at distances of hundred of miles to attacking with guided missiles at distances of more hundreds of miles.

And in future space warfare between fleets of space warships, battles will be fought at longer and longer ranges, which will be greater and great multiples of the average distance between ships in a fleet, as the ranges of lasers, particle beams, guided missiles, etc., etc., get longer and longer. One space fleet will open fire on another space fleet at a range that will be many times greater than the diameter of either space fleet. There will probably never be a space battle with a Star Wars type melee with the ships of different fleets blasting at each other at close range.

There will be a big incentive to develop weapons that are deadly at longer and longer range, because if one fleet can blast enemy ships from a distance safely out of range of the other ship's weapons they can destroy the enemy fleet without any damage to their own fleet.

And obviously a space warship the size of a destroyer, or a cruiser, or a battleship, can have much bigger weapons with much greater range than the weapons of a space warship the size of a one seat fighter plane. So if a fleet of space destroyers, cruisers, and battleships detects a fleet of space fighters approaching, they can blast the space fighters to space dust long before the space fighters get in range to use their shorter range weapons.

The idea of small space fighters in Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, etc., etc., is suggested by the carrier born aircraft in World War Two.

Remember that sea ships travel on the surface between water and air, submarines travel within water, and airplanes travel within air. Water is a much denser medium that air, and offers far more resistance to objects trying to move through it. Thus tiny carrier aircraft with tiny engines could travel much faster in air than giant battleships or aircraft carriers with giant engines could travel partly submerged in water.

And tiny carrier airplanes had much greater vertical mobility than surface ships or even submarines had, enabling them to attack surface ships from angles outside where the surface ships could point their weapons.

But space is an almost perfect vacuum, with no water or air resistance, so there is no way for tiny space fighter craft to be faster than giant space battleships with their much vaster engines.

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    $\begingroup$ In a real world vacuum/0G environment, ballistic range is just a function of accuracy. A ship with a larger profile can be hit from farther away than a smaller profile; so, smaller ships with smaller guns may still be able to engage the larger ships 1st... but more importantly than that, the OP specifies "Freespace" style combat which requires some suspension of disbelief to just accept that 900m is a long-ranged weapon and dogfighting happens at speeds of 60-100m/s. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Nov 27 '19 at 20:11

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