From a post to DAVIDWEBER.NET forums on 12/30/2011

'Scout frigates' part II

Cheopis wrote:
Duckk wrote:

    Cheopis, disagreeing with David is fine. Personally, I think enough virtual trees have been sacrificed on this subject to put the frigate to bed next to the grav lance, but that's me. What is becoming increasingly unacceptable, however, is sweeping everything you don't agree with under the rug as "handwavium". It's disrespectful, and it does not add to the discussion in any way. If you have any specific point of contention with David's or anyone else's analysis, feel free to make it. Simply asserting you're right despite the multitude of angles with which David, myself, and others have tried to illustrate the drawbacks behind the frigate is the root of the problem, not some magic handwaving that you claim is going on. Properly constructing a debate and providing a logical, more respectful rebuttal would go a long way in getting people to listen to you.

    I've done this. Many times. Then people start comparing peanuts to watermelons and talking about completely unrelated "counterarguments"

    Authors have a right to use handwavium. That's part of being an author and I fully respect DW's right to use handwavium as he sees fit. However if he wants to try to say his tactics and strategy in a space navy are NOT handwavium, and are in some way clearly linked to tactics and strategy of wooden warships, that's clearly handwavium without a whole LOT of explanation. We've seen the whole lot of explanation, and so far it doesn't make sense. Most people might shrink away from challenging an author or his forum guardian, but I'm not one of them. Others might nod their head and agree even if it doesn't make sense, but I'm not one of them either.

    I'll do my best to be civil, limiting myself to little more than a nose-tweaking now and then, but if an author and/or their forum guardian declares something to NOT be handwavium, they should be ready to defend it with arguments that hold water.


    The problem is that any argument with which you do not agree automatically doesn't "hold water" in your view. Therefore, that argument is "handwavium" and has no merit. That's rather like a scientist performing an experiment to prove that he's right rather than in an attempt to disprove a potential hypothesis in order to eliminate it from contention, and it amounts, in my opinion, to a form of (perhaps unintentional) intellectual dishonesty.

    Your contention is that it makes sense to build large numbers of minimal platforms incapable of defending themselves, loaded with recon drones, to be sent out over interstellar distances to perform intelligence gathering missions. The rationale for this is (as I understand it) that they are inexpensive, won't tie up needed warship (i.e., combat-capable) tonnage, will have small (hence expendable, if it comes to it) crews, will provide survivability through redundancy while on their intelligence-gathering mission, and (according to at least one post which I believe came from you) will have utility in peacetime as additional courier boats or for SAR, or will be something which can be disposed of upon the civilian market. The vessels that you are talking about will be the minimum possible platform in which you can mount your hyper generator and a useful number of recon drones. They would have the ability to micro jump around the system and therefore would be more maneuverable and flexible than LACs, and because they are independently deployed, they can jump in and out of a system without requiring a CLAC for transport purposes.

    I believe that that's a fair statement of your argument in favor of recon frigates. If it isn't, it's as close as I can come to understanding what it is you're after. All right. I will make one more attempt to answer it on a point-for-point basis.

    (1) Scout frigates would be inexpensive. True. They would cost substantially more than the same tonnage of LACs, of course, but in theory there has to be a CLAC to carry the LACs, and that inevitably gets added into the cost in terms of both tonnage, resources, money, and personnel. It is, however, a single-function platform. I know all about your argument that you are not proposing these as a warship, but only as an intel platform, and that's just fine in theory. If you can convince a navy to do that, more power to you. However, if I can build something which costs, say, 40% more than your single-use design, that can perform the same mission, but can also perform additional missions, then the expense curve shifts sharply. You are buying capability, not just tonnage and not just hulls, and a unit which can carry out two missions (or more) is going to be a vastly better buy than a unit which can perform only one mission. Multi-mission capability is a force multiplier; single-mission capability is a force subtractor. This part of my argument against burying money and resources in the scout frigate is that simple.

    (2) Scout frigates won't tie up needed warship tonnage. They certainly won't. Of course, they won't be warships either, and every ton that you commit to building a naval vessel which has no function in combat (i.e., as a warship) is one ton less of warships your navy possesses.

    (3) Scout frigates crews will be small enough that losses per lost unit will be lighter than would be suffered for other types performing the same mission. Frigate crews would not be appreciably smaller than destroyer crews for a navy with the same degree of automation (whether that's no automation at all, or massive automation, the relative crew sizes will hold fairly steady.) Frigate crews would be larger than for a LAC, if for no other reason that you would need additional watch standers. If you persist in using hyper-capable platforms for your essential recon, then this becomes a valid point. The counter to it is that (a) you will need fewer of the larger, more capable platforms to scout the same volume of space (thus exposing fewer of them to potential enemy fire), and (b) a larger, more capable platform is less likely to suffer the loss of its crew in the first place.

    (4) The use of large numbers of scout frigates will provide survivability through redundancy compared to other, larger and more capable platforms. Again, true, if you insist on using hyper-capable platforms as your primary recon tool. Of course, it may be a little hard on the frigates that you do lose, but under your scenario, the survivors would presumably get the job done. Survivability and efficiency are not the same thing, however, and because of the limitation on things like recon drones (see #6 below) each of your very small vessels can carry/manage, each of your frigates is going to be appreciably less efficient (albeit for different reasons) than the same tonnage of destroyers or LACs.

    (5) In peacetime, you'll have a whole slew of small, hyper-capable naval vessels which can be used for such useful functions as SAR, extra courier boats, small VIP transports, etc., or disposed of upon the civilian market. This argument is just plain silly. How many dispatch boats are you going to require? Where and why are you going to need hordes of hyper-capable SAR vessels which have exactly zero additional life support capability or cargo capacity? How many VIP transports are you going to need (to be fair, I can't recall whether or not you specifically suggested this function; I'm just trying to come up with potential uses for a military force for vessels like this)? And who are you going to sell them to except for reclamation and scrap? What civilian use, except as an interstellar dispatch boat, is going to exist for something too small to haul worthwhile numbers of people or cargo? And, again, how many of these can you dispose of without glutting the market, especially in competition with purpose-built civilian units? I'm sure you could dispose of at least some of the on the civilian market post-war, but you certainly couldn't dispose of anything like the numbers of them you seem to be proposing to build.

    (6) A scout frigate will be the minimum possible platform to carry a hyper generator and a useful number of recon drones. How many drones do you envision one of these vessels carrying? Fleet RDs are big — considerably larger than single-drive missiles — and they have to be carried somewhere. You could certainly limpet quite a few of them to the exterior of the hull . . . assuming the hull is large enough, but don't forget you're making the ship as small as possible. The same thing happens when you start hanging missile pods on a frigate-sized hull; you're starting to talk about "pods" as big as the entire damned ship. A destroyer-sized vessel could carry far more drones. For that matter, LACs could carry almost as many drones on a per-hull basis, and more drones on a straight tonnage basis in the "limpeted" format. In fact, they could tow a specially designed pod load and still at least match the acceleration curve of most "scout frigates" while remaining considerably stealthier and harder for the other side to locate and pin down. Building a scout frigate is going to give you very much the same result the USN got with the Oliver Hazard Perry-class: a ship to small to carry truly useful quantities of the disposable "munition" — recon drones — you're talking about in this case.

    (7) A scout frigate's ability to micro jump around the system would make them more maneuverable and flexible than LACs. Any vessel's ability to micro jump will be completely useless inside the hyper limit, which is where the most important scouting is going to be done. Outside the hyper limit, a scout frigate would have the advantage over a LAC of independent hyper capability. It would be less stealthy, more easily detected, and utterly incapable of defending itself if it was caught with its hyper generator still cycling, but it would, indeed, be able to withdraw into hyper independent of any CLAC. There's not very much to see outside the hyper limit, of course, nor is there any reason — if these guys are doing pre-strike scouting — why you can't just go ahead and drop your strikeforce into normal-space outside the hyper limit, since as soon as your hyper generators have had time to cycle, the entire flipping fleet can disappear into hyper and in the meantime you'll have all the sensor capability — and all the recon drone capacity — of the entire strikeforce to cover the vast, empty (generally useless) volume of space outside the hyper limit, not to mention the firepower to look after yourself if a defending force comes calling. If you need to commit someone to cross the hyper limit, then you want either the biggest, nastiest, "I'm-not-afraid-of-anybody" scouting force you can put together, or you want the fastest, stealthiest platform you can find. Neither of those is a scout frigate. The one point where I will grant you that a scout frigate would be more efficient than a LAC in the scouting role would be in persistence. The frigate would have more on board endurance than the LAC, and so — assuming it manages to avoid detection or interception — it will be able to remain on station longer, continuing to scout the system.

    On the basis of the above points, I believe the scout frigate is — and ought to be — a nonstarter. I'm not linking any of this to the strategy of wooden warships. When I cite naval history in a discussion like this, it's to provide analogies or examples of navies which it had to make similar types of decisions and judgments and how their reasoning process worked. I'm not linking any of it to handwavium that makes it impossible to build the type you're talking about, either, and I haven't invented any brand-new hurdles that the scout frigate would have to clear. The operational problems, opportunities, and trade-offs I'm citing have been part of the Honorverse for a very, very long time. To that extent, it is a case of authorial fiat, I suppose, since I'm the one responsible for having created those constraints in the first place. Nothing makes the type inherently impossible, and of course anyone who wanted to could build a scout frigate. What I'm saying is that the concept itself is sufficiently foolish that no one is going to build it.

    If you're planning on attacking a star system, why tie up money and manpower in massive numbers of single-function platforms when you could use far smaller numbers of the destroyers (with the same total number of recon pods) which are logically going to be hanging around with your strikeforce anyway? If you don't want to use destroyers, you can use light cruisers if you want independently hyper-capable platforms. You can use whatever you want, including scout frigates. The problem is, that you can't use scout frigates for anything else, and their efficiency advantage over a destroyer even in the independently hyper-capable category is marginal. Certainly not enough to offset the advantage a destroyer has in every other (i.e., additional) operational regime when you're talking about how to spend money, industrial resources, and manpower. It's a cost-benefit analysis that works out against the scout frigate.

    Why are you going to want to scout any star systems if you aren't planning on an attack Sometime Real Soon Now? In the Honorverse, the time delay in getting information from a scouting expedition back to base is going to amount to days or even weeks, which automatically means the information is badly out of date by the time anyone can begin to make use of it. If you're not planning an immediate attack, then you don't need the sort of minute data which a saturation sweep of scout frigates is supposed to provide. Dropping in a single destroyer or light cruiser that then "goes dark" in stealth, operating highly stealthy recon platforms at extreme range — or even dropping off stealthed platforms to be periodically checked by a fast, stealthy, brief destroyer or cruiser sweep, like the Peeps were doing before Hancock Station — is a far more economical way to keep a general sort of eye on a system you aren't planning to strike in the very near future. If an attack is planned and you want immediate pre-strike intel, then you use your escort vessels — detached while the main striking force waits in hyper — and/or LACs to scout and probe the local defenses.

    Someone — I think it was you; if it wasn't I apologize for putting words into your mouth — made the point in another post in this thread that Honorverse intelligence gathering relies on different vehicles and techniques than our current experience here on Earth. I believe that satellites and reconnaissance aircraft were specifically mentioned. The problem is that there are equivalents of both those intelligence-gathering tools in the Honorverse. The recon drone is, effectively, a highly capable UAV; the independently deployed platform à la the Peeps before Hancock Station is effectively a recon satellite (or perhaps a chain of sonar buoys laid across the G-I-UK Gap); and a flight of LACs in recon mode (or your scout frigate) is very much the equivalent of reconnaissance aircraft. In the case of the LACs, they are recon aircraft launched from carriers far beyond the reach of shore-based anti-shipping assets. In the case of your scouting frigate, they are U2s launched from very long distances. They are most definitely not SR71s capable of screaming in at Mach 3 and at high enough altitude to be un-interceptable, but they do have the advantage that they can be launched from distant bases and that their presence doesn't automatically alert the target system to the presence of a force with CLACs in its vicinity. On the other hand, anyone but an idiot is going to assume that if the other side is scouting his star system, it may well indicate that the aforesaid other side is planning on visiting him soon. Obviously, the ability to dispatch scout frigates to star systems you have absolutely no intention of actually attacking will be one way to conduct feints against the enemy. Unfortunately, his star systems are going to be far enough apart that none of them will know anyone is feinting at any other star systems for a long time. In other words, the ability to distract the enemy is time-dependent in the sense that the enemy has to know about your feint if you expect it to distract him.

    For the purposes of keeping an eye on your own space, passive arrays posted strategically about the system are going to be far more useful than having large numbers of scout frigates swanning around. It's conceivable that had a squadron or so of your scout frigates been on station, outside Manticore A's hyper limit, when the "hyper ghost" of the Oyster Bay attack force was picked up, they might have gotten to the datum point faster than the destroyers which were actually dispatched. Indeed, they might actually have gotten there quickly enough for their sensor crew to figure out what had happened, although I'd say the chances of their recognizing what was going on would have been less than even, even so. A lot of things would have had to go right for them to have done that, but it could have happened, and in that particular instance, the scout frigate concept would have paid for itself a million times over as far as the Star Empire of Manticore is concerned. It was, however, a fluke circumstance as far as any force planner would be concerned. You don't buy a class of ships, no matter how cheap, to protect yourself against a threat which you not only don't know exists, but which you do know (rightly or wrongly) doesn't exist. I'm sure every military institution in the universe would love to be able to put in place systems which would protect it against things it doesn't know about, but it doesn't work that way. It can't.

    Now, you may disagree with my arguments above. You may feel that they are wrong. Obviously, I disagree. If by "don't hold water," you mean "I disagree with your reasoning," that's one thing. If by "don't hold water" or "handwavium" you mean "they aren't valid arguments" or "they amount to authorial fiat," you are, quite simply, wrong. They are valid arguments; they simply insist on weighting factors in the evaluation of the type's utility and the decision chain of the navies involved which you choose to ignore or, at least, weigh as far less relevant than I do based on my own reading of military history — and not just my own military history — and the elements which go into military and budgetary decision-making.

    And now I'm done. If you still think this is a valid type to build, then obviously nothing anyone can possibly say is going to change your mind. At which point I'm sure all of us have better things to worry about.