Status of the Solarian League Navy
I think I've commented before that at least a small percentage of the Solarian Battle Fleet is new-build. I'm pretty sure I included that in my posted comments on the numbers and activity of Solarian shipyards. If not, then I am officially doing so now.
The majority of the Solarian reserve fleet is very, very old, almost ancient -- at least by the standards of the Haven Sector in the 1920s. However, the majority of the Solarian reserve fleet is only old by the standards of the rest of the galaxy in the 1920s, and at least some of its units are downright modern... by the standards of the rest of the galaxy in the 1920s. It's true that the majority of the most modern construction stays in active service rather than being relegated to the reserve, but it's also true that the SLN isn't completely and totally staffed by drooling idiots.
In fairness to the Sollies, it should perhaps be pointed out that what readers looking at the SLN's preparedness from the perspective of a possible confrontation with the Manticoran Alliance (with or without Havenite participation, as well) regard as criminal stupidity represents in no small part a Manticoran-centric view of the galaxy. The Solarian League has a Solarian-centric view of the galaxy, and historically, it has a tremendous amount of justification in holding precisely that view. There is no example in our present-day historical experience for the sheer, totally overwhelming difference in the size and resources of the Solarian League and any possible competitor states in the Honorverse. None. The military capabilities of the United States of America in the early 21st-century and the economic and industrial power supports them have a significant edge over anyone else's. That edge is less than nothing compared to the edge the Solarian League possesses -- industrial and economically, at least -- over anyone else. The Roma n Empire was the predominant Mediterranean power of its day, but it never managed to eliminate the Persians, and it was only the vast geographic separation between it and China which prevented all sorts of interesting Imperial and military confrontations. There has never been a single point in the history of the human race on this planet in which one polity has been so overwhelmingly huge and powerful compared to all the rest of the human race combined. Great Britain relied upon the "10-year rule" in evaluating defensive needs before World War II. That is, on the assumption that Britain would not face combat with another major power for at least 10 years and that budgetary and procurement policies should be based upon that assumption. What the Solarian League has done, in effect (and, frankly, with enormously more justification in light of its relative size and power) is to adopt the equivalent of a "100-year rule."
Indeed, the hardest thing for the SLN to do from a pragmatic viewpoint would be to convince the League's citizenry and taxpayers that there is any justification for Battle Fleet's very existence. Think about it. If Frontier Fleet alone out-masses the entire Royal Manticoran Navy (or did, at an earlier stage in the Havenite wars, at least), then who could possibly survive a confrontation with it? In fact, that's one reason the Battle Fleet clique has kept its heel so firmly on the back of Frontier Fleet's neck -- and one reason Frontier Fleet has resented it so much. In terms of real-world threats to the Solarian League, the fact that non-League star nations can build superdreadnoughts, and the fact that the League's constitution specifically permits member systems of the League to build system-defense forces (which could also contain at least a small core of ships of the wall), definitely requires the SLN to maintain at least some genuine capital ship capability of its own, but even there, we're talking about a worse-case scenario, the extraordinarily unlikely event of some very small interstellar power committing what would amount to suicide by threatening Solarian lives or property. Of course, it's the business of military analysts (like law-enforcement analysts) to bear in mind that there is always the possibility of irrationality, but in this case, given the predominance that Battle Fleet has in terms of funding and domination of the League's strategic thinking, it's really something of a case of the tail wagging the dog. Functionally, that's very much the case; perceptually and politically, not so much.
Battle Fleet secured its commanding position in the allocation of decisionmaking authority at the time Frontier Fleet was formally created. Prior to that time, there had been no functional division among the responsibilities of what today are Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet. The Solarian League Navy was responsible for both frontier security and protection of trade, on the one hand, and the strategic defense of the League, on the other. The formalization of the division into Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet represented an effort to streamline the Navy's internal decisionmaking organs and bureaucracy to discharge both of those responsibility sets more efficiently. However, inherent in the thinking of the organizers was the fundamental assumption that Frontier Fleet would consist primarily of light units, most of which would be discharging what would be considered at best police functions and at worst second-line duties against opposition that wasn't particularly technologically advanced. Moreover, those light units would be backed up by the entire, technologically sophisticated, and vastly powerful might of the incomparable Solarian League Navy's battle squadrons. As a result, Frontier Fleet found itself in a definitely secondary position in the decisionmaking trees of the SLN. For all intents and purposes it was regarded as the United States regarded the Coast Guard, pre-9/11, and the thought that it should hold the advantage in making decisions for the entire Navy would have been regarded as ludicrous to the point of insanity. If that was the logic when the two separate internal organizations were established, and it hasn't been changed since, largely because the Battle Fleet bureaucrats are so assiduous about defending their current prerogatives, but also for reasons discussed below.
At the time all of this happened, the decisions involved actually made a lot of sense. The problem is that the system has worked so well for so long (it obviously has, hasn't it, since the League hasn't faced a major war or even the threat of a minor war in all of the centuries since?) that it's never been revisited. In my opinion, the biggest single weakness of the SLN is that it has no institutional practice of questioning its own basic assumptions. The "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality has much to recommend it, but the League's very success and security over such an incredibly long period of time has led to a complacent assumption that "Since it can't possibly be broke, don't worry about fixing it." And in further fairness to Battle Fleet, Frontier Fleet doesn't really disagree with the fundamental assumption that the League's sheer size, power, and prestige inoculates it against any serious external threat. Frontier Fleet officers, particularly those whose responsibilities take them into areas of the League or the Verge are more likely to be aware that the Manties and the Havenite's are Up to Something, but even they are so well aware of how insane it would be of the Star Kingdom (or Star Empire) to challenge the might of the Solarian League that they don't feel remotely threatened by what's going on in the Haven Sector.
Prior to the war of 1812, the British Royal Navy, by and large, regarded the U.S. Navy and its limited force of frigates with derision. From their own experience, British frigate captains "knew" that the 18-pounder was the biggest practical frigate-level gun in terms of rate of fire, handiness, and fitting reasonable numbers of them aboard frigate-sized hulls. Moreover, the Royal Navy "knew" that the Americans handful of frigates couldn't possibly threaten the world's largest fleet of ships-of-the-line. While the Navy was busy shaking its collective head over the stupidity of the Americans -- who were obviously building those big, enormous, clumsy frigates purely as prestige ships intended to overawe gullible potential opponents, much like the South American navies prior to World War I which were contemplating building the world's biggest dreadnought battleships -- there was a Scottish pastor who commented that the Americans were building some rather remarkable ships "of which the world may be hearing one day." In the event, the United States Navy demonstrated that what the British frigate captains had "known" about the 18-pounder's unchallengeable status as the frigate weapon was... inaccurate, shall we say? And post-1815, the American double-banked frigate (and what had been considered it's preposterous size previous to 1812), with their have been pain batteries, became the standard for the design of frigates. Along the way, the Royal Navy got its nose thoroughly bloodied in several frigate actions, thus demonstrating the stupidity of the Royal Navy's complacent assumptions of superiority. Right?
Wrong. Tactically, the Brits obviously were wrong to dismiss the big frigates so cavalierly, and while it hurts me as a fan of the Royal Navy to admit this, even as late as the last quarter of the 20th century certain apologists for the Golden Age Royal Navy have continued to try to rationalize away that error, in some cases by going so far as to claim that the big 44s were originally designed and laid down as ships of the line, which is (obviously) the real explanation for what tough cookies they were. The fact of the matter is that the British frigate captains who were defeated by the American frigates by and large fought courageously against opponents who outgunned them, had better "armor," had bigger crews, and who had drilled their gun crews harder and more effectively because they expected to be fighting someone better than they were rather than someone who was automatically going to be inferior to them. (It's worth noting that when Captain Brooke of HMS Shannon took a somewhat different view from his contemporaries where gunnery drill was concerned, USS Chesapeake had a Really Bad Day.) But the only real British strategic error in the Royal Navy's assessment of the United States was its complacent assumption of the individual superiority of its units on a class-for-class basis. When it came down to it, the United States Navy did not have a core force of ships-of-the-wall. Without that force, it could not prevent the Royal Navy from exerting an effective blockade of the American seaboard. With that blockade in place, the United States Navy -- as a navy -- could pose no significant threat to critical British interests. (If anyone thinks that the U.S. Navy disagreed with the Royal Navy about this post-war, one should consider the strenuous efforts the USN made to acquire liners -- and what powerful units they contemplated -- in their war emergency construction plans and their post-war budgetary requests.) From the British perspective, the Royal Navy had locked the entire United States up in a continent-sized prison, where subsequent land offensives operating south from Canada or inland from the Eastern and Gulf Coasts with Navy support, could eventually force a US surrender. Of course, when the Navy got around to asking the Army to provide the troops for those offensives, Arthur Wellesley -- you may remember him as someone who had at least some modest Army experience -- told the government that land operations against the United States would be a very different kettle of fish and that the ultimate defeat of the United States on its own territory was not practicable. A point which was underscored rather brutally at a place called New Orleans. But that didn't change the fact that the US had been neutralized as a significant threat to Great Britain. While the hordes of privateers which continued to get to sea could exert a serious negative impact on the British merchant marine and British economic interests generally, there was not, would not, and could not be a reciprocal American threat to the territorial security of Great Britain. In that respect, the Royal Navy was entirely correct prior to 1812 in its assessment of the "American threat." What happened to it in the frigate actions of the War of 1812, while extraordinarily painful for the individual British frigates involved, was more in the nature of a PR disaster than anything representing a serious military danger to the British Empire.
That's pretty much the position the Solarian League has been in, but whereas the Brits had reached that mountaintop of (largely justifiable) complacency, supported by their perceived naval superiority over any other nation on earth, over a relatively brief period of time (remember that the Battle of Trafalgar occurred only in 1805 and that as recently as the American Revolution the Royal Navy and the French Navy had been involved in life-or-death grapples throughout the Caribbean), the Solarian League has been in that position for centuries. And its degree of superiority over any potential aggressor state has been so much greater than that of the Royal Navy, even at the late-19th-century pinnacle of its power, that there is literally no meaningful way to compare the two situations.
The point I'm trying to make here is that the apparent total idiocy of the SLN is not in fact as totally idiotic -- especially given the inevitable thought processes of human beings -- as many people seem to be assuming. Especially since the people responsible for the League's naval policy do not have the readers' inside viewpoint on what's been going on in the Haven Sector over the last 25 years or so. Perhaps they should have that perspective, but there have been absolutely no grounds in the League's experience to support the sort of continual sensitivity to potential future threats which would support an active and aggressive policy of sending out naval observers.
Now, given the decisionmaking authority and influence mandated by the original creation of the distinction between Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet, and the centuries of ossification which have elapsed since, a lot of the policies of the SLN which would be likely to turn around and bite the Sollies in the event of a serious war, actually make a lot of sense. And, getting back to my original point about the numbers of modern ships-of-the-wall (or, at least, relatively modern ships-of-the-wall) available to Battle Fleet, those policies include (1) the maintenance of a sufficient reserve to meet any realistic threat to the security of the Solarian League; (2) the support of a smallish flow of new-build ships-of-the-wall in order to maintain at least minimal construction capability and familiarity with the architectural and design requirements of ships-of-the-wall; and (3) the systematic and gradual refitting of the oldest ships of the reserve with more modern technology when, where, and as funding and operational requirements make possible. Those are really the core policies of Battle Fleet's procurement and refit strategies, and as long as the League's "100-year rule" applies, they aren't likely to be changed. (Please note that I haven't said anything here about possible additional research and development programs going on in laboratories -- whether those labs belong to the Navy or to private contractors -- somewhere. As far as that's concerned, tum-te-tum-te-tum.)
What this means effectively is that the Reserve's very oldest ships and the most recent ships added to Battle Fleet are most likely to have up-to-date (by Solarians standards) onboard electronics and missile tubes. The new construction, obviously, because it is new construction, and the oldest ships of the Reserve because the policy is to refit the most obsolescent ships first. Broadside energy armaments are unlikely to be significantly changed in refits, however, for several reasons. One of those reasons, obviously, are the difficulties in refitting ships-of-the-wall in general which have been discussed elsewhere, but another is that they were already pretty damned powerful when they were installed and the major innovations in military technology over the last century or so have been concentrated on missile warfare, rather than ship-to-ship energy combat. In other words, there's much less real reason to change them out in the first place.
One other point of which Battle Fleet is aware is the need for a powerful PR effort with the League's population as a whole. There are two primary reasons for this, one of which is entirely self-serving and the other one of which could be considered self-serving but actually has some genuine security value, as well. Taking the second of these first, the SLN sees its mission as being not simply to provide physical security for the citizens of the League but also to bolster the psychological perceptions of both the citizens and anyone who might possibly seek to prey upon them that doing so would be a Bad Idea. In other words, to fulfill the deterrence role against any potential misguided, unbalanced aggressors. The more obviously self-serving aspect of the Navy's PR programs is to convince the League in general (and the Navy's competing bureaucracies, in particular) of both the value of the Navy and of what a good job that Navy is doing of effectively utilizing the funds allocated to it.
The confluence of these two objectives can be seen in the SLN's "Fleet 2000" initiatives. In essence, "Fleet 2000" refers to the SLN's preeminent status as the most powerful, modern, and effective galactic navy in the 20th century (of the Diaspora). Please note that the term "Fleet 2000" was chosen at least as much for its dramatic value as for its actual applicability. There are some genuine modernizing aspects to the "Fleet 2000" initiative within the SLN. For example, more modern ships have been designed with modular electronics which impose a less efficient use of internal volume but permit more rapid replacement in modernizing refits and upgrades and which maximize the total internal volume available for electronics in the future. Another example, which you haven't seen any signs of yet in the books, is an emphasis on seeking ways to use remote platforms to enhance ships' on board EW capabilities.
In general, however, "Fleet 2000" concentrates more on what might be considered the propaganda aspects of the initiative. The Navy has a large staff dedicated to the production of public information HD programs under the "Our Navy" heading to demonstrate to the general public the high caliber and dedication of Navy personnel, the professionalism of the Navy's officer corps, the incredible number of valuable services the Navy provides to the general populace of the League, and the sheer size and power of the Navy. And, also as a part of the "Fleet 2000" initiatives, the Navy has concentrated on the "sleekness" and visually obvious efficiency and modernity of its vessels. Control consoles are designed to look "sexy" and modern for the HD cameras even at some occasional expense in actual operational efficiency. Ship interiors are designed and fitted out to emphasize the quality of the living spaces of Navy personnel. And, in general, the SLN has a high quotient of glitz and glitter oriented around this major PR effort.
It is very easy to completely dismiss "Fleet 2000" as a purely self-serving effort which is ultimately destructive to the League's real security. Again, however, some of that depends on information and perspectives available to the readers but not to the majority of people actually living in the Solarian League in the 1920s. "Fleet 2000" is self-serving in the sense that it protects the bureaucratic turf of the Navy, and it is ultimately destructive of the League's real security in that it helps to provide a false sense of just how great that security is. However, it should be remembered that so far as everyone involved in the creation and production of "Fleet 2000" is concerned, the League's real security genuinely is absolute... against anyone rational enough to count on his fingers and toes. From that perspective, the real threat to the League lies with people who aren't rational enough to count on their fingers and toes. On people who do the math but get the sums wrong and think they really can get away with defying the League or even directly threatening its strategic interests in the Verge. "Fleet 2000" is directed at those people, as well as at the League's own citizens. It's the equivalent of the Soviet Union's huge May Day parades through Red Square, showing off its military might both to reassure its own citizens, to disenhearten any internal dissidents, and to overawe any external enemies.
One last observation, and then I'll close this somewhat lengthy post and get back to the task of writing. The possible composition of the Reserve has been discussed by several posters. The superdreadnought is not, in fact, a particularly recent innovation. There have been both superdreadnoughts and dreadnoughts for centuries, and the two types came into existence at roughly the same time, once the original "battleship floor" had been breached. Many navies, including the SLN, initially regarded the superdreadnought as overly expensive and more ship then was needed for most jobs. The superdreadnought could individually overpower any dreadnought it encountered, but it could be in only one place at a time. Building 3 4,000,000-ton dreadnoughts as opposed to 2 6,000,000-ton superdreadnoughts allowed you to deploy three ships, possibly to three separate stations, as opposed to two ships which could only be in two places at once, no matter how individually powerful they might have been. (Think of this as the difference between the approaches of the United States and Great Britain to the 1921 Washington Treaty and subsequent efforts to impose tonnage limitations on more ship types by treaty. The Brits, with their worldwide maritime commitments and basing facilities, held out regularly for the smallest possible types because they needed numbers, and the treaty negotiations seem to their best opportunity to prevent other navies from building individually more powerful units. The US position was that without such a worldwide basing infrastructure of its own, and given the fact that US naval planning was at least as heavily focused on the Pacific, with its much greater cruising distances, than on the Atlantic, smaller cruisers and battleships were unacceptable. They simply couldn't build the cruising radius they needed into ships the size of the ones the Brits were proposing. And since they didn't need as many hulls as the British did, they were unwilling to accept individual inferiority in order to get them. The internal logic of both positions was entirely valid, yet they pushed the two countries into seeking significantly different treaty provisions.)
At the time the division between Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet was formalized, the Reserve had already been in existence for some time, and had quite a few dreadnoughts in it. As time had passed, however, the SLN's opinion in favor of building superdreadnoughts, instead of dreadnoughts, had hardened. The basic rationale now was that there was little point in building second-rate ships, and in any confrontation between them, a dreadnought was most definitely second-rate compared to a superdreadnought. The League was big enough and wealthy enough to build superdreadnoughts instead of dreadnoughts, especially if it was building them in relatively small numbers at any given time (for the reasons cited above) and then keeping the majority of them in inactive reserve status, thus avoiding the major lifetime expenses of any warship, which are its operational expenses. In the immediate aftermath of the decision to build superdreadnoughts instead of dreadnoughts, a large chunk of the dreadnoughts in the Reserve were disposed of, although the more modern dreadnoughts were retained. Since that time, all new ships-of-the-wall added to the SLN's active units and the Reserve have been superdreadnoughts, and that type constitutes the enormous majority of the Reserve's hulls. The Reserve does also contain battlecruisers and cruisers as screening elements, but nowhere near what its ships-of-the-wall would require in the event of all out hostilities. The plan has always been for the Frontier Fleet's active units to provide the entire SLN's light forces requirements in such an unthinkable event, although there's been virtually no detailed planning for how all of that would be managed. ("We'll muddle through on the day" is sort of a hallmark of Solarian planning where any sort of real war is concerned. After all, they might as well be planning for how they'll defeat the ravening hordes from Andromeda as how they would defeat any significant short-term threat from anywhere in the explored galaxy.)
I suppose I might also mention here one of the SLN's additional weaknesses (in the face of the actual threat the Haven Sector poses, as opposed to the perceived threat), and that is manning constraints. I can't recall whether this is something I've specifically addressed in comments here on the Bar in the past, but it's not just the physical activation of units from the Reserve which would pose constraints on how quickly Battle Fleet could begin actually deploying ships. They also have to find the personnel to man them, and by definition, these are all the old, manpower-intensive designs. Trust me, if Battle Fleet attempted to man the entire Reserve, or even a major fraction of it, on a genuinely emergency priority basis, it would soon discover that its personnel and manning plans are grossly inadequate to the job of doing so with any sort of rapidity.