A small project I worked on when reading about Q-ships IRL. Also posted on Backstage Fiction. Thanks to Lasairiona Raske and Silver Night for reviewing this in advance!
Q-Ships, Mystery Vessels and Special Service ships – A brief history of this early naval strategy
Whether confined to planetary bodies of water or atmosphere, to the skies and heavens above in space, the nature of naval strategy has always been in a perpetual state of flux and alteration. Advancements in technology and innovations made by those in command of militaries has led to an inexorable march of progress in how wars are fought, with a never-ending period of development and deployment of numerous strategies and tactics, leading to some of the most celebrated feats and some of the most condemned deeds in historical and modern warfare.
One of the more cunning strategies employed by the naval powers of the past, by the current Empire navies and in what some could say is a modern revival by capsuleers, is the ‘Q-Ship’. Otherwise known as mystery vessels or special service ships, these ships operated under a doctrine of deception, utilising craft that come across to prospective foes as easy prey. This is far from the case, as often these ships have at their disposal concealed armaments and other defensive equipment designed to destroy or otherwise incapacitate their targets.
Historically, Q-ships were employed by the old naval powers on Gallentia. The Garoun, the Morthane and Hueremont possessed rich trading networks that spread across the entirety of the planet. Despite the Garoun enjoying a monopoly over the sealanes due to their unrivalled knowledge of the ocean currents, the other empires were not deterred from forming their own merchant and naval fleets in an attempt to gain parity. The first Q-ships were nothing more than a collection of retrofitted freighters, oilers and other merchant craft manned by naval reservists, tasked primarily with destroying commerce raiders and submarines attacking commercial shipping during times of war. Concealing redundant armament behind false-bulkheads and cargo containers and reinforced out of buoyant material to delay sinking, these vessels relied on their perceived weakness to deceive the enemy in order to engage on their terms. The odds of success were variable depending on the situation, the inherent lack of training with members of the reserve and the obsolescent armament found on second-line warships meant that a seasoned raider could easily defeat or escape the trap laid by a Q-ship.
Upon the invention of the airship, and with it the militarisation of the technology, the balance of power shifted in favour of states that could produce and maintain fleets of such vessels. Within a few short years of the advent of this technology, sea-faring vessels were rendered obsolete in the face of aircraft that could annihilate them with ease. With the shift in prioritising aerial assets over their naval counterparts, many thought that the Q-ship had had its day. This was not to be the case, as several remained in service on the oceans to act as a deterrent to maritime piracy, and the concept being employed with the airships themselves albeit with several changes to their modus operandi. Aerial cargo vessels were developed around the same timeframe as aerial warships, in order to challenge the dominance of the sea that the Garoun nations enjoyed. The tactic of using Q-ships was also transferred from the seas to the skies, although far less prominently than their counterparts at sea.
Perhaps the most famous usage of Q-ships came at a time when crisis rocked the fledgling Federation, during the outbreak of the First Caldari-Gallente War in November of the Federal Calendar year 33, or 23154AD. The fledgling Caldari Navy consisted primarily of single-man fighters and carriers converted from industrial ships, the most infamous of the latter being the Kairiola, a former water freighter that was commanded by Admiral Yakia Tovil-Toba. Whilst the majority of the fighting was conducted by these ad-hoc ships of the line, along with the very few Federal Navy ships to defect to the newly-proclaimed Caldari State, the employment of commerce raiders by both sides necessitated the usage of the Q-ship once more. Federal member states found their supply lines reaved and harried by Caldari marauders, especially in regions that had a minimal Navy presence such as Sinq-Laison, and the Caldari colonies experienced numerous incidents of Gallente privateers and Federal Navy auxiliary ships assaulting their facilities and convoys in turn. Thus, with this new era of warfare beginning to develop between the two nations, old strategies were revived once more to serve on the battlefields of the future.
These space-faring Q-ships bore many similarities to their planetary predecessors: They more often than not were converted merchant vessels, rather than purpose-built warships and employed deception as part of their operating strategy to lure more powerful foes into a more level playing field to maximise their chances of success. However, due to the nature of warfare in space, they were forced to make numerous changes to their operational doctrine. Prowling the merchant routes known to both sides, they would behave in the same fashion as any other commercial vessel in the hopes of attracting prospective raiders.
Those vessels operated by the Caldari deviated from their standard philosophy at the time of long-range warfare, utilising nimble strike craft that they were renowned for early on in the conflict. Their Q-ships were usually equipped with warp drive scramblers to eliminate any possibility of escape, webifying equipment to reduce their opponent vessel’s velocity to a minimum and electronic warfare equipment to render their targeting and communications systems inoperable. As is often standard with all Caldari vessels, they possessed far superior shielding technology compared to their civilian brethren, ensuring they could withstand their opponent’s armaments until they could be disabled. This had the added benefit of giving the impression that the Q-ship’s defences were minimal, as the enhanced shielding would not be detected until the engagement had begun and the vessel itself would not appear to be heavily armoured. Close-range weaponry, such as blaster cannons and rocket launchers were secreted over the hull stowed upon retractable mounts. Each vessel was crewed by Caldari Navy servicemen and volunteers from the Caldari megacorporations that possessed prior experience on space vessels, as well as a small complement of naval infantry. Some of the larger Q-ships even had one or two strike fighters embarked in hidden compartments on the vessel, although these ‘carrier’ type craft were considerably rare on account of the resources required to operate them and only reserved for patrolling the most heavily trafficked solar systems.
In contrast, Federation Navy Q-ships were employed to deal with the long-running problem of piracy within Federal territory that plagued some of the outlying member states in the relatively lawless frontier regions. They shared many characteristics with their counterparts elsewhere throughout the Federation: slow, enormous and heavily-armoured, with reinforced bulkheads strengthening the structural integrity of the vessel. The latter characteristic would earn the Federal Q-ships a reputation of being quite robust and extremely difficult to escape from if caught unprepared. Unlike those found in service with the Caldari Navy, many Federal Q-ships were purpose built for the task at hand, as part of a strategy by the Federal government at the time to not deploy actual ships of the line to give the impression that the Federation Navy was not omnipresent to allay fears of Federal overreach. Bristling with hidden weapon emplacements and grappling gear, they were more suited to engaging starships of similar size than the solo-fighters the Caldari were so fond of during the early years of the war. Many of these vessels were crewed by experienced merchant mariners, under the command of a team of Federal Navy personnel consisting of officers and a contingent of Federal Marines. Upon the outbreak of hostilities with the Caldari, these vessels were redirected against the marauding Caldari forces wreaking havoc behind the frontlines to prevent a general breakdown of law and order, as well as to work in concert with local Federal Navy forces to entrap Caldari and outlaw forces alike.
Upon initiating an engagement with a hostile target, the captain of a Q-ship usually had several options in how they would proceed with the action. Generally, each Empire’s Q-ships would patrol the merchant routes in areas in which reports were received of an enemy presence. They would, upon detection of a hostile warship, initiate numerous activities to give the impression that the first shots that were inevitably fired by the would-be raider. Such tactics would be transmitting a false transponder signal to encourage a target to investigate further, as long as the real identity of the vessel was disclosed as the action was initiated. They could even include a ‘panic party’, a portion of the crew deliberately abandoning ship via lifeboats, or venting plasma along the hull to exaggerate the damage inflicted. One thing that was forbidden to do on express instruction from both the Caldari and Gallente Admiralties was to lure targets in via a false distress signal or surrender broadcast, as this was seen to be a gross violation of the established laws of war and conventions on maritime safety, and historically was considered as a war crime on Gallentia. Any commander found to operate in this fashion was quickly relieved of their command, as it could render any chances of quarter forfeit if there was a genuine attempt at surrender or signalling for aid. Also heavily frowned upon was the summary execution of prisoners of war by the victorious party, which unfortunately proved to be a hallmark in certain incidents of the bitter nature of the conflict, condemned and exploited by both sides for propaganda and political purposes.
The simplest response was for the Q-ship to engage their target with the intent of destroying them, and actions of this nature were fairly common throughout the duration of the Caldari-Gallente War. With the element of surprise on their side, to an inexperienced raider crew unprepared for such an encounter this could easily lead to them being overwhelmed. Some of the most impressive but less celebrated actions conducted by the Caldari and Federal Navies involved Q-ships, such as the destruction of a notorious privateer that terrorised the region of Sinq Laison by the Federal Q-ship Panthère, and the interception of a particularly evasive duo of Federal raiders in The Forge by the Caldari Q-ship Vesihiisi.
Some enterprising Q-ships would attempt to force the surrender of their opponent, rather than seek to destroy them outright. This result could be accomplished through inflicting sufficient damage onto their opponent, or managing to initiate a boarding action via their contingent of naval infantry. This was done for a multitude of reasons, such as to seize potential valuable cargo aboard, or out of a desire to minimise casualties in the case of some more humanitarian minded commanding officers. In some instances, efforts were made to capture the vessel outright and sail it back to friendly territory as a prize under Admiralty law. Sometimes this was done for practical reasons, in the case of the early Caldari Navy which was lacking in vessels compared to the Federation Navy. In other circumstances, the capture of a particularly infamous starship could serve as a major boost to morale of either side, as well as the payment of prize money to the crew that captured it. The Federal heavy frigate Saphir was captured after a particularly drawn out engagement and subsequent boarding action involving a Caldari Q-ship in the Action of 30 June FC35, resulting in the surrender of the Federal crew and the scuttling of the Q-ship after it sustained irreparable damage in the process. Despite the loss of their ship, they were celebrated as heroes on their return by the Navy and the corporate public, with propaganda being broadcast of the vessel limping into the docking bay of a Caldari Navy station.
As time passed and the Caldari-Gallente war progressed onwards, great strides were made by both sides in refining technology and naval strategy. Improvements made by the Caldari on their starship technology, the gift of the hydrostatic capsule and their rapidly expanding industrial capability provided by installations and shipyards in The Forge meant that reliance on converted starships was dwindling by the year. In addition, the Federal Navy expanded their programme of automation and military robotics research out of concern of a shortfall of recruits caused by weary attitudes towards the war by the core population, leading to the deployment of the first space assault drones. The issues caused by the lack of recruits meant that the Federal Navy could no longer spare the manpower to crew the Q-ships, instead redirecting resources into manufacturing vessels requiring less manpower overall and of an offensive nature as part of the buildup to Operation Forward March, as the majority of the Federation’s territory was now secure from Caldari raiders and marauders. Coupled with advances in starship scanning technology, most Q-ships were unable to conceal their armament and their one key advantage: surprise, was lost. Thus, the days of the Q-ships were numbered once again, eventually being phased out just as their planetary cousins were.
Despite this, in recent years there has been something of a revival of the Q-ship, adopted this time by the independent capsuleer pilots of New Eden. Some vessels, such as the Badger Mark II industrial starship proved to be an incredibly resilient design, and this was used to great effect by some pilots to score impressive victories over other opportunistic pilots looking for easy targets. Other industrial-class vessels, such as the Iteron-series and the Bestower-class, have also been used for this purpose, although they never attained the somewhat legendary reputation of the ‘Battle Badger’ in the eyes of the independent capsuleer community. Null and low-sector groups have almost universally adopted the tactic of ‘bait’ vessels, heavily-armoured vessels designed to entice a foe into engaging them with the intent of surviving long enough for their wingmen to arrive, with the potential to operate cynosaural field generators in extreme circumstances. Mining vessels have also been repurposed for combat operations, with at least one instance of a Retriever-class mining barge successfully engaging and destroying an ore thief, as well as the celebrated Procurer-class mining barge being notable for its sturdiness and suitability for fending off opponents until reinforcements can arrive. With the advent of the cloaking device, hunter-killer teams could now operate in concert with the Q-ship utilising stealth craft with an immediate response rather than waiting on stand-by several light years away or in the adjacent star system. Whilst it is and most likely will always remain a niche tactic, it is proof that sometimes an anachronistic strategy may be the best one for the job.