In terms of strategic analysis, is there AI in the setting? Freespace never mentions the topic due to its WWII fighter roots, but is there a compelling reason why drone technology and logistical planning isn't used more often?
This question has gnawed at me forever. But where the core canon lacks any satisfying resolution, the BP lore seems to go a long way toward solving it. The answer, I think (though lots of this is interpolating/BSing from extremely limited data), is BP’s dual emphasis on computing and the “constant arms race” of ECM/ECCM.
Today, many people regard the “optimal” space combat strategy as unleashing swarms of drone fighters or, better yet, AI guided missiles, precluding the need for manned starfighters at all. But in a universe where all sides have their own shiny Laplace daemon, and are obsessed with the statistical computation of optimal strategies, maybe our collective ability to preclude that optimum is so great that we all need to settle on something less: i.e., human pilots flying cool ships around.
We can start to see why from the way BP portrays capital ships (especially the most authoritative source of all: the BP card game
). FS1 and 2 state that warship crews are both relatively expansive and expensive (the GTD Orion tech room compares the cost of the ship to paying the crew for 3 years; that crew cost is an order of magnitude more than modern aircraft carriers). Though some of that increase is due to the sheer scale of the ships, and broader changes in the general labor market (inflation is a *****), BP implicates that big parts of the crew expenses go to programmers, hackers, and other technical specialists. Think Kyle Netreba before he made it big in the admiralty. Their job is to jam enemy comms/sensors/weapons, and to cause whatever electromagnetic havoc they can while undoing whatever the enemy is doing to you. BP would have us believe that in the background of any shoot-em-up space battle is an extremely contested EM spectrum. Capital ships from cruiser-size on up train directional sensors and counter-sensors and counter-counter-sensors on each other in the same way they blast away with weapons. That is presumably why in FS1, capital ship missile weapons are relatively limited and appear mostly as direct line of sight (more ballistic gun than anything). That is also why the ships lack significant numbers of kinetic point-defense systems in that era. The GTA and PVN in FS1 are highly confident that, provided it loiters long enough, any fully autonomous weapons system (drone, missile, sentry gun, etc.) can be blinded, nullified, subverted, or electronically defeated.
So what we need is a way to minimize the amount of time ordinance spends homing onto a target—in other words, the period of vulnerability where it can be defeated. Enter the strike craft. If capital ships cannot deliver missiles from range, have small, nimble, and numerous platforms try to do it up close. We know from the base games that fighters have some onboard AIs (see the GTS Hygeia tech room; also, the fact that something fixes your subsystems slowly over time). Each fighter is a man-machine team. The benefits of the machine are so obvious that we must wonder why combatants keep the man at all.
But here BP’s lore comes to the rescue again. You cannot have a fully autonomous fighter, which in practice is just a particularly long-loitering missile (one that is very dangerous if subverted thanks to the other ordnance it is hauling). As an aside, today we tend to think “jamming” fully-autonomous systems is nonsense, but in FS they seem to have figured out how to do this quite early (think about all the sentry guns you hack). Even without that magic tech, the tactical flexibility you lose from relying on an AI severed entirely from the battlenet (to say nothing of its expense) has tradeoffs of its own (see the terrible performance of the GTDr Amazon, when it was apparently a real spaceframe in FS1). It is more efficient just to stick a pilot in. Other forms of drone fighters are also out. You cannot control drone fighters from the local capital ships, as those are by and large extremely jammed in any combat setting. Last, you cannot control drones over-the-horizon with subspace communications, which for the most part are not steady/powerful enough to direct munitions reliably (as they apparently struggle to project video into your comms system beyond grainy two-tone images).
The way to recover tactical flexibility given highly degraded comms, and increase strikecraft reliability and survivability given the ease of subverting autonomous systems, is to dumb-down the most important subroutines (flight control, weapons release, etc.) by putting a human in the driver’s seat. Meanwhile, the AI busies itself with wholly-internal tasks (repairing subsystems) or maybe stochastically varying your ordnances’ targeting matrices to let it cut through the evolving jamming situation and reach a target. And the man and machine keep each other in check. Just as cockpits can (well, according to the Morrigan stories anyway) autonomously polarize to blot out very bright objects (say a dazzling laser trying to blind a pilot), so too could having a human onboard help keep the AI from going on the fritz or being subverted, as there is someone to press the proverbial reset button. The AI and the human make up for each other’s weaknesses, and complement the strengths (massive capability!) and weakness (big slow target!) of the capital ships.
With this framework from BP, we can (maybe? IDK I'm just some guy) dispatch with a lot of open-ended, in-universe strategic questions:
• Why did the UEF also forego drones and develop flak guns?
From their shared GTA heritage, the Tevs and the UEF reach many similar conclusions after the First Incursion. Engaging in a cyber arms race with the comparably-equipped Vasudans or human rebels is one thing, but after encountering the utterly-superior Shivans it is clear there is no out-computing them (chiefly as they don't compute in the sense we do). So the importance of a man-in-the-loop grows even stronger, spelling the end of drone fighters. And you need more conventional kinetic point defense if your fancy electronic tricks are less likely to work.
• Why is the UEF suddenly using missiles, which we would expect to be everyone’s weapon of choice as early as the Terran-Vasudan War?
First, there is the obvious “brown v. blue water” doctrinal differences discussed in the tech room. The UEF can heft missiles as they are always close to supply sources, while the GTVA must look to energy weapons due to its expeditionary nature. But there is more to it than that. The UEF moves toward the expected optimum—missile-heavy loadouts—because of the massive computing advantage that assets like CASSANDRA or the processors underpinning Ubuntu market simulations offer their fleet against would-be Terran opponents in Sol. Of course, the Gefs can do ECM to some degree, but the UEF Fleet can expect to always have the computational upper hand, and thus feel comfortable reintroducing missiles. And if the Shivans return with even superior computers, there are plenty of mass drivers and strikecraft to fight the delaying action they plan for.
• What about the GTVA? Don’t they have drones/SSMs now? Shouldn’t those not work?
As mentioned, after the Great War, the GTVA reached some analogous conclusions to the UEF: kinetic point defense is needed, and drone fighters are evolutionary dead ends (you’d prefer missiles, which are cheaper, if you could get them). Boxed in with the Vasudans and wracked by internal revolt, they cannot share the UEF’s confidence in computational superiority over any local foes: i.e., they cannot safely fall back on missiles. So the primary weapon shifts to beams. During the Second Incursion, when it is revealed that beams can be jammed or disrupted, the Alliance responds with jury-rigged AWACS ships and TAG (perhaps based on research into Shivan exofauna to develop a sensor that can adhere to a hostile hull and survive long enough to serve its purpose). Then during TEI after Capella, we see tactical adjustments to minimize the danger of jamming by operating capital ships more like strike craft via the shock jump. Get in, fire first and quickly before you get jammed, and end the fight there. Like UEF missiles, their two big new weapons (SSM missiles and, in future BP, drone bombers) are not ideas straight off the drawing board, but rather old concepts made new through technological breakthroughs allowing the GTVA to shift closer to the optimal strategy. For the SSM missiles, the breakthrough is a leg up over the UEF regarding subspace comms, perhaps gleaned from the Knossos or Sathanas system that opened the Capella black hole. For the GTB Gorgon operating its drone bombers, the key to commanding the drones must be combining the relative mobility of a strike craft (compared to a capital ship) with some radical increase in processing power. Considering the class’s rarity, its emphasis on survivability, the Gorgon’s “full AWACS capacity,” and the boarding seen in the deuterocanonical Vassago’s Dirge, maybe BACKBREAKER is a CASSANDRA-analog, and each Gorgon mounts a dead Shivan to pull this off?
• Why are AWACs/ISR/etc platforms ubiquitous in 2020, totally absent in FS1, and only reappear as extremely weak in FS2?
Because according to BP, every fighter and capital ship in this universe takes on some aspect of network warfare as we understand it today. The dedicated AWACS platforms first appearing in FS2 are rush jobs to get particularly new/unoptimized/bulky capabilities into the field faster than it would take to overhaul existing warships with these capabilities. That is why many of the FS2 AWACS capabilities are integrated into line capital ships by the time of BP (see the long-range jamming used in The Things that Bind Us) and yet the AWACS are still around, demonstrating even newer technologies developed in response to the current war. On the UEF side, this understanding also lines up nicely with the Oculus tech room description, which says it was jury-rigged to meet unforeseen combat exigencies. AWACS are stopgap vessels used to get cutting-edge technologies into the field quickly and cheaply, without needing to take a destroyer into drydock to mount the latest and greatest tech.
• Why are engagement ranges close enough to use guns?
Because jamming of long-range sensors is so extreme that you need to close the gap to have any realistic chance of keeping a weapon on target without it being jammed, as having a human in the loop is so critical.
• Why do fighters have to run ahead and scan things?
Like the above, and capital ships are too systematically jammed to do it.
• Why does it take longer to lock a Cyclops than a Harpoon?
Having more space, crew, and processing power, the capital ship will always have the computational upper hand over the onboard AI of a fighter, and gain a corresponding electromagnetic edge. Overcoming that relative disadvantage is hard work!
• Why are sentry guns such a bad idea?
Because they are like a drone fighter or a missile: just a machine without people keeping it in check. It can thus apparently be hacked, which we see happen all the time in game, in one of the ultimate demonstrations that even autonomous AIs with little external direction are still liable to interference or subversion. Instead, sentry guns get used only when there is little risk of enemy capital ship presence, and thus minimal risk of encountering the heaviest forms of jamming: i.e., at supply depots (where most raids are by fighters), in-atmosphere (Eyes in the Storm), and to cover retreats (where they are just a distraction).
• Why does it look the same (and very grainy) when you are talking to your wingman right next to you, or command on the other side of a node?
Due to the extreme tactical jamming, EMCON could dictate that practically all military comms be conducted using subspace radio, no matter the realspace distance, to avoid disruption in the more classic EM spectrum.
TLDR: in this universe, it seems sometimes the smartest tactic is the one that looks suboptimal on the surface. The Shivans fall into this trope—the comparative lack of drones and AI missiles is another, distinct example.