The concept of small spacecraft or starfighters enjoyed mixed success during humanity's ascendance and dominance over the galaxy.
Swift, agile and cheap, starfighters performed fairly well as cheap weapon platforms that could harass large, sluggish targets from a distance.
In fact, humanity initially deployed drones to serve this role, but they became too prone to hacking. Any rival with a bone to pick could sneak in and sabotage the AIs controlling the donres, causing them to fire on their allies instead!
This meant that piloted starfighters actually played a respectable role during the Age of Stars and Age of Conquest.
Yet when humanity finally started to fight against the big boys of the galaxy, the downsides of fielding starfighters became very prominent.
Their small size meant that they became exceptionally vulnerable to massive, ship-scaled armaments with huge areas of effects. In fact, detonating a few nuclear missiles or anti-matter bombs in the middle of a formation was enough to wipe out hundreds of them at a time!
Casualties mounted to such an extent that the romanticism surrounding starfighters quickly faded. Deploying starfighters in the middle of a battle between huge warships was as idiotic as deploying infantry in a battle between mechs!
Just a few powerful weapon discharges was enough to kill huge swathes of annoying ants!
Even after the end of the Age of Mechs, the rise of mechs eclipsed every other weapon platform during the Age of Mechs.
Certainly, starfighters were more viable than before. The absence of warships in most of human space meant that smaller weapon platforms could actually play a role.
Sadly, when starfighters were pitted against mechs, the latter always gained the upper hand.
The advantages of mechs over starfighters were very clear.
Mech pilots were practically born for the job. When paired with a suitable mech, they made their machines come to life. Skilled mech pilots distinguished themselves by directly controlling many functions of a mech to make the most of their machines.
In contrast, starfighters piloted by norms lacked the advantages of a man-machine connection. Though cheap, the dependence on automation and the lack of fluidity in employing starfighters meant that they always fared worse against an equal force of mechs.
States stopped pumping money into making starfighters because the costs outweighed the benefits. War during the Age of Mechs had subsided into smaller, more focused conflicts centered around conquering territory and pushing ideologies.
Once the Age of Mechs took off and everyone began to fall in love with mechs, the Mech Trade Association began their fatal assault on alternate weapon platforms!
A whole swathe of weapon platforms such as starfighters, defensive platforms and the like were subject to numerous restrictions!
Their use in human conflicts had to be constrained at all costs!
Certainly, the MTA made a very persuasive argument for their case. When the outcome of a conflict solely depended on mechs, the damage inflicted to the parties involved was a lot less severe than if other weapon platforms entered the mix!
The benefit of mechs on the other hand was that its numbers were always finite. The amount of mechs a state could field would always be limited by their limited pool of manpower.
Only around 3.5 percent of humans possessed the right genetic aptitude to pilot mechs. Of that 3.5 percent, only a portion of them actually became mech pilots.
By narrowing the scope of human infighting to battles between a small number of highly-trained professionals, much of human vigor would still be preserved after the end of a war.
In other words, less people died.
Scarred by the mass deaths and genocides that characterized the latter days of the Age of Conquest, many humans embraced this logic.
The approval of the masses, the power wielded by the MTA and the tacit consent of the CFA all supported the new policies.
Since then, the restrictions on starfighters and other competing weapon platforms came into force!
Both Ves and Gavin recalled the history surrounding the ruling that was meant to put the nail in the coffin for starfighters.
Therefore, Ves was a bit surprised to hear that they would be making a return.
"Has the MTA approved?"
"They did." Gavin nodded. "Every state intending to mass produce starfighters has received the greenlight to pull out all the stops. Since aliens aren't entitled to the protections enjoyed by humans, we don't have to abide by as many restrictions."
It would be stupid to fight with one hand tied behind your back against the aliens. In fact, people even began to wonder whether they would be allowed to construct warships again.
Unfortunately, that was a bridge too far for the Big Two. For now, deploying lots of starfighters was the most a state could get away with at this time.
"Now that I think about it, resorting to starfighters make a lot of sense." Ves mused while rubbing Lucky's back. "Starfighters are simply smaller and mobile versions of defensive platforms that are placed in the orbit of planets. The biggest downside to orbiting defensive platforms is that they have to wait for the sandmen fleet to come within firing range before they can do their jobs."
At that stage, a sandman fleet almost reached the end of its destination! Even if hundreds of defensive platforms orbited a planet, just one sandman vessel had to go through and make landfall in order to wipe out a city of millions!
On the other hand, if starfighters could be deployed in the outer reaches of a star system, they could whittle down a sandman fleet over days. This put the populated planets out of danger.
"A lot of states threatened by the sandmen have started to get in on the action." Gavin summoned a small projection which showed snippets of recent news broadcasts. "The Bright Republic has already recruited their first batches of starfighter pilots from the auxiliary regiments and they're recruiting more. A lot of desperate norms who feel powerless in the face of alien annihilation have applied in spades."
"Well, at least the Bright Republic isn't lacking for volunteers. Do you know how the military intends to deploy the starfighters?"
"The bright senate has authorized the creation of the Starfighter Corps to field the new machines. It's a new branch and they're still working out the details. I think we'll be witnessing the first new starfighter wings in battle within a month."
"The government has been cooking up this plan for months, boss. Did you know that one of the reasons why most of the shipyards in the regions no longer accepted any orders? It's because the governments all placed orders for lots of light carriers!"
"Light carriers? Isn't that kind of.. flimsy?"
"Many states are running into money problems. Everything has to be done as cheaply as possible. The training of starfighter pilots is rushed as fast as possible. The starfighters themselves are cheaper than frontline mechs. The carriers that bring them to battle are so shoddily constructed that they won't even last an entire decade!"
All of these measures make it clear that the deployment of starfighters was nothing more than a desperation plan. Unlike the Mech Corps which enjoyed a generous budget, the Starfighter Corps had to field as many fighter craft as possible at a fraction of the budget!
That made Ves a little mollified. As a mech designer, he selfishly favored the primacy of mechs. The rise of alternative weapon platforms such as starfighter posed a threat to the dominance of mechs.
"It's good that the states under threat can alleviate the pressure from the sandmen in this manner." Ves charitably said. "Do you have any more details?"
"The starfighters won't be anything fancy. They'll be mounted with side thrusters that can rotate in a full circle, thereby allowing them to fly forwards and backwards without changing their orientation. They'll be mounted with a cheap but efficient ballistic gun that can only fire forward. To cut down on cost, they don't have any armor to speak of. The goal behind their designs is to waste as few exotics as possible."
"That sounds like cannon fodder." Ves remarked. "An awful starfighter like that doesn't have the flexibility, armor or mobility to defeat a mech."
"They're not meant to be deployed against mechs. According to the analysts, the starfighters will mostly be deployed alongside mechs to add extra firepower to the fight while attracting the attention of the sandmen."
Ves realized the brilliance of this plan. "I see! The sandmen have never shown themselves to be selective in their targeting! Whenever they fire their heavy lasers, they always seem to pick a random target!"
The sandmen's dreaded heavy laser strikes constantly exacted a toll on the defense forces. Its sheer might meant that few mechs ever survived the blow when struck. The only reason that mechs managed to cope with it was due to its poor firing rate.
In such circumstances, adding more stuff in space gave the sandman vessels more targets to fire at. If half of the targets consisted of cheap, disposable starfighters, then the casualties suffered by mechs would probably be cut in half as well!
"The value of a mech is incomparable to the value of a starfighter." Gavin noted. "Aside from the cost difference, the manpower issue is even more crucial. Don't forget that our state has recently gone through a war. Compared to the Ylvaine Protectorate, we actually have less mech pilots per capita!"
As a mech insider, Ves was well aware that the Bright Republic had fallen into a low point with regards to their mech pilot reserves. By alleviating the pressure on mechs and mech pilots by attracting firepower away from them was a great solution.
The only downside was that this solution required the sacrifice of others.
"A lot of starfighter pilots will die."
"They're norms. Even if thousands of them die, we can replace them with a million more." Gavin grinned in a bleak manner. "Manpower for starfighters is the one resource that the government is the least worried about. Not only does the Starfighter Corps have a huge population of Brighters to draw from, they can also hire tons of refugees to take revenge against the sandmen!"
The logic surrounding starfighters became more and more compelling. Both the humans and machines were purposely kept as cheap as possible to add as much cannon fodder to the battlefield as possible.
"The more interesting question to me right now is how this will affect our business. Will our Desolate Soldiers still sell as much?"
"Our analysts don't expect demand to change. Mechs still play a leading role. It's just that they have a lot of company now. It's kind of like where before we only waged war by deploying cavalry. Now, we decided to add a lot of infantry to our armies."
That was a good analogy. Both cavalry and infantry had their own roles to play.
"What is the longevity of starfighters and the Starfighter Corps?"
"I don't know. If you ask me, unless there are other alien races bearing down on us, the Starfighter Corps will probably fade into the background after the Sand War."
That satisfied Ves. He really didn't want starfighters to stick around and divert attention from mechs.
In truth, he felt a little uncomfortable. The reintroduction of starfighters signalled that mechs alone could not shoulder the burden of protecting a state against external enemies.
Even though the second-rate states hadn't moved out in force against the sandmen, resorting to starfighters still represented an indictment against mechs.
"Do you think mechs have a future, Benny?"
"They'll always be around, I think. I'm not sure they'll remain as popular as you would like them to be. The Sand War has exposed the biggest defect of mechs. We simply don't have enough mech pilots to field as many mechs as we like."
Ves had no good response to that. The limited supply of mech pilots could only be alleviated if genetic aptitude no longer restricted humans from piloting mechs.
What were the chances of that happening?