User:Revanche/Combat DropShips 101

Note: This essay was written by forum poster Jellico and posted to those forums on 07 Nov, 2009. Added here with his permission.

Assault DropShips[edit]

In the beginning...[edit]

In the beginning there were fighters and mechjocks were nervous. Then the question was asked. “How can we get a bigger, badder fighter?” So was born the Assault DropShip.

Assault DropShips are odd beasts. They appear to perform a role similar to a heavy fighter yet their DropShip frames mean that they will never be able to be as efficient as a fighter. These same frames mean that they are incredibly vulnerable to capital weapons which make their use against WarShips suicidal. Why do they exist and what role do they play in naval combat?

Why am I Here?[edit]

So what does an Assault DropShip bring to the battlefield? The first and most important thing is ECM. As a large craft, a DropShip has large craft-grade ECM which extends in a bubble out from the DropShip. This bubble is basically impenetrable by anything short of another DropShip. In turn, that means any ASF attacking the DropShip or anything covered by the DropShip’s ECM is going to wear significant modifiers to its to-hit roll.

Well-positioned DropShips and ASF can mean a difference of 20-50% in the damage taken, so they can be well worth the effort to bring along.

The other reason to bring a DropShip is range. Now, I don’t mean the ability to travel interplanetary distances. I mean tactical weapon range on the battlefield. Now, this will leave more than a few people scratching their heads. After all, last time I checked, Assault DropShips and Fighters used the same weapons with the same ranges, but to understand, one needs to take a closer look at the average fighter.

Inner Sphere fighters are essentially short- and medium-ranged weapons platforms. The reasons are varied. Mainly it has to do with the original lack of XL engines and the general mass of IS tech long range weapons. Even modern fighters are unlikely to have more than a pair of ER Large Lasers or a LRM20.

While DropShips were always more likely to mount LRMs, the upgrades of the 50s took it even further with lasers and autocannon generally being replaced with ER lasers and gauss rifles. This has meant that all DropShips have retained their range advantage and especially the Assault ships.

What am I?[edit]

Defining Assault DropShips is difficult because they have a tendency to become hybridized. The following can be considered pure assault ships:

  • Achilles – The old school Assault ship. This is a truly deadly platform. Perhaps its deadliest feature is the ability to fire all its forward arcs at once at long range. Very effective as an escort, unfortunately its armor is not great by modern standards. It is also expensive.
  • Avenger – Effective but somewhat light. Armor is an issue; it is kept viable by its long range weapons once upgraded.
  • Claymore – Far too little firepower, costs too much and few long range guns. A wasted ship.
  • Kuan Ti – Runs far too hot, preventing it from using its wing arcs effectively. Low armor does not help. Also expensive.
  • Merlin – Flexible thanks to its spheroid hull it has good long range capabilities in its forward arc but is let down by its medium range, hot, side arcs which compromise the advantages of its hull.
  • Noruff – Pound for pound, C-Bill for C-Bill the deadliest DropShip in the game. Its secret is heavy armor which allows it to take on even the capital missile carrying Heavy Assault DropShips with a degree of success.
  • Pentagon – The Star League at its best. I do not know why they then went and made the Achilles. The combination of a spheroid form and long range weapons make it highly flexible and enable it to take on multiple fighter squadrons.

Additionally there are a number of hybrids that assign a transport role to what is nominally an assault ship. This is a somewhat extensive list but all of the ships listed are also described as Assault ships:

  • Arcadia – Powerful but expensive with some questionable weapon choices, this is another ship that has Assault characteristics in order to penetrate hostile space.
  • Assault Triumph – Why does this ship exist? While the guns are okay the armor is woeful and combat doctrine recommends using it for ground strikes once the troops are unloaded. Don’t. Just use this expensive ship as a penetrator.
  • Colossus – Carries reasonable firepower and solid armor but really just a big target.
  • Elephant – A tug boat that can match a Pentagon in battle. It is not even that expensive.
  • Fortress – Nominally one of the most powerful support craft, the Fortress is used in this role by luminaries like the Medusan mercenaries. However this ignores the poor armor for its size and limited weapons.
  • Hamilcar – Apparently designed for boarding operations rather than straight assault the ship’s light heat sinks and armor are potential problems.
  • Intruder – A brick, reasonably efficient and priced but let down by weak weapons. A penetrating transport rather than a true assault.
  • Lung Wang – Basically an expanded Leopard, the Lung Wang carries solid weapons in its forward arcs and solid armor.
  • Mercer – A transport designed to penetrate naval defenses. Well armored and fast, it is a formidable ship, though it runs hot. Again, this is a transport that should be using its weapons to penetrate rather than fight. Surprisingly cheap considering it is a better combat platform than all the regular Assaults.
  • Outpost – This has been described by the Inner Sphere as an “assault ship”, when it is clearly a transport.

Finally it must be said that all smaller (and expendable) DropShips may well see service as an Assault ship at a scratch. After all, they share the long range weapons of the true assault but tend to lack armor. This is especially true for the Clan DropShips which are universally well armed and armored. It speaks volumes that a mere Broadsword has the fighting power of an Avenger, Merlin or Kuan Ti.

Why Do You Hate Me?[edit]

Never never never send an Assault DropShip after a WarShip. It is technically do-able. But when even a Vincent can knock around a pair of Noruffs at will, it shows how inadvisable this is. Having said that, Assault DropShips make great anti-fighter escorts for WarShips. Their survival in this environment is usually a psychological trick. The WarShip is usually a more attractive target than the DropShips. Care has to be taken to encourage this line of thinking. Here, the weapon range is important because it means the DropShips can either move into the battle line and engage earlier than the fighters or stand back and minimize attacks on themselves.

When done properly, a couple of Assault ships combine with the WarShip to create an interlocking field of fire that can fend off even heavy fighter assaults. A classic example of this is a Thera Task Force. With at least 12 docking collars free for a mix of Achilles, Merlin and Hamilcar, these ships, in conjunction with the WarShips, put up enough firepower to prevent a force comparable to five Heavy Stars from approaching into combat ranges for fear of overly high losses for too little return. Given the FWLN tin-clads and their general lack of long range AA this is a significant achievement.

Another example of this saw a mix of 12 Broadswords and Union-Cs successfully holding off 50 IS fighters with no losses for 3 turns, before friendly fighters arrived and pinned the hostiles, allowing the DropShips to withdraw.

Finally, an example of what not to do saw 20 Achilles, Merlins and Hamilcars send up against a Leviathan II, Nightlord and 12 escorting DropShips. They were all dead in 10 turns. It doesn’t sound too bad until you realize the DropShips were not targeted outside 20 hexes, but 15 of the kills came in a 4-turn period at around 20-10 hexes. The use of battleships sounds impressive until one remembers that the Nightlord is under-gunned and the Leviathan’s short range firepower is matched by several cruisers. Because of the range modifiers involved, the DropShips did virtually no damage. Finally the Clan ships were under attack by other WarShips at the time, causing them to split their fire.

It is worth noting that DropShips can survive for a time under the guns of a WarShip. Using ECM and evasion, a DropShip can generate modifiers of +2 to +4. Added to the normal 4 gunner and a passing shot at medium range, the WarShip could well need 8s and higher to hit the DropShip. This sort of risk becomes viable in a fleet operation where the DropShip’s ECM can add a major advantage to any friendly ASF fighting under the WarShip’s guns. However, like above, the key is the psychology of the enemy WarShip. Is it willing to give up a few salvos at another WarShip to help its own fighters? That is the question that keeps the DropShips alive.

Why Are You All Here?[edit]

When operating with fighters, it is more complex. Assault DropShips lack the weapon range to prevent the fighters getting in close. The fluid nature of fighter combat means that a more weaving approach is the order of the day. The DropShip will draw attention, but this opens opportunities for the friendly fighters in classic wingman tactics.

The first advantage of having an assault ship stiffening your formation is that it greatly reinforces the first two turns of firing as the forces close on each other. With their effective long range guns they can thin out the opposing herd before the merge.

Once the merge happens, things get tough. The DropShip will be the primary target thanks largely to their reputation for being soft kills. Let us take a moment to dispel that myth. An average medium squadron is roughly equivalent to an Avenger. A heavy squadron is inferior to a Pentagon. These are not easy kills. Additionally, DropShips can fire fore, aft and even sideways at scales impossible for fighters. With their big weapon bays, crits come easily for them, while their high thrust ratings enable several of them to simply outmaneuver fighters, even with the initiative penalties.

Unlike fighters, DropShips can evade and fire at the same time. While there is a cost to this, it allows them to keep fighting and drawing fire for their wingmen. Mobility is the key. Keep moving; the enemy can’t afford to have a DropShip targeting them, but at the same time it will be forced to take on the fighters as well.

Finally, DropShips have very good ECM and can use it to support their friendly ASF. As it was noted above, ECM can add significant bonuses to the defense of friendly ASFs.

Fighting the Clans changes things somewhat. Clan aerospace Stars are the stuff of nightmares. Their numbers make them harder to kill than a squadron while the combined firepower of 10 Clan fighters is truly awesome. I have seen a Light Star kill a DropShip in a single salvo. More problematically for Assault DropShips, most Clan fighters have good long range capabilities. This removes the reason for the Assault DropShip’s existence. Additionally, the regular DropShips are all capable platforms. This makes the Noruff all the more interesting. It is probably the most powerful Assault ship short of the Heavies and the Mercer and Conquistador. Yet for all of that it is unable to defeat a single Star.

What I Don’t Do[edit]

Mention has to be made of the using aerodyne DropShips for ground attack. The idea sounds impressive but there are some serious concerns. They mainly involve the inability of DropShips to use bombs. This only leaves strafing and point attacks. Both of these bring the DropShip very close to the ground with all the usual chances of failing a control roll. Lawn darting a fighter is funny. Lawn darting a DropShip is expensive.

So what is an Assault DropShip?[edit]

It is a support unit, perhaps like a war elephant. Expensive, unlikely to win the battle on its own, but a force multiplier that is useful when available. Vulnerable to heavy damage, they need to be shielded, but this is only really practical when operating in an escort role. Normally an Assault DropShip has to rely on its own escorts to kill its enemies before it succumbs itself. They remain viable as long as they carry more long ranged firepower than their opposing aerospace fighters.

Heavy Assault DropShips[edit]

DropShips are a much misunderstood and maligned arm of a navy and the Heavy Ships are even more misunderstood. Weighed down with titles like “Pocket WarShip” and badly thought out, over-publicized design goals, many see them as death traps. However, by realigning the role of these ships to something more realistic, the Heavy Assault DropShip is a vital part of a modern navy.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly[edit]

There are currently 10 revealed Heavy Assault DropShips:

  • Nekohono’o – A modern design based around fighting WarShips. Its abilities are perhaps the most deadly but are also the most limited, mainly due to poor choices of secondary systems.
  • Overlord A3 – Nominally built to fight WarShips but lacking the firepower and armor to do the job. It has more in common with a traditional assault DropShip than the other Heavies.
  • Excalibur Pocket WarShip – Fluffwise a contemporary of the Overlord it makes use of massive missile batteries and active defenses lacking in the Overlord and Nekohono’o. It is perhaps the best suited to the roles a Heavy Assault DropShip can realistically perform.
  • Mule Q Ship (Armored) – Fluffed as a refit of a SLDF platform the Mule has achieved notoriety as a delivery platform for nuclear weapons at short ranges. However with a relatively low cost, the ability to fight off its broadside and flexible missile systems this class is a surprise packet I would love to see the writers use as more than just a trap for the unwary.
  • Mule Q Ship (Unarmored) – A variant that retains the armor of the base Mule. Interestingly this does not appear to affect its abilities much.
  • Union Pocket WarShip – A refit of the venerable Union to enable it to carry a pair of AR10s. This refit is barely more than a pair of mobile missile launchers. The Union PWS is little more than a bombardment platform.
  • Leopard Pocket WarShip – A Leopard frame refitted with a large teleoperated missile launcher in the bow. Because the missile launcher is teleoperated it has some real difficulties using its missile at range. Instead it is better suited to using its improved armor and thrust to close in and release its missile at close range. Naturally it likes packs and nukes.
  • Arondight – A Federated Suns platform that makes heavy use of sub capital missiles. With high thrust solid armor and good active defenses the Arondight is a good example of what can be done with modern technology. Unfortunately the mix of capital missiles is not as efficient as it might be.
  • Interdictor – A very capable assault ship it has more in common with a light assault ship rather than the more normal spheroids. Subcapital canons and nuclear capable missiles mate with a solid conventional battery, but the real strength is the very high thrust and superb armor which enable the Interdictor to close and kill just about anything.
  • Interdictor SubCap – An Interdictor variant which carries a heavier subcapital armament at the expense of conventional weapons. Like the regular Interdictor it suffers from poor positioning for its capital weapons but this is barely noticeable with its general effectiveness.

Currently Heavy Assault Ships are operated by the Federated Suns, Draconis Combine, Word of Blake and some SLDF-associated mercenary units. The Word of Blake, Free Worlds League and Federated Suns do operate a number of large assault ships like the Triumph and Conquistador, as the Star League operated the Elephant and Colossus, but these tend to be large mergers of regular assault ships and transports lacking the firepower of a true Heavy. Finally, there are the large carriers in the mode of the Titan, Vengeance and Miraborg. The difference between these ships and the Heavies is obvious.

Pocket WarShip?[edit]

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about the Heavy Assault DropShip was that they were tagged with this title early in their modern development. Combined with published fluff stating that these ships were intended to operate against WarShips, this has lead to Heavy Assault DropShips being committed to battle in places they have no right to be and naturally this resulted in heavy losses.

Despite the mental image associated with it, “Pocket WarShip” is a surprisingly accurate term, especially when one remembers that this use of the term largely derives from the use of the term “Pocket Battleship” assigned to the Panzershiffs of World War 2. Despite the name, those ships were NOT battleships and exploited a niche between full capital ships and traditional escorts. They were intended to fight the weak and flee from the strong. Originally this was largely true of Heavy Assault DropShips, but changes in technology have made them far more capable.

Fighting WarShips[edit]

Never send a DropShip against a WarShip alone. There. It has been said. It need not be said again. For those that insist on doing this consider the following example.

A Zechetinu II has 1260 points of armor, compared to a Nekohono’o’s 958 and 500 internal structure compared to 16. As long as its bow armor holds, a Nekohono’o will be doing damage in 300 point hits. Its lighter stuff is largely irrelevant as it won’t get close enough. The Zechetinu will throw back 360 off either broadside. The battle will be fairly even until armor is breached and the Zechetinu rolls, the Nekohono’o can’t, resulting in a dead DropShip. Now, arguably we can start talking about the costs of several DropShips compared to a small WarShip, but there lies the problem. This is a small WarShip. As they get bigger, they are rapidly able to handle more and more DropShips. Just how many DropShips are needed if one wants to stop the cruisers of a modern navy? Especially given the proliferation of 500 and 600 point weapon bays that can kill even an Overlord A3 in a single hit.

A far more practical option is to stay at range with the DropShips and attack using the potential accuracy advantages provided by the guided missiles. By far the most potent weapon available is the Kraken, which only comes in Teleguided form. Additionally, the popular AR10s provided useful, though light, damage too. But to do this it is strongly recommended that some kind of shielding be established between the DropShip and WarShip. The two choices are Fighters or other WarShips. The latter is best given that a WarShip will always be a more threatening and urgent target than a DropShip. But, at the same time, the weak armored DropShips need to be very aware of their positioning. It is easy to give the enemy WarShips a simple shot by accident and become a target of opportunity. Additionally, the DropShip may have to be willing to give up a range bracket with the associated targeting mods in order to reduce the fire being sent its way. Using Fighters as a shield is more difficult, unless one is patient and experienced. The difficulty is that there is no point in the WarShip seriously targeting the Fighters outside 25 hexes. The Heavy Assault DropShips have to wait until the WarShip is firmly committed to the Fighters before coming into range.

Probably the best of the anti-WarShip platforms is the Nekohono’o. This is largely due to its heavy damage. Armor is somewhat less important given the general impotence of even heavy DropShip armor.

Eggshells With Rocket Powered Uranium Tipped Vibro Sledgehammers[edit]

The WarShips of BattleTech have often been called "Eggshells with Sledgehammers", reflecting their massive firepower and relatively weak armor. However this can not be compared to the ratio of fragility and overwhelming firepower shared by the Heavy Assault DropShips. To put it into context, a Nekohono’o is capable of killing 90% of known DropShips, including itself, in a single hit. Just consider that for a moment. There are a few units out there that can be killed with single hits, usually small fighters and tanks. But this single class of DropShip is able to do this to virtually all of its compatriots. A frightening thought indeed. It doesn’t get much better. An Excalibur can do the same to about half of the existing DropShips and the Mule comes close. Interestingly, the Excalibur may be immune to this form of attack, being one of the few DropShips with effective AMS. An interesting thought.

This is perhaps the most effective use of a Heavy Assault DropShip. Unlike many WarShips, their payloads are nicely scaled to kill DropShips without much overkill. The capital missiles offer a massive range and damage advantage over most DropShips. The Excalibur and Mule even offer broadside fighting, a useful ability that eases maneuvering and offers better defensive mods. The Overlord offers an interesting alternative. It is far more like a traditional assault DropShip, relying on heavy armor and large batteries of long range conventional weapons. The capital missiles are almost an afterthought. Unlike when facing WarShips, the armor is of some use here, keeping the Overlord alive, even against capital missiles.

It can not be stressed enough just how soft these ships are. With weapon bays capable of thresholding 300 and 400 points of armor widely available in all DropShips, even these behemoths spend considerable time taking critical hits. Ultimately their missile systems enable them to behave differently to other DropShips, standing off and using range and accuracy to get kills, resulting in them needing surprisingly little armor.


Perhaps the best role for the Heavy Assault DropShip is the one least expected by their designers. They make superb anti-fighter escorts. It is often forgotten in the context of Heavy Assault DropShips that capital missiles are not anti-ship weapons. They are primarily anti-fighter weapons. With the exception of the Kraken, all offer high accuracy and thresholding against fighter-sized craft. Especially with Barracuda missiles, a DropShip can blind and immobilize a fighter before it can return fire.

Of course, in a lone situation the situation can rapidly deteriorate. After all, these are still DropShips with their relatively weak armor. It doesn’t take much to kill them. Two squadrons would do it. But when a shielding structure like a WarShip or defending fighters is in place, the tables are rapidly turned.

At this point it is probably important to give an overview of operations as an escort in battle and why a Heavy Assault DropShip is any better than a regular DropShip. The primary task of the escort is to maintain maximum fire while not being hit in return. The main way this is achieved is positioning the escort so that it is harder to hit than a more solid primary target, like say a WarShip. This, however, creates a problem. This positioning has the unfortunate effect of making it harder to hit the enemy. This is for two reasons. Firstly, the shorter-ranged weapon systems are taken out of range and secondly the targeting mods go up. This also applies at shorter ranges, too. The longer the ranges of the weapons, the more able they are to support ships in the battle line when the fighters do penetrate.

The missile systems of the Heavy Assault DropShips are the longest anti-fighter weapons available. The DropShips are a relatively cheap way of getting reasonable numbers of these weapons into a task force. Additionally, the large size of these DropShips means that their secondary weapons are often long ranged. In this way they are still effective in supporting a formation at shorter ranges and close in battles as a task force can easily range over a 10 hex area with combat taking place over 20 hexes.

This is an area where the Excalibur and Mule shine. Able to fight off their broadsides with large batteries of capital missiles, these ships don’t have to compromise their mobility by swinging their bows to face the action. A fault all the existing ships share is limited ammunition. To a degree, rolling can extend ammunition supplies but pre-existing damage can make this troublesome.

When the Wind Blows[edit]

Finally, mention has to be made of the use of Heavy Assault DropShips as bombardment platforms and nuclear delivery systems. Given the dangers inherent in the orbital environment (see DCS Sirawan) DropShips can been seen as a cost effective alternative. On the other hand, missiles do relatively little damage, they are expensive and come in limited magazines. This is not ideal for a bombardment weapon.

As a nuclear delivery system, a Heavy Assault DropShip is always going to be useful because of its ability to deliver payloads long distances. The Word of Blake has been using disguised DropShips to get combat ranges down to ensure hits, but it is just as viable to fire multiple weapons in a normal combat situation. Aside from the possible use of AMS, this is just a numbers game until a warhead scores a penetrating hit.

To Conclude[edit]

The Heavy Assault DropShip is a relatively recent development in naval warfare that has only come about thanks to the re-emergence of capital weapons. Despite their misuse, they have managed to carve out a niche for themselves in a balanced navy and may well possibly supplant small WarShips like the Zechetinu, which they largely mirror in capabilities and role. Either way, they are certainly here to stay.