Header art by Quendan Comari.
There’s a problem with carriers.
To copy-paste directly from Wikipedia, William S. Lind, in the book America Can Win (p. 90), defines a capital ship as follows: “These characteristics define a capital ship: if the capital ships are beaten, the navy is beaten. But if the rest of the navy is beaten, the capital ships can still operate. Another characteristic that defines capital ships is that their main opponent is each other.”
Both halves of the above definition hold perfectly true for dreadnoughts, faxes, supercarriers, and especially titans. It’s no accident that the Massacre in M2, the ensuing hellcamp and the ongoing operations in that system are all about the titans. The side that loses all its titans first, loses this war. The hundreds of dreadnoughts papi sacrificed to extract half of their trapped titans is a painful loss to them, too, but that’s the price of pulling their leg out of the bear trap.
And sure enough, dreadnoughts’, supercarriers’ and titans’ natural enemies, by and large, are each other. But where do carriers fit in this? Do they even match the definition?
Well…no. They don’t. Carriers are the red-headed stepchild of the capital lineup, at best.
For a start, light fighters just don’t do enough damage to kill capitals. One-on-one, if you put a carrier up against a fax, it won’t even come close to breaking the fax’s tank. XL weapons, meanwhile, will sneer at a carrier’s EHP and local rep: put a carrier up against a dreadnought, and the dread pilot will thank you for the easy kill. And if a titan deigns to notice a carrier at all…
Support fighters? Dromis are redundant against a ship with a top speed of 90m/s; Sirens are redundant against anything stuck in a bubble; a full flight of Cenobites is equivalent to one medium neut; and Scarabs are out-performed in every way by a T1 Blackbird, with the added insult that capitals all have sensor strengths so high that the odds of jamming them are basically “lol.” Support fighters are universally useless against capital ships.
All of which is to say that a carrier’s natural prey is subcaps, and they therefore fail to meet the second half of Lind’s definition.
But what about the first half?
There is one way in which carriers meaningfully engage capital ships: the space superiority fighter. And those are invaluable, there’s nothing better at killing fighters than SS fighters. You even get a killmail for killing fighters, so CCP at least agrees that killing fighters is important. You don’t get a killmark though, so they also think that killing a heavy fighter group isn’t as noteworthy as killing a basic T1 frigate three orders of magnitude less expensive.
I can understand why. Fighters are a weapon system, frigates are a player. Gut-check anyone in the game on whether they’d rather get the final blow on a Condor, or the final blow on an Ametat II, and I suspect that most would prefer the Condor even though it is massively less valuable in terms of both ISK and DPS. You just beat an actual human being after all. Fighters are just a glorified drone.
But a supercarrier that loses all its fighters just lost all its DPS. It may still be useful for its ewar burst, command burst and cloning function, if fitted, but it has otherwise been declawed and is now unable to hunt its prey.
Not only that, but Imperium space superiority fighters have thwarted several outbreak attempts in M2-XFE just in the last week. The idea for this article came to me during the third such occasion, while sitting comfortably on Big’s High Ground with thousands of SS fighters orbiting the bubbles above me: their presence drove away the papi light fighters that were popping the bubbles. The bubble field is therefore intact, and the papi titans within it remain trapped. Objective achieved.
It certainly wasn’t the most gripping, high-octane combat ever. The first time, on the 27th of January, was much more interesting. I was on 32 killmails…all fighters. (EDIT: On the 3rd of February, after I submitted this article, we had two more such fights just to drive the point home.)
These battles may not have festooned my Nidhoggur in killmarks, but if we weren’t there doing that job, guess what? Titan breakout. And Mittens has made it pretty clear that we’re more interested in killing those titans, or making papi pay a heavy price to extract them, than in anything else the enemy is doing right now.
Carriers full of SS fighters (my affectionate nickname for them is “Flakswarm” as though it were an actual SIG) have now saved that strategic objective at least five times by my count. You’d think with all the above being said, that means carriers play an invaluable strategic role. But…no.
Because supercarriers can launch SS fighters too.
The core problem plaguing the humble Archon, Chimera, Nidhoggur and Thanatos is that they are basically redundant. Anything they can do, an Aeon, Wyvern, Hel or Nyx can do better, and the supers can do some extra stuff on top that keeps them somewhat useful and relevant even when their fighter reserves are depleted. And of course, if you can fly a carrier, you can fly a super. They use the exact same hull skills. So in a lot of cases, the carrier is just where those of us who are currently too poor to afford our super hull bide our time and fantasize about being important. Carrier pilots move on to supers: super pilots sell their carriers.
All of which means that carriers also don’t fit the first half of Lind’s definition. If we lost every single carrier we have, the navy would not be suffering for it. If we lost every dreadnought we have, on the other hand…
TL;DR—Carriers are not invaluable to the navy, and their main opponent is not other capital ships. They do not meet either half of the definition of a capital ship.
That needs to change.
The most fun starting point would be to start awarding killmarks for sweeping the skies of fighters. They can still be less valuable than a player kill, though. How about one mark per five fighter wings destroyed? That, after all, represents an entire supercarrier’s contingent of fighters in the air at once. Killing that much firepower ought to be recognized.
But really, that’s just a silly vanity thing. What carriers need is a unique and valuable battlefield niche that they alone occupy.
My suggestion: make Space Superiority fighters exclusive to carriers. Supers can keep their heavies and long-range fighters, lights and supports can swing both ways, but only carriers can launch SS.
This change all by itself would create a unique and irreplaceable tactical role for the carrier. It would make them strategically necessary, not just a stepping stone that us space peons use while we save up for our first real capital ship. If you don’t bring carriers, then the enemy supers can do their thing basically uncontested. If you bring carriers and the enemy don’t, then their supers can only watch helplessly as their heavies are torn to pieces.
Suddenly, Flakswarm would be a real thing, not just my silly joke about a role we sometimes assume. Controlling the skies and providing a fighter escort for our supercarriers’ heavies would be our primary and necessary function, with the option of switching to anti-subcap when appropriate.
But why stop there? Let’s dream a little bigger, see if we can expand the carrier’s role even more and turn them into a ship that FCs really want to have around, and players want to fly.
Well, why not take away the supers’ command bursts too? In fact, take them from the faxes and titans while we’re at it! Do that, and boost carriers suddenly become an important accent in a capital formation, in much the same way as you’ll find Storks and Bifrosts at the heart of our HAC fleets, providing boosts and protecting them from bombs via their defender missiles.
I feel I should apologize to SOPHIA ‘ALIZABETH’ S at this point, for daring to suggest any harm to her beloved supercarriers. But neither of these are ground-breaking changes, nor would they render supers (or faxes, or titans) obsolete if implemented.
It’s tempting when trying to think of ways to make EVE better to propose exotic new modules, or unique abilities that add a whole new mechanic to the game. Personally, I favour a “less is more” approach. If you can, through a modest reshuffle of situationally useful abilities, greatly improve the value of one class of ship without significantly damaging another, that’s enough.
Carriers could—and, I submit, should—be to capital fleets what a command destroyer is to a subcap fleet. Wanted. Useful. Protective and supportive. Sniped first, probably.
But you know what? That’s okay. I’d much rather be important enough to get doomsdayed than ignored as irrelevant, which is where carriers are at right now.
It’s time to show them some love.