|HTL CHAPTER 114: TIGER HUNT, PART FIVE- HAMMER AND ANVIL
Written by Raptor
Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.
-Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Command Briefing Room, BWS Valeria
Loki VI Debris Field, Loki System
1100 Hours, 13 Feb 2681 (2681.044)
The Valeria's tactical staff had begun analysing the information gathered by the Ghost Warriors as soon as it had begun arriving via the real time feed from the recon pilots. They all realised that the enemy ships represented a real threat to the Border Worlders if they were left to their own devices, but they also presented the Border Worlders with a golden opportunity to strike back at the enemy that was hunting them. The Nephilim had made their move by sending the ships into the debris, so now it was up to the Border Worlders to counter that move.
Now, all of the Valeria's senior officers were gathered around the holo-table in the centre of the briefing room to plan the next stage of this campaign. The officers from the Freedom, Littenia and the various escort cruisers and destroyers were taking part in the meeting via the video screens that had been set up around the room. There was no sense in them leaving their ships with the tactical situation as tense as it was.
"Okay, let's get started," Admiral Hanton said. She looked tired already, having had very little sleep over the past day. She didn't expect to get much sleep in the next couple of days either. This campaign was just moving into high gear, and the mission they would be planning here today would bring the Nephilim down on them like a ton of bricks. That, of course, was the whole idea.
"As you know, our fighter patrols have ambushed and destroyed two large enemy fighter probes since late last night, as well as smaller scouting groups." The Admiral continued. "The current casualty count stands at just over a hundred enemy fighters destroyed for about a dozen of our fighters destroyed or out of action with severe damage. It now seems the Nephilim have decided to escalate the search for us. Our recon pilots have tracked a group of about a dozen capships moving into the debris field in search of us."
The Admiral paused to let everyone absorb that information. The casualty counts sounded good at first, but it had to be remembered that the Nephilim carriers had started out with over 1000 fighters to throw at them, compared with their two hundred. They were staying ahead at the moment, but the battles would only get harder from this point on. Soon, those carriers would start throwing everything at them, and they would have to fight tooth and nail to survive.
Admiral Hanton was as aware of that as anyone else, and she took a deep breath before continuing, aware that her plan would in all probability bring a massive attack down on them. "By late today or early tomorrow, the first of the attack groups from the rest of the fleet should be closing in for the kill. By then, I want the attention of those carriers to be totally and utterly focused on destroying us. Let's keep in mind that each of our attack groups has fewer fighters than we do, and they'll be out in the open rather than sheltering in the debris field. If those Nephilim carriers have a full fighter complement on board when our strike groups move in, this whole operation will turn into a disaster."
"As far as I can see, the best way to gain their attention would be to hurt them so badly that they'll have no choice but to come after us with all guns blazing. We can't go after the carrier groups themselves, because their fighter complement can overwhelm ours in a pitched battle out in the open. However, seeing as the Nephilim have chosen to send some of their escorts after us, we'll hit them instead."
"The strike mission needs to be a surgical strike, not a prolonged battle of attrition. We need to minimise our casualties and conserve strength for when the carriers hit us, so we won't be going after the entire capship force. Instead, we'll draw off some of their strength with a diversionary strike, while a second strike group moves in for the kill. As our flight wings, will carry out this entire operation, with no involvement by our escorts, I'll leave the detailed planning of the mission to the Wing Commanders."
"Our immediate concern will be positioning of our carrier forces to deal with any Nephilim counter-strike. We need to be close enough to support each other in case any one carrier comes under massive attack, but not so close that any Nephilim scout group can locate more than one carrier at a time. Chelsea, for now, I want the Freedom to operate independently of the Valeria, with the Spitfire and two of our destroyers as escorts."
"Aye, aye, Admiral." Commander Damien Chelsea said crisply. The Freedom was officially designated as a support carrier to the Valeria as part of Battlegroup Valkyrie, but independent operations had always been part of the battlegroup's strategic planning. The Freedom was a light carrier, and would be less able to fend off an all out attack than the two fleet carriers, but Chelsea wasn't unduly worried by that fact. He had served with Admiral Hanton for over a decade. He had started out as a communications officer on the now infamous TCS Melbourne, and had joined the then Captain Hanton and the rest of the Melbourne's crew when they had defected to the Border Worlds. He had then served as Hanton's second officer during the Battle for the Bush, before assuming command of the Freedom at the start of this campaign. As a result, he had full confidence in the Admiral.
"Captain Hughes, I want the Littenia to maintain a minimum of one million klicks separation from both the Valeria and the Freedom at all times, along with your escorts. I'll order our communication and tactical staff to maintain real time tight beam laser link with you at all times, so that your tactical staff will be kept appraised of any changes."
"Aye, Admiral." Captain Richard Hughes said. He hadn't served with Admiral Hanton before the start of this campaign to hold the line, but he had heard all about her career. She had only lost one battle in her entire career, and none of the Border Worlders held that one against her. They figured that since she had up against Border Worlders in that battle, she never had a chance to begin with. Apart from that one blemish, she had had an outstanding record of success against first the Kilrathi and now the Nephilim. Captain Hughes, himself an experienced officer, had also been impressed by the level of respect shown the Admiral by even the most junior crew and pilots who served with her. It took a special kind of senior officer to earn the respect of the rank and file, most of whom distrusted anyone wearing stars. All of that made Captain Hughes trust her judgement as well, though not as implicitly as those who had served with her did.
"Admiral, that'll leave Valeria with just the Nemesis and one destroyer for cover." Chelsea pointed out. Battlegroup Valkyrie had lost one destroyer and the heavy cruiser Warspite in the Tyr system, which left the group short of escorts.
"I'm aware of that, Chelsea, but the Freedom needs the extra destroyer more than we do. Besides, the Nemesis is probably worth two of our older ships in a fight. Now, to continue with what I was saying…"
Flight Wing Briefing Room, BWS Valeria
1200 Hours, 13 Feb 2681 (2681.044)
The last pilots straggling into the briefing room hurried to take up their seats. As with the briefing for the senior officers earlier, the Squadron Leaders and execs from the Valeria were in the briefing room itself, while those from the Freedom and the Littenia took part via video conference screens.
For once, there was none of the easy chatter that usually marked these briefings, even those leading up to difficult or risky missions. All of the pilots were keenly aware of a familiar face that was missing from the room, and of the seat left vacant in the front row as a mark of respect. The Squadron Leader of the Ghost Warrior Squadron, Lieutenant Colonel Ruth "Lynx" Lofton, had been killed in action less than two hours earlier, while leading the recon mission that had found the enemy warships. Her Arrow's cloaking device had failed, and she had chosen to sacrifice herself rather than endanger her pilots or the battlegroup.
As he called the briefing to order, Raptor felt her loss as acutely as he had when he had first heard the news. He and Lynx had served together while fighting the Kilrathi incursion in the Bush, and they had both taught at the Academy between in the brief lull before this current conflict. He hadn't formed as close a friendship with Lynx as he had with Phalanx and Skywalker, but he had always admired her for her dedication and for the caring, almost motherly concern she showed for the pilots under her command. Everyone who had known her would miss her deeply.
He shook his head. There would be plenty of time to mourn later, and chances were that they would be mourning a hell of a lot more good people before this was over. For now though, they had a job to do.
"Alright, here's the mission profile. Our target is a hunter-killer group of Nephilim warships that has been sent into the Loki VI debris field to track us down. The group consists of six Orca class destroyers escorted by an equal number of Barracuda class corvettes. As I said at our initial strategy meeting yesterday, our overall battle plan in this system is primarily defensive, but it's flexible enough to allow offensive action against any warships sent into the debris field. We want to hurt them badly enough to keep the attention of the Nephilim fleet firmly fixed on hunting us down. For that reason, the Admiral has authorised a strike against those warships."
"We'll be operating in three groups. Strike Group One will be under my command, and will consist of the Valeria's Retaliators and Excaliburs, along half the Valeria's complement of Stalker EW craft. Our mission will be to split up the enemy group into two so that the rest of you can ambush and destroy half of them. We'll do that by faking a strike against the pickets ships of that force, using torpedoes launched from the Retaliators, and then falling back in disarray when their fighter cover responds in force. The Stalkers will then use towed MOCSS decoys and their own EW gear to simulate the sensor profiles of a small group of incoming warships. Half the Stalkers will be positioned along the line of retreat taken by our fighters, while the rest will be positioned along a different vector. I know that it's standard for MOCSS decoys to be used independently of any towing craft, so it might seem a little strange for to be risking our Stalkers this way. The thing is though, the decoys just wouldn't have the endurance for this kind of mission if they were operating independently, so it's a risk we'll just have to take. With a little luck, we can convince the Nephilim that there are two weak capship groups coming at them, and use that as bait to get them to split up."
"Strike Group Two will consist of the Littenia's Retaliators, Bearcats, Avengers and Stalkers, under command of Colonel Travis. You will the "anvil" in this operation. You will circle wide of the capship group that follows our fighters, and then shadow it from just outside sensor range. The debris should give some cover from accidental discovery by Nephilim scouts, but don't count on that. If there are scouts operating in your vicinity, you'll need to use the jamming capabilities of the Stalkers to ensure that the scouts don't have a chance to warn anyone before your fighters destroy them. The whole operation depends on you remaining undetected throughout, so you're under no circumstances to move in unless ordered by either Admiral Hanton or myself. When you do get the word, your group is to move in from the rear and sides of the enemy capships, leaving them with nowhere to go."
"Last but not least, Strike Group Three will consist of the Freedom's Bearcats and Avengers, along with the Valeria's Dauntless heavy bombers and the rest of our Stalkers, all under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Al-Fayeed. You will be the heavy hitters in this operation, the "hammer" so as to speak. You will be positioned along our line of retreat of the decoy group, about 300,000 klicks ahead of the Stalkers towing the MOCSS decoys. Once Strike Group Two cuts the Nephilim ships off, you'll accelerate straight in and hit them from the front. The fighters from the decoy group will link with you to give the bombers extra fighter cover. With a little luck, we should be able to wipe those ships out before they realise what's going on."
"Now, I'm sure that you've all noticed that we've left our light and medium fighter units out of this operation. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, as each Nephilim destroyer has a complement of 20 fighters, we'll most likely be facing between 60 and 80 fighters if we manage to split them up. Our fighters can handle that number, especially with jamming support from the Stalkers. Second, and much more importantly, I want as many fighters available to defend the carriers and stop enemy scouts from finding them as possible. It's still too early in the game to reveal the position of our flat-tops, not with all three of those Nephilim super carriers still active."
"Okay, that's the general outline. Before we get into sorting out the details, any questions?"
"What if the Nephilim don't take the bait?" That was from Colonel Walther Travis, AKA Howler, the Littenia's Wing Commander.
"There'll be two options in that scenario. The first will be for us to link up and press on with an all out attack regardless. The second will be fall back to the carriers, and hope that the aborted attack on their pickets will be enough to draw their attention. The final call will be up to Admiral Hanton, so pay attention to the comms. Anything else?"
"What about SWACS or refuelling support?" Lieutenant Colonel Chrys "Mirage" Rhodes asked.
"The SWACS will be monitoring the battle as well as it can through the debris, but its main role will be to keep searching for any scouts that might find the carriers. Seeing as our pilots don't have much experience flying offensive operations under SWACS control, both Admiral Hanton and I thought it was best to reserve the SWACS for the defensive role. Refuelling support from our shuttles will be available if we need it. That'll most likely be if the Nephilim don't take the bait, in which case we'll refuel when we regroup."
"Anything else? No? Alright, on to those details…"
Retaliator 001 (Reaper Lead)
Deep Space, Inside the Loki VI Debris Field
"Two minutes to nav point four." The flight computer intoned calmly.
Nav point four was the point where the attacking fighters would be able to be picked up on Nephilim long-range sensors. The Border Worlders had avoided detection until now by using the cloaked Excaliburs as forward scouts. The Excaliburs had then vectored around the Retaliators around the Nephilim fighter CAPs and scouts, preventing the Nephilim pilots from sounding the alarm. It had taken them over three hours of painstaking flying to penetrate the defences in that manner, as opposed to the 30 minutes or so it would taken if they had gone straight in, but it had given them the element of surprise. Simply going straight in would have seen them being cut to pieces by the 100 plus fighters aboard the destroyers.
Now, though, the fighters were just over 100,000 thousand klicks away from the Nephilim warships, the outer edge of sensor range under normal circumstances. The debris left over from the destruction of Loki VI would most likely reduce the sensor range, but the Border Worlders weren't going to take that chance. Once the fighters reached 100,000 klicks distance from the enemy, they would light their afterburners and run straight in, taking one quick pass at the nearest warships before turning tail.
Raptor checked his weapons display one final time, making sure that the two light torpedoes under the Retaliator's belly were armed and fully operational, as were the eight HS and IR missiles under the wings. Only three other Retaliators were armed with the torpedoes, with the others carrying a full loadout of anti-fighter missiles. The reason for that was that it was unrealistic to expect to do much damage to the warships under these circumstances, so there wasn't much point in expending warheads unnecessarily. The Reapers were first and foremost a fighter squadron, and the pilots didn't spend much time practising torpedo runs. That, along with the fact they were only taking a single pass, meant that they would be very lucky indeed if they took out more than one warship. At the same time though, they were only ones who could do the job. The bombers just didn't have the speed for this kind of operation, and they wouldn't be able to defend themselves as well as the superiority fighters could.
"Nav point four." The flight computer said.
Raptor took a deep breath. "All fighters, go!"
As one, the Retaliators lit their afterburners, accelerating to their maximum speed of 1200 KPS as they raced towards the enemy warships. The Excaliburs dropped out cloak to the right of the Retaliator formation, matching their speed. From this point on, the Excaliburs would avoid cloaking unless it was absolutely necessary. So far, the Border Worlders had been able to keep the fact that could evade Nephilim anti-cloak sensors by limiting the use of the cloaks to scouting missions and quick ambushes that wiped out the enemy pilots before they realised what was happening. Cloaking among the enemy warships would give away the secret right then and there. The Border Worlders would much rather keep the cloaked fighters as an ace up their sleeves.
At 1200 KPS, it would take just under a minute and a half to cover the distance to the enemy warships. Those ninety seconds passed in a blur for the Border Worlds pilots. The debris field was fairly dense at this point, and it was took everything the Border Worlders had to avoid splattering themselves against the chunks of rock that raced past them. Most of them made it safely, but one of the Retaliators disintegrated as it flew headlong into an asteroid the size of a mountain. Its unfortunate crew became the first casualties of the operation, but they would certainly not be the last.
In the meantime, the Nephilim began to react as their sensors picked up the incoming fighters. The two dozen or so Morays and Mantas that had been flying cover for the warships broke off to intercept the Border Worlders. The Excaliburs accelerated to their full speed, using the 100 KPS speed advantage they had over the Retaliators to ensure that they met the enemy first. The two groups clashed head on, and it was the Nephilim who came off second best. The brutal punishment dished out the Excaliburs' auto-tracking tachyon and reaper cannons was too much for the fragile Morays, several of whom fireballed under the onslaught. The more heavily armoured Mantas fared better, but they too suffered from the lethal barrage. Two of the Excaliburs went down as well, shredded by the lethal plasma bursts of the Mantas.
As the two groups of fighters blew past each other at the end of the firing pass, the Excaliburs simply kept on going. The Nephilim pilots, though, now found themselves in a no win situation. Those who kept going straight ahead found themselves receiving more of the same from the auto-tracking tachyon and stormfire cannons of the Retaliators. Those that opted to reverse direction to tail the Excaliburs found themselves being hammered by heat seeking missiles launched by the Retaliators. Either way, the results were much the same, and the remaining Nephilim fighters soon joined their comrades in oblivion.
The Nephilim destroyers were beginning to launch new fighters by now, but those fighters were easy prey for the Excaliburs as they came out the launch tubes one by one. The Excalibur pilots simply gang-banged them, with two or three pilots setting on each newly launched fighter. The Excaliburs didn't have time destroy every fighter before they had to move on to the next one, but they destroyed and crippled enough of them to keep the Nephilim fighter cover at bay. That was all they needed to do.
Meanwhile, the Retaliators swooped down on the outermost warships, ignoring the corvettes to concentrate on a pair of destroyers. As the four torpedo carrying Retaliators lined up for their runs, half the remaining fighters circled to cover them from any attack by the Nephilim fighters. The rest of the Retaliators swooped in the two destroyers, their heavy cannons trying to batter the defensive turrets that surrounded the engines and bridges into submission. The warships fired back with everything they had, maser cannon bursts lighting up the darkness like an eerie and utterly lethal fireworks display. The attacking Retaliators punched their afterburners and raced away from the warships as they finished their run, their shields still glowing with the energy they had absorbed.
The torpedo carrying Retaliators came in right behind them, releasing the warheads when they were about 5000 klicks from the Orcas. The warheads were launched haphazardly, rather than being precisely targeted at individual ship components as those launched by an experienced bomber squadron might have been. As a result, one of the destroyers was unfortunate enough to be the target of six torpedoes, while only two warheads targeted the other ship.
As soon as the torpedoes were launched, both fighter squadrons peeled away, racing backing into the debris and out of sensor range. They had lost another fighter, a Retaliator that had been nailed by one of the missile turrets as it launched its torpedoes. By any measure though, the torpedo attack was a success. One of the Orcas detonated as torpedoes ripped into its core, while the other took a direct hit in the engines that left it crippled. The attack would be a stinging slap in the face for the Nephilim, hopefully one that would provoke them into doing something stupid.
Dauntless 001 (Hammer Lead)
Inside the Loki VI Debris Field
Lieutenant Colonel Rashid "Saladin" Al Fayeed had to admit that he was getting more than a little nervous. It had been over two hours since the first strike. According to the original plan, the Nephilim warships should already have reached the ambush site by now, allowing the second phase of the operation to go ahead.
Unfortunately, it hadn't quite worked out like that. The Nephilim had been very slow to give chase, and the two squadrons of Border Worlds fighters had been well on the way back by the time the Nephilim capships began to move out. The Retaliators and Excaliburs had been forced to turn back and harass the leading Nephilim fighters, making sure that the Nephilim stayed interested in them, and trying desperately to lead the Nephilim towards Strike Group Two.
The tactic had been working so far, and the Wing Commander had radioed a few minutes ago that the leading Nephilim fighter elements should be close enough to pick up the sensor signatures of the Border Worlds "capships" (in reality the MOCSS decoys towed by the Stalkers), and warn their warships that they were about to be "attacked" by the Border Worlds ships. With two groups of Stalkers closing in from different directions, it would hopefully be enough to get the Nephilim to split up, and leave one group open for the body blow.
Unfortunately, the Border Worlders now had another problem. MOCSS decoys had originally been designed for short term use, either by providing extra "targets" to foil torpedo or CSM strikes when a capship squadron came under attack, or by acting as "force multipliers" to make an attacking capship squadron appear much stronger than it really was. The fact that the decoys hadn't been designed to simulate a capship for several hours hadn't stopped the Border Worlders, of course. Over the years, they had become well used to improvising. Using the Stalkers to tow the decoys had boosted the decoys' endurance massively, as all of the decoys' internal power had been able to be channelled into imitating the sensor signature of warships. The fact that the decoys had been primarily simulating the signatures of small warships such as destroyers had also helped extend their endurance. Even so, the decoys were now very close to burning out their signal emitters.
If the decoys burnt out now, the whole plan would be shot to hell. Even a species as characteristically slow on the uptake as the Nephilim seemed to be would be more than a little suspicious if two groups of warships suddenly disappeared from their sensor screens. All the Border Worlds pilots were hoping and praying that the decoys would last another half hour or so, until the two groups of Nephilim ships were far enough apart for Strike Group Three to cut their target group off.
The next twenty-eight minutes dragged by agonisingly, and the nerves of the bomber pilots were stretched further with each of those minutes. Strike Group Two would provide the killing blow if everything went according to plan, but it was also the most vulnerable of the three groups if it all turned to custard. One unit of fighters, even fighters as fast and heavily armed as the Bearcats were, simply couldn't provide enough cover for the two bomber squadrons against a really determined fighter attack. They were wide open right up until the decoy fighters linked up with them. The pilots understood that it was a calculated risk, just like this entire mission was, but that didn't mean that they had to like it.
At long last, the bombers received the message that Strike Group Three had been able to cut off one of the Nephilim warship groups, and was steadily closing in from behind. Now it was time for Strike Group Two to move in. The entire strike group ignited their afterburners, closing in on the ambush point. Even so, it was a slow trip, as the entire group was tied to the speed of the bombers. The massive Dauntless' could only move at a maximum speed of 600 KPS, only fractionally faster then speed that the Bearcats could have moved without lighting their burners. What they lacked in speed though, the heavy bombers made up in firepower, as each carried a whopping warload of 12 heavy ship-killer torpedoes. Using them against such a small group of light warships was really overkill, but their commanders firmly believed that it was far better to arrive on the battlefield with too much firepower than with too little. If they had ended up taking on all the Nephilim ships at once, that firepower would have come in very handy. Besides, if nothing else, the ability of these behemoths to shred a warship in one pass would leave a lasting psychological impression on any Nephilim that survived, and by extension on their comrades and commanders. Once again, the idea was to reinforce on the Nephilim that the Border Worlds carrier force was a significant target that had to be eliminated.
It took just over eight minutes to cover the 300,000 klicks distance to the ambush point. The Excaliburs and Retaliators linked up them halfway through the flight. The Retaliators took point ahead of the bombers, ready to meet and incoming coming fighters head-on, while the Excaliburs took up formation behind the bombers to cover their tails. The Bearcats stayed with the bombers, with each Bearcat pilot taking responsibility for covering an individual bomber.
As the group arrived at the ambush point, the fighter and bomber squadrons from Strike Group Three also swept in, leaving the Nephilim with nowhere to go. There were five Nephilim ships in all, two destroyers and three corvettes, escorted by about sixty fighters. Between them, the Border Worlds strike groups had over 60 fighters, as well as over 30 bomber craft. Not only that, they had the advantages of both surprise and superior positioning. Given those advantages, along with the fact that Nephilim fighters had never been a match for human craft one-on-one, it would hardly be honourable to put the Nephilim under any further handicaps.
Then again, it's the Kilrathi who fight with honour; Border Worlders just fight to win.
The Stalkers, both those that had accompanied Strike Group Three and those that had been towing the decoys, began using their powerful jammers with deadly effect. The intense and chaotic noise generated by their jamming pods scrambled Nephilim tracking systems, radars, and even communications equipment. In a matter of seconds, the Nephilim fighter cover went from being a cohesive force to a disorganised and confused mass of individual craft that provided easy pickings for the Border Worlds fighter pilots. Here and there, small groups of Nephilim fighter pilots managed to adapt to the jamming well enough to offer some resistance, claiming a few kills. The outcome was really a foregone conclusion, though, as the Border Worlds pilots burned their opponents down without mercy.
Once the fighter cover had been neutralised, the two Retaliator squadrons systematically blew away the turrets on each destroyer. Close on their heels came the bombers, ripping the warships apart with precise torpedo salvos. Meanwhile, the Excaliburs used their powerful cannons to wipe out the corvettes. One by one, the Nephilim warships exploded into flame and debris. The half dozen or so Nephilim fighters that had survived to this point now decided that discretion was the better part of valour and beat a hasty retreat.
The Border Worlders let them go. For one thing, they wanted the survivors to spread the word about what had happened. For another, the second group of Nephilim ships must have realised what had happened by now, and would be moving in soon. The Border Worlders, having achieved what they had set out to do, had no wish to engage the second group. They too knew that discretion was sometimes the better part of valour.
The Border Worlders had lost another eight fighters and bombers during the ambush, bringing their total losses to a dozen craft. That was in exchange for over eighty Nephilim fighters and half a dozen warships. That certainly wasn't bad, but their losses weren't as low as they had hoped for either, especially since this attack was sure to bring a major response from the Nephilim. The Border Worlders faded back into the debris field, their thoughts already turning to what the next stage of this tiger hunt would bring.