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Pearls of Weber

A collection of posts by David Weber containing background information for his stories, collected and generously made available Joe Buckley.

The Grendelsbane yards vulnerability

  • Series: Honorverse
  • Date: October 22, 2002

In a message dated 10/19/2002 2:24:05 AM Eastern Daylight Time, Peter Cohen writes:

I've played strategic space campaign wargames for twenty years, including a year and a half long
Starfire campaign. Never once have I or any opponent ever placed major shipbuilding facilities anywhere other than their home system or some other position guaranteed to be equally defended. In the Honor universe, for the Manties that would be Manticore under protection of  Home Fleet or Yeltsin for the Graysons. To put such an utterly vital strategic asset anywhere less defensible is shear lunacy. Maybe I've missed  something as to some rationale but I've read the series three times and I do not recall reading any good reason for this catastrophic failure of intelligence.

(Presence of raw materials could not possibly be sufficient reason as a single freighter could carry sufficient raw material for a superdreadnought.)


There were several reasons for the development of the Grendelsbane yard. Some were good; some were poor. The good ones, of course, originated solely in the author's brilliant appreciation of logistical needs; the poor ones represent the sort of institutional mistakes which even the best militaries sometimes make. Much of the following discussion was once included in Ashes of Victory and War of Honor but got removed in an effort to reduce info dump overload. I include it here for those interested in such things, not because I think it was necessary to the books for dramatic purposes.

The Grendelsbane yards originally came into existence as a repair/refit facility for the extreme flank of the Manticoran Alliance. They were established not simply as a Manticoran facility, but to provide support for other navies operating in the area at a centralized location where economies of scale could be practiced. Remember that this logistics node was established initially during time of peace, before the war turned hot, and represented a perceived (and quite real) need to have an advanced repair and support complex in a critical region of the defensive glacis the SKM was building up. It was also the primary support base for the very powerful fleet which the SKM had stationed to cover that flank of its defensive perimeter. That both increased the need for capacity and put a powerful defensive force in position to cover it. Think of it as the equivalent of the Brits' Singapore, at least conceptually. (And if you think the similarity between what happened to Singapore in 1942, and what happened to Grendelsbane in War of Honor was sheer coincidence, I have some bottom land in Florida I'd like to sell you.)

As time progressed, more and more capacity was concentrated there. It made sense to the Powers That Were to put in fabrication nodes so that critical components could be produced on-site. And as the base became increasingly important, the commitment to its defenses — in both mobile and fixed units — grew to protect the investment. The fact that the defending fleet at the time of the actual attack was insufficient to the task says nothing at all about the capability of the defenses which had been in place earlier in the war. In particular, the base was defended by very powerful fixed fortifications — more powerful, in fact, than those being erected to cover the Trevor's Star terminus of the Junction. Unfortunately, those forts had been built with pre-Ghost Rider technology, and they hadn't been upgraded before the cessation of hostilities. Worse (and one of the reasons Janacek committed suicide), the Janacek Admiralty hadn't even assigned priority to getting large numbers of MDM pods to the forts there, which is the reason the Manty system CO didn't even consider trying to use them to defend the base when the Havenites turned out to have MDMs of their own. In Janacek's mind, however, Grendelsbane's location made it a "safe" sector, one which a covering force with a relatively small number of SD(P)s (with MDMs, which he didn't think the Havenites had) could easily protect. Even when he began to think in terms of a possible Havenite attack, his attention was fixed primarily on Trevor's Star because of the political consequences of an attack there.

But earlier than that, as both the capacity and the (then) toughness of the defenses grew, it also made sense to the Mourncreek Admiralty (this is one of the arguably poorer reasons, based on prewar logic, without the experience of actual, sustained operations) to spread out the SKM's production bottlenecks. Remember that the SKM was a single-system polity which had fought pirates and a few minor wars, but had never taken on an opponent of the PRH's size in a sustained war. One of the major concerns of the prewar Admiralty was the vulnerability of the RMN's yard capacity compared to that of the PRH, which had its capacity divided between multiple (well defended) systems. A single lucky PRH attack that managed to get into missile range of Hephaestus and Vulcan, for example, could have taken out something like 75% of the total building capacity of the SKM. By spreading out the targets, the RMN increased its defensive problems, but also put fewer of its eggs into a single basket.

I would also submit that wargaming — including Starfire, a system in which I take a certain proprietary pride — doesn't always produce the same results as real life. If you look at the US Navy's experience prior to the Cold War, building capacity was dispersed for multiple reasons. Locations of private builders, the need to provide Pacific and Atlantic yard support (and building capacity), etc. Building yards — as opposed to pure service and maintenance yards — were overwhelmingly concentrated on the East Coast, but after rather unpleasant experiences with new construction being bottled up in the Chesapeake during the War of 1812, a deliberate decision was taken to spread building capacity up and down that coast, between separate, defended nodes which would both provide building redundancy and make any future blockade much more difficult to maintain. This is analogous to the RMN's prewar thinking.

Moreover, the comparative building levels at Manticore proper and at Grendelsbane at the time of the cease-fire represent a compromise which even the prewar Admiralty would not have favored.

When the new types came into production, yard capacity was at an all-time premium. This is the entire reason, if you will recall, why the RMN had gone to dispersed yard practices similar to those of the Graysons. The productive capacity of the home system's existing infrastructure was fully committed to the ships being built there, whereas Grendelsbane had developed enormous reserve capacity due to the ongoing, long term, incremental build up of the support yards there. Grendelsbane never had the huge, "hard site" yards which the RMN had always favored, and the Admiralty had never intended it to become a major building center. But when they needed to build as many units of a totally new type as possible as quickly as possible, Grendelsbane had lots of fabricating capacity for components, and it was thus a logical candidate for a place to put additional dispersed yards. Especially since it already had formidable defenses in place. In a sense, the existence of the capacity drew the construction to it by a sort of natural capillary action rather than as part of any preplanned, logical development.

The ships laid down at Manticore were the earliest ones committed to, and it was their completion which provided the core of Eighth Fleet for White Haven's decisive operations. The ships at Grendelsbane had been laid down considerably later, as the Cromarty Government's new taxation programs provided the funds for the second, major wave of the RMN's expansion in the new types. As a result, more of the total Grendelsbane construction was at an unfinished stage when the cease-fire was so unexpectedly negotiated and the Janacek Admiralty effectively suspended construction on the majority of the new types. Because the ships being built in the home system were more visible to the public, and because the wages of the labor force committed to their construction would go straight back into the home system's economy, the High Ridge Government made the completion of the remaining ships at Manticore its priority building commitment. Those at Grendelsbane were suspended much earlier than those in the home yards. The fact that these were the older, Harrington/Medusa-class units (having been the first laid down) rather than the new Invictus-class units (laid down in the second wave) is also the reason that the ships under construction (and lost) at Grendelsbane were individually more powerful and capable than the ones actually in commission.

What this meant as of the beginning of War of Honor was that the majority of the new types available for completion were at Grendelsbane, where the work force had been built down (because the HR Govt had decided to cut military spending) and where the defenses had not been upgraded to reflect things like MDMs and CLACs (because the HR Govt had decided to cut military spending and because Grendelsbane was still a secondary objective compared to the home system… and, of course, the fact that Janacek was an idiot). Important as Grendelsbane undoubtedly was, it was also "out of sight, out of mind" as far as the Manty public was concerned, and so the HR Govt felt that it could be neglected with political safety. And, as the book attempts to make plain, the HR Govt (and Janacek) had so completely misread the military situation that they felt there was no need to upgrade the defenses in light of weaponry they didn't think the PRH even had.

The result was that the numbers of incomplete hulls which could be completed after Theisman announced the RHN's expansion were concentrated much more heavily at Grendelsbane… but that the labor force there had been reduced basically to maintenance levels. Since the ships couldn't be moved, the labor force had to be returned (accounting for much of the delay in getting the yards back into stride, as Janacek explained to his Cabinet colleagues), and because the Janacek Admiralty had run its funding so short, the upgrading of Grendelsbane's once formidable fixed defenses to handle MDMs was given short shrift in favor of resuming work on the ships. Moreover, the HR Govt and Janacek Admiralty had so many ships under construction at Grendelsbane (and had so few concerns about the yards' security there) that they opted to concentrate on completing the ships there rather than laying down new units at the home system, which is another reason the loss of so many incomplete ships hurt the RMN's future deployment stance so badly.

As far as specific Starfire comparisons are concerned, it would be well to remember the difference between warp lines and hyper-space. In the Starfire universe, absent the discovery of a closed warp point in a core system, the defenders can pretty much count on any attacker having to batter his way through one defended warp nexus after another. At the very least, there should be time to redeploy to face a threat before it can penetrate to your massive yards in your capital system. In the Honorverse, an entire fleet can come roaring in through hyper any time it wants, and the first warning the defenders will have will be the attackers' downward alpha translation. This means that the possibility of a lucky surprise raid, while small, is considerably greater than it is in the SF universe. Prior to the actual outbreak of hostilities, the RMN's planners had to deal with the possibility that the PRH might attempt exactly that sort of an attack, even if it would have meant the virtually certain destruction of the entire attacking force. It was rather like the concern that the PRH might elect to launch what amounted to a suicide attack on the Junction Forts. The PRH was big enough at that point to have accepted massive losses in such a raid and still carry through to victory if the raid managed to destroy the RMN's core building capacity (and any ships under construction therein).

The only other point I would make is that even in the best of war games, the economic rules are set up in a way which greatly favors a certain draconian clarity of policy on the part of the player who represents a government or empire. In real life, things are usually much messier, and all sorts of compromise decisions and choices reflecting thing like where industrial capacity has grown up "naturally" are forced upon policy makers. In my own numerous Starfire campaigns, my capital system was always my major building hub, but I also always tended to build up almost equally powerful secondary hubs — whether through emplacement of my own imperial populations or by upgrading and expanding the existing yards in inhabited systems I came to control. Massive defenses were always part of the scheme in such cases, but placement closer than the home system to the frontier was also always a factor in my thinking. Those factors operate even more strongly in the Honorverse, where hyper-space gives much greater flexibility to an attacker but, at the same time, fleet movement rates and — especially! — message transmission rates (and thus command and control ability) are much lower on the tactical scale because of the absence of warp lines and the ICN.

In short, while I deliberately set up the decision to build the shadow yards at Grendelsbane as a policy choice with built in flaws and weaknesses (thus reflecting real life), I also don't regard it as an act of "shear lunacy" on the SKM's part.



From a post to Baen's Bar BuShips dated October 20, 2002:


No problem. The main point to bear in mind is that I try to remember my own war gaming background and not fall into the "neat and tidy" school of war game strategy and bookkeeping. The real world is messy, and sometimes things people never thought about ahead of time end up driving policies which look pretty loony from the outside but have their own internal (and often inevitable) logic. That was the case with Grendelsbane, and there may (note that I said may) be some discussion of the SKM's "Pearl Harbor" experience and who is to blame for it, with lots of efforts to scapegoat. OTOH, I may never get around to inserting all of that information into the books proper