In the past I have tried several times to complete listings for the mecha of the Cosmic Era, and each time it has invariably stalled out or simply ended with a stroke of the delete key. I wrote a break down of the machine by its core components, inspired by the modular construction from the Armored Core game. I have also attempted to rewrite the Battletech rules to accommodate the construction methods and weapon packages of the Cosmic Era as well. Then, I cannot count the number of times I have attempted a 30 mecha submission to simply see it collapse under it's own weight. But I think each of these attempts has failed because it is overly focused on the machines, and not on their place in society, their history, and their greater role.
1. Why the Mech?
It is regularly and easily addressed that the mech is easily bested by numerically superior and cheaper to produce armored vehicles and tanks. Their large size and ungainly stature make them easy targets for guided missiles, and ground attack aircraft. But like the zeppelin of steampunk fame, the giant stomping robots keep coming back again and again, even when logic and common sense indicate that the machines are technological cul-de-sacs.
The core of the mech is the fact that it is cool. Giant robots with big guns and swords are a staple of anime, and there are many movies devoted to the megamachines with their own cult followings. They are present in wargaming from Warhammer 40K to Battletech, and even appear in non-mecha genres such as the Warstriders of Exalted, the AT-ATs and AT-STs in Star Wars, and the list simply goes on.
In the Cosmic Era, there has been a return to limited warfare and a reemergence of the chivalric codes of the middle ages. Resources have become to valuable to waste on widescale full war. Cities cannot be rebuilt if they are razed by bombing runs, and the concept of quantity over quality is non-viable in the current day of the the Cosmic Era. Tanks are ugly things for killing protesters and for tyrants to use to quell civil uprisings. Even if tanks were still considered a usable weapon, the massed tank rush is a thing of the past, the amount of raw materials used to construct a tank is simply offensive now to the Cosmic Era mindset.
The mech is space friendly, a vertical fighting machine for a vertical world. The majority of mecha are in the 30-50 ton range and technically are smaller and lighter than the main battle tanks of the Petroleum Era. They favor firepower and mobility over armor, and are supported by armored crawlers, power armor troopers, and guided missile and energy weaponry. Combat is more an oversized fight between infantry units that happen to have 50 ton armor suits and tank sized weapons. Rather than tens of thousands of soldiers supported by thousands of vehicles, dozens of mecha are the main force of battle. This smaller force is less damaging to the environment, requires individually more maintenance, but overall drastically less resources, and conflicts tend to be short lived as the mech is a decisive weapon, not suited to long drawn out combat.
2. What are the basic abilities?
The average mech is as mentioned a 50 ton vehicle. They have a normal cruising speed around 35-50 mph, and most can sprint faster than this for a short amount of time. Their armor protection is comparable to modern battle tanks and some are considerably better. Their biggest advantages are mobility and electronics warfare as each mecha is functionally a walking electronics warfare platform supported by an artificially intelligent computer system. The use of legs instead of wheels or treads allow the mech to traverse rough and urban terrain with ease, even scaling rubble, crawling over ridges, and other human mimicking movements that tanks cannot match.
Land Superiority Vehicle
The Battlemech is not just a piece on the battlefield, its arrival signals a change in dominance. The massive war machines tower over the field, bristle with sophisticated technology and bleeding edge weapons. It's sheer presence is typically enough to scatter enemy forces and a group change the dynamic of an entire military operation. Land Superiority mecha are the medium to large machines and have the best armor and weapons, they are intended to engage any type of enemy with a variety of weaponry while coordinating actions with friendly ground troops and other mecha.
Destroyer/Ground Attack Vehicle
Rather than gunning down other mecha, the Destroyer is built around bringing maximum firepower to bear against targets on the ground, usually specializing in anti-power armor combat, or taking out fixed installations. Destroyers have heavy armor, heavy weapons payloads, but tend to be slower than LSVs and have fewer fancy gadgets to help in their mission. Destroyers also tend to be more ammo hungry than their main battle counterparts.
Litoral/Marine Superiority Vehicle
The amphibious mecha is equipped for fighting on land, in watery terrain like swamps and deltas, and underwater for limited duration. It is a jack of all trades vehicle, and is slightly inferior on the ground to LSVs and can be outclassed in the water by dedicated submarine mecha and mobile aquatic armor. But, none of these vehicles have the ability to transition from one environment to another. Litoral mecha tend to have multiple ammo sources, swapping missiles and torpedoes in their launch tubes and have other weaponry that can be fired underwater and in the air. Litoral mecha are typically attached to special forces, seacologies, and heavily populated coastal areas that may be contested militarily.
The SRV is almost always a light mecha, with light armor and light weapons load. They are packed with electronics, recon gear, and anti-detection systems allowing them to get in and out of a targeted area. These vehicles are back seat to dedicated recon aerospace craft and orbital reconnaissance, but they have the ability to enter a location, and go silent and loiter like no aerospace craft can. The SRV can also provide telemetry and targeting data, guiding in ranged missile strikes or feed data to support bombardment of a target from high altitude or even low orbit.
Para-Military Responce Vehicle
There are mecha used by SWAT, and armored police and security forces around the world. These mecha tend to be very lightly armed and primarily equipped for anti-riot and crowd dispersal duty rather than armor on armor combat. Their armor is consequently also light for the same reason. PMRVs are also always light machines, and have limited electronic gadgets.
Space Combat Vehicle
While the image of the mech fighting in space is popular, they are ill-suited for true space combat. In zero gravity, arms and legs are rather pointless and such mecha are typically cut to shreds by dedicated space fighter craft and armed ships. The Space Combat Mecha is typically deployed on worlds with either no atmosphere such as the Moon, or worlds with minimal or toxic atmospheres such as Mars. These machines are built around a lesser gravity spec, and are more environmentally protective of their internal parts and pilot. They tend to have better electronics, energy or recoilless weapons, and larger cockpits with emergency supplies. The SCV is not as capable a fighter as the Land Superiority Mech, but it is specialized for its environment.
What Goes into a Mech?
The History of the mech is a muddy one. Rather than striding onto the battlefield as it's new King, the first combatant mecha were easily destroyed, but they were infants on a battlefield that was still dominated by the tank and close air support vehicles like helicopter gunships. It would take the collapse of the Second Dark Age to bring the stomping war machine to the fore.
With limited resources in terms of raw materials, the arcologies and the urban zones they controlled had an interest in creating very highly effective war machines that were in and of themselves deterrent. The most powerful weapon of the mecha is the reluctance of military forces to engage one in actual combat.
The tank faded in value and the cost of the individual soldier increased. It made sense at that point in history for the raw materials that would have gone into tanks to instead be used to better armor and equip infantry. This saw the advancement of the Power Armor suit as the preeminent military system through the Second Dark age. Mecha existed at the same time, but these were non-combatant mecha and were geared entirely towards construction, heavy industry, and search and rescue operations. Attempts to arm these machines were popular in holovids but disastrous in practice.
The second generation of mecha grew out of Power Armor research. In the escalating race of arms, the power armor suit was mounting ever larger weapons, and the suits started getting larger. Eventually there became a point where it was no longer feasible to call it a power armor suit anymore. The first generation of these super suits had a pilot who sat cramped in the torso of the machine, without their arms and legs occupying the respective arms and legs of the machine. These were a few feet taller than the traditional battlesuit, but were able to function as the new Heavy weapons platforms to support squads of power armor.
This created a new wave of anti-battlesuit weapons, and these oversized suits were often the first ones targeted, leading to thicker armor, leading to larger weapons. The cycle continued on. Rather than these suits growing incrementally, there was a sudden jump during the border wars between the Republic of the Great Lakes and the Commonwealth of New England. The Republic marched into a contested zone not with the usually power armor troopers, supported by heavy suits, but with a group of light battlemechs. These machines were largely invulnerable to the weapons mounted by conventional power armor, and while they could be damaged by the support weapons battlesuits, they mounted more than enough firepower to take out the smaller suits.
The damage to morale in the Commonwealth was disproportionate to the effectiveness of the mech on the battlefield. Previously bold power armor units faltered, and SLAB armored conventional infantry retreated at the sight of the machines. If the power armor guys were falling back, the poor bloody infantry didn't stand a chance. Public opinion, long since turned against tanks accepted the mech. It looked humanoid, and the pilots weren't grimy faced blanks hiding inside an iron shell, they were hotshots, they were heroes and future politicians and celebrities.
Construction, and Maintenance
The mech is a large complicated machine. They are constructed in a manner that borrows from both aircraft production and assembly line production. Many of the component parts of a mech are preconstructed in assembly line fashion, which improves the availability of repair and replacement parts. The various components are sent to sub-assembly areas where the machine is slowly pieced together. The chassis, power core, and armor shell are typically framed up first, with the sub-assembled arms, legs, and head being attached later. Once capable of standing, it is attached to a gantry where the cockpit and wiring harnesses are connected, the weapons are equipped and all of the finishing construction touches are done.
The technically unfinished mecha is put through trial paces, weapons testing, and then either approved, or more commonly sent back for troubleshooting and addressing issues. Once it is passed, the computer LAI is installed and activated, and allowed to acclammate to the machine, often through a P2P tutoring system either with a factory LAISC or another mech LAI. The outside is given its paint job, insignia, and a pilot is assigned to the new machine.
Getting a new mech is like getting on a horse. Most pilots don't talk about that side of being a mech jock. The LAI does most of the hard work, coordinating the machine so it can walk, and point its guns at what the pilot wants it to shoot. The new LAI doesn't know you, you don't know it, so the two of you have to get together and sort your business out. You talk to your mech, and it talks back to you. That is why the pilots are so protective of their machines, to them, to us, they aren't just hunks of walking shooting metal, they have names and personalities. Sure, they aren't sentient, but that doesn't matter after you've built up a rapport over months of training.
Losing a mech can be emotionally devastating to a pilot. Some pilots have lost their machines and after than they leave the corps, or they are retired to training duty. Some pilots, the sort who have lost mechs, they can get reputations, and find their machines reluctant to sortie with them.
General Construction and Logistics
The Cosmic Era has largely seen the demise of global sourced companies. The advent of industrial arcologies and the general theme of collectivism has meant that most mecha are constructed entirely in one region.
The Republic of the Great Lakes was the first nation to fully develop and deploy mecha. The Pontiac facility is a prime example of how the process works. The machines are produced on site, with the Pontiac mechadrome functioning as the test ground for new machines as well as its R&D trial site. The components are all produced within the Great Lakes region, with there being slow inroads to importing some components from ally nations in the Atlantic Federation.
The Delta City Arcoplex produces electronics, energy weapons, wiring harnesses, and arc reactor power cores used for the Pontiac built mecha. The Chicagoland Arcoplex provides the influx of raw materials and refines the metals used to make the armor shell. Pontiac itself produces the chassis, and handles the assembly of the final mecha.
The Battlemech isn't suited to spending long periods of time deployed. Tanks are good at this, because despite their fancy parts, they are heavily built, durable and the moving parts are pretty simple. The mech is under continual stress just from standing and like a fighter aircraft, requires thorough and extensive maintenance. The chassis has dozens of points of articulation, and these joints have parts that wear out, cooling systems that need inspecting, and all of the electronics required to control the components that actually make it move.
Mechs sortie like aircraft. They leave the mechadrome or forward base, run their mission, and then return to base. After a mission, technicians and mechanics go over the machine with their fine tooth combs. The modern fighter aircraft requires 20 hours of maintenance (averaged out) for every hour it spends in the air. The mech is even more time consuming, requiring 30 hours maintenance for every hour spent on patrol. This doesn't mean the mech can only operate for an hour at a time, or even that it can't operate at a high level for a prolonged amount of time. The maintenance clock is always ticking the in the background, and there are time consuming tasks that have to be done from time to time that add up.
General machine inspection 3-4 hours
Computer diagnostic - 2 hours
Sensor diagnostic and debugging - 4 hours
Flushing chassis cooling system - 6 hours (done once every 300 operational hours)
Arc Reactor general inspection - 30 min (daily)
Arc Reactor diagnostic and efficiency test - 4 hours (once every 100 operational hours)
Arc Reactor replacement - 45 hours (as needed)
Chassis member replacement/minor - 8 to 10 hours (supporting chassis member, support system)
Chassis member replacement/major - 20 to 40 hours (major member, such as leg or major joint assembly)
Weapon system replacement/minor - 10 to 15 hours
Weapon system replacement/major - 30+ hours
Weapon system inspection and diagnostic - 3 to 4 hours
Minor Armor damage - 2 hours per square foot
Major Armor damage - 10 hours per square foot
Armor replacement - 8 hours per square foot (increased cost)
This is just a sample of maintenance, and some things can be done by multiple technicians at the same time. With an adequate mechadrome, a team of technicians can pull an arc reactor and replace it in 8 hours, but they will put 45-60 man hours into the project. Likewise, while the power core is being pulled, another group of techs can connect umbilical power supplies to the electronics suite, and do all of the electronics inspections and diagnostics while the engine boffins are doing their work. A well trained team of technicians can tear a mech down and put it back together in a matter of hours, but in the process will pour hundreds of man hours into the effort.
In the field, these tasks become more difficult, in the same way that changing a tire on the side of the road is much different than changing a tire in a fully equipped tire shop. Access to technicians is almost zero, and there are few tools and facilities set up to even fake fixing a mech in the field.
The mech has been in the field for almost 100 years by the current date of the Cosmic Era. The machine has changed from now considered primitive Walker type mecha and quadruped machines to the sleek and aggressive machines of the current setting. Their service record is generally positive. The machines look good, and the PR department has no difficulty giving them good spin. In combat, the machines have improved, and are now able to function effectively and reliably.
The advances in weaponry and electronics have been in the mech's favor. With a larger field of view and line of sight, the mech armed with rail guns and energy based weapons is able to engage targets at ranges that the old tank could only imagine. LAI and smartgun systems make the machines sniper accurate, unlike the holovids where mechs charge around blasting away like cowboys. The holovid mech trooper might be able to occasionally hit the broadside of a barn. The real life mech trooper can typically use sensors to read what is inside the barn, and shoot very specifically things inside the building it cannot visually see.
This generally gives Cosmic Era combat a short but very brutal pace. Things that are shot at are typically hit. Mecha operate on a first shot, first kill method. Armor has improved, so mecha on mecha combat does last longer than one hit one kill, but a typical engagement between two machines is still going to be measured in at best, minutes. Most are decided in less than two.
There is a bond between a pilot and his mech. To the HQ, it is a piece of armor in their combat equations. To the ground crews, its another chunk of metal they they have to tend to. To the citizens and tax-payers, it is a symbol of power, national pride and technological accomplishment. But to the pilot, it is his wingman, his back up, his banner man. He rides the mech into combat like the knight rode his charger into battle. It carries him, protects him, and through its weapons, its electronics, it projects his force of will.
Foes and Rivals
The mech might be the current king of the battlefield but it is by no means alone. There are other weapon systems that have vied for its position as the preeminent weapon of modern warfare.
The Power Armor Suit
A persistent challenger, the power armor suit is older and gave birth to the modern fighting mech. There has always been a rivalry between mecha pilots and power armor troopers. Pilots tend to view troopers as unsophisticated, and their suits as being cute or quaint compared to their own machines. The troopers consider the pilots soft and aloof, and that they get all the credit and glory where the armored troopers do most of the work.
The Power Armor Suit is an integral part of the modern battlefield. Being smaller, the suits are easier to maintain, and are numerically superior to their mecha brethren. Suits are also much more specialized than mecha. There are suits designed for anti-infantry, recon, anti-armor, anti-aircraft, and obviously anti-mecha warfare. A team of well trained anti-mecha troopers with appropriate power armors can dismantle a mech in the field.
Mecha are typically more vulnerable to large numbers of small foes, and most mecha units are deployed with their own power armor support. This is a tactic that goes back to the beginning of armored combat. Tanks without their own infantry support can be destroyed by infantry through tricks and daring, such as improvised explosives and doing things like obscuring viewing ports forcing tank crews to come out and clear their vehicles. The same holds for mecha and power armor. The cost remains high as even the lightest mech is easily going to destroy a single power armor trooper.
Ground Attack VTOLs
Gunships and helocraft have picked up where helicopters left off at the end of the Resource Wars. The helocraft can carry a good deal of firepower, and they are typically very fast compared to mecha and power armor. Helo-air cavalry are typically part of a rapid response strategy. For a time, helocraft grew very large in an attempt to dominate the battlefield and for a short time were very dominant. This dominance was short lived as the basic flaw of the helocraft is its limited ability to mount armor.
The helocraft and other fixed wing electroprop craft had a time where they were the dominant weapon system. Infantry and early power armor didn't have the firepower to threaten them, and the vehicles that did were slow and ponderous enough that they were easy prey for the gunships. As electronics improved, along with LAI and energy weapons this short term advantage faded. The helocraft gunship was doomed once mecha accuracy increased above 90%. Helocraft remain in service, operating in support of armored troopers, and in search and rescue, and logistic supply trains.
The tank has largely vanished from the battlefield, but that doesn't mean that it is completely gone. In poorer parts of the world, tanks are still made in limited numbers. It is simply easier for less advanced economies to produce and support. Likewise, the leading powers retain Tank projects. These projects remain largely in theoretical stages of production, with the tanks being constructed in virtual environments to keep the technology up to date. Should it become feasible and acceptable to return the main battle tank to production, the first tanks that came out of the factory would be cutting edge machines with the latest weaponry and smart systems. How they would fare against mecha is the fierce debate of computer modellers and programmers.
The tank is sidelined, but trends change. The new tanks, should they be put into production have a lesser maintenance bill than mecha, but their base cost is considerably higher counting in electronics, gadgets, and the exotic power plants of the cosmic era. The truth would be that the tank would create a power triangle on the battlefield, with mecha and power armor as the other two legs. Any group that used all three in harmony is going to have a great deal of success compared to a group that only utilizes one or two to the exclusion of the others.
The mecha is a signature piece from the Cosmic Era, in as much as the giant machine is part of the culture and the history of the Era and will likely continue being used for a time after it has been outclassed and outdated by better and new technology. Like the zeppelin, battleship and battlecruiser, multi-engined bomber and other heavy metal war gear, the mech will continue simply because it has its own mythos, heroes and villains, paragons of designs and disasters that should have never lurched out of the factory.
I have approached the subject repeatedly in the past from the perspective of technical manuals and 30 lists, and these have all stalled out. They largely failed because of a lack of perspective or scope, and they didn't look at the machine from a cultural or setting standpoint. The list approach works for basic genre material, magic swords and pilots and other things that are fairly universal in genre savviness. But the attempts at hardware have failed because looking back at my military history, war and its mode of fighting is a reflection of the technology and the culture that is doing the fighting.
Once I fixed the lense of the Cosmic Era setting on the mech its place became more clear, its reasoning and history became more important than creating a list of machines to go marching by in a soviet style parade. The mech is a cultural projection of the Cosmic Era, its will made manifest. This has happened in the past, the massive air force of the United States following WWII and going into the Cold War era. The massive multi-engine bigger, faster, higher strategic bomber was the weapon of the nation. In WWI, the weapon of weapons was the fleet, with nations almost bankrupting themselves building squadrons of battleships that would eventually end up being of only marginal importance in the years to come.
With the increasing use of drones and guided missiles, things like the massive nuclear power aircraft carriers are going to become relics and will persist as a symbol of national pride until they are decommissioned and used as test targets, or scrapped for the metal they contain.