The Orb Craft is the product of convergent evolution, with three different lines of thought and technology coming together to produce these craft.
The New Hanseatic League (Neo-Germany) has the most advanced and most heavily armed orbs. Their orbs were created as ball turrets for Hanseatic warships, initially to improve field of fire, but giving the turrets the ability to leave the ship for a full range of fire, and to reposition them for optimal firing position allowed the Hanse to field flying ball turrets and reducing the warship from a ship of the line to a more efficient transport and potential liability in combat. Six of the Hanse ships of the line have orb turrets that are capable of extended operations free of the host ship.
The ACPS struggles with arcanotech and access to the massive amount of resources required to field fleets of warships, divisions of supersoldiers, and rank after rank of mecha, mobile armor, and more. The design of the Chinese Orbs were a matter of resource conservation. The orbs allow the ACPS to project more force with fewer resources. An orb requires a single a-pod engine, and a single dimensional reactor, where a warship might take a dozen a-pods and have just as many reactors in it's powerplant.
Nippon has created their own orb craft, as ships defending the island nation don't need massive range, and the Emperor is investing in a smaller number of high power weapons to offset the ACPS material advantages. There is still Nippon's dream of Yamato, a Nipponese battlestar, but the orbs provide massive mobile firepower and can protect the assault craft and installations of the island and it's interests.
The Orb craft is a sphere containing a dimensional reactor for power, and an anti-gravity pod, or a-pod, for mobility. They are not maneuverable and have poor handling and acceleration, but overall handle on par with most aerial warships, but have an overall higher speed, having less mass to move. This places them much faster than most ground vehicle, on par with rotor and helocraft (helicopters) but remaining very firmly subsonic at the top end.
The armor of orb craft is strong, a fundamental advantage of their simple shape and the innate strength of that shape. Basic orb armor is invulnerable to infantry weapons, and light and medium vehicle weapons. Only the heaviest vehicle weapons can scratch it. Bringing down an orb requires capital grade weaponry. This means that fighters have a limited ability to affect orbs, and heavy fighter/bombers and ground attack aerospace craft that have the means to damage one are less maneuverable and slower than traditional fighters, and easier targets for orb aerospace support or point defense systems.
Orbs carry a variable amount of firepower, depending on their role. Almost all have layers of weaponry allowing them to engage and destroy capital targets like ships and fortifications as well as defensive weapons to engage fighters, mecha, and other smaller fast enemy forces. Missile interception and electronic countermeasures are important as Orbs are relatively large and easy to hit targets.
Warships with capital weaponry can engage and destroy orbs, though hitting and inflicting damage can be difficult as the shape makes most shots glancing hits, and most kinetic projectiles can bounce off the armor rather than penetrate it. When solidly hit, orbs lack redundant systems, and are knocked out fairly easily. The counter is that orbs are cheap compared to warships, and a small number of orbs can seriously damage the medium and large warships it takes to easily one-shot them.
Large numbers of fighters and attack aerospace craft can overwhelm the defense systems of an orb and inflict enough cumulative damage to force it to retire or knock it out. The counter is that the orb is going to soak up a lot of munitions, and very likely shoot down a fair to large number of conventional and aerospace fighters in the process.
Mecha, in large numbers, and being supported by assault mecha, and other heavy hardware, can bring down an orb with massed anti-air firepower. The counter is simple, orbs can fly, and are able to move away from any sort of massed ground force while shelling it with it's own capital weaponry, inflicting heavy damage in the process.
Special Forces can attempt landing and a forced breach of an orb, but the orbs are generally designed to be secure and have to either be opened from the inside, or through access codes. Special forces with cyberwarfare options are often the best means to eliminating an orb, but this requires extreme stealth, and often just assassinating the pilots of the orbs outside of their war machines.
Hurdles and Problems
The Orb didn't so much as suffer from design process problems and hurdles so much as it was the direct product of them. Specifically, aerial warships and large, complex, exceedingly expensive, and after a point stop being assets, and start becoming military liabilities. Medium and large warships weigh tens to hundreds of thousands of tons, require large numbers of highly complex and expensive dimensional reactors and a-pods to function, large crews to keep all the systems running, and the rest of the sundry needs of a warship crossed with a jet fighter.
The Orb takes the armor, firepower, and mobility of a warship and compacts it down into a ball not much larger than a conventional gun turret. While this is an 'all the eggs in one basket' mentality, it allows for more firepower to be brought to bear without wasting resources and manpower on ships with large crews, galleys, sleeping bunks, rec areas, the equip needed to network multiple power sources, and the rest.
The orbs were not intended to be an end goal, but rather a curiosity. Until they worked better than what they were a stopgap to.
Orbs are highly complex, but ultimately simple. The core is a single dimensional reactor tied to a single a-pod. The pilot sits above the core, and is surrounded by an immersive control system, backed up by a sophisticated combat Limited Artificial Intelligence. This is relatively similar to a warship turret, minus the a-pod. The chassis is a sphere, wrapped in armor, and the weapons are built into this hull. Any shipyard that can put a destroyer together can easily shift over to making orbs. The simplicity of the spherical hull allows almost all of the components to be polyforged.
The great military danger of the orb craft is that they are actually relatively easy to build. Currently, the Cosmic Era powers are beholden to a few large shipyards that are capable of building capital warships, and to their own logistical limitations. Battlestars are nifty, but are a quarter million tons of metal and arcanotech devices to build. An orb is smaller than a destroyer, but a handful can match the throw weight of a battlestar.
Orbs are newly introduced, and aside from simulation and a handful of fights against rogue factions, bandits, and terrorists, they have yet to massively influence the shape of warfare.
While there have been no major orb battles, or orb on orb battles, they have demonstrated their versatility. The ACPS orbs have seen action along the Chinese/Silk Road/Wasteland zone, and have mirrored force movements in the Eurasian Alliance. The large amount of firepower they bring has allowed the normally outgunned and outmaneuvered ACPS military to score large and decisive victories in the wastelands. This display of power and its effectiveness has not gone unnoticed, and various underworld and terrorist factions have taken note and are developing their own orb based projects. It is just a matter of time before Amerikka Command, Blood Brigade, Python Patrol, Shadowlaw, the Brotherhood, or another faction rolls out their own orbs and demonstrate their effectiveness and destructive power
While not enjoying widescale production or use yet, there are certainly going to be a large number of orb variants to be built. The basic orb is a floating warship turret, several capital weapons, support secondary weapons, and tertiary point defense systems.
Smart Orb - The smart orb replaces the heavy weaponry with electronics warfare equipment, and a lot of it. A smart orb could shut down comms across and entire region, support a major operation, and function in the same role of a surveillance frigate crossed with a spy plane. A smart strike orb might even have a few high yield low volume weapons, like austerhagen torpedoes.
Assault Orb - larger versions could be used as assault vessels, moving mecha, power armor, and other supplies the way a helocraft or landing craft would, but less vulnerable than said helocraft. These would be better suited to moving special forces, and leaving large deployments to larger assault craft.
Submarine Orb - designed for functioning underwater
Gas Orb - designed for functioning in hostile atmospheres, like Venus or Jupiter.
Wave Motion Orb - the WM orb replaces the more common capital weaponry with a singular uber-weapon. This wunderweapon will require support and protection from other forces and orbs, but can deliver war-ending attacks. The Wave motion orb most likely would be a Higgs grade graviton cannon.
Orb Tank - replace the expensive a-pod with large conventional suspension and a chassis making the orb into a ball turret, orb tanks provide artillery and rolling fortress support as well as trainer roles for pilots and crews before being turned over to the variants that fly.
One of the bonuses of the Orb craft is the relative ease of maintenance. One reactor. One a-pod. One computer core. The hull and structure are generally uniform so fabricating replacement armor and structure members is easy. The majority of maintenance actually goes into reloading ammo bins, and making sure all the internal weapons and systems are working.
One of the surprises of the Hanse Orbs is the extensive use of flexible infrastructure, auxons, and arachnotrons as damage control systems. The flexible architecture means that many of the control lines and power conduits inside the orb are redundant, flexible, and can be quickly moved as needed. The spider bots and smaller bots inside the orb can disconnect damaged power feeds, rewire equipment on the fly, and otherwise keep a damaged orb in a fight when almost any other vehicle would have long since gone down in flames. The auxons, being much smaller handle the fine disconnection and reconnection of damaged parts while the larger spider bots literally drag power lines, kick out busted parts, and scuttle ammo from damaged bins to empty bins.
The Orb is designed for a single pilot to operate. There is more information than a person can normally handle, and the controls of such a vehicle are far more than a single person could hope to operate. The orb goes around this limitation in two methods, the L/AI system, and enhanced pilots. The L/AI system controls the autonomous parts of the orb, governing the reactor, handling movement, and aiming weapons. Damage control and combat simulation and projection are also handled by the L/AI system. The second method, pilot enhancement, involves upgrading the abilities of the pilot themselves to better integrate into the system.
Method 1 - cybernetic modification, is the most common. The pilot is implanted with cyberware that allows them to 'dive' into the control system of the Orb and control the functions of the orb like it was their own body. This requires training, surgery, and is not too dissimilar to augmentation commonly used by mecha and aerospace pilots.
Method 2 - parapsychic pilots, is the more effective, but far less common option. The main problem is that natural parapsychics are rare, and finding one who is skilled in technomany (parapsychic control of machinery and electronics) who is also willing to undergo military training, and is loyal to the powers that be is even more difficult. When the unaligned wastelander and underworld factions start fielding their own orbs, this will be their main source of pilots.
Method 3 - synthetic parapsychics, are much more common than natural parapsychics. Using the elixer and guided training, parasite pilots can easily be trained. The limitations of parasite parapsychics are known, but considered acceptable for this task, being both effective and disposable, just like the orbs they pilot. This is a popular choice for the Pacific Rim Coalition.
Method 4 - drone control, is the least popular method, as it relegates control of the orb to just the onboard L/AI taking remote instruction from a full control team, with as many as a dozen crewmen controlling various aspects. The Hanseatic league, for their advanced technology, currently uses drone controlled orbs on their warships, with the control crews being located on the warship itself.
The most serious threat the Orb faces are omni-craft like the Invader Class which is used in very small numbers. The Invader matches the mobility of the Orb, but relies on energy shields, and lacks the massed firepower of the orb. The Anunnaki plan involves their Invaders dispatching ships that have been disabled by viral weaponry, and otherwise fighting a foe larger and slower than they are. The Orbs rely on conventional armor, but have a dramatic edge in firepower.
Conventional spaceships fair well against orbs, being larger, more heavily armored, and usually better armed. This does come down to numbers, as a group of orbs will be able to overpower singular warships, forcing the ship to split its firepower against multiple quick moving targets. The logistic side engages as well as the loss of a handful of orbs, while not cheap, is still a fraction of the cost of the loss of a warship. Orbs would also very likely engage in hit and run fights, only engaging long enough to score a few hits and falling back like a wolfpack.
Orb craft are currently in their prototype and first generation phase. The current designs are all based around a modest size controlled by a single pilot. The next generation will see the upgrade of the propulsion system, making the orbs faster and more maneuverable. They will remain subsonic for the foreseeable future, but the second gen will likely see flight speeds near 400 mph, and be considerably more agile. Larger orbs will require more than one person is capable of doing, and there will be integrated crews where 2-3 pilots share the load of controlling the orb, all sharing the same technopsychic headspace ala Pacific Rim. There will be a limit to how large an orb becomes, because the deflection ability of the shape decreases the larger it becomes and once there are enough people crewing the ship that it requires human habitation facilities it has become the thing it was intended to replace, dedicated warships.
The orb craft are going to change the paradigm of the battlefield. They are more commanding and more capable combatants than mecha, tanks, superheavy vehicles, and other massed ground formations. They are cheaper, more adaptable, and more flexible than aerial warships, and take those expensive beasts out of dangerous ground attack and anti-ship roles. Orbs will eventually become the dominant factor on the battlefield.
Additional Ideas (1)
In the CE setting, there are a few dozen orb craft in existence, and at this point they are in their infancy. Eventually they will indeed become the main unit used in armed conflict, and most of the hardware being used currently will be relegated to garrison and support roles. There will be a massive amount of internal conflict as the naval forces will resent their usurpation by the orb craft, and mech and fighter jocks will find the simplicity and brutality of orb based warfare insulting to their warrior ethos.
Spaceships and warships wont end, but will become more transports and logistics than combatants. The bigger warships will become Orb carriers, and rather than big sexy wedges and brutalist bricks, are probably going to look more like brussels sprout stalks or grape stems.
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