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Note: The opinions and observations herein are strictly my own.
Sometimes they'll be right, sometimes not. Please let me know if the latter is true.

Nov. 29, 1999       

Missile (Drone) Tactics     (Updated Dec. 5, 1999)
     Ah, the ubiquitous missile. Some people call the drones, but SFC calls them missiles, so who am I to argue with the game itself? Whatever you call them, they can make or break your day depending on whether your on the passing or receiving end. Missiles are seeking weapons, and as such they are both simple and complex. They're simple in that all you have to do is click "fire" and they do the rest of the work. They're complex because there are many ways to defeat them. As the attacker, you need to know the perfect moment to fire. As the defender, you need to know what to do when your enemy finds that perfect moment. So, we'll cover both aspects thoroughly today.

     The new patch has an addendum to the manual that kind of explains the difference in missile racks. There are 5 types of racks (as you've probably noticed in the game). I don't fully understand the graph they have on the addendum, but of particular note are the firing rates of the racks. The Type-A and Type-B racks fire once per turn (like a phaser). Type-C and Type-G missile racks both fire twice per turn. These racks are ideal for overwhelming point defense, because the missile ship can fire twice as often as the target's defense phasers can. The Type-F rack fires once every two turns, but I believe this rack is used only on Starbases, so you won't have to worry about that. Also, on this graph, there is a column which says "Base Number of Missiles". And this is the part I just don't get. If someone can clear this up, I'd sure appreciate it! In any event, all of the racks have a base number of 4 missiles, except for the B rack, which has a base number of 6. (shrug)

     UPDATE: I've gotten a bunch of emails that clear this up. Here are the responses I received from various folks who are "in the know". Extreme thanks to all of you!

Will Pierce Said: "I think that this is a hold over from the pen and paper game. In SFB a missile rack normaly (execpt in the case of the F and D racks ) had 4 drones in the rack, and either 4 or 12 reloads (depending on the refit). You could fire one drone per turn ( or 2 drones per turn in the case of the c rack) untill you had exhuasted the drones in the rack. Then you had to reload the rack from your standby supply of drones, and that took a full turn to load 2 drones into the rack, during wich you could not fire from the rack being reloaded."

To Which Falken Added: "Type B missile racks hold more ammo than the others. They have 150% the normal ammunition, hence the base 6 missile compared to the base 4 missile all the other racks have. Type C missiles are Orion, and type G are Fred mounts, formerly with anti-drone capability."

Thus Spake Rezina: "The Base number of missiles is the number of missiles your rack can carry, and on the space dock you can set x2, x3, x4 to increase that amount. The difference beteween the G and C rack is that the G rack is only used by Fed and can carry either Missiles or ADD (defense missiles), on SFB only. The F type can be found on Klingons ships from the early era."

     Okay, from what I read here, I think Rezina's explanation is the most straightforward. So, if a single hardpoint has 4 racks, and each rack can hold 4 "clips" of missiles, then the x2, x3, and x4 at the spacedock would buy you an additional 32, 64, and 128 missiles, respectively. Okay. It makes sense to me now. Thanks again to all of you for your kind assistance!

Firing Missiles
     So, you've got yourself a missile ship, eh? Before we get too deep into this, I should probably mention that the Federation and Klingons are the only playable races that use these suckers, so if you're a born-again Hydran, don't freak out if you can't find any missile-launching ships at the Shipyard. You won't. You can just skip to the next section if you're in a real hurry. It might help to know what the enemy is thinking, though.

     Missiles come in six luscious flavors. Well, they come in 1 luscious flavor and 5 "okay" flavors. Missiles can have one of two sizes (small or large) and 3 speeds (Slow, Medium, and, you guessed it, Fast). Missiles are designated by their speed and warhead strength, and those combinations add up to 6 flavors. Yum. The best missiles to get have fast propulsion and large warheads. This, however, is a matter of opinion. By all means, you should use fast missiles. Never, ever use slow ones. They just suck. But the warhead size is the point of contention. On the one hand, if you use large warheads, your missiles will do a great deal of damage if they hit. The truth, however, is that missiles rarely hit a skillful target, and heavy missiles are very limited in quantity. If you use missiles with smaller warheads, you won't do as much damage, but you'll have much more ammo to go spraying around on the off-chance that one or two will get through. This encourages your enemy to squander Wild Weasels and other defensive measures, which you may be able to overcome with the sheer quantity of your missiles. Also, the medium drive systems allow you to make a tight formation of missiles. You start at about Range 50 or so, and continually pump out missiles as you approach the target head-on. Maintain a speed of 24 so that your missiles aren't outrunning you, and you aren't outrunning them. With luck, you can have your maximum amount of missiles in the air in a tight formation. Then you can peel off and gain distance while he "deals with" your missile swarm (of course, medium-speed missiles are more susceptible to the high-speed defense mentioned below). So, the types of missiles you choose will have a lot to do with your overall strategy. This is a matter of personal choice which ultimately depends on the command style and skill of your opponent. If the opponent is really skillful (or has read the next section), you might not be able to hit him with any of them.

     Because there are many different types of missiles (and different racks to launch them), missiles are quite versatile, and suited to a number of tasks. Depending on your chosen missile type, they can be used for direct attack, or they can be used to "absorb" potentially dangerous phaser fire from the enemy. They can be used as a diversionary tactic, simply giving the other guy one more thing to worry about. Missiles can even be used as a crude, last ditch point-defense system. You have to target each incoming missile manually and fire 1 missile at each one (set your rack to single fire... it's time consuming), but it can be done. Note that missiles can not be used as point defense against plasma torpedoes.

     When firing missiles, a key concept to remember is missile control. Most ships can control a total of 6 missiles at any one time. This means 1 scatterpack takes up all of your missile control (and those suckers move slooooow). If you're commanding a D-variant (such as a F-FFD, F-CAD, K-D7D, etc.), you can control 12 missiles at once, which can be an awesome amount of firepower if you can hit with them. Many smaller ships crumble to ashes when hit with this kind of firepower. If you happen to fire more missiles than your ship can control, you will lose older missiles to make "room" for newer ones. So, if the enemy is evading your slow scatterpack missiles, you can launch a few fast missiles to speed things up, so to speak.

     The best time to fire missiles is when your opponent is pursuing you at a high rate of speed. Make him chase you at high speed if you can. The faster he's moving, the less time he'll have to launch a Wild Weasel (and the longer it will take his ship to slow to a complete stop). The faster you're moving, the more distance you will put between your ships, thus taking yourself out of range of his weapons. Now, don't even think of shooting missiles if your opponent is moving fast away from you. Your missles are not likely to catch up to him, and at best you'll keep him way out of weapons range. If you're firing large groups of missiles, try to do it at relatively close range. Your missiles will be more likely to reach his ship, and assuming he doesn't defeat them all through missile defense, they're more likely to hit him. Also, if you're in an asteroid field, there's less chance for the enemy to "lead" your missiles into an asteroid if you launch them relatively close to him.

     Conversely, if you only have 1 or 2 drone racks, you can fire them at long-to-medium range continuously (this is what the AI does). This generally is not an offensive tactic, and is primarily used to attract point defense fire and defensive tractors. If you're going to use this tactic, use missiles with small warheads, so you can keep up the nuisance for a longer time. Using heavy missiles like this is counterproductive, because it's extremely unlikely that a single drone will penetrate the enemy's defenses. Single missiles are not a viable offensive option; they're best used as a decoy for phasers and tractors, which limits the amount of firepower an enemy can bring to bear upon you. On some occasions, if you keep this up continuously for a while, his point defense and defensive tractors will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of missiles, and you may actually score a hit. It won't do a lethal amount of damage, but every point counts!

     The tactic known as the Gorn Anchor works well with missiles, too. A ship is not supposed to be able to deploy wild weasels when tractored, so the attacker tractors the enemy before launching seeking weapons (in the Gorn's case, it's plasma, but in this case it's missiles). This assures, first of all, that the target won't be able to use high speed to evade the missiles. He also won't be able to use a t-bomb, because the mine won't activate at such a close range. Finally (and theoretically), he won't be able to use a wild weasel to fool the missiles. Now, I've seen the AI use weasels despite being tractored, so I don't know if this is a bug or a feature. Guess we'll find out with the upcoming patch (or if some kind soul out there clarifies things for me). In short, a close-range, large-scale missile attack against a tractored target equals a tremendous owie for the recipient. It will most likely rip the facing shield down, leaving his tender hull open for phaser strikes, hit and run raids, or whatever your malicious little mind can think of. On the other hand, it leaves your ship wide open to his overloaded heavy weapons. Everything is a trade-off.

     When used skillfully, missiles can be a powerful ally; more so because they require no energy to fire. That's right. The only weapon in SFC that costs no energy (except for fighters, I guess). A ship that has missile racks replacing the heavy weapons (called a D-variant) has a great advantage because there are very few energy constraints. The reactor has to only power movement and phasers, and the rest of the energy can be spread around like manure on a mushroom patch. This means that "drone only" ships will almost always have a speed advantage over their targets. The drawback, of course, is that once your missiles are gone, you are a weakling sitting duck. Trade-offs.

     There is a moment (a sweet spot, if you will) which is the best one in which to fire your missiles. I cannot tell you when this moment is, because it's something that just happens, like true love; it's different every time. You can't anticipate it, but you'll know when it's right. It's generally the moment when your enemy is thinking, "God, PLEASE don't let him fire his missiles right now...". Once you start using missiles a lot, you'll know when to find this time. It generally happens at close range, and usually when the enemy is somewhat weakened. Whether it's a downed shield or a destroyed tractor beam, there will be a moment when it's just right, and it really feels good to let him have that "six-pack o' drones" right between the eyes. Aaahhh... it's Miller Time.

Missile Defense
     So, your enemy has a six-pack with your name on it. Hope I didn't scare you up there with all of that pro-missile propaganda. Missiles are a formidable weapon; don't get me wrong, but there are many ways to make sure that a missile never touches your hull. This advice... I dispense... now. (Funky drum beat begins softly in background)

     Enjoy the power and beauty of your engines. High speed is the easiest way to limit the effectiveness of missiles. The fastest missile goes at Speed 32, and your ship can only travel at Speed 31. So, the missile has the speed advantage already. The object is to move as fast as possible (at least Speed 24 or so, but faster is better). Though the missile(s) can move faster, they will first have to close the distance from the attacking ship to your ship. The faster you're going, the more time that will take. Missiles have a finite lifespan. They can fly for a long time (supposedly 3 turns, though the term "turn" is somewhat nebulous in a real-time game), but eventually they just sputter out like a transwarp drive. High speed also gives you the opportunity to "lead" the missiles into an asteroid or mine, if there are any sitting around. You can also drop a mine yourself and just "ease" the missiles into it. As long as you maintain adequate distance between your ship and the attacker, you should easily be able to evade his missiles until he either runs out of missiles or decides to take a more active role in attacking you (like, actually using phasers or something). Unfortunately, most experienced drone-users won't fall for this. If they see you're moving too fast for their missiles to reach, they'll probably just hold on to them. If a drone-user is saving is drones "for a rainy day", you'll be hard-pressed to evade him, unless you are patient enough to pelt him with long-range attacks. If you're not that patient, you can use a high-speed/point defense combo which I'll mention later.

     If high speed is not an option, you can fall back on a wild weasel, which is the diametrical opposite of high speed (and far more risky). Indeed, you slow to a dead stop and cannot move. This leaves you in a very vulnerable position, as the enemy can quickly close distance and attack you from close range. Remember, when using a wild weasel, you must not fire weapons or increase speed until the missiles have safely impacted on the weasel. Also, you must remember to set your speed to zero. Your ship will stop when you launch the weasel, but your speed seeting will remain where it was. After your engines recover from the sudden stop, your ship will start moving again toward it's previous speed. So, use weasels only as a last resort. If you're moving very fast, and the missiles are pretty close to you, don't try using the weasel, because it won't be active until you've come to a complete stop. The faster you're going, the longer it will take to slow down. If the missiles are too close for comfort, you may simply make them hit you faster if you try to stop. Bad idea. Weasels are very limited anyway, so don't just squander them. Your drone-carrying opponent will always, always have more missiles than you have weasels. Then you're really screwed.

     UPDATE: Jeff Hogueison sent me the following letter which mentions something that I never considered, and it's a very good point, so read up!:

"A Wild weasel is not voided unless you are at speed 4.0 or greater (not speed 2) I think that was a typo. Second a WW launch does NOT always cause emergency deceleration to zero and then must wait. If you are traveling already at 0 to 3.99 speed, you can WW without the lost of speed or control of ship. BTY WW could be launched by a cloaked ship or fade in/out to help protect vulnerable ship, this was legal move, but is broke since 1.09r and still is in the beta 1.2. Also the WW is suppossed to lend 6 points ECM to your ship, it is in the SFC manual and in accord to SFB, wether that is true, I do not know. Good primer, though please do not be upset for me pointing these things out. It would tactical be better to slow down and throw extra energy into shield reinforment or EW, until slowed down below speed 4.0, before launching WW in order not to lose it or be dead in water. That is IF you got the time, If not then it may be better to WW at faster speeds above 4.0 or greater if an immediate abrupt halt is desired, needed or to distract a surprise seeking weapon barrage."

Thanks, Jeff!

     Another good use for the wild weasel is when you're both heading for each other head-on. When you get to close range, slow your approach. When he fires his missiles, launch the weasel and let him fly by. Then, (assuming his ship did fly past you) perform an 180 degree HET (high-energy turn). It also helps if you click the follow button right after the HET begins, so that you will snap right into firing position. After all of the missiles have impacted on the weasel, do an alpha strike (shift-z) right on his aft shield. Hopefully this will tear down his aft shield, or at least damage it quite a bit. He'll only have his aft weapons to hit you with as his missiles recharge (or maybe even his forward weapons if he HET's to face you). The best course of action now is to get as far away from him as possible as soon as your engines come back online.

     The next way to get rid of missiles is the most costly; a combination of point-defense phasers and defensive tractor beams. Using tractors consumes valuable power, like all systems. Point defense only uses power when the phasers are fired, but it also uses phasers which could be used against the enemy himself. If the enemy has only one missile rack, you can usually get away with using two defensive tractors (or one tractor coupled with point defense). Combined with a relatively high speed, this should handle most single missile attacks. Don't rely solely on one defensive tractor, because he'll be able to fire another missile before the other one "runs out of gas". It's safest to have a Phaser-3 on point defense to knock that sucker out before more missiles come your way. While on the topic of point defense, there are two ways to activate it. The quickest, easiest way is to simply click the point defense button on your Defense panel. This is a quick-and-dirty solution, and is ultimately inefficient. A more precise way to use point defense is to assign certain phasers to the task. Usually these will be Phaser-3's (or Phaser-G's), as they don't use a lot of energy and are thus very cost-effective. To assign phasers to point defense, open your Weapons panel. Under each phaser there is a little button marked "D". Click that button to assign that phaser to point defense. This prevents your Phaser-1's from being wasted on incoming missiles rather than the enemy's ship. When assigning point defense, be mindful of the weapon arcs. If you only have your starboard phaser charged, and the missile is coming in from the port, you're in danger. It also helps to remove these phasers from your preset weapon groups. This way you don't inadvertently fire your point defense phasers at the enemy, leaving you vulnerable while they recharge. But that's why God invented defensive tractors, I suppose.

     If you're travelling too slowly to outrun the missiles, and don't want to waste a weasel or tractor energy, you can simply beam a t-bomb between your ship and the oncoming missiles. This will open up a hole in your shields, so try to make sure the enemy can't land an effective hit through that hole. One mine can take out any missiles in the immediate vicinity, so try to do this when there's a big swarm of the suckers coming at you. When placing t-bombs, make sure you aim in front of the missiles. There is a slight delay between the transport and the actual activation of the mine. If your timing is off, the missiles might just cruise right by, and if you're REALLY unlucky, they might impact your hull while your shield is still down from the transport.

     Mines aren't the only thing that will detonate missiles. If a ship happens to explode near missiles, those missiles will get caught in the explosion. This is really hard to do as a general tactic, and it'll really only happen if you're just plain lucky enough to destroy a ship that happens to be near an incoming missile spread. Still, if it does happen, never admit it was just luck. If it happens, it is due to your skill as a starship captain. You planned it all along. (wink)

     Before I mentioned a high-speed/point defense combo. This can be used if you want to expedite the battle. The hypothetical situation is that your enemy has a large missile loadout and that he will not commit to firing them due to your high speed. In this situation, the battle can last a very long time. The idea here is not so much to cause damage, but more to entice him to waste his missiles. Approach the enemy with high speed and point defense activated. You may want to use defensive tractors as well, if you can afford the power. It's probably best to use an Oblique approach (don't head directly toward the enemy. Use your forward/starboard (#2) or forward/port (#6) shield to face him). As you approach, the enemy may loose his missiles on you. If this happens, turn away as quickly as possible and run away from them (this turn will be easier if you use the aforementioned Oblique approach). If you're moving fast enough, and are still a decent range away from the missiles, you may just outrun them. If not, your point defense and defensive tractors will take the brunt of the attack, causing only minimal damage to you. Since you're running at high speed away from the enemy, you may just have enough time to recharge your phasers for the next pass. Keep in mind, though, that drone ships almost always will have a speed advantage, so you'll probably want to deactivate any heavy weapons you may have.

     If an allied ship is being threatened with missiles, your only means of defending that ship is to manually target each missile and fire on them individually. This is a brutally time-consuming task, and is rarely worth it unless your allied ship is critical to the mission (in single player) or heavily damaged (in multiplayer). Launching a wild weasel will not defend any ship but your own. This method requires a lot of concentration, so don't lose sight of the big picture, or you might find yourself splattered. Frankly, it's not worth doing. I just mention it here in case you're one of those chivalrous characters that likes to protect the weak. (Keeg smacks his forehead) Now that I think of it, the best way to defend an allied ship from missiles is a well-placed t-bomb. Forget all of that manual targeting crap. T-bomb. Definitely. I should have thought of that at the beginning of the paragraph. You may notice I have a kind of stream-of-consciousness thing going on here. Don't mind me... I'm just rambling...

     UPDATE: Many people have mentioned that you can defend an allied ship with your point defense and defensive tractors. This is probably true, since so many people have reported this. I, personally, have never gotten this to work, but it is an available tactic according to the masses. Thanks, everybody, for letting me (and everyone else) know!

     Anyway, that just about covers everything you need to know about missiles. I told you they were complex. Next time we'll do a racial overview of the Klingons. I dig the Klingons in a big way, so I'm dedicating the next installment to our turtle-headed brethren out there. I wanna give out props to my homies on Qo'noS, and all that stuff. So it is written, so shall it be. Until then, keep your engines warm, your phasers locked, and always watch your #4 shield.

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