|Lockheed SA-32 THUNDERBOLT STARFURY|
The Fighter corps has historically been one of the most important assets of the Earthforce. The Starfuries, due to the excellent initial conceptual specifications ( The Five Laws of Starfury ) have shown to be the predominant fighters of the Younger races, until the Earth Minbari war.
This short essay of the EFNI Technical Departement is aimed to give an overview of the most representative actual EA fighter, that, from many points of view, is a break even point respect to the traditional guidelines of the human fighter design.
|History and Concepts|
The Lockheed SA-32 Thunderbolt Starfury is an heavy space strike-fighter, with secondary endoatmospheric attack/interceptor capabilities. The history of this new fighter begins just after the end of the Minbari war.
During the Minbari conflict, the overall performances of our ships and fighters were poor: the technologycal gap, the Minbari Stealth system, their numerical superiority, all together were devastating against our military. Just after the War, the battered earthforce needed to be rebuilt, and, in a certain measure, rethought from the fundaments.
In the fighter area the activities took place in two parallele ways: the first one was the mass production and issue of advanced variants of the Aurora (see Aurora Starfury) : the relatively new "classic" Starfury, during the war while showing adequate kinematic performances (the acceleration was negligeably lower or on par to the Minbari Nial, and the Aurora was more nimble) had two essential limits: lack of an effective tracking system, and lack of an effective and decisively powerful antiship weapon. The problem was partially fixed through the PIP, PIP-2 and MAXIPIP updates. In any case, the Aurora is still today an exceptional fighter.
The Second way, the slower one, started from the requirements specification EA-FTS-0032FTB/47. The essential requirements can be summarized: were required perfromances on par or superior to the Aurora in terms of speed and manoeuverability, a polyvalent missile armament, with the possibility to carry antifighter and antiship missiles, even in the nuclear warhead variants, a targeting system capable to ensure a lock on even against the Stealth system used by the Minbari, and direct fire (cannons) armament capable both to pierce the armour of the Minbari ships weapon emplacements and to incapacitate with a single shot a Nial.
Two companies issued a proposal: the first one to reply was the Mitchell corporation, that presented the Badger, a two seat evolution of the Aurora with a more powerful weapon system, that beyond the missiles included the four forwrd firing weapons of the Aurora, two more revolver bolters in an articulated rear firing emplacement, four powerful plasma discharge cannons, specialized for the anti ship role, and a chin mounted railgun, slaved to the helmet mounted sight of the pilot and tied directly to the pilot's eyes. The targeting system integrates a laser rangefinder and an optical suite developed from the Orpheus Optical tracker and the Hard Eyes 2 stereoscopic rangefinder/tracker, to allow to lock and fire upon stealth targets.
The Badger had yet seen compbat in the last days of the Minbari war, showing a remarkable improvement of performances, and due to its "combat proven" state and the high commonality of components and assembly lines with its ancestor went in production quickly: in 2249 it was yet in operational service and, while not replacing the Aurora, flanked it and has always shown very good performances.
The second proposal was issued as a private venture by the Lockheed corporation, and broke the traditional starfury lines. The Thunderbolt was designed as a twin seat multirole fighter, with the Pilot and the Navigator placed in a tandem seat configuration, the classic x-wing wingplan, and had an heretic asset: it was atmospheric capable.
The simple fact that the Badger was ready for the production and accomplished to the requirements of the specification, and the dual environment configuration of the Thunderbolt seemed to condemn it to never see the light, but the Lockheed design, luckily, was saved by the EAMC, Earth Alliance Marine Corps, that saw in it the ideal solution for its needs: until the Minbari war, the Marines used the Starfury for the exoatmospheric support, and the Corsair-IV for the endoatmospheric air superiority and strike. A single fighter capable to cover both the roles seemed a good solution: the atmospheric performances of the Thunderbolt were inferior to the Corsair-IV (mach 2.1 versus mach 3.3, and less manouverability) but the Atmospheric and space fighter force of the Marines, after the losses of the war, needed to be rebuilt from zero, and the budget of the Marine corps was shrinking - The EA used its money to build as many Omega as possible to gain the capability to fight effectively against the Sharlins, and the articulated attack capabilities of the Marines, at the moment, were considered a luxury to be sacrified. So, the Thunderbolt design was improved, developed, and produced in small numbers (a first lot of 48 in 2252 and a second series of 270 in 2253-54) to satisfy the most urgent needs of the Marine corps.
The new fighter seemed doomed to a "niche" role, until the "Iron Shield" combined fleet exercise of the September 2254, in which the Thunderbolt equipped Strike-Torpedo squadrons of the Marines "destroyed" the OPFOR, a task force of two of the new Omegas and two Hyperion cruisers, and, mostly, outfought the Auroras and the Badgers of the Navy.
The Pilots and the People of the "Roughnecks" cheered to the success of their "Iron birds", and for a week or so there were around a lot of jokes and some angered faces among the Navy, but the Joint Command Staff was extremely impressed by the performances of the new fighter. In the 2255, the Earthforce placed an order for a first series of Thunderbolts, for operational evaluation, and the rest is history: in 2256 was started a LRIP (low-rate initial production) for the Navy, and in the late 2257 the Thunderbolt was in mass production, equipped the new production Omegas, and was on the road to become the predominant fighter of the Earth Alliance.
At the date, the Thunderbolts have fought and won against almost all the most dangerous fighters seen, essentially the Drakh gunships/heavy fighters, that were literally whipped away by the smaller but much more effective EA fighters, some light crafts of the "Hand", and surprisingly, during the Shadow war, they have shown to be effective even against the fighters of the Vorlons ** ( See note 2 ) and extremely effective against the fighters of the Shadows * (See Note 1). In the Drakh war, the Thunderbolt has been a key element, instrumental for the victory, both in the fighter/space superiority and in the anti-ship attack roles.
All the starfuries except the Tiger are heavy fighters, and none
of them is atmospheric capable, except the Thunderbolt. The
T-Bolts owes its excellent performances to the fact that it is a
space fighter with an add-on atmospheric capability, and not an
atmospheric craft that can operate even in the vacuum. The key
for its success in the dual role is the propulsion system:
essentially the basic configuration of the energy/propulsion
equipment is a development of the Auroras's one, with a small
fusion reactor that feeds through plasma conduits in the wings
(that are true wings with airfoils, not simple structural
elements as in the Auroras and former starfuries) the plasma
engines and manoeuvre thrusters in the wingtip nacelles.
The design of the Thunderbolt is more complex than an Aurora, but some basic points are the same: the fuselage is an heavily armoured monocoque frame, with reenforced armour around the cockpit to protect the crew from the frontal interdiction fire: must be taken into account the fact that the Thunderbolt was drawn thinking to the needs of the antiship and ground attacks, and the visibility, in fact, is not bad, being excellent forward, up and on the sides, and a little roll allow to compensate the look-down limitations. The stern plate, while having the reactor and the generator vents, is designed with a multilayered labyrynth structure, and offers an excellent rear protection against the enemy fire.
The construction with Carbonat armour plates imposed the "angular" shape of the fuselage and of the nacelles, that penalises so much the aerodynamics of the craft, but the sturdyness of the Thunderbolt is legendary.
The wings, seen in plant, show a direct-reverse cranked arrow plant, because in the "elbow" are integrated the four gondolas of the E-Web anchors that must be placed as backward as possible: the structure is an armoured internal torsion box of carbon nanotubes composite protected by a plasteel integral armour, and an outer carbon nanotubes aerodynamics fairing. Inside the wings are integrated four Gel-ES capactive accumulators acting as energy feeding buffers and as auxiliary/emergency power source.
The fuselage holds both the solid propellant sticks and the slush deuterium tank for the fusion reactor, a Mitchell-General Electric FRPS-9 tokamak that feeds through plasma channels the engines, the magnetoplasmadynamic power generator in the back of the fuselage, the manoeuvre thrusters and the propellant feeder where the Solid Fuel Cartridges are sublimated and the resultant gaseous flow driven to the engine reaction chambers, where it is mixed with the plasma spilled from the fusion reactor and used to generate thrust.
The Engines, as yet said, are plasma rockets, the external jet deflection plates ever seen on the starfuries are retained because they allow a fine control of the jet, with an unmatched manoeuvre accuracy, even if their dimensions have been reduced to the lower possible limit.
The atmospheric flight is accomplished thanks to the thrust generated by two Pratt&Whitney MAPD-960PW101 magnetoplasmadynamic jets under the upper wings, that are air-breathing engines in which the air is breathed through a simple couple of pitot normal shock air-intakes, ionized and accelerated through an array of magnetohydrodynamic channels (based upon the principle of the linear electric engine, like the railguns), and then ejected through two "comb" nozzles. At the low speed the engine works with a bypass air flow that is mixed with the high energy flow of the Magnetohydrodynamics channels, through the principle of the ejector pump, with excellent subsonic thrust, while at transonic and supersonic speeds the bypass flow is reduced and then closed, to optimise the engine performances. The speed in the (standard Earth) atmosphere is mach 1.52 at sea level and mach 2+ at 5000 meters. The total thrust of the MAPD engines is 126000 kilograms. The manoeuvre plasma thrusters and an auxiliary set of thruster under the fuselage allow full VTOL capabilities at full load.
The Thunderbolt has a wingplant that works in a manner similar to a biplane, the control surfaces, placed on the engine tip nacelles can swivel outboard, and operates as elevons and ruddervators with full control authority on the three axes ("scissortail" configuration). The lifting area is 110 square meters, with consequent wingload of 595 kg/sq.meter in Air to Air configuration, and up to 735 Kg/sq.meter in air to ground, full ordnance load. The aerodynamic configuration is naturally stable on the three axes, the controls have high authority thanks to the high tail volumetric coefficients, so the response to the commands is quick and accurate, with an excellent roll rate.
The stability of the configuration and the relatively high wing load, even if affecting the manoeuverability, makes of the T-bolt an excellent fire platform, particularly at the low altitudes due to the low gust sensistivity. The hardpoints under the wing and under the fuselage enable to carry an important weapon load, the two place configuration is excellent for an attack/strike craft, so exactly what was needed by the Marines, and, in general, by an amphibious assault force.
In the endoatmospheric fighter role, the Thunderbolt, due to the stable aerodynamics and the high wing load, and due to the high drag of the unoptimised configuration (truncated fuselage, engines nacelles at the wingtips, complex wing), is not a dogfighter: at subsonic/transonic speeds the T-Bolt can barely accept a confrontation in the horizontal plan: drag and weight are disadvantages that can be only partially compensated by the engine power , by the low induced drag and high control authority allowed by the tip mounted control surfaces (scissortails), while it takes its payback if used in the interceptor role, the exceptionally high thrust allowing excellent performances in terms of climb and speed.
The Thunderbolt pilots are trained to exploit the strong points of their fighter and to use it in its excellence area: the power of the engines and the relatively small wing make of this craft a fine Energy Fighter, difficult to be outperformed in high speed climb and dives and in the vertical plan manoeuvres, that, in combination with the powerful missile armament, allow to fight on a fair level even true atmospheric fighters or a refined design like the Centauri Republic's Sentri.
Surprisingly for an attempted "jack of all trades", the performances of the Thunderbolt in the space fighting are excellent: a bit less nimble than the Aurora in the ptch (Y axis) manoeuvre, the Thunderbolts have more sensitive controls and superior yaw and roll rates (z and x axes), and a superior linear acceleration, at least on par of the Nial or of a Whitestar. Mostly, it improves the precious Starfury characteristics to be able to quickly pivot on one (Z) axis and point the nose against a target placed in every position respect it. The Endurance is very good, both in atmosphere (6-7 hours) and in the space (up to 50 hours) - the cockpit is roomy and can be pressurised, with obvious confort advantage for the crew. The only real limit of the configuration is the cockpit, with a worse visibility than the classic starfuries, but until now this has shown to be an acceptable limit, while the better protection is liked by the crews.
The Avionic system is centerd upon a Dell AWG-19 long range wide spectrum phased array radar, with a detection range of more than 1600 kilometers against a fighter class target and about 12000 kilometers against a warship class target. It has Track While Scan mode, target mapping capability with synthetic aperture, and look down-shoot down mode in the atmospheric operations; the medium and short range tracking is allowed by a Westinghouse-Dell TACS 2 microwave tridimensional scanner. The system integrates from its initial conception the ORPHEUS-3 optical tracker, the "Eagle Eyes II" optical stereoscopic rangefinder and the IRGE short range laser scanner that can operate even as laser tracker/designator for missiles in the air to ground, antiship and antifighter role, with an almost complete "stealth piercing" capability and full automatic lock-on.
The Thunderbolt, as the Auroras from the E-series, can be integrated in its mothership interceptor grid, and its weapon can operate in interceptor mode for self-defence.
The Navigation and communication systems includes a short range UHF jamproof tactical system, a KA band directional data link, a long range R band Tachyon link, a gyrolaser strapdown inertial platform, for navigation both in normal space and hyperspace, and an hyperspace WL 78 beacon locator/navigation system.
The Electronic warfare suite includes an RWR (Radar warning receiver), an IR/Laser Warning receiver, a complete suite of active microwave, IR/EO and radar jammers, and an APQ 205 decoy dispenser.
The weapon system includes a vast panoplia of missiles, essentially the Viper Mk1(radar seeker), Mk2(optical/infrared) and Mk3(laser) both in the standard and in the winged atmospheric variants (Carried usually in the six Frazer-Nash MER hardpoints under the upper wings), the HIVAM anti-ship missile and the HIVAT anti-ship Torpedo, carried under the lower wing (four Frazer-Nash MER ejector racks) and the fuselage (two Frazer-Nash EMER ejector rails), and the whole enormous inventory of specialised short, medium and long range bombs, rockets and missiles available for the atmospheric missions, but the most infamous component of the Thunderbolt armament is the Copeland-Westinghouse GAU-112 U "Warhammerr" Gatling plasma cannon, the most powerful weapon ever placed on a fighter of a Younger race. For a detailed description of this weapon, see the dedicated paragraph.
Until today the Thunderbolt has shown to be a superior
fighter: fast, powerful, sturdy, exceptionally survivable, with
excellent sensor and good manoueverability, it can develop a
devastating firepower, and the flexible configuration has shown
to accept easily upgrades and improvements. The two seat
configuration, lowering the workload of the pilot, allows
superior performances in the attack and long range interdiction
roles, and is useful even in the close range fighting allowing to
exploit at their best the potential performances of sensors and
electronic warfare/self protection systems; the dual
space/endoatmospheric capability, at a small price in terms of
performances, adds a relevant operational flexibility, that
actually is appreciated by all the users. The only real limits of
this powerful fighter are the need for a two men crew, and, at
the end, the financial cost of a fighter that is intrinsecally
more complex and expensive than the Aurora.
The SA-32 N used by the EFNI has its major distinctive feature in the two hardpoints placed on the sides of the fuselage, that can carry or special purpose external payloads (ELINT or reconnaissance pods), or special weapons: usually, a couple of 27mm railguns that have combat proven their effectiveness, or eventually a couple of Q-spoiling lasers.
Lockheed-Mitchell SA-32* Thunderbolt Starfury Technical Specifications
Lenght: 18.54 meters
Span: 15.56 meters (22.52 meters with extended tailerons, atmospheric flight)
Height: 7.22 meters
Wing Area: 110 square meters
Mass: 58.1 Metric tons (empty)
67.8 Metric tons (basic w/o external payload)
81.2 Metric tons (Maximum payload)
X-axis acceleration: +10,75/-4,2 G
Y-axis acceleration: +/- 2,2 g
Z-axis acceleration: +/- 2,2 g
X-axis angular acceleration/roll rate: +/- 1185 deg/sec*2 / 180° roll in 0.78"
Y-axis angular acceleration/pitch rate: +/- 1000 deg/sec*2 / 180° pitch in 0.85"
Z-axis angular acceleration/yaw rate: +/- 2410 deg/sec*2 / 180° yaw in 0.55"
Endurance: Life support+economy cruise navigation: 60 hours normal space/50 hours hyperspace.
Standard mission: 4 hours+40'combat power
Weapons: (SA 32 A/N)
1*Copeland-Westinghouse GAU-112 U "Warhammer" Gatling plasma cannon
6*Upper wing Frazer-Nash MER missile ejector racks
4*Lower wing Frazer-Nash MER missile ejector racks
2*Under fuselage Frazer-Nash EMER missile ejector rails, or three/four hardpoints for air to ground armament.
Max external payload:14,000 Kgs.
Typical antiship payload: 4*HIVAM Anti ship missiles or 4*HIVAT torpedoes, 4*Viper antifighter missiles, 2*LARK-III Anti radiation missile.
Typical interceptor payload: 6/10*Viper antifighter missiles.
2*Mauser-Oto Melara MKO 27mm railguns (only in the N variant issued to the EFNI)
Lockheed SA-32A THUNDERBOLT STARFURY
This Craft is a SA-32A belonging to the VMFA 212, 212th
Marines Fighter Attack Squadron - The figure portraits a
Thunderbolt with a typical payload used in the Drakh war for the
antiship/space superiority missions: four HIVAT antiship
Torpedoes and six Viper antifighter missiles.
The VMFA 212 "Wolfpack" was the first EA squadron issued with the Thunderbolts, and operated in temporary assignement with the EFNI forces, in the operation "Bright Eagle" ( 28 october 2259 ) *(See even Note 1).
Note 1 - The Bright Eagle Mission
in the 2259 raged through the galaxy the Shadow War. One of the most devastating conflicts of the recorded history, it did not involved directly the Earth Alliance, but had anyway strong influences on the Earth politics: the years of the Clark's dictatorships, the Civil War, the Psi War, the Drakh war, all of them are direct consequences of the Shadow activities against the human race, as were in some measure the Dilgar War and the Minbari War.
In the 2259 the EFNI was aware of the existance and of some of the shadows activities, and assessed that the Shadow were responsibles of some attacks against EA civilian and military ships.
In the fall of 2259, the collection of informations from various sources allowed to define the power and some limits of the shadows (Dark Light investigation), and the EFNI decided to try the "Big Shot": to capture pieces of Shadows technology.
Shadow activity was detected in the sector 87, and the EFNI placved in the area a grid of navigational encoded transponders, both in the normal space and in the hyperspace, and to train a task force to fight aganist the Shadows.
The mission was a success: the beacon grid allowed to track the shadow ships (a couple of them) in the hyperspace, and when one of them tried to attack one of the EFNI's Hyperions, on patrol in the normal space, was immediately attacked by two more hyperions and one Nova: the beam weapons of the Hyperions, as expected, were ables to "stun" for a few seconds the Shadow ship, overwhelmingly superior from every point of view but one: the Shadow material, of which are made all their ships, is mechanically fragile, and all the EFNI ships are equipped with railguns. The heavy projectiles of the kinetic weapons did not destroyed the Shadow ship, but were able to pierce through its internal systems, incapacitating it with something like an "hit to the brain".
The second Shadow ship phased into the normal space to whip away the EA task force, but, having being kept under constant tracking thanks to the beacon network placed by the EFNI, was literally overwhelmed by the massive saturation attack of nuclear tipped missiles launched by the squadrons of starfuries and by the fire of the second Nova, that acted as a tactical reserve. In this impressive fighting, that endured less than two minutes for the major ships fightings and less than six overall, the Thunderbolts of the 212 Squadron of the Marines, detached to the EFNI, were able to fight against the shadow fighters released, in number of twelve, from the first Shadow ship; in fact, the "fighterball" launched by the battlecrab contained very likely 30 or 40 fighters, but was hit by a nucler tipped torpedo, and only twelve fighters survived up to the direct contact.
Even in this case, the use of missiles and torpedoes was determinating: the Shadow crafts are difficult to lock-on, but they have a distinctive infrared image, relatively easy to track with the advanced optical systems of the thunderbolts and of the EFNI's Auroras. More than every other thing, while the Shadow battleship are something awesome, their fighters seems to be a little more than expendable devices: fast and with a devastating armament, the Shadow fighters have shown to be too weak to survive the fire of the EA Thunderbolts, as was proven by the battle score: 12 to 4 in favour of the EA Starfuries.
Must anyway be considered that the exceptionally favourable conclusion of the Bright Eagle mission was the outcome of months of preparation, reconnaissance, planning, and accurate training and exercises of elite forces like the EFNI Naval Service and an elite Torpedo-Fighter squadron of the Marines, that allowed to exploit at the best the strength of our forces and the few weaknesses of the Shadows.
** Note 2 - Thunderbolt performances at Coriana 6
During the Battle of Coriana 6, 23 January 2260, 24 Thunderbolts of the Garrison of Babylon 5 participated to the three-sided fighting: are surely assessed, thanks to the footages of the gun-cameras and the registrations of the flight recorders, the destruction of seven Shadow fighters, and two Vorlon fighters, all with the cannon fire. The simple fact that the recordings of the fighters, and their pilots, survived to tell the tale of the destruction of the best fighter crafts of races that have an history millions years old, is a testament of the overall effectiveness of the Heavy fighter of the Lockheed, and of the deadly power of its weapons. Overall, the Thunderbolt has shown performances comparatively at least on par to the Nial, and possibly a better ergonomy and a more flexible and effective weapon system.
Must be added a consideration: the Shadows, in technological
terms, seems to have an edge respect to the other
"Ancient" races, they seems to be the only ones that
have not a recognizable power source on their crafts, their
defensive system, the "Shadow Armour", is awesome, and
their mastery of the hyperspace technology is impressive,
possibly superior respect to every other hyprspace-hyperphase
thechnology known: but what they have in terms of technology,
seems to lack in the exploitation of these resources: they have
not eliminated some areas of vulnerability of their crafts that
are mechanically fragile and are barely operative if kept under
the continuous fire of weapons even relatively weak, They are
vulnerable to telepathic attacks, and, while their capital ships,
the "Battlecrabs", are devastating war machines, their
lighter vessels, scout ships and fighters, have shown to be
absolutely not up to the task, and have been repeatedly beaten by
warships and fighters of races enormously less advanced.
The Vorlons, even if quantitatively outnumbered by the Shadows, have much more advanced and effective fighting crafts: each class of Vorlon ship, from the battle cruiser to the reconnaissance corvette to the fighter, is a masterpiece of technology, operationally superior respect to their Shadow counterpart, as vastly superior were the military organization and capability of the Vorlons, their weapons and armours.