Within the Honorverse there exists many classes of ship. Some of these are hyper-capable and some, due to size or design, are restricted to local operations. There are huge merchant vessels and passenger liners, small courier boats, and enormous, powerful dreadnoughts.
All hyper-capable ships share certain characteristics. They are all double-ended hulls, tubular in design, and they can all generate impeller wedges for defence and propulsion. The difference between civilian and military vessels is that warships tend to have a hammerhead design at either end, though Q-ships disguise this feature within a freighter-like design.
By the time of the Honorverse’s main setting, thermonuclear weapons had become a thing of the past, as they were often ineffective with anything less than a direct hit on a warship’s military-grade sidewall. The primary weapons of choice were missiles that produced x-ray lasers upon detonation, and short-range lasers and grasers. Missiles would often settle combat at long ranges, though energy duels were possible if both fleets survived to close to point-blank range.
Defensively, a ship could roll to impose her impenetrable wedge against incoming missiles, or trust her sidewall to do the job. Both the wedge and the sidewall are gravity stress bands, but whereas the wedge is an extremely powerful band, a sidewall can be penetrated, especially if penetration aids (penaids) are deployed by an attacking vessel. However the sidewall would often bend/attenuate an x-ray laser, blunting – though not completely – the strike. Alongside these defences, a ship would deploy counter-missiles and electronic warfare, and as a last-ditch measure, point-defence lasers would fire up against whatever missiles broke through the ECM. Depending on the size of a ship, it might take only a few missiles to do serious damage, despite the sidewalls, or she might withstand multiple attacks and remain combat capable.
The idea scenario for any warship would be to ‘cross the T’. Much like in real-world naval tactics, crossing the T allows the attacking fleet to bring multiple guns to bear, whilst the enemy would heavily restricted. Depending on the deployment of the enemy fleet, it may also be possible to score an ‘up the throat’ or ‘down the kilt’ shot, targeting the limited unshielded sections of the enemy. No ship can generate a fore or aft sidewall without greatly compromising her manoeuvrability and acceleration, so the throat of a wedge is usually open, though no commander willingly exposes their most vulnerable point to the enemy.
Because of the mechanics of getting into a perfect striking position, along with the range at which ships are usually spotted and the range of missiles, a lot of battles would end in a stalemate, at least between foes with broadly similar capabilities. The sophistication of electronic warfare suites, fire control and targeting systems could make a difference and allow one side to gain a decisive upper-hand. A good demonstration of this is in On Basilisk Station (HH1), when HMS Fearless (a light cruiser) takes on and eventually defeats the far larger Q-ship Sirius. Fearless demonstrates superior electronic warfare suites (both offensive and defensive) throughout the battle, which is only as close as it is because of Fearless‘ butchered armament and the tactics this forces upon her crew. The difference in quality between Manticoran and Havenite warships grows more apparent in The Short Victorious War (HH3) and subsequent books. Nonetheless, an experienced and clever commander could overcome deficiencies in technology. A fleet running in silent mode would be virtually undetectable until they lit up their drives, and this trick nearly allows Havenite forces to trap and pin a Manticoran fleet in Flag in Exile (HH5).
Missiles in the Honorverse use impeller drives to rapidly accelerate, and these drives also act as a form of defence against point-defence lasers, however counter-missiles, that have no active warheads, mount large wedges of their own, and are used to destroy incoming fire by colliding the wedges. As ever, the effectiveness of these systems depends on quality and quantity. In the early books, a missile fired from Fearless had a powered envelope of approximately 8-9 million kilometres, relative to Fearless, and once its drive had burned out it would go ballistic. Of course, the missile’s true velocity would incorporate any imparted to it by the ship as well. Energy weapons are more powerful, provided a shot is available, but energy range is usually under a million kilometres.
The weight of a broadside is also crucial. The larger the ship, the bigger the salvo, and the ships of the wall can carry larger, more destructive warheads. Contests between walls of battle are often described as bruising slugfests, akin to heavyweight boxers; there is little finesse, but plenty of powerful punches thrown, until one fighter goes down.
During the course of the books new ideas and approaches to warfare greatly influence the course of the conflict between Manticore and Haven. The development of the multi-drive missile (MDM) affords Manticore a tremendous range advantage, and the pod-laying superdreadnought design greatly increases the weight of a broadside. The SD(P) design took the idea of trailing missile pods (something first used by Manticore in The Short Victorious War) and incorporated the pods into the ship itself. The impact of this is to massively increase the capacity and firepower of a ship of the wall.
The MDM’s range is at least triple that of a standard missile, as it has three active phases and can go ballistic in-between phases as well. Combined with increasingly effective FTL sensors and new electronic warfare seasons, Manticore has, by the end of Ashes of Victory (HH9) a decisive edge over Haven, to the point where a single fleet is able to all-but end the war.
The primary warship classes of the Honorverse range from diminutive destroyers (often referred to as ‘tin cans’), to huge leviathan superdreadnoughts. The sizes of these ships have undergone some… well, see for yourself.
There was no in-universe explanation given for the abrupt changes in size and scale, however the real-world reasoning, put forward by Tom Pope and Ken Burnside (who were working on the Saganami Island Tactical Simulator table-top game) was that, under the size and tonnage given, a superdreadnought would be less dense than cigar smoke. Needless to say, this didn’t make sense! Thus came the Great Resizing, about halfway into the series. Despite this, there remains a huge difference in size between the superdreadnoughts (SDs) and destroyers (DDs), though naturally the two classes perform vastly different roles!
Destroyers, light cruisers and heavy cruisers are often assigned to patrol duties near a system’s hyper limit, or escort duties with freighters and passenger liners. Their acceleration and manoeuvrability often makes them ideal in intercepting pirates and they will often work in small groups. Sometimes, depending on the scale of the patrol or anti-piracy operations, DDs, CLs and CAs will escort and patrol with battlecruisers. The lighter units will also act as screens in large-scale fleet engagements.
Battlecruisers, whilst not as heavily armed as dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts, combine speed with firepower. They will often in tandem with other BCs and as mentioned, lighter units, and they can make a formidable taskforce. Battlecruisers often help to form raiding parties on enemy infrastructure and can pick off screening units quite easily.
The battleship is an interesting and obsolete class of ship by the time the Honorverse starts. It is too slow and clumsy to fulfil a battlecruiser function, but not powerful enough to take its place in the wall of battle. Haven retains many BBs as a means to assist in defending its flanks, but for the most part they are irrelevant until the war with Manticore, when several were deployed to thicken the wall and to launch surprise strikes on several enemy targets.
DNs and SDs are designed from the keel out to slug it out. They are huge, powerful ships and, according to The Short Victorious War, an energy broadside from a ship of the wall can shatter a small moon (one of the few occasions where firepower is even remotely quantified). Their sidewalls are extremely difficult to penetrate, especially from missiles fired by smaller ships, and their armour is thicker. The carry huge missile broadsides and can absorb a lot of damage. Ships of the wall are effectively modern versions of the ships of the line used by old-earth navies. In fleet engagements, the primary aim is to destroy the enemy’s wall, for it represents the majority of the enemy’s firepower.
Confrontations between walls of battle can often be over quite quickly, despite the size and endurance of the vessels. The huge salvos they exchange will overwhelm defences in fairly short order, and as with most battles, the technical sophistication and size of the two fleets will have the biggest bearing upon success, though a skilled commander can offset apparent disadvantages in size and technology. After the conclusion of the first Manticoran-Havenite War, it appeared Manticore became too reliant on its technological edge, and fell prey to underestimating both the size of the new Havenite fleet, and the skill and determination of its commanders. Thus in the 2nd War, Haven (which as per the events of War of Honor (HH10), despite still lagging behind in military hardware, was able to stun Manticore in the opening stages of the new conflict.
A ship class previously mentioned is the LAC. Light Attack Craft cannot enter hyperspace and therefore serve as local patrol boats. They are smaller than even a destroyer and until new developments in the first war, they were considered cannon fodder, and thus were rarely, if ever, deployed in major battles. This began to change in Honor Among Enemies (HH6), when Honor Harrington led a small fleet of hastily converted Q-ships to protect Manticoran shipping in the piracy-ridden Silesian Confederacy. Incidentally, it was here that the idea of flushing missile pods in large numbers through cargo doors emerged, something that would eventually become the basis for the SD(P) design.
Redesigned LACs proved quite effective as short-range craft when used in numbers to swarm an enemy ship, and used in conjunction with a larger vessel, they could confuse enemy sensors and create havoc. Ships of the Honorverse usually use fusion power plants, but even the smallest fusion planets are too big to make any kind of sense for a LAC – until Grayson provided the answer. Their LACs used a fission pile, and Manticore was able to use this seemingly primitive idea and refine it, to develop LACs that were far more powerful. They had better ECM, defences and weapons, including a graser capable of threatening battlecruisers and missiles powerful enough to threaten smaller cruisers. Manticore continued to refine the LAC design, and eventually Haven would copy it. Along with MDMs and pod-laying superdreadnoughts, LACs rapidly redefined warfare.
The wars between Manticore and Haven pushed both sides to develop advanced weaponry and tactics, and when a lasting, final peace (indeed, an alliance) was struck in Mission of Honor (HH12), the difference was stark, when compared to the technology of the largest major power, the Solarian League. Both Haven and Manticore had SD(P)s, LACs and multi-drive missiles. Their ships had better electronic warfare suites, as did their missiles. In the case of Manticore, a variety of new EW systems (under the project name Ghost Rider) produced new and powerful means of confounding enemy sensors, including Dragon’s Teeth (a warhead that spoofed the signatures of multiple missiles) and Dazzlers, that used a strong burst of energy to blind enemy missiles and sensors. Alongside these developments, Manticore also developed the Keyhole II system, which allowed ships to fire ‘off-bore’ (that is, they could deploy both broadsides at once, something that was previously impossible) and provided real-time telemetry to the most sophisticated missile system ever built – Apollo.
Apollo is a missile pod with several warheads but also one bird designed to guide the others in, making use of FTL technology and assisted by Ghost Rider platforms. The result is a missile with an effective range measured in light-minutes, which is also very difficult to fool with ECM.
With a range advantage that no other power could hope to match, Manticore easily swatted aside attacks from Solarian league vessels, except on limited occasions where Apollo missiles were not available and Manticoran ships found themselves greatly outnumbered by League opponents. By the end of the Honorverse, Manticore had become the premier power, with Haven not too far behind.