Sins of a Solar Spymaster #57 - The Art of Nullsec War
Planning the conquest of a conquerable region is the rarest art in Eve Online, shrouded in more obfuscation and uninformed idiocy than even forensic counterintelligence. Only a handful of individuals at the highest level of alliance warfare have had an opportunity to try their hand at it; the vast majority fails, and the hundreds or thousands of pilots who follow them suffer for it. A single successfully planned war can create a reputation that lasts for years, and the failures follow would-be sky marshals forever. Because war planning is something only a handful of players get to do, there is no manual, no accepted order of battle; we see the same novice mistakes repeated on a monthly basis across New Eden.
Early in the conquest of Fountain (which is in its final stages, as I pen this) I found myself dealing with an eager young allied fleet commander who wanted to give his advice on how we should be managing the campaign. He had never planned a war, but felt that our selection of targets was wrong; there was nothing I could point him to in order to disabuse him of his notions, save for a rather vulgar laundry list of regions which Ive had a hand in conquering. It was during this cringe-worthy moment that I decided to write this guide. While the vast majority of readers will never be in a position to put this to direct use, it should at least help correct some of the fundamental misunderstandings that both many fleet-level players and untested sky marshals have about the nature of nullsec war.
We speak here of war as a contest between alliances fighting for sovereign space. Scuffles in empire using the Concord corporation war mechanic or knife-fights between small gangs in NPC nullsec where no territory can be captured do not interest us. War is not for nice people, even in an internet spaceship game; War is about destroying the bonds of friendship and companionship that hold an organization together. It is by definition an act of cruelty.
War between alliances for conquerable space has changed drastically in tactical details since 2006, but the strategic principles remain virtually identical regardless of the old POS-war mechanic or the Dominion sov system. This is because war for conquerable space is a test of organization against organization; the ultimate goal is to keep your own alliances pilots logging in and fighting, while discouraging your adversarys pilots from doing the same. This process is based on human psychology and is independent from the tactical details of the game mechanics, which is why the signature events of nullsec war, such as the failure cascade, remain unchanged despite innumerable patches and tweaks.
What is War, Really?
War in EVE is not about battles between fleets or even capturing territory. Battles between fleets and territory changing hands are byproducts of war, of course, but the real purpose is to annihilate the enemys capacity for resistance in all forms. Once resistance is eliminated, what battles remain can be won easily and territory taken as an afterthought. Many wars begin with a stalemate of battles won and lost and systems traded until one side finally breaks their enemys will, whereupon the enemy implodes.
Hold Nothing Back
Breaking the enemys will takes many forms, both inside the game and outside of it. This includes attacks on logistics, attacks on sources of income, propaganda wars, the espionage metagame, scamming, griefing, character assassination, major fleet battles as well as small gang harassment. Any alliance going to war but intending only to fight in battles and contest territory, ignoring the other aspects of war, may still be able to defeat an inferior organization and shatter its will, but will be hamstrung against an equal opponent who is willing to use every available weapon.
Attack the Weakest Link
When choosing targets to strike, always attack the place where the enemy will have the least defense. Usually this begins with attacks against subordinate entities such as pets or renters associated with the primary target. The client states of a bloc, particularly those who dont own their own space, are populated with pilots who are not interested in a war, yet can provide significant support in a fleet if properly motivated.
When fighting against Lotka Volterras Southern Coalition in 2007, the Redswarm Federation focused on LVs satellite allies in Veritas Immortalis and Knights of the Southerncross, cascading them long before going to war on LVs home territory. Atlas Alliance, which inhabited virtually the same territory as Lotka Volterra, fell in the same way: its client entities (Gentlemens Club, Cult of War, Honorable Templum of Alcedonia) were stripped away, and then the center collapsed. Similarly, when invading Fountain in 2011, the Deklein Coalition and its allies focused their attacks on the renters of IT Alliance such as Talos, Black Star Alliance and Blade long before any assaults began on IT Alliance territory.
Sometimes the weakest leak is an alliance; sometimes it is a vulnerable jump bridge network, an exposed moon-mining tower that would be difficult to stront-time, or a CSAA building a Titan. Grab the low-hanging fruit.
Ruin the Gameplay of Enemy Pilots
When choosing your stratagems, think about what impact they will have on the common grunt in the enemy fleet. Your enemy is not the hostile leadership, but their grunts. Your job is to make him decide to play another game rather than fight against your alliance, which means making life for that grunt as hard as possible. Snapping jump bridges doesnt have much strategic impact in bloc warfare because for major ops Titans can provide jump bridges, but jump bridges are a massive boost to the quality of life of the humble pilot in his day-to-day affairs. Bridges should be snapped, jump beacons camped, and major pipes should be ruined with cloaking gankers. If you can scam, grief or humiliate the common grunt (via local smack, awoxing or forum wars) so much the better.
What will ruin the gameplay for the enemy can depend upon the culture and purpose of the enemy organization. While certain tactics impact just about everyone (cloaking gankers, bridge hits), your particular foe might have an Achilles heel. Some examples: Elite PvP organizations are typically populated by thin-skinned pilots who are particularly vulnerable to mockery in local or on the forums.
Organizations with a history of abandoning their allies can be pilloried at the diplomatic level to turn their current allies away from them. Pilots in renter organizations should be reminded that they are paying for the privilege of fighting for their landlords. Honorable or roleplayer organizations can be shocked into submission by openly flaunting your willingness to use tactics they frown upon. The important thing is that when you find that a certain attack that hits a nerve, you twist the knife and dont stop until they break.
Destroy the Leaderships Reputation
If you have the capability, assassinate the character of enemy leaders. Mock and humiliate them, expose their flaws to their own pilots. If the average enemy pilot begins to question the judgment of his own leadership, not only is he less likely to log in and fight you, its far more likely that you will benefit from defectors. This tactic can range from the innocuous Hes a nice guy, but hes really terrible at Eve Online to the more sinister Hes an untrustworthy backstabber with a history of treachery. In general its best to stick with the truth; if your enemy has truly spotless leadership, youll just seem foolish trying to invent outlandish (and thus easily repelled) attacks.
Make Life Easy For Your Pilots
The flip side of ruining things for the enemy is to try to make playing Eve Online as fun and easy as possible for your own pilots. Protect your bridges, and if your bridges are down ensure you have Titans available to bridge people around. Use regular reinforcement fleets to bypass cloaking gank gangs. Ensure that you have a stockpile of combat ships in your staging system, ideally for free, which your pilots can resupply from easily in the theatre without having to go to Jita to get back into the fight. Entertain your pilots on ops in any way you can, especially when theres no fighting.
Part of making things easy for your pilots is making sure that your pilots and allies know when your ops are. Rather than insisting that your pilots find out about ops on your terms by announcing them through only one medium, such as a forums post, make sure that all avenues are covered: alliance mails, forum posts, the motds of in-game formup channels, and the in-game calendar. Do not assume that the Mountain will go to Mohammad. Your job is to make it as easy as possible for your pilots to not just play EVE, but do so in your alliances fleet ops, fighting the enemies you choose. Idealistic commanders will be horrified to learn how much impact a simple change like posting formups in a more accessible place will make on op participation.
Dont Make Unnecessary Plans
War is a fluid contest between organizations and coalitions of thousands of people. There are many variables, and even the most well-informed strategist cant make useful plans more than a week or possibly two weeks in advance - and thats not even counting unforeseeable black swans. You need to be able to constantly adapt to changing circumstances. Many newer commanders want to plan for every eventuality long into the future; dont bother, just keep the next week in mind and dont get too attached to any bright ideas that you might have to ditch.
Keep Your Friends Close
Friendship in Eve between alliances - what some call effective diplomacy - is a game winner. Those alliances that treat their friends well will be rewarded in war, not only by having allies who fight alongside them, but being able to call in emergency help in extreme situations. Friendship allows you to make war far from home, safe in the knowledge that your allies can watch your vulnerable territory while you are on campaign. It is almost more important for an alliance to treat its friends well than it is to treat its own members well; an alliance with no friends will soon be an alliance with no space. The most optimal reputation to aim for when laying groundwork for a war is best possible friend, worst possible enemy.
Divide and Conquer
The flip side of maintaining your friendships is that you must attempt to drive apart your enemies wherever possible. A diplomatic rupture between allies can make more military impact in five minutes than months of campaigning. When Mercenary Coalition grew sick of Band of Brothers taking credit for MCs successes and split away from BoB, the dynamic of the Great War changed fundamentally, leading almost inevitably to BoBs defeats in Delve I and II. This can be very difficult to manage compared to other tactics, however.
Avoid Ethnic Enclaves
Some alliances are ethnic enclaves, a group where a small nationality or ethnicity has banded together with a common language to play an internet spaceship game. Do not mess with them if you can avoid it, as they tend to punch above their weight class. Find a weaker link to attack. The average English-speaking player can have many reasons to be loyal to his alliance, but speaking English or being from a particular country isnt going to be one of them. The average player from a small nation in an ethnic alliance has no place else to go if his alliance comes under assault, and national or ethnic pride is on the line to defend that alliances honor. I wouldnt seriously attack an alliance like the Romanians or Hungarians unless they were the last targets standing and I had excessive force on my side. Larger language groups such as Germans or Russians have multiple corporations or alliances to choose from, so this isnt an issue.
Slow and Steady
Dont try to do too much at once. If you conceive of war as a contest of burnout management, working your pilots into a frenzy one week and having them too exhausted to log in the next week is a recipe for disaster. Certain activities, particularly structure shooting with subcapitals or fighting outside of your organizations natural timezone, have a higher risk of burning out pilots; be mindful of this. When you inevitably run into setbacks and losses, theres much less emotional blowback if you have kept a steady pace; a loss during a period of fevered action risks turning into a rout.
The Killing Blow
After a series of small victories and slowly degrading the enemy, sometimes it is wise to attempt a killing blow. This is a massive and unsubtle move, such as a trap which destroys enemy supercapitals, or a hellcamp which locks down a hostile system 23/7. These maneuvers are extremely risky and should only be attempted in the late stages of a war, when you are increasingly certain of victory. If you attempt to deliver a killing blow too early and are repelled, the fact that the enemy defeated you can lead to a resurgence of their pride and spirit as well as demoralizing your pilots.
I am by no means the only authority on war; there are other leaders in EVE with as much experience or more than mine, such as UAxDeath of Legion of Death, Vuk Lau and Imperian of Morsus Mihi, Nync of White Noise, or Shadoo of Pandemic Legion. The above is merely a sketch of what Ive learned (usually the hard way) in the past four and a half years of managing campaigns from our first failed attempts at Cloud Ring to Scalding Pass, Tenerifis, Detorid, and beyond and around to Delve (and back again).