Sins of a Solar Spymaster #86: The Asakai Meltdown
The Battle of Asakai was the most monumental event in recent EVE history - an unexpected, unplanned supercapital engagement in a backwater lowsec system snowballed out of control into a 3000-person maelstrom of carnage that lasted for more than five hours. There were no strategic goals or objectives whatsoever; it began by accident and was accelerated by error after compounded error. The entire supercapital and capital might of the CFC was almost extinguished, tossed away for nothing like a used paper cup. When the butchery was over and the CFC had lost three Titans, five or more supercarriers, more than forty dreadnaughts and thirty carriers, the leadership described the losses in hushed tones of only having lost that much - because it could have been so, so much worse. Calling Asakai a battle implies an equality between the forces engaged; in more sober terms, it was a massacre.
The real question of Asakai is this: how on earth did it happen? The simplistic explanation - that the CFC fleet commander accidentally jumped his Titan into Asakai instead of bridging his support fleet - is only part of the story. The truth is that the circumstances which led the CFC into Asakai resemble nothing so much as the meltdown of a nuclear reactor or the crash of a commercial jetliner. Nuclear reactors melt down and airplanes crash not when one solitary mistake or malfunction occurs, because both planes and reactors rely on a number of redundant safeguards to prevent disasters. When a meltdown or crash happens, it is because a whole host of failures across a number of systems have taken place simultaneously, overwhelming all the safeties. EVE coalitions guard their capital and supercapital assets jealously, and a number of safeguards and rules of common use are put in place to ensure that these ships are not wasted pointlessly. For the CFC to become so embroiled in Asakai so rapidly over so little was like a reactor meltdown on a coalition level: a series of oversights, mistakes, and failures that stacked up into the largest yet most pointless fight in recent history.
So: What went wrong? What can we learn from Asakai, so that these kind of mistakes are not repeated?
Bad Intel: The stage for Asakai was set when Pearcy, a fleet commander in Fatal Ascension, notified Dabigredboat (who would later lead the CFC fleet to its doom) that there was an opportunity in Black Rise lowsec to hotdrop some of the locals at a tower which was coming out of reinforced. This was factually correct. What made this Intel poisonous was the fact that the locals in question had a habit of summoning Pandemic Legion supercaps, and in fact had helped kill three Nyx supercarriers under Pearcys personal command with PL help earlier in the month.
No Intel Sanity-Check: The full details of the planned drop were not shared with any CFC directors, only the fact that an opportunity for a gank would present itself. This secrecy was held for fear of spooking the targets in case of a director-level leak, which is a laughable concern in hindsight. Dabigredboat was ignorant of Pearcys recent losses of supercaps to PL in Black Rise earlier that month, but they were a significant event that was known to the rest of the CFC command structure. If Dabigredboat had shared his communications with Pearcy with his fellow directors, the op would have been scrubbed: no sensible FC would follow blindly into such an obvious trap.
Fleet Prep, Hictors: A lowsec gank must rely on Heavy Interdictors and their focused points to hold down the enemy supercapitals, as in lowsec neither interdictor bubbles or Titan doomsdays function. Despite planning a hotdrop, the CFC fleet brought a bare handful of Hictors along. By contrast, a properly-prepared gank often has 15+ Hictors ready to tie down their prey with replacements available in supercarrier and carrier ship bays to account for attrition. When the initial battle was engaged, the CFC forces outnumbered Pandemic Legion supercaps by a factor of two, but because so few CFC hictors were present, the PL supercaps were able to warp easily to safety when they began to take damage. The lack of hictors on the CFC side explains why the CFC was only able to kill a single hostile supercarrier, where the many tens of hictors on the anti-CFC side took pinned down eight or more CFC supers by the end.
Doctrinal Prep, Hictors: A supercarrier has a massive ship bay which allows it to store more than twenty Heavy Interdictors; carriers likewise can hold a number of fitted hictors. While the CFC regulates ship fittings for carriers and supercarriers - fits must meet a minimum quality, or the ships will not be reimbursed upon loss - CFC capital doctrines merely suggest that supercarriers and carriers bring fitted dictors and hictors, rather than requiring this. A battle-ready supercarrier costs ~30b isk; five fitted hictors in the bay of each supercarrier would cost a mere 1.5 billion additional isk. Suggestion meant that the CFC supercarriers went into battle with their Ship Maintenance Bays essentially useless, and thus unable to counteract the fleet commanders error in failing to bring enough hictors.
Fleet Prep, Node: The plan for the Asakai drop was made more than 24 hours in advance, which was ample time to file a node reinforcement petition with CCP to ensure that the system was on a proper node. A reinforced node operates much faster; had the CFC filed the petition, the first hour of the Asakai fight may have only taken ten minutes in Time Dilation, instead of immediately stretching to 10% TiDi. This potentially could have allowed the CFC forces to engage, win with local superiority (if they had brought enough hictors) and disengage before waves of hostile reinforcements arrived. As it stood, the Asakai node was not reinforced despite the FC planning the op in advance, and when the CFC fleet jumped into the system time slowed to a crawl, allowing the rapid hostile reinforcement which turned the engagement into a rout.
FC Error, Titan Attendance: Before the Asakai engagement began, CFC forces moved to a staging system in Tribute within range of Asakai. The op only required supercarriers, hictors, support carriers and subcapitals, but the FC announced that Titans were invited on the op, and fifteen had assembled in the Tribute staging system. A Titan should never be in lowsec; it cannot use its primary weapon, the doomsday, rendering it nothing more than a very large, vulnerable, and expensive Dreadnaught - a 90 billion isk source of dps. A sieged dreadnaught does comparable dps and costs only 3 billion isk. When the battle was joined and things began to go wrong, the FC called for ever-more CFC Titans to join in Asakai, eventually seeing 28 CFC Titans in Asakai. The only proper number would have been zero.
FC Error, Titan Bridge: This is the error everyone knows of: despite CCP having moved the Jump and Bridge buttons far away from one another on the context menu, the CFC fleet commander accidentally sent his Leviathan into Asakai instead of bridging in his support fleet. He then panicked and broadcasted to the entire CFC jabber for everything to come save him.
Ignoring Valid Intel: The CFC Intel network functioned flawlessly when the battle was joined, allowing the Intel directors to chart the incoming stream of enemies as alliance after alliance mobilized and began sending fleets to attack the beleaguered CFC fleet. Despite repeated warnings on comms that every enemy the CFC ever had was on their way with massive fleets, there was no move to disengage until after the hostile reinforcements actually arrived - by which point it was too late. Tunnel vision had kicked in, the hunger for PL kills blinding the CFC commander to the mounting dangers such as the lack of tackle or the incoming enemies.
Underestimating Time Dilation: Once battle was joined on an unreinforced node in Asakai, local time slowed to a 10-1 ratio: every second in the game took ten seconds in reality. In a supercapital gank situation without time dilation, it is often possible to make a kill and disengage before any enemies can react; however, in Asakai, the extreme dilation meant that any enemy from any sector of the galaxy - northeast, southwest, whatever - could reach Asakai in time to attack the CFC fleet, as TiDi is a purely local phenomenon. When Intel was given announcing the host of foes forming to respond to Asakai, the CFC commander did not take into account the fact that his fleet was trapped in amber, where fleets elsewhere in the galaxy were moving at ten times his speed as they rushed to engage.
Smartbombs Forgotten: A whole host of CFC carriers reinforced the Asakai fight - more than one hundred. Every CFC carrier carried a smartbomb in its hold for the express purpose of countering hostile fighter-bombers. When the fight engaged and hostile fighter-bombers were among the CFC fleet, no order was given to refit all carriers to smartbombs, allowing a number of carriers to be destroyed. While supercarriers fit officer smartbombs as a matter of course, the defense of the CFC fleet against incoming damage would have been vastly greater if the refit order had been given. It is reported that some heard a refit order much later in the battle, but by this point it was already a rout.
Failure to Cut Losses: The Asakai debacle could be described as a case of the Sunk Cost Fallacy writ large. The CFC risked a Titan by accidentally jumping it into Asakai, then invested ever more into a doomed effort to pull out a win despite a number of failures, warning signs, and disengage already commands. After jumping a Titan in by mistake, if the initial Titan had been written off as dead and sacrificed, the CFC would have only lost 90 billion isk. Once the fight began going south, a CFC Ragnarok was targeted and held down by all of the hostile heavy interdictors and began going down. The pilot repeatedly suggested that the fleet stop trying to save him and use his impending death as a distraction - since all of the hostile hictors were on him, the rest of the CFC super fleet could have simply cynoed out of the system. Despite his steely decision, the CFC fleet did not disengage, the Ragnarok died anyway, along with two more Titans and a number of supercarriers.
I find Asakai both infuriating and fascinating. While it is no fun to be on the losing side, the sheer number and breadth of the errors which abruptly brought about an accidental 3000-person supercapital fight is an awesome thing to behold, like a rocket launch gone hellishly awry. There were a host of opportunities for the CFC to right itself in Asakai: backup hictors in SMAs could have held down PL supercaps to make the fight bloodier, a reinforced node would have avoided the scope of TiDi in the critical initial engagement period, listening to Intel or sacrificing a Titan could have significantly minimized the damage taken. Yet none of this happened: failure compounded failure, resulting in a meltdown.