The end of the Contact War found Battle Fleet facing a number of unique challenges as it moved forward into the post war period. Under the pressures of the conflict, the first generation of human starships had designed and built without any fundamental understanding of many of the key technologies. Instead human designers were forced to copy blindly without an understanding of why particular features were necessary. The post war Foundation Program promised to solve this problem (see entry RIVER CLASS for more details) but in the short term the Battle Fleet faced both a serious capability gap and a danger that without growth, political will for what was in effect a stateless military might fade. So while it was important that the fleet begin to make good its wartime losses, it was equally important not to financially commit too deep to a generation of ships which were likely to become obsolete in a fairly short time frame.
This combination of factor effectively ruled out the simplest option of building another batch of the comparatively large and expensive Storm Class Cruisers, however the option of building a smaller design out of off the shelf parts promised more possibilities. While the first generation cruisers had been constructed in what were in effect government shipyards, post war a number of commercial enterprises had entered the sector. The fleet was keen to widen the sector and a class of small ship offered the chance for several companies to gain warship experience.
With speed of the essence, much of the design followed what were at that time established conventions – the hood over the main turret and the bridge mounted below the turret. Still there were some innovations within the design. In all previous designs the missile launchers had been internal to the hull but in such a small ship there would be no room for reloads, so instead these were mounted externally and angled nine degrees off the horizontal. Another break with convention was the mounting of the maneuvering engines. Set in an X formation rather than the usual cross layout, this was found to offer better performance. This layout reduced the possible firing arcs into the broadside but with the existing turret layout on Sparrow this was found to be acceptable, although it has not been repeated.
The design of the bow structure and the housing for the jump drive was another deviation from fleet practice. Formed into an open ‘butterfly’ design, this layout was both lighter and radiated heat better than the fleet’s standard ‘ram bow’ layout. Unfortunately it also gave a stronger radar return, making the vessel a more obvious target and so was not repeated in later warship classes. However the design was to prove highly influential in first generation of civilian starships.
Sparrow entered service in 2038, with the other 8 members of the class following over the next three years. In their first five years in service the Sparrows were engaged in an extensive series of trials and exercises mostly within Earth’s solar system. At the end of this period the fleet had come to the conclusion that as combat vessels the Sparrow Class was of marginal value at best.
While in theory the plasma cannon was capable of striking targets at up to seventy thousand kilometres, the single mount, with it fairly low rate of fire, under combat conditions struggled to hit targets beyond thirty thousand kilometres – suicidal range against an armed opponent. While the lack of armour or even splinter protection, combined with the limited point defence grid meant fighters would present a serious threat.
Battle Fleet had however always accepted that the Sparrow Class would be stepping stones to more capable designs and the experience gained fed into later designs. The development of the light plasma cannon for example, can be traced directly back the Sparrows.
As a small but homogenous group the Sparrows were frequently used by the Fleet Tactical Development Section to field test new tactics and frequently ‘role-played’ as much larger ships. Additionally a large number of second line duties fell with the capabilities of the class, particularly perimeter patrol.
The expectation had been been that the class would serve for eight years before being downgraded the pure training ships. The discovery of Dryad, followed by the establishment of Earth’s first extra-solar colony and the greater than expected success of the River Class Cruisers, extended the Sparrow’s front line career to more than fifteen years. With their small heat sink, operations outside of Earth solar system were difficult but the type freed up larger ships for service elsewhere. The aftermath of the abortive Temple invasion of Dryad in 2041 was the only time members of the class spent significant time away from Earth.
While the class had not been built with upgrades in mind, the lack of armour meant relatively easy access into the ship’s structure, while the fleet’s rapid expansion and need for training ships, meant class continued to be useful enough to justify re-engining and re-reactoring at the end of the 2040’s and it was only in 2059 that the class was finally reduced reserve.
It has often been the case that smaller ships fail because designers or administrators expect too much. The Sparrow class represent a rare occasion where a small ship exceeds expectations. While always ships of modest capabilities the Sparrows continued long beyond their intended lifespan to prove useful in a variety of roles. There most useful role however was to indicate a minimum size for a true starship and all follow on designs having been at least fifty percent larger.