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The ST universe predominantly only depicts two main races with cloaking technology: the Romulans and Klingons. In universe, the Klingons originally got the technology from the Romulans as part of a treaty.

Therefore, the only races we've really seen that have developed the technology from first principles are the Romulans and the Federation (in TNG:Pegasus) (Particularly as this device was interphasic, making it different to regular cloaking devices as used by the Romulans and Klingons, it seems likely that the technology was independently developed, or at least improved, by Starfleet).

In the DS9 episode Homefront, it's speculated that the Dominion may have recovered a cloaking device from the combined Romulan/Cardassian fleet that attempted to invade the Founders' home world. It was barely even considered that the Dominion may have developed the technology itself, even though the Jem'Hadar have personal cloaking devices, making the possibility that they have developed ship-size cloaks at least plausible.

There are other technologically superior races (such as the Borg) that also don't seem to have ever developed the technology as far as we're aware of.

Given that most major races are more-or-less technologically on a par - warp drives, transporters, phasers/disruptors are ubiquitous for example - in universe, what makes cloaking technology so rare?

  • I don't have the ability to research an answer at this time, but you may want to look into Voyager episodes - there was more than one cloaking-capable species there. If you feel inclined to dig it up, don't forget that you're allowed to self-answer. – T.J.L. Dec 11 '19 at 13:28
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    It's questionable whether or not the Federation developed the core cloaking technology on their own, having captured at least two devices (Romulan in 2268, Klingon in 2286). The phase-cloak from Pegasus was probably an extrapolation of one or both of those devices. – Xantec Dec 11 '19 at 14:32
  • @Xantec: I'm not sure about that, with the "conventional" Romulan and Klingon cloaking devices apparently being merely effective against certain forms of radiation, the phase cloak (both on the Pegasus and on the Romulan vessel from "The Next Phase") sounded more like a fundamentally different concept. – O. R. Mapper Dec 11 '19 at 17:01
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    @Darren Your statement that the Klingons acquired cloaking technology from the Romulans as part of a treaty is in error. As far as I know there is no canonical statement about how the Klingons acquired cloaking technology. – M. A. Golding Dec 11 '19 at 18:39
  • @M.A.Golding A number of licensed reference works, most recently the Bird of Prey owner's manual repeat the notion that the Romulans traded cloaking tech to the Klingons. Whether that qualifies as a "canonical statement" is up to you. – Cadence Dec 11 '19 at 19:19
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More difficult than it's worth.

I don't know of a specific, canon answer to this exact question, so this is an analytical answer rather than an authoritative one.

Consider that:

  • Few groups have and use cloaking devices
  • Cloaking devices do not seem like a high priority for warlike groups that don't have them and are not bound by treaties not to develop them
  • Cloaking doesn't seem to be all that good for many applications

These together suggest that if you already have cloaking technology then sure, use it. But if you don't, it may not be worth all that much effort to develop.

Romulans are a power in the galaxy, but they're far from a dominant one and for all their ship cloakery they don't seem to win a particularly large proportion of their battles or wars. The Klingon Empire is similar in that cloaking doesn't seem to have given them all that much of an edge.

The known limitations on cloaking device effects are pretty severe as well. Not only do there seem to be multiple ways of detecting a ship under cloak (radiation leaks, implausible-in-space networks of tripwires, logical deduction, and more) but they're also hard to use in anything other than reconnaissance and pre-combat maneuver.

You have to have your shields down and weapons unpowered. And, as above, you're still plenty detectable (if not casually detectable). Not to mention that any groups which have active cloaking research programs are likely to be far ahead of new entrants, meaning that an independently researched cloaking device might not level the playing field against those which already have cloaks.

So I argue that the reason for cloaking technology being so rare is that it's not all that awesome in practice. The few things it is good for are not compelling enough to make it a major research priority for most groups on a practical level, and those that do have and use it do so for other reasons.

Romulans are big on military theory and maneuvering. Cloaking fits nicely with those, even if it doesn't grant a big advantage. Perhaps they have a cultural or biological preference for dramatic appearances to unsuspecting audiences, or just like the cool visual effect of cloaking and de-cloaking.

But the practical case for striving to create cloaking technology seems weak.

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    You can travel at warp speed while under cloak. The Romulans did it regularly throughout TNG and both Romulans and Klingons (and Cardassians in one specific instance) did it in DS9 before and through the Dominion War. – Sava Dec 12 '19 at 3:15
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    I find it weird that after figuring out that firing while cloaked (in that TOS crew movie where that happened) no one looked into that. – GordonBennett Dec 12 '19 at 9:04
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    @GordonBennett Once they've started shooting, everybody who's paying attention knows the ship is somewhere nearby. As it turns out, the ship was relatively easy to detect when maneuvering at combat speeds. Turns out it's simpler and more effective to decloak and have access to weapons and shields. A cloak is far more effective when nobody has a reason to suspect you're around. – T.J.L. Dec 12 '19 at 13:20
  • I've upvoted this as a plausible answer, but agree with Sava that you can travel at warp at cloaked, and I'd even go so far so to say I'm fairly sure shields can still be used, although I agree about the weapons. Really, not being as good as made out is the only explanation I can accept. Too technically difficult or too power hungry as explanations don't wash with me as warp drive and matter transportation must both be more power hungry and more technically difficult, just as two examples. – Darren Dec 12 '19 at 16:43
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    Presumably cloaking technology is also in a perpetual arms race, where last year's invisibility cloak is useless again this year's sensors. – jeffronicus Dec 12 '19 at 17:14
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Cloaking of small objects is not uncommon.

You see it widely used. It's often seen as little more than a parlor trick.

The problem comes when trying to cloak an entire ship.

Bending light or imitating light becomes exponentially more difficult the larger the object you are concealing. This is made even more difficult if the source of the cloaking system is to be contained on the vessel it is trying to cloak.

The extreme development difficulty and thus prized nature of this tech is why in the peace treaty with the Romulan Empire, a major stipulation for the federation was for the Federation not to develop or try to acquire cloaking technology.

As of why it is so hard to cloak starships, You have to remember your average Starship is about half a kilometer wide. Even the small Defiant (attack class) and Intrepid class (rapid response class) ships are larger than a typical sports field.

The Enterprise D was incredibly large and designed for diplomatic, transport and other such missions. It was large enough to luxuriously house several thousand people, and massive amounts of cargo. At 43 decks high, with the saucer section being about 20 decks high it's crew and cargo capacity were roughly that of a small city.

Klingon attack ships are by contrast much smaller, with crew space of roughly the size of an attack sub. They are cramped, unsafe and generally not particularly pleasant. Even the larger, more defensive ships are still small.

The Romulan ships while of comparable size to the Enterprise D are designed with substantial modifications to handle the cloaking field and high speed and maneuverability. They still cannot maintain maximum warp with the cloaking field enabled and have much smaller usable ship volume due to these changes.

The USS Defiant was the only federation ship ever to be fitted with a traditional cloaking device.

The Defiant was the smallest full fledged star-ship Star Fleet had made in almost a century. It was only capable housing a maximum of about 50 crewmen with several in each room that was no bigger than a small locker room. This is far less than the 1000+ typical crew/passenger count in the Enterprise D, which could be expanded with the fitting of multipurpose decks and/or cargo bays.

Corrections: Referenced Memory-Alpha Star Trek wiki for more exact information. https://memory-alpha.fandom.com

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    Welcome to the site and thank your for the answer. However, it lacks a lot citations to back up your claims ("even the defiant needed one of the largest Romulan cloaking devices...") and is plain factually wrong in places. For example "Klingon and Romulan attack ships are by contrast much smaller...". A Romulan War Bird is canonically twice the size of the Enterprise-D. – Darren Dec 12 '19 at 16:40
  • According to this, the Galaxy class Enterprise is 643 M from stem to stern (and longer than it is wide). As one of the larger spacecraft in the Star Trek universe, it is above average in size and most certainly not 'several kilometers wide'. The Defiant is listed at 120 M so it isn't 'larger than a stadium' unless you are only talking about the playing field and then it would be about the same size. An Intrepid class at 165 M should fit inside a stadium if you are including the ring of seating area. – Jeeped Dec 13 '19 at 0:05
  • Yes, at 2km you're up in clunky weak fusion reactor powered heavy iron, Galactica, Agamemnon, Imperial Star Destroyer, Dortmunder type sizes. Not Starfleet's design philosophy, though I have some headfic where Federation people build a 1:1 scale Agamemnon just because they can... mind you in the Star Trek universe, Star Trek doesn't exist, so other sci-fi frnchises move up... Babylon-5 and Firefly do very, very well... – Harper - Reinstate Monica Feb 6 at 11:09
  • Thank you. I corrected the mistakes. – Robert Wm Ruedisueli Feb 8 at 11:17

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