Most people would notice that the United Federation of Planets fields very powerful ships - the Galor class Cardassian ship and the Klingon Bird of Prey, though staples of their respective fleets, would seem to be at a serious disadvantage in a one-on-one with many of the Federation vessels we know about.

We know that the Federation has better sensors than the massive Warbirds of the Romulan Empire, but that even they are very often seen travelling in pairs - Federation ships, however, are generally alone.

However, when the Federation does have to potentially combat these fleets, they are often portrayed as seriously outnumbered. This numerical handicap suggests that we aren't just seeing the Federation's finest vessels, but that they are building fewer and better ships than civilizations that may pose a threat to them.

This is all despite that fact that those civilizations are just as intelligent and usually have access to (on average) comparable technology.

This seems like a huge combat disadvantage. As we know from nature, K-strategist species (species that reproduce slowly and invest much in new members which are usually intelligent: elephants, for example) are badly outnumbered in both type and count by R-strategist species (species which produce many offspring and refuse to care for them - fruit flies, for example.)

But there is a further reason for that: vessels of all kinds have what is called an exponential problem curve, meaning the more problems it already has, the faster it gets worse. For example, if shields are weakened, engines are far more likely to become weakened quickly, and vice versa. If life support is damaged it may hinder repair efforts: so on and so forth. In other words, the more problems a ship has, the more likely it is to get more - non-linearly, in fact. (And I read about this in a real book on Naval warfare.)

Thus, if a mighty Galaxy class ship is fighting three Klingon Birds-of-Prey, and he damages one, he still has to start two more firing enemy vessels down the slippery slope of their exponential problem curve. If the Galaxy class suffers one lucky hit, however, the battle is almost already lost.

Worse, I would have to guess that adding fire-power would be much cheaper than adding a Science Suite (though I'm not sure.) I.e, perhaps a few small specialized warships are a more efficient use of resources, for combat, than a few large ships with many extra features?

Therefore, my question remains: is the Federation actually much weaker than the other major powers? Are there non-idealistic reasons for the Federation choosing this quality-over-quantity strategy? Its vessels could easily turn a close battle between weaker kinds of ships, but could it even defend itself on its own?

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    your miss understanding the size of the fleet. during the dominion wars we see 1000s of federation ships engaging in combat. Its not that the federation has inadequate numbers its that because of there numbers and power, the klingons and romulans had to compensate by building more ships to balance engagements. This is a current topic discussed in the US, recently china passed the us navy in either total tonage or total "ships", they are still no where close to being a naval threat to the US because we have 10 aircraft carriers to their 1(from the cold war) – Himarm Jul 2 '15 at 19:14
  • The federation has somewhere around 10,000 active vessels, the romulans and klingons have somewhere between 2-5k more total vessels, but as weve already established, it takes 2-4 to overpower 1 fed ship, that scale changes with more federation vessels in the mix, 2-3 fed doesn't bump numbers up to 6-9, more like 9-12. – Himarm Jul 2 '15 at 19:16
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    ditl.org/note-page.php?ListID=Fleets this website which has gathered as many numbers at it could from all the tv shows, postulates that the federation actually had close to 10k built ships to the klingons 6, and the Romulans 2-4. – Himarm Jul 2 '15 at 19:26
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    "non-idealistic reasons" -> there are plenty of pragmatic things to do with ships other than kill people. – user36551 Jul 3 '15 at 4:23

No, the Federation is not weaker than the other races in the Alpha quadrant, even if they produce less ships overall because their ships are better and likely to get far better, far faster than the other races around them. The Federation is a science-oriented culture, they are interesting in both theoretical and practical advances in science which gives them a great advantage over all other empires in the Alpha Quadrant.

While quantity is a quality all its own, it does not always offset a simply superior design or supplement poor quality capacity. If you have weak ships, they may be offset by an enemy with whom shields are so powerful, you will have no effect upon them no matter how many ships you bring to the fight.

  • In addition, the Federation has the rare advantage in that it has a leadership that while it will create rules and structures for the rank and file to adhere to, it is not inflexible and so rigid that it will not take advantage of any scientific endeavor it gets its hands on. The Federation will reverse-engineer alien technologies and utilize them in the next ship design or upgrade they are able to.

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  • Their most potent ship advantage was the development of the Defiant-class warship. Small, fast, and incredibly powerful, the Defiant is a much easier-to-create ship, with none of the frills most Federation ships support during normal operations. It needs less of everything, crew, techs, and scientists than a standard Federation ship.

  • The Defiant is a pure warship, fitted with more powerful weapons and armor than your standard Federation ship, which makes it perfectly suited as a fighting support vessel, an excellent complement to the standard Federation science and technology already on larger Federation ships.

The Federation, as empires go, is a relatively scrupulous one, but not every leader is equally scrupulous.

  • Captain Jean Luc Picard refused to use the Borg virus developed to annihilate the Borg completely even though the capacity was well within his grasp to do so. Later Captain Janeway would use a similar viral load to keep the Borg from defending their TransWarp Conduit system from destruction by Voyager.

  • Janeway would also violate the Federation's temporal accords by bringing technology from another timeline in the future back to the past. Transphasic torpedoes were orders of magnitude more powerful than even Quantum torpedoes already developed in the Federation. Transphasic torpedoes were capable of destroying a Borg cube in a single shot.

  • Janeway also brought back armor-plating capable of resisting the Borg cutting ray. This would surely make the Federation a power to contend with in the future as such technologies are reverse-engineered and placed on new starships.

  • Given that we see the starships/timeships of the future Federation it is safe to say the Federation not only manages to incorporate said technologies successfully, but their strategy of scientific endeavor has long term advantages overall.

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  • The USS Relativity (NCV-474439-G) was a 29th century Federation Wells-class starship operated by Starfleet. This timeship was commissioned at the University of Copernicus, and was under the command of Captain Braxton. The vessel was equipped with powerful sensors capable of scanning throughout spacetime, and a temporal transporter capable of beaming an individual to virtually any point in space and time.

  • The Wells-class timeship was equipped with temporal transporters, an advancement on transporter technology allowing transport through space and time. (VOY: "Relativity")


Simple answer, because Roddenberry insists that Starfleet is not military. Its primary mission is scientific and cultural research, not military strength. The Galaxy class ship has a substantial civilian population.

As for quality over quantity ruling, remember that a single Borg Cube tends to annihilate multiple Federation capital ships. But in the TNG era, there is no active war in which multiple ships need to constantly be paired in case its enemies attack.

In DS9 we see small numerous ships being built (the Defiant class). These are war ships, and the thought process that goes into them is war, not research.


One big factor is planetary defense systems.

In the famous Lensman books, a fleet of millions of space battleships from one galaxy once destroyed a similarly vast war fleet from another galaxy, then headed for the capital planet of the second galaxy. But they didn't dare to even enter the solar system the capital planet was in, because another planet in that system was fortified with so many and so powerful weapons that it could have stopped them. That fortress planet was many times more powerful than the millions of space battleships in the entire space fleet of either realm.

The reason why sometimes the Enterprise is the only ship available to defend Earth is because the defense systems of Earth are so powerful than its seems perfectly safe to leave the solar system unguarded by ships.

The Earth defense system is only mentioned when it fails when attacked by superior alien forces in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, "The Best of Both Worlds", and probably Star Trek: First Contact. And it has probably been upgraded after each such failure.

The hypothetical planetary defense screen of Earth is probably designed to withstand the firepower of the combined Romulan and Klingon fleets for hours, days, weeks, and months while a Federation fleet is assembled to attack them. The hypothetical super massive and super powered phaser banks and photon torpedo launchers on the ground and in orbit are probably designed to destroy tens, hundreds, and thousands of enemy ships before they can even get close enough to use their weapons on the defense screen.

Many other Federation, Romulan, Klingon, Tholian, Gorn, First Federation, Cardassian, etc. planets may also have such powerful defenses which would stop any attacking fleet, and so they are an important part of naval strategy. Numbers and power of warships is not the only important strategic factor.

Addition 06/27/16:

In the space opera I mentioned the defense planet planned to let the attackers get "almost to ground level" and then vaporize them. "Almost to ground level" probably means billions of miles or something. And this plan was AFTER both sides in the war had ALREADY attacked with mobile planets hoping to smash them into the target planet, and had tractor and presser beams powerful enough to deflect moving planets!

If a planetary defense system was powerful enough, it could vaporize and/or defect swarms of asteroids as fast as they could be detected.

  • Enh. A fortress planet is still vulnerable because it can't dodge. Have engineering lash some impulse engines to some of the bigger rocks in the asteroid belt while Astrometics crunches the numbers, light 'em up, sit back. Planetary defenses are only viable if you're assuming that the enemy wants the planet relatively unharmed. – Shadur Nov 30 '15 at 9:48

The answer is- it depends. History has shown many times small elite forces defeating much larger non-elite forces. History is also replete with small elite forces that lose a war through attrition or because the society that fielded them were unwilling to inflict (The US in Iraq) -or sustain (The Spartans following the Peloponesian war) - the necessary casualties to prevail. The assumptions behind Gene Roddenberry's Federation indicate they will face the same issues. From a strategic standpoint- the Federation will have to go against it's own grain and be very aggressive in order to take out that numeric superiority of the enemy. Because if it doesn't it runs the risk of what happened in the General war. The war ended because of sheer exhaustion on all sides. Although the Federation was in a quite good strategic position at the end it nevertheless welcomed the end of hostilities. However- the stage was set for future conflict because the General War ended up with no decisive victory- hence the condition were set for all sides to re-arm and re-ignite the conflict a few decades hence.

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