Traveller 1977: This Kind of War

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What is the military situation like in our hypothetical average subsector?

I will use the contemporary US military as a template, for two reasons; first, Traveller – like most SF universes – organises its armed forces along US lines; and second, the US military has by far the largest budget and the most overseas bases, so it is a good approximation for Earth’s militaries as a whole. Regrettably, data on the militaries of other planets is not available to me at this time.

Let’s look at the makeup of the services first, in rough orders of magnitude. I will pay special attention to Rank 6 officers as you might be forgiven for thinking that 1977 Traveller needs a large empire off-map shedding retired flag rank officers into your subsector; there may well be one, but as you’ll see, it’s not strictly necessary. (In all the years I’ve been refereeing Traveller, there have only been two Rank 6 PCs in my games, one admiral and one brigadier.)

The Army


The army is the easiest one to work out. Most advanced countries have about 0.5% of their population in the military, although there are outliers with ten times as many per capita (North Korea) or ten times fewer (Ghana). In the US model, the lowest level of general commands a division of roughly 10,000 troops. So we can get a rough estimate of the size of a planet’s army by subtracting two from the population level, and the number of generals by subtracting six.

Therefore, our hypothetical average subsector has about 68 million sophonts under arms; the population level 10 world has 81% of those, the two population 9 worlds have 8% each, and frankly you can forget about the rest, they’re not material.

There are somewhere between six and seven thousand active duty generals in the subsector, so we need not go to any great lengths to explain why we have a retired one in the party.

The Navy


The organisational structure of the US Navy is complicated; they say so themselves. However, in big handfuls it currently has 282 combat ships, 320,000 people (420,000 if you count reservists, which would probably include any Player Characters) and it is limited by law to 160 admirals. So you can easily justify 1,000 starmen per combat ship, and one admiral per 2,000 starmen or two ships.

We saw in How Many Ships? that – depending on what you count as “navy” – there are between 13 and 82 combat vessels in the subsector. So there are in total 13-82 thousand naval personnel (split between however many navies there are) and 6-40 active duty admirals; one retired admiral in the party is plausible even if he hasn’t wandered in from off-map.

Further, the biggest naval vessel on the encounter tables is the Type C; this is about the size and crew strength of a real-world coastal patrol boat, so the captain is probably a Lieutenant Commander; Type S and Y are probably commanded by Ensigns or Lieutenants. Commanders might come out to play if the situation warrants gathering many ships together, but most of the time Rank 4 officers and up are flying desks.

The Marines


The USMC has a strength of 182,000 active duty personnel and another 38,500 reservists. So for the sake of argument let’s say there are 650 marines per combat ship, which gives us 8-50 thousand marines and up to five brigadiers. Brigadiers are thus the rarest Rank 6 officers and the hardest to justify, but even without an empire you could still just about explain one being in the party.

A Type C cruiser could have up to about 30 marines on board, if roles like gunners and pinnace crews are marine responsibilities; the ranking marine aboard is probably a Lieutenant. If a single power were somehow able to mobilise every starship in the subsector to carry an invasion force, you still couldn’t carry a marine division into battle – and most of those you could carry would be travelling in low berths. A more credible force would be commanded by a Force Commander (the clue’s in the title) and need a handful of Type M Liners to carry it.

The Combat Environment of the Subsector


In a nutshell: Brushfire wars, raids and spec ops; exactly the sort of actions that Player Characters thrive on.

The Western intervention in Afghanistan used something like 20,000 troops in a country of some 35 million, so in orders of magnitude you might be able to control a population of 1,000 per soldier on the ground as a best-case scenario.

If that’s so, one or two ships would give you enough troops to control a world of up to population level 5 – you might only have a platoon of marines, but once you’ve got control of the president’s mansion, the TV station and the oxygen generator, nobody is going to argue with you.

If you could somehow mobilise every ship in the subsector, you could perhaps carry a few thousand troops into battle at once, and most of those would be in low berths. So population level 6 worlds get nervous if they see someone gathering ships together; planets with bigger populations than that are essentially safe from invasion, and that’s at least a third of worlds.

This gives us a situation where naval actions are duels between individual vessels, and main force ground combat only occurs between native forces on high-population worlds. If a world wants to project power into another system, the lack of shipping means it sends a small number of the very best troops it has, on classic special forces missions – reconnaissance, hostage rescue, surgical strikes on key facilities.

At the interstellar level, things are relatively stable militarily, as worlds find it difficult to interfere with each other; there simply isn’t the shipping to support an invasion. On the surfaces of individual worlds, anything goes, and over half the planets in a subsector have populations less than a million.

The Rules As Written therefore imply a situation where the PCs can make a difference. It’s credible that they could be, or thwart, a spec ops team from a neighbouring world. It’s credible that they could stop a raid or invasion, because it’s probably no more than a Subsidised Liner carrying a marine company, most of whom are in low berths.

In short, as so often in Classic Traveller, the PCs matter.

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