And here's also some pictures of my Messenger class starships, with a side order of background. Like the rest of the Kor'vattra series of Tau ships I have, I painted these ones a while ago, but have only just recently gotten around to photographing them.
Skether'qan class starship
The smallest starship in Tau space capable of independent faster than light travel (though considerably larger than the Kass'l), the Skether'qan or Messenger class starship is rarely seen by observers and spacecraft enthusiasts, or indeed much of the Tau Empire's population not directly related to the operation of one. They are mostly found in deep space in the depths of the Empire between Septs, where they regulate and monitor data remotely and keep watch over shipping routes, and commonly act as a 'mobile waystation' relaying communications between Sept worlds. The class was originally designed to patrol the space around Sept worlds, guiding shipping or intercepting smugglers, and so while perhaps no longer common within its intended habitat, the Skether'qan does nonetheless excel at such roles commonly assigned to it.
Possessing only standard armoured hull plating and shielding for its size, the Skether'qan is not particularly intimidating by itself militarily. Its trio of light railcannons, which when combined are roughly equal in power to the deck guns of an Imperial Cobra class destroyer, are paltry for the primary armament of even an escort sized vessel, though the Skether'qan does possess a formidable close in point defence armament for a ship of its size. The Skether'qan, however, is not intended for direct ship-to-ship combat. The vessel's real strengths lie in its electronics and phenomenal speed. Much of the Skether'qan's mass is given over to the vessel's large and extremely powerful engines and gravitic drive, which makes the Skether'qan the fastest starship operated by the Tau - only Barracuda space superiority fighters can match a Skether'qan's top speed. The ship's gravitic drive, a development on the older model used in the Kir'qath, allows the vessel to travel immense distances for much longer periods of time without needing to recharge, giving the Skether'qan excellent operating range. The Skether'qan is also the only Tau vessel to possess advanced tracking systems, an extensive suite of sophisticated and state-of-the-art sensors, tracking equipment, communications centres, supercomputers and data storage and processing facilities normally only seen on orbital stations. These tracking systems are extremely valuable in fleet engagements, where they can be used to route this data to nearby Tau ships in the form of a direct data feed to the ships' turrets and weapon systems, making both their long-range railcannon fire and their close-in defence systems unerringly accurate, much to the shock of many Imperial admirals and captains facing Tau fleets with Skether'qan support. These tracking systems, placed on the highly mobile platform of the Skether'qan, also afford a Kor'O an immense wealth of situational awareness information, and a combination of the Skether'qan's speed, tracking systems, sensor suites and extended supply stores make it an excellent scout, with Skether'qans acting as the eyes and ears of the Kor'vattra in military actions. Indeed, it was a small flotilla of Skther'qans that first identified and then tracked and shadowed the Imperial response force to Nimbosa during the Tau annexation of that world, relaying the Gue'la fleet's progress to the Tau leadership, information that proved invaluable during the initial negotiations with the Imperium. The Skether'qan is also fast enough to intercept small fast shipping, and has enough firepower to at least threaten small light craft such as merchant transports, allowing the vessel to be used, in a pinch, as a commerce raider. A number of Skether'qans were used in this way to inflict significant losses on supply convoys during an Imperial incursion into the abandoned artefact world of Arthas Moloch.
There is, finally another, perhaps more sinister use for the Skether'qan class. Skether'qans are frequently used by the Tau Empire for covert insertion missions into hostile territory. While most of the Skether'qan's internal space is taken up by its engines and gravitic drive, tracking systems and the other necessities of a starship such as a bridge, stores for supplies and tools and living quarters for the 7 Kor, 2 Fio and 6 Shipboard Security Firewarriors that make up the vessel's crew (along with numerous drones of varying kinds), the Skether'qan does possess a modest cargo hold, enough to carry roughly 24 personnel and 2 vehicles of Devilfish size, allowing it to transport small forces across interstellar distances. Once near the destination, the Skether'qan is able to use its advanced tracking systems to detect holes in enemy patrol patterns and sensor grids, which the ship can then use its speed and small size to exploit. The Skether'qan's small size also enables it to land on planets if need-be, allowing it to touch down on the surface of a world to deliver its passengers, though they are more commonly deployed in a high-altitude pass using grav vehicles or jetpacks to allow the Skether'qan to escape more easilly. Such operations are commonly used to insert advance Pathfinder teams onto a world targeted for invasion so that they can reconnoitre potential landing sites, enemy concentrations, and other features and points of interest, but they are also used to deliver Stealth Teams and infiltration cadres, and it is rumoured they are used to deploy even more covert elements.
Like other Kor'vattra escorts such as the Kass'l and Kir'qath, Skether'qans and their crews are greatly respected by the Fire Caste, who often refer to the Messenger class as the Stealthsuit of the Kor'vattra, though vehicle crews will often instead liken them to the Tetra. There is much joking and friendly debate as to which comparison is 'correct'.
Much like the Air Caste itself in the greater Tau Empire, the Skether'qan class starship is an often unseen, but nonetheless vital, component in the Tau armada.
Tau Covert Ops: Special Insertion Threat Containment Teams and the Saer'loq
While much of the Tau Empire's direct military might is well-known across the Eastern Fringe, much less is known about the various covert elements used by the Tau Empire. Two of the more common of these secretive special units are the Fire Caste Special Insertion Threat Containment Teams and the alien Saer'loq bounty hunters.
Special Insertion Threat Containment Teams
Not all veterans and heroes of the Tau Fire Caste go on to become battlesuit pilots and commanders. Many of the most skilled and experienced Firewarriors instead go on to become part of the Special Insertion Threat Containment Teams. A joint initiative between the Air and Fire Castes both working together for the Greater Good, Special Insertion Threat Containment Teams are one of the premier special forces units in the Tau Empire, consisting of small teams of exceptionally well-trained, highly-motivated and battle hardened Firewarriors outfitted with some of the best weaponry and equipment the empire can provide. In addition to the combat armour, photon and EMP grenades and pulse weaponry common to line Firewarrior teams, Special Insertion Threat Containment Teams have access to a mind-boggling number of special equipment including flamer attachments, flechette or frag grenades, decoy projectors, longshot pulse rifles, rail rifles, ion rifles, hard-wired support systems, personal shield generators, enhanced scopes and targeting systems, target priority programs, bionics, blacksun filters and even advanced infantry armour such as the XV-12, and much more besides. Team members will also often receive additional specialist training, ranging from standard training courses such as endurance or medical training, to more esoteric training such as advanced computer hacking or the study of alien technology and artefacts. Finally, Special Insertion Threat Containment Teams are also given cutting edge experimental equipment to field-test, such as anti-shield 'screen breaker' rail-rifle ammunition or immensely destructive nova charges.
Rather than being attached to Fire Caste formations, Special Insertion Thread Containment Teams are instead attached to Air Caste fleets, which provide transportation to their missions, which range from assassination and sabotage work, to support of indigenous movements sympathetic to the Tau'va, to abduction of key enemy personalities, retrieval of important objects or information, escort and protection of important personnel, counter-insurgency operations, and many more tasks besides. Once deployed, a Special Insertion Threat Containment Team can count on no additional support, their only link to the Tau Empire being a small number of secret communications channels known only to them and the fleet they're attached to - Special Insertion Threat Containment Teams are expected to complete their missions on their own, using a combination of skill, teamwork, cunning and high-tech weaponry and equipment to overcome whatever obstacles they encounter.
Overall the Special Insertion Threat Containment Team program has proven to be highly successful, managing to accomplish a number of high-stakes assignments. Special Insertion Teams dispatched to the world of New Hael managed to destroy a series of key military infrastructure targets without ever drawing attention to themselves, allowing human rebels wishing to join the Tau Empire to overthrow the Imperial regime and bring the system into the fold of the Greater Good. It was a Special Insertion Team that infiltrated into the Ork Infested world of August's Folly and landed the fatal shot on the Warlord Murguk, ending a potentially devastating WAAAAAGH before it began. When Hive Fleet Gorgon swept through the region now known as the Zone of Silence, a Special Insertion Team made planetfall on one of the worlds being consumed, before making their way through the endless swarms of Tyranids to collect and retrieve genetic samples and research data on Tyranid behaviour, before successfully extracting to deliver the information to the greater empire where it proved invaluable to Earth Caste science efforts. Perhaps even more notably, a number of Special Insertion Threat Containment Teams attached to Kor'vattra fleet K-42 served with distinction during the defence of one of the Tau Empire's most renowned academy stations against a number of assaults. In the aftermath of the second of these battles, instigated by Gue'la Imperial agents, a pair of Special Insertion Threat Containment Teams pursued the withdrawing Imperial forces and managed to infiltrate the damaged battlecruiser Jotunheim as it lay in dry-dock, before destroying all traces of the advanced shielding technology it had been outfitted with and erasing any information about it from the Imperial databases, ensuring that the technology could never be disseminated across the Imperium. Following this both teams managed to make their escapes in the saviour pods of the battlecruiser and the station it was docked with, before exfiltrating Imperial space and successfully returning to the Tau Empire.
Saer'loq Bounty Hunters
The Saer'loq are one of the many minor alien races and factions dotted across the Eastern Fringe. They control little territory, barely a couple of systems, but their technology is highly advanced. Saer'loq society is extremely individualistic, with most honour and credit going only into individual achievements, and Saer'loq warriors are fiercely competitive. As a result most Saer'loq military technology is geared towards the enhancement of single infantry, and includes advanced powered exoskeletons, advanced optics and targeting gear, personal jump-jets and a staggeringly wide range of both kinetic and energy weapons, and a large number of advanced close combat equipment. It is said that a single Saer'loq fighter fully equipped for combat is comparable to a soldier equipped with a battlesuit, and can face down small armies single-handedly. This is fortunate for the Saer'loq, as their population is small and grows slowly, and they have historically been surrounded by enemy powers, making such odds a necessity.
Because of the individualistic nature of Saer'loq culture, their initial response to first contact with the Tau was hostility, as the concept of working for the greater good of the collective at the expense of the individual was an alien concept to them, and shortly afterwards a short but highly violent war was fought between the Tau and the Saer'loq. Initially the Saer'loq did well, scoring decisive victories in a number of early battles, and quickly proved to be formidable adversaries to the Fire Caste. Saer'loq equipment and weaponry proved to be a close match for Tau technology, and Saer'loq warriors proved to be adept at hit-and-run raids, guerrilla attacks and brutal ambushes. However, the Saer'loq's own emphasis on individual achievement and thinking ultimately proved to be their undoing, leading them to have a tendency to win battles but loose the greater war. The collaborative thinking of experienced Tau commanders and a greater sense of larger overall schemes, the result of a lifetime spent serving the Greater Good, enabled Tau forces to gain considerable strategic advantages that eventually allowed them to win the war with the Saer'loq. Tau naval power proved decisive in this conflict, with Saer'loq space forces being severely underdeveloped and limited to little more than raiding actions with small ships, which were ultimately ineffective at stopping the supporting Tau fleets from blockading Saer'loq worlds and providing invaluable support to forces on the ground.
After their defeat, the Saer'loq were sufficiently impressed with the power the Tau had demonstrated and were quietly integrated into the empire, in exchange for military aid against many of their historical enemies. While Saer'loq fighters, or bounty hunters as they are more commonly called, are known to perform mercenary work for a number of powers on the Eastern Fringe, ever since their defeat they have served the Tau Empire as covert operatives, a task that makes the best use of their limited numbers, individual focus and high technology. Saer'loq strike cells are frequently smuggled onto worlds opposing the Tau, where they conduct a wide range of secret missions, and are reputed to be highly competent at performing them. They are particularly popular amongst many Tau leaders as they cannot be immediately traced back to the Tau Empire, especially due to their frequent mercenary contracts, thus allowing the Tau Empire to conduct clandestine operations while still maintaining an attractive image to other powers.