In this section, I'll introduce what I have found to be the most superior combat craft. First I'll go over the basic principles of choosing a craft in which to gain your Elite rating. In this section, I'll cover the spacecraft best for single-combateer operation (or lone wolf bounty hunting).
First, you must realise that any spacecraft out there is fifty thousand compromises flying in close formation. Therefore there are always tradeoffs: you can have a fast ship, but weak armament, or a large ship decked out like a battlecruiser but which is so slow the only kills you make are when an incompetent pirate crashes into your hull and explodes all over your shields. There is another simple principle to remember in ship selection: ships with a thin cross section are ten times harder to hit than a bloated cargo ship.
Secondly, for a ship to be any use as a combat craft flown in dangerous systems, it must be large enough to hold not only some shield generators, but an ECM system and at the very least, enough fuel so that you can hyperspace out of trouble.
Remember this whenever selecting a ship or getting into battle. In ancient times, Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese general said "Invincibility lies in the defence, but the possibility of victory lies in the offense".
1. The Viper and Viper II
The Viper has been around for a long time, and more recently, the Viper II
was made available. This is what I would consider to be the smallest ship
you can perform effective combat with. It can carry enough shield generators
to take missile hits (a must since no ECM has been developed to combat the
NN500 series missile), and has the speed required to stop combat from turning
into dangerous "jousting" matches. It can easily stay on the tail of nearly
any other combat ship. The Viper Mk II is an incremental improvement on this
craft, having 25G instead of 24G acceleration, plus two additional tonnes
of hull space for fuel or equipment. My thoughts are to go with the Viper II
if you are going to be using this class of ship, but don't overlook the
Viper I if that's what you can get your hands on.
2. The Harris
The Harris fighter is an ideal combat ship. It's fast - a little quicker
than the Cobra Mk III, and it's big enough to get some serious shield
generation. Like with the Viper, to make the most of the ship, you need
a military hyperdrive to free up space for equipment. The biggest difficulty
with the Harris is that its hyperspace range is quite limited - it's not
big enough that you can fit a Class 3 Military drive and have plenty of
space for cargo, and the Class 2 drive that is standard doesn't really
flip it across the galaxy with ease. To add to this, it is also slow
through hyperspace meaning that if you want to carry out assasination
missions, you must attack your target before he gets to hyperspace
because you'll arrive a day later than most ships.
3. The Cobra Mk. III
This ship is one of my favorite combat craft. It can be decked out such that it becomes extremely tough, and taking on multiple attackers no longer becomes the near-death experience it was with a smaller ship. Despite its size, it still has the speed to perform intercepts, thus avoiding getting into a "joust" that typically stacks the odds in the favour of a faster ship. I must admit I favour this ship mainly because of its classic design: the Harris does in reality have a slight edge over the Cobra.
4. The Asp
The Asp really is the ultimate fighter, once fitted with a Class 3 military
drive. It has space for a bigger gun and lots of shield generator space.
It can out-accelerate both the Cobra III and the Harris. It has a very
fine end-on profile making it hard to hit in a straight-in run.
Once you have an Asp, you have a machine that can enter the most dangerous
systems and stand a good chance of making it to your destination. It
is still prudent to have enough fuel to hyperspace out of trouble (or
a Martin-Baker Mk.86 Escape System), but you'll probably not have to
use either option in an Asp. There is a good reason why this ship is the
choice of many bounty hunters - the combination of size and speed hit just
the right balance.
5. The Imperial Courier
Now here's a battleship! The Imperial Courier is probably the biggest you want to go for a fighter. It only really just scrapes in as a fighter due to its surprising turn of speed despite its size. I personally prefer the Asp since virtually anything else you'll encounter will be much faster than the Courier, but there's no doubting that a well-loaded Courier is an iron ass. You just have to accept that fights will end up being a jousting match, and an attacker can get on your six and you'll not be able to do a thing about it since your turn rate isn't as quick as most combat ships out there. However, with the great deal of equipment you can pack on this ship, you can always make sure you have an "out" for this kind of situation.
I'll briefly go over the equipment options you have with these ships, and a little advice on a good configuration.
It's pretty obvious what they are. However, one thing you always have to remember when equipping a ship is that you have a tradeoff. The most vital tradeoff is between lasers and shield generators (we'll get to that later). Basically, you need at least two on board on the Viper series, and at least 5 for the Cobra, Harris and Asp. The basic minimum is to be able to take a couple of missile hits without being killed. Many pirates carry NN500's now, which not even a naval ECM can counter. If you don't have enough shields to eat at least a couple of these, combateering is basically suicide. Don't forget that sometimes an attacker might launch a missile when they are so close to your ship, you don't have time to activate the ECM.
Energy booster unit.
This is used to speed the shield recharge rate. In my opinion, it's a vital piece of equipment since it really boosts the recharge rate greatly. If you've taken many hits and are low on shield energy, having the EBU reduces the amount of time you have to take evasive action and not get shot.
The RM is absolutely essential if you want to bounty hunt, since you'll only get credited when the RM telemetry data has been sent to the nearest Elite Federation receiver. If you get paid for bounty kills, it also helps pay for the repairs to the hull should the enemy manage a hull strike.
Naval ECM System.
An ECM can save you a lot of pain, and it really is worth getting the naval version. Most ships carry missiles that are immune from a standard ECM, but only a few carry missiles that are immune to the naval version. Every combat ship should have one!
Laser Cooling Booster.
This is needed depending on the laser you have. The pulse lasers and the 1MW beam laser doesn't really require it, but the 4MW beam laser most certainly does since it quickly overheats without the cooler, almost to the point of being useless without the cooler.
Tractor Beam Cargo Scoop.
This can aid the income from bounty hunting. Personally, I never bother with one because I never have enough space left in the hull to pick up cargo, but it can be practical with the Asp. However, you have to trade off shield generators with space to pick up loose cargo and metal wreckage.
Miscellaneous Essential Equipment.
There are some things that all ships should have: namely a scanner, navigation computer and autopilot. The scanner is vital for combat operations, but you can get away without the other two. However they make it much easier to get around a system! Unfortuantely, the Combat Computer seems pretty useless; I did fit one but found it easier to just use the scanner and Mk I eyeball.
You need to really evaluate your mission when deciding which laser to equip with. The 1MW pulse is ineffective for virtually all combat missions, so we won't discuss it here. For small combat ships you have a basic choice: 1MW beam or 5MW pulse? I tend to prefer the beam laser since it will actually work against an enemy much quicker. The cooldown time between shots when using the 5MW pulse can make defending yourself from small and hard to hit ships a frustrating or fatal experience. The ability to "home" with a 1MW beam laser has made me favour it over the theoretically more powerful pulse laser.
If you have a ship like a Harris, Cobra or an Asp on up, you have to ask yourself: What is the right size of beam laser? Generally you shouldn't go too big because you'll trade off too many shield generators in the process. This can leave you dead very quickly if you are attacked by multiple medium sized ships. My general rule of thumb is always carry at least one size smaller laser than you can actually fit. This way you'll get plenty of shield generators in. This is what happens if you go for too big a laser and sacrifice shield generators:
Personally, I prefer the 1MW beam laser in the Harris, Cobra or Asp. If you're skilled at shooting, this works out very well since it gives you space for a lot of shield generators and you don't need a laser cooling booster. This can be very helpful when attacked by multiple craft. With the Courier, I would go for a 4MW beam laser since you need something that'll melt the enemy down faster because with the slow turn speed of the Courier, you won't be able to keep them in your sights for long.