From the point of view of personnel put in danger per unit of combat capability, gunboats are a worse deal than are fighters. One hull of gunboat requires five people and provides 1.5 equipment spaces and up to one full-price XO rack; one hull of fighter provides 1 equipment space and up to eight half-price XO racks while endangering one individual. Also, for purposes of just putting something out to give the enemy something to shoot at - not the most glorious of missions, but it was good enough for pilots at Leyte Gulf - you fork over considerably more RP's, hangar usage, construction resources, and personnel flinging gunboats into the fray than you do fighters.
What gunboats enjoy, however, are two main advantages over fighters: they're naturally FTL-capable for 2nd gen sorts, and they're bigger than fighters. Those are the same advantages ships have over fighters too; for this purpose, gunboats are probably better thought of as small ships rather than large fighters. What gunboats have over ships of central interest in this context, is a far lower personnel requirement - 5 per hull point as opposed to 40. The result, for those who are inclined to be concerned about personnel losses, is to make the gunboat potentially a far more attractive platform than a ship for carrying the non-fighter burden of battle.
The fact that gunboats are FTL capable, with no small amount of range in comparison to FTL fighters, and that they're bigger than fighters is what makes them potential rivals to real ships. Unfortunately, they still are very small relative to a lot of ships, which means that they have some difficulty competing across the board. They don't have much defensive depth, so damage to gunboats will be more often past shields, past armor, or past the hull entirely (i.e., total destruction) than it would be to proper ships. If you get bigger gunboats, more shields per space, and high-powered weaponry enough to make gunboats worthwhile places to put expensive per-unit defense items like AR, SR, or PD, you get gunboats that can act like (and be paid for like) other people's cruisers. If you do pull that off, you inherit some nice gunboat advantages over conventional cruisers: 1/8th the personnel requirement, double the cruising speed, ¼ the supply requirements, and far more effective repair facilities. A Hl 8 gunboat requires 1 single space of gunboat hangar for repairs; a Hl 8 destroyer requires 8 spaces of repair bay for repairs.
Something to point out explicitly before the end - Gunboats enjoy over fighters the ability, at least nominally, to take Hl damage and survive. That means that beefing them up - through bigger hulls, armor, hull durability mods, shields, all that - really might be one viable way to address their defensive needs, just as they are for ships. However, their small size limits the utility of the approach, in that you might end up just paying RP's and spaces in order to make your gunboat something that still gets pasted by a typical enemy fire packet. That's not a concern for, say, planetoid class ships with advanced shields and the like. So gunboat design will tend to fall more starkly into these categories:
1) things that you don't expect to live if they come under fire;
2) things that you expect to live in combat if and only if DEFENSE mods keep them from getting hit;
3) things you expect to survive combat without a great amount of hope, but at least they're not casually wiped out;
4) things you manage to give serious ablative and/or resistant defense sufficient to take it.
The first category represents plain non-combat gunboats, gunboats you expect to expend in combat after they deliver their firepower, and gunboats expected to make first-strike attacks that either totally wipe out the enemy or are followed by immediate 0% break offs. The first represents one of the best uses of gunboats, the third is delicious if you can pull it off, the second tends to be pretty dumb - use fighters for that, they're a lot better in the role!
The second category includes gunboats you're presumably not expecting to break off immediately or utterly destroy the enemy before getting shot back at. It's not a category I expect to see filled often.
The third category represents the typical combat gunboat. You give it maybe some shields, you give it all the armor you can, you make it Hl 3 or Hl 4 if you have the standard baseline 2nd gen options, and you cross your fingers. If you haven't got any relevant advanced techs, this is going to be the best combat use of gunboats, and it's not that bad. It is, however, good incentive to get relevant advanced techs.
The final category is what you get when you've got the techs to build those cruisers-trapped-in-a gunboat-hull gunboats. If you have it, enjoy it.
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