One of the points at which FOTS hasn't seemed to me to match a maritime game model is that you don't have much in the way of unclaimed space that remains of vital interest for use. Oceans are that on Earth, and control of them - defined by an ability to use them safely, and to deny their safe use to an enemy - is a chief and probably most distinctive purpose of navies. In FOTS, we've got claimed space - inside comm/scan grids - and unclaimed space, in which not much happens and in which you don't find commerce. Nations' interests fall off dramatically outside their comm/scan grids and those of their allies, which are generally adjacent to friendly pace or trace connections through it. (Another difference is the use of navies to control chokepoints, which space generally doesn’t have.)
In fact, we do in fact have relatively unclaimed space in which distant powers have vital interests that might be served by expeditionary military operations. Trade commerce raiding goes through the portion of comm/scan grids from the very edge to the colony furthest out. There you can raid the commerce of all trade going through that zone. If you've got far-off trade partners, you've got trade that goes through far-off outer comm/scan grids. It's very possible that the immediate owners of those comm/scan grids can't patrol them adequately for your purposes, or don't care all that much - after all, it's by definition on the periphery of their comm/scan grid. A huge amount of trade in G5 was going on between various Rrowlk'aa states and the Federation, Saurians, and Ssleeth through the outer portions of Machine space. The ME certainly wouldn't be able to patrol it the way that massive wealth merits – and wouldn’t care -and it'd be space centrally important to the trade-driven Rrowlk'aa Alliance economy.
The comm/scan grid can be extended without the use of colonies, which will extend the zone for trade commerce raiding and of course the zone through which trade routes may be traced, without carrying the sense of claimed space actual colonies will. If you're out to establish a trade empire, friendly trade partners should be willing to have you set up comm/scan bases around the periphery of their territory that they can use too, in support of your trade routes. (You might well find yourself defining friendly powers partly in terms of their willingness to support your commerce protection.)
These should have a role and feel very much like distant ports and coaling stations for oceanic maritime empires. They're going to be bases as well for whatever units are out there to patrol and to protect commerce moving through that area.
This might also bring out a new form of international conflict, in that you might have vital interests in seeing that your commerce running through other folks' comm/scan grids is protected, you're likely to want to do the protection yourself to make sure it's done right (I would), and that's likely to tick off some people. This is a natural place for an imperial outlook and a de facto empire to develop.
For that matter, you can have multiple not-especially-friendly powers with trade to protect in the same outer comm/scan grids of a third nation, regularly moving warships around space scanned but not claimed by either looking for other moving warships which might accost commerce. It's an incident waiting to happen, and waiting impatiently.
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