With the Four Years War with the Klingons (2251-2255) Starfleet was involved in its first fleet battles since the Romulan War. It was during this conflict that Starfleet commanders came to see the need for a "space battleship" to anchor their task forces around and from which to direct co-ordinated attacks against the enemy. The Battle of Axanar that ended the war even featured the debut of the first Klingon "space battleship", the I.K.V. Jul`kar. Starfleet promptly classified this vessel as the "B1". However, the B1 was effectively just a built-up D6 Raxor-class battlecruiser with increased firepower, shielding, and speed; it demonstrated no improvement in fleet command capability as at the time co-ordinated attack went against the Klingon warrior creed of individual glory through great deeds.
Starfleet learned their own lessons from that war and after years of design and development thirty vessels of the "Federation" class were authorised in 2259. However, rather than use the extremely negative and pejorative designation of "battleship" with the politicians and Federation pubic, the vessels were classified using an old Terran word meaning "one who fears nothing". The construction contracts for Starfleet's first dreadnoughts were awarded to the only shipyards within the Federation capable of building the largest, most complex, and technologically sophisticated ships the Federation had yet seen.
The military, however, is ever at the whim of politicians and to a lesser extent public opinion. While the vessels were under construction the political winds began to shift, and neighbouring nations expressed their concerns to the Federation Council. These concerns took the form that the number of new super-powerful starships being built by Starfleet was already creating a new naval arms race with even friendly nations. The Federation's efforts to match the Klingons' projected battleship numbers had caused other nations to build their own, thereby forcing their neighbours to commence their own dreadnought construction programs out of sheer defensive need. In order to slow the headlong rush into armed conflict and excessive defence expenditure, the Federation Council agreed to limit its dreadnought numbers to twenty vessels, with most of them arrayed against the Klingons as their main adversary.
Thus were the last ten Federation-class dreadnoughts cancelled. However, twenty-one vessels had already been built or were under construction. Due to the vagries of supply chain logisitics around the Federation it ended up being hull number 2105 which was to be named U.S.S. Pact which was in the state of least completion. Her Primary Hull had not yet been started and her Secondary Hull was by this time 63% complete. Rather than scrap the entire hull and reclaim its materials, it was decided that the most efficent use of resources already expended would be to complete the Secondary Hull according to plan but to complete the entire ship in a way that would exclude it from the new Balson Capital Ship Limitiation Treaty with the Federation's ally nations.
The Federation-class dreadnought was intended from the start to be the flagship of a task force around which the other vessels formed up and took direction for co-ordinated action, or were detached from for important singleton duties as part of a co-ordinated, integrated approach to an incident. Thus the majority of the internal space within the Secondary Hull was taken up by the C4I (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, & Intelligence) systems, quarters for the Flag Staff operating them, and extensive shuttle and transporter facilities for personnel transfer. The Primary Hull was outfitted as the heavy combat section and emergency lifeboat, with extensive deflector shield grids, all the heavy weaponry and most of the primary weaponry, all the senior officers' and the majority of crew quarters, and the crew support systems. Even with the lack of this heavy combat section the Secondary Hull itself was a fully-fledged if limited duration starship.
What was more was that this starship was in effect a warp-speed command base.
The unclassified general deck plans of the Federation class hid an important secret. The hull space behind the Hanger Bay and from Decks 18 to 20 (the deck under Warp Engineering down to the the deck above the crew quarters) is represented in these plans as a duplicate Sickbay and Ship's Computer (Deck 18), Botany Section, Hydroponics Bay, Observation Room, and Null Gravity Exercise Room (Deck 19), and Gynmasium, Recreation Area, Swimming Pool and the locker rooms for each (Deck 20).
What these decks actually housed was the heart of the dreadnought: it's C4I section.
Located squarely and directly behind the aft sensor dish the physical connection to which is at the far aft of Deck 19 this section is really why the aft sensor dish even exists: it is a dedicated sensor array and signal transceiver for the vessel's C4I systems. These highly-classified systems take up the majority of the aforementioned decks, and indeed are so extensive that only the dreadnought's hull can contain them and still leave room for the other necessary systems of a deep-space starship. These massive data processing systems gather, process, collate, and integrate data streaming in from myriad data sources to present a coherent picture of the designated operational zone, allowing the Flag Staff to make decisions based on the most complete and up-to-date picture available.
With this being the hull that was to be finished, the solution to complete the former U.S.S. Pact as a non-dreadnought unit became obvious. The heavy combat section was omitted and a different Primary Hull was to be mated with the Secondary Hull. With the size of the rest of the vessel being a factor for warp dynamics and warpfield balance, there was only one realistic option: the addition of a heavy cruiser's Primary Hull, which would give adequate ship operations personnel and extended mission endurance. Thus the "Command Ship" was born.
The former U.S.S. Pact NCC-2105 was completed according the new proposal and was formally commissioned into the Star Fleet on Stardate 2107.5 (12:00pm on the 16th March 2267 T.C.E.) as the U.S.S. Balson NCC-2105, named for the Federation diplomat whose treaty gave rise to her very existence.
While the ship itself was completed as a proposed proof of concept vessel for a whole new type of ship, it had still to be determined what role she could fill in the fleet.
No longer a heavy combat unit co-ordinating a battle from within the thick of it, this Command Ship had the facilities to be a mobile command base for the commander on the move, whether they be a Fleet Admiral keeping their sensing apparatus on The Big Picture during a conflict or time of crisis, a civilian authority maintaining continuity of government by keeping in contact with local and regional governments and administrations, or a Rear Admiral directing sector-wide sub-fleet operations and deployments in a region with no starbase to co-ordinate from.
To prove her worth to a skeptical Starfleet for a fleet flagship without the ability to lead a fleet into actual conflict, the supporters of the Command Ship did exactly that, and more. Entirely avoiding the Four Day War / Organian Conflict with the Klingons, the Balson was immediately tasked with bringing order to a major sapientarian assistance/disaster relief (SA/DR) operation, providing much-needed co-ordination to a confused and patchwork effort. Excelling in this role despite her C4I systems being tailored for fleet battles, the Balson instantly proved her worth in one fell swoop.
Further missions came thick and fast, with Balson directing anti-pirate operations in the Triangle, co-ordinating forward deployments of scouts and science vessels exploring a new sector beyond the frontier, and providing logistical depth and advanced medical support to a frontier sector with many newly settled colonies. The presence of a command ship was far less provocative than a dreadnought, and so her command abilities could be used without fear of drawing a heavyweight response from adversary nations or of causing consternation to the local populaces. Balson was welcomed to volatile regions where her half-sisters would have been refused access to.
The Balson proved so successful and so much in demand during her two-year operational trials that the genine need for a class of these ships was revealed. Authorisation and appropriations for a class on ten vessels with options for ten more promptly followed, but this came at a time when the "New Technology" revolution of the late 2260s was in full flow. Taking advantage of all the recent technological, scientific, and procedural advances, the engineers created an "uprated" Balson design. Starting at hull number CO 2131, the first ten Etna-class command ships began construction in 2273, the first members of which were commissioned into full Starfleet service in 2279.
While upgraded with many new technologies since her own commissioning, the U.S.S. Balson remains in her original, preNew Technology configuration and operates as the test-bed vessel for the Etna class, much like the U.S.S. Decatur does for the Belknap class.
Even after the introduction of all ten members of the Etna class, the Balson herself was still very much in demand. So much so that the option for a second batch of Etna-class ships was exercised in 2291, and even or perhaps especially after the I.S.C. War or Pacfication (2295-2298) construction of the last members of this batch was still a priority for the Starfleet Military Staff Committee; with the destruction of so many starbases throughout Federation space by the I.S.C. invaders, it is unsurprising that the need for more mobile command bases is foremost in the minds of Starfleet Command.
Command Ship operational doctrine is primarily like that of many pre-warp planets' nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. That is to say:
However, being an operational and strategic asset in the interstellar environment and not a planet-bound strategic deterrent, differences to that mission profile are inevitable. Because of their strategic aspect they are a sought-after target for threat forces. When even revealing when they leave port can give an intelligent enemy a starting datum as to the possible destination of remote, empty sectors within range, secrecy alone cannot guarantee the safety of a lone command ship. Thus every vessel is now assigned a flotilla of escort ships:
This force mix has been arrived at through trial and error where potential situations became incidents or desperate flights from danger due to insufficient warning or insufficient protection. The last lesson learned was the inclusions of the Scout now a Super-Scout tripwire and the Heavy Cruiser protector.
The Scout became necessary as it was previously thought that the Command Ship's own C4I sensor array would provide sufficient early warning, but operational patterns and doctrine actually prevented its use as a scanning tool.
The Heavy Cruiser became necessary as tragic experience has shown that a determined attack force which discovers a Command Ship's location will not be turned side by the two destroyers alone.
These last lessons were learned during the five-month long Taal Tan Offensive of 2283, when the Klingon surprise attack focussed on strategic assets such as sensing infrastructure and command and control assets. Among the Starfleet losses early in this campaign were long-range sensor arrays and the Command Ship Dalatress and her defenders.
The sophistication of the Klingon assault took many of Starfleet's old guard by surprise, as they continued to see the Klingons as no more than a barbarian horde armed with particle-beam weaponry and F.T.L. starships. The carefully planned nature of the attack and its specific objectives came as a disbelieved surprise to many important commanders, and in the aftermath of the offensive those who had failed to adapt to the unveiling situation but survived were reassigned. Thus is it ever times of in war: the deadwood is cleared to make way for those who delivered results when it counted.