Operation Return was the code-name for the combined counter-offensive of Starfleet and Klingon Defense Force fleets against Jem'Hadar and Cardassian military forces in the Bajoran sector, launched in mid-2374, with the specific aim of recapturing Deep Space 9 and re-establishing control over the Bajoran Wormhole.
Despite coming perilously close to defeat, the outnumbered Federation fleet was saved from destruction by a delayed task force of Klingon warships, resulting in the collapse of the Dominion lines and their subsequent withdrawal. The recapture of Deep Space 9 proved to be an important victory for the Federation Alliance, enabling Starfleet to re-establish its forward operating base for operations in Cardassian space and temporarily setting back Dominion offensive operations.
"A message. From Sisko."
"I don't understand."
"He's letting me know... he'll be back."
In the opening months of the war the Federation suffered an almost unbroken series of defeats at the hands of the Jem'Hadar, and showed little capability of stopping and turning back the Dominion's all-out offensive. In addition, Starfleet's few attempts to mount counteroffensives, such as the Seventh Fleet's attack on the Tyra system, were met with overwhelming losses. Out of the 112 ships in the Seventh Fleet involved in the battle, only 14 survived the fight at Tyra and made it back to Federation lines. The Federation and her Klingon allies were unquestionably losing the war.
The status of Deep Space 9 and the Bajoran wormhole remained the sole positive note for the allies. The automated, self-replicating minefield deployed by the USS Defiant just prior to DS9's capture in 2373 remained intact and proved resistant to the Cardassians' attempts to destroy it; this prevented any Jem'Hadar reinforcements from entering the Alpha Quadrant and joining the conflict. In addition, the massive sabotage inflicted on DS9 as the Federation withdrew ensured that the station itself, known again under its former Cardassian name of Terok Nor, remained vulnerable to attack for several months while the Cardassians made repairs.
By the fifth month of fighting, both the Federation and Klingon fleet commanders were facing a crisis: aside from the initial victory at Torros III, (DS9: "Call to Arms") the allies had not won a single major engagement without suffering major losses. Morale among both fleets was at an all-time low, presenting a serious problem for many unit commanders. In particular, the repetitive and unproductive succession of advances and retreats with little material gain was galling to many seasoned veterans of the Cardassian wars.
The Cardassians were not idle on Terok Nor during this period; Glinn Damar, adjutant to Gul Dukat, was in charge of the operation to deactivate and destroy the minefield. Although Damar's team had little success in clearing the wormhole, it was considered only a matter of time before a means was found of destroying all of the mines.
In light of the situation, Captain Benjamin Sisko, commander of Deep Space 9 before its capture and then adjutant to Admiral William Ross, proposed a plan for the allies to launch a major offensive with the goals of recapturing the station, re-securing the wormhole, and forcing the Dominion to divert troops away from other theaters of action closer to the Federation homeworlds.
In the plan presented to Starfleet Command, Sisko proposed to assemble a task force composed of elements from the Second, Fifth, and Ninth fleets and reinforced by a large contingent of Klingon warships. Launching from Starbase 375, the fleet would advance across the Bajoran sector and mount an assault to retake Deep Space 9 from Dominion hands.
However, many senior officials in both the Federation and Klingon hierarchies had grave problems with this plan. Sisko's plans required that a large number of ships be diverted from several crucial theaters of combat, including the Vulcan border. The Dominion was expected to divert sufficient numbers of ships to counter the Federation advance to DS9, which would relieve pressure on the remaining forces and slow the Dominion's advance into Federation territory, but Admiral Cobum objected to the strategy, fearing that the Dominion might choose to sacrifice Deep Space 9 in favor of launching a full-scale attack on Earth. With Sisko's forces advancing towards Bajor, reinforcements would be impossible within an acceptable time limit. Ross informed them that the Third Fleet would protect Earth, but Cobum was still not convinced.
Ultimately, Sisko convinced Starfleet Command that the Dominion would not launch a new offensive against Earth. Arguing that it wasn't the key to the Alpha Quadrant, and the wormhole was, Sisko pointed out that whoever controlled Deep Space 9 would control the wormhole. If the Federation and Klingons were in control of Deep Space 9, then the Dominion's potential supply line to their home territories in the Gamma Quadrant would be cut off. However, Chancellor Gowron remained unconvinced and refused to release any warships. In response, General Martok and Lt. Commander Worf departed for Qo'noS for private consultations with Gowron, hoping to convince him to aid the assault. Although Gowron eventually did agree to support the offensive, his delay proved critical to the timing and outcome of the battle.
An anti-Dominion resistance cell on the station formed around Major Kira Nerys, who started the cell after Vedek Yassim committed suicide in protest of the Dominion on the promenade, leading Kira to feel she was too complacent in the face of the Dominion occupation of the station. The initial members of the group were Kira, Odo, Jake Sisko, Rom, Leeta, Quark, and in a peripheral way Morn. (DS9: "Rocks and Shoals") Their first act of defiance was the taking of a secret memorandum from Damar that suggested the Dominion poison the last stocks of ketracel-white if new supplies could not be secured. The memorandum was stolen by Rom and placed in front of the barracks of the Jem'Hadar.
Rom also tried to sabotage the station's deflector array, which was going to be used to deactivate the minefield, but was caught and sentenced to death. Rom himself expected to be killed shortly after Dukat made a victory speech upon the successful destruction of the minefield. (DS9: "Behind the Lines")
"I've known the courier for five years; I trust him."
"Then we have a problem. According to this, the minefield's coming down in three days; the Ninth Fleet won't be here for at least four."
Five days away from the planned launch of the offensive, alarming news arrived at Starbase 375: the Cardassians had finally devised a practical method of destroying the minefield. Based on information smuggled away from Terok Nor by the resistance operating aboard the station, and relayed by the independent trader Morn, the allies discovered that an advanced antigraviton emitter was in the process of deactivating each mine individually. The process would be complete within three days, at which point Jem'Hadar reinforcements would be free to pass through the wormhole, which meant utter defeat for both the Federation and the Klingon Empire.
Unfortunately, the fleet was not yet fully assembled; the Ninth Fleet would not arrive in time, and no indication of support had come from the Klingons. With time running out, Starfleet saw no choice but to deploy the ships already assembled and mount a direct assault on Deep Space 9, hoping to destroy the anti-graviton emitter and keep the minefield intact.
Dominion intelligence was not inactive during this time though. Gul Dukat was informed of the disengagement and redeployment of two major fleets, and correctly deduced the fleet's target. He ordered that Jem'Hadar and Cardassian warships be diverted to meet the incoming attack. While Dukat anticipated heavy losses from fighting against the desperate Federation fleet, Weyoun assured him that any losses would be easily replaced by the waiting forces in the Gamma Quadrant.
As the Starfleet force approached the Bajoran system, they were confronted by a massive formation of 1254 enemy vessels, outnumbering the Federation fleet by about 2:1. Finding his advance blocked, Sisko ordered the fleet into the Delta Two formation in preparation to attack, then said the following: "There's an old saying, "Fortune favors the bold." Well, I guess we're about to find out."
The Dominion fleet unquestionably had time on its side. With the minefield around the wormhole due to be destroyed within eight hours, Gul Dukat chose to bide his time and establish a static blockade preventing the Federation advance. Starfleet was put at a disadvantage by being forced to take the offensive against a well prepared enemy while seeking a direct approach to Deep Space 9.
Attempting to find a crack in the wall of enemy ships confronting him, Captain Sisko, commanding the fleet from the USS Defiant, held back his Galaxy-class and cruiser wings, and instead ordered the attack fighters to probe the Cardassian front lines. The fighter pilots were instructed to ignore the Jem'Hadar ships in favor of striking the Cardassian ships with pulsed phaser fire, and then to break off and disengage; Sisko hoped to provoke the Cardassians into giving chase and opening a hole in the formation that Starfleet could exploit.
Gul Dukat, commanding the fleet from Terok Nor, recognized Sisko's strategy almost immediately. Strictly ordering his commanders to hold position, Dukat patiently watched as his fleet took eight waves of strafing runs against his Galor-class destroyers. However, after approximately three hours of standoff bombardment and hit-and-fade attack runs, Dukat decided to toy with Sisko and deliberately break the stalemate. Ordering six attack fighter squadrons to break formation and chase the Federation fighters, he carefully opened a hole in his lines, with a large contingent of destroyers standing by to outflank and trap Sisko's forces as they advanced to take advantage of the gap.
As Dukat had similarly recognized his strategy, Captain Sisko also immediately saw the nature of the trap. However, because time was in critically short supply, Sisko decided to play along with Dukat and take the bait. Detailing two Galaxy-wings to engage the Galors, Sisko ordered the rest of the fleet to launch a full-scale attack on the Dominion's center and punch through the blockade. "Anyone who gets through," Sisko said, "doesn't stop until they reach Deep Space 9."
At this point, the battle quickly degenerated into a melee as the Starfleet ships closed to point-blank range with the Dominion forces. With ships so widely dispersed among the Dominion fleet, inter-ship coordination became more difficult. When the Dominion ships started jamming comm frequencies, cutting off starships' contact with each other, the melee dissolved into a total free-for-all, with every ship fighting practically on its own, or at most in twos and threes.
For Starfleet, it was very quickly becoming a losing battle. Unable to concentrate their attack on specific points in the enemy fleet, the Dominion's superior firepower gradually wore down the swifter but less powerful Starfleet vessels. Many of the older Excelsior-class and Miranda-class starships were lost in this phase of the battle, overwhelmed by incoming fire from all sides.
After nearly two hours of sustained close-range combat, the battle was nearly hopeless, with the Defiant itself near destruction, when a large force of Klingon warships decloaked and slammed into the Dominion's starboard flank. General Martok and Commander Worf had finally convinced Chancellor Gowron to lend his support. The additional firepower of Vor'cha-class attack cruisers and venerable Birds-of-Prey finally tipped the balance in the allies' favor. Many Dominion craft were destroyed during Martok's flank attack, opening a hole in the Dominion lines. Due to this, the Defiant managed to slip past a formation of Jem'Hadar attack cruisers and escape the battlefield, speeding towards Deep Space 9 at maximum warp.
Gul Dukat chose not to order a pursuit of the Defiant, relying instead on the station's defenses to destroy the ship as it approached. Meanwhile, the Dominion lines were beginning to crumble as they were outflanked by the Klingon forces. Dukat chose to have his forces continue fighting, anticipating the destruction of the minefield and the imminent arrival of several thousand Jem'Hadar warships. He believed that any ship lost in the battle would be compensated by those warships' arrival.
After Rom's attempt to sabotage the deflector array, Damar arrested the entire resistance group, except Quark, and put them in the station's brig. Eventually, Quark and Tora Ziyal released the group from the station's brig. Just after their release, Kira and Rom were in a running shootout to the station's weapon control area. When they were pinned down by the Jem'Hadar, Odo and a Bajoran security team helped them.
When the last mine's self-replication unit was deactivated, Terok Nor immediately destroyed the minefield, eliminating the only impediment to ultimate Dominion victory in a spectacular explosion, just seconds before the Defiant arrived. With practically no options left, Captain Sisko ordered the Defiant to enter the wormhole for a hopeless, last-ditch stand against the incoming enemy forces. On the station, Rom had disabled the weapons systems, although he was, by a matter of a couple of seconds, too late to stop the destruction of the minefield.
In the wormhole, though, an incredible turn of events occurred, one that could be considered nothing short of a miracle. The Bajoran Prophets, the inhabitants of the wormhole, spoke to Captain Sisko – their Emissary. Though enigmatic, the Prophets indicated that they did not wish Sisko to sacrifice his life. Arguing that the approaching Dominion fleet constituted a threat to Bajor, whose people worshipped them as gods, Sisko convinced the noncorporeal beings to intervene, though according to the Prophets a penance would be exacted from Sisko in the future. Moments later, as the Defiant and the Dominion fleet prepared to open fire on each other, all of the 2800 Dominion ships simply disappeared.
When the Defiant exited the wormhole alone, the Dominion leaders were first perplexed, then alarmed. Their monitoring outposts in the Gamma Quadrant confirmed that the fleet had entered the wormhole, but there was no sign of them exiting, and no sign that they were still in the wormhole. To the Dominion and the Cardassians, it appeared that the one Starfleet ship had somehow annihilated their entire armada.
The bad news only got worse for the Dominion as, back at the main battle zone, a group of 200 allied ships broke past the Dominion lines and headed toward the station, while the Defiant opened fire. Stunned by the sudden turn of events and unable to fire even on the Defiant because of Rom's too-late sabotage earlier, the Female Changeling ordered an evacuation of the station and a retreat of all Dominion forces in the Alpha Quadrant to Cardassian territory. Dukat in a near cataclysmic shock at the impossible reversal, was dealt further blows when his half-Bajoran daughter, Tora Ziyal, confessed that she had released the members of the resistance from their holding cells and had had then helped them sabotage the station. This confession led to her being shot by Damar as a traitor. Devastated, Dukat stayed behind on the station with his dying daughter, in the process of a total mental breakdown.
With the station lost, the remaining Dominion forces in the battle zone turned in full retreat back to Cardassian space, bringing the battle to a quick conclusion.
The importance of Operation Return to the outcome of the war could not be underestimated. Had the Dominion established a reliable supply line through the Bajoran wormhole, they would have had a secure industrial base from which to send an enormous number of warships and Jem'Hadar that was virtually guaranteed to overwhelm the Federation Alliance.
The battle itself was a major strategic and morale success for the Alliance, as they now had control over the wormhole and Dominion reinforcements from the Gamma Quadrant were cut off indefinitely; the Bajoran wormhole would remain closed to Dominion traffic for the remainder of the war. The Dominion, represented by Weyoun and Damar, actually engaged in peace talks after this defeat, though those talks were ultimately intended to regain a star system necessary for the production of ketracel-white. Soon after this, the Dominion recovered and launched new offensives into Federation territory, attacking worlds such as Coridan, Benzar and Betazed.
As a result of the events during the Dominion withdrawal from the station, Damar became leader of the Cardassian Union, replacing Dukat. Throughout 2374 and 2375, Damar became increasingly frustrated with Dominion policy, eventually starting the Cardassian Rebellion and ultimately ensuring the Federation Alliance's victory in the Battle of Cardassia. (DS9: "Statistical Probabilities", "One Little Ship", "In the Pale Moonlight", "What You Leave Behind")
The following is a partial list of the Federation Alliance starships present at the battle.
|IKS Rotarran||N/A||Klingon Bird-of-Prey||Survived|
As well as:
- Several other Klingon Birds-of-Prey, at least three lost.
- 7+ Akira-class starships.
- Several other Excelsior-class starships.
- 9+ Galaxy-class starships.
- 8+ other Miranda-class starships.
- 3+ Steamrunner-class starships.
- Several Saber-class starships.
- At least 3 Vor'cha-class attack cruisers.
- Numerous Federation attack fighters.
|Major battles of the Dominion War|
|2373: Second Battle of Deep Space 9 • Battle of Torros III|
|2374: Battle of the Tyra system • Operation Return • Battle of Betazed • Liberation of Benzar • First Battle of Chin'toka|
|2375: Destruction of Monac shipyard • Raid on Trelka V • Siege of AR-558 • Battle of Ricktor Prime • Invasion of Septimus III • Breen attack on Earth • Second Battle of Chin'toka • Battle of Rondac III • Battle of Avenal • Battle of Cardassia|
The non-canon 2010 MMO videogame Star Trek Online also posits a possible fate for the Dominion reinforcements eliminated by the Prophets at Sisko's behest. In the mission series The 2800 (referring to the number of ships in the reinforcement fleet), it is revealed that the Prophets did not destroy the Dominion ships, but instead relocate them nearly 40 years into the future, to the year 2409 (the timeframe of Star Trek Online). Unaware of their temporal displacement and the end of the war, the Jem'Hadar fleet exited the wormhole on the Alpha quadrant side, and attacked Deep Space 9, forcing Starfleet and Klingon forces to evacuate to Bajor.
In the game, players would be assigned to infiltrate the wormhole in a shuttle to contact the present-day Dominion in the Gamma quadrant, who would agree to withdraw the time-displaced fleet occupying Deep Space 9 in exchange for the release of the Female Changeling from the Federation prison "Facility 4028".
Unfortunately, despite the demands of the Founder, the Jem'Hadar commander Kar'ukan refused to relinquish the station without a fight. Starfleet and the KDF were forced to deploy their fleets to retake the station by force, and successfully did so, with the assistance of players who infiltrated the station via EV suit spacewalking.
It was during this storyline that the Andorian captain Va'Kel Shon (β) was promoted from the Defiant-class USS Belfast (β) to command of the Odyssey-class USS Enterprise-F (β), successor to the Sovereign-class USS Enterprise-E, captained by Data following the retirement of Jean-Luc Picard.
- Operation Return at Wikipedia
- Operation Return at Memory Beta, the wiki for licensed Star Trek works
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