The design of the iconic Klingon vessels changed with its culture along with its relationship with the Federation of Planets.
Since Star Trek's inception, the Klingon Empire was a major adversary of the Federation of Planets throughout the original series and Star Trek: Discovery. The Federation-Klingon War (aka The Klingon War) raged for a year, and its effects could be felt across multiple generations. Most prominently, the conflict shaped the way the Klingon ships evolved in the 23rd century when the original series takes place.
The Klingons and their war-obsessed culture have always felt the perfect antithesis of Starfleet's mission. That extends to their starships, with each one looking as aggressive, unpredictable, and dangerous as the Klingons themselves. The range of vessels from the Empire is wide and fascinating, from the familiar Bird of Prey and its cloaking technology, to the mysterious Sarcophagus, to the legendary D7 and its variants.
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Ships of the Federation-Klingon War
After the use of craft such as the Raptor and the original Bird of Prey in the 22nd Century, the design of Klingon vessels split into two distinct lines, with many great Klingon houses pushing their own aesthetic upon their ships. Many of the earlier ships in the 23rd Century are somewhat unrecognizable from their later counterparts. However, there are thematic precedents and clues for this reconciliation to make sense.
The most obviously different is the Bird of Prey, which is very curved and actually bird-like, where it gives the appearance of a biomechanical entity. Perhaps the most notable is the Sarcophagus, aka The Ship of the Dead as used by T'Kuvma in his attempt to conquer the Federation and unite the houses of the Empire. Considered holy amongst Klingons, the Sarcophagus featured a practical yet symbolic armor which was made up of thousands of caskets containing remains of Klingon warriors from centuries previous and measured around 2km long, featuring a weapons package powerful enough to level the surface of a small planet.
At the infamous Battle of the Binary Stars, the first battle of the Federation-Klingon War, many Klingon ship classes appeared to cause great damage to the Federation. Each of the classes had names that echoed the Klingon race's appetite for battle, with the Chargh-class (Conquer), Veqlargh (Demon), BortaS Bir (Cold Revenge), Jach (Scream), Qow (Destroy), Sech (Torch), 'Etlh (Blade), Qugh (Disaster) and Qoj (War).
Also present at the conflict was the Cleave Ship, a 900m whale-shaped warship that rammed the USS Europa, causing the destruction of both vessels. After this, the Klingon houses fought amongst themselves until a final resolution was brought with the warrior L'Rell ascending to the head of the Klingon High Council.
The D7-Class Battlecruiser Takes Shape
L'Rell demanded that all houses rejoin the Empire to act as one. As an incentive, she proposed the construction of a new class of starship that would symbolize the Empire. That turned out to be the D7-class battlecruiser.
The D7 was the Klingon equivalent of the Federation Constitution-class. On several occasions, they were involved in incidents with such starships, usually the USS Enterprise. Comparable in size, the D7 could easily hit warp 9 and was armed with powerful disrupter canons, phaser emitters, and the infamous photon torpedo launcher situated at the front of the command module, below the bridge. The launcher could also be reconfigured to fire other weapons, including magnetic pulses and disruptor blasts.
While the D7 would remain in service sparsely for a significant period of time, the class was upgraded in the early 2270s with the introduction of the K't'inga-class. The K't'inga was essentially a more powerful and capable version of the D7, with new and improved hull armor, improved warp engines, and additional weapons such as an aft torpedo launcher. The ship was a revered addition to the fleet, and would act as the flagship for the Empire, with Chancellor Gorkon of the High Council naming his K't'inga “Kronos One” after the Klingon homeworld. But while the K't'inga represented power, the fleet required other starships that would be more useful in the realms of adaptability, speed, and agility.
Klingon Bird of Prey Reborn
The Empire decided to construct a new version of the popular Bird of Prey in the late 23rd century, creating a workhorse of a ship that was both versatile and menacing. It kept the design lines of the D7 and K't'inga with a body and “wings” supplemented by a neck leading to a forward bridge module and torpedo launcher.
The Bird of Prey lived up to its name by utilizing three different wing positions while active; raised wings for landing, straight wings for cruising, and lowered wings for attack mode, which made the ship look like a predator swooping in for the kill. This philosophy was demonstrated when Klingon Commander Kruge attempted to steal internal secrets from the Federation in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, resulting in the destruction of two Starfleet vessels including the Enterprise.
While this could be seen as a Klingon victory, the mission ended in Kruge being killed by Admiral James T. Kirk. The Bird of Prey was then commandeered by Federation officers.
Several years later, as the Klingon High Council sued for peace with the Federation in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. But a resistance group made up of Klingons, Romulans, and Terrans attempted to halt proceedings, beginning with the assassination of the Klingon Chancellor. For this, a prototype Bird of Prey commanded by General Chang was constructed. This ship solved a major problem that plagued the Klingon cloaking device, the inability to be able to fire while cloaked. However, this ship was eventually detected and destroyed, with no other reported ships utilizing similar technology since.
It is a great credit to the Empire and the Imperial fleet that many of these designs were still in service deep into the 24th century along with several ships evolved from them, including the Vor'cha and Negh'var classes. It is a demonstration of the power of the Klingon Empire that these vessels have not only succeeded in major battles, but have helped win wars, ensuring the survival and glory of the Empire for eons to come.