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Sitting Duck
"Your ships are very impressive in the air, or in space, but at this moment, they are on the ground."
Londo Mollari, Babylon 5

What do the Cool Ship, Cool Starship, and Cool Plane all have in common? They are all at their most vulnerable when in docked in port or while parked on the ground. This is a state of vulnerability that pretty much everyone and everything has to accept at some point, as personnel need food and sleep, ships need maintenance, and nobody has found a way to keep a plane in the sky indefinitely yet. A savvy enemy can use the element of surprise to sucker punch an enemy, even a numerically or technically superior enemy, before they can bring their forces into play. Methods for this can range from Fireships to attack planes or a long range missile attack.

Of course, it's also possible to be placed in this position because your ship was badly damaged in a previous fight, and the enemy is coming back to finish you off before you can finish your repairs.

The Trope name comes from a hunting phrase referring to ducks sitting on the water, often considered to be off limits until they take flight. Due to its applicability, the phrase was adopted in the military aviation community to refer to airplanes that had been caught on the ground, although of course very few pilots have a problem with destroying an enemy plane before it can get airborne.

Historically, a combat pilot would get no credit for destroying an enemy plane while it was still on the ground, until the Americans began to grant credit for such kills during World War IInote . It was theoretically possible to become an ace by only destroying planes on the ground, although German airfields tended to be very heavily defended by anti-aircraft batteries that could do wonders for shortening your flying career.

Exploiting this trope is a favored tactic of the Combat Pragmatist, and a favored method of preventing the Fighter Launching Sequence.

Not to Be Confused with Sitting Ducks, which was inspired by the same idiom that this Trope draws its name from.


Examples:

Anime and Manga
  • In Martian Successor Nadesico, the Jovian Lizards hit the Nadesico while it's landed to pick up survivors of the invasion of Mars, giving Yurika the Sadistic Choice of turning on the ships' Deflector Shields - crushing the refugees beneath it - or letting the attack destroy the Nadesico (likely killing most of the refugees when it crashed in flames). She chooses the former, but not without some angsting.
  • The Wolf Pack arc of Area 88 focuses on a mercenary group who destroy most of the planes at Area 88 while they're on the ground.
  • In the second episode of Yukikaze, the titular plane suddenly and inexplicably opens fire on an entire row of FAF planes parked at Tactical Air Base 15, causing the FAF top brass to recall Yukikaze and have it brought in for system checks. Turns out it was a good thing it did, as those planes had been sabotaged by enemy infiltrators, and Yukikaze was also attempting to kill the infiltrators that were present on the airstrip.

Comic Books
  • G.I. Joe Special Missions #3: The Joes bomb the planes of a Qurac style nation while they are still on the ground. This mission also serves as cover for another Joe team to steal a new Russian fighter from the base.

Film
  • Pearl Harbor and Tora! Tora! Tora!, obviously. In Tora! Tora! Tora!, one of the American commanders is Genre Savvy enough to have some of his planes dispersed to various auxiliary airstrips to avoid keeping all of his eggs in one basket. Otherwise, he is bound by his orders to gather the planes together in the middle of the airfields to protect them from saboteurs, which plays directly into the Japanese attack plan.
  • Red Tails: The German aircraft when Easy, Lightning, Joker, and Junior follow Pretty Boy back to his base.
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Dr. Totenkopf's robot aircraft catch Sky Captain's planes on the ground (and in their hangers), almost completely wiping them out. Only Sky Captain's plane manages to get off the ground.

Literature
  • Clive Cussler's The Mediterranean Caper. A World War I biplane strafes a U.S. Air Force base and destroys a number of F-105 Starfire jet fighters and C-133 Cargomasters while they're helpless on the ground.
  • Admiral Leighton launches a raid on a the Spanish harbor of Rosas, in order to attack and sink a squadron of damaged French warships while they attempted to make repairs in the Horatio Hornblower novel Flying Colours.
  • Honor Harrington had several examples of this trope, typically against complacent pickets in systems that were considered unlikely to be attacked. Generally speaking, the ships on the receiving end had to be drifting with cold nodes, preventing them from getting a wedge or sidewalls up in time to defend themselves.
  • One of Wedge Antilles's favored tricks during the X-Wing Series is to take out an enemy's air force while it's still on the ground. In Wraith Squadron, he orders a commando strike that destroys the launch tubes for the enemy's underground hangars, keeping a third of their fighters from participating in the final battle. In Starfighters of Adumar, he performs the same feat on a much larger scale during the invasion of Cartaan; knowing his enemy will attempt a noon-time bombing run, he attacks at dawn; while the enemy's fighters can get in the air, their multiple-crew vehicles, including their Meteor-class point defense heavy gunships are still on the ground when his bombers arrive. His proteges in Wraith Squadron use the trick again in Mercy Kill, destroying six out of the enemy's eight ready fighters (they have plans for the other two) as the first act of their final plan.

Live-Action Television

Tabletop Games
  • Task Force Games
    • Several Star Fleet Battles scenarios involved ships being caught by surprise attacks while in orbit or docked to a space station. The scenario usually had rules for "powering up" ship systems so the ships could fight.
    • Starfire scenario "The Paurl Harbor Raid". Rigellian carriers smashed Khanate battleships "at anchor" in Paurl Harbor, an obvious Shout-Out to "Pearl Harbor".

Video Games
  • In Aero Fighters Assault, one of the bonus mission has you protecting your Airborne Aircraft Carrier from enemy attacks while it's refueling.
  • Secret Weapons Of The Luftwaffe
    • One hypothetical German mission is attacking an Allied bomber base in Britain and destroying the B-17's on the ground before they can take off.
    • Another mission involved taking off while your airbase was under attack and fighting off the enemy planes.
  • The first German campaign mission in Red Baron was being on the receiving end of one of these. You had to get your plane into the air while your airbase was being strafed by attacking Allied planes.
  • An available tactic in a few missions of Rogue Squadron.
  • If you get into a Japanese harbor in Silent Hunter 4 you can often find a lot of enemy ships that are this.
  • AceCombat has the player take out bombers or other aircraft on the ground from time to time. Attacking ships at anchor also shows up occasionally.
    • Also makes the player the subject of this trope a few times, with you being the sitting duck after being on the recieving end of a surprise attack on your base or needing to refuel mid-combat. Slowly taxiing to the runway while fuel trucks and hangars are bombed to oblivion around you is one of the most intense scenes in the game.
  • In the Virmire mission of Mass Effect, one way you can help your allies against Saren's base is destroying his fighters when they come in to rearm.
    • It features heavily in the Reapers' plan to Take Over The Galaxy Again. By attacking the Citadel first through its built-in mass relay, they can make sitting ducks out of both the Fleet and the Council with one fell swoop.
    • In Mass Effect 2, the Normandy is disabled by a computer virus and then boarded by the Collectors.
  • In several Civilization games and Sid Meierís Alpha Centauri, ships in port in a city/base under attack receive a negative modifier to their defense, reflecting this trope.
  • In the Halo series, all Covenant spacecraft have Deflector Shields that reduce humanity's Archer missiles into a Worf Barrage. Once they go down for whatever reason, those same missiles prove to be quite effective. In particular, the first mission in the fourth game has the player shred an entire cruiser with a measly two missile pods.
  • In Xenonauts, approaching a landed UFO is a very tricky and dangerous business, but if it works out, its as good as yours.
  • As GDI in Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, you are told to infiltrate and then attack a Nod Weapons depot before they can deploy their tanks against you. Which is a good thing, as the sheer mass of tanks takes up a quarter of the map. However, They aren't crewed, so you get some satisfying target practice after the pain it is to infiltrate the base in the first place.
Real Life
  • The Japanese raids on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, catching the American Pacific Fleet and the hundreds of planes based on Oahu (bunched together to prevent sabotage) flat-footed as big easy targets for the Japanese to destroy, is quite possibly the Trope Codifier. Although the Imperial Japanese Navy failed in their primary objective, the destruction of the American carriers, and contributed to the US entering the war, it was a punishing blow for the unprepared American forces. It would be six months before the Allies could regain the initiative and start pushing the Japanese back.
    • The Japanese attack on the Philippine Islands had similar results, for a slightly different reason: The Americans scrambled their planes upon hearing about the attack on Oahu, but the expected Japanese air attack didn't arrive until many of the American planes landed to refuel.
    • The US Navy got its revenge at the Battle of Midway, where American bombers caught the Japanese carriers right as they were getting ready to launch the next wave of their own attack aircraft. All four of these carriers had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and all four were sunk during the battle (at the cost of the USS Yorktown).
    • The German Luftwaffe's victories over the Polish, French and Soviet air forces early in WWII were mostly from destroying enemy planes on the ground, rather than in the air.
  • Earlier in World War II, HMS Royal Oak was lying at anchor in Scapa Flow on October 14, 1939 when it was torpedoed by a U-Boat.
  • Operation Focus was the opening airstrike by Israel at the start of the Six-Day War of 1967. At 07:45 on June 5, 1967, the Israeli Air Force launched a massive airstrike, using very nearly every airworthy plane they had, which destroyed the majority of the Egyptian air force on the ground. By noon, the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian Air Forces, with about 450 aircraft, were destroyed, allowing the Israelis to enjoy air supremacy for the entire war.
  • The Peloponnesian War ended when the Spartans found the whole Athenian fleet beached and their crew ashore foraging.

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