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Start of campaign: ships too expensive, planes too cheap.

Given that ships need a lot more material and are a lot slower than aircraft, aircraft seem to have the unfair advantage early-game, economics wise, especially given that you don't start off with many materials. My argument would be, if jet engines cost a lot more than propellers, would that balance out sea vehicles and air vehicles?

All is fun and games till the aircraft gets actually hit and crashes down the sea because a random shell ripped its wing clean off in a single hit.
And ship can take few hits and still fight or move. To make a aircraft that can take few hits, then they will be either extremely fuel expensive (Using large jets) or they will be just as if not more expensive than a ship counterpart would be.

PT boats, hover craft, mini subs, and hydrofoils all perform very well.  Even saving a custom mini-fort design that you can do a 1:1 salvage/swap with the stating platform can get you some decent mileage.  Even with the hardest designs switched on, a higher difficulty, and declaring war on all factions soon after start you can still put out a decent ship if you know what you're doing.  I'm updating a design right now that was build solely to down the SD Godlies that will cross the map in the above campaign and beat the DWG scout force sometimes. It's a missile ship for something like 30k and it's not even particularly cheesy.
-Do not bring forth an argument as fact that can be disproven with a 10 minute Google search.

Small fast attack crafts exists you know...
And ships have the advantage of durability and sustained firepower. Its a trade off. Small aircrafts cannot have large storage of ammo or resources for sustained combat operations. Although that isn't important early on.
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