Operation Return, also known as the Battle of Bajor, was the combined Starfleet and Klingon assault against Dominion and Cardassian forces in the Bajor Sector, launched in mid-2374. It is considered one of the most pivotal battles of the bloody Dominion War, and the first major victory enjoyed by Starfleet. The objective of the mission was the recapture of Starbase Deep Space Nine, which had been lost to Dominion forces in the opening battle of the war approximately five months previously.
In the opening months of the conflict, the United Federation of Planets suffered an almost unbroken series of defeats at the hands of the Jem’Hadar, and showed little competence in 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. The Federation and its Klingon allies were unquestionably losing the war. The status of Deep Space Nine and the Bajoran wormhole remained the sole positive note for the allies. The automated, self-replicating minefield deployed by U.S.S Defiant (NX-74205) just prior to DS9’s capture remained intact, and proved resistant to all of the Cardassians’ attempts to destroy it. This prevented Jem’Hadar reinforcements from entering the Alpha Quadrant and joining the conflict. Had the minefield not held, the Federation and its allies would undoubtedly have been quickly crushed. In addition, the massive sabotage inflicted on Deep Space 9 as Starfleet forces withdrew ensured that the station itself (subsequently known by its Cardassian name, Terok Nor), remained vulnerable to attack for several months. While the Cardassians made repairs, the station served little purpose other than as a forward supply depot for Dominion operations in the Bajor Sector.
However, 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, the allies had not won a single major engagement. 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 themselves, meanwhile, were certainly not idle on Terok Nor. Glinn Corat Damar, adjutant to Gul Skrain Dukat, was placed 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 the mines. They had worked thus far, but were not unbeatable.
In light of the situation, Captain Benjamin Sisko, commander of Deep Space Nine before its capture and subsequently adjutant to Admiral William Ross, proposed a plan for the allies to launch a major offensive, with the goals of recapturing the station and re-securing the wormhole. This would also force the Dominion to divert troops away from theatres of action closer to the Federation core worlds. In the plan presented to Starfleet Command, Sisko proposed to assemble a task force composed of elements from the Starfleet Second, Fifth and Ninth fleets, and reinforced by a large contingent of Klingon warships. Launching from Starbase 375, the fleet would advance across the Bajor Sector and mount an assault to retake Deep Space Nine. However, many senior officials in both the Federation and Klingon hierarchies had serious concerns with the proposal. Sisko’s plans required that a large number of ships be diverted from several crucial theatres of combat, including the Vulcan front and the Sol Sector. The Dominion was expected to divert sufficient numbers of ships to counter the advance, which would relieve pressure on the remaining forces and slow the Dominion’s advance into Federation territory. However, Admiral Coburn objected to the strategy, fearing that the Founders might choose to sacrifice Deep Space Nine in favour of launching a full-scale attack on Earth. With Sisko’s forces advancing towards Bajor, reinforcements would be impossible within an acceptable time limit.
Ultimately, Sisko convinced Starfleet Command that the Dominion would not launch a new offensive while their potential supply line to their home territories in the Gamma Quadrant (via the wormhole) was threatened. However, Klingon chancellor Gowron remained unconvinced and refused to release any warships. In response, General Martok and Commander Worf departed for Qo’noS for private consultations with Gowron, hoping to convince him to aid the assault.
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 Deep Space Nine by station resistance fighters Kira Nerys, Jake Sisko, and Quark, and relayed by independent trader Morn, the allies discovered that an advanced anti-graviton 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, signalling utter defeat for both the Federation and the Klingon Empire. Unfortunately, the task force was only about 60% assembled; the Ninth Fleet had not yet arrived, and no indication of support had come from the Klingons. Starfleet saw no choice but to deploy the ships already assembled and mount a direct assault on Deep Space Nine ahead of schedule, hoping to destroy the Cardassian anti-graviton emitter and keep the minefield intact.
Dominion intelligence was not inactive during this time; Gul Dukat was informed of the disengagement and redeployment of two major fleets, and correctly deduced their new target. He ordered Jem’Hadar and Cardassian warships diverted to meet the incoming attack. As the Starfleet force approached the Bajor System, some 600 starships strong, they were confronted by a massive formation of more than 1,250 enemy vessels. The Dominion fleet, outnumbering the Federation forces by more than two to one, 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.
Attempting to find a crack in the wall of enemy ships confronting him, Captain Sisko, commanding the fleet from U.S.S Defiant, held back his Galaxy and cruiser wings. He instead ordered the attack fighters to probe the Cardassian lines. Using cover fire from several destroyer wings, the fighter pilots were instructed to ignore the Jem’Hadar ships in favour of striking the Cardassians with quantum torpedoes, 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 Dominion/Cardassian fleet from Deep Space Nine, recognized Sisko’s strategy almost immediately. Strictly ordering his commanders to hold position, Dukat patiently accepted eight full strafing runs against his Galor-class destroyers. After approximately three hours of standoff bombardment and hit-and-fade attack runs, Dukat decided to deliberately break the stalemate. Ordering six fighter squadrons to break formation and chase the Federation fighters, he carefully opened a hole in his lines. He kept 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 recognized his strategy, Captain Sisko also immediately saw the nature of the trap being set. However, time was in critically short supply. Directing two Galaxy wings to engage the Galors, Sisko ordered the rest of the fleet to launch a full-scale attack on the Dominion’s centre. “Anyone who gets through”, Sisko commanded, “doesn’t stop until they reach Deep Space Nine”.
At this point, the battle quickly degenerated into a melee as the Starfleet ships closed to point-blank range. With vessels so widely dispersed, inter-ship coordination became more difficult. When Dominion ships started jamming comm frequencies, it became a total free-for-all, with every Federation craft 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 and Miranda-class ships, between 30 and 80 years old and considered antiquated by modern standards, 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 Federation forces were close to defeat. Indeed, the Starfleet flagship Defiant was itself near destruction, when a large force of some 300 Klingon warships decloaked, slamming 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’ favour. Opening a hole in enemy lines, the Defiant managed to slip past a formation of Jem’Hadar cruisers and escape the battlefield, speeding towards Deep Space Nine at maximum warp.
Strangely, Gul Dukat did not choose to order a pursuit, relying instead on the station’s defences to destroy the Defiant as it approached. Meanwhile, the Dominion lines were beginning to crumble as they were outflanked by the Klingon forces. Dukat, anticipating the destruction of the minefield, chose to ignore the situation pending the imminent arrival of several thousand Jem’Hadar warships. The last mine’s self-replication unit was deactivated, and DS9’s weapons immediately opened fire on the minefield, eliminating the only impediment to ultimate Dominion victory just seconds before the Defiant arrived. With practically no options, Captain Sisko ordered the Defiant to enter the wormhole for a hopeless, last-ditch stand against the incoming enemy. This desperate tactic would have unforeseen consequences, however. Inside the wormhole, an incredible turn of events ensured a surprise Federation victory.
The Bajoran Prophets, the inhabitants of the wormhole, spoke to Captain Sisko, who they had long insisted was 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, Sisko convinced the non-corporeal beings to intervene. Moments later, as the Defiant prepared to open fire, the Dominion ships simply...disappeared. When the Defiant exited the wormhole, 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 inside. To the Dominion and Cardassians, it appeared that one Starfleet ship had somehow completely annihilated their fleet.
The bad news only got worse as, back at the main battle zone, a group of 200 allied ships broke past the Dominion lines and headed toward Deep Space Nine. In addition, the Bajoran Resistance had not been idle inside the station. Although they had been unable to act in time to prevent the destruction of the minefield, Kira and Rom sabotaged the power grid, disabling the entire weapons array and leaving the station defenceless against the incoming allied forces. Meanwhile, the Defiant opened fire on the crippled DS9. Stunned by the sudden turn of events, the Founder Leader ordered an evacuation and retreat to Cardassian territory. Dukat, already showing signs of megalomania enhanced by the imminent victory, but now in cataclysmic shock at the impossible reversal, was dealt a further blow. His half-Bajoran daughter, Tora Ziyal, confessed that she had helped the Bajoran Resistance sabotage the station, and was murdered 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.
Although Operation Return was a clear tactical and strategic victory for the Federation in the long run, aside from preventing fresh Jem’Hadar reinforcements there was little impact on the Dominion’s offensive. Deep Space Nine had played only a minor role in the war thus far, and though it remained a crucial target, holding the station was not sufficient for victory on either side. The Dominion’s impressive capacity for both rapid shipbuilding and cloning of Jem’Hadar gave them great staying power. Within weeks of losing Deep Space Nine, they returned to the offensive, attacking more Federation worlds along the front lines, including Coridan and Betazed. Still, the importance of the Battle of Bajor to the outcome of the war cannot 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 Jem’Hadar warships and soldiers, which could not be touched by the allies. In addition, the battle provided a large boost to the allied forces’ morale, definitively showing that the Federation and Klingon forces were capable of winning a major victory. It reversed the problem of plummeting confidence and strengthened the Federation’s resolve for a total victory. For that reason, despite the reverses that would come later, the Battle of Bajor will always be remembered as the fight that set the Federation on the road to triumph.
For his crucial role in leading the attack, Benjamin Sisko was awarded the Christopher Pike Medal of Valor. Statistically, numbers of ships and lives lost in the Battle of Bajor are uncertain. It is believed that from 50,000 to 110,000 Starfleet officers died, and between 200 and 400 starships were destroyed. Klingon and Dominion losses are not known.