Short range fighters are used on starbases as a defense against attacking enemy starships. A starbase can hold up to 60 fighters. Also, some starships have fighter launch bays and can carry fighters in their cargo holds to attack enemy starships. Larger carriers can hold over 200 fighters.
Fighters function at a greater range than torpedoes or beam weapons. They fire an energy beam that wears down an opponent's shields and can punch holes in vital parts of enemy starships. Fighters are particularly effective at defeating large and heavily armored opponents.
An enemy starship or starbase can fire a beam weapon at a fighter to destroy it. Very few starships, however, can defeat a large scale fighter attack with beam weapons alone, and no starship or planet could possibly hold off waves of fighters indefinitely with just beam weapons.
Fighters can also be destroyed by enemy fighters that gain a weapons lock as the fighters pass within close range of each other while they approach the enemy starship or planet.
If destroyed, new fighters can be purchased and reloaded on the ship by a friendly starbase. Additionally, they can be transferred from other starships at the same point in space. Friendly starships can simply use the Transfer command while allied starships will need to use the BTF Friendly Code. Ships belonging to the Robots or Colonies can use either the LFM Friendly Code or the Build Fighters mission to build new fighters in space, and Rebel starships with fighter bays automatically construct replacement fighters from minerals and supplies without using any particular mission (though Rebels too can employ the LFM Friendly Code). Evil Empire starbases construct a number of "free" fighters each turn from just the minerals.