With the Triumph en route to the Flying Dutchman, the Martian Admirals saw an opportunity to at once cripple Earth's Asteroid Belt operations and destroy their new flagship. The decision was made to attack the Flying Dutchman base and facilities and destroy the Triumph as well. This would leave the Earth without a major warship or facilities for other ships in the Belt.
Admiral Buckner meanwhile had given Megan Detwiller carte blanche to modify two Thunderhead fighters at the base to operate from the Triumph. Two was the limit since the battleship had two suitable airlocks. Every dog owner was familiar with that reasoning: hands, two leashes, two dogs on a walk.
Ensign Cornelius 'Wings' Chen was promoted to Lieutenant and given one of the modified Thunderheads to fly. Admiral Buckner figured he had less to unlearn about flying the new style fighter. Chen had also handled a drunk Megan detailer and the only way he'd top that in Buckner's mind was to disassemble a working nuclear reactor by hand.
The other modified Thunderhead was to be flown by Lt. Rita Elora, who had the most experience on the base. Buckner figured 'an old hen makes good soup.' He didn't say that to Rita.
As the Triumph neared and nerves frayed like a bargain store throw rug the Admiral announced he would fly out to it to show his support for the battleship's test crew and thank everyone who had worked so hard on his project. He poo poo-ed the idea of the Martians hitting the Triumph. Even if they were to do that it would have been outside effective range of reinforcements.
He climbed into the Thunderhead banging his head, knee, and shoulder. "I'd rather be flying on a shuttle!" he complained to Chen. Wings gave him a thumbs up and answered, "I'd rather be flying with a gunner, sir. But I am game if you are!" That got a laugh, no dope slap.
Now, the Big Brains had not allowed compact electronic computers for centuries, and might never again. They hated competition. With the limited processing systems onboard a fighter, the pilot had an inordinate amount of work to do. A fighter pilot needed the math weaponizing skills of a sniper, the reflexes of a gunfighter, and the persistence of a cartoon canine. In fact even with all these things the odds were heavily weighted against a fighter pilot actually hitting a ship with any effect.
There was an old truism of war: wounding an enemy was better than killing them. Dead enemies merely needed a mortician and a hole. Wounded people required a great many trained medical personnel to heal and rehabilitate. In recent years it was determined that convincing an enemy to be a fighter pilot was even better than wounding them! The number of trainers, instructors and administrators necessary to produce a pilot was huge, as were the personnel necessary to build and maintain a fighter in combat ready condition. All those people could be assigned to training a great many ship's crew and producing ships!
Mars had encouraged Earth to develop fighter tech for years, smaller reaction drives, better fuel cells, smaller sensors. Some of it was through investments, some was by funding media that constantly touted the fighter pilot as the dashing hero. It was a brilliant move that totally bit them on the ass.
The average Earthman was unconcerned with solar politics and not ready to fight a war off world. There were already rogue nations, warlords and mad scientists to contend with at home. The fighters, however, were quite good at dealing with threats at home and seized the public's imagination. The Martians laughed (presumably evilly with hand wringing).
Then a Special Forces team operating out of the Kingdom of the Golden Vale on Mars ran into trouble. The Vale was a warm and comparatively well watered area of Mars. The Polar Kingdoms had a long history of plotting against it. Earth ships regularly called there and missions were run from it to collect intelligence on the Polar Kingdoms.
One mission ran into a large force of Polar regulars. They were pinned down and surrounded. To their credit they did not break radio silence to call for help. Vale sensors intercepted the Polar transmission reporting the action. The Vale wouldn't send help. Its neutrality was mostly a sham but it was still useful.
The Vale was hosting several Earth ships with many 'advisors' including a small fighter force training the kingdom's pilots in the latest Thunderhead fighters purchased from Earth and now two thunderheads took off (without orders or permission as the Earth would later claim). The Thunderheads engaged the Polar ground forces in several passes, clearing a way for the Terran team and making sure the Martians kept their big heads down. Most of the team got out alive.
More importantly they got out with recordings of the ground and fighter action.
Earth was incensed at the Polar Kingdoms attacking earthmen engaged in practice maneuvers in neutral territory. They were stirred by the images of their fighters engaging the enemy, because they were all certain Mars was now an enemy, and driving them off. The Vale denied any knowledge of these actions and in fact confiscated the fighters (that were already bought and paid for).The fighter pilots were placed on suspension, transferred back to a media tour on Earth and later quietly reassigned back to the Belt. One was Rita Elora.
The damage was done. Earth was ready for a fight. In fact many demanded it for good or ill. Worse, Earth had shown that their media sensation fighters had a purpose: home support was an important mission. Looking good for the people watching the news was another. There would soon be other uses found for them.