I haven't gotten above 'tough' in difficulty, but at my level:
I never spend resources fortifying planets. I tend to play huge and above galaxies and the number of ships to fortify versus the resources to build mobile offense-defense fleets doesn't make sense. Ships are for fighting -- and deterrence until you're ready to fight. Fleets sitting in orbit and not fighting are a waste.
If I can beg, borrow, steal, or con warp bubbles out of an enemy -- and I'll trade drive tech to the Terrans to get them to make it -- then my command ships (usually class-named Delicate Harmony) have warp bubbles, two top-tier engines, one Laser V, and as much type-specific level 2-3 defense as will fit in the remaining space on a medium hull. If no warp bubbles then some other module, but one fast fleet is as good as two slow ones.
To the command ship I add two firepower ships; two good engines, one or two defense modules, and whatever firepower I'm using -- usually whatever nobody else is using, and I manipulate this, too, trading one good weapon type to everyone while researching another line. This is the Dire Radiance class of mediums.
That's my basic offensive-defensive fleet. It has tremendous resilience, I rarely lose one, and typically don't need anything more advanced, though I do upgrade them as tech becomes available. After I get more logistics I'll typically put small-hull fast transports with the fleet for invasions. When really good engines show up I might selectively upgrade fleets without transports with top-end engines and weapons as killer fleets.
I'll often take enemy small fighters, bought for influence in the early game, fly 'em to my mining bases or other people's mining bases, and upgrade them to no-engine heavy-type-specific defense-plus-a-gun fighters called Sit n Pound for defense of those resources; occasionally defense after I smash the enemy base and upgrade some of the fighters to constructors.
And that's it.