How War in Star Wars Makes Sense

At the end of last year I wrote a post titled ‘Everything Wrong With War in Star Wars.’ I promised a follow-up the next week ‘to propose a solution – a way to rationalize Star Wars battle in accordance with military history,’ but didn’t write it. Well, strap in to your ejection seats, because here it is.

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The Trade Federation army deploys at the Grassy Plains, Naboo. Source: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, via Star Wars Screencaps.com.

Star Wars is the Napoleonic Wars fought with automatic weapons.

Star Wars is 18th-to-early-19th-century musket warfare with magazines. In space, of course, it’s Second World War carrier warfare, but the battleships all mount smoothbore cannon.

Tactics are ultimately determined by technology. Star Wars battle doesn’t make sense according to the technical capabilities we expect of a spacefaring civilization. As a fan exercise, if we want to make sense of it, we have to examine the technology to see what factors are driving the tactics. And when we do, we realize that the films’ galactic civilization doesn’t have quite the technical capabilities we assume.

I say ‘the films’ because Expanded Universe writers make the same assumptions we do and add capabilities that aren’t demonstrated on screen. Incorporating their stories into our framework leads us back to square one: the tactics used in the films don’t make sense.

I also give the most weight to the classic trilogy (Episodes IV to VI). Each new set of films has added additional capabilities that need to be explained away. The franchise’s original vision for combat lends itself to the most coherent fan theory of battle a long time ago. My framework does take into account information from the other films, though.

Lastly, I need to emphasize that this is a work of extrapolation. It by definition doesn’t reflect the intentions in Lucas’s or the other filmmakers’ minds, nor is it ‘true’ or provable. It’s just a fun way to think about Star Wars on screen that makes it make a little more sense.

‘No match for a good blaster’

In the classic films we see two types of groundside weapons: swords and direct-fire ‘blaster’ guns of infantry and vehicle calibre. The best-equipped army wears ‘plastoid’ armour that appears to be utterly ineffective against these. Artillery is the queen of the modern battlefield, but we never see a shell burst (blasters do exhibit an explosive effect, but I’m referring to the shrapnel explosion of gunpowder artillery rounds or grenades). A grenade is displayed, but never thrown.

This leads us to our first proposition: Star Wars armour is proof against shrapnel, but not against energy beams.

Gunpowder artillery would chew up Star Wars infantry, but they all wear armour, so no one uses it. Because no one uses it, the ill-equipped Rebels are able to get away without armour. Explosives do exist, though, as demonstrated by Leia’s thermal detonator and the Endor commandos’ demolition charges, so if a major army abandoned personnel armour, grenades and even artillery would quickly come to the fore again – perhaps the Empire should consider this.

The old Visual Dictionary did show that each stormtrooper carried one thermal detonator at the small of his back. Refreshingly, the recent Rogue One and Solo movies have made much greater use of grenades. This adds a basic level of realism to the infantry fighting there.

Of course, beam weapons can’t fire in arcs, so artillery is restricted to the small direct-fire pieces seen in the Rebel line on Hoth (until we get to Attack of the Clones‘ SPHA-Ts, whose design from a military perspective is … wanting).

‘Only Imperial stormtroopers are so precise’

This line has always puzzled fans. The stormtroopers seen on screen are notable for their wild inaccuracy. The heroes, of course, fight with heroes’ ease.

Consider also that the fighting in Star Wars never takes place at very long ranges (the longest shots probably being taken at Hoth). Practically, this is because most of the fighting happens indoors.

But, taken together, blasters display two of the three principal firing characteristics of smoothbore smallarms: short range and gross inaccuracy. The third, very slow rate of fire, they do not: they operate like semiautomatic firearms (until Episode III, when a clone trooper opens up on full auto, and we might suppose the team weapon the stormtroopers try to set up to stop the Falcon on Hoth is a machine gun. The Falcon’s swivel blaster also fires very fast).

In the age of muskets, of course, troops stood exposed in dense formations to maximize their unreliable firepower, scorning return fire that was not dangerous until very close range!

This might begin to explain why Star Wars soldiers are so careless about cover and fight at such close ranges (apart from circumstances), but in open order: aimed fire is not exceedingly dangerous, but blasters’ rate of fire means you don’t want to stand in dense masses and present a broad target.

If it were me, I’d still hit the dirt (not least because blasters don’t suffer from the difficulties of reloading a muzzle-loader prone), but this may go some way toward rationalizing Star Wars soldiers’ apparent disregard for their lives.

‘Engage those Star Destroyers at point-blank range!’

One of the most common assumptions about Star Wars armament is that capital ships can bombard targets from orbit – even to the point of Halo-like glassings of planetary surfaces. This may have been abetted by comparisons of the Death Stars’ firepower to the Imperial fleet’s, and by Gen. Veers’ line, ‘Com-Scan has detected an energy field protecting an area of the sixth planet of the Hoth system. The field is strong enough to deflect any bombardment,’ just prior to the Battle of Hoth.

I’m sure the writers’ intent was for capital ships to be able to fire on planets. But they are never shown shooting at anywhere near those ranges. This takes us to our third proposition: that Star Wars capital units fight like Age of Sail ships – with an air arm.

Consider ISD Devastator, running down Tantive IV almost bow to stern in the first shots seen in theatres. The Imperial squadron’s batteries are silent beyond a certain distance as it chases the Falcon to the edge of the asteroid belt in The Empire Strikes Back, and it sends fighters to pursue. (The fighters themselves always fire at mere dozens of yards’ remove.) Lastly, the Imperial fleet is not firing as it stands off against the Rebel (and launches fighters) at Endor.

True, Adm. Ackbar baulks at closing there. But 16th-century English ships fought the Spanish by standing off at (smoothbore) range, and Ackbar’s objective demanded that he not seek decision against the Imperial Navy – decision that admirals like Nelson achieved hull-to-hull.

Of course, both fleets have their fighter screens, and Rebel X- and Y-wing craft at least appear to be torpedo-bombers. We know that Star Wars fighter combat is patterned off of Second World War footage, rendering fleet action an arcane mix of sail and carrier warfare.

More broadly, why build the Death Stars if the Imperial fleet is capable of levelling planets (or all important targets thereon)? Certainly, they are terror weapons, but of little practical value next to their expense. Granted, you can reasonably argue that the United States deployed the atom bomb despite being able to raze cities by fire bombing with its strategic bomber fleet: under any other framework, the Emperor’s decisions may only be imprudent – under ours, they are rational.

Two quibbles remain: Han Solo’s remark about the Navy’s firepower in A New Hope (cf. Gen. Dodonna’s later), and Gen. Veers’ report. The first suggests Imperial line vessels could bombard a planet’s surface, but never break it apart. The second suggests the Imperial Navy ordinarily would attack ground installations from orbit, and could attempt to batter down surface shields. Both of these statements can be explained by proposing that the Imperial ships would close to cloud level to do so, as the Republic Acclamators did (without firing) at Geonosis and the Imperial Star Destroyer did over Jedha City in Rogue One. In Death Squadron’s case, Veers could have had in mind attack by TIE bombers, as demonstrated in the asteroid belt. To circumvent the shield, Veers’ battle group had to land outside the shield’s perimeter and march through it, as Star Wars shielding appears to resist fast-moving objects and/or objects not in contact with the ground (the ideas in this sentence aren’t mine). This also explains why he lacks air support.

Why don’t capital ships mount railguns or other long-range kinetic weapons? The simple answer is that those shields repel them.

Then there is that gratifying scene in Revenge of the Sith where the Star Destroyer Guarlara closes to point blank with Confederate flagship Invisible Hand and they shred each other with their broadsides. Attack with fighters might be less costly.

‘The time for our attack has come.’

There’s more to say about Star Wars military technology and tactics, but I hope that suffices as a framework for conceptualizing warfighting in the galaxy far, far away: a vision of a universe of sophisticated, yet archaic tech that lets heroes stand amid the blaze of battle and look upon the whites of their foes’ eyes.

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