war on the rocks

Give the Empire Its Due: Can the Fate of the Death Star Tell Us Anything About Aircraft Carriers?

April 27, 2016

Among the legacies of the Cold War is the ability of the United States to use its aircraft carrier fleet to affect strategic deterrence. This strategic deterrence strategy depends on a rather small number of very capable systems (currently there are 10 aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy). Granted, aircraft carriers do not operate alone, but carrier battle groups are based around the unique capabilities of an aircraft carrier. This begs the question as to the viability of strategies and strategic deterrence based on capable platforms fielded in very small numbers. How central is the platform (and its survival) to the ability to deter and also to the success of the strategy itself?  Given the importance of the platform, what risks can be reasonably accepted? What trade-offs can reasonably be made? One way to shed light on this challenge is to look to debates about fictional military capabilities – in particular, the Death Star – to illustrate the issues involved and discuss the interplay of platform and strategy.

The recently released trailer for Rogue One gives us a brief glimpse of the construction of the first Death Star – perhaps the film will also delve into some of the strategic thought behind that construction. Recent articles have criticized the Death Star(s), arguing that the Empire’s strategy was based on singular platforms that kept getting destroyed, which in turn doomed the strategy. After the destruction of the first Death Star, the Empire’s decision to continue to try and achieve deterrence through ultra-low density platforms (i.e. the other Death Star and the Starkiller base) does seem questionable. However, the Empire’s decision to use the first Death Star deserves some reconsideration, as a way of thinking through the potential utility of high-cost assets.

At the end of the Clone Wars, the new Empire was most concerned about internal security.  Even though it lacked a near-peer competitor, the Empire still faced pockets of separatist resistance as well as considerable internal resistance to new Imperial rule. This resistance came both from systems that were originally part of the Republic as well as new systems into which the Empire was expanding.

Accompanying this expansion into new systems was a massive military capacity- building campaign that included the navy, army, and Stormtrooper corps. Grand Moff Tarkin, primary strategic architect for the Empire, consolidated governance of sectors of the galaxy into larger “over-sectors,” placing each over-sector under one executive, or Grand Moff. Each Grand Moff would have assigned forces at their disposal (a loose parallel to the U.S. combatant command construct). However, even within over-sectors, Imperial forces were still beholden to the tyranny of galactic distance (the galaxy being over 100,000 light-years across). Much like the British during the American Revolution, the Empire simply could not have forces everywhere at once to deter and put down threats to internal security.

Given this strategic posturing and reasoning, the Death Star begins to have more merit as a method of deterrence. For the sake of argument I am going to assume that the Empire had sufficient resources to afford the Death Star, but those resources were not infinite. Even with a high price tag, the Death Star ideally would have freed up resources. If planets or systems were afraid to act because of the capability of the Death Star, there would have been less of a need for the Empire to commit resources en-mass to maintain a creditable threat. By not having to garrison troops, station capital ships, and other assets in order to deter potential threats, the Empire could have freed up resources better allocated to other strategic needs. For example, those resources could have been used to expand into new areas of the galaxy, hunt Rebel ships, or to develop needed force capability (a need evidenced by the poor basic blaster marksmanship of the Stormtrooper corps).

Even so, one could argue that the Death Star had such flawed defensive design that it was unreasonable for the Empire to build and use the platform without redesign. For example, the Death Star was not designed to defend against the threat it actually faced in the real world – attacks from penetrating tactical fighters. In Episode IV, the Rebels had few capital ships, and certainly not enough to stage a large-scale attack against the Death Star (which was the threat the Death Star was designed to defend against).

Military history suggests that the Empire was not foolish but perhaps constrained in its choices. Like many acquisition programs, the Death Star was designed to fight the last war. Militaries often have to make acquisition decisions that will affect force structure and capability years into the future. There is often a choice between developing the system as designed, and redesigning the system to better meet emerging threats. The trade-off is between an imperfect system now or a better designed system with delayed fielding.

As a system designed during the Clone Wars, where both sides of the conflict could field significant fleets of capital ships in a large-scale attack, the Death Star was designed specifically to win the last war by defeating capital ships and planets.  Senior Imperial officers and program managers (who started their careers during the Clone Wars) could understandably view the risk of a large-scale attack as the most threatening therefore a fighter-based attack as the “lesser-included.” The Empire was not completely wrong in this assessment of the threat. During the Battle of Yavin, the Rebellion came very close to losing, with only three of the original 30 Rebel fighters surviving the assault.

Frankly, the Rebels got lucky when they destroyed the Death Star. It was a series of improbable events that led to a force-sensitive pilot (albeit one with significant counter-womp rat experience) being able to take part in a coordinated assault and employ his weapon systems on the one flaw of a 120 kilometer- diameter station. Even then, it was highly improbable that the fatal shot should have succeeded, as some observers have noted that the shot was “one-in-a-million.” It is unreasonable to expect the Empire to completely remove the risk of the enemy getting lucky or to account for (as well as redesign and delay for) every possible but highly improbable series of events. And while it is true that the use of the Force also played a significant role in the attack, Imperial designers and planners can be forgiven for not expecting to face a Force-user. This is especially true given the Imperial belief that there were no Jedi (save Darth Vader and the Emperor) left in the galaxy post-Order 66.

Had the Rebels not had their string of luck and had lost the Battle of Yavin, it is unlikely that they would have been able to recover from the loss. By losing at Yavin, the Rebels would have suffered significant material and leadership loss, thereby destroying the Rebellion as a cohesive fighting force. Any systems rebelling against imperial rule would have suffered from a first-mover disadvantage. Rather than joining an already existing force, the rebelling system would be the sole focus of the Empire in that over-sector. Even had the Rebellion somehow managed to survive, there would still be the significant deterrent of planetary destruction as an argument against joining and/or providing aid to the Rebellion.

In the end, though, the Death Star was destroyed. However, this does not mean the platform was a failure.  The Death Star did work as designed in that it could demonstrably destroy a planet, thereby providing a deterrent effect. Moreover, it inspired enough fear to warrant a desperate and costly assault by the Rebellion. At the same time, the Death Star was not the proverbial “all-eggs-in-one-basket” system whose loss doomed the entire Imperial strategy.  The Empire carried on and almost destroyed the Rebellion on Hoth. At least in this fictional example, neither the strategic reliance on a very capable platform, nor the vulnerability inherent in low-density fielding, were the causes of organizational defeat.

This is not say that the lessons of the first Death Star make an argument for strategies based on low-density, highly capable platforms (like aircraft carriers).  What those lessons do allow is a way to decouple the discussions about the loss of platform from discussions about the failure of strategy. The platform does not matter as much as the strategy of which that platform is a part. No single weapon system ever guarantees success or demands failure. More telling are the people behind the platform and whether or not those people are able to set the conditions for the platform to succeed, or recover when that platform fails.


Noah Kanter is the Strategy Lead for the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence.  He is a former cavalry officer in the U.S. Army with deployments to Kosovo and Iraq.  The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the Empire.