Imperial military strategy: how Palpatine dropped the fully armed and operational battle station. Twice.

This is a clever and comprehensive analysis in response to a question posed to a holder of a Master’s Degree in Military History, and fellow Goon. The question being, “In hindsight, was it a mistake for the Empire to put all its eggs in one basket by constructing the Death Star? Surely such an undertaking cost the Empire a lot of resources which probably could have been better used had they been spread out?” This is used without permission, though attribution is given so we’re good.

This is clearly the case, but the situation is not as simple as it seems on the surface. While it is easy to blame the Empire itself for what looks to be a gross misallocation of resources, the truth is that there were two independent problems with the Death Star Project, only one of which was the amount of resources devoted to construction. The other problem was the approach taken in deploying the two Fully Armed and Operational Battle Stations.

In addressing the first problem, some brief historiography is necessary. In the immediate aftermath of the disastrous events at Yavin IV and Endor it was widely accepted that the Empire itself was responsible for the decision to build these weapons and, in doing so, subject the economies of numerous star systems to unbearable economic stress. While this blame at first seems reasonable, it must be remembered that such accusations could very likely have been propagated by the group of freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker. Such a situation would not be unexpected, as any propoganda tactics that would serve to discredit the Imperial government would no doubt have been used by these Rebel Scum. Indeed, over the last 5 to 10 yearsnew documents have come to light suggesting that the initial work on the super weapons was already well underway during the Republic’s waning years. It should be remembered that the former was the very same governmental body that Skywalker and his cohorts were striving to reincorporate; therefore, he and his Rebel Friends would have every reason to divert attention away from the Republic’s responsibility and place the blame squarely on the Empire’s shoulders. Nor should it be overlooked that noted insurgent leader Obi Wan Kenobi, as well as Skywalker’s own father, were high ranking officers in the employ of the Republic, and may themselves have had some involvement with the Death Star project.

Some have argued that although the Death Star’s planning and initial construction probably began during the late years of the Republic, the government itself should not be held responsible since there were numerous quasi-independent political factions operating separately from the legitimate government at the time. However, given the size and scope of the project, the Senate, if not directly responsible for the project, must have either ignored evidence of its existence, in which case they were grossly negligent, or known of its existence and given tacit consent, in which case they were complicit. Either way, it is clear that the Republican government, not the Empire itself, was responsible for either permitting or ordering the initial devotion of large quantities of capital and material to a project of questionable utility. Further adding to the evidence of Republican responsiblity is the rather curious lack of attention paid to certain common-sense safety measures on the stations, such as adequate catwalk railings or sufficiently well protected exhaust ports. Such oversights are clear indications of design-by-committee, and all too representative of a stale democratic government’s way of doing things. Indeed, it was precisely the propensity of the Senate to allow such goings-on that prompted Chancellor Palpatine to assume dictatorial powers to try and straighten out the whole mess.

While the Empire was obviously not immediately responsible for the initiation of the project, it did allow construction to continue through to completion. Why was this? There are likely two reasons. First, the transition from Republican to Imperial government structures was not immediate. It was, in fact, not until after the first Death Star had been completed that the last remnants of the Old Republic had been swept away. The length of time necessary for this change was attributed to the fact that mid-level members of government continually insisted that the local bureaucracy was necessary to maintain control. Indeed, transcripts from high-level military planning sessions suggest that even some military leaders felt this way, although the sentiment was probably not too widespread. Thus, during this period of flux, large bureaucratic programs such as the Death Star would have been very difficult to simply terminate since Emperor Palpatine had his hands full with innumerable similar problems.

The second reason would be that, given the advanced state of the project at the time that Palpatine assumed the principate, it may have been more expensive to deconstruct the stations than to complete them. Although records from the period are incomplete, it is clear from the close proximity in time between the battles of Yavin and Endor that the second Death Star must have been under construction before the first was even deployed. Therefore, its construction was also likely beyond the point of no return, so to speak.

The second problem, that of the Death Stars’ deployment, is more directly attributable to the Imperial Navy and even the Emperor himself. That the Death Star design was out of place in the Imperial Navy is something of an understatement. Although the Navy certainly had a penchant for gigantism, it never strayed too far from the idea that their weapons of war should be simple and easily mass produced. The TIE series of fighters, interceptors, and bombers, for example, while they did not necessarily excel at local space superiority, were sufficiently ubiquitous to allow the Empire to at least disrupt, if not necessarily defeat, many Rebel undertakings. Considering the limited resources available to the Pitiful Little Band, had the Empire remained true to this strategy of gradual attrition it would significantly have increased its chances of ultimate victory. Likewise, the Imperial II class of Star Destroyer was quite capable of causing problems for even a moderately sized Rebel task force. The sudden shift, then, from widespread attritional strategy to focused annihilation is rather confusing. This is particularly the case when one considers the fact that by tightening their grip upon one star system at a time, the Imperial Navy would most likely have let many others slip through their fingers.

While the fundamental reasons for the Empire’s shift in strategy remain a mystery, it is still clear that the Emperor and his officers made some rather naive mistakes in their use of the Death Stars. In the first case, the Death Star’s attack on the Rebel Base at Yavin IV suffered from an unforgivable dirth of battlefield reconnaissance. Had even the most basic survey of the Yavin system been made prior to the Death Star’s arrival, its approach could have been calculated to come from the same side of Yavin IV as the Rebel-held moon. Instead, the lack of reconnaissance caused the Death Star to approach from the opposite side, thus lengthening the time required to position itself properly, and ultimately providing the Rebels with a perfect opportunity to drive an attack home.

In the second case, the Emperor himself made a critical error by personally overseeing the final stages of construction. Apparently unfamiliar with the dangers inherent in exposing himself to attack, Palpatine insisted on being present on the occasion of his ultimate triumph, despite objections from his closest advisors. One witness even describes the the occasion of the Emperor’s announcement, whereupon Lord Vader was said to have responded, “I have a baaad feeling about this.” In any case, the Emperor’s overconfidence was his undoing.