This past weekend, I spent some time re-watching Star Wars episodes IV, V, and VI, or as I call them, Star Wars. Watching them with a critical eye towards leader development, tactics, and strategy, I was struck by a number of critical flaws on both sides that could have been fixed with some basic organizational fixture for lessons learned. While some might call this type of analysis a “nerdgasm of epic proportions,” Star Wars is an ideal tool for professional development; because of its status in popular culture, most people tend to have a working knowledge of it, versus an obscure historical military campaign (I still love those, but it takes a while to teach Soldiers the background).
So what are the lessons learned that can be distilled from Star Wars? If there was a Command and General Staff College for the Imperial Fleet or the Rebel Alliance, what could they pass on to students?
Rebel Alliance. One has to wonder at the vetting system for officers in the Rebel Alliance when Han Solo makes commander (O-5) after one battle and general (O-7) after being rescued from Jabba the Hut. The same goes for Lando Calrissian, who makes general with astonishing quickness for someone who could nicely be called a contractor. This leads one to believe that the Alliance was hurting for qualified pilots because of their overall strategy and tactics (why will be elaborated further on). A lack of strategic minded commanders meant that the Alliance was always one step behind the Empire and was always reacting rather than being proactive.
Mentorship, if you can call it that, was lacking for senior Alliance leadership, mainly on the religious/philosophical side. The return of the Jedi class to warfighting was meant to be a new hope, and yet the surviving Jedi proved too set in their ways to properly mentor the young Skywalker. Fearing that the truth would burden him with too much knowledge, they merely dropped bits of twisted truth along the way, leading him to make the rash choices that they so desperately bewailed. Obi Wan Kenobi spent most of his time either lying to Luke, or explaining his lies. Yoda never bothered to give Luke any true background on the situation until his dying breaths, a colossal waste of resources. Hide-bound into a static mentality that only yearned for the good ‘ol days, these “chiefs of staff” offered no great mentorship to Luke and may have in fact hindered his development by hoarding information like a bad staff officer.
Princess Leia seemed to have been the only savvy leader on either side. She operated as a good insurgent: blending with the populace, making friends with local nationals, collecting intelligence and disseminating it, thinking on her feet, and being pretty handy with a blaster. If it were not for her and R2D2, the whole Rebel Alliance would have fallen apart.
Speaking of R2D2, that little bastard had full knowledge of the Skywalker family history and could have saved Luke from some dreadful incestuous kisses.
The Empire. The Imperial system of leader development was no better. In a stratified military, strained from policing every edge of the Galaxy, the Empire was hamstrung from its Chief Propaganda Officer, Lord Vader. Vader’s Commisar-like mentality meant that little went unpunished. His propensity to micromanage his battlefield commanders, both ground and fleet, led to risk aversion, as did his lethal punishment of even minor infractions. Vader’s obsession with finding Luke dominated his thinking so much that it repeatedly put the entire Imperial fleet at risk, whether it was flying into an asteroid belt or allowing a Rebel strike group onto Endor. However, it did allow for greater upwards mobility for those commanders who acted without question, as multiple O-6 to O-7 commands were rendered “vacant by force choke.” Emperor Palpatine was also a severe micromanager, making battlefield decisions around Endor and ignoring his intelligence sections.
It seemed to have been universal amongst the Jedi to have a sparse grasp on reality, possibly brought on by being so in tune with the Force.
The Rebel Alliance. The Alliance would have profited by same basic insurgency principles. Rather than engage in low-intensity conflict on planetary systems across the galaxy that would have spread Imperial forces thin, they instead adopted a conventional fighting force that attempted to go toe-to-toe with the Empire in hopes of winning a decisive battle. While one applauds them for adopting at least one of Clausewitz’s maxims, they did not have sufficient force to keep this up. They were recruiting pilots from agricultural communities on poverty-ridden Tatooine before Luke ever even got there, which indicates their desperate straits. Losing qualified fighter and bomber pilots by attacking the first Death Star left an even smaller cadre in the attempt to exfiltrate from Hoth. They were so short of pilots by the time they took on the second Death Star that they were breveting smugglers like Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. Only the insurgency of the Ewoks saved the Rebels from disaster in their bid for a decisive battle with the Empire in Return of the Jedi. Had their bid to take down Death Star II failed, the entire Alliance fleet would have been destroyed. Repeated gambles such as this show a lack of strategic foresight on the part of Alliance leadership. Not only that, but they did not keep “cells” of Alliance leaders spread out, meaning that one strike by Imperial forces would have lopped the head off the rebellion in one fell stroke, as the Imperials hoped to do by eradicating Alderaan.
The Empire. Imperial commanders actually had an excellent strategy: pinpoint Rebel strongholds and eradicate them before they could grow. The Alliance’s own strategy made this possible. Left to their own, Imperial commanders would have slowly contained the Alliance via blockade, degrading its conventional fighting force, and eventually killing or capturing key leaders. Their strategy was hindered by Vader’s obsession with Luke Skywalker. Fleets and opportunities were frittered away by hunting down this relatively minor leader when more significant gains (such as the destruction of the Rebel fleet) could have been achieved. That the Emperor not only permitted this strategic distraction but encouraged it is a sign that the Empire had some very deep flaws.
Like any large bureaucratic organization, the Empire also suffered from an over-reliance on technology. When the first Death Star came online, its advocates sang its praises in sentences that would make apologists for the Joint Strike Fighter blush. Like the JSF, the Death Star contained some fatal design flaws. While engineers identified these, the Imperial leadership’s trust in technology over ability sealed the Death Star’s fate.
The Empire also failed to observe good counterinsurgency doctrine, both in the obvious example of Endor, and in Cloud City. When Vader altered his deal with Lando, he sowed the seeds for a massive uprising and defection to the Alliance. Dealings with host nations tended to be clumsy and heavy-handed. Had the Alliance taken more advantage of this, they could have bogged the Empire down in a quagmire of galactic proportions.
The Rebel Alliance. As mentioned already, the Alliance’s strategy drove a reliance on conventional force-on-force tactics. However, due to the large losses that they took, institutional knowledge seemed hard to come by.
Case in point is the defense of Hoth. That should have been a classic defense in depth, designed to delay Imperial forces until all transports were free and clear. They knew that the Empire would have to land ground troops and so had already established a perimeter. These defenses were static and linear, which already meant that one breakthrough could jeopardize the whole line. What the Alliance really needed was one good combat engineer to design obstacle emplacements. Massive tanglefoot, AT-AT traps, trenches, berms, mines, and concealed pits would have slowed the Imperial advance well before reaching the main Alliance lines, giving the Alliance crew-served weapons time to get some shots in before being outranged by Imperial firepower. No blocks, turns, fixes, or disruptions occurred, however, and the AT-ATs advanced on line, giving them a far greater concentration in firepower.
Further, the Alliance failed to integrate their air capabilities with the ground troops. The Alliance enjoyed local air superiority in their snow speeders, but frittered this away by attacking the AT-ATs frontally rather than from the sides or rear. The Battle of Hoth demonstrated that the Alliance had a long way to go before they could consider themselves battle worthy.
The Empire. Due to larger recruitment pools, the Empire could afford to develop specialized troops for different types of warfare in differing environments. As shown in A New Hope, they had perfected urban breaching in ship-to-ship actions that usually overwhelmed defenders through sheer firepower. Stormtrooper marksmanship has often been ridiculed, yet Alliance ground troops fared barely better. Much of this could be the fault of the designers of blasters, which seemed to have little apparatus for aiming or controlling the recoil of the weapon. I imagine a lot of the research and development funds for a new battle rifle were probably tied up in the Joint Strike Fighter, I mean, Death Star.
The Imperial strategic reliance on technology trickled down to the tactical level. Mounted troops tended towards a “death before dismount” mindset that doomed many an AT-ST trooper on Endor. One questions the use of light armor in a forested environment when speeders proved far more reliable, but Imperial doctrine seemed to lag behind the developing threat. Still, these tactics proved effective on multiple occasions against the Alliance’s blundering attempts to get involved in stand-up fights.
While the Alliance ended up victorious, they took massive risks to achieve massive payoffs. In doing so, they incurred massive losses that they could little afford. Much like the Confederate armies in the Civil War, they tried to wage a war of attrition in search of the decisive battle. The Confederates could not afford such losses, while the Union could. In repeated attempts to take the U.S. capital in Washington D.C., the Confederates suffered major defeats. Unlike the Confederacy, the Alliance was able to knock out Imperial leadership and bring the Empire to its knees. Palpatine signed the Empire’s death certificate when he dissolved the Imperial Senate, leaving himself as the sole leader.
Contemporary leaders can gain a lot by examining the Star Wars canon. From leader development to cultural understanding to tactics, Star Wars offers multiple avenues to make U.S. Army doctrine relatable to junior Soldiers.
It’s also fun as hell.
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