“Are the Shields Up?:” Decision Making in “Return of the Jedi”

By Cory Hollon

Rebellions are built on hope. – Cassian Andor, 1 BBY

Hope is not a plan. – Every decent commander, ever

In 4 ABY, the Alliance to Restore the Republic gained critical intel about the construction of a new Death Star. Clearly learning from the lengthy process of creating the first planet-killing battle station, the Empire had been able to construct a significant portion of the structure in the four years since the destruction of the first. Bothan spies were able to discover the exact location and defensive capabilities of the new Death Star and relay that information to the Alliance. The plan of attack was woefully inadequate, but the most glaring omission was the absence of a method for deciding to begin the fighter assault on the incomplete station. Even without this error, though, the Empire was in a position to gain a decision advantage over the Alliance because of its ability to access and control the electromagnetic spectrum. The Alliance eventually prevailed, but current military forces would do well to learn from the mistakes that a series of extraordinarily lucky events were able to mitigate.

The Alliance was never known for detailed planning, and the attack on the second Death Star was no exception. After making the announcement about the intel, Mon Mothma allowed Admiral Akbar to outline the plan. The battle station was not operational, but an impenetrable shield from the nearby moon of Endor was protecting it. Ground forces would deactivate the shield, then the cruisers would form a perimeter and allow the fighters to fly in and blow up the main reactor. General Madine gave a few more details about the ground force insertion plan including the use of a stolen Imperial shuttle and codes. All other details were omitted.

While there are several problems with this plan, the absence of a decision matrix for commencing the attack would become the most glaring. The fleet, coming out of hyperspace, would be unaware of the most critical piece of information, the status of the shields. There was no plan in place to communicate the strike team’s success or failure. This omission resulted in a situation where the Empire had the upper hand by being able to use the Alliance’s logic and risk calculus against it to achieve its military mission, even if the Death Star was not operational.

There were two key pieces of information required in order to begin the attack: minimum force present and shield status. The minimum force required to execute Akbar’s plan was never explicitly stated, but we can assume that a minimum of two cruisers could form an effective enough perimeter to allow the fighters to attack the battle station. A single flight of fighter was all that was needed to take out the power coupling and the main reactor simultaneously and trigger a chain reaction, which would destroy the entire station. If at any point in the battle, the Alliance’s surviving forces were or inevitably would be less than the minimum force required, the mission would need to be aborted because further action would risk unnecessary losses without any chance for success. We can assume based on the relative strength of the Alliance vis a vis the Empire, they would accept near total force destruction in order to accomplish the mission. Hence, the extremely small minimum force required to proceed.

The second piece of information was the most critical. The attacking Alliance fleet needed to know the status of the shield generator. If the shield was still up, they simply could not attack without essentially committing suicide as all the fighters would be destroyed upon hitting the shield. If the shield was down, they could continue with the plan.

At no point, though, did the Alliance’s military or political leadership discuss a third option for both pieces of information: unknown. The table below summarizes the discussed or reasonably deduced action the Alliance would take given the information about minimum force and status of the shield.


What is most notably missing is the plan for the attack in the event that the shield status is unknown. Not meeting minimum force required for the attack is a clear abort, and an operational shield clearly means to delay until either the shield is down (giving General Solo more time) or the minimum force is no longer present. But what should the Alliance do if they cannot get a reading on the status of the shield one way or another? General Calrissian defaults to the position that if the shield status is unknown, it must be up. He reasons that the jamming by the Empire must be to mask an operational shield. However, what if the strike team had been effective, and the jamming was merely part of a ruse by the Empire in an effort to attack the decision making of Alliance? How much risk was the Alliance willing to take in the face of incomplete information?

For the Alliance, bringing down the shield was a critical precondition for success. The only way they achieve their objective was if the shield is down. The Empire, on the other hand, can maintain the status quo in at least 5 of the other seven scenarios captured in the table. If the Alliance can be led to believe that the shield is up, then, regardless of the actual shield status, the Empire will at worst delay the attack and give themselves more time to bring their superior mass to bear.

The best-case scenario for the Empire, though, is that the Alliance has a perception about the shield status that is exactly opposite from reality. If the shield is up, but the Alliance thinks it is down, they will attack and be destroyed by the shield. If the shield is down, but the Alliance thinks that it is up, then they will delay the attack. It is a tall order to completely deceive the enemy, but the Empire could at least make the attempt to invert reality in the perception of the Alliance.

Failing that, the Empire would like to make the critical piece of knowable information unknown for as long as possible, which will drive a risk decision for the Alliance. If it can be assumed that the Alliance will attack with the minimum force once the shield is down, it would make sense to create confusion in that information stream in order to give the Empire more time to destroy the Alliance’s forces.

The attack was ultimately successful, although it must have been the will of the Force because the planning and execution errors by the Alliance should have resulted in failure. First, they had no plan to gain the one critical piece of information required to make the decision to attack. Instead, there should have been at least one, but really several, redundant paths for that information to get to the attacking force. Military forces in the United States have been biased toward efficiency in the last twenty years of low-intensity conflict. They have sought to eliminate redundancy and overlapping capabilities when faced with a long conflict. This efficiency comes at with the risk of single points of failure, and the lesson from the Alliance in major combat operations is that critical information must have several paths to arrive to the decision makers.

Second, the Alliance never discussed what to do in the face of unknowns. If the shield was up they would go; if the shield was down they would delay. However, what was the initial assumption to be used if that piece of information could not be gained either because of a lack of redundant information streams or enemy action? This would ultimately be a risk decision. Accepting a high level of risk would incline the Alliance toward action in the face of unknowns. A more risk averse force would tend to not proceed with high uncertainty. Military commanders should remember that what appears to be a binary choice in the state of the operating environment usually includes an implied third option of unknown state.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the decision superiority the Empire could have gained was entirely dependent on their access and control of the electromagnetic spectrum. They were able to jam the sensors of the Alliance and present an unknown into their decision calculus, giving the Empire an advantage. US military forces also will determine the status of the operating environment based upon their access and control of the electromagnetic spectrum because it is the means through which military forces gain and share information. A way to drive the enemy to mistakes is by creating a mismatch between reality and perception. This will force them to lose control over their processes and take no action, take the wrong action, or take action for an inappropriate duration.

The Battle of Endor should have been a stunning loss for the Alliance. Their plan did not cover the basics; much less prepare them for any contingencies. US military forces would do well to learn the lessons from the near disaster.

Enjoy what you just read? Please share on social media or email utilizing the buttons below.

About the Author: Lt Col Cory Hollon is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons System Officer in the U.S. Air Force. He has six combat deployments, has commanded an Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron, graduated from the Weapons Instructor Course and the School of Advanced Military Studies. He is currently an Airpower Strategist in the Skunks (Concept Division) of the Air Force Warfighting Integration Center and is the lead author for the Air Force Operating Concept. He can be found on Twitter @cory_hollon – be prepared for a lot of Star Wars. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force or the U.S. government.

About the Editor: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.

Cover Photo: Courtesy Lucasfilm, Ltd.

One Reply to ““Are the Shields Up?:” Decision Making in “Return of the Jedi””

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: