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Systems, Not Sith: How Inter-service Rivalries Doomed the Galactic Empire

[We’re glad to say that OTI’s favorite pirate hunter, Ben Adams, has joined OTI as a regular contributor. Help us welcome him, and enjoy this magnum opus! —Ed.]

“There’s no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps… We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do nowadays, so that does away with the Navy.”

—Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson, December 1949

Dangerous to your Star Fleet Commander, not to this battle station… This station is now the ultimate power in the universe. I suggest we use it.

—Admiral Motti, Imperial Navy

In Star Wars, the Empire is presented as a monolith. Storm Troopers, TIE Fighters and even Star Destroyers are supposedly just indistinguishable cogs in a massive military machine, single-mindedly pursuing a common goal. This is, of course, a façade – like all humans, the soldiers and Officers of the Imperial Military will each have their own interests and loyalties. The Army is going to compete with the Navy, the Fighter jocks are going to compete with the Star Destroyer Captains, and the AT-AT crews are going to compete with Storm Troopers.

In fact, our very first glimpse of the Imperial High Command is an argument between the Army and the Navy about the strategic vulnerability of the Death Star. The stakes are high: For the Navy, the Death Star represents the ultimate in bureaucratic power-grabs, a guarantee of perpetual dominance on top of the Imperial pecking order. For the Army, the Death Star represents the potential death of their service as a viable political force.

This type of rivalry isn’t unique to the Empire—the argument between General Tagge and Admiral Motti isn’t even specific to the Death Star. In the aftermath of World War II and the dawn of the nuclear era, the newly formed US Air Force made a concentrated effort to become the foremost military service, arguing that between long-range bombers and nuclear weapons, there would be no further need for the Navy or Marine forces. Like Admiral Motti, they argued that any military problem could be solved by flying to the scene with the biggest weapon available and blowing the problem up – thus making the other services irrelevant.

Inter-service and intra-service rivalries are just an expression of the office politics that plague every large organization. The way that those systems are designed determine the effect of those rivalries on the organization’s effectiveness. The high-stakes of Imperial rivalries and lack of checks and balances in the Empire’s political system ensures that petty personal and inter-service politics would have dramatic negative effects on the overall effectiveness of the Imperial military. This resulted in myopic strategic thinking, shoddy acquisitions and ineffective tactical operations that combined to doom the Empire.

Systems, Not Sith

Nowhere is inter-service rivalry more apparent than in the lead up to the Invasion of Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. After coming out of light speed, an Army General reports to Vader that the Navy fleet has come out of light speed – a clear attempt to cut Admiral Ozzel off at the knees. Vader’s view of the situation is completely colored by the Army’s spin on the situation. Instead of allowing the Navy to give a report (and a possible justification for the strategy), the Admiral gets killed, the Army gets the glory, and CAPT Piett moves up a slot after learning a valuable lesson about the utility of throwing his Army colleagues under the bus.

I’ve made a terrible mistake.

The US military isn’t necessarily different – individuals are still heavily motivated by their own ambitions and interests. 1-star Generals still want to be 2-star Generals, and Navy officers still have personal and professional incentives to skew things against the Army. That advancement, however, doesn’t carry the same weight as it does in the Imperial military. Becoming a Grand Moff in the Imperial Military means a governorship and dictatorial power over an entire planet—failure is punishable by a painful, public death. Getting on the Joint Chiefs of Staff means a hefty retirement check and a gateway into a cushy civilian job – failure is punishable by early retirement with a slightly smaller check and gateway into a slightly less-cushy civilian job. The stakes of Imperial inter-service rivalries are devastatingly high.

Even more importantly, there are a variety of checks and balances inherent in the US system that prevents the worst effects of inter-service rivalry on mission accomplishment. The different branches debate their strategic priorities publicly with oversight by elected officials; an independent media can critique ill-conceived procurement plans; and public pressure in response to casualties force reforms of ineffective tactics and operations.

The decision making process in the Empire is “efficient” in the sense that decisions can be made quickly, but utterly inefficient in the sense that it relies solely on the Emperor and his cronies to make perfect decisions 100% of the time. Because of the high stakes, the only objective of an Imperial Admiral or General is remaining in the Emperor’s good graces – and the lack of independent oversight means that their own mistakes will be covered up and rival services will be undercut whenever possible. This is not unique to the Galactic Empire. In World War II, the rivalries between the Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy were so intense that they had a special name, “Gunbatsu.” At one point in in the 1930s, factions within the Army  even tried to assassinate Admiral Yamamoto to prevent him from interfering with their plans for war (a feat which they later accomplished by having terrible, terrible, cryptography).

In the United States, the decision making process is a multipolar system with extensive checks and balances. When the Air Force tried to establish long-term dominance over the Navy, Air Force Generals successfully convinced both the President and Secretary of Defense of their strategy. In the Empire, that would have been the end of the discussion. In the US however, the Navy fought back in the media, leading to the so-called “Revolt of the Admirals” and Congressional hearings on the future of military spending. When war broke out in Korea, nuclear weapons were never used due to a fear of public outcry and Soviet retaliation – and the Navy was still around to provide the crucial amphibious invasion at Inchon.

Myopic Strategic Thinking

The Death Star is the apotheosis of the Imperial Navy’s drive for dominance of the Imperial Military, and the Imperial Navy’s single-mindedness about their “Technological Terror” is evident throughout the series. With it, they guarantee that an Admiral will always be at the helm of the “ultimate power” in the universe. Despite the Army’s (accurate) objections that the station is vulnerable, the Navy convinces the Emperor to build not one but TWO different battle stations that can be destroyed by a small fighter shooting a single shot.

The Navy’s fixation is almost pathological—when Leia gives up the supposed location of the Rebels on Dantooine, the logical next step would be to go to Dantooine and blow up the Rebels. If Leia is lying, they can always come back to Alderaan and threaten to blow it up again. To Tarkin and the pro-Death Star faction, however, demonstrating the “full power of this station” is the most important objective of all. Dantooine is “too remote to make an effective demonstration,” so they blow up Alderaan and lose whatever leverage they might have over Leia.

Even a fully operational and non-vulnerable-to-proton-torpedo Death Star is not a sustainable plan for long-term governance. “Fear of this battle station” will not keep the systems in line – as Leia points out, “The harder you squeeze, the more systems will slip through your fingers.” Just like the Soviet Union found it couldn’t just nuke all of its problems away, rebellion would be a constant fact of life in an Empire dependent solely on the threat of planetary destruction. The Empire’s strategic thinking surrounding the Death Star is woefully inadequate.

Shoddy Acquisitions

Not only is the Empire’s strategic thinking wrong, but as Bruce Schneier might say, they are doing the wrong things badly. The Death Star is so vulnerable that the Rebels discover a devastating vulnerability with literally only hours of analysis. It’s almost certain that any number of Imperial planners and Navy personnel recognized the weakness of the exhaust port but said nothing – “nobody likes a whistle blower, and besides, even a computer can’t hit a target THAT small.”

In the Empire, everything is handled from the top down—the military submits their plans, the Emperor approves it. If the Navy has a plan for a Death Star, they bring the plan to the Emperor, he approves the funds and construction starts. While this seems may seem efficient, centralized management has serious consequences for the Empire. Because of the incentive structure in place in the Empire, the focus will always be on reporting success and pleasing your bosses – without any independent oversight, there’s little hope of fielding a quality product.

Shoddy workmanship is evident throughout the Star Wars saga. The Death Star is an OSHA nightmare, lacking safety rails in high-energy weapons systems and emergency shut-off switches in man-sized trash compacters. Door locks can be opened with blaster fire, and the Super Star Destroyer is so lacking in redundancy that a single errant fighter can bring the whole ship crashing down.

It’s not surprising that Storm Troopers never hit anything – their blasters are made by whichever contractor has the most political clout with the Imperial Command. If that contractor turns out a lot of defective blasters, the General who selected him certainly isn’t going to be the one to report the news to the Emperor and it’s not like the Storm Troopers are going to complain to Darth Vader or ask 60 Parsecs to do an independent investigation.

In the United States, the acquisitions process is a collaborative one, with the elected Executive setting strategic priorities, different branches of the military generating requirements to meet those priorities, Congress holding the purse strings and an independent media critiquing the entire process. The process is unbelievably byzantine, frequently running billions of dollars over budget and years late.

Despite the massive inefficiencies, this is actually an advantage of a democratic system. When a US Soldier gets shoddy equipment, he at least has some recourse – he can write his Congressmen to conduct hearings or ask an independent media outlet to run an investigation. It may take a while, but there is at least a chance for an on-the-ground voice to be heard. In a real life example involving body armor, alternative designs were considered and recalls were made after Marines and Soldiers complained about the quality of equipment provided.

Regardless of the government, defense contracting will always attract rent-seeking profiteers and careerist bureaucrats with no idea how to build a reliable weapon. In a democracy, checks and balances at least have a fighting chance of resisting this tendency—the Empire has no checks and balances, and the system lies to itself until the very end.

Ineffective Tactical Operations

The debilitating effect of the Imperial Military intra-service rivalries reaches all the way down to the ground level. When a contingent of Storm Troopers is dispatched to recover the stolen Death Star plans, an Army unit is sent to rescue a project that represents the Navy’s best efforts to make the Army obsolete. Vader’s presence means that the Army is required to make a perfunctory effort at recovery of the plans, but the Army is not particularly motivated to come to the rescue of the Navy’s pet project. Their effort is half-hearted to say the least. Presented with a house-by-house search for the plans, the squad leader adapts the somewhat questionable policy of “If the door is locked, move on to the next one.”

When Obi Wan’s uses the Jedi mind trick on the “weak minded” it would be more accurate to say that the Storm Troopers will to do this particular thing is weak. The Army troops in question are in blinding heat, chasing all over the desert, cleaning up the mess that some Navy desk jockey made. If they DO find the plans, it will mean mountains of paperwork, the death of the Army’s political clout and precisely zero chance of getting off duty and enjoying the cantina. Finding the droids you are looking for is hard. Screw that – it’s the Navy’s problem, let them handle it. 

Additionally, the Imperial Military is consistently unable to coordinate operations between large groups of units. In Empire Strikes Back, two Star Destroyers chasing Han Solo nearly collide with one another in their zeal to make a “catch” – instead of coordinating their efforts to catch the escaping ship (and risk letting the other Captain get credit for the kill), they act like kids at a soccer game, rushing towards the ball for their own personal ends.

The Rebellion on the other hand is consistently able to coordinate complex Joint operations involving the Fleet, Fighter squadrons, Special Operations Forces, irregulars like Han Solo and indigenous populations like the Ewoks. For them, personal success means nothing if the missions fails—failure to accomplish their mission means certain death for all involved. The Empire’s top-down structure and death-for-failure incentive program ensures that even at the tactical level the drive for personal glory will trump the need for mission accomplishment every time.

The US military has had (and will continue to have) problems with inter-service cooperation and tactics. In the US though, tactical and operational failures frequently lead to public debate and reform. After the invasion of Panama in 1983, Congress identified a number of weaknesses and command and control structures in the military – leading directly to the Goldwater-Nichols reforms and a legislatively mandated emphasis on Joint operations.

The End of the Empire

All of these factors combine to bring about the downfall of both Death Stars and ultimately the Empire. The Emperor’s entire plan rests on the successful defense of the shield on the forest moon of Endorr and the ability of the Imperial Navy to protect the Death Star if the shield falls—something they’ve already failed to do once.

The defense of that shield is poorly planned from the beginning and is only further confused when the Emperor sends his personal legion of soldiers down to the moon to oversee the operation. The Emperor’s troops take over the defense, but probably had not had time to receive a full briefing on the layout of the compound. As a result, the “back door” to the facility is lightly guarded and the rebels are initially able to gain their way into the control room of the shield; in the event, the Emperor’s troops are able to respond before the Rebels can do any damage, but that’s still a massive risk to take, given that a single suicidal Rebel could bring the whole shield down.

Ultimately, the make-shift command structure of the defenses on Endor proves to be the Emperor’s undoing. When Han Solo takes control of an AT-ST and asks for the door to be opened, the regular Army soldiers inside the shield comply. There are multiple units answering to multiple chains of command, working on an ad-hoc basis, so there hasn’t been time to establish formal authentication procedures or response protocols. The Army just doesn’t want to do anything to piss off the Emperor’s special legion, so they let Han in without so much as a follow-up question. Their fear of what will happen if they defy the Emperor’s “personal Legion” results in the destruction of the shield.

From there, the outcome is predictable – the pride of the Imperial Navy is destroyed by the exact same tactics used by the Rebellion the first time they blew up the Emperor’s pet project. Overconfidence in the Death Star’s defense means there aren’t enough fighters to prevent the Millienium Falcon from slipping through; shoddy acquisitions mean that the Super Star Destroyer is incapacitated from a fluke and the Death Star is yet again vulnerable to attack from a small fighter.

The Emperor and Darth Vader enforce a system where only personal power and influence matter. Individual Admirals and Generals are shown early and often that to put any interest ahead of their own is a one-way ticket to force-choke town. When you demand nothing less than perfection, and enforce that demand with the threat of death, you are only inviting subordinates to lie to you. It’s why Storm Troopers can’t shoot straight OR find the droids they’re looking for; it’s why Super Star Destroyer can be taken down by a single fighter and why the most important defense shield in the Empire can be captured by a squad of soldiers and a bunch of Ewoks. Ultimately, it’s why the Empire fails.