"I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess." -Martin Luther

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Inside the Battle of Hoth: A Rebuttle

Dear Readers,

I remind you of the dangers of falling into a sarchasm.

Wired just published a real hack job on the battle of Hoth. The media continues to sell us lies or plain ignorance!


It's a trainwreck from start to finish.

Granted, it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, so there's been plenty of time for people to forget and revise what happened to suit their own interests (like using it as commentary on a 21st century Earth superpower fighting against an insurgency). The author, Spencer Ackerman, is, according to wikipedia, a national security reporter -- that is, the Milky Way Galaxy, Sol System, Planet Earth, USA national security. Obviously he's spent too much time focused on the goings on here and not enough time re-watching Star Wars and surfing Wookiepedia to have any clue about the national security of the Galactic Empire. I'm not exactly a Star Wars expert; I've only seen the movies about a half dozen times and more or less memorized the old Weapons and Technology and Vehicles and Vessels texts as a child, but that's all the experience you need to know Mr. Ackerman clearly spends way too much time in the real world.

Even the pictures are laughable cartoons, as if this weren't a serious military engagement. I've seen better tactical maps of Hastings. And the tactical arguments made simply ignore the facts of the situation.

Ok, let's get down to discussing a few huge misconceptions:
1) that the Imperial ground assault was unnecessary and an air assault should have been conducted,
2) that the Imperial ground assault was under-powered,
3) that the Rebel defense and evacuation were senseless and premature, respectively,
4) that the Imperial fleet was insufficient to blockade the base,
5) that the entry of Imperial troops into the base was an inexplicable reversal of their previous plan to bombard the planet, and
6) that Luke's X-wing should not have been able to escape so easily.

1) The author apparently thinks the Hoth shield was projected over the entire planet, when, in fact, it was only powerful enough to cover a small portion of the planet. Perhaps the biggest factual error in the entire article is the assumption that it is possible to simply fly through the shield. The arsenal of physical weaponry available to standard ISDs and their complement of spacecraft would make an energy-only shield completely pointless. No, it's quite clear this shield blocks physical objects. Had the Imperials sent ties in for a bombing and strafing run as the author suggests, they would have crashed into the shield. The AT-AT barges clearly landed just outside the perimeter and deployed their cargo there for a reason: the shield, deployed to stop an orbital bombardment, is weak or doesn't extend at all to ground level.*
Presumably there's a limitation to shield physics or the Rebel resources that prevented the deployment of an effective shield that curved around to the ground. And that's fine because a planetary bombardment shield is more concerned with protecting against turbolaser fire and concussion missiles from above than with frying Tauntauns straying through its boundary. I'm sure the Rebels would have loved to have a more significant perimeter defense or a planet-wide shield. Unfortunately, they didn't have an awful lot of industrial power to apply to these problems and their main advantage was to remain hidden. Carting in more and more military hardware would only increase the chance of their being discovered. And once that happened, ground-based defenses alone were never going to hold off the forces the Empire was willing to commit to wipe them out. No, the whole point of a planetary shield must have been to give time for an evacuation in the case of discovery. The Rebels never intended to completely repulse a full-scale Imperial assault. Once the shield was up, the only reasonable tactical solution for the Imperials was to deploy their overwhelmingly superior ground forces to target the shield generator, while blockading the base from orbit.

2) The author argues that the deployment of only 4-5 AT-AT walkers was a tactical error (he also wishes there were air support -- we've already dealt with the fact that the shield could clearly intercept aircraft, so this was impossible unless the fighters were landed, somehow moved through the base of the shield, and relaunched, and it's not clear that all tie models can actually land on the ground without severe risk of damage). He argues that it's only when the Rebel defenders cut and run that the ground assault is able to accomplish its goal, and that Darth Vader should have had more respect for the Rebels' piloting ability. This is all nonsense. It's possible the terrain on the approach to the base made the effective deployment of more AT-ATs ineffective. Regardless, the fact is they were plenty. The Rebels possessed no conventional weapons capable of even damaging an AT-AT. It doesn't matter how good a pilot you are or how much artillery you field if the armor you're facing is impervious to your weapons. The harpoon-and-cable trick was unorthodox and doubtless never encountered before. Luke's attack on the underbelly of an AT-AT depended on incredible bravery, just the right equipment (including the obsolete lightsaber), his insertion within striking distance (by accident when he crashed) and the apparent success of the Rebels at clearing the infantry and light armor (AT-STs) escorting this particular AT-AT. That's an error on the part of the commander of that particular AT-AT, who was a tad overconfident deciding to proceed without stopping to deploy more troops (AT-ATs carry a number of stormtroopers). The Rebels fell back and the shield generator was destroyed because their position was completely overwhelmed by superior numbers and weapons and they could offer no effective counterattack. The only reason they lasted so long was because it took that long for the AT-ATs to walk up and lay waste to their positions. As for the losses the Imperials took, the Galactic Empire has never really cared much about their losses. This is evident in the design of ties, which are short ranged and shieldless. In a fairly even-numbers match-up over the Death Star, the kill ratio is presented as roughly 1:1 (until the trench runs, at which point it becomes a turkey shoot). Were the Rebels such fantastic pilots they ought to have fared better in their highly superior X-wings. And since only a few of those pilots survived the battle, Darth Vader had no reason to anticipate skilled pilots. And to reiterate, their skill didn't take down a single AT-AT, only their employment of a completely unorthodox tactic.

3) The Rebels, knowing that once the Imperials found the base it was only a matter of time before their ground defenses were overwhelmed, the shield disabled, and the base pulverized from orbit, immediately prepared to evacuate. The ground defense was a holding action but was called off when it was clear it could do no good (only the snowspeeders did any damage, and several had been destroyed by this point). The article criticizes that only a single ion cannon was employed, forcing the Rebels to run the blockade only along its line of fire. Again, if the Rebels had the resources to install effective defenses planet-wide, to do so would have been a terrible waste of resources and would have risked Imperial notice of the huge amount of activity travelling to an uninhabited planet. As it was the base was apparently not detectable from orbit -- it took a probe droid deployed to the ground to find it. As becomes clear later, the majority of the Rebels' resources were more wisely put into building and maintaining a space fleet which could simply jump to hyperspace if discovered. So when the Imperials were detected, the evacuation commenced as soon as possible. To stay and defend the shield generator to the death would have been foolhardy; the most valuable resources in the base were the leadership personnel. The faster the Rebels got their personnel and equipment into the air, the better. The Rebels had clearly thought this out ahead of time. If they were able to detect an assault before bombardment disabled the shield, they could repel bombardment using the shield and punch a hole through the blockade with the well-protected ion cannon until the Imperials slogged through the ground defenses.

4) The author argues that there weren't enough Imperial Star Destroyers (ISDs) to effectively blockade the planet, saying he only sees six on screen. This is like saying he only saw six US naval vessels on CNN so there's no way the US has enough naval vessels to project US military power. Space is big, even in orbit. It's not at all clear how many ISDs were involved. Also, the probe droid had identified a generator that the Imperials surely could tell was only big enough to power a shield protecting a small region of a planet -- indicating a single isolated base, consistent with prior Rebel practice. They wouldn't be needing to blockade against ships launching from anywhere on the surface. Also, the Imperial strategy was presumably to launch a bombardment from outside Rebel sensor range, disabling the shield in the first strike. The Rebel sensors couldn't detect probe droids being dropped from orbit (only once they came through the atmosphere) so in the event of a barrage of concussion missiles, the Rebels would have a very small window of time between detection and impact in which to raise the shield -- which deployed to an unstated altitude; it's quite possible that the barrage would be inside the shield dome before ever being detected! It is reasonable to assume that cold-starting a shield generator and projector takes a few minutes. And it would be a cold-start, because leaving your shield projector on and generator at full power is wasteful and screams out "here I am! I'm the secret Rebel base!"
All this indicates the Imperial strategy was a necessary and sound one. Darth Vader might have come with fewer ISDs than he would have liked, but no doubt he recognized from the lack of communication from the probe droid destroyed by Han Solo and Chewbacca that the Rebels were onto him and would immediately prepare to evacuate. He didn't have time to mobilize an arbitrarily large fleet at his leisure. It's impressive that he got at least half a dozen ISDs to the remote planet before the Rebels had time to evacuate.
As to whether his forces were sufficient to blockade the base, the author has no conception of an orbital blockade. Sure, the orbital space is the analogy of a harbor or coastal area, but it's really, really big. To throw out a blockade of capitol ships that filled that space with the threat of their turbolasers would require thousands of ISDs -- at least the entire Imperial fleet. While the greater Star Wars universe does feature planetary blockade satellite networks, a stationary blockade of capitol ships was never a feasible option. Instead, the ISDs, knowing they only had to cover a fairly small area of the surface anyway, no doubt spread out the capitol ships across that area. The Rebels, they assumed, would try to run the blockade through the weak points between the capitol ships, so they would have deployed tie squadrons to fill the gaps. The long range sensors on the ISDs would be used to calculate intercept solutions for the ties, and the ties would use their speed to converge on fleeing craft and inflict enough damage to prevent them from entering hyperspace while the ISDs closed to finish off or capture disabled craft.
Of course, because the Rebels had an ion cannon and didn't deploy it until the opportune moment, the Imperials were unprepared for a tactic that was brilliant because it was unexpected -- the Rebels ran the blockade at what appeared to be its strongest point, using relatively fast, small cargo vessels with fast escorts to blow past momentarily disabled ISDs whose fighter complements were deployed too far away to intercept. If a few ties did manage to intercept (unaided by their ISD mothership, whose sensors would be on the fritz from the ion cannon), the X-wings were there to provide the moments needed for the transports to make the jump to hyperspace. The author assumes Darth Vader knew about the ion cannon all along, but this is foolish. The ISD that deployed the probe droids to Hoth didn't detect the base at all; it's unlikely the mostly-buried weapon would be easy to detect and identify from orbit.

5) To be fair, it is initially puzzling that the Imperial ground assault did not withdraw to allow a bombardment once the shield was down; however, it's probably because at that point it was clear that the majority of the Rebels had already fled. Knowing that the greatest threat offered by the Rebels was still hidden away in the form of a fleet of warships, Darth Vader wisely chose to immediately enter the base on foot, attempting to take prisoners, and preserving any intelligence that might help track the Rebels from arbitrary destruction in a bombardment. He knew the Rebels would be heading for the hidden fleet, so if he could capture Rebel equipment and personnel on the ground he might be able to discover its current location. While not as good as decimating the Rebels leadership it would still be an enormous victory and potentially lead to the final elimination of the Rebel threat. If Han Solo hadn't had a hidden autoblaster, Vader's leadership from the front and quick adaptation to the situation would have won him Princess Leia as a prisoner. After the 'Falcon took off the ground forces would certainly have called up to the recovering ISDs to let them know a last transport was making a run for it, presumably no longer protected by the ion cannon, which it can be expected was being assaulted from the ground or else leveled by orbital barrage. The ISDs would no doubt have collapsed the blockade formation onto the field of fire of the ion cannon by this point and would have recalled some of the ties to fly escort. So Han Solo flew straight into them. It's not easy to maneuver even a fighter around three almost-colliding Star Destroyers, so it's no wonder the ties didn't crack the 'Falcon's shields in time to stop it from reaching the asteroid field.

6) Finally, the author thinks it's odd that Luke gets away without any serious Imperial encounters. That's silly to begin with because he forgets that Luke may well have encountered some resistance off-screen. That's not important, though, because everyone who has played the game X-wing knows an X-wing with locked s-foils and power shunted to engines could easily outrun a tie-fighter that's sending energy to its blasters. With fully-charged shields, an X-wing could have absorbed a fair amount of punishment during a brief intercept. It doesn't matter how many star destroyers you have, you're going to have to get very lucky with your deployment of your precious faster-than-the-average-tie tie interceptors to effectively engage a single X-wing that's only interested in clearing the atmosphere and jumping to hyperspace. And remember, the tie squadrons were all surely moving to support the disabled ISDs and blockade the ion cannon's field of view. Even if the recovering ISDs detected Luke's X-wing early enough to deploy ties to intercept, they would have known their chances of even destroying the fighter were remote. And the chances of the pilot of that late-retreating, un-escorted fighter being someone important were, of course, minuscule. No doubt the Imperials chose to consolidate their forces around the more likely and more important goal of capturing or destroying any remaining transports, which were much, much slower than an X-wing.

The author concludes that Darth Vader is an overconfident nincompoop when it comes to military leadership. He was neither overconfident nor militarily foolish. His tactical decisions were sound; the battle was lost when Admiral Ozzel jumped the fleet in too close, giving the Rebels the warning needed to get the shield up and enact their brilliant plan to punch through a blockade with their limited resources. And it is clear that Vader recognizes the magnitude of Ozzel's mistake immediately -- his wrath is more justified than we give him credit for. During the rest of the battle Vader and the Imperial forces are the victims of military doctrines that make incorrect assumptions about their enemy. Imperial doctrine called for relatively slow, heavily armored capitol ships with extremely powerful offensive weaponry as the primary weapon of space warfare. To deal with light, fast vessels the fleet depended on short range tie fighters deployed from capitol ships as an afterthought. This is true of ISDs and also the Death Star, whose weaponry was focused around defending against attack by a massed fleet of capitol ships, but which also carried an overwhelmingly large compliment of ties for fighter defense. It was because Tarkin -- not Vader -- was overconfident and refused to deploy any of the fighters under his command that the Rebel pilots had a chance. Only the relatively few ties personally controlled by Vader engaged the Rebels -- and they were successful in doing so; as stated earlier, onscreen fighting shows a roughly 1:1 kill ratio between the inexperienced Rebels in their better-equipped fighters, at least until the trench run, at which point the Rebels are sitting ducks. The Death Star's fatal weakness was one that could easily have been defended against by a full-scale fighter-launch, and would never have been exploited anyway if Luke Skywalker didn't have supernatural powers and a lot of luck. Similarly, the Imperial deployment at Hoth was centered around ISDs with their tie fighter extensions, and depended on the blunt employment of overwhelming force. The Rebels anticipated this, punched a single hole in this overwhelming force, and used the smaller, more graceful nature of their forces to slip through the gap.

Maybe next time I'll discuss the different military doctrine employed by the Rebel Alliance space fleet. Mon Calamari star cruisers, often considered inferior to ISDs, are, in fact, brilliant weapons for a different fighting mindset...

*I suppose it's also possible this is like Dune's personal shields, which allow only very slow objects to cross through. Try suggesting to the wing commander of a Harrier or F-35 group that they hover their aircraft in enemy-controlled airspace for a few minutes to drop slowly drop through a shield, and then confine themselves within the sphere of the shield for the duration of the battle, despite hostile AAA in the area.