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PostPosted: Wed Feb 13, 2013 12:29 pm

Inside the Battle of Hoth

How did the Galactic Empire ever cement its hold on the Star Wars Universe? The war machine built by Emperor Palpatine and run by Darth Vader is a spectacularly bad fighting force, as evidenced by all of the pieces of Death Star littering space. But of all the Empire’s failures, none is a more spectacular military fiasco than the Battle of Hoth at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back.

From a military perspective, Hoth should have been a total debacle for the Rebel Alliance. Overconfident that they can evade Imperial surveillance, they hole up on unforgiving frigid terrain at the far end of the cosmos. Huddled into the lone Echo Base are all their major players: politically crucial Princess Leia; ace pilot Han Solo; and their game-changer, Luke Skywalker, who isn’t even a Jedi yet.

The defenses the Alliance constructed on Hoth could not be more favorable to Vader if the villain constructed them himself. The single Rebel base (!) is defended by a few artillery pieces on its north slope, protecting its main power generator. An ion cannon is its main anti-aircraft/spacecraft defense. Its outermost perimeter defense is an energy shield that can deflect Imperial laser bombardment. But the shield has two huge flaws: It can’t stop an Imperial landing force from entering the atmosphere, and it can only open in a discrete place for a limited time so the Rebels’ Ion Cannon can protect an evacuation. In essence, the Rebels built a shield that can’t keep an invader out and complicates their own escape.

When Vader enters the Hoth System with the Imperial Fleet, he’s holding a winning hand. What follows next is a reminder of two military truths that apply in our own time and in our own galaxy: Don’t place unaccountable religious fanatics in wartime command, and never underestimate a hegemonic power’s ability to miscalculate against an insurgency.

Vader’s Incoherent Strategy in Outer Space

Vader realizes the opportunity at hand for an end to the Rebellion. Yet his bumbling fleet admiral leaves hyperspace too close to Hoth, losing the element of surprise and allowing the Rebels to activate the shield. Vader rolls with it (after killing Admiral Ozzel): He orders a ground assault on the Rebel base with the sound objective of destroying the generator that powers the shield. Once the shield is down, the Star Destroyers that make up the majority of the Imperial Fleet can launch the bombardment the shields prevent. Vader further orders that no Rebel ship be allowed to leave Hoth alive.

Sounds simple, right? Alas, Vader’s plans are at odds with each other. Vader jumps into the Hoth system with a handful of Star Destroyers; only six are shown on screen. That’s got to enforce a blockade of an entire planet. His major ally is the Rebel energy shield itself, which bottles up a Rebel escape to the Ion Cannon’s line of sight. But Vader doesn’t seem to realize the shield’s ironic value. Once Vader orders the shields destroyed, he lacks the force to prevent a pell-mell Rebel retreat.

A smarter plan would have been to launch TIE fighters against Echo Base — since aircraft and spacecraft can get past that Rebel enemy shield — to lure the Rebels into an evacuation from Hoth through their shield’s chokepoint. Concentrating the Imperial Star Destroyers there would lead the Rebellion into a massacre. At the very least, Vader has to sacrifice the ground-assault team entrusted with bringing down the generator powering the Rebel shield for a laser bombardment from the Star Destroyers.

The Ground Assault

The first phase of the battle is a ground assault launched against the generator. Vader devotes five (or maybe four, since Irvin Kershner’s directing isn’t consistent) Imperial AT-AT Walkers to the task. Vader sees no need to give them air cover, even though he’s tasted the quality of Rebel piloting during the destruction of the Death Star. Two of the Walkers are destroyed, one by Luke Skywalker’s Snowspeeder squadron, and another by Luke himself.

Yet the ground assault is pretty successful — by accident. The weaponry on the AT-AT Walkers doesn’t overwhelm or destroy the few laser-artillery pieces the Rebels have to protect the generator. Only when Rebel General Rieekan orders the full evacuation of Hoth do the Walkers destroy the generator. (That’s an unforced error: The Rebels need to protect that generator at the cost of their lives, lest their evacuation be totally exposed.)

Still, a win is a win. Vader is now clear to destroy the Rebel base, and the escaping Rebel ships, with a punishing Star Destroyer bombardment. Presumably, if the Rebels are abandoning their generator, they’re also abandoning the Ion Cannon that protects the evacuation.


Only Vader can’t bombard the base: He’s in it. For reasons that never get explained — and can’t be justified militarily — Vader joins the Stormtrooper assault on the base. So much for his major weapon against the Rebels, and the primary reason for ordering the Walkers to invade and destroy the generator. Once Vader opts to bring down the shield and lead the invasion, he’s lost the battle.

Worse, Vader is late to the fight. If he wanted to kill some Rebel scum himself, the only ones remaining at the base when Vader arrives are Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3PO, who run to the wheezing Millennium Falcon for their own escape. “This bucket of bolts is never gonna get us past that blockade,” Leia frets.

What Blockade?

She shouldn’t have worried. Not only is there no laser bombardment from space once the shield is down, there’s no Imperial blockade worth speaking of. By sheer bad luck, Han flies into three of the Star Destroyers, which threaten to overwhelm the Falcon. But he’s just too good of a pilot, evading their pincer movement by taking advantage of the Falcon’s superior maneuverability. He flies into an asteroid belt — which somehow the Imperial Fleet had failed to account for when planning its hasty “blockade” — and the Falcon has defied the odds.

Nor does that “blockade” trap Luke, who flies to Dagobah without a single Imperial ship harassing him. That’s the worst possible news for the Empire: Luke is about to rekindle the Jedi order that poses the biggest danger to the preservation of everything Vader and Emperor Palpatine have built. While I’m not comparing the Rebel Alliance to al-Qaida or the Galactic Empire to the United States, in strategic terms, this is like Osama bin Laden’s escape from the December 2001 battle at Tora Bora, Afghanistan — a disaster masquerading as a tactical success. Indeed, once Vader returns to his Star Destroyer, he gets a message from Palpatine explicitly instructing him to prevent Luke from training as a Jedi. Oops.

So Much for Striking Back

What did the Empire gain at Hoth? It had the opportunity to deal the Rebel Alliance a defeat from which the Rebels might not have recovered: the loss of its secret base; the loss of its politically potent symbol in Leia; and most of all the loss of its promising proto-Jedi in Luke. Instead, Luke escapes to join Yoda; Leia escapes with Han to Cloud City (where Vader has to resort to Plan B); and the Rebel Alliance’s transport ships largely escape to join up at a pre-established rendezvous point, as we see at the end of the film.

At the very most, the Empire’s assault on Hoth killed a couple of low-ranking Rebels and destroyed a few transit ships — which we don’t even see on screen. Instead of crushing the Rebels, it scattered them, leaving them to survive for the additional successes they’ll achieve in Return of the Jedi. It’s a classic fiasco of overconfidence and theology masquerading as military judgment — and the exact opposite of the Empire striking back.


Even the comments are hilarious - deriding the military/space industrial complex on Coruscantm, comments about lobbyists in the Imperial Senate, shills for Kuat Yards talking up the AT-AT, etc.

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