The Tarkin Doctrine and the Sith Way of War

Posted: August 6, 2012 by bafriedman in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Palpatine should have been able to take it easy. He not only managed to gain absolute power over the galactic civilization, but the Senate had begged him to take control. The Jedi had been, for all intents and purposes, exterminated. Nothing should have crossed his desk besides trade disputes, the occasional bill to name a library after him, and pleas for mercy from various alien races. Instead he had this damned rebellion on his hands. His right hand man was a whiney asthmatic who couldn’t even be trusted to find two droids that used to belong to him on his own home planet. Palpatine’s a politician. He doesn’t know the first thing about military strategy. Neither does Darth Wheezey McEmo over there. What’s a Sith to do?

You find someone in your organization with vision and strategic acumen. In Palpatine’s case, that person is Moff Milhuff Tarkin. Tarkin’s a man with a plan. He thinks that Palpatine should rule through fear of force rather than force itself. Tarkin understands deterrence. This is a man that recognizes that the Empire cannot kill its way to victory, but it can intimidate. This is counterinsurgency and stability through deterrence, based on a credible, overwhelming threat. That credible, overwhelming threat is the Death Star. Palpatine’s promotion of Moff Tarkin to Grand Moff, an entirely new rank, is evidence that 1) Palpatine recognized that Tarkin had a strategic vision and 2) the Empire heretofore lacked a military strategic vision. Palpatine rose to power through Machievellian politics and deception rather than military force. He didn’t defeat the Jedi clone army, he co-opted it. He defeated the Jedi through betrayal and deception, a skill set that may not work in the face of a galaxy-wide insurgency.

Palpatine, at some level, must recognize this as Tarkin, during the events of A New Hope, is the Stonewall Jackson to Papatine’s Robert E. Lee. Yes, Vader is present on the Death Star but he’s not in charge. Tarkin gives the order to destroy Alderaan after all. All Vader does is torture a prisoner and then reacts to the rebel assault by joining the fight himself. Both tactical level actions. Tarkin is clear-headed and cool the entire time. He never flinches as he destroys a civilization as an example while Vader is chasing after a presence he hasn’t felt in a long time and angrily taking off in his TIE fighter. Palpatine found the right man for the job, until those pesky rebels blew him up.

The strategic and operational competency vacuum left by the death of Tarkin is evident immediately upon the opening events of The Empire Strikes Back. The Imperial Starfleet arrives at Hoth too far away from the planet, leaving the rebels time to organize their evacuation. Then, rather than simply bombard the rebel base from orbit, they launch a planetside assault on the base. Sure, there was a shield generator protecting the base, but the ground assault occurred in the complete absence of suppressive fire from the Starfleet. Turbolasers may not destroy Echo Base outright, but it can keep the Rebels’ heads down long enough for the ground assault to breach their perimeter or, better yet, besiege the base. These are JV-level mistakes when it comes to coordinating forces. Fire without maneuver is a waste. Maneuver without fire is suicide. In this case, it’s total mission failure. The rebellion lives on while the entire fleet completely bungles a mission to capture HVTs. The fleet performs so poorly that Vader has to turn to contractors to capture rebel leadership for them.


It’s hard to believe that Tarkin, a man whose military acumen so impressed the Emperor that a new rank was created just for him, would not have foreseen these mistakes and better handled the Imperial Starfleet. Vader’s reactive leadership style (failure followed by force choke) was unable to cope with rapidly changing situations. Vader let his personal goals and passions get in the way of strategic and operational demands. He couldn’t bombard Echo Base because he wanted to capture Luke and turn him to the Dark Side. Tarkin, unencumbered by a hokey religion, the need for an apprentice, or sentiment of any kind, would have ended the rebellion on Hoth.

Which leads to my next point: Palpatine and Vader, just like the Jedi, are strategic incompetents. The resources of the vast Empire are directed not firstly to the defeat of the rebellion but rather to the capture of Luke Skywalker, a super-empowered religious extremist from a desert wasteland who has great symbolic value but no real command and control over the movement that he is a part of (yes, I went there). When Palpatine describes his theory of victory to Luke on the second Death Star over Endor, the defeat of the rebel fleet is barely a postscript to Luke’s fall to the Dark Side. The Empire is clearly operating without a coherent strategy as their ends are confused. Nor did Palpatine produce any useful policy that would serve to better prioritize the strategic ends. The severe lack of a healthy separation of church and state wasted Imperial resources.

What a super-empowered religious extremist from a desert wasteland might look like.

Tarkin, of course, would not have let this happen. Palpatine obviously had great trust in the Grand Moff and, had he lived, the Emperor could have delegated the military fight against the rebellion to the true military mastermind while turning to the Imperial intelligence or special forces communities to hunt down Luke Skywalker. Either that, or Tarkin’s coolness, vision, and competency would have allowed him to execute a coup d’etat that would depose the distracted and arrogant pair of Sith. This, actually, would not have been too bad of an outcome for the galaxy. While Palpatine is prone to rule through force, Tarkin intends to rule through the threat of force. This would have first required the destruction of Alderaan, the execution of Princess Leia, and the destruction of Hoth, but after that years of peace could have followed. Surely this was a bad outcome for the rebellion and George Lucas’ merchandise sales, but the people of the galaxy would have seen peace. Instead, when the only competent strategist in the entire Star Wars galaxy dies at Yavin, decades of civil strife follow. (If you follow the Expanded Universe anyway.)

  1. Slinky says:

    I disagree. Tarkin was an arrogant fool who never took the Rebellion seriously as a threat, hence his entirely preventable death at Yavin. The Battle of Hoth was a crushing Imperial victory marred only by the incompetence of Admiral Ozzel, who came out of lightspeed too CLOSE to Hoth and was thus detected before the Fleet could launch an assault (“The shield is strong enough to deflect any bombardment.”). And the military effort “wasted” on Luke Skywalker represented a very small fraction of the Imperial military which effectively functioned in the “special forces” role, as it was an elite unit sent to deal with hotspots all over the Empire. Even apart from the religious aspect, Luke Skywalker caused enough trouble by himself to be worth the effort to personally eliminate. Arguably he was only dangerous due to his Rebellion contacts and the infrastructure they provided, but ultimately it is much easier to eliminate a high-profile individual than to root out a galaxy-wide, cell-based resistance movement.

    True, the movies tend to obscure these facts, but as the author noted, the extended universe provides much greater detail. I have made use of both.

  2. I feel compelled to make two points, both of which reveal the varying depths of my nerdery.

    1) You can’t say that Tarkin was the only competent strategist in the SW galaxy in the same sentence you reference the Expanded Universe. The EU contains Grand Admiral Thrawn, clearly the greatest strategist in the entire SW galaxy. Tarkin’s strategy of deterrence through threat of overwhelming force is a good one (least in comparison to that of the Emperor and Vader) but comes off clumsy and crude next to Thrawn’s nuanced outlook, which brought him far closer to victory and promised greater chance of peace for the galaxy.

    2) As a Civil War nerd I have to strongly disagree with your Lee/Jackson analogy. I think Lincoln/Grant is much more apt. Lincoln achieved power (the presidency) through brilliant politicking and an astounding ability to read people and play off rivals. He was completely (with the exception of an ill-fated excursion fighting mosquitoes in the Black Hawk War) unschooled in military strategy and tactics. As a result the Union Army of the Potomac suffered years of embarrassing defeats under a string of incompetent generals until Grant arrived in the Eastern sphere and Lincoln could hand off military strategy to him.

  3. Alan says:

    Some comments.

    Tarkin’s arrogance was that he based his strategy on a single factor: his mobile battle station’s unique capacity to destroy entire planets. Rebel leadership, to their credit, saw that his strength was also his only weakness which they could possibly exploit. Thus they made acquisition of the Death Star plans their absolute highest priority.

    The threat of total genocide (even if overkill) via planetary destruction was meant to deter both individuals and systems from joining the fledgling rebellion; thus cutting off the Rebellion’s supply of both recruits and material support. That was the brilliance of Tarkin’s strategy; out of self-preservation, he anticipated that systems would take it upon themselves to enforce Imperial law upon their own people rather than risk total annihilation for the crimes of a few rebels. He knew that the Alliance lacked both material and personnel, and could not afford any logistical disruptions– indeed the Alliance desperately needed to convince more systems to join them.

    Tarkin thought the conflict was all but over. He had only to mop up the Rebel forces and destroy their secret base, and no new rebellion would dare emerge to take its place. His greatest mistake was not that he didn’t defend his battle station by sending out TIE fighters to intercept the Rebels, but that he expected the Rebel fighters to call off their attack after they saw the destruction of the planet and the destruction of their command structure. He underestimated the determination of the Rebel pilots to complete their mission. The Alliance knew that if they failed to destroy the battle station, all else was inconsequential.

    Tarkin was a competent strategist in the “macro”, but he should have given his commanders the freedom to act in their areas of “micro” or specialization. As it was, Tarkin’s advisors were ruled by fear and only Vader (acting independently as usual) had the Sense to put up something of a defense against the few Rebel fighters that might make it past the turbolaser defenses. Vader probably figured that because he was once the greatest fighter pilot in the galaxy, his squadron alone would easily stop the Rebels. He never expected that his son’s presence would cause him so much uncharacteristic hesitation when it came to firing. Perhaps that makes the loss of the battle station Vader’s fault and not Tarkin’s?

    I apologize for the length of the comment but I got on a roll and I hope it is of interest. I really enjoy this blog, by the way. To all the writers, thanks and keep up the good work!

  4. Miguel says:

    This totally explains why the next successful run for the imperialists was with Grand Admiral Thrawn

  5. […] The Tarkin Doctrine and the Sith Way of War […]

  6. Wait, so if Luke Skywalker is the OBL of Star Wars, then all those action figures I bought as a kid helped the terrorists win?

    Great piece. Very fun. thx

  7. Michael says:

    I seem to recall someone summing it succinctly: generations of plotting to overthrow a republic doesn’t necessarily prepare people to rule and empire.

    I wonder if enough of the Legacy series has been published for a study of Fel’s empire and the Imperial Knights? What little I’ve read on wookiepedia suggests they tried to split the difference between the Jedi and the Sith and take a less individualistic approach to things.

  8. […] to maintain hegemony than the full manpower costs of a galactic fleet and Storm Trooper invasions. Co-blogger Friedman has already covered this extensively, and my initial twitter reaction states it well. The easier it is to strike complete & total […]

  9. Alan Yang says:

    Criticizing Tarkin’s tactical command abilities (i.e. at Yavin IV) overlook the fact that at the time of the construction of the Death Star, Tarkin is a Grand Moff, not an Admiral or General. While Tarkin’s status would allow him to countermand and commandeer troops, day-to-day, military-specific tasks such as “sending out TIE fighters” and assessing military factors such as time to target would rightly have been the responsibility of the Imperial Navy command, who in this case was the grossly negligent Admiral Motti.

    Motti’s incompetence is evidenced in his argument with his Imperial Army counterpart, General Tagge, where the Admiral grossly miscalculates the ability of the adversary to exploit weaknesses in the Death Star’s technical plans. He in no way fulfills the demands of his area of responsibility (Naval defense of the station) despite having clear knowledge of the main threat group’s capabilities and intentions (exploitation of stolen technical plans). Additionally, blaming Motti’s incompetence on a lack of freedom to speak truth to power would be inaccurate – Tagge, with eerie prescience, predicts that the Rebel forces could, with sufficient analysis, potentially destroy the Death Star. Despite this sobering and probably highly unpopular opinion, Tagge emerges from the briefing room unscathed – in fact, it is Motti himself who is actually reprimanded by Supreme Commander Vader for his inflated assessment of the invincibility/power of the Death Star (specifically, in comparison to the imbued powers, or the Force, of the Jedi/Sith faiths).

    A cursory review of security footage of the escape of the prisoner Leia Organa by the Admiral would have established the fact that the Force still remained a credible threat and that the Rebel Alliance had retained access to at least one Force-capable asset. A responsible assessment of available intelligence should have resulted in a more coherent, premeditated defense plan – indeed, we see elements of this impulse in General Tagge’s earlier statements. Instead, Admiral Motti’s indolence, by virtue of his rank and assigned area of responsibility, prevented the entire lower chain of command from doing anything productive, while his shortsighted prioritization of workplace politics froze other, more responsible counterparts such as Tagge from intervening. It would finally fall to Vader, who actually did outrank the Admiral, to mount a credible defense by attempting to establish space superiority around the Death Star’s operating area by deploying fighters.

    Thus, the failure at Yavin IV, if it is to be framed around Tarkin, is better explained as product of flaws in Tarkin’s system of personnel management (picking competent field commanders who are willing and able to execute under pressure, while removing the incompetent ones) than any actual flaw in his grand strategy. I am fairly certain that most accounts of Galactic history would in the future characterize the fall of the Death Star as a failure of military analysis on the part of the station’s Naval command. This one is all Admiral Motti.

  10. Twitch says:

    As I recall, in the EU novel “Rogue Squadron,” which takes place a few years after Endor, the Imperial leader at the time–Ysanne Isard–makes essentially this point, namely that the Emperor had been so distracted by the Jedi that he overlooked the threat posed by ordinary people.

  11. KB says:

    Tarkin might have had an effective grand strategic vision, but operationally he makes the same mistake they later make on Hoth by bringing the Death Star out of hyperspace too far from Yavin IV, not to mention in a bad position that requires an orbit of Yavin. He also chooses to orbit rather than just blow up the planet. Each choice gives the rebels time to attack.

  12. Holdfast says:

    The author fails to see that a quiet, well-run empire is not necessarily Palpatine’s most important goal, or even a goal at all. For him, the Empire and his status as Emperor are more means than ends. They give him raw power, but the rebellion allows to exercise that power (i.e. kill a lot of sentients). And that goes double for Vader. The Sith need conflict – their dark side powers literally feed off of passion, hatred, pain and suffering, and those things don’t exist in sufficient quantities in a quite, well-run Galactic Empire. Without some sort of enemy, whether external or internal, the Sith are almost useless.

  13. A.Lindstrom says:

    Several things are wrong here, mostly concerning the Battle of Hoth. First they came out of hyper to CLOSE to the planet (not to far). The admiral wanted to surprise the rebels but since hyper space cannot be navigated so precisely his attempt was in vain. Secondly It was impossible for the Empire to cover their ground assault with turbo laser bombardment because of the energy shield. The author simply dismisses this fact but it is the key to the rebel strategy. The whole reason the empire have to send in a ground assault is because the shield will deflect any bombardment from orbit. And this is not some tiny shield covering a frozen underground base. Evident by General Veers telling Vader, “scans picked up an energy field guarding a region of the fourth planet.” I believe the key word here is region, he doesn’t say its covering a mountain or valley, no its something far larger than that, a region. Lastly, if Grand Moff Tarkin was such a great strategist why did he not consider the rebel fighters a threat. He dismisses them off hand and does not give it a second thought. He does not properly weigh their potential threat level and does not even plan on dealing with them, leaving that u to Vader. He also sits back and waits for the death star to orbit the planet Yavin IV, why does he not just fire his giant death laser and blow up Yavin IV?! The explosion would be more than enough to decimate the moon the rebels are on. All in all great analysis of Tarkin, just a little off point.

  14. Ben Jeffreys says:

    A lot of this is shrewd and I agree Tarkin is more significant than might first appear. However I would make two points. Firstly, Vader’s management style is classic, tried and tested – find an underling and terrorise them into doing what you want done. Second and more importantly, you are underestimating the power of the Dark Side. Palpatine sees that the future depends on the power battle between Jedi and Sith – the rebellion is insignificant, as is the Death Star, compared to control of the Force. That’s where the strategic needs are most pressing – maintaining Sith supremacy. We can see that as it was Sith control that first gains P power and the failure to win over Luke that destroys the Empire. But a cracking thesis nonetheless!

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  16. […] similares. Si esto fuera contraproducente o no, es otra cosa. Lo importante es que esta doctrina Tarkin sugiere que se puede mantener la estabilidad mediante la disuasión, sin llegar irreparablemente al […]

  17. […] similares. Si esto fuera contraproducente o no es otra cosa. Lo importante es que esta “doctrina Tarkin” sugiere que se puede mantener la estabilidad mediante la disuasión, sin llegar irreparablemente […]

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