Army doctrine writers, when composing Field Manual (FM) 3-24, Counterinsurgency (COIN), sought to draw on a large number of vignettes from diverse conflicts to make their argument for a comprehensive U.S. COIN strategy. In reality, those ineffable doctrine writers could have merely looked to the world of Star Wars and found therein multiple classic examples of successful and failed COIN (As an aside, they could have also found their mission statement in the single phrase, “I have a bad feeling about this.” “It’s a trap” would also have worked). Now, one could get into the geopolitical semantics of whether the Galactic Empire itself was a legitimate government, with the overthrow of the Republic and the dissolution of the Senate. This would of course mean that the Rebel Alliance was in itself an insurgency, as defined by FM 3-24:
Insurgency: The organized use of subversion and violence by a group or movement that seeks to overthrow or force change of a governing authority. Insurgency can also refer to the group itself.
Let us then presuppose that the Rebel Alliance was an insurgency, and examine the Empire’s multi-level approach to defeating the “Rebel scum.” First, they engaged through means of overwhelming military force. One could earn a PhD, I suppose, by trying to figure out the force outlay of the Imperial Fleet during the wars, and seeing how their forces were allocated. Regardless, the Empire was used to using massive force on an unprecedented scale. Fleets aligned around Star Destroyers (Much like a carrier battlegroup) could be deployed throughout the galaxy to visit shock and awe upon the locals. Imperial bases tended to be population-centric, with varying results. Mos Eisley, for example, afforded the Imperial forces a Forward Operating Base for operations on Tatooine. In fact, this stands as a successful example of Imperial COIN, as they leveraged the local population for aid against the Rebels. It also brings me to the first of two vignettes I would like to focus on.
On Tatooine, the Imperials established a working relationship with the Jawa community. Jawas were well emplaced in the thriving black market and offered a conduit to any off-world activity entering the planet. They were generally left to their own devices, with the Imperials allowing them to continue their black market activities. Of course, this was not always the case, as sometimes Jawas were considered expendable in the search for Rebel activity, i.e., destroying an entire community in the search for Rebel droids. We can infer from the Imperial stormtroopers forensic efforts to place the blame for the destruction of the Jawa vehicle on the Sand People (essentially the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin of Tatooine) that they did not routinely massacre the small, hooded beings. Even with incidents like this, the Jawas did not attempt guerrilla activity or aggression versus the Imperials, possibly for fear of being outgunned, but definitely from the fear of the loss of their fiscal empire. By building their base of support in an urban area, with the availability of Quick Reaction Forces (QRF) and tying in with an unethical economy, the Imperial forces scored a COIN “win.”
The next example stands in strong juxtaposition to the last. Endor is the exact opposite of Tatooine: remote, lightly populated, and largely rural, it did not offer the same types of benefits as an urban center would. The Imperial decision to place the Shield Generator for the second Death Star on Endor was folly at best, criminal negligence at worst. While Imperial tactics had developed for both desert and arctic combat conditions, their jungle warfare tactics were woefully inadequate. Relying on speeder bikes for rapid movement and All Terrain Scout Transports (AT-ST), Imperial troops limited their adaptive reaction to a kinetic battlefield. AT-STs in particular were not suited for the dense and constrictive terrain of Endor due to their top heavy nature and design flaws in the legs.
In addition to their ignorance of physical terrain (the Imperials often showed their ignorance of METT-TC; probably because they didn’t have doctrine writers), the Imperials ignored their successes on Tatooine and failed to engage the local populace, the Ewoks. One reason could be that perhaps they underestimated the Ewoks, due to their rural society and non-threatening outward appearance. If this is the case, then the Imperial forces made the same mistakes the British did in the 18th century when encountering the Ghurkas of Nepal. Like the Ewoks, the Ghurkas appeared to be a minor foe: short of stature, non-imposing features, a rural city-state society. The British soon discovered this to be incredibly false when they first encountered the Ghurkas in the field of battle. The British learned from this mistake and developed an alliance with the Ghurkas that continues to this day with the Royal Regiment of Ghurka Rifles (note: don’t piss off a Ghurka). The Galactic Empire understood no such nuances, and treated the Ewoks with disdain. This translated into a hostile populace which developed grievances over land use and the reckless use of force by Imperial stormtroopers. When the advance party of the Rebel Alliance landed on Endor, they found a dissatisfied and disenfranchised group with a strong desire for revenge.
The Imperial oversight of the military capabilities of the Ewoks proved to be a disaster when the fighting began, as Imperial patrols were wiped out and fighting positions overrun. Of particular note is the way in which the main combat platform of the AT-ST, a force multiplier for the base-bound stormtroopers, was negated through use of terrain and light infantry tactics. Much like the Finnish tactics in the Winter War of 1939-1940, the Ewoks utilized the restrictive terrain to canalize their enemy and defeat them in detail. The disaster was multiplied by the seizure of the Shield Generator and the subsequent destruction of the second Death Star. Had the Empire engaged the Ewoks or at least ignored their activities, much like they did the Jawas, the end result may have been much different.
The failure of the Empire to recognize the importance of non-human actors on the battlefield dealt a death blow to their endeavors. Their ignorance of the human terrain (Ok, non-human, but you get the point) led them to overreach and commit their forces in an entirely illogical manner. Much like the British Army of 1763 during Pontiac’s Rebellion, the Imperial forces trusted to technology and an over-inflated sense of tactical superiority which led them to build undermanned outposts in hostile terrain. One could also point to their intelligence failures in underestimating the size of the surviving Rebel Fleet after the Battle of Hoth and their ignorance of basic supply lines when developing forward bases, but their failure in the realm of COIN is what particularly stands out in this case. While U.S. Army doctrine writers often come under scathing criticism by bitter and jaded staff officers such as myself, the reality is that the Galactic Empire could have done with a bit of doctrine on their own. It is evident that no one was codifying lessons learned or developing tactics, techniques, and procedures to aid the stormtroopers on the battlefield. This failure should stand out to all military leaders and serve as a warning against ignoring doctrine outright.
That being said, I still hate ATTP 5-0.1 and want to kick Frederick the Great in the family jewels for developing the general staff.