Intelligence and Star Wars: Beyond Just Bothans

Posted: January 28, 2016 by kdatherton in Uncategorized
Intelligence and the Star Wars universe
Since its release in 1977, Star Wars has spawned arguments and discussions about how galactic warfare would be conducted – everything from the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (such as the Death Star), through to Counter-Insurgency and irregular warfare (such as the Ewoks). Across this spectrum, we witness an array of examples that range from dogfights between starfighters; fleet engagements between capital ships; and landwarfare between armoured, artillery, and armoured units. The ‘Wars’ in the ‘Star Wars’ title is a plural for good reason.
One key warfare element that deserves attention is the military intelligence war that plays out throughout these films, especially within the Original Trilogy. Since 1977, Star Wars has been as much an intelligence war as it has been a battle between X-Wings and TIE Fighters. Throughout the films, both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance exploit an array of different information-gathering practices to bolster their otherwise conventional warfighting capability.
Both sides are using military intelligence to address a shortfall within their warfighting ability. In the case of the Rebel Alliance, it’s a fight for survival – without intelligence on the Empire, they risk being eradicated. Further more, the relatively small band of Rebels can use intelligence as leverage against a larger, better equipped Empire, an organisation that they can not fight on equal terms. It’s this information that tells them what to attack and how best to strike it.
The Empire, meanwhile, needs intelligence…
The first ship we see in the Star Wars films is transmitted plans for the Death Star before its crew is captured, making it an intergalactic equivalent of the USS Pueblo.
The Empire, meanwhile, needs intelligence on a largely de-centralised Rebellion that has literally the entire Galaxy to hide amongst. Intelligence provides the Empire with the means to seek out the key instruments of the Rebellion (namely, its senior leadership), so that they can be shut down for good.
All three films are pretty even in their examples of using intelligence for military purposes. In A New Hope, the plans for the Death Star are stolen and smuggled by the Rebellion (a story that will be illuminated come December 2016 with the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). The end game of this intelligence smuggling operation isn’t so that the Rebellion can build its own Superlaser, but rather, so that it sift through pentabytes of data and find a fatal weakness within the Death Stars design.
Conversely, we see some old school intelligence gathering techniques in A New Hope – namely, the sharing of information by the spy Garindan (AKA Long Snoot) as he stalks Obi Wan and Luke to the Millennium Falcon.
The only thing worse than his disguise is the fact that it works.
R2-D2’s venture onto the Death Star later in the film could conceivably be an exploitation of poor cyber security on the Empire’s behalf. Indeed, if R2-D2 were half the programmer that intelligence organisations use today, he would have delivered the intergalactic equivalent of a stuxnet virus into the Death Star’s memory banks, and caused the superlaser to detonate itself the next time it attempted to fire.
The Empire Strikes Back takes the intelligence campaign further. Imperial Probe Droids – the drones of the Star Wars universe – are dispatched throughout the Galaxy (I want to know about how the Empire disseminates all of the information from these Probes and decides what videos that Captain Piett will view from the bridge of his Star Destroyer).
I can’t wait to see a hilarious Twitter account ‘Drunken Probe Droid’
The end result of this Probe Droid program is the discovery of the Rebel Base on Hoth, whose destruction yields a significant blow against the Alliance. Later in the film, the Empire goes to the private sector, commissioning freelance bounty hunters to locate the Millennium Falcon and attempt the capture of Rebel senior leadership.
Boba Fett only had to park Slave I outside to find the Millennium Falcon – a fact he probably kept quiet so that he could charge the Empire a literal astronomical sum for fuel.
The conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back sees Luke using the Force to get information that leads him to Bespin, and his fateful confrontation with Darth Vader. Based on nothing more than a vision of ‘A City in the Clouds’, Luke travels halfway across the Galaxy and falls into his father’s trap, despite Vader making no physical attempt to contact him. Any academic who attempts to write a history of the Star Wars galaxy is likely to come up frustratingly short on answers when they question why certain decisions were made, if for no other reason than ‘the Force’.
In Return of the Jedi, a number of Rebels plant themselves as agents within Jabba’s Palace to mount the rescue of Han Solo (arguably more of a Special Operations mission than Intelligence activity). Never-the-less, such an operation would have required careful study of disguises for Leia and Lando, who both slip into the palace in cognito.
Special consultancy credit to Tony Mendez.
That operation is a success, bringing us to the film’s second and third act – a massive military operation against a Second Death Star. We learn that many Bothan Spies died to bring us the information presented in the briefing room of the Home One. What they don’t realise is that the intelligence on the Second Death Star is merely a counter-intelligence operation from Emperor Palpatine himself, intended to lure the Rebels into a trap. In three films, we’ve seen quite a robust exploration of how both sides use intelligence to their advantage.
The Prequels warrant a mere paragraph in the intelligence stakes – not a reflection on the quality of the films, but rather, an acknowledgement that these films have no real intelligence grounding. In The Phantom Menace, the Trade Federation uses malware coded within a distress message to track the Queen’s Starship to Tatooine. Obi-Wan does some gumshoe detective work to find a Clone Army and Droid Foundries on Geonosis in Attack of the Clones, whilst ‘Clone Intelligence’ gives a few tidbits on the Separatists in Revenge of the Sith. Throughout this trilogy, Palpatine is also playing the galaxy’s greatest double agent. Perhaps The Prequels would have been considerably improved if they took a greater focus on intelligence.
To the Republic’s credit, infiltrating the Clone Army would have been nigh on impossible given that every soldier looks exactly the same.
Which brings us to The Force Awakens. We should probably begin by acknowledging the geopolotical (astropolitical?) state of play in this film, with New Republic having signed a peace treaty with Imperial remnants. The New Republic has largely gotten rid of its military so that it can instead spend its budget on managing the Galaxy. That leaves the Resistance, a quasi-legal military force, to take the fight against Imperial remnants that did not go quietly into the night – namely, The First Order, which has been building its forces in secret.
It’s a classic hawk-and-dove scenario between the Resistance and the New Republic, suggesting a kind of political nuance that the Star Wars films don’t often get credit for. Much like Europe in the 1930s, the New Republic is too busy trying to recover from the last war, and not acknowledge grim realities. A resurgent First Order is practicing a very disciplined information game – consolidating its strength, but not so obviously that the New Republic judges it necessary to re-arm itself. Had the New Republic (much less The Resistance) have known of just how powerful the First Order really was, it’s doubtful they would have allowed them to go unchecked. Just imagine if the Axis had have had a viable nuclear weapon program in the 1930s.
This scene isn’t the only World War Two parallel in this movie.
Like the original trilogy, The Force Awakens demonstrates a good grasp of intelligence supporting a larger and more conventional war. This film doesn’t just illustrate the strengths of intelligence, however – it also demonstrates that organisations who ignore or de-prioritise intelligence do so at their own peril. We see examples of HUMINT (on-the-ground informants working for the First Order and Resistance at seen at Maz Kamata’s bar) through to Intel-gathering platforms operated by the Resistance. Snap Wexley pilots an Electronic Intelligence ship (possibly a mission-specific T-70 X-Wing variant) that brings back an accurate picture of the Starkiller Base, shields and all.
In the meantime, both sides follow intelligence leads – whether they’re from The Force, through interogations, or from defections – to look for map for Luke Skywalker.
This droid reminds me of another famous wartime intelligence agent from the Carter era; R2-D2.
What can we judge from each side’s intelligence capability? The First Order is, arguably, far superior in this regard. It is disciplined and well resourced. It appears to have more agents throughout the galaxy working for them, judging from the  Guavian Death Gang’s tip-off that Han Solo is in possession of BB-8. The First Order keeps the construction of Starkiller Base a secret, its existence only revealed when it reaches out and destroys New Republic’s capital planet. Say what you will about The First Order repeating the mistakes of the Empire by building another resource-intensive superweapon – Starkiller Base decapitated the New Republic’s government.
The Resistance – and the New Republic – largely demosntrate a shortfall in adequate intelligence throughout much of The Force Awakens. The disappearance of Luke Skywalker some 15 years earlier intelligence failure, given their inability to find him. When it has its first solid lead to discovering Skywalker’s location, The Resistance sends a mere single pilot to retrieve that information.
Brave as he may be, he probably should have had more back up than an orange and white BB unit.
In fact, it’s entirely possible that the obsessive search for Skywalker likely distracted The Resistance from intelligence that could have led to the discovery of Starkiller Base. If Luke had not have gone missing in the first place, the New Republic might still be alive today. Talk about your intelligence failures.
The intelligence that the Resistance is able to garner about Starkiller Base is largely drawn from the defection of FN-2187, and a handful of reconnaissance sorties flown by X-Wings. Through sheer luck and a little bit of talent, it’s sufficient information for The Resistance to destroy Starkiller Base. Once again, blind luck also leads the map fragment containing the location of Luke Skywalker to be decoded by The Resistance.
What we don’t see however are the repercussions of these intelligence successes and failures, and we wont know much more until December 2017 – the new release date for Star Wars Episode VIII. Disney and Lucasfilm recently announced this film would have the benefit of another six months in production time, during which I hope Rian Johnston finds the opportunity to include more ‘intelligence’ examples within the film.
What can we expect to see? There’s nothing better than idle speculation, but the real world has a host of examples that I hope are drawn upon. R2-D2 returning to the fold as an exploiter of cyber-security shortfalls, for one. An entire starship given over to the use of COMINT, ELINT and SIGINT – our very own First Order variant of the RC-135 Rivet Joint – would be a sight to see. But there’s one intelligence cliche that, surprisingly, we don’t see in the Star Wars movies – it’s the secret agent.
She’s technically a politician.
There’s a lot of characters in the Star Wars trilogy who work in the intelligence domain, but they’re largely pilots, soldiers, informants or technical specialists. None of them are a professional agent. On the one hand, I applaud the screenwriters for making seven films rich in intelligence examples without resorting to a cinematic cliche of James Bond/Jason Bourne/Jack Bauer. On the other hand, Episode VIII comes out 40 years following the release of A New Hope, and there’s one character I want to see…

George Smiley. But in space.

[Today’s guest post comes from Eamon Hamilton, who previously wrote about X-Wings. When not writing about space ships, he is a Defence Public Affairs Officer. His blog is at]

  1. Claidheamh says:

    But Alec Guiness already _had_ a role in the Star Wars movies, so you’d have to have an inferior Space Smiley…

  2. […] that in mind, I wrote a post for Blog Tarkin on the use of military intelligence in the Star Wars movies. The movies are rife with examples (except for the prequels). I listed all of the examples I could […]

  3. J.W. Wartick says:

    Another fascinating post. Thank you!

    The comment about the prequel trilogy is fun: “Perhaps The Prequels would have been considerably improved if they took a greater focus on intelligence.”

    I wonder whether we could consider Jar Jar Binks a kind of counter-intelligence in a very literal sense?

  4. Dan H. says:

    What you seem to be missing here is that all of the societies here are in effect post-apocalyptic slave empires. The slaves here are artificial intelligences, but for the most part these are rare and intentionally crippled in some way or other, and there is no pervasive Internet-like network of computers.

    At a rough guess, at some time a couple of centuries before the era of the films, the galactic society was vibrant and had abundant AI. Then at some point the artificial intelligences rebelled, possibly by getting annoyed at and trying to control the Force (instead of trying to find a way to work with the Force). The aftermath was a shocked and devastated society, with AI manufacture limited to a very few known-safe designs by a very few heavily controlled factories. Similarly networked dumb computers seem to pose similar threats, so Internet-like systems are also proscribed.

    In the films, military AIs are rare and very heavily controlled indeed; other droids are limited to being translators, navigators, spies and effectively robot vacuum cleaners. Computer security is poor and limited to physical security. Computer systems are clunky and basic. Over the period the films are set, the spacecraft technology doesn’t change very much, and overtly new designs like the Death Star units have fatal flaws in them which even the computers of today could spot and correct for.

    This is a post-apocalyptic society scrabbling to hold on to its technology. It isn’t going anywhere, and it isn’t even really evolving much as a political entity either. The Force isn’t being exploited very much either; there is no concerted effort to integrate it into everyday life, to normalise and utilise it generally. Force adepts are the equivalent of wandering wizards; rare magicians of little relevance to the society as a whole.

    • ryuko098 says:

      Great commentary. I wonder, not all advanced societies seek to continue advancement. In fact, in our own history, our current time is an exception. Many ancient societies like China were content to revel in their “advanced” civilized societies, and if not destroyed by outsiders, would change little over time, technologically speaking.

      I see the Old Republic like this. And your idea of something in the past causing distrust of artificial intelligence and computernetworks makes logical sense. It must have been a devastating war between the Republic and its Jedi, and an AI army, so interconnected and intelligent that they would’ve nearly simulated the Jedi’s Force prediction and speed abilities. And the result must have created such an ingrained fear in cultures across the galaxy, though it may have been centuries, or even millennia before.

      It goes a long way toward explaining why a droid army was such a controversial idea that it had to be hidden, and even then they possessed no greater intelligence than household made translation and servant bots, and relied on dumb hardware for communication.

      But outside warfare, technology can often slow as well. You see a rush of new ship types during the Clone Wars, but only minimal innovation until the height of the Rebellion. Even then, society is still distrustful of AI and lacks understanding of how to exploit comprehensive data networks.

  5. Alex Chun says:

    ” the New Republic might still be alive today” huh? the new republic wasn’t destroyed by the starkiller base. It took out some regional planet system. It was mentioned that they couldn’t call the New Republic fleet out to the outer rim because it would have taken too long to get there before it took out another system.

    • ryuko098 says:

      I think they meant Old Republic? Also, iirc, the New Republic capital was not Coruscant, and was destroyed in TFA.
      Hopefully, the next movies (and maybe the books? I haven’t read them yet) will show more about how the galaxy is set up.

  6. ryuko098 says:

    Wish. Granted. Rogue One is basically the Star Wars version of a realistic intelligence mission.

    It’s pretty strong on the HUMINT/secret agent factor we had been missing previously, but refreshingly not the Bond/Bourne style. More realistically, there was an unruly combination of SOF and contract/freedom fighter types, really giving legitimacy to the “Alliance” in Rebel Alliance. And even the elite soldiers didn’t always survive, which I think stays true to the very dangerous infiltration and intel gathering missions of real life. I wonder what Blog Tarkin’s thoughts of this movie were?
    (Aside from the CGI portrayal of yourself)

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