Archive for December, 2017

The Last Jedi AAR

Posted: December 20, 2017 by bafriedman in Uncategorized

The Star Wars movies have never been particularly concerned with accuracy when it comes to military tactics and strategy. From the start, the movies are designed more with aesthetics in mind. Stormtroopers are bad at shooting, Jedi are bad at war, and the Empire is bad at procurement. Take the AT-ATs; they would not be particularly useful in most terrain but damn they look cool.

But The Last Jedi took the nonsensical military tactics and cranked them up to eleven. It’s far from the worst Star Wars movie, in fact its one of the best. But I submit that when it comes to military tactics it is even worse than the Gungans against the Trade Federation droids in Episode I. That might be fine if there were just one more movie. However, there is one more movie plus an unknown number of stand-alone films plus an upcoming trilogy by Rian Johnson, the director who got military tactics so wrong.

Rian Johnson is a great director, but when it comes to military tactics he is clearly just a padawan. So, by virtue of the fact that I wrote the book on tactics and wrote a chapter in the upcoming Strategy Strikes Back book about this specific issue, I hereby appoint myself Jedi Master of esoteric military tactical pedantry. Unlike Luke, I will not fail Rian Johnson and other future Star Wars directors. As Yoda said, failure is the best teacher, so here are the tactical failures of The Last Jedi.

The Bomber Will Always Get Through

During the opening scene, the First Order is placing all its capital ships online, foregoing a fighter screen, and attempting to blast the remnants of the Resistance out of space and out of their ground base. These are simplistic tactics, but simple is good. General Hux’s assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of his own forces and those of the Resistance is sound: he’s got firepower and they don’t.

For all that firepower, though, the new Resistance strategic bombers were clearly effective, but demonstrate a classic airpower dilemma: the tradeoff between payload, speed, and maneuverability. Y-Wings and B-Wings, also bombers, are faster but would not carry the payload required to destroy a dreadnaught. Remember how little damage they did to the Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens before it was internally sabotaged. The new bombers are strategic bombers, not tactical bombers. I won’t go into the strategic logic of why a scrappy band of irregular resistance fighters needs strategic bombers because there isn’t any. Especially since General Organa’s strategic theory, “the spark that will light the flame of rebellion,” is Che Guevara’s foco theory of insurgency. Area bombing would not be a good look.

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Given that the bombers were only built for payload and not for speed, Leia was wrong to pull them out when she did; they should never have been committed in the first place. Once they were, though, Poe was right to continue the attack. The fully operational dreadnought would have just shot them down at range with the cannons on the underside, and then shot down the transports. Once the bombers were committed, the high casualties were already assured and were only worth it because the dreadnought was destroyed. Casualties are inevitable, wasted lives are not.  

Trading Space War for Space Time

Once the First Order fleet tracked the Resistance fleet through hyperspace, staying at sublight speed and just out of the Star Destroyers maximum effective range to buy time was about the only good call there was. It’s unclear what Poe Dameron could have done differently had he been in command. Again, the First Order made the right call by thinking about logistics and tactics; the Resistance did not have the fuel supply to escape.

However, the command team of General Organa and Vice Admiral Holdo displayed poor leadership in execution, and good tactics are nothing without good leadership. They kept the plan from Poe for no reason; he’s a Commander not a private, and he should absolutely have been involved in the staff planning. (His “demotion” to captain, a naval rank higher than commander, notwithstanding.) This in no way justifies Poe doing the same thing and sending Finn and Rose off on their own secret mission. Tactical efforts during battle are useless if they are not integrated and for staffs to integrate subordinate unit actions they have to be aware of them. The staff work at all points of the running space battle were atrocious, and playing “I have a secret” is disastrous to morale. This predictably led to infighting among the Resistance leadership and Vice Admiral Holdo’s quick thinking while in control of the last remaining Resistance capital ship and her destruction of Supreme Leader Snoke’s command vessel was the only bright spot that gave the Resistance a temporary, and pyrrhic victory.  

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Going Over The Top

When the Resistance manages to reach the uncharted planet Crait with its abandoned Rebellion base, the First Order again has the ability to launch an immediate attack. This is the benefit of taking logistics seriously and ensuring your forces have the mass to continually and repeatedly maintain the initiative. Here again the First Order’s tactics are simplistic, but again they have the firepower to back it up and their simple plan maximizes the effects of that firepower. The AT family of armored walkers are certainly a poor acquisition on the part of the Empire/First Order, not to mention a maintenance burden, however sometimes you have to go to star war with the ground assault vehicles you have, not the ones you’d want. If you’re stuck with AT-ATs by virtue of some retired general’s connection with the space defense industry, this is exactly how you maximize their potential.

But again, leadership again throws a kink in good tactics. Both Supreme Kylo Ren and General Hux are present on the battlefield. In fact, directly above it. Rather than maintaining a connection to the big picture of the fight, they repeatedly give in to the temptation to make tactical level decisions, modifying the plan on the fly.

The rebels did not display any tactical prowess at all in the final fight, but there was little potential for it anyway. If you’re THAT outgunned and outmanned and cornered, your tactical options are pretty well limited to a spoiling attack and a fortified defense, both of which they employed. Aiming the spoiling attack at the battering ram cannon, the First Order’s most potent weapon, was the right call based on both theory and current U.S. operational doctrine. It was the tactical center of gravity of the First Order ground forces. 

The Resistance only survived this fight where they were completely outmatched in the physical realm by leveraging the mental realm, and Kylo Ren’s micromanagement enabled that. Kylo Ren made emotional decisions in the thick of battle and, because he was micromanaging the battle, those decisions were disastrous. First, he threw away his air cover by sending all of his TIE Fighters after the Millenium Falcon even though it posed no great threat to his attack. Then, Luke Skywalker was able to employ deception to distract, confuse, and deceive Kylo Ren at every turn, making him lose focus on the big picture and the tactical mission itself. This is Maneuver Warfare at its finest: attacking the enemy commander’s mind rather than his physical forces.

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From a military tactics perspective, both sides failed. The First Order did a lot of damage, but did not accomplish their mission. The Resistance was repeatedly caught off guard,  and merely escaped to keep the idea alive. These failures can both be traced to common factor for both tactical actors: there are no non-commissioned officers. A good NCO and Staff NCO corps are the executors of any military force. They translate the grandiose ideas of officers into actual, practicable plans. When it comes to the First Order and the Resistance, everyone is an officer or a faceless trooper. Captain Phasma seems to be lowest ranking leader above stormtrooper. In the Resistance, even field grade officers like Commander Dameron are kept in the dark about future plans while generals and vice admirals make every decision without input. This is no way to run a war, but it’s also unrealistic to expect a strong NCO corps with a training and education system based wholly on informal mentor/protege relationships

These missteps may make for dramatic scenes, but after thirty years of on-again, off-again galactic civil war, it’s doubtful that so many tactical leaders would be so amateurish. What the Star Wars movies need is a military advisor, and perhaps Adam Driver knows a few potential candidates.  

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[Jonathan Jeckell is a regenerated U.S. Army officer striving find unique ways to remain useful to his country.]

Stormtroopers have been the butt of jokes across the galaxy for their poor marksmanship. Some conspiracy theories claim that the Emperor deliberately sabotaged their marksmanship on key occasions as part of elaborate plots, such as allowing rebels to escape to follow them back to their base. Only the most fanatically dedicated and well-disciplined troops would deliberately miss their targets and sacrifice their lives, and the Emperor’s plan only relied upon weaknesses in his forces, including weaknesses he deliberately left in place. All dictators both need and fear the people that keep them in power, so naturally Palpatine did not want his military forces becoming too competent, lest they rise up in a coup to depose him. This bias was also at the root of the creation of the Death Star and other monolithic, centrally controlled systems over more resilient, distributed architectures.

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Stormtrooper inaccuracy is a joke across the multiverse.

Infantry were not regarded as relevant or necessary with this overemphasis on centralized control. The Emperor clearly intended to run the Empire primarily through the Death Star, and secondarily through the Imperial Navy, which were orders of magnitude weaker than the Death Star and therefore no threat. Infantry troops inside the Death Star just might be, which is why he also had his own special force of personal bodyguards.

With the Droid Army defeated, the Empire no longer required mass armies. Infantry only served for boarding vessels (marine role) or constabulary duties. The Emperor intended to use orbital bombardment (or worse in the case of Alderaan) to maintain control.1 Palpatine certainly did not want to provide strong forces to regional governors who could return to the capital to overthrow him.2

Figure 1: Clone Trooper with rifle

 

Clone Troopers used long rifles in their role as a mass land army during the Clone Wars, fighting engagements with the Droid Army in a variety of terrain that often called for heavy firepower and accurate long-range shots. But most Stormtroopers were issued pistols that fit their new role in short-range engagements, like fighting insurgents in cities or in the corridors onboard ships. Short weapons are handier than rifles for shock troops leading boarding parties fighting in confined spaces and also as lightweight sidearms for constabulary forces dealing with a few unruly civilians (or keeping the governor and other regional elites in line).

Figure 2: Stormtrooper with blaster pistol

 

As we discussed before (Jedi Way of War), the Old Republic lacked military experience and doctrine, and had plentiful troops (the Clone Troopers), which came to be tacitly considered expendable and inexhaustible. The Old Republic lacked the social feedback of public outcry over casualties or any other impetus to develop military doctrine that considered minimizing casualties as a priority. This underlying logic carried over in the transition from Clone Troopers to Stormtroopers even as their roles and relative importance changed. After all, the Empire could press-gang as many Stormtroopers into service as necessary, and the numbers required were dramatically less than the Clone Army. Casualties remained uncontroversial after the Emperor consolidated power.

The transition from rifles to pistols has a profound effect on the range and accuracy of engagements. A rifle provides a long foundation to support the weapon to control where it is pointed with many opportunities to brace it to keep it steady. A standing shooter has control of the weapon in at least three points across its length. The non-firing arm holds the end of the barrel, the butt of the weapon is planted firmly in the shooter’s armpit, and the firing hand holds the rifle in the middle. The shooter may also brace against a solid object, which substantially increases stability and the ability to accurately hold the weapon on target long enough to fire.

Pistols in contrast are held by one point (or two in the case of the long pistols used by Stormtroopers). The shooter’s body has many joints between the pistol and the ground, all of which continuously jostle despite efforts to hold them steady. The short barrel means that even the smallest movement results in larger deviations from the target as the shooter struggles with a single bracing point, trying to hold many levers (all the joints in your body) steady without jitter.

To illustrate the difference, the maximum effective range of the U.S. Army’s Beretta M9 9mm pistol is 50 meters, which means that the average person will hit 50% of the time at 50 meters. Meanwhile, the maximum effective range for the M4 Carbine is 500 meters—10 times further.

This becomes even more difficult when the shooter must react quickly and under extreme stress. Many shooters who excel on the range fail to hit what they are shooting at in combat unless they also train in realistic stressful quick-reaction scenarios. Police and the FBI maintain more useful statistics for pistol engagements because they are all studied in-depth afterwards. The FBI has found that pistol accuracy suffers when shooting in a real engagement. FBI data from 1989-1994 shows that the majority of engagements occurred within 6-10 feet (yes, feet). Less than 40% of the engagements were over 21 feet (7 meters). 60% of the engagements were within 0-21 feet, 30% from 21-45 feet, and 10% from 45-75 feet. None occurred beyond 75 feet. The average defender fires three rounds against a single assailant. The bad guys shooting at police hit their target just 14% of the time, and 95% of the police who achieve a 1st shot hit survive. This drops to 48% on the second shot. Law enforcement officers average 75-80% missed shots.

This means that Luke, Leia, and Han make some really unbelievable shots with pistols (and the scope doesn’t help). Chewbacca’s bow is held like a rifle, so his shots don’t stand out as much on the battlefield as being extraordinary. This makes the Stormtroopers’ normal human precision seem inferior in contrast. We know Luke is a Jedi, which can explain his extreme long-range accuracy with a blaster. We also know Leia has latent Force powers, which explains hers as well. Han may not be a Jedi, but he may have latent force-sensitivity despite his skepticism about the Jedi and the Force. Despite laughing off the Jedi, his piloting skill surpassed normal human capabilities like one, even though he always laughed off the Jedi.

Figure 3: Han’s shooting and piloting skills far exceeded natural human ability

I estimate the distance from Luke to these Stormtroopers to be at LEAST 150 meters, yet he shot two in quick succession here, then shot a foot-square door control before egressing from the fight. Leia and Han regularly made many such shots throughout the series.

Figure 4. Force-sensitive Luke fires uncannily accurate shots with a Stromtrooper’s long pistol.

 

 

Figure 5: A wounded Leia gets the drop on a prepared Stormtrooper. One of many supernaturally quick and accurate shots.

 

1. Like Genghis Khan’s sieges during his conquest, Palpatine would only need to make examples of a few systems for the mere threat of the Death Star to coerce compliance.

2. Many Roman and Chinese regional governors were given sizable armies on the frontier to protect the empire from hostile border tribes, but instead turned their armies against the empire and attempted to take over.