Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.

  • LastJedi_RebelShips_TIEs.png

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.  


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.


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.  

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]

T-70 X-Wing From Force Awakens, Flying A Ground Attack Mission

T-70 X-Wing From Force Awakens, Flying A Ground Attack Mission

As with any war, the evolution of the Galactic Civil War means a change of tactics, technology, and policy in order to address new requirements. However, just because a (very small) piece of evidence highlights one particular technology does not make this technology universal, or even particularly widespread.

This is the first mistake that Eamon Hamilton makes in his recent article comparing the newest model of X-wing to the (rather less airworthy) F-35. By relying on mere seconds of film  and the availability of a toy, we can only determine that the T-70 is distinct from its predecessor, and that it can fly and shoot lasers. We have no real grasp of its new advantages or capabilities, and most importantly we do not know if it is the only starfighter at the Resistance’s disposal, or even if it is particularly widespread. We could also watch the Top Gun trailer, and conclude that the F-14 was the Navy’s only combat aircraft. The T-70s we see may even be an experimental or elite squadron, which, given the appearance of a new superweapon, more than merits its deployment. The T-70 might be exceptionally expensive, and deployed in a proportion more like the F-22 than F-35. As an aside, though, I think a better comparison would be between the F-16 Block 60 and the T-70, given that both are improvements to 30+ year old designs, rather than entirely new airframes (spaceframes?).

This comparison, however, is fundamentally flawed, and comparing the Rebellion or Resistance’s requirements to those of the US Navy is folly. Doctrine is entirely different: for example, our carriers do not have any significant armament other than their complement of fighters, and certainly don’t fight other capital ships at point blank range. There is no equivalent ship in any fleet on this planet, let alone in the USN. This is partly a consequence of politics. With planets (or moons) being the primary political unit, space is the only medium of travel between them.

This means the Rebel navy is far more important than its American equivalent, where air and land provide alternative avenues. The priority of ship defense reflects this, and the logistical aspect can be seen in starfighter design. Rebel starfighters, for example, are very space efficient: they take off and land vertically, making it easier to arm a ship of a given size. Underlining all this is the fact that the X-wing is vastly more capable and durable than any aircraft currently in service.

As we saw in The Empire Strikes Back, the X-wing is capable of sitting around in a swamp for extended periods of time (days? weeks? a month or more?), sinking into said swamp, and after being raised fly away with little-to-no maintenance. Thus, it is safe to assume its regular maintenance requirements are very few indeed. Barring battle damage, which would be partly obviated by its shields, a pilot could fly the fighter continuously for a week (the duration of its life support systems). Equally importantly, the X-wing can travel literally astronomical distances unassisted by capital ships. Further easing its logistical requirements, its primary ammunition comes directly from its power generator. Hyperdrive and shields are present on all Alliance starfighters, and it is safe to assume that the minute logistical requirements follow with them. This removes perhaps the greatest advantage of moving to a single platform, and also highlights that the difference in mobility between terrestrial vs. carrier-based fighters is not so severe in Star Wars as on Earth. This results in a lot of “tooth” and very little “tail”.

Damaged TIE Fighter Falls To A Planet Below

Damaged TIE Fighter Falls To A Planet Below

Have some things changed between A New Hope and The Force Awakens? Inevitably, but I find it unlikely that the widening of the civil war (as the Rebellion moves to establish itself) would diminish the need for starfighters with different capabilities. Indeed, it seems that the threats the Resistance faces are not, tactically, much different than when it was still the Rebellion. As the trailer suggests, the First Order’s decisions on how they fight have not changed much from the Empire’s. There is still a preference for TIEs, Star Destroyers, storm troopers, and superweapons with trenches. Given the Empire’s reliance on conventional military structures, there is every reason to believe that most other Imperial remnants remained doctrinally similar. There is also no reason to believe that the Resistance’s position is secure enough that they can safely scrap their less advanced fighter designs. I can think of another conflict that looked rather worse for the side that 30 years earlier were the unqualified victors.

We should also consider the tactical advantages of multiple starfighter types. In a galaxy where dogfighting is the main way of engaging other starfighters, improved electronics and warheads cannot take you very far. This means there is still a clear need for a more dedicated interceptor and space superiority fighter design. The A-wing was designed to fill these roles by the time of the Battle of Endor, and an upgraded version should be available to the Resistance, or even an entirely new fighter.

Hamilton does not help his case by his clear unfamiliarity with the starfighters. He claims the A-wing to be designed for “hit-and-run” attacks on convoys, when, as mentioned above, it was designed to fight other starfighters first and foremost, especially as a counter to the TIE Interceptor. With only two laser cannons and concussion missiles instead of the more powerful proton torpedoes, it is not nearly as capable at destroying heavier targets as the other Rebel starfighters. Hyperdrive makes even the Y-wing capable of hit-and-run tactics, and, with its heavier payload, far more effective against these targets.

X-Wings Fight Tie Fighters In Shakycam Battle

X-Wings Fight Tie Fighters In Shakycam Battle

Stepping back for a minute, there is a good chance that the T-70 will be the only, or almost the only, starfighter fielded by the Resistance in this film. This is not because of any in-universe logistical or training priority, but rather because having only two types of starfighter (especially those with shapes as distinct and recognizable as the X-wing and TIE Fighter) makes it easier to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys in Abrams’ preferred style, which involves rapid camera movements in close fights. It also makes an obvious callback to A New Hope, and nostalgia is a rather effective moneymaker. Nobody remembers the Y-wings from that film, of course, because all they did was die.

Robert of Bellême (Count of Ponthieu, 3rd Earl of Shrewsbury, etc.), is an Anglo-Norman magnate renowned for his cruelty and violence, who now spends his time posting bad jokes. His favorite starfighter is the TIE Interceptor.

T-70 Model X-Wings In Formation

T-70 Model X-Wings In Formation

[Today’s post comes to us from Eamon Hamilton. When not writing about space ships, he does Public Affairs for Air Mobility Group, Royal Australian Air Force.]

With each trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we’ve been exposed to the new Starfighter being fielded by the Rebel Alliance – now rebranded as the Resistance (go figure). The Incom T-70 is carrying the legacy of the X-Wing into a new generation, combating a likewise new model of the TIE Fighter.

But each new trailer however has suggested something is lacking in the Resistance fleet – that is, a variety of other Starfighter types. It would appear that, in the 30 years since the Rebel Alliance deployed an array of X-, Y-, A- and B-Wings to the Battle of Endor, they have settled on a single multi-role type across the entire fleet.

Even before the release of The Force Awakens however, there’s good reasons to believe the T-70 X-Wing is the only game in town. First, the new X-Wing is the only Resistance ship featured in the trailers and other promotional imagery. A bigger clue however is the lack of merchandising for any other Resistance ships.

When Force Friday hit stores in September, the T-70 X-Wing was the only Resistance ship for sale (aside from the Millennium Falcon, of course). You can buy one in LEGO form, or as a 1:200 scale model for tabletop wargaming. Revell is releasing the plastic kit of the T-70, and there’s also a diecast model if you don’t want to build it yourself.

Now, this assumption that the Resistance has stuck to a single Starfighter fleet will live or die when The Force Awakens premieres, and we pick apart each scene to see whether JJ Abrams dropped a few more ships into the backgrounds of hangars or space battles. But right now, it’s the T-70 X-Wing that’s appearing on lunchboxes.

With that assumption on board, it’s worthwhile considering what steps were taken over 30 years to go from a four-type Rebel Alliance fleet, to a single-type Resistance.

It’s a journey to consolidation that draws some parallels to the United States Navy’s own carrier-based combat aircraft fleet.

Both organisations were operating with different strategic priorities 30 years ago compared to what they are today. When Return of the Jedi hit cinemas in 1983, the Nimitz-class carriers were sailing with no less than four fixed-wing fighter/strike aircraft – the F-14 Tomcat for air superiority, the A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair in the strike role, and the S-3 Viking as an anti-submarine/surface warfare platform. Also operating was the EA-6B Prowler, a variation of the A-6, which was optimised for electronic attack.

Likewise, the Rebel Alliance went into the Battle for Endor with its own four dedicated strike/fighter platforms, albeit with no electronic attack variant (it seemed the Empire had the upper hand in the electronic warfare spectrum that day) [Editor’s note: or that electronic warfare just isn’t a big part of Star Wars]. Leading this charge were the T-65 X-Wing in the space superiority role, joined by fellow Yavin-veteran, the Y-Wing bomber. Also deployed were two newcomers – the high-speed A-Wing, and the B-Wing bomber, whose primary role was to attack capital ships.

It’s a safe assumption that the role of a Carrier Air Wing is much like that of the Rebel Alliance’s Starfighter squadrons fighting ‘A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away’. Fundamentally, they both need to defend a home base, and are important tools for force projection in pursuit of wider campaign objectives.

Fielding a variety of types that each have a dedicated role carries with it benefits. A security or technical grounding for one type will (nominally) not affect the others. Dedicated types are optimized for function, rather than compromising performance to be truly multi-role. A Carrier Air Wing’s F-14 Tomcats can defend against high-speed bombers and provide a combat air patrol against MiGs and Sukhois. A-6 Intruders and A-7 Corsairs are optimized for striking surface combatants and hitting targets on land. The S-3 Viking – working in concert with other aircraft and vessels – can detect and defeat submarines. For the most part, the Soviet Union spent much of the Cold War trying to defeat the force projection abilities of carriers, and at the same time protect its home shores. Whilst the Soviet Union was spending the time, resources and money on countering Carrier Battle Groups, it was not delivering comparable force projection capabilities of its own.

While the Rebel Alliance faced a different strategic environment from the United States Navy, it too found itself benefiting from fielding a multi-type Starfighter fleet. It allowed them to pitch an asymmetric threat against the Empire, dictating the terms of engagements with dedicated platforms and avoid one-to-one engagements that it could not match with people, ships, or resources. The B-Wing Starfighter was primarily for attacking capital ships. Notwithstanding its kamikaze attack on the Super Star Destroyer Executor, the A-Wing was a hit-and-run Starfighter built to raid Imperial convoys and destroy remote satellite relays, degrading logistical and communications networks, and crippling the Empire’s ability to wage its campaign. Throughout it all, the X-Wing was intended to defeat the TIE Fighter; while the Y-Wing, a relic of the Cold War Clone War, was kept in service probably because it was bloody impossible to get rid of.

Y-Wings In Formation With Millennium Falcon

Y-Wings In Formation With Millennium Falcon

Striking from hidden fortresses and deployed capital ships, the Rebel Alliance’s force projection with these Starfighters would have forced the Empire to build defenses capable of defeating all forms of attack. Imperial Commanders were therefore kept guessing as to the composition of Rebel threats, and how they could attack them.

Having so many different types of Starfighters and aircraft however places a significant logistical burden, whether you’re a Rebel capital ship or United States Navy aircraft carrier. Each time a Carrier Strike Group goes to sea, it attempts to bring sufficient spares and workforce for the term of its voyage, but is otherwise reliant on C-2 Greyhound carrier on-board delivery aircraft; or port visits, which themselves are connected to a logistical pipeline supported by shore-based aircraft. Every different aircraft type in the Carrier Air Wing needs its own specially-trained workforce to operate and support, and must retain a spare parts stock for repairs. Different aircraft have different maintenance overheads, depending on their age and performance, which ultimately affects sortie generation. All of these factors determine the overall effectiveness of a Carrier Strike Wing whilst it’s at sea.

When Starfighters are embarked on a Capital Ships, we can assume their supporting constraints are almost identical to their United States Navy counterparts. There’s only so much space on the ship for hangars, spare parts storage, and workforce accommodation. Terrestrial bases for Rebel Alliance Starfighters would provide greater room, but still present similar logistical challenges in how they are sustained with spare parts and key equipment. The one advantages the Rebel Alliance has are astromechs. An R2 or R5 unit, for example, can maintain and conduct repairs on a Starfighter without sleep, and can work across multiple types on the hangar floor without limitations. They can diagnose directly using a ship’s computer, provide accurate stocktake assessments, and receive updated technical publications instantly. Admittedly, they do need their own spares pipeline and sustainment maintenance – but the efficiencies they deliver are worth it.

The United States Navy does have the advantage of protected warehouses and factories for all its supply needs. The Rebel Alliance likely has to disperse its equivalent facilities across the galaxy, keeping them underground to avoid the prying eyes of the Empire. Despite the range advantages of hyperspace travel, resupplying ships and bases with spare parts and personnel is a dangerous affair. Let’s take X-Wing powerplants as an example. Building them requires de-centralised workshops to avoid detection, but also skilled workforces due to the precision construction. Once built, these components are likely kept in hidden warehouse storage until they are smuggled through the galaxy to their end user. Replicating this logistics effort across all the systems of an X-Wing gives a good impression of how hard it is to keep a Starfighter ‘spaceworthy’, especially considering how complex they are compared to their Imperial foes, which lack shields and hyperdrives. We can assume there is little-to-no commonality in major components across Rebel Starfighters (even the Empire consolidated its TIE eye-ball across the Fighter and Interceptor variants). All of this puts Rebel Alliance at a significant logistical disadvantage during the Galactic Civil War.

Which brings me to a cynical explanation for why else the Rebellion had so many different Starfighters – in all likelihood, there was more gerrymandering required from the Rebellion than the Empire, when negotiating the support of planetary systems. How many times did Mon Mothma win the support of a local star system, but only because she promised to employ local workshops and factories to build X-Wing laser canons? Or gain safe harbor in space ports for Rebel vessels, but only because she was buying squadrons of unwanted Y-Wings from the port’s governor? Tyrannical governments like the Empire are built on decrees and corruption, leaving little question that the Rebellion had to resort to financial and employment incentives to guarantee support for its cause.

Over the past 30 years, there’s been significant changes to the strategic operating environment for both the United States Navy and the Rebel Alliance (now the Resistance). These changes undoubtedly influenced their respective moves towards a consolidated fleet of strike/fighter platforms. While aircraft carriers remain an important strategic tool, the years since the end of the Cold War have largely seen their warfighting efforts concentrated on sustained force projection for overland operations in the Middle East and former Yugoslavia. The dedicated platforms operated in 1983 were retired, their roles taken on by a shrinking variety of aircraft types (or, in the case of anti-submarine warfare, shifted to shore-based and rotary-wing aircraft). Today, most Carrier Air Wings limit their fighter/strike capability to the F/A-18 Classic Hornet and Super Hornet, and the E/A-18G Growler. Carrier Air Wing Five, based in Japan, has done away with the Classic Hornet altogether, and operates the Super Hornet and the Growler from the USS Ronald Reagan.

That consolidation was not a pre-ordained path, with failed programs (the A-12 Avenger, F-14 life extensions), receding budgets, and an operating environment that emphasized reliability and multi-role performance. The move to consolidation has robbed the United States Navy of, say, an F-14’s high-speed and long-range intercept talents. The upshot is that replacement types (in the form of the Super Hornet) are largely more reliable and efficient, and fewer types has allowed a more streamlined training and logistics pipeline. In an ideal world, this reduces operating costs and improves sortie generation rates with the same number of aircraft and personnel.

The experience of the United States Navy with the Super Hornet is therefore a good clue to how the Resistance came to operate the T-70 X-Wing as its sole type (if I can indulge my imagination, I’d like to think older T-65s are still in limited frontline service as well as operated by Reserve units). Much like the Super Hornet, the T-70 is based on a widely-used predecessor, and likely performs the roles of other types that have been since retired. Anti-capital ship functions, like anti-submarine warfare, have been transferred to the Resistance’s own capital ship fleet. While the Resistance cannot provide a dedicated type for specific roles, it can compensate through improved sortie generation rates thanks to a streamlined logistics pipeline and training model. These two factors are important when you’re fighting a sustained, 30-year conflict, as the case is suggested with The Force Awakens.

T-70 X-Wing Versus Tie Fighter

T-70 X-Wing Versus Tie Fighter

All evidence in the trailers suggest that the Galactic Civil War is still happening. The Resistance is now facing off against the First Order, an Imperial remnant which is a shadow of what we saw 30 years ago. The loss of a pair of trillion-credit Death Stars, coupled with the assassination of its senior leadership, is hard to come back from.

Faced with a degraded enemy, the Resistance had the freedom to reassess how it sustained its warfighting capability, and felt it was able to pair back the number of different Starfighter variants it operated. As these ships came to the end of their life-of-type, they were progressively replaced by squadrons of T-70 X-Wings. This in turn realized significant savings that could be reinvested in a larger fleet of Starfighters, and allowed them to face the First Order on more even terms (rather than conducting a ‘counter-insurgency campaign with Starfighters’). I’d love to speculate other reasons for how the Resistance came to operate a single Starfighter type. Were there Tomcat-style Service Live Extension Programs for the B-Wings? Was a wildly ambitious replacement for the Y-Wing proposed, only to be cancelled and lead to a decades-long lawsuit? These are the Marvel Star Wars comics that I want to read.

Now, I accept the United States Navy’s wider operating environment is different in many respects from the Rebel Alliance/the Resistance. It has the wider United States Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army to jointly operate with. And the United States Navy hasn’t entirely reverted to a single combat type, either. The Northrop Grumman X-47B is plotting the Navy’s path to an Unmanned Carrier-launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike’ platform. And very soon, the F-35C Lightning II will enter service with frontline units as a replacement for the remaining F/A-18 Classic Hornets. In keeping with the other F-35 variants, the C-model emphasizes a combination of sensor-fusion, stealth, and networked connectivity, and is intended to perform multi-role missions.

The F-35C however might still have a kin-type in the Star Wars Universe. Unless JJ Abrams takes us to the planet where the Resistance has its Pax River-equivalent facility, it’s unlikely we’ll see a brand new Starfighter in The Force Awakens. But I can predict when we will see it – in 2017, with the release of Star Wars: Episode VIII.

There’s a couple of reasons to speculate this case. Without having seen The Force Awakens yet, we can expect to see a major shakeup of the power balance in the Galactic Civil War after a sustained 30-year conflict (which will take at least two more films to resolve). The T-70 will have to soldier on, but I predict the Resistance will come into Episodes VIII and IX with a brand new Starfighter type to face this re-surging conflict.

The other reason to be confident of a new Resistance type (let’s call it the T-XX) in 2017 comes down, once again, to merchandising.Disney can only sell so many models before they have to come up with something new. This year, there’s going to be a lot of T-70s underneath Christmas Trees, making it unlikely that kids will want a repackaging of ‘old’ T-70s when Episode VIII comes around.

The new Resistance T-XX, much like the F-35C, is going to have big shoes to fill, and both types will affect how the Resistance and United States Navy emerge from their respective consolidated combat aircraft structure. There’s no guarantees for what conflicts the F-35C might be called upon in the future, and as for what pressures will drive the design of the T-XX? We wont know the answer to that question until December 18.

Watch the latest trailer for The Force Awakens below:

Carved watermelon as Death Star, Windell Oskay (CC BY 2.0)

Carved watermelon as Death Star, Windell Oskay (CC BY 2.0)

There’s a moment in the third season of  “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” where it feels like the writers have run out of war stories. A side conflict about a scarcity investigation is revealed to all be a ruse, a cunning ploy by a minor political figure to undermine a slightly less minor political figure. The Galactic Republic is a vast place, and the Clone Wars span the entirety of it. Following the sideshow to the sideshow, our protagonists are whisked away onto an even more remote setting: a Jedi temple that exists in space but out of time, where an ancient monk keeps balance between his lightside daughter and his darksided son.

In this temple, in the middle of space, is where Anakin Skywalker fails to end the Clone War. The old monk needs a replacement, and the Chosen One will do just fine. Anakin refuses, out of fear for his secret wife, responsibility to his young padawan, and loyalty to his former master. Anakin is a skilled force user, pilot, and general, but he is a terrible Jedi. Faced with an opportunity to sacrifice himself and end the war, Anakin instead opts to leave. It goes poorly for the monk and for the daughter, and the sith-powered son is freed from balance, if not his temporal prison. Skywalker, Obi-Wan, and padawan Ashoka all escape, to return to their endless war.


I am halfway through livetweeting a #CloneWarsRewatch. I never saw “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” when it aired from 2008 to 2014, so my use of “rewatch” here is a bit of a misnomer, but I figured it was a good way to capture that I’m watching the show as a whole after it aired. All six seasons are on Netflix. I just finished season 3, so expect a second post when I finish the show.

I started watching because I wanted to understand how the war worked. I wanted battles, campaigns, daring stratagems and bungled schemes. I got those, and more, but the underlying logic of the universe is almost crippled by George Lucas’ overwhelmingly simple view of good and evil.

Palpatine, like he does in the movies, plays both sides of a great galactic war, urging the Republic to raise a clone army and marshaling separatist forces in secret. It’s a pat summary of evil, but it’s an entirely unnecessary one. We could get a rise to power story for Palpatine without him as the sole origin of everything bad, and it’d probably be more compelling.

This matters for BlogTarkin because I wanted to understand how the war of Star Wars worked. What follows is a brief summation, but it comes from the premise that nothing matters because Palpatine is a heavy-handed cliche.


How The Clone Wars Were Fought

The (likely) strategic objective of the Separatists is to fight the Republic to a stalemate. We get one episode with a Separatist governing body, but Count Dooku and his droid army are the real story, and their objective is terrifying galactic war, so no matter what Separatist-aligned planets hope for, they’re getting war.

The Republic’s objective is peace through victory, though a strong current is debate over peace proposals. These are shot down, literally and figuratively, by the same forces that want Palpatine in power and the war to continue. Throughout the series, we get to meet individuals, sometimes representing small planets or communities, who have strong feelings about the Republic or the Separatists, but all the personal reasons get lost in a giant grinder for Palpatine’s Imperial power.

Here are some strategic objectives fought over in the first half of the clone wars:

  • Listening posts guarding a nursery world
  • A fuel depot
  • A nursery world
  • A magical hole in time that balances the force

And that’s it, really. There are lots of other important places, but nothing with war-ending impact.

In a universe so reliant on machines, its weird that EMPs are a rare experimental weapon and hacking is barely a thing. Also weird: a lot of combat, even space combat, takes place within line of sight. Jon Jeckell has more to say on that, but here are some other observations about the wars as fought:

  • Hyperspace travel means battles always happen near planets, or significant destinations in space itself. So far, no attacks against ships in hyperspace.
  • Many ships can go to hyperspace, but smaller fighters often need a boost to get there
  • Getting to hyperspace takes a few minutes, and must be done outside a planet’s atmosphere, so blockading gunships have a window of opportunity to shoot fleeing vessels
  • That said, the first ship we ever see in Star Wars is a blockade runner
  • Blockades are really common, and must in some form be effective

But space combat isn’t all combat. There’s a lot of battles on the ground, too.

  • Armor that isn’t made of light is mostly meaningless
  • Grenades are very powerful
  • Armored vehicles are useful, and often come as troop transports too
  • Militias with sticks and spears can still defeat blaster-armed attackers
  • Almost all battles have clones versus droids
  • Of those that don’t, clones or droids support one side, so they’re always present. We don’t call it “The Droid War,” though, so I guess winners write the history books

Season 3 ends with the introduction of Captain Tarkin,  a decidedly force-ambivalent character with other ideas about ending the war. I hope we see more of him over the next three seasons.

My storified tweets about #CloneWarsRewatch can be found at the links below:

Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.
Part 4.
Part 5.
Part 6.
Part 7.

Ben Denison is a Ph.D. Student at the University of Notre Dame and can be found on twitter @DenisonBe


Terok Nor aka Deep Space 9

Following a prolonged political-military conflict between two great powers, the former territory occupied by the evil empire is aided in its political development by the liberal great power who stood against the evil empire for 50 years. Political and economic aid flows from the liberal power to attempt to help develop the former occupied territory. The goal is to propel their political development forward while drawing the former occupied territory into their alliance to expand the liberal network of defense and political cooperation.

This is where we open the 1993 series Star Trek Deep Space Nine (DS9). The pilot episode shows The Federation taking control of the Terok Nor station from Cardassia following the end of the Cardassian war and the Cardassian occupation of Bejor. However, in 1993, it also describes the situation in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, with NATO and the European Union moving to aid the former Soviet satellite states. Once this connection is made, the first few seasons of DS9 can be seen in a different light as a reflection on the problems the Western world will have in bringing Eastern Europe into the fold and the seemingly simple mission become more complex as political realities become clear.

Beginning in 1993, the initial two seasons of DS9 delve deeply into the difficulties of dealing with a newly liberated territory and their people. This is fascinating turn from prior Star Trek series where the episodic nature did not allow for deep exploration of the political and military conflicts and their ramifications on the shows universe. Now, however, the writers of the show can explore political themes over multiple episodes and seasons into a more sophisticated understanding of the complexities faced in post-conflict scenarios. It is clear that the writers of the show have the previous experience of the Cold War on their minds and use the Bajorans as a useful way to explore the difficulties and struggles that East Europe will face following the end of the conflict. While the end of a conflict is a thing to celebrate, political struggle does not end there and the questions about what to do following a conflict in some ways are even more difficult to answer.

As Bajor emerges from the Cardassian occupation with a fragmented political system that is in transition, The Federation offers aid to the Bajorans in their transition, offering to provide security and assistance to allow the Bajorans to become an independent political system with a growing economic market to tap into. The wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant is stable and the economic growth potential through trade is high, once the political system is adapted to allow Bajor to benefit from the increased trade. Cardassia remains as an ever-present threat, albeit a greatly reduced threat to Bajor. However, most importantly, The Federation sees Bajor as a potential member of The Federation and extends membership to the Bajorans. However, instead of embracing it enthusiastically, some Bajorans are skeptical of The Federation offer and instead would prefer complete autonomy from any of the major powers in the quadrant.

After a 50 year occupation, Bajor does not have a political class that knows how to run independent political institutions and how to handle their new found autonomy. Thus, The Federation with their developed political institutions and economy offers to aid their development and enmesh them in The Federation as an independent planet but operating under The Federations umbrella. This is problematic for many Bajorans as they see The Federation as just a replacement for the Cardassians after they have just won their independence and sovereignty from their tutelage. For example, Major Kira, the main Bajoran on DS9, initially wishes The Federation to leave Bajor alone and allow them to build their own functioning governance structure. However, over time as she interacts with various Vedaks and the political struggle for the next Kai heats up, the it becomes clear that nationalist and anti-Federation political forces are more means to gain political power than actual beneficial policies for Bajor. Instead, the technical assistance that The Federation can provide to help Bajor integrate their economy into the larger economy of the universe and tap into the natural benefits of the wormhole, while also providing political stability is a clear political good for Bajor. In addition, the security provided by Federation presence on DS9 helps keep Cardassia at bay, even when their military class views their retreat from Bajor a strategic mistake. Thus, Bajor is deeply conflicted, benefiting from The Federation presence but also reluctant to cede so much sovereignty after fighting so hard to just win it.

Major Kira is initial quite skeptical of this 'Federation'

Major Kira is initial quite skeptical of this ‘Federation’

EU expansion into Eastern Europe largely faced similar struggles, with anti-EU parties emerging in Eastern Europe to protest EU membership on nationalist grounds. While the US and the EU provided political and economic benefits for moving towards democratic governance and a capitalist economy, EU membership with its benefits, appeared to just replace the Soviet influence of the previous 50 years with Western influence. However, the pro-EU forces eventually won out, but it took until the late 1990s to see these pro-integration forces really triumph. NATO expansion, however, was also contention but largely followed without much resistance in Eastern Europe as former Soviet satellite states feared Soviet reprisals and joined the mutual defense pact they stood against for 50 years. Just as in early seasons Cardassia is unwilling to push back against Bajor due to The Federation’s presence, NATO’s ability to deter Russia from military action against their former satellite states is important.

The Federation acts as a EU/NATO hybrid uniting formerly warring and distant planets together into one confederation with a common foreign policy. However, their offer of membership to Bajor is a reminder that there are clear costs to joining such a federation, namely a reduction sovereignty, something that is tough to give away after fighting for it for so many years. While two seasons in, it does not appear prospective Federation expansion to Bajor will make the Cardassians recoil as Russia recently has with the proposal for Ukrainian NATO/EU membership, if The Federation were to expand to include the colonies in the DMZ between Cardassia and The Federation this could happen. But these similarities ultimately show the political context that the show runners of DS9 were operating under and their view of the difficulty of transitional political structures. Looking back now, integration of Eastern Europe into Western political and military institutions appears per-ordained. However, the context in 1993 and 1994 were much more contingent, as current debates on Ukraine remind us, and makes DS9 a fascinating case in examining the politics of the post-Cold War era.


Both Star Wars and Star Trek featured people with the ability to hack the human psyche. Star Trek featured many kinds of psychological manipulation, most famously with the Vulcan mind meld. Both the Jedi and Sith in Star Wars are able to manipulate and control others from a considerable distance, though we see little evidence of any other method of mind control.

Meanwhile, living beings in both the Star Wars and Star Trek universes also rely heavily upon advanced computer systems and autonomous robots in their endeavors, and their tasks would seem impossible without them. So it would seem ships and defense systems would be highly vulnerable to electronic warfare (EW) and cyber-attacks and that human vulnerabilities would be very minor given the diversity of alien cultures and biological makeups both environments exhibit.

Force users (the Jedi and the Sith) have a telepathic power that is nearly universally effective against all species and works across great distances. While Jedi and Sith contend with a far more diverse biological and psychological panorama of species than Starfleet, these species have been in contact with each other for thousands of years and have mutually intelligible languages without the aid of computer translation. The Force is allegedly a universal phenomenon that affects and permeates everything.


Figure 1: R2D2, tappin’ that.

All combatants extensively used electronic warfare and various forms of cyber attacks. The Empire used malicious software to cripple the hyperdrive on the Millennium Falcon in The Empire Strikes Back, R2D2 routinely gained unauthorized access to many computer systems throughout his career to obtain valuable information, and gain control of critical systems for the Old Republic and the Rebellion. Unknown agents surreptitiously deleted information from the Jedi Archives about the existence of the location of a secret cloning facility. Both the Rebels and the Empire also extensively used electronic warfare to jam or spoof sensors and communications, most famously during the blockade at Naboo and at the climactic Battle of Endor.


Yet most of the time the damage was limited because of the manpower intensive, seat-of-the-pants manual control exerted by crews. Computers seem to be relegated to a background role in Star Wars, with manual control by humans as the norm. Certainly they still serve some important functions, like controlling hyperdrives, storing information, restricting access, and automating maintenance functions, but most functions seem to be run manually by a human. Although computers and droids play an important role, crews predominantly fight by looking out the window.

Meanwhile, on the bridge of the Super Star Destroyer Executor...

Figure 2: Never mind the trillions of dollars of RADAR, sophisticated sensors and computers, or the hundreds of crewmembers on the bridge running it all. I’M LOOKING OUT THE WINDOW AND I SEE A….oh, never mind.

So you’d expect humans would be the weak point in the system, easily swayed by known Jedi and Sith telepathic capabilities. Although Jedi and Sith were never common even in the heyday of the Old Republic, their power was inconceivably strong and known to be effective against large groups. Even so, this technique did not seem to be a prominent method for combat. This may seem odd because most battles involve large numbers of ships at relatively close range. Certainly we’ve seen Force users manipulate others on a few occasions, including at least two obvious examples with Obi Wan Kenobi and one with Luke Skywalker. This power, used subtly, constantly, and pervasively was instrumental to Palpatine’s manipulation during his rise to power. In fact, this is the leading theory explaining why the Imperial Fleet scattered upon his death. Except for two of the aforementioned occasions involving Jedi, this technique was always subtle and used for strategic effect with small nudges, not outright control. Neither the Jedi nor the Sith were ever observed to use it in combat, nor any of their other powers beyond melee range. Perhaps this indicates that Palpatine heeded the dictum “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Starfleet crews totally depend on computer systems to understand and interact with the situation around them. Crews in Star Trek would seem particularly vulnerable to cyber and EW since their whole view out of the ship is fed through the main viewer and computer screens. They cannot even move the ship at all, even simply going straight forward at low speed during an emergency without the main computer operational. As for social or psychological vulnerabilities, Starfleet crews are constantly bumping into new species humans had never encountered before. Paradoxically their vulnerabilities are precisely the opposite of what we’d expect.


Figure 3: The Chief Engineer playing Jenga with control chips, completely immobilizing the ship as a nearby star is about to explode. Not surprisingly, you never see this guy again. Seriously, do you even remember his name?

Computers are integral to Starfleet’s ability to even see outside the ship, much less control it, target weapons, or analyze their environment. It would seem that the perfect way to attack a Starfleet vessel would be to hack the computer into opening all of their airlocks or to shut down the antimatter storage confinement. But for all the total dependence on it and the sophisticated sensors feeding it, and the commensurately high potential electronic warfare and cyber hijinks, the crew seems to be the biggest vulnerability—by far. There were certainly some examples where hostile powers jammed Starfleet transmissions and a few examples of spoofed transmissions and transponder codes (how the Enterprise was able to penetrate Klingon space to rescue Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy from the Rura Penthe penal colony). There were also occasions where another species penetrated their computer systems and shut the ship down or ransacked their records.

But this pales in comparison to the sheer frequency at which the crew itself was the attack vector in all of the series and movies. Nine episodes of the first 14 involved the entire crew or key leadership becoming incapacitated or controlled by outside powers. The times an unauthorized power took over the computer is insignificant compared to the scope of human vulnerabilities. The sheer depth, number of incidents, and myriad ways the crew or leadership of Starfleet vessels were controlled, manipulated, tricked, addicted, drugged, gas-lighted, and turned into sock puppets through strong forms of outright mind control should cause Starfleet to rethink how these systems are managed. Although many of these situations entailed the commanding officer making dubious decisions under the influence of an outside power over the objections of the crew, there were also many instances where the entire crew was affected. The best and brightest of Starfleet naïvely picked up strange androids, devices, and objects, or were careless about letting strangers obtain physical access to computer systems. Unauthorized outsiders (and often insiders) seized control of the ship or key decision makers regularly and didn’t even have to go through the trouble of taking control of the hardware themselves. This does not even include the galling number of times Starfleet personnel misappropriated or commandeered ships or other Starfleet property for their own purposes or engaged various levels of treasonous, mutinous, or well-meaning actions.

But nearly all of these relatively small numbers of incidents boiled down to going through a vulnerability of the crew. For example, Data spoofed Captain Picard’s voice authorization code to feign granting complete computer access to the Borg Queen when they failed to gain access themselves. The Borg could not gain access even with knowledge of the systems from humans they assimilated. This incident is even more troubling since Data’s ability to do that was itself a known vulnerability in the computer’s access controls. The Binars provide another rare example where outsiders gained full control of the computer and hence the ship. But these were Starfleet’s own contractors, and were authorized physical and root access to administer upgrades. The Binars performing the upgrade used their access to cause computer systems to falsely report that the engines were going to explode. They gained complete and uncontested control of the ship when the crew evacuated. But even this was ultimately attributable to social engineering because they were completely authorized for access and were granted clearance. Even Cadet Kirk’s famous hack to beat the Kobayashi Moru scenario was possible because he was familiar with the system had some level of access to the system as a student. He probably acquired the access controls by ahem socially engineering a member of the faculty.

Even Starfleet offensive operations targeting the enemy psyche are more effective than trying to penetrate their computer systems—even with species as dependent on them as the Borg. The Enterprise crew planned to use a cognitive virus comprised of an unsolvable geometric formula to attack the Borg. This approach was inexplicably abandoned and the captured Borg they planned to use as a carrier returned to the collective. But “Hugh” developed an individual personality, which spread like a plague through the psychological side of the collective and threw them into disarray anyway.


Figure 4: Data was going to send over this bizarre Escher-like puzzle to the Borg to keep them busy, but instead, LaForge sent over a copy of Rage Against the Machine and copies of Kierkegaard, which gave them a fatal case of existential angst and mother issues. Data still doesn’t get it.

So it appears that human factors remain the greatest vulnerability to computer security centuries from now, just as they are today. These examples did not even touch upon deliberate misuse or commandeering of Starfleet ships or equipment by Starfleet personnel for their own purposes. It seems that Starfleet still suffers with the same information security issues we face today with human vulnerabilities and insider attacks. More distributed command responsibility or checks on the commanding officer’s authority will not necessarily help, and will cause potentially deadly delays in time-sensitive decisions. Clearly Starfleet needs to rethink command and control of their vessels and organizations, and how their personnel and automated systems can work coherently to bring out the best in both while protecting the other’s vulnerabilities.

Fear of Autonomous Systems:

Perhaps the marginal role and oddly circumscribed capabilities of computers and droids in Star Wars indicates past, even multiple past tragedies with artificially intelligent systems.

There’s evidence of this with killer robot and bounty hunter IG-88, allegedly a leftover from a smoldering droid/AI uprising. Although droids are capable of complex reasoning, tasks, and even emotion, their capabilities seem strangely circumscribed in many ways. R2D2 and C3PO are capable of fully autonomous action, complex reasoning and performing wide ranges of tasks, including many they were never designed to perform. Yet the first generation of Battle Droids fielded by the Separatists were kept under tight central control. They completely shut down in the middle of battle after Anakin Skywalker destroyed the central control ship. Later generations of Separatist war droids operated independently, but demonstrated severely constrained levels of intelligence compared with even the child-like intelligence of R2D2 and C3PO.

I mean, people may own slaves on this planet, but I'll be damned if I will let a kid drink.

Figure 5: “We don’t serve your kind here!” “Oh, you mean the droids?” “No, this is a bar, you idiot. We don’t serve MINORS! This may be a hive of scum and villainy, but even we have our standards.”

There is also a palpable disdain and distrust for droids, particularly in the aftermath of the Clone Wars. Written records cryptically mention that it is standard practice to wipe droid memory regularly. We know this only because Luke Skywalker insisted on making R2D2 an exception from this practice. This may also explain the ancillary role computers are given in operating ships and reveal why ships and fighters have such abysmally poor weapons targeting despite the power of computers and sensors.

Meanwhile, Starfleet has had several brushes with dangerous artificially intelligent systems, but has so far averted a catastrophe and embraces the use of complex and powerful computers and software. But there is a shadow of fear this may occur that casts a pall over the way some treat an android named Data. Data constantly had to defend his loyalty and very existence as a person throughout his career because of his potential and superhuman abilities. Moreover, as a computer that can have its hardware and software modified, he could be easily coopted (in theory). Yet although he too succumbed to manipulation and control, he actually fell under control much less than his human colleagues. Moreover, on several occasions he was the only thing standing between his crew and complete disaster because his mind works fundamentally differently and was not vulnerable to the same attack. Data’s twin, Lore, was certainly hostile, but mostly served to highlight the hazards of programming artificial intelligence with too many of the worst qualities of human intelligence and emotion.

There are a few other potentially dangerous artificially intelligent agents in Starfleet records. This includes one of Earth’s lost Voyager probes, which returned as V’Ger, but it became benign once it began to understand humanity and its mission better. Generally, every encounter Starfleet had with an existing or emerging artificially intelligent being ended satisfactorily, with the agent taking on a benign outlook, or were rendered safe. Generally Starfleet experience seems to indicate that intelligence is an intrinsically good thing, and only computers or androids with limited degrees of intelligence or understanding were dangerous.

For example, autonomous weapons systems with very limited intelligence in “demo mode” wiped out the population of an arsenal planet that produced them, as well as anyone else who stumbled upon the planet. These, and similar systems that doggedly and unreflectively followed their instructions with limited understanding of intent clearly showed something can be dangerous without coming close to human level intelligence, much less surpassing it.

Epilogue: A Staring Contest With An Unblinking Eye


Even when defeating hostile computers and malevolent AI, Kirk still used a social engineering approach.

Kirk defeated malevolent AI by using illogical prompts to cause it to break down.

The opposite is demonstrably more likely to be true.