[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.
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.
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: