Inside the Battle of Hoth: a military analysis of The Empire Strikes Back

Spencer Ackerman, from the Wired News defense technology blog Danger Room, writes a brilliant military analysis of the Battle of Hoth at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back.

From a military perspective, Hoth should have been a total debacle for the Rebel Alliance. Overconfident that they can evade Imperial surveillance, they hole up on unforgiving frigid terrain at the far end of the cosmos. Huddled into the lone Echo Base are all their major players: politically crucial Princess Leia; ace pilot Han Solo; and their game-changer, Luke Skywalker, who isn’t even a Jedi yet.

Read the whole epic thing, complete with schematics and tactical diagrams: Inside the Battle of Hoth: The Empire Strikes Out | Danger Room |


      1. I’ve always wondered why the AT-AT explodes as soon as it’s hit by anything bigger than a snowball.  I guess evil empires aren’t all about product safety.

          1. I think they tried to justify that with there’s some anti-anti-gravity weaponry, like an EMP (even though it’s never shown up in any of the books I’ve read); but the real reason is that it looks cool.

  1. Mmmm.  Want to like it, and I hate to think of myself as that big of a Star Wars nerd, but it’s very easy to interpret things quite differently.

    The one good takeaway line is here:

    Don’t place unaccountable religious fanatics in wartime command…

    But, for starters, none of the major figures in the rebellion are present (as demonstrated when the actual command structure is revealed at Sullust).  Beyond that Luke and Leia are popular, but would probably be considered equally valuable as martyrs, and not many people beyond the Hoth base itself would know much about Solo.

    Only Vader and Palpatine know anything about Luke’s true value at this point, and they are in fact at odds over how to deal with him, which is precisely why Vader doesn’t order him obliterated in an orbital bombardment.

  2. What never made any sense to me is the complete failure to deploy TIE bombers:

    Given the fact that AT-ATs work, the rebel shield clearly doesn’t affect anything operating at modest altitude, and even a modest number of TIEs could have crippled the rebel’s transports (which were in the open while being loaded and prepped for takeoff) leaving them stranded on-planet.

    At that point, the hostile climate would leave the insurgents with the option to surrender or freeze to death. Game over in under a day without cover or heat sources, and only substantially longer if some reactors and power sources remain online, which would be trivial to hunt down with thermal imaging gear and assault with stormtroopers and armor.

    1. Remember, the Alliance had to modify their craft for cold weather operations, something that was only completed the morning of the attack. That’s why Luke was out on a Ton Ton. The Empire did not have that sort of time. AT-ATs are already fitted for all terrain work and required no modification allowing the Empire to strike quickly leaving the Rebels unprepared. 

        1. Cold weather is not only low temperatures. Cold weather also means snow, strong winds… none of which are present in space.

  3. So… I can’t follow the article. I can’t figure out what the author is thinking about the energy shield, which seems to shape what the author is thinking about everything else.

    Of course the energy shield only protects the Rebel base, and doesn’t prevent an Imperial landing some distance from the Rebel base. Since the Rebels only turn it on when they detect the Imperial threat, they presumably face power constraints or other technical constraints that could make it impractical to cover a larger area. No idea where this ‘one exit’ thing is coming from.

    Since Vader discovers the Rebel base by accident, and other parts of the Imperial fleet are searching elsewhere, Vader moves with the ships which are immediately available. I’m more surprised at the small scale of the ground assault than the small number of ships, but we might only be seeing one part of the ground assault.

    1. Yeah, his whole claim that the Rebels’ shield is hampering the rebels more than the Empire doesn’t hold water considering the rebels could just turn the shield off at their convenience.  Its a fricken *door*, you open it when you need to.  You don’t have to wait for someone to kick it down so that you can leave.

      1. I always figured that since the Empire can detect the shield itself, they can detect its boundaries.  The Rebels have to open the shield to allow their transports to leave.  If the transports take off on any random vector, they’re sitting (well, flying) ducks the moment they pass through the shield, which is why their escape vector has to be aligned with the ion cannon’s line of sight.  The ion cannon fires precisely when the shield opens to disable any Imperial vessels attempting to intercept the escaping transports.  This works in favor of the rebels, as we see when everyone cheers at “the first transport is away.”

        The ion cannon is their only weapon protecting the escaping transports, and since it’s just one cannon (with a limited sightline), it makes sense that it restricts and hampers the evacuation, while making it possible in the first place.

    1.  That’s because the Empire still keeps it’s AT-AT specs classified.
      Let it go already Empire, those things were obsolete a long time ago and in a galaxy far far away.

  4. Best comment in the thread
    JordanViray • a day ago−Have you even served with the Imperial forces? Sure it’s easy to take potshots from your military blog in some no-name star system while the fleet and its legions fight the rebel insurgents, but combined space/air/ground operations are a lot messier than any infographic could ever portray.Even with the Empire’s full spectrum dominance of the battlespace, you can’t just leverage fleet assets which are optimized for ship-to-ship combat into a large scale ground invasion force. A Star Destroyer might have more firepower than the entire militaries of less advanced worlds but you still need a proper ground assault ship to support infantry landings.Unfortunately, the do-nothing blowhards in Coruscant couldn’t get funding for the promising alternative designs from Sienar Fleet Systems and we ended up (as usual) with Kuat Drive Yards’ overpriced, overdue, and underperforming AT-AT mess.

  5. Why are we surprised? After all, once we’ve seen the lame sequels we understand why douchey Anakin/Vader would screw this up.

  6. He lost me at his comment “A smarter plan would have been to launch TIE fighters against Echo Base”. Did this guy even watch the movie?  The rebels were having a hard enough time adapting their snow speeders to the cold of Hoth. Presumably they had some time to work out the worst of the kinks before the battle. How would a TIE fighter fare any better on short notice?

    A question that has always bugged me is why in the original Star Wars did Grand Moff Tarkin bother with going AROUND Yavin to get to the moon that the rebel base was on?  He should have just destroyed Yavin itself and the moon would probably have been destroyed in the blast as well.

    1. That’s a very good point.  In 35 years it has never once occurred to me that blowing up Yavin would have destroyed (or at least rendered immediately uninhabitable) its fourth moon.  If nothing else, it would have cleared the path for the killing shot, though I expect planet-killing lasers might require a recharging time somewhat in excess of 30 minutes.

      Still, that’s one hell of a homing beacon that transmits the Falcon’s destination all the way from the Yavin system to the (former) Alderaan system.  I assume the Death Star has one of the fancier hyperdrives that the Imperial Defense Budget could afford, but the fact that they arrive shortly after the Falcon does and yet on the wrong side of the planet from the moon, requiring a 30-minute sublight approach… boy, that’s sloppy.

      Oh, wait.  Yeah, I forgot.  It’s, like, a movie.

      1. We don’t know what the Death Stars would do to gas giant planets.

        Also, don’t the Rebels spend the better part of a day preparing for the first Death Star’s arrival, even if the movie doesn’t show the time interval? I can’t find the standard travel time from Aldaraan to Yavin, but the Falcon makes point five past lightspeed, while the first Death Star makes four* … i.e. the Falcon is eight times as fast.

        *Movie Trilogy Sourcebook, p. 146.

        1. And yet!  The Death Star emerges from hyperspace on the far side of the planet from the moon, providing a dramatically suspenseful (but, as it turns out, tactically deadly) window of 30 minutes for the Rebels to strike back.

          Even not knowing how crowded the Yavin system may have been, hampering the hyperspace movements of the Death Star, it seems to me that even (or especially) if the Death Star’s hyperspace approach vector was from the wrong side of Yavin, it would have been advantageous to fine-tune the approach angle to pop in a lot closer to the moon itself.

          Sure, sure, as far as Tarkin knew, Leia and her rescuers may not have realized they had a homing beacon on board, and so he may have been trying to sneak up from the blind side of the planet to preserve an element of surprise (the strategy that Admiral Ozzel neglected to adopt at the above-mentioned Battle of Hoth, to his sorrow), but of course the Rebels know exactly where that pesky Death Star is the moment it arrives in-system, expecting it or not.

          And only an hour earlier in the movie, while Tarkin is standing there taking in the view of the as-yet unmolested planet Alderaan, Admiral Motti helpfully offers him this nugget of Distant Early Warning: “We’ve entered the Alderaan system.”  Some seconds before they’re all set to fire.

          I think that, were I in Tarkin’s polished boots, I’d have utilized the Alderaan style of approach for the actual Rebel base, as opposed to just for the politically vital (but militarily insignificant) Alderaan.

          1. It’s possible that the sheer size of the battlestation places limits on its hyperspace performance, such that its only window to approach Yavin was the one it took. Maybe the other moons were so placed that they would have interfered with the Death Star’s approach in hyperspace, or its entry back into normal space.

      2. The homing beacon, if you ask me,doesn’t need to track the ship as much as provide the jump vector. If we assume that hyperspace jumps are straight lines (thus requiring the fancy navigational computing), then having an exact pin on the jump angle can tell you which systems are within range. Not much retcon needed.

        And as Marja stated, blowing up Yavin itself might not have been feasable. It seems to be on a scale of Jupiter, meaning the planet killing laser might not even reach the core, instead boiling the atmosphere.

        But that might have been another way to have the dramatic sequence: instead of going around the planet to find the proper moon, Tarkin could have ordered the laser trained onto the gas giant. That means the rebel fighters had to damage or destroy the station before the planet went critical, within the time it took for the laser to boil through the atmospheres, perhaps forcing the Death Star into the gas giant’s gravity well and have it collapse when it enters the atmosphere?

    2. I had the same reaction myself. But, to play devils advocate, don’t TIE fighter operate in the cold blackness of outer space? Presumably they can handle extreme cold and heat.

  7. There’s a whole scene where Vader upbraids one of the admirals for coming out of hyperspace too soon, allowing the rebels to detect them and making a bombardment impossible.

  8. My gripe is with that first line: “From a military perspective, Hoth should have been a total debacle for the Rebel Alliance.” Well it was, wasn’t it? They see their base wiped out, the loss of massive power generators and an ion cannon, the eventual capture of key military and political leaders and the dispersal of their forces – just days after setting up the base in the first place. Even states: “The Battle of Hoth was a major victory for the Galactic Empire and the single worst battlefield defeat suffered by the Alliance to Restore the Republic during the Galactic Civil War.”

    (Over-analysis of sci-fi movies is *precisely* why exploring the backstory in prequels is an utterly lame idea.)

  9. amazing response:

    The Longue Duree of the Galactic Empire – by Timothy Burke

    “The overly episodic focus of military historians and policy experts rather typically leads them to ignore the deeper structural considerations shaping this period in the history of galactic society. The Battle of Hoth is in fact an epiphenomenal afterthought notable largely for the waste of lives and resources on both sides, rather than any kind of turning point in the conflict. In the longue duree, what is more striking by far is the escalating failure of bureaucratic centralization under the late Imperial government, which was in turn little more than an extension of a similar structural contradiction in the late Republic period. Paying too much attention to ideological superstructures like ‘The Force’ conceals the degree to which galactic governance in either period had become a form of tributary extraction from separate polities whose cultures and languages were poorly integrated into the dominant elite culture. The Empire’s racial preference for humans with pink skin and a selected set of other privileged subaltern cultures was simply a ratification of the tendencies towards speciescentric elitism in the Republic, and the tendency to rely upon technological violence and coercion to keep systems in line merely a variation on the use of highly trained paramilitary “Jedi” to intimidate rebellious or dissenting local elites in the late Republic.

    Battles like Hoth were a constant feature of the late Republic and Imperial periods alike, but have received less attention from scholars due to the lack of participation by charismatic leaders whose long-term importance was negligible, like Darth Vader and Leia Organa. In many ways, the destruction of Imperial facilities by poorly armed indigenes in the Endor system is more indicative of the ways in which galactic governance was fragmenting and failing in the late Imperial period. Treating the Rebellion as a privileged mode of dissent in an era when many other systems and social classes were in other ways ‘slipping through the fingers’ of the Coruscant metropole is itself granting too much credit to a ragtag band of avidly self-promoting malcontents.”

  10. Why are people bringing up TIE fighters or TIE bombers as a logical choice? Aside from the “not adapted to fighting on the cold planet” that a few of us have already mentioned have people also forgotten the deflector shield?  That shield which is preventing an orbital bombardment also has to be briefly turned off in order for the rebel ships to pass through it to make their escape.  In ROTJ the shield around the new Death Star is also not permeable to ships (in the book it is mentioned that 2 or 3 fighters don’t turn in time and explode when they hit the shield). 

    The whole point of the shield protecting the rebel base on Hoth is to protect it from ships which is why the AT-ATs had to be deployed out of its range and then walk over to it.

    ETA: And just to further add to my nerdiness when it comes to all things early Star Wars it isn’t as if the entire attack was a waste of the Empire’s time. Aside from the (one would assume) rather expensive loss of their secret base they also lost a lot of personal and ships. In the books and comic version (and from what I remember the comic versions back then were based on early cuts of the movie) a stormtrooper reports to Darth Vader that 17 fleeing rebel ships had been destroyed. That is a pretty heavy loss for a small group of rebels.

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