Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Battle of Yavin


One of my favorite battle scenes of science fiction. This scene from the original Star Wars movie made all of us nerdy junior high kids want to be X-Wing fighter pilots. The Galactic Empire is in a state of civil war. The Rebel Alliance has recently won their first victory in a major battle against the Imperial Fleet. The Empire is determined to destroy the Rebellion, if necessary, by using a large, heavily armed battle station to destroy planets supporting the Rebellion.

Order of Battle

Empire: A heavily armored battlestation with an energy beam weapon capable of destroying an entire planet, numerous anti-ship blasters that are largely ineffective against fighters, several squadrons of short-range Tie Fighters, and a Sith Lord

Rebellion: Twenty-three starfighters, seven of which are the older, but heavily armed Y-Wings, and the balance are the newer X-Wing class. In this group, one of the fighters is piloted by a young Jedi wannabee.

Independent: A Corellian freighter (The Millenium Falcon) will show up late in the battle with a decisive result.


Empire: To defeat the Rebellion "in one swift stroke" by destroying the Rebel base at Yavin IV, along with its leadership, personnel, and logistics support.

Rebel Alliance: Destroy the Death Star, and by accomplishing this act, demonstrate that the Imperial military is not invincible, and hopefully convince some fencesitters to throw in their lot with the Rebellion.

The Plan

Empire: Using the coordinates obtained from the tracking beacon placed on board the Millenium Falcon, close on the rebel base, ignoring resistance, and blow up Yavin IV. This will demonstrate once and for all that resistance to the imperial order is useless. There is no preparatory bombardment or attempts to reduce any resistance by the rebels, it is assumed the Death Star is impervious to any Rebel counterattack, as the onboard weapons are sufficient to defeat any attack by capital ships, and small fighters are not a threat.

Rebellion: Use two squadrons of starfighters to attack the Death Star at its weak point -- an unshielded exhaust port that leads to the main reactor. A squadron of X-Wings will carry out a diversionary attack against the surface of the Death Star to draw attention away from the main strike force of Y-Wings that are attacking the exhaust port. The Y-Wings will use proton torpedoes against the exhaust port, but to do this, they need to maneuver through a narrow trench to achieve the correct release geometry for their weapon. This mission profile consists of three fighters in an inverted "vee", with the leader as the shooter, while the trailing wingmen essentially serve as shields to complicate the shot by any pursuing fighters. In case the Y-Wings fail, the X-Wings will carry out their own attack using the same mission profile. No provision is made for fighter escort for the shooters, nor is there any mention of means of electronic attack (jamming) to confuse Imperial sensors.


The Death Star entered the Yavin system on the far side of the gas giant from the Rebel base on the moon Yavin IV. The Rebel strike package sortied from their base, penetrated the Death Star's deflector shields, and encountered no initial resistance from enemy fighters. The Y-Wings peeled off from the main formation to attack the exhaust port, while the X-Wings conducted a diversionary attack against the surface of the Death Star. When fire from surface batteries proved ineffective at targeting the Rebel fighters, Darth Vader ordered Tie Fighters to intercept the Rebel fighters. The Tie Fighters appeared to have the protection of electronic attack (jamming), or at least unintentional electromagnetic interference, as Rebel pilots were unable to detect them with their onboard sensors. However, they were detected as a "new set of signals" by the Rebel command post -- implying the Rebels were using some capability for "electronic support" to monitor the Imperial "Order of Battle."

When the Imperial staff detected the presence of the Y-Wings conducting a separate attack, Darth Vader personally led a three ship formation of fighters to intercept the attack. He successfully destroyed all three Y-Wings from Gold Squadron. When this attack failed, Red Leader and two wingmen conducted their attack, with the same results -- being destroyed by Vader. Red Leader managed to get off his shot, but missed his target. The last wave of X-Wings led by Skywalker was successful in hitting their target, however, one wingman was damaged (and survived), while the other wingman was destroyed. Skywalker likely would have been destroyed as well, however, Captain Han Solo of the Millenium Falcon showed up at the last moment to intercept the pursuing Imperial fighters, destroying two with the colllateral effect of spinning Vader's ship out of control.


The Rebel Alliance achieved its objective by destroying the Death Star and averting the destruction of their base. The Sith Lord Darth Vader is the only known survivor of the Imperial forces and makes his way back to the Empire. However, the Rebel assault incurred severe losses. Of the Rebel attack force, only three starfighters are seen escaping the explosion -- Luke Skywalker, Wedge Antilles, and one unknown Y-Wing pilot.

With respect to the shooters on the attack run, losses were severe. Of the three attack waves, the first two were entirely wiped out by Tie Fighters, and in the last (Skywalker) wave, one ship was damaged and aborted (Wedge), one was destroyed (Biggs), and only Skywalker survived thanks to the intervention of the Millenium Falcon.

As far as combat away from the attack on the exhaust port, the Rebel Alliance lost several ships to enemy fighters, but mostly when the X-Wings lost mutual support. When mutual support was available from wingmen, they were able to successfully destroy trailing enemy fighters.


Despite the destruction of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance would have to abandon Yavin IV and find a new hidden base as they were not strong enough to indefinitely hold off an attack by the Imperial Fleet. This would lead to evacuation of Yavin IV, and establishing a new base on the ice planet Hoth (which is the subject of another movie).

The destruction of the Death Star was a serious blow to the Empire as it seriously hurt the reputation of invincibility for the Imperial forces. The loss of all hands (except of course, Darth Vader) would deprive the Empire of many of it senior commanders (e.g., Governor Tarkin), and skilled technical staff. As a result of this loss, the Empire would place increased emphasis on finding and destroying Rebel forces. In addition, construction of a second Death Star would commence, near the planet Endor.


Now let's start the critique...

Strategy and Operational Planning.

For starters, let's examine the decision by the Rebellion to stay and fight. This was not an inevitable battle. Princess Leia suspected the Millenium Falcon was bugged and that the Empire would follow them to Yavin IV. Why not 1) ditch the Falcon at some random planet and take another ship back to Yavin IV, or 2) give warning to the Rebel Command to start the evacuation? Staying and fighting the Death Star against near-impossible odds risked the entire Rebel cause in one battle. This is not how successful revolutions are fought. George Washington knew that the way to beat the Redcoats was to always make sure he had a line of retreat so he could live to fight another day. In comparison, the Jews who fought at Masada to the death ensured the extinction of their cause. Han Solo was on to something when he said the idea of going up against the Death Star was his idea of suicide.

It's not like evacuation wouldn't be inevitable. Even with the Death Star destroyed, the Rebels would not be able to fight off the massed Imperial Fleet, and would need to find a new hidden base to avoid destruction.

Now what would be the exception to the rule of avoiding a decisive battle? When the alternative is worse. For example, George Washington risked the Battle of Trenton (preceded by his "Crossing of the Delaware") because his army's enlistment was up, and he needed a victory to get a morale boost so his troops would reenlist instead of deserting a lost cause. Likewise, I attribute this normally flawed strategic decision to General George Lucas needing a decisive Rebel victory to have a feel good happy ending so the Hollywood suits would enlist in his next movie. And to be fair, with Alderaan already falling victim to the Death Star, that would have gotten Princess Leia's "Irish up" for some payback for destroying her home planet, and there's also the sense of duty to prevent other planets from being destroyed.

Next, let's look at the Empire. Their strategy was essentially a direct frontal assault against the Rebel base. Just march right up to the weapons engagement zone for their killer laser beam, and zap the planet. No reconnaissance (like they did with Dantooine), no fighter sweep to suppress planetary defenses, and no supporting fleet to block an evacuation. Hey, it worked with Alderaan! But as Princess Leia noted, Alderaan had no weapons. (Mark another victory for gun control).

Had the Empire conducted a preparatory fighter sweep and bombardment of the Rebel base, the attrition of the Rebel fighter force would have occurred closer to the Rebel base, their counterattack on the Death Star likely would not have occurred, and the Rebellion would have been defeated "in one swift stroke." But then again, there wouldn't have been all of those sequels, not to mention the merchandising.

Tactics, Techniques, Procedures (TTPs)

Now let's look at the Tactics, Techniques and Procedures employed by each side in the conflict. We'll begin with the use of electronic warfare. Both sides used something akin to electronic warfare in the Battle of Yavin. As previously mentioned, the Rebel Alliance had some sort of electronic support capability, as they were able to detect enemy signals that indicated the presence of enemy fighters. The Empire likely used electronic support as well--note Red Leader telling Red Two to "cut the chatter." Radio discipline is important for denying information to electronic support systems. Likewise, the Empire used some sort of electronic attack capability to jam the onboard sensors for the Rebel fighters. What we didn't see was the Rebellion use electronic attack techniques to support their attack on the Death Star. This seems like a glaring omission as they had a complete schematic on the Death Star systems, which should have given them a good Electronic Order of Battle of the defensive systems, and an indication on how to defeat their anti-ship detection and targeting systems. Had the rebels employed some support jammers, perhaps placed on some of the Y-Wings, this would have made it more difficult for the Imperial battlestaff to detect the Y-Wing strike package headed for the exhaust port, and given them the time they needed to carry out their attack before Vader intervened.

Next, let's look at the predictability of the attack. Three waves tried, three waves died (or would have, without Han Solo's deus ex machina appearance). All with the same attack profile. Understandably, this was forced on the Rebellion because the release geometry of the proton torpedo against the exhaust port forced them into this particular delivery profile. So the attack had to be predictable. But because it was predictable, that means the only way to succeed is to ensure you get it right the first time!

Before we get into how the Rebels should have conducted the attack, let's talk about the consequences of predictability in warfare. First of all--it's bad--very bad. You might even say, it's unhealthy. During the closing days of the US active involvement in the Vietnam War, the US Air Force conducted a strategic bombing campaign called "Linebacker II" against Hanoi and Haiphong (the so-called "Christmas Bombing" of 1972). The USAF employed B-52s carrying heavy bombloads against strategic targets intended to bring the North Vietnamese to their knees (and to the peace negotiations). However, their initial tactics were flawed. The strike trains of B-52s were made up of multiple cells of three aircraft each, with each cell following at a time interval behind the previous cell, but following the same flight path. (The geniuses at Headquarters Strategic Air Command dreamed this one up). Now, the North Vietnamese weren't stupid. They figured out they needed to observe the first cell, then they would know how to target the following cells of B-52s. The US lost a lot of bombers that way. Eventually the bomber aircrews had their way and were able to change their tactics to a multiple axis attack with better support from suppression of enemy air defense assets. This dramatically decreased B-52 losses, and led to the successful conclusion of the Linebacker II campaign.

The lesson learned here is to avoid being predictable.

Now given the limitations of the proton torpedo delivery profile into a predictable attack vector, how should the attack been carried out so that the first attack works? Let's go through this:

1) Choose your best shooter. I assume the Y-Wing was chosen because it was the most stable, accurate weapon platform available. And the Y-wing crews would be most proficient at using this weapon. Sorry Luke, you don't get to save the day here.

2) Deny warning to the adversary. Warning is the earliest part of the "kill chain", and disrupting this slows the enemy response. Support jamming might have given the Y-Wing strike force sufficient time to carry out their attack on the exhaust port before being discovered and attacked by Vader

3) Provide escort. The value of escort for the strike force was seen when the Millenium Falcon showed up to save Red Five from Vader's attack. I would have thought a reasonably proficient ops planner would have provided Gold Squadron with a few X-Wings to provide top cover against Imperial fighters. Maybe the rebels thought the distraction provided by Red Squadron would be sufficient to enable them to carry out their attack. But they were wrong.

Had these three steps been carried out, I think the odds would have been better of the Rebellion winning the battle with much fewer casualties.

As for the Empire--their problem was overconfidence, a lack of imagination, and the will to produce a sequel and sell a lot of merchandise.

Next, we look at "Severed Dreams."

No comments:

Post a Comment