Last week, Wired's national security blog Danger Room published a strategic reevaluation of the Battle of Hoth. In the piece, veteran defense blogger Spencer Ackerman argues that contrary to popular wisdom, Hoth was a military debacle that failed its main objectives of crushing the rebels and eliminating their command structure. Ackerman's harshest criticism lands at the feet of Lord Vader, whose strategy, Ackerman claims, boils down to "overconfidence and theology masquerading as military judgment." It's a compelling argument, but immediately drew fire from commenters, fellow defense bloggers, and academics, leading to Wired publishing a follow-up symposium on the battle.
While most writers agreed that Hoth was not an overwhelming Imperial victory, many disagree about his characterization of Vader, pointing out that the Sith Lord's questionable decisions spring from his personal objective to capture Luke Skywalker and the fact that the Rebellion actually benefits Vader's ultimate aim to overthrow the Emperor (if you believe Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Vader was directly responsible for kickstarting the Rebel Alliance).
But to me, condemning or defending Vader's command decisions draws focus away from larger issues about the structural failures of the Imperial military. The lost opportunity at Hoth wasn't the fault of individual commanders, but of systemic issues caused by the "Imperialization" process, when the Grand Army of the Republic transitioned to a military doctrine unsuited to match the Rebel threat. Emperor Palapatine, not Vader, is ultimately responsible for the Imperial fiasco at Hoth, and the evidence for this is, interestingly enough, partially rooted in Star Wars: Republic Commando and its spinoff novels.
Before we move further, let's define what we mean by "military doctrine." In brief, military doctrine is a form of mission statement for how a military force operates, confronts threats, and ultimately wins wars. Separate from strategy, doctrines are conceptual guidelines that define the military's role and capabilities. For example, the U.S. Army's current doctrine is that of Unified Land Operations, a doctrine that emphasizes integrating Army operations with interagency, civilian, and international partners, helping the Army to "seize, retain, and exploit the initiative to gain and maintain a position of relative advantage in sustained land operations to create conditions for favorable conflict resolution." In light of this, let's look at how the military doctrine of the Republic transitioned to the Empire, and how it became the worse for wear.
The cloning facilities of Kamino created the Grand Army of the Republic with a specific goal in mind: to create an individually superior combat soldier. Genetically designed to fill certain combat roles, the original batch of Jango Fett clones were well-equipped and trained to a high degree of proficiency. Moreover, even basic clone troopers were adept at conducting complex joint operations right out of the gate - during the First Battle of Geonosis, clones conducted an air assault that extracted a group of surrounded Jedi, and within minutes joined a larger force that secured an LZ and pressed a combined infantry and armored assault against Separatist forces.
In addition, according to the game Star Wars: Republic Commando, Geonosis also saw the successful deployment of the Republic's elite special operations teams, which assassinated a Geonosian lieutenant and stole the Separatist launch codes, preventing a full evacuation of the enemy droids. Republic Commando, which controls like a Rainbow Six-style tactical shooter, supports the idea that clones had a formidable and professional special operations force that could act effectively with a high degree of autonomy. Delta Squad, the game's protagonists, were also shown to have advanced equipment, including Bacta healing kits, breaching charges and vibroblade punch daggers. According to the Republic Commando novels, Mandalorian military advisors trained special warfare clones to act on their own initiative, leading some commandos to adopt nonstandard weapons and armor patterns and even include Mandalorian sigils such as Jaig eyes on their armor. Over the course of the Clone Wars, clone troopers and commandos frequently accompanied Jedi on special missions ranging from black ops to planetary invasions. They were known to succeed despite heavy casualties and determined opposition, as they did during the botched landing at Point Rain. Given this tactical proficiency and focus on technical warfare and specialization, the military doctrine of the Grand Army of the Republic could be summarized as: "To defeat Separatist forces by gaining battlefield superiority through advanced full spectrum joint operations, technical and tactical proficiency, and special warfare operations." Of course, that was only their overt military doctrine. Their actual doctrine was: "To keep the Jedi distracted, then shoot them in the back." However, despite these ulterior motives the Grand Army of the Republic proved a highly professional and effective force for combating both traditional and irregular forces.
Order 66 and its aftermath upended the function of the Republic Army and led to a jarring change in its culture and doctrine. First, there were the practical concerns. With the destruction of both the Separatists and the Jedi Order, the combat role of the newly-christened Imperial Army changed in this interim period from direct engagement of enemy forces to mopping up surviving CIS units and hunting Jedi fugitives. To consolidate this effort, Imperial officials reorganized the remaining Republic Commandos as a division of Vader's personal unit, the 501st. Though still effective, the newly-christened Imperial Commando Special Unit was a shadow of its former self - after three years of heavy fighting and desertions following Order 66, the combat strength of the unit was only a thousand troopers, well down from the 5,000 originally fielded by the Grand Army's Special Operations Brigade. They were also, of course, missing their Jedi officers. Casualties continued to take a toll on the commandos throughout their years hunting Jedi, and their accelerated aging hastened the retirement of experienced troops - though it seems the Empire slowed this process in at least some veterans, since according to Battlefront II some veterans of the Clone Wars were present at Hoth.
However, with Jedi numbers whittled to almost nothing, the role of the Imperial Army - now reorganized as the semi-autonomous Stormtrooper Corps - again changed gears from hunting Jedi and deserters to maintaining order in the Empire. Palpatine, now lacking opponents and needing to govern a wide swath of galactic territory, reshaped the Stormtrooper Corps into a force whose primary role was to be a political presence with permanent stations on worlds. As part of his "Imperialization" policy, Palpatine dispatched Imperial governors to each planet (known as "Moffs") and gave each a force of Stormtroopers to keep local politics in line and enforce order. Governors and their Stormtrooper detachments, it seems, were not expected to fight in the traditional sense, but rather to enforce political ideology and confront any challenge to Imperial rule. The Stormtrooper's new doctrine might be best summarized as "Garrison and Suppress," with the idea being to keep garrison troops locally on problem planets to deal with insurrection and have more experienced fleet-based troops - like the 501st - intervene if a situation proved too much for local troops. Unfortunately, this meant a number of sacrifices militarily. Putting a Stormtrooper on every street corner required an influx of recruits, meaning that the Corps had to be fleshed out with billions of inferior Spaarti-grown clones that - though produced in a tenth of the time of their Kamino brethren - received little combat training and sometimes gave into "clone madness," a disorder that led them to frag comrades. The human recruits that followed were not much better trained, a fact that is most apparent by their appalling marksmanship. This shifting role of the Stormtroopers also led to the adoption of armor that was better suited for handling insurrections than the Mark I and II Clone Armor, but fared less well in open combat. Though not as effective against blaster fire, Stormtrooper armor provided superior protection from environmental hazards and was virtually impenetrable to the hard round munitions usually used by insurgents.