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.
However, the point of the Stormtrooper garrisons wasn’t to combat armed insurrection, but to preempt it from even occurring. During the period of Palpatine’s New Order, the Garrison and Suppress model was a part of an overarching theory known as the “Tarkin Doctrine,” which hoped to rule through fear. The Tarkin Doctrine hoped to rule the galaxy through the threat of military force rather than the direct application of force itself, a concept that jived well with the already overstretched resources of the Empire. However, the application of this doctrine depended on a projection of Imperial power by symbol – the Death Star, which Tarkin commanded after his elevation to Grand Moff. The fact that Tarkin’s ideas found a warm audience in the Emperor isn’t surprising – let’s face it, Palpatine was a religious mystic and was therefore predisposed to be over-enamored with symbolism. In fact, this obsession with scale transcended the Death Star and led to the adoption of other technologies that were either impressively enormous, like the Super Star Destroyer, or could be cheaply launched en masse like the stripped-down TIE Fighter.
These cultural and doctrinal changes further degraded the effectiveness of the Stormtrooper Corps. Military doctrine stressed scale and quantity over quality, so trooper training and readiness levels declined. Imperialization policies enforced standardization of arms and equipment – disallowing individualized loadouts and returning the clone’s painted armor to factory white – and punished the use of informal nicknames rather than number designations. In place of the tactical creativity fostered by the Jedi, especially in special forces units, Imperial officers demanded strict ideological conformity and the literal interpretation of orders. Transports and fighters lost their nose art, the highly successful air mobility and gunship programs were scrapped, and the life of the individual Stormtrooper dropped in value. The changes were particularly damaging to the commando units, who were used to acting with initiative and creativity within mission parameters. If you need a single event to demonstrate the degrading combat effectiveness, consider this: When Vader needed to hunt the Millennium Falcon, he had to rely on bounty hunters rather than his in-house units that would theoretically play that role. In other words, in using the Tarkin Doctrine, the Empire was trading the perception of combat effectiveness for actual combat effectiveness.
Now, what does all this mean for Hoth? Everything, really. It means that instead of leading a force that resembled a modern military with air mobility, Vader was forced to make do with troops that trained and expended like World War II-era Soviet conscripts. It means that the Empire’s obsession with scale caused him to rely on General Veer’s AT-AT walkers that attacked too slowly and lost troops to crossing dangerous ice floes before even reaching the battle. Most of all, it meant Vader lacked the special warfare capabilities that he’d have used 20 years beforehand.
While Spencer Ackerman’s Wired piece does point out many glaring errors on Vader’s part, I’m not completely sure what I’d have done in the same position when faced with the need to extract Luke Skywalker from Echo Base. Though it was too slow and allowed too many Rebels to escape alive, the AT-AT assault did break the Rebel lines and destroy the shield generator, giving naval assets a firing solution on transports awaiting launch on the snowfields and allowing the Navy to land troops via dropship. And while the 501st didn’t make it onscreen much, the storming of Echo Base inflicted heavy casualties on the Rebel Alliance and proceeded in good order. The worst criticism should really fall upon the Navy for allowing so many Rebel ships to slip the blockade and approach the very few vectors where hyperspace is possible around Hoth. So while it was a strategic defeat, Imperial forces at Hoth did kill large numbers of Rebels, including 17 out of 30 troopships, and successfully scattered them. The Empire didn’t fail, though it didn’t completely succeed.
What bothers me about this assessment is that it never had to be this way. If the Imperial Army hadn’t dismantled its special operations capabilities after the Clone Wars, and if its doctrine didn’t insist on a grand gesture like the deploying enormous metal elephants, Vader could’ve achieved his victory with minimal casualties. Unfortunately, the way to do that was to do the opposite of Imperialization, Garrison and Suppress and the Tarkin Doctrine: he needed to think small and trust his operatives.
Luke should not have been difficult to capture. Naturally curious and reckless, mere days before the Empire arrived at Hoth, Skywalker had already wandered past the Echo Base perimeter and been taken captive by a wampa. I’m going to repeat that: what Darth Vader couldn’t do with a full ground invasion and an orbital bombardment, a Yeti accomplished with its bare hands and the element of surprise. The “Wampa Incident” makes one thing painfully clear – Imperial Commandos could’ve captured Skywalker without much fuss, had Vader quickly landed several four-man commando teams on Hoth and given them time to establish an observation point and track Skywalker’s movements, then ambushed him with an E-11 blaster rifle on stun setting. And let’s not kid ourselves, they could’ve done it. Hunting and high-value targets like Jedi was the specific function of the Imperial Commandos.
In fact, Commandos would have also been able to assist with the problem of the shield generator. After all, any Battlefront II player knows that the way to crack Echo Base isn’t to storm the trenches, but to infiltrate around the flank capturing strategic points as you go. All of the power at Echo Base – from the shield to the v-150 Planet Defender ion cannon – derived from the stolen reactor of a Predator class Star Battlecruiser. Several small teams, deployed quietly, could have slipped in the back of Echo Base via the south and approached the generator. Because the generator would likely be too large to destroy with man-portable explosives, commandos could’ve targeted the cables, junctions and substations that distributed and regulated the power throughout Echo Base. With their power cut, the Rebels would lose their shield, ion cannon, most of their trench defense guns and most critically the heating systems that kept their ships from icing over and becoming inoperable. Then you jump the fleet in and commence the landings. If you need any more evidence that this would work, consider this: it’s exactly what the Rebel Alliance did at Endor.
But any of this would have been both impossible and unthinkable for Vader – impossible because the Stormtroopers no longer had the military capability to carry out this sort of operation, and unthinkable because according to Imperial doctrine, victories had to be won with a massive show of power. Quietly strangling the Rebellion in its crib would not have sent the political statement that Palpatine intended, and despite Vader’s silent plots against the Emperor, he needed to appear to be carrying out his master’s wishes. In other words, Imperial violence was guided by politics and symbolism rather than military practicality.
Hoth and the storming of Echo Base will always be considered at least a tactical victory for the Empire. However it behooves us to understand that the mistakes that led to the Rebel’s ultimate escape and reformation were not due to a single commander, but cultural and doctrinal changes in the Imperial Military as a whole that de-emphasized it as a versatile and creative combat force and instead positioned it as a political stability force. Perhaps Palpatine would have done better if he structured his army to be formidable, rather than merely look formidable.