The rebel military: A study in strategic incompetence

(SPOILERS for Star Wars movies up to the end of 2017.)

Histories of the short-lived Galactic Empire and the consequences of its fall have tended to focus on the authoritarianism of the Empire and the First Order, and of the heroism of their opponents. While valid, such an analysis is incomplete. This essay examines the military leadership of those opposing forces (we will use the term ‘rebel military’ to describe the coalitions that served under the leadership of Leia Organa, rather than attempting to distinguish between the Rebel Alliance, New Republic and Resistance). Despite their achievements, any clearheaded analysis of the rebel military shows that their responsibilities far outstripped their capabilities.

It’s important to note that while these strategic failures occurred under the leadership of Leia Organa, it is not productive to hold her accountable for them. Accounts from the Battle of Yavin and the Battle of Endor indicate clearly that she understood that she was a political leader, who delegated command appropriately to those with the relevant training and expertise. Rather, we must understand that it was a lack of professional capability in the officer corps that led to various disasters.

The clearest example of this is the massacre above Crait, where most of the rebel transports (that carried the entire rebel military) were destroyed. Records of conversation show that this was the product of a dysfunctional leadership culture that had no strategic vision and no capacity for operational planning. Vice Admiral Holdo’s personal heroism is without doubt, but as we move toward a military doctrine that eschews suicidal attacks in favor of a more sustainable and professional approach, we must recognize her failures of communication and leadership.

Firstly, a reminder of the key facts:

  1. Three cruisers (the surviving elements of the rebel fleet) were pursued by a First Order taskforce that had demonstrated a capacity to track the rebels through hyperspace.
  2. The cruiser squadron was commanded by Vice Admiral Holdo, the most senior officer in the rebellion after the bridge of the Raddus was destroyed.
  3. Poe Damaran (freshly demoted from ‘Commander’ to ‘Captain’) formulated a plan for neutralizing the opposing hyperspace tracking capability. Cruicially, this plan was not shared with Vice Admiral Holdo. He was assisted in concealing his plan from Vice Admiral Holdo by a member of Holdo’s bridge crew.
  4. Vice Admiral Holdo formulated a plan for evacuating the personnel aboard the squadron to the planet Crait. Crucially, this plan was not shared with Poe Damaran.
  5. During the execution of Damaran’s plan, he became aware of the plan to evacuate the personnel. He communicated the existence of this plan to his tactical team; the First Order learned of this communication.
  6. Despite Damaran’s attempted mutiny, the evacuation proceeded according to plan.
  7. The First Order made use of their intelligence regarding the evacuation plan to conduct the massacre above Crait, and pursued the surviving elements to the surface of the planet.
  8. The very few surviving rebel personnel escaped Crait aboard a YT-model freighter.

Before continuing with our analysis of rebel military failures, we should note that point 7 shows one of the most persistent failures of imperial and post-imperial strategy: a persistent failure to address the threat posed by small, maneuverable craft. Time permitting, there will be a separate essay on that topic.

Even from these limited facts, a number of questions occur that give rise to serious doubts about the leadership capability of the rebellion:

  1. Why did Damaran refuse to share his plan with Holdo? More importantly, why did a member of Holdo’s bridge crew actively conspire to conceal the plan from Holdo?
  2. Why did Damaran communicate the evacuation plan to his tactical team?
  3. Why did the tactical team compromise the security of their communications?

The answers are as follows:

  1. Not only did Holdo lack the communication skills to ensure the integrity and legitimacy of her command, the integrity of her command was compromised by officers senior to her.
  2. Poor communications discipline, a lack of operational planning, and a lack of professional confidence in the tactical team.
  3. Complete lack of training in information security.

Let’s review those answers in detail before moving from ‘leadership capability’ to ‘strategic vision’.

Failure to legitimize command

“I’ve seen a thousand flyboys like you,” Holdo said. And yet, for all her experience with hotshot pilots, she completely failed to anticipate that if she didn’t recruit Poe Damaran onto her team, he was going to go off and do something without her knowledge. When he expressed a completely legitimate set of concerns, she told him to shut up and leave her alone.

The evidence indicates that this was not an isolated incident, and that this demonstrated inability to listen extended beyond ‘flyboys’. If a member of the bridge crew is willing to lie to their commanding officer, that indicates a very serious lack of trust within that crew. If Holdo had earned the trust of the bridge crew, she’d have been told about Damaran’s plan by the people he attempted to recruit.

Any officer worthy of their commission would have found a way to get Damaran to be useful, and to get his energy lined up with the things that needed to be done. Imagine if she had said “I have a lot on my plate right now, and this is a very serious situation we’re in. The most useful thing for you to do is to work out what we have in terms of small-craft capabilities. Work out what we’ve got, and what we can do with it, and report back to me with some options. We’ve bought a little breathing space, and I want us to use it to think clearly.”

That response would have made him go away (her most immediate need, and a legitimate one) while keeping the lines of communication open. It’s far from her only option for doing better than she did, but it’s an available one.

However, to blame her is to ignore a widespread culture of insubordination, fuelled by failures of discipline at every level. C3P0 contributed to the problem when he said that “Holdo would never agree” to the plan. As a negotiator, he had a professional obligation to advise open communication with Holdo, to bring the military together during the crisis, instead of driving it apart.

Leia Organa’s contribution to the culture of insubordination is very significant and indicates her failure to appreciate military tradition. Consider this: when Damaran proposed an evacuation of the base on Crait, everyone turned to her. She replied “What are you looking at me for?” The answer is patently obvious to someone who understands the military: they’re looking at her because she is the ranking officer, and they’re demonstrating respect for her role as the person in command. They’re looking at her because their best chance at survival is for them to all follow one plan, rather than spreading their efforts across multiple plans.

Once again, this is part of an ongoing pattern of behaviour. In the attack on Canady’s Dreadnought, Organa says “I want to remind you that I think this is a bad plan.” This is completely inappropriate behaviour from a commanding officer, even if it is routine behaviour for a politician. With this statement and her associated behaviour, she communicates that:

  1. She does not intend to accept the consequences of an action taken under her command.
  2. That she accepts that an officer under her command will defy her wishes.
  3. That she is not in control of the situation.

When Damaran defies her order to retreat, she makes it clear to every witness that she is not in control of the situation. How difficult would it be to get on the radio and say to all attacking craft the following: “We have lost communication with Commander Damaran. You are ordered to retreat. He is ordered to retreat. Retreat now.”

She doesn’t do it because she remains, at heart, a politician; she values having someone to blame. On his return, she applies a penalty by reducing his rank, but does not appoint someone else to command the fighter squadron. Demonstrating again her concern for political symbolism over meaningful control. Little wonder that the ambitious junior officers take matters into their own hands.

Poor communications discipline

Organa’s ‘bad plan’ comment illustrates another critical weakness: poor communications discipline within the rebel military. A vast number of communications are sent in order to address the emotional needs of the sender, rather than the information needs of the recipient.

The worst offender in this regard is Damaran’s inappropriate communication with his tactical team. Having briefed the team himself, he knows that the team is aware of the urgency and importance of their mission. He has no reason to believe that they will tolerate any delay whatsoever. And yet he contacts them to urge them to go faster, as if his suspicions about Holdo will have a positive influence on their mission performance.

His best option in that situation would have been to maintain radio silence. The team had no way of using his information in any constructive way, and were engaged in a highly complex, time-critical task. If he absolutely had to communicate, he could have achieved every constructive purpose by asking two questions: “At what time do you estimate the mission will be complete?” and “Do you have any options for completing earlier than your estimate?” It would have been boring, but professionals aren’t in the business of creating an exciting story, they’re in the business of winning.

Oblivious to information security

As for the tactical team themselves, they failed to take the most rudimentary precautions regarding information security. Anyone who overheard them for a few seconds would understand exactly what they were doing and why they were doing it (as demonstrated during their brief incarceration).

They could have assigned codenames to their mission objectives. They could have memorized key facts during their transit to the mission area, and drilled each other during that time, instead of reminding each other while the mission was in progress. They could have kept their mouths closed while imprisoned by a hostile force. The fact that they did none of those things indicates that their training was grossly inadequate.

Failures beyond leadership and professionalism

In addition to these terrible failures (to establish legitimate leadership over a disciplined and well-trained military), the rebels suffered from failures of operational planning and strategic vision.

The most glaring strategic error is their investment in base construction. Even though they were successful in preventing the Death Star from destroying the planet of Yavin IV, they were forced to retreat. Following the loss of the base on Hoth, it seemed that the rebel leadership had learned its lesson, and final preparations for the Battle of Endor were conducted in a deep-space rendezvous.

However, old habits die hard, and by the time the First Order has constructed their Starkiller weapon, the rebels have concentrated all of their forces in a single base at D’Qar. When this base is threatened, they are forced to deploy rapidly against Starkiller Base. The evacuation of the base at D’Qar leads directly to the disaster above Crait.

Given the overwhelming numerical and technical superiority of the First Order, the decision to concentrate rebel assets at one base shows a glaring lack of foresight. A considered strategy would disperse rebel assets across multiple systems, preventing the First Order from controlling rebel strategy and allowing the rebels to choose if and when to attack. (It would also either reduce the risk to the civilian population at large, or force the First Order to destroy so many star systems in pursuit of rebel assets that their collapse would become inevitable.)

Similarly, the failure to maintain adequate fuel reserves (such that the cruisers would be out of fuel after two hyperspace jumps) is a spectacular failure to prepare for contingencies. Defenders of the rebel military’s actions might point out that the cruisers are intended to be deployed alongside support vessels. However, the strategically wise choice would have been not to use those cruisers at all. (Given the spectacular success of the YT-model freighter in various rebel operations, there is no excuse for failing to procure more of them.)

Is this criticism fair?

This criticism is not fair. Any judgement of Leia Organa must take into account the astonishingly difficult circumstances of her life. Her personal heroism in the destruction of the first and second Death Star platforms is a defining contribution to galactic history. Her political leadership and understanding of the spiritual needs of the rebellion and resistance was critical to its survival.

Nor is it a fair criticism of Vice Admiral Holdo, who (like General Han Solo before her) was not a graduate from an officer school, but rather a person of great talent promoted rapidly in a time a great need. Nor is it a fair criticism of Admiral Ackbar, a gifted squadron commander who underestimated the importance of tradition when he found himself commanding a navy.

When judging people, we must take all of these things (and more) into account. But if we aspire to professional greatness, we must be uncompromising in recognizing failure, even as we forgive those who fail.

Written by

Nick Argall is an organization engineer, structuring activities to help businesses achieve their goals. nargall@gmail.com

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