Some late but worthy entrants in the Hoth symposium have arrived, and it’d be a shame to let them go unread. Enjoy, as final pairing, a defense of canon: the Empire did well given the circumstances of it’s birth, and despite protagonists surviving Hoth really was a major Rebel defeat.
Let’s Cut the Imperial Fleet Some Slack
It’s difficult to tell from the original three movies, but the Imperial Fleet is a very new organization. Their operational and strategic missteps make much more sense in this light. A galactic fleet cannot be built in a day. Although we see a Star Destroyer at the end Revenge of the Sith, a fleet is comprised of more than just ships. Doctrine, tradition, staff work, planning processes, and institutional experience are just as important as the ships themselves. Even though decades elapse between Revenge of the Sith and The Empire Strikes Back, it was just not enough time for the Imperial Fleet to become an elite force.
The Battle of Hoth occurs twenty-two years after Palpatine seized power.The first expeditionary operation conducted by the US Navy after their formative battles during the American Revolution occurred between 1801-1805, twenty six years after its formation. Both of these conflicts were waged against non-state actors by very new nations. Although the First Barbary War was successful for the American Fleet(thanks to a few Marines) there was an embarrassing mistake. The USS Philadelphia was run aground and captured, along with its entire crew, without a fight. Additionally the expeditionary force had to depend on third party support from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Presuming that years in the Star Wars galaxy are identical to our own, the two young fleets had a similar amount of time to develop. The Imperial Fleet that we see in Empire, while presumably leavened with
clone-veterans from its formative battles, just did not have the know-how to conduct counterinsurgency on a galactic scale. The tactical and strategic situation that the fleet faced at Hoth was, to them, a new one.
The fact that Palpatine was even able to marshal the resources, clone army notwithstanding, to operate a galactic fleet in so little time is impressive. The US Navy is the most powerful navy in the world, but it has spent 238 years getting to that point. The US Department of Defense uses the acronym DOTMLPF- doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, and facilities- to evaluate new programs. All of these aspects of a military organization takes years to develop, even for just a single new unit. Palpatine had to create and validate all of these aspects of the Imperial Fleet from scratch, all while Vader was force-choking officers with years of experience. Additionally, Imperial policy excluded non-humans from service, so the Empire could only draw from humans to find the knowledge and skills necessary to man a fleet. The institutional incompetence and poor staff work evident in the botched attack on Hoth is evidence of his haste and Vader’s toxic leadership.
Brett Friedman is a Marine with delusions of grandeur, and one of the editors at Grand Blog Tarkin.
Missed Opportunity: Rieekan’s Failure at Hoth
The conventional wisdom regarding the Battle of Hoth is that it was a major Imperial victory, described in terms of the Rebels as the massively overmatched ragtag band scattering before the unstoppable Imperial juggernaut. The contrary wisdom of sci-fi strategists focuses both on the tactical blunders made by the Imperial force, and the strategic factors that influenced the decision-making of key leaders. Both narratives are wrong. The Rebel Alliance was anything but a ragged insurgent mob; they were a well-equipped and well-organized hybrid threat# at the time. The Battle of Hoth should have been a decisive victory for the Rebels, perhaps even as significant as the Battle of Yavin had been. The Imperial forces bungled what should have been a fairly simple HVT capture or kill mission, their staggering incompetence playing right to the Rebels’ strengths. However, the Alliance only managed to scrape by with a strategic draw due to their failure to take advantage of key opportunities during the battle to strike a massive blow to the Imperial fleet and the Empire’s key leadership. Hoth was also not a total tactical failure for the Empire; in fact they managed to pull off a partial victory, since Echo Base was indeed reduced to rubble, and the Rebels lost a large amount of materiel in the process of their hasty withdrawal under fire. The Imperial forces managed to salvage a partial success out of what by all rights should have been a crushing defeat, thanks to the even greater failures of their Rebel opponents, in particular the criminal negligence of General Rieekan.
The Rebel failure at the Battle of Hoth started long before the fighting began. Casually disregarding the key element of Echo Base’s defense and evacuation plans—the planetary energy shield—the Rebel force did not even make an attempt at denial or deception, not bothering to conceal or camouflage the shield’s power generators with so much as a camo net. This oversight enabled an Imperial probe droid to easily obtain photographic evidence of their presence, and later for the assault force to quickly identify and destroy the generator. General Rieekan compounded this error with poor or nonexistent reconnaissance planning. He did not clearly identify his priority information requirements (PIR), had no communications plan or contingency for missing personnel, no counter-recon plan, and relied far too heavily on unmanned sensors. Because of this, there were no additional resources committed in response to a report of a suspicious meteorite (that turned out to be a probe droid), Luke Skywalker was forced to investigate alone, and was then out of communication for hours before anyone even noticed he was missing. Once the probe droid was finally discovered, it was by an unmanned sensor and a SIGINT intercept of its transmission, the damage already done by the time the impromptu QRF—consisting of Han and Chewie—was able to locate and destroy it. Once the ground invasion started, the poor reconnaissance planning was even more apparent: with no screening force forward of the main trench line, the defenders did not see the AT-AT assault force until they were within visual and ground-shaking range. Of course, the lack of scout observation posts was irrelevant because the Rebels did not even attempt to employ indirect fires or obstacles to disrupt, turn, or block the attackers. Despite being able to see the enemy main body well beyond direct-fire range, the Rebels simply allowed it to literally walk directly into its main objective, nearly unopposed. The only token resistance offered was pitifully ineffective direct fire from medium crew-served infantry weapons, a stunningly poor choice against the entirely predictable circumstance of the enemy using armored vehicles. Lacking any depth whatsoever, once the single defensive line was easily overrun, the assault force had an uninhibited path to the power generators, enabling the destruction of the base. The attempt at close air support is almost too embarrassing to mention. Lacking effective armor-defeating weapons, the snowspeeders had improvise an attack solution on the spot using harpoons and tow cables. Even after all the other failures, this might have worked if not for the cartoonishly suicidal tactics of Rogue Squadron. Ignoring their near-infinite maneuverability advantage over the AT-ATs, they insisted on attacking directly through the walkers’ incredibly narrow frontal cone of fire instead of from the flanks or rear, resulting in multiple aircraft losses. This technique also placed the speeders directly in the line of friendly fire as well, though no blue-on-blue incidents resulting from poor airspace deconfliction are shown.
The responsibility for all these failures falls to General Rieekan, the Rebel commander at Echo Base. Blame cannot be placed on lack of resources; the Rebel Alliance was remarkably well-equipped for a non-state actor, with capital ships, heavy weapons, and advanced fighters at its disposal. General Rieekan managed to secure anti-access/area denial capabilities to defend Echo Base (the energy shield and ion cannon); effective anti-armor systems, artillery pieces, and engineering equipment should have been easy to obtain. Rieekan simply failed to conduct a proper mission analysis. The failure was also not of Rebel Alliance military culture writ large. Disruptive thinking, tactical innovation, and maximization of limited resources was practically institutionalized at the Battle of Yavin. The Battle of Hoth turned on a failure of basic defensive preparation. If General Rieekan had made even a token effort at engagement area development, the small Imperial ground assault force would have been easily defeated. This in turn would have enabled the Rebels to target and disable the blockading Star Destroyers (which Admiral Piett clumsily positioned within range) with the ion cannon, and then call for reinforcements to finish them off, or cover a more deliberate evacuation. Instead, General Rieekan’s negligent incompetence and failure to accurately assess the situation cost the Rebel Alliance an opportunity for a major victory at Hoth.
Mike Forbes is an army officer with an IPA focus and a MENA hobby. He can be found on twitter.