Joint Strike Starfighter: X-Wings, the United States Navy, and the Logistics Of Carrier Battles

This post originally appeared on the Grand Blog Tarkin on October 21, 2015. It has since been updated, taking into account new information from the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As such, there are The Force Awakens plot spoilers in this post.

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Mustang, this is Ghostrider, requesting a flyby.”

With each trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we’ve been exposed to the new Starfighter being fielded by the Rebel Alliance – now re-branded as the Resistance. The Incom T-70 is carrying the legacy of the X-Wing into a new generation, combating likewise new models of the TIE Fighter.
The merchandise train for the latest Star Wars film likewise is heavy on the T-70, appearing in either in a light-grey scheme with blue trim, or a black scheme with orange trim. Long before The Force Awakens opened in cinemas, the combination of trailers and merchandising suggested one thing – the Resistance fleet is now lacking a variety of other Starfighter types.

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The T-70 X-Wing toy with Poe Dameron (not to scale).

It would appear that, in the 30 years since the Rebel Alliance deployed an array of X-, Y-, A- and B-Wings to the Battle of Endor, they have settled on the T-70 X-Wing as the single multi-role type across the majority of the fleet. What we see in The Force Awakens supports this theory. The Resistance base on D’Qar is home to a Command Centre, as well as working as a Forward Operating Base for T-70s striking against the Starkiller base (why the Resistance wasn’t running this operation from a Capital Ship is a topic for another Blog Post). It’s true that this is a mere fraction of the Resistance’s starfighter force – countless other bases and ships and systems would operate more. But in past, there’s been no shortage of plurality with the different starfighters the Rebels flew from these bases. By the time we reach The Force Awakens, it’s all about the T-70.

With that assumption on board, it’s worthwhile considering what steps were taken over 30 years to go from a four-type Rebel Alliance fleet, to a single-type Resistance.

It’s a journey to consolidation that draws some parallels to the United States Navy’s own carrier-based combat aircraft fleet.

Both organisations were subject to different different strategic priorities 30 years ago compared to what they are today. When Return of the Jedi hit cinemas in 1983, the Nimitz-class carriers were sailing with no less than four fixed-wing fighter/strike aircraft – the F-14 Tomcat for air superiority, the A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair in the strike role, and the S-3 Viking as an anti-submarine/surface warfare platform. Also operating was the EA-6B Prowler, a variation of the A-6, which was optimised for electronic attack.

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This flightdeck is a hot mess.

Likewise, the Rebel Alliance went into the Battle for Endor with its own four dedicated strike/fighter platforms, albeit with no electronic attack variant (it seemed the Empire had the upper hand in the electronic warfare spectrum that day). Leading this charge were the T-65 X-Wing in the space superiority role, joined by fellow Yavin-veteran, the Y-Wing bomber. Also deployed were two newcomers – the high-speed A-Wing, and the B-Wing bomber, whose primary role was to attack capital ships.
It’s a safe assumption that the role of a Carrier Air Wing is much like that of the Rebel Alliance’s Starfighter squadrons fighting ‘A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away’. Fundamentally, they both need to defend a home base, and are important tools for force projection in pursuit of wider campaign objectives.

Fielding a variety of types that each have a dedicated role carries with it some benefits. A security or technical grounding that affects one fleet of aircraft types will not affect the others. Dedicated types are optimized for function, rather than compromising performance to be truly multi-role. For example, the F-14 Tomcat was designed entirely for defence against against high-speed bombers, as well as combat air patrol against MiGs and Sukhois. The A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair were optimised for economically carrying large payloads against surface combatants and hitting targets on land. The S-3 Viking – working in concert with other aircraft and vessels – was intended for loitering at lower altitudes so that it could detect and defeat submarines.

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Token F-14 Tomcat pic.

For the most part, the Soviet Union spent much of the Cold War trying to overcome the force projection abilities of carriers, and at the same time protect its home shores. Whilst the Soviet Union was spending the time, resources and money on countering Carrier Battle Groups, it was not delivering comparable force projection capabilities of its own.
There’s no question that the Rebel Alliance faced a different strategic environment from the United States Navy. Never-the-less, the Rebels too found themslves fielding a multi-type Starfighter fleet and reapong the benefits, pitching an asymmetric threat against the Empire rather than seeking to counter them one-for-one. Although outnumbered, the specialised Rebel starfighters fulfilled niche capabilities that could dictate the terms of engagements with dedicated platforms. The B-Wing Starfighter, for example, was the heavy-hitter primarily for attacking capital ships.

Notwithstanding its kamikaze attack on the Super Star Destroyer Executor, the A-Wing was a hit-and-run Starfighter built to raid Imperial convoys and destroy remote satellite relays, degrading logistical and communications networks, and crippling the Empire’s ability to wage its campaign. Throughout it all, the X-Wing was intended to defeat the TIE Fighter; while the Y-Wing, a relic of the Clone War, was kept in service probably because it was bloody impossible to get rid of.

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All because this bastard wont convert to another type.

Striking from hidden fortresses and deployed capital ships, the Rebel Alliance’s force projection with these Starfighters would have forced the Empire to build defenses capable of defeating all forms of attack. Imperial Commanders had no idea if their convoy or planetary bases would be ‘bounced’ by a squadron of A-, B-, X- or Y-Wings, or perhaps a combination of all.

For all its advantages, fielding all of these starfighters/aircraft types puts a signficant logistics burden on your supply chain, made all the more difficult when your operating base is a aircraft carrier or Rebel capital ship. Each time a United States Navy Carrier Strike Group goes to sea, it attempts to bring sufficient spares and workforce for the term of its voyage, but is otherwise reliant on C-2 Greyhound carrier on-board delivery aircraft. It uses a fleet of transport aircraft carrying spares, personnel and cargo to nearby friendly ports. Every different aircraft type in the Carrier Air Wing needs its own spare parts, and requires a specially-trained workforce to operate and support. Different aircraft have different maintenance overheads, depending on their age and performance, which ultimately affects sortie generation. All of these factors determine the overall effectiveness of a Carrier Strike Wing whilst it’s at sea.

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The C-2 Greyhound – also known as the sexiest aircraft in the fleet.

When Starfighters are embarked on a Capital Ships (or indeed, as a faraway hidden base), we can assume their supporting constraints are almost identical to their United States Navy counterparts. There’s only so much space on the ship for hangars, spare parts storage, and workforce accommodation. Terrestrial bases for Rebel Alliance Starfighters would provide greater room for warehousing, but still present similar logistical challenges in how they are sustained with spare parts and key equipment.

The one advantages the Rebel Alliance has are astromechs. An R2 or R5 unit, for example, travel with their X-Wing and Y-Wings, and back in the hangar, can conduct repairs and scheduled maintenance without sleep. An astromech is not constrained by which Starfighter it is working on, meaning the same workforce can support multiple types. They can diagnose directly using a ship’s computer, provide accurate stocktake assessments, and receive updated technical publications instantly. Admittedly, astromechs themselves are subject to their own spares pipeline and sustainment maintenance overhead – but the efficiencies they deliver are worth it. If you told the United States Navy that they could replace three-quarters of their maintenance workforce with robots tomorrow, they almost certainly would.

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Once he makes Sergeant you know he’s going to become insufferable.

One advantage the United States Navy enjoys over the Rebel Alliance is a global supremacy that allows them to operate without fear of its logistics network being compromised in quite the same way. By virtue of its underdog status, the Rebel Alliance has to disperse factories/warehouses across the galaxy, keeping them underground to avoid the prying eyes of the Empire. Redundancy in these warehouses and factories is also essential to ensuring this logistics pipeline will not fail if the Empire discoveres a key site, for example. And whilst hyperspace travel offers untold advantages in resupplying bases across the galaxy, repeating these resupply runs would remain a dangerous affair.

Let’s take an X-Wing powerplant as an example. Building them requires de-centralised workshops to lower the chances of detection, but it still needs a skilled workforce to build them. Once built, these components are likely kept in hidden warehouse storage until they are smuggled through the galaxy to their end user. Replicating this logistics effort across all the systems of an X-Wing gives a good impression of how hard it is to keep a Starfighter ‘spaceworthy’ . We can assume there is little-to-no commonality in major components across Rebel Starfighters. All of this puts Rebel Alliance at a significant logistical disadvantage during the Galactic Civil War. By contrast, the Empire operates types that are significantly less complicated (TIEs lack shields and hyperdrives), with greater commonality (a cockpit window from a TIE Fighter will fit all other TIE models, and a simple repair to a damaged solar panel is arguably common across all types).

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Whoever did logistics for the Empire had the easiest job in the galaxy.

(As an aside, I have a theory as to why the Rebellion operated so many different Starfighters, beyond the advantages described before – it’s pork-barrelling. All of these different starfighters had their own employment chain. In all likelihood, Alliance leader Mon Mothma was a master of the gerrymandering required to ensure political support for her cause. How many times did she win the backing of a local star system, but only because she promised to employ local workshops and factories to build X-Wing laser canons there? Likewise, were safe harbour agreements given to Admiral Ackbar, because the Alliance had promised to buy that planet’s spare stock of unwanted Y-Wings? Tyrannical governments like the Empire are themselves corrupt, but can opt to build factories and warehouses where it suits them. There’s little question that the Rebellion had to resort to financial and employment incentives to guarantee support for its cause.)

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Now you know why Mon Mothma always has that pained expression on her face.

Let’s move ahead 30 years to the ‘present day’, and , there’s been significant changes to the strategic operating environment for both the United States Navy and the Rebel Alliance (which has now branched into two entities – a New Republic governing body, and a Resistance military body). These changes undoubtedly influenced their respective moves towards a consolidated fleet of strike/fighter platforms. While aircraft carriers remain an important strategic tool, the years since the end of the Cold War have largely seen their warfighting efforts concentrated on sustained force projection for overland operations in the Middle East and former Yugoslavia. The dedicated platforms operated in 1983 were retired, their roles taken on by a shrinking variety of aircraft types (or, in the case of anti-submarine warfare, shifted to shore-based and rotary-wing aircraft). Today, most Carrier Air Wings limit their fighter/strike capability to the F/A-18 Classic Hornet and Super Hornet, and the E/A-18G Growler. Carrier Air Wing Five, based in Japan, has done away with the Classic Hornet altogether, and operates the Super Hornet and the Growler from the USS Ronald Reagan.

For the United States Navy, type consolidation was not a pre-ordained path. It was forged on failed programs (the A-12 Avenger, F-14 life extensions), receding budgets, and an operating environment that made some elements of multi-role performance easier to achieve. The move to consolidation has robbed the United States Navy of, say, an F-14’s high-speed and long-range intercept talents, or the A-6 Intruder’s payload capability. The upshot is that replacement types (in the form of the Super Hornet) are arguably simpler in their maintainability, and can perform across different roles in the same mission. In an ideal world, this flexibility from a single platform reduces operating costs and improves sortie generation rates with the same number of aircraft and personnel.

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Pictured: Jack-of-all-Trades

The following argument is wildly speculative, but you’ve already read this far – I would argue the experience of the United States Navy with its journey to the Super Hornet is a good analogy to how the Resistance came to operate the T-70 X-Wing as its primary type. The Force Awakens shows a very limited scope of the Resistance as an organisation. I don’t think it would take much to argue that there’s older T-65s still in limited frontline service as well as operated by Reserve units. But, much like the Super Hornet, the T-70 X-Wing is based on a widely-used predecessor, and likely performs the roles of other types that have been since retired. Specialised starfighter roles like anti-capital ship functions are likely to have been transferred to the Resistance’s own capital ship fleet. In the years since the fall of the Empire, the Republic would have likely focused its military spending on policing/defence role following its defeat of the Empire, with the Resistance still engaging threats like the First Order. Meanwhile, the Republic would have faced the financial overhead of running the galaxy, diverting more of its GDP away from military spending and more on reconstruction programs. This has forced the Resistance into operating fewer and more reliable starfighter types that can guarantee reliable sortie generation rates, thanks to a simpler spare parts pipeline and smaller training overhead.

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The sweet sight of streamlined logistics.

Faced with a degraded enemy, the Resistance had the freedom to reassess how it sustained its warfighting capability, and felt it was able to pair back the number of different starfighter variants it operated. As these ships came to the end of their life-of-type, they were progressively replaced by squadrons of T-70 X-Wings. This in turn realized significant savings that could be reinvested in to other Resistance military programs; or governing the Republic. Freedom from oppression was no doubt a selling point for systems not support the Empire, but there’s little question that added incentives like free healthcare and social security would have been needed to sway those systems sitting on the fence.

I’d love to speculate other reasons for how the Resistance came to operate a single Starfighter type. Were there Tomcat-style Service Live Extension Programs for the B-Wings? Was a wildly ambitious replacement for the Y-Wing proposed, only to be cancelled and lead to a decades-long lawsuit? These are the Marvel Star Wars comics that I want to read.

Now, I accept the United States Navy’s wider operating environment is different in many respects from the Rebel Alliance/the Resistance. It has the wider United States Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army to jointly operate with. And the United States Navy hasn’t entirely reverted to a single combat type, either. The Northrop Grumman X-47B is plotting the Navy’s path to an Unmanned Carrier-launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike’ platform. And very soon, the F-35C Lightning II will enter service with frontline units as a replacement for the remaining F/A-18 Classic Hornets. In keeping with the other F-35 variants, the C-model emphasizes a combination of sensor-fusion, stealth, and networked connectivity, and is intended to perform multi-role missions.

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“Set Mode: Landing” doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Call the Ball”.

Like many of the people leaving the cinema after seeing The Force Awakens, I asked myself “what comes next”? With Poe Dameron as one of the core characters of this sequel trilogy, it’s highly likely we’ll see more starfighter battles featured, but it’s 18 months until we can accurately speculate on that question (12 months, if the trailers provide any clues or suggestions). But for now, there’s cause to speculate that the F-35C however has a kin-type in the Star Wars Universe.

Why? The events of The Force Awakens have changed the power dynamic somewhat. The Resistance is now without a government (imagine if someone wiped out Washington DC). The First Order meanwhile needs to bounce back from the economic/military loss of an entire planet it spent decades terraforming into a superweapon. As well as digging deep in to the military potential of their respective Force-users, we’re going to see a repeat of the Original Trilogy, wherein both sides will likely need to re-arm and put the ‘Wars’ back into ‘Star Wars’.

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I look forward to seeing the Second Starkiller Base in Episode IX

So why does the Resistance need to supplement the T-70 when Episodes VIII and IX roll around? Surely it could just build more X-Wings, especially given that it appears to be a proven design, and that they are in such dire economic straits. In the cinematic universe, that’s probably the case, but in our own earthly realm, that argument wont hold up because of merchandising. Since September of this year, Disney has made a pretty penny selling T-70 toys, but come February/March 2017, they’ll need to begin the marketing/merchandising blitz for Episode VIII. A bunch of little girls and boys aged 3-12 are going to need new toys (doubtless some grown adults will want to supplement their Lego collections). Disney can only sell so many models before they have to come up with something new, and are no doubt right now pressuring the creative team working on Episodes VIII and IX to deliver.

This new Resistance fighter – let’s call it the T-XX – will be much like the F-35C, supplementing an existing design (be it Super Hornet or T-70) whilst a greater capability. I have my doubts that Episode VIII will be centred on the Resistance’s own version of Pax River (but then, who knows where Poe Dameron will get posted to next). But I think there’ll be some new starfighters for us to debate come Opening Day on May 26, 2017.

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About eamonh

Air Mobility enthusiast and Star Wars fancier. All writings my own opinions and not those of my employers or associates.
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