Starkiller Base is probably older than we think – and provides an insight into Imperial procurement.
When audiences first watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December 2016, they drew inevitable comparisons between ‘Starkiller Base’, a planet-sized weapon capable of destroying star systems wherever they were located across the Galaxy; and the Death Star, the space station that destroyed the peace-loving planet of Alderaan in the original film.
There were great technical differences between the two, in their size and how they achieved their destructive effect. But thematically speaking, both were a superweapon that served the same purpose of wiping out our heroes (and whatever planet they were on) in one fell swoop.
Critics of JJ Abrams’ entry into the Star Wars canon registered Starkiller Base as an unoriginal attempt to capture the tone of the original films with yet another sci-fi superweapon. For anyone with an interest in the security and strategy environment of the Star Wars Galaxy, however, it yields some insight into one of the most important procurement programs in the Empire.
The audience’s assumption on watching The Force Awakens is that Starkiller Base is a successor to the Death Star design, constructed by the First Order in the 30 years that followed Return of the Jedi. On witnessing the destruction of the Empire, Supreme Leader Snoke and the First Order Service Chiefs (great ska band name, by the way) seem obsessed with replacing the last flawed superweapon with an equally flawed design.
But Starkiller Base is huge – it is a planet converted into a superweapon. The First Order, whilst undoubtedly having achieved some technological progress since the days of the Empire, would surely not have the resources to undertake its entire construction.
Taking an example from how most of our military procurement programs are run on Earth, what if Starkiller Base was actually a competing design to the Death Star?
The Death Star is a pre-Clone War era program, evidenced by its plans first appearing in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. It’ speaks to Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine’s deep-seated desire to blow up a planet as part of his strategy for governing the Galaxy. The Death Star is a space construction project undertaken on a colossal scale, probably not unlike major infrastructure programs here on Earth. It employs largely familiar science within the Star Wars Galaxy, to meet Palpatine’s need. We know a little about how the Death Star fit into Imperial doctrine thanks to Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: A New Hope. The mere threat of a Death Star destroying a planet is intended to achieve the political peace, rather than systematically going around blowing up planets. “Fear, will keep the local star systems in line,” Tarkin tells us. “Fear of this battlestation.”
The trouble is, the Death Star is required to be physically present in the orbit of the planet that it is destroying. Starkiller Base, on the other hand, reaches across the galaxy at near-instantaneous speed to achieve destruction of its target. Rather than spending days or weeks in hyperspace like a Death Star, Starkiller Base could simply charge itself up and fire. But that science comes at a cost – indeed, Starkiller Base appears to be grounded in technology that we have not seen in Star Wars before, so we could argue that it is a far more experimental design than the Death Star.
That Starkiller Base capability – and the massive terraforming of a planet required to realise it – must have taken a generation to research, much less build. It’s a whole other level beyond what we see in the Death Star. For Palpatine, the Death Star was a clear winner – construction could start today and most people would see the finished product in their life time.
But if the science behind Starkiller Base could be realised, then the Death Star becomes an interim solution. So, Palpatine commissioned both a Death Star design and Starkiller Base simultaneously. The Death Star would win the peace, but Starkiller Base would be researched and worked on in the background until the technology matured.
All of this speaks to a fairly complicated political environment within the Imperial procurement office, as the Starkiller Base promised far greater capability, but was much riskier a proposition than a Death Star. Staff Officers on the Death Star program no doubt relished in their project’s completion and its destruction of Alderaan – only to be undone by a small thermal exhaust port. It must have been a few tense weeks whilst Team Starkiller and Team Death Star all waited to see what Palpatine would authorise construction of next (I assume they all shared offices on the same floor in a Coruscant high-rise building), with the eventual winner being a second Death Star. Team Starkiller Base must have felt pretty damn low for those years.
One of the reasons I’m adamant that Starkiller Base is an Imperial program too is that it fits the Empire better than it does the First Order. The Empire needed to enforce its rule with a big superweapon that would frighten people into submission, and had a Galaxy’s worth of resources to manage its construction. It’s a massive jobs-building program, something I think is what helped keep Palpatine in power. The Dark Side is one thing, but 0% unemployment because everyone is employed in a Star Destroyer construction yard is a whole other level of power.
The First Order on the other hand can’t possibly have access to the same quantity of scientists, resources, and workforce to undertake the whole construction of Starkiller Base themselves. What’s more likely – Nazi Germany having an superweapon program, and handing their results to a group of successors; or a group of Neo-Nazi radicals in a basement somewhere starting one from scratch?
The most likely explanation is that the First Order inherited the task of completing the last 5-10% of Starkiller Base’s construction, a job that still might have taken them years and still deeply rooted in research risk. That’s still a lot of materiel and workhours to spend whilst you’re engaged in a war with the Resistance, but when the dividend is destroying the heart of the New Republic, you’ll take that bet.