The re-emergence of the A-Wing Starfighter in Star Wars tells us about strategic policy and defence priorities in the Republic.
A new detail came to light from the set of Star Wars: Episode VIII – Title TBA last month, with on-set photos revealing that the A-Wing starfighter will be featured in the next film.The A-Wing made its screen debut in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and there are some subtle differences between the original model and the one we’ll see on the screen in December 2017. We obviously don’t know a whole lot about the A-Wing’s role in Episode VIII, save for the fact that a full-size replica has been constructed for the film, which would suggest we’ll see a main character – or even secondary – jumping in and out of one. In Star Wars ship terms, having a full-size prop constructed for the film is quite the big deal, considering the A-Wing’s first appearance in Return of the Jedi was largely accomplished through models, matte paintings, and cockpit replicas. This met the production’s intent that the serve as a ‘background extra’ in the Battle of Endor, and potentially sell a few more toys. So, what’s so special about the A-Wing? Why might we see it reappear in a new Star Wars film over, say, a Y-Wing or a B-Wing? And what purpose might it serve our heroes?
To paraphrase a quote, A-Wings are all about speed. Hot, nasty, bad-ass speed.
Within the Star Wars canon, the A-Wing lacks the range and firepower inherent with other Rebel starfighters, instead holding an unprecedented edge in speed and maneuverability. Strictly speaking, speed is a good thing to have as a fighter. It allows you an advantage in surprise and responsiveness. Surprise is good if you’re hoping to engage in ‘hit and run’ offensive sorties, before an enemy’s defences have a chance to react. Responsiveness is good in defence, where a quick reaction time will counterattack an an incoming formation before it reaches its target.
We can draw some rough parallels with the A-Wing and our own world, especially with the design process behind some Second and Third Generation fighters, including the MiG-21 and Mirage III. These fighters were lightweight (for their time) and more manueverable than heavier contemporaries. Whilst the Mirage III and MiG-21 could be fitted for air-to-ground attack, they were largely intended as point-defence interceptors.Manueverability notwithstanding, the English Electric Lightning, and the F-104 Starfighter – the ‘Missile with a Man in it’ – are also good examples of defence procurements where speed was prioritised above all else. When United States Air Force fighter pilots came home from the Korean War, they told Lockheed aircraft designer Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson that they wanted a new fighter that was faster than the F-84 and F-86s they flew against the Communists. By the same token, the Royal Air Force during the early stages of the Cold War arguably drew on their experiences during the Battle of Britain when they released the requirement for a mach two interceptor that could shoot-down Soviet bombers over the North Sea, away from British shores. The ‘need for speed’ is hardly restricted to the development of Second and Third Generation fighters. Since the First World War, fighter aircraft evolved with new developments that offered greater speed than predecessors. However, the Second and Third Generation fighters came about at an interesting time in defence strategy terms. They were designed during the 1950s, but their arrival coincided with the onset of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, meaning their primary role – intercepting a ‘first strike’ by nuclear-armed bombers – was unlikely to occur, with the possible exception of the advent of nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Many of these fighters then found other causes for being, or at least continued in their primary intercept role long after more advanced aircraft arrived. The Royal Air Force didn’t retire its Lightnings until 1988, and Italy kept its Starfighters until 2004. Elsewhere, Pakistan still flies the Mirage III, and a handful of air forces continue to fly the MiG-21 (or its derivatives). A combination of external influences and the nature of these aircraft kept them on the frontline.
So, what does 40 years of Cold War defence strategy have to do with the A-Wing? Arguably, the A-Wing’s introduction into the Rebel Alliance fleet came about as the result of similar requests for tender for Earthbound counterparts during the early stages of the Cold War – they wanted something small, fast, and manueverable. But why? Because the A-Wing is arguably the opposite of everything else fielded by the Rebel Alliance. It lacks a port for an Astromech, so it doesn’t have the long-range strategic flexibility of larger ships like the X-Wing or Y-Wing. And it doesn’t have quite the same number of moving parts (much less firepower) of its fellow Return of the Jedi debutante, the B-Wing.What it does have is speed, and like our MiG-21 and Mirage III, that makes for a useful interceptor. While the Rebel Alliance didn’t need to worry about incoming fleets of Soviet Bombers (although that would be an awesome crossover), it did need to defend its bases. Capital ships and terrestrial bases, cramped for space, needed a small ship that could provide home defence whilst their larger starfighters were away conducting strikes. The A-Wing is essentially the Rebel version of the TIE Fighter. If required, the A-Wing can be employed for offensive strike missions, providing bomber escort with a limited capacity for striking hardened targets.
All of this makes the A-Wing a useful addition to the crowded Rebel Alliance starfighter fleet. Following the defeat of the Empire, however, the Rebel Alliance becomes two organisations. There is the Republic, whose job it is to provide security and governance to its constituents. Then there is the Resistance, a quasi-legal offensive arm of the Republic, whose job it is to build intelligence on the Empire’s remnants (such as the First Order) and destroy them.
If you’re a small, vaguely-funded organisation trying to combine offensive strike missions against the First Order with a combination of intelligence-gathering tasks (like we see in The Force Awakens), then the T-70 is a good fit. It brings good offensive firepower with the long-range flexibility of an astromech droid. This extra crewmember allows the T-70 to navigate with flexibility to a variety of destinations, rather than being launching to a set destination within the ship’s navigation computer. Astromechs can also conduct repairs to a starfighter away from home base, either during a mission or on landing.The A-Wing, on the other hand, fits the model of a Republic starfighter. That’s not to say a handful wouldn’t have found their way into the Resistance fleet along the way. But the Republic’s defence budget would have likely prioritised a smaller interceptor for mass production that would serve as a point interceptor for home defence. The Republic’s Gross Domestic Product would have likely been absorbed by reparations to damaged planets from the Empire’s rule, resettlement of refugees, and other economic development initiatives to ensure the economic growth of a galaxy decimated by decades of civil war including the Clone Wars. The underlying theme behind the Republic’s defence strategy in The Force Awakens is that the Republic believes the First Order is not an existential threat – otherwise, it wouldn’t be conducting a proxy war with them through Resistance X-Wings. Of course, the extent of the Republic’s own military capability is only depicted in The Force Awakens through a number of capital ships being obliterated over Hosnian Prime. We won’t have any concrete data of how the Republic was equipped until the release of further canon material such as comics, novels, and other material. Expect more detail to come in Episode VIII, where one of the issues that will need to be addressed is how the Resistance can merge its organisation and warfighting capability with the wider Republic (and its economic might, but arguably self-defence focus). If that story needs to be told with hangar bays filled with new generation A-Wings and X-Wings, then all the better.