Why Did the Chicken Walker cross the road? (Hint: It wasn’t to transport something)
There’s something odd about the AT-ST. Its name, ‘All Terrain – Scout Transport’, is a misnomer. The vehicle is comprised of two legs, a chassis, and a ‘head’ inside which the crew are positioned, along with the vehicle’s armament and power source. Indeed, the head has space only for two crew members (or; two Ewoks and a Wookiee). Whereas the larger AT-AT (All Terrain Assault Transport) has a ‘torso’ with seating for 40 assault troops, the AT-ST would appear to have no capacity for transport at all.
When is a transport actually not a transport?
Calling the AT-ST a ‘Transport’ could be argued as a movie error, but might also be an insight into the (admittedly fictional) Imperial doctrine during the Galactic Civil War, which mirrors our own real world in many respects. Star Wars isn’t so much a direct metaphor for earthly conflicts, but a reflection of how real world prosecutes conflict in an imperfect fashion. The Empire and the Rebel Alliance adhere by doctrine (in some cases to a fault), and are erroneous in their decision-making, much as we are. For a Space Fantasy, Star Wars is littered with details that are grounded in reality, from the weathering and battle scars on the Rebel X-Wings starfighters, right up to the approach t warfighting of the Empire.
The AT-ST is a good example of this. In spite of its name, its primary role doesn’t appear to be scouting, but rather, light-armoured fire support. During its two cinematic appearances, it’s seen providing infantry support in the Battle of Endor, and protecting the flanks of larger armoured formations in the Battle of Hoth. In a scouting role, an AT-ST is arguably less effective at forward reconnaissance than the Empire’s smaller and faster speeder bikes or probe droids. As a Transport however, it simply can’t pull its weight. Unless there’s some kind of tow-bar attachment for the AT-ST to be connected with a trailer or caravan; or racks on which smaller vehicles and troops can be mounted; then it’s not a transport at all.
Naming inconsistency is a reality of our world, too, and often says a lot about the doctrine and thought of the beholder. Take NATO for example. When the Sukhoi Su-24 and Su-25 ground attack aircraft were revealed, NATO designated them as the ‘Fencer’ and ‘Frogfoot’ respectively, using an ‘F’ name to indicate their status as fighters. Whilst both aircraft are ‘fighter-sized’, the reality was that they held only a limited self-defence capacity, but were in effect a Strike and Close Air Support aircraft, meaning they should have had ‘B’ names.
The United States Air Force falls under the same judgment. During the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the Tactical Air Command (TAC) received a string of fighters whose primary role was precision strike. The nature of TAC’s role and establishment as a ‘fighter’ organisation led to the designation of the F-105, F-111, and F-117 as ‘fighters’. The first two aircraft were capable again of carrying a self-defence armament; the F-117 ‘Stealth Fighter’ meanwhile carried no air defence weapons during the operations it served on. All three should probably have been given ‘B-‘ designations to reflect their Bomber roles.
The justification for Fighter and Bomber designations within the United States Air Force links back to the respective function of TAC and the Strategic Air Command during the Cold War. Bomber designations were largely destined for aircraft serving with SAC, and indeed, when SAC purchased its own F-111s, its aircraft were redesignated ‘FB-111’. Names and designations are often not indicative of the aircraft’s immediate role, but rather, who the aircraft is working for, and what that organisation sees its role as.
So, how does this link back to the Empire in Star Wars? Quite simply, the Imperial Army views its Walkers as Transports, irrespective of whether they’re utilised in a battlefield to transport personnel or cargo. That suggests any number of things about its armoured vehicle doctrine – ranged assault vehicles like Walkers are viewed primarily as an infantry transport/support, thus earning them a broad title of ‘Transport’. Armoured vehicles that didn’t need to range out or provide direct assault -such as those use for policing or garrison support – probably had little requirement to transport infantry or cargo, and thus probably viewed as a separate breed. The AT-ST falls into the former range, having some capacity for scouting ahead of a larger formation, chart clear lines of attack for AT-ATs and probing defences. But it is not a true transport, in spite of its name.
This inconsistency in detail is one of the enjoyable things about Star Wars. For every bit of military hardware, civil planning, and cultural touchstone within these films (and their selected spin-offs), the implication is that there’s an entire world behind the scenes. Every AT-ST used on the Sanctuary Moon of Endor probably linked back to a cubicle in the Scout Transport Systems Project Office on Coruscant where their logistics support, engineering, and spare parts were coordinated. Movie goofs and Cinema Sins in A Galaxy Far Far Away might be caused by the film-makers’ artistic licence, but the imperfections and errors are often a meta-commentary on how our own world works.
In a future post, I’ll look at why the Empire emphasised such a Walker-centric ground assault formation, especially in light of what the alternatives might have consisted of. No doubt many have watched The Empire Strikes Back and scoffed at the idea of AT-ATs mounting a forward assault with little capacity for defence against a counterattack or specialised defences. The explanation is that the Empire, much like our own Defence Forces today, inform their procurement based on years of experience against past foes. The AT-AT and the tactics employed by the Empire aren’t just good cinema – they’re a response to the Clone Wars and a Generation of warfighting.