Why does the Empire embark on obscenely expensive programs to create Weapons of Mass Destruction? Because the alternatives are even more terrifyingly expensive.
An oft-stated criticism of the Galactic Empire in the Star Wars series is its dependence on building a resource-consuming superweapon, intended to wipe out the Rebel Alliance in one swift stroke. The Death Star, The Death Star II, and the Starkiller Base are all intergalactic-equivalents of our own Weapons of Mass Destruction, each possessing the power to destroy an entire planet.
The reliance on this kind of weapon could be chalked up to lazy story-telling on behalf of the filmmakers. What’s more, naysayers criticise these superweapons on account of resource intensive they are, not to mention the relative ease with which they are destroyed.
The trouble with these arguments is that they ignore the benefits to the Empire of building such a weapon, to say nothing of the cost of governing the Galaxy without it. The Death Star was central to the Imperial’s long-term security strategy. The best metaphor for our world would be the cost for a military to maintain a nuclear deterrence, versus accomplishing the same strategic effect through solely conventional means. Galactic tyranny doesn’t just fund itself, and when you consider the fiscal costs of maintaining the peace, the prospect of a superweapon that threatens total destruction with little warning makes sudden strategic sense.
To argue the Death Star’s benefits, we should hark back to the time of the Old Republic. It’s safe to assume that a lot of the Empire’s warfighting doctrine was informed by individual experiences of the Clone Wars. The Empire’s predecessor – the Old Republic – faced off against a mass of separatist systems in a Confederate-instigated Civil War, with their opposing forces largely made up of a massive Droid Army. Ignoring the fact that Chancellor Palpatine was secretly pulling the strings of the Confederacy, we can assume a host of non-Clone Colonels and Fleet Captains were the ones prosecuting the Clone Wars for the Republic. On the formation of the Galactic Empire, these same men went on to form chief decision-makers within the Imperial Army and Navy, and would craft the strategic policy of the Empire – everything from its governance style, warfighting doctrine, and acquisition requirements.
The Empire’s roots in the Clone War are evident within the Original Star Wars Trilogy. Take TIE Fighters for example. If you were a three-star Imperial Admiral leading the starfighter procurement project office on Coruscant, you’d probably recall your experiences in the Old Republic with operating slow and heavy ARC170s and Y-Wings, and demand something small, cheap, and simple to operate, especially considering the only other major military threat has just been eradicated. The result was the TIE Fighter, which could be produced en masse cheaply, and provide capital ships with a basic fighter screen. The relative simplicity of construction in a TIE Fighter might have made it vulnerable to attack from the emergent Rebellion, but for Logisticians and Engineers, it must have been a delight to maintain.
Imperial Walkers are another good example. They demonstrate some brutal effectiveness during the Battles of Hoth and Endor, but during both engagements, it becomes apparent that they’re vulnerable to unconventional attacks from indigenous groups and Rebel squadrons. Substituting the Rebel Alliance for, say, a Droid Army, then it’s safe to say that these Imperial Walker assaults would have been successful. Nobody would expect Battle Droids to have the imagination to conceive of log traps, much less wrap a tow-cable around the legs of an Imperial Walker.
Much of how the Empire fights its wars makes sense when you consider that it was founded as an organisation to combat the Confederacy, and not the Rebel Alliance. The Confederacy sought to overcome the Republic with a sheer weight of resource supremacy, to which the Republic responded with its own sheer greater number of troops and equipment, coupled with a core of Jedi Knights. The mass-produced nature of the Empire is evidence of that. By the time we reach A New Hope, however, the Empire is confronted with two problems. Firstly, the Rebel Alliance doesn’t fight like the Confederacy – knowing it can’t defeat the Empire numerically, they seek to undermine it through more creative and innovative techniques, capitalising on their diverse racial support base.
The second problem is the task of governing an Empire. No matter how cheap and mass-produced you make it, it’s still resource intensive.
Consider the task of crewing a Star Destroyer. The crew complement for each ship is 37,000 (not counting each ship’s embarked Stormtrooper complement – that’s another 9000). The Empire had an estimated 26,000 of these ships – that’s 962,000,000 operational crew. And it doesn’t account for reservists, off-duty crews, training and development personnel, logisics support, or depot servicing technicians. Even with astromechs and mouse droids pulling their weight, the conservative estimate has the Empire’s entire Star Destroyer workforce coming in between two to three billion souls.
And Star Destroyers are only a piece of the Empire’s total workforce. You had everything else it needed to run the Galaxy, from all the other capital ships it operated, the entire Imperial Army, Garrisons, Engineers, Fuel Transport, Security and Intelligence, Human Resources and Finance, Public Affairs, Bands, and the Air Show Demonstration Team.
The colossal construction expense of building two Death Stars, followed by a Starkiller Base, is a massive resource drain to have on top of this. Critics are right to say that the Empire was in over its head for embarking on the construction of such a space station. Estimates put its construction at eight quadrillion dollars (anyone who can give me an exchange rate for Republic Credits to US Dollars?), but the resources available to the Empire would have made it more achievable (obviously, considering they built two). The reality however is that the over the life-of-type for a Death Star, it would have saved the Empire a lot of troubles with its governance expenses, not to mention sustaining its military.
For a start, a Death Star makes the job of governing significantly easier. Pax Imperia could be achieved through a single space station that threatens of violence without needing to be physically present in the same way that thousands of garrisons and Star Destroyers would need to be. Grand Moff Tarkin says so himself: “Fear will keep the local systems in line – fear of this battle station”. It’s not a new argument, either – Grand Blog Tarkin covers this ground very well. Whilst a Death Star can’t be in two places at once, its mere existence would stun countless systems into compliance.
Despite its construction costs, the predictive modelling for how much money the Death Star could save the Empire must have been terribly attractive to Imperial Comptrollers. Here was a silver bullet which could potentially negate the requirement for additional capital ships and ground forces. At some point in the Death Star’s construction, however, the Empire would still have needed to fund conventional forces. That would have caused tremendous confrontation within the ranks of the Imperial procurement programs competing for funds. In one corner, the program offices for the tried and proven Star Destroyers and pre-fabricated garrison; and in the other, the new Death Star project team.
That’s a caustic environment to have within a military organisation, whereby conventional warfighting experience is challenged by ‘Young Turks’ who see the potential of the Death Star as a governance tool. It also comes with numerous second- and third-order effects, right down to the boots of Stormtrooper on the frontline. Budgets for supporting conventional warfighting training and development take a hit, or worse, can’t be guaranteed for the next fiscal periods, because the money is being reallocated towards a new planet-destroying battle station.
The impact of nuclear weapons and guided missiles had a similar effect on conventional forces during the 1950s and 60s, with many of the misconceptions about their employment only addressed in the wake of the Vietnam War. A similar scenario would have affected the Empire, with the Death Star figuring on its horizon, and an armada of Imperial Walkers and TIE Fighters left to equip its conventional forces. Conventional forces would have been given only marginal increases in technology and training, proving a dangerous gamble in the face of a bold Rebellion. Following the Death Star’s destruction, the Rebel Alliance still isn’t facing the Empire on anything close to equal terms. But the internal conflict between the old ways and the new within the Empire might have just helped its odds.