How did the Galactic Empire ever cement its hold on the Star Wars Universe? The war machine built by Emperor Palpatine and run by Darth Vader is a spectacularly bad fighting force, as evidenced by all of the pieces of Death Star littering space. But of all the Empire’s failures, none is a more spectacular military fiasco than the Battle of Hoth at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back.
From a military perspective, Hoth should have been a total debacle for the Rebel Alliance. Overconfident that they can evade Imperial surveillance, they hole up on unforgiving frigid terrain at the far end of the cosmos. Huddled into the lone Echo Base are all their major players: politically crucial Princess Leia; ace pilot Han Solo; and their game-changer, Luke Skywalker, who isn’t even a Jedi yet.
The defenses the Alliance constructed on Hoth could not be more favorable to Vader if the villain constructed them himself. The single Rebel base (!) is defended by a few artillery pieces on its north slope, protecting its main power generator. An ion cannon is its main anti-aircraft/spacecraft defense. Its outermost perimeter defense is an energy shield that can deflect Imperial laser bombardment. But the shield has two huge flaws: It can’t stop an Imperial landing force from entering the atmosphere, and it can only open in a discrete place for a limited time so the Rebels’ Ion Cannon can protect an evacuation. In essence, the Rebels built a shield that can’t keep an invader out and complicates their own escape.
When Vader enters the Hoth System with the Imperial Fleet, he’s holding a winning hand. What follows next is a reminder of two military truths that apply in our own time and in our own galaxy: Don’t place unaccountable religious fanatics in wartime command, and never underestimate a hegemonic power’s ability to miscalculate against an insurgency.
Vader’s Incoherent Strategy in Outer Space
Vader realizes the opportunity at hand for an end to the Rebellion. Yet his bumbling fleet admiral leaves hyperspace too close to Hoth, losing the element of surprise and allowing the Rebels to activate the shield. Vader rolls with it (after killing Admiral Ozzel): He orders a ground assault on the Rebel base with the sound objective of destroying the generator that powers the shield. Once the shield is down, the Star Destroyers that make up the majority of the Imperial Fleet can launch the bombardment the shields prevent. Vader further orders that no Rebel ship be allowed to leave Hoth alive.
Sounds simple, right? Alas, Vader’s plans are at odds with each other. Vader jumps into the Hoth system with a handful of Star Destroyers; only six are shown on screen. That’s got to enforce a blockade of an entire planet. His major ally is the Rebel energy shield itself, which bottles up a Rebel escape to the Ion Cannon’s line of sight. But Vader doesn’t seem to realize the shield’s ironic value. Once Vader orders the shields destroyed, he lacks the force to prevent a pell-mell Rebel retreat.
A smarter plan would have been to launch TIE fighters against Echo Base — since aircraft and spacecraft can get past that Rebel enemy shield — to lure the Rebels into an evacuation from Hoth through their shield’s chokepoint. Concentrating the Imperial Star Destroyers there would lead the Rebellion into a massacre. At the very least, Vader has to sacrifice the ground-assault team entrusted with bringing down the generator powering the Rebel shield for a laser bombardment from the Star Destroyers.
Vader does none of this.