Star Wars: Space Combat Maneuvering
Last Revised: 1999.08.14
It has often been claimed that Imperial capital ships are precisely analogous to the naval aircraft carriers of mid to late 20th century Earth. However, this analogy is severely flawed: it is based solely on the fact that Star Destroyers and other Imperial capital ships can launch fighters. It ignores the fact that unlike naval aircraft carriers, Star Destroyers also engage enemy starships directly, with turbolaser fire.
20th century naval aircraft carriers engaged enemy ships exclusively with their fighters. In hard-fought battles like the Battle of Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway, Japanese and American aircraft carriers never sighted their enemies at all. Their fighters, launched into the skies with vague estimates of where the enemy fleets might be, searched the seas for the enemy ships and when they found them, they attacked with nary a friendly ship in sight to support them. If an aircraft carrier were to encounter an enemy battlecruiser without any fighters available, it would be completely helpless.
On the other hand, a Star Destroyer engages enemy ships directly, using its fighters not as its sole means of attack, but as a harassing tactic to draw enemy fire away from itself, and as a method of hitting pinpoint targets during enemy shield outages. It launches and retrieves fighters but it can also fight without them. If one were to draw an analogy to naval vessels of 20th century Earth, one would have to conclude that a Star Destroyer is a hybrid between an aircraft carrier and a battlecruiser. There seems to be a common desire to find a direct analogue to the Star Destroyer in 20th century battleships or aircraft carriers, but it would appear that this simply isn't possible.
On the other hand, there have been numerous hybrid aircraft carrier/battleship designs in history, such as several WW2 converted battleships in the British and Japanese navies, as well as the Russian "Kiev" class cruisers. These ships would perhaps be analogous to a Star Destroyer, since they combined the attributes of heavy firepower and armour with the ability to launch and retrieve fighter and strike aircraft.
Having said that, Star Destroyers have very limited maneuverability. Although they possess good straight-line acceleration as demonstrated by the rapid Imperial fleet circumnavigation of the Endor sanctuary moon in ROTJ, they cannot quickly change their orientation, as seen in TESB. With hundreds of weapons dotting their hulls and covering virtually every angle, these ships are not designed to maneuver their way into positions of advantage over an enemy. They are designed to simply unleash huge volumes of fire in any direction, to engage smaller and more maneuverable enemies.
Imperial starfighters obviously have far superior maneuverability to capital ships, as demonstrated in the Battle of Endor. Their tiny size also presents serious difficulty for enemy gunners, as Death Star gunners discovered to their chagrin in the Battle of Yavin. However, the Death Star turbolaser turrets were heavy guns that were designed to engage capital ships. Star Destroyers carry light defensive turbolasers as well as heavy guns, and they can destroy starfighters with defensive fire as shown in the Battle of Endor. In one example of this capability, one of two attacking Rebel fighters was destroyed by the Executor's defensive fire by a shot from the side, just before its partner plunged into the mighty battleship's bridge.
The difficulty of targeting starfighters (whether it is due to maneuverability or ECM) is put into perspective by the fact that we can target and destroy proton torpedoes, which are much smaller. This is described in Spectre of the Past:
"We're not going to have much chance of hitting them with proton torpedoes, if that's what you're thinking", Ardiff warned. "In close, their angular speed is too high for the torpedoes to track; and at any real distance they'll have all the time they need to track and destroy them."
This incident occured during a confrontation between the ISD Chimaera and a small group of Corellian-marked warships acting under orders from Moff Disra. The ships were aging, and poorly equipped: four Corellian gunships, three Pacifier assault gunboats, and an old Kaloth battlecruiser. These poorly equipped vessels were expected to be capable of easily shooting down proton torpedoes if they had a few seconds to track them (in spite of their small size; they are less than 0.5m in diameter). If TIE interceptors and defenders can evade defensive systems that can destroy tiny proton torpedoes, they stand an excellent chance of avoiding defensive fire from Federation weapons systems that are optimized to track vessels more than 100m in length.
In spite of the ambiguities and unknowns about Federation targeting systems, we should remember the old maxim of war that it is dangerous to underestimate your enemy. Therefore, we should assume that they will be able to hit our fighters with the omnidirectional firing strips on their large capital ships. Their optimal strategy would therefore be to use their heavy capital ships to destroy our fighters and their small Defiant-class heavy fighters to attack our capital ships. This would play their strengths to maximum advantage, using their heavy fighters' maneuverability to evade turbolaser fire and their capital ship more accurate phasers to decimate our fighter squadrons.
Our tacticians have devised several situational tactical recommendations:
If faced with a single top-of-the-line vessel like a Sovereign-class warship, the best tactic would be to simply open fire with turbolasers. Ships of that class are as large as small Imperial capital ships or transports, and their acceleration and maneuverability are inferior to that of our fighters so they should be fairly easy to hit. They don't have the firepower or shielding to defeat a Star Destroyer toe-to-toe, and a Star Destroyer can survive its entire payload of torpedoes.
If faced with a combination of capital ships and fighters, the best tactic would be to launch fighters immediately, so that we do not have to drop shields in the middle of combat to release fighters. Those fighters should not attempt to immediately engage the enemy fleet, because they may take severe losses from capital ship strip-phasers and photon torpedo proximity detonations. They should stay close to our own fleet and attack enemy fighters which attempt to get in close and exploit gaps in defensive firing arcs. These fighters should carry the heaviest proton torpedoes available, and should attempt to launch torpedoes into the flanks of Defiant-class vessels after maneuvering into the enemy's "six". Ideally, our fighter pilots should attempt to hit the warp nacelles of the enemy vessels; these nacelles are weak points (both in the shielding and in the structure of the vessel). While the fighters deal with enemy heavy fighters, our Star Destroyers will be free to unleash their awesome firepower against the poorly armed and shielded enemy capital ships.
We recommend using hyperdrive-equipped TIE fighters exclusively. TIE Defender and Avenger models have hyperdrives as standard equipment, and TIE interceptors have also been equipped with hyperdrives and shields in the past. In the unlikely event that a Star Destroyer should begin taking serious damage, the most prudent course of action would be to exploit our vastly superior superluminal propulsion technology to escape. A damaged Star Destroyer should perform a hyperdrive micro-jump (in any direction), collect fighters, and move off to repair the damage. If we don't use hyperdrive-equipped fighters, they will be left behind in the event of a micro-jump, with no way of catching up. Unlike the late Emperor Palpatine, Emperor Solo recognizes the value of skilled military personnel. The New Empire will take any necessary precautions to give our dedicated pilots the best chance to survive.
It is a foregone conclusion that our Star Destroyers are not maneuverable enough to avoid their weapons, but if we can quickly eliminate their large capital ships in battle we can reduce their fleet to their more maneuverable but less powerful fighters and heavy fighters (ie- Defiant-class ships). Under these conditions, we can use the traditional tactics of employing TIE fighters to clear away in-close attackers, while using capital ship fire to destroy any ships which are too well shielded for the fighters.
Phong Nguyen, for pointing out the Kiev-class Russian hybrid cruiser/carriers.
Marina O'Leary, for pointing out several other classes of hybrid cruiser/carrier, including the Japanese and British variants.