I wish to address the most important policy question of the millenium: should we build a Death Star? This debate picked up this year after some Lehigh University students estimated that just the steel for a Death Star would cost $852 quadrillion, or 13,000 times the current GDP of the Earth. Kevin Drum suggests this cost estimate is too low but, in the context of a galactic economy, a Death Star is perfectly affordable and “totally worth it.” Seth Masket and Jamelle Bouie highlight the military downside of the Death Star, suggesting that more people might rebel against the wholesale genocide of the Empire, and that the Death Star would be the prime target of any rebellion. I have two thoughts to add. First, the Death Star is a bit misunderstood. It is primarily a tool of domestic politics rather than warfare, and should be compared to alternative means of suppressing the population of a galaxy. Second, as a weapon of war, it should be compared to alternative uses of scarce defense resources. Understood properly, the Death Star is not worth it.
The Death Star and the Dictator’s Dilemma
The classic problem of representative democracy is that citizens must delegate power to leaders, and then ensure that leaders do not use that power to serve their own interests. As James Madison states, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Dictators suffer a similar problem of delegation, but in reverse. Dictators must delegate the tasks of subduing and taxing the population to internal security forces, and of maintaining external security to subordinate governors and generals. Any delegated power, however, could be used to displace the dictator. Internal security forces can assassinate the dictator or join in palace coups. Military leaders can use their forces to rebel against the dictator or secede from the dictator’s realm with a slice of territory. So the dictator must carefully design her security apparatus to maintain control of the population without empowering potential rivals. This challenge grows acute the more dispersed the dictator’s realm and the greater the number of external threats. (For more on the strategy of dictatorship, see here. Political scientists, feel free to add citations in the comments section).
I see the Death Star (DS) as the Emperor’s solution to the dictator’s dilemma. First, note that its construction precedes the Rebel Alliance; the plans are first developed by the Separatists in Episode 2 and, by the time it is completed, the Rebel Alliance has just won its “first victory.” While it may have some use as a deterrent against possible invaders, the DS is primarily a tool of domestic politics. Prior to its completion, the Emperor is compelled to keep the Imperial Senate around, presumably to maintain the semblance of popular consent. But the Senate imposes some inefficiency—meddling in military strategy, perhaps, or directing spending to some favored planets. Once the DS is operational, the Emperor can disband the Senate and, instead, empower Imperial governors to suppress the local population and extract revenue. Here’s the critical scene:
But how can the Emperor guard against rebellion by one of these governors? Or revolt by a local planet’s population? The answer is simple: he can zip around in the baddest weapon in the galaxy, destroying his foes with the push of a button. No foe could fight back, and the DS is mobile enough to respond to multiple threats in short order.
Note that this scheme provides an easy answer to the question, “how can we afford a Death Star?” If the scheme works, the Death Star will pay for itself dozens of times in the additional tax revenue from fearful planets, and by the money not spent by the military putting down revolts with conventional weapons.
But will it work? Only if it induces cooperation through fear. Every planet blown up represents a tremendous loss of potential future revenue, so like nuclear weapons today, the actual use of the DS is a calamity. Moreover, like nuclear weapons, they only work as a deterrent if they are used judiciously. citizens throughout the galaxy must believe that failure to pay their taxes and comply with their Imperial masters will lead to detonation, but also that compliance will save them. The fact that the DS was used against Alderaan, however, would likely have had the opposite effect. Alderaan is “peaceful” and “has no weapons.” It was detonated because its teenage senator was secretly aiding the Rebel Alliance and waited too long to give up Dantoonie. To me, that’s a little too Caligula to induce rational compliance. One imagines the conversations on other planets:
Peasant 1: Did you hear the Empire blew up Alderaan? What kind of government blows up one of the richest planets in the galaxy because of one smack-talking teenager? It could be any of us next.
Peasant Windu: Enough is enough! I have had it with these [redacted] emperors on their [redacted] Death Star!
If the net effect of the DS is to make every person in the galaxy think their planet could be the next one arbitrarily destroyed, it actually mobilizes them to join the rebellion.
If the DS is an uncertain solution to the problem of internal security, what are the alternatives?
1) Democracy? Unacceptable to the seeker of unlimited power. Your faith in your friends is your weakness.
2) A Sith Academy? During the Old Republic the Jedi did a good job of providing internal security at a very low price. Why not repeal the limitation on Siths and create a small, powerful, and cheap guard of Sith lords?
This is also unacceptable. An army of Siths, however small, would be a large pool of potential rivals and assassins, all angling to seize the throne. In the end, just having one other Sith around was the Emperor’s undoing; dozens of Sith would lead to anarchy.
For this reasons, dictators have favored delegation to minions who are ineligible to replace them, such as eunuchs, lower-class citizens, foreign bodyguards, or captives from an underprivileged social group. This leads me to:
3) Upgrading the internal security apparatus.
A) Clones. The Emperor already has a military force of clones. Why not a bureaucracy of clones? They could be designed to be smart, honest, and unambitious, and they would be relatively cheap. This would help with the knotty problems of tax collection and law enforcement.
B) Domination of planetary elites. There are tried-and-true methods for gaining compliance without having to pay for massive armies or float around the galaxy in a planet-killing machine. The emperor could compel the political and economic elites of each planet to send their children (as hostages) to Imperial schools, where they will learn about all the great things the Empire is doing. Second, the Emperor could assign Imperial bodyguards to the elite of every planet to protect those who are loyal, report on those who are not, and eliminate the worst. If the Emperor followed this approach, the Organa family would be sleeping with the fishes and Alderaan would still be paying taxes.
C) Imperial takeover of rebellious planets. Again, destroying a planet is a tremendous loss for the Imperial treasury. It would be far more profitable for the Emperor to seize rebellious planets (once subdued by his new and improved army – see below), imprison the rebels, and bring in settlers and Imperial workers to keep the planet’s economy humming.
Upgrading the internal security apparatus is a far more cost-effective option than a DS for the next Sith dictator.
The Death Star as Super-Weapon?
When I watch Star Wars films now, I often find the battles simplistic because there is little tactical thinking. How would people actually use and respond to these futuristic weapons? The best exception to this pattern is the Rebels’ attack on the Death Star in Episode IV. Instead of attempting a large-scale frontal assault with their strongest ships (the anticipated response) they sent small ships armed with an asymmetric advantage: blueprints of the DS revealing a womp rat-sized weakness.
That is what the Rebels should have done. When I was a Congressional staffer working on defense policy in the 1990s, one of the most insightful essays I read was Richard K. Betts’ “The Downside of the Cutting Edge” (National Interest, 1996) which makes this point: once one has a force that can beat anyone in a fair fight, no one will want to fight fair. Even if the Empire eventually built a DS without a design flaw, its enemies would find some way to fight it indirectly. For example, when its not destroying planets, the DS also likes to grab passing ships in its tractor beam, drag them inside, and then scan them for bad guys. It would be simple to rig a decoy ship as a massive bomb, piloted by a robot with orders to detonate the ship once it’s inside the DS.
The Emperor should not expect, therefore, that a single super-weapon will vanquish all foes. As Seth Masket notes, the same money could be used to make some much-needed, lower-risk investments in the Imperial military. Some examples:
1) Information Security. Wouldn’t it be nice if some too-dumb-to-talk 30 year old bucket of bolts couldn’t hack into the DS’s computer system in a few seconds? I would think so.
2) Troop Transportation. How does the U.S. military get around in the desert? Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles. How do elite scouts of the future get around? On overgrown lizards:
It’s just embarrassing.
3) More robots, please. I get it: the “Clone Wars” featured Republic clones vs. the robot armies of the separatists, and the clones won. Still, though, some of those robots would be really useful in tactical situations, perhaps guided by clones on the ground.
4) More probe droids, please. After the Yavin debacle, the Empire sent out probe droids to scan remote systems. Why not keep a few loitering on every planet on a permanent basis? Then it would be lot harder for any rebellion to hide.
5) Practice, Practice, Practice. An entire legion of the Emperor’s best troops was defeated by a village of teddy bears fighting with sticks and stones. It’s just embarrassing. Clearly they needed better training in tactics, marksmanship, and hand-to-paw combat.
Again, it is my belief that a rational dictator could make better use of the resources that would be used to build Death Stars.
So, in conclusion: the Death Star is bad for internal security and a misallocation of military resources. No thank you!