Death Star? No thank you.

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!

74 Responses to Death Star? No thank you.

  1. RobC May 4, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    The cost of the Death Star is a non-issue. It can be built with borrowed money, which as Krugman assures us is no big deal and is the best solution to unemployment. As for using the Death Star to extract revenue from the population and from fearful planets, it’ll be a lot more palatable if you simply think of it as making them pay their fair share. This really isn’t open to question, by which I mean it’s been thoroughly focus-grouped.

    • Jesse May 11, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

      And just think of all the jobs it could create or save.

    • Peter May 24, 2012 at 8:14 am #

      But is the universe in a liquidity trap, Rob? On a more serious note, I don’t see borrowing being an issue, since presumably the creditors would face the same comply-or-die equation as anyone else: the creators of the Death Star could presumably use the threat of annihilation to induce debt forgiveness.

  2. Matt May 4, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

    It seems like a Death Star would be useful as a backstop supplement to many of these more nuanced control strategies. The Romans would occasionally demolish rebellious cities, massacring and/or enslaving the population, even when those cities were economically productive and were useful revenue-generators. The example they set discouraged neighboring regions from rebelling. Obviously it helps if this policy is implemented in a non-arbitrary way – for example, blowing up a planet whose population gives large-scale support to the rebellion, rather than just a bit of elite assistance, which calls for more finesse.

    • George May 11, 2012 at 10:51 pm #

      Let’s be honest, though – would not a bombardment by an Executor- class Star Destroyer accomplish much the same at a fraction of the cost? Since the purpose is to intimidate a population, it is likely that that the threat of the elimination of 1-2 population centers could accomplish the same goal without total destruction of the economic productivity of the planet? John von Neumann and later Herman Kahn demonstrated this in terms of nuclear strategy in the 1940s and 1950s. Look at how the interdiction of a single system – Naboo – paralyzed the Republic Senate.

  3. Mike May 4, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    The Romans did not have a monopoly on colonial subjugation.

    Efficient? Yes.

    Sometimes, however, I think Genghis Khan had a much more efficient subjugation model. To wit, “Submit now & live, or everybody, their children, their animals, and their property will be destroyed.”

    Khan’s technology was limited, but the prowess of the DS subjugation model has been, I believe, demonstrated in retro-fashion.

    As the bumper sticker says… “Know DS, No peace.”

    Or something like that.

  4. David Polk May 4, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    A major consideration in the construction of a death star, as this post notes, is the cost of steel. But it’s not helpful to use the current cost of steel in making cost projections, as space mining (in the not-so-distant future) will likely put a huge downward pressure on the steel market, making “misallocation of military resources” less of an issue.

    • Artor May 6, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

      Agreed. Droid-operated asteroid mines are a logical necessity in the Star Wars universe, and faster-than-light travel would reduce shipping costs to the trivial. The cost of iron, nickel, and other ferrous metals would be absurdly cheap. Imperial energy technology suggests that fusion is cheap and easy too, so production of lighter elements would be as waste products, not valuable resources.

      • George May 11, 2012 at 10:54 pm #

        For that matter – take a large asteroid and hollow it out for your hull. Nothing short of the main cannon of another DS would truly disrupt it. It would HAVE to be cheaper than building a spherical air-tight hull based on a frame-and-panel technique. (This is amply demonstrated in the old Game Designer’s Workshop game Traveller, in terms of the planetary monitor type ship in Book 5, High Guard)

  5. Seth May 4, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

    Very nice post, Greg. My one point of disagreement is your characterization of Alderaan. The only evidence we have that Alderaan was peaceful and unarmed was Leia’s protestations to Tarkin. As others have pointed out, absolutely everything else she said to Tarkin and Vader was a lie, so why should we believe her claims about Alderaan?

    Given that she was clearly involved with the Rebels, and that her father was probably one of the Rebel’s main sympathizers (and probably funders and coordinators) within the Imperial Senate, and that the Alderaanians have nonetheless been electing Organas to the Senate for decades, I’m guessing that Alderaan was already pretty high on the Empire’s watch list. The destruction of a planet was surely shocking, but the choice of Alderaan probably wasn’t.

    • George May 11, 2012 at 10:55 pm #

      …And Bail Organa clearly had an armed ship with armed guards in Episode III

    • Steve February 13, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

      Good point. If I recall correctly, in the novelization of New Hope, it is stated (By Grand Moff Tarkin I think) that Alderann actually had sophisticated defenses, which were revealed when the planet was attacked by the Death Star.

  6. sleepyirv May 5, 2012 at 10:57 pm #

    One Air Force Colonel argues the Death Star is prohibitively expensive and the money would have been better spent on droids. Lots of droids. It makes a lot of sense. If one little R2 unit can do so much damage, the Empire should have like a trillion of them.

  7. jonk May 6, 2012 at 1:34 am #

    Classified Imperial intelligence would have suggested that Alderaan was harbouring entire cells of rebel sympathisers, as well as funding training programs and engaging in clandestine weapons production. For security reasons this couldn’t be revealed but Alderaan would not have been destroyed if the Empire wasn’t certain of their manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction.

    • Artor May 6, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

      I hate this reasoning. You right-wing hawks keep trumpeting the “weapons of mass destruction” line, but were there ever any found on Alderaan? Lord Vader claimed that telltales were found in the debris of the planet, but he is known to be the mouthpiece of the Emperor; his word cannot be trusted, although it’s unhealthy to say that to his face. And if Imperial Intelligence was so reliable, why did they let the Rebels destroy the Death Star?

      • Henry May 7, 2012 at 9:38 am #

        It all sounds to familiar…..a little to real…..

  8. Heron May 6, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    As addressed in the Expanded Universe works, clones would be a bad solution. While clones were used heavily in the wars that created the Empire, by the time of A New Hope the Emperor has fazed out their use due to the persistence of mental instability among them. Creating a cadre of administration clones would eventually lead to anarchy throughout the Empire as they all, inevitably, went insane.

    • Maladorn May 13, 2012 at 1:02 am #

      I have to stop you there. If it’s in the Expanded Universe, it doesn’t count (unless the conversation is already about the Expanded Universe). Otherwise we don’t get to enjoy arguing about “what ifs” because someone inevitably knows the exact book and page reference where some writer who is not George Lucas took a stab at filling in the gaps. I’m sure they did a fine job in general, but I want to have fun with the possibilities.

  9. Ken May 6, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

    just the steel for a Death Star would cost $852 quadrillion, or 13,000 times the current GDP of the Earth.

    So around the total nominal value of the derivatives markets, then. (Those various side bets don’t count for GDP, just for the balance sheets of the financial firms.)

    • Chris December 11, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

      As awesome as it would be (and I’d love to see it happen) to build something as big as the DS, it would take a LOT of materials and fuel. We’d have to use materials from other planets if we didn’t want to use most of the earths. Another problem is time. How long would it take to build a space station of that size? I’m 18 and probably wouldn’t see it’s completion. But I’d like to see a smaller version. Maybe the size of the US or Russia. It could be used for both military and recreational use. I’d love to see it if they could figure it out, but a large ship or a smaller version would be more reasonable. Hope they comment on it, I’d love to see the president talk about it on an interview.

  10. Derek May 7, 2012 at 1:46 am #

    I always figured the Death Star was built for prestige and patronage reasons. Actually destroying a planet is far, far harder than simply killing everything on the surface — a Star Destroyer costing several orders of magnitude less could probably do that in a few hours/days. You could argue that a Death Star would be good at deterring “rogue moffs” hiding hundreds of miles beneath a planet’s crust, but, even then, the laser doesn’t have to destroy the planet to get them, just blast down to their level.

    So, the way I figure it, the DS program is meant to keep moffs and industrialists busy and well compensated and/or to convince the plebs that Palpatine was protecting them from a resurgent trade federation. They blew up Alderaan not so much to intimidate other rebel worlds (presumably star destroyer orbital bombardments had already made an example of plenty), but to show that the thing could actually destroy a planet (though there were still probably a lot of people who claimed it was a controlled demolition).

  11. Henry May 7, 2012 at 9:49 am #

    The DS was a waste of scarce resources, materials, and labour and brain power(engineering). Yes it could get rid of a rebelling planet in one foul hit but the devastation is likely to provide the rebellion more recruits. A hearts and mind (heard that one before) policy probably would have been better. Couple that with buying local politicians and providing “personal” security/small special forces battalion to the local system ruler that could supplement his army would be far more effective. It really does sound all too familiar.
    And to the point of using better equipment to the imperial forces:
    2) Troop Transportation… elite scouts of the future get around? On overgrown lizards:
    This is a fast way to get your SF troops in on the ground rally with the local forces and kick rebel butt. This was the strategy at eh very start of some very resent wars

    Very cool artical!

  12. Tim May 7, 2012 at 11:43 am #

    Agreed, regarding the perceived necessity of destroying Alderaan (hotbed of rebellion, etc.). Also, remember that Tarkin exlicitly said they needed to test it on a planet, and that Dantooine was far too remote. IE, they wanted a populous planet that would strike fear into other planets (as mentioned previously in the film).

    A couple other things… Please note that the estimate is probably garbage data anyhow. Why? We don’t use steel NOW in spacecraft construction. Why on earth would they revert to worse materials? Assuming their technology was that backwards (note: blaster bolts slow enough to dodge, but do less damage than a bullet, nevermind the ineffective armor), they would at least use it differently (not solid steel construction… perhaps honeycombed, or better) AND there would be a lot less structural requirements now that there isn’t any gravity as a constant stressor. Remember the huge expanses of empty space? That’s space where there’s no construction materials. Also, judging by the scene in Return of the Jedi where Lando piloted through the incomplete (but mostly done) Death Star, the thing is mostly hollow. This isn’t surprising, in that A: there isn’t much you would need in terms of that much interior space, and B: the thing doesn’t seem to have a sizable gravitational field… Which it would, if there were a moon-sized chunk of mostly steel.

    (Gravitational field: please refer to when the Millenium Falcon was pulled into the DS by the tractor beam… it went in and landed nose first, which had there been significant gravity, would have been exactly the wrong way.)

    • flounderWA May 8, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

      Why do we not use steel in space now?

      As long as you’re paying huge sums per pound in costs for fuel and vehicle capability to launch the materials into orbit…the cost of using a steel structure vs. aluminum is prohibitive.

      Once you’re more or less separated from the need to get your materials out of a gravity well, why NOT use steel? Iron, Magnesium, Silicon, etc. are very common elements in asteroids. You can make some wicked steels with those materials in combination.

  13. Bill May 7, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

    You write, “How do the elite scouts *of the future* get around.”
    Quibble: This happened a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away).

    As a general matter, this frees up the explanation that the people of the galactic empire may have taken a different technological path. Whatever your explanation, it doesn’t need to address the issue of how people had forgotten contemporary technology.

    • Gregory Koger May 7, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

      Fair enough. But at the time, local teens were skimming around the desert in hovercrafts. Surely a few of those would come in handy.

      • George May 11, 2012 at 11:01 pm #

        Not to mention that the early Republic Clone army used armored hover personnel carriers (see Episode II). Since the Stormtrooper units were derived from the Clone Legions, what happened to the good gear? Did spending on the big ticket items like the DS eat up the defense budget to the point that the Empire could no longer afford the maintenance on replace costs for the less sexy but critical gear used by the grunts, like armored personnel carriers?

  14. berkbo May 7, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    Death Star was used as a weapon to terrorise the galaxies. Would have been an effective tool if not for that darn hole leading to the reactor core!

  15. Nathan May 7, 2012 at 6:29 pm #

    Why the whole “Death Star?” It is mainly a gun, with some parking spaces, and a whole lot of administrative spaces. They could have saved a fortune just constructing it around its key functions or built more than one every three movies… both raids were pretty costly to the Rebel Alliance, not a lot of cast left at the end of both assaults. …and if that much bureaucracy is indeed needed, wait a couple more movies and it would have paralyzed itself.

    • SRP May 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

      It would really be interesting if the DS was created as a MVP with a lean startup approach.

    • George May 11, 2012 at 11:02 pm #

      Look at the number of TIE fighters it carried – it was an *aircraft carrier* with a big gun attached.

  16. ajay May 8, 2012 at 5:52 am #

    Pretty obvious what it’s for in the light of the first three movies.

    What problem does the Emperor face at the start of Episode I?
    He’s forced to share power with the Imperial Senate and the Jedi rather than having it all himself.

    What solution does he come up with?
    He drums up a fake rebellion by the Trade Federation and uses that as an excuse to build up his own army with which to wipe out the Jedi (and, between Episodes 3 and 4, abolish the Senate).

    What problem does this create by the start of Episode IV?
    He now has a very large and powerful army, with its own generals who show signs of insubordination (eg being rude about his religion and disrespecting his personal envoy).

    How does he solve it?
    Like many militaries, the Imperial Military are dead keen on huge expensive weapons programmes. They are given their head and build the Death Star. Just as it’s finished, a suspiciously well-equipped rebellion appears from virtually nowhere and just happens to discover the one weakness of the station – enabling them to destroy the Death Star and all those inconvenient generals.

    Does it work?
    Of course. Look at the difference between IV and VI. At the start of IV the chiefs of staff are all “Force LOL, Vader”; by the start of VI the Death Star commander is virtually paralysed with fear at the sight of Vader (and the prospect of the Emperor visiting). Lesson learned.

    What problem does this leave him with?
    The only possible contenders for his throne still surviving – with the Jedi extinct, the Senate abolished and the Army cowed – are now the Skywalkers, father and son. Obvious solution – get them to kill each other!
    And it damn nearly works, too…

    • George May 11, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

      Yeah, but he was totally ignoring external threats – the Yuzon Vhong caught both the remnants of the Imperial Fleet AND the New Republic (with its rebuilt Jedi cadre) cold and nearly swept the galaxy. Sort of like Saddam Hussein – he kept his army divided and insecure less a general decide to follow in Hussein’s footsteps and take control using his skills at the bullet box, which meant most of the units stayed in cantonment when he was invaded and the others were slow to respond and ineffective.

      • dztvader May 13, 2012 at 1:54 am #

        A the Emporer was planing for the Vong, it was one of the real reasons behind the Death Star and the huge military build up even after he solidified power.

        He wanted the Rebellion crushed and a mutual assistence pact with the Chiss so he could focus on the coming threat.

        Palpatine Sidious saw many things, he just could not see his own death and he counted out a power that is the opposite of fear, Love. (Love of a Father for his Son. and just a bit of “This S.O.B. tricked me into becoming his attack dog and now he wants me to watch him kill my boy. Down the shaft!”)

  17. Steve Z May 8, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

    The main problem with a Death Star is that we’re so stupid that the first planet we’d use it on is Earth.

  18. Peter H May 8, 2012 at 1:16 pm #


    Gotta say that the death star as a planned boondoggle for the military is a pretty conniving plan.

  19. The Abusive Oracle May 8, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    What is being completely overlooked is how the economy would have been fundamentally altered by the presence of clone labor (in this case, guard labor) and robotic armies.

    If you can spin-up labor on-demand for a task where destruction is a risk (military clones and drones), it doesn’t take much more to justify spinning them down when the task they’ve been created for is finished. The surplus army of labor problem is solved, and thus, the taxation required to sustain said armies of labor (well, more to prevent them from being unstable) when they are not in being profitable is significantly reduced.

    Labor movements, unions, and the common man as has been defined by the 20th are then relics.

    That that would remain are expansionists, scientists, and theoretical moralists. The massive pools of labor required to serve the previous three would only exist for the scope of a task and then they would be destroyed.

    Clones for the initial architectural planning. Drones to handle semi-autonomous jobs. Algorithms to handle the rest.

  20. Gomez May 8, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    Could we make sure the exhaust ports are properly defended? Hmmmm?

  21. Dex May 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm #

    I think something being missed is that the main power of the Death Star isn’t to keep planets in line; it’s to keep whole systems in-line. The Empire stretches across a good deal of the Old Republic, but control is hardly absolute or homogenous. In the time between Episode III and IV – 20 years – the Emperour has been forced to work through at least the forms of the Senate in order to centre power around the regional Imperial governors who answer directly to him. For systems who have been used to have significant influence in the Republic for thousands of years, that is an extremely short amount of time to transition over an entire political system and bureaucracy to an autocratic rule. Add on top of that the loss of your main freelance law enforcement tool, and for all the strength of the Imperial fleet, the Empire itself is a very shakey entity.

    So, the ability to shake off the largest system fleet and destroy key assets of these systems shouldn’t be disregarded. It might not make the populace happy, but it will quickly quench the former taste for more independence that the Old Republic systems enjoyed before the Empire.

  22. NYD3030 May 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    What’s being overlooked here is that the Imperial Senate, in a spat of deregulatory fervor, rolled back centuries of firewalls between commercial and investment banking. The corresponding housing bubble devestated the Imperial economy, spawning a huge drop in demand and destroying labor markets. When jobs did come back they were mostly in low wage, low dignity professions like retail and moisture farming. The persistent lack of demand and low interest rates lead Grand Moff Krugman to conclude, correctly, that the Empire was in a liquidity trap. Emperor Palpatine’s first preference would have been public works to repair the crumbling infrastructure in the Empire, but with a hawkish Imperial Senate requiring a 60% majority to pass anything, the Death Star was the only stimulus available.

  23. Green Eagle May 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

    As one of the world’s foremost authorities on Mitt Romney’s time at Bain Capital (based on my having written one blog post on the subject- that counts, right?) I wish to strongly disagree with your notion that the construction of a death star is not economically feasable.

    Let us consider the estimated $852 quadrillion dollar bill for the steel, in light of Bain Capital’s experience as owners of Dade Medical Instruments corporation for five years in the nineties. Bain invested $30 million in that company, and in its five year ownership extracted $242 million before (oops) driving Dade Medical into bankruptcy.

    After careful calculation, I have determined that at the same 826% return on investment, we could turn $100 into the required $852 quadrillion in about 92 years, at which point we would be ready to start construction.

    It is easy to see, given facts like this, how beneficial President Romney’s can-do spirit would be for the security of our country. I would just like to add that I can think of few ways to properly train a giant riding lizard than carrying it around on the roof of a car.

    • ae_savant May 11, 2012 at 11:26 am #

      Yes, Romney would have strapped the lizard kennel to the roof of his van.

      On the other hand, with Obama there would be no lizard to train for riding because he would have EATEN it.

  24. dalancroft May 8, 2012 at 6:21 pm #

    Somebody’s got WAAAAY too much time on their hands.

  25. Brambo May 8, 2012 at 6:31 pm #

    Talk about 20-20 hindsight. Palpatine would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for that meddling rebellion and their stupid Jedi. Dissolution of the Senate and the empowerment of Regional Governors was probably less about efficiency and more to delegate the concern of governing. Palpatine didn’t give a damn about governing — never gave a damn about anything besides vengeance, Sith science & technology and creepy opera — and so was probably planning on doing away with the Galactic market economy anyway and going **full-on decadent Pharoah godhead**. Oh, did we go into debt building that Death Star? Sorry bondholders, your choices are force-lightning, planet obliteration, or debt forgiveness coupled with fetching me more tentacle-headed bitchez.

    Again, the fear would have settled in nicely if young Skywalker hadn’t bulls-eyed that womp rat a week after Alderaan was destroyed, or if he bulls-eyed it only about 10 seconds later, after Yavin and the rebel base were obliterated. Fucking Jedi.

    • Brambo May 8, 2012 at 6:43 pm #

      And if the question is, should WE build a Death Star — Vader nailed it regarding the capacity of technological wonders **vis a vis the Force**. The Emperor clearly ought to have waited until the Jedi were well and truly extinct, but if they’re not even in the equation to begin with, then what are we waiting for America?

  26. David A. May 8, 2012 at 8:36 pm # This was addressed long ago, and Drum et al have all failed to cite this discussion of the matter, as best I can tell.

    “With the private economy really in the shitter and the government running the show, this would lessen the apparent impact of the loss of Alderaan a lot, because its capacity utilization was probably really really low. It would be a big loss in growth potential, but not a big loss in regular growth, because being run by an insane dictator with the powers of evil magic was preventing the free flow of capital to places like Alderaan where it might be used productively by private enterprise.”

    • George May 11, 2012 at 11:11 pm #

      Good point – look at how common and socially acceptable smuggling had become, and how the Hutts took advantage of the demand created by totalitarian overregulation to amass such wealth and power that the Empire never truly made a serious effort to suppress them.

  27. Adm. Piet May 8, 2012 at 9:22 pm #

    I’d humbly recommend improved camouflage for our troopers, especially on Endor.

    • George May 11, 2012 at 11:12 pm #

      Another technology the early clone legions had that was cut from the budgets of their successor Imperial legions (see my discussion of transport, above)

  28. GEBOEMD - imperial adviser May 9, 2012 at 3:33 am #

    The ILRPPP (Imperial Long Range Power Projection Programm) called for a fleet of 24 standard Death Star units (SDS) with their supporting Star Destroyer and Cruiser groups as well as for 3 Death Nebula (DN, development ongoing) major galactic battle plattforms.
    The deployment & costs estimates were approved by the emperor himself and the delays in completion and cost overrun (slight) were full within the expected range for a project of this magnitude.

  29. James May 9, 2012 at 7:17 am #

    you are all a bunch of nerds

    • Joe May 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

      I believe that’s a gaggle of nerds.

      • Steve May 11, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

        clowder. a clowder of nerds.

  30. Gordon May 9, 2012 at 2:56 pm #

    To those who say this exercise is a waste of time-go away and read some Men’s Health magazine or something. The fact of the matter is that this very discussion was made during the Cold War. It was possible on paper, to build a theromnuclear weapon capable of melting half of Europe. The Russians built a 100MT bomb and we built, and I love this name, Castle Bravo, a 50MT bomb. Both sides found the weapon wholly inpractical. How many times have we heard “Well, you know what I would do with (insert name of rouge nation currently pissing off Americans)? NUKE EM!!!”

    The bigger problem I see with the Death Star is you would need someone with the will to pull the trigger . Only a total psycopath would do it. Even if we agree the Emporer is one of those people, doesn’t he want someone to rule over? I mean wheres the fun in rulling over a pile of rocks?

    Additionally, I agree with notion that the weapon is somewhat self-defeating. If you are going up against a weapon that you have no defense against, you either surrender outright (Japan 1945) or fight to the last man with everything you got. More than likely, people would keep fighting.

    • George May 11, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

      It is also gets into issues of deterrence such as Herman Kahn discusses in his classic “On Thermonuclear War” (1960), as well as issues that have dominated defense budget debates since the beginning of the post Cold War drawdown in 1989 (for example, the Navy’s request for the Seawolf submarine instead of new RO/RO transports to move troops, or the debates over the appropriate number of B-2s and C-17s)

  31. McKitten May 9, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

    One thing that gets ignored but is absolutely essential for evaluating the DS and destruction of Alderaan is proper perspective. The steel alone might cost 13000 times the GDP of earth, but the Empire consists of about 1,5 Million member Planets and 69 Million Colonies and affiliated Worlds. The destruction of one of over 70 Million Worlds, if practised in a way to present a warning against rebellious activity is well worth the negligible loss in imperial tax revenue, provided it works.
    Likewise, the construction and running costs of the Death Star are minuscule, when compared to the total industrial capacity of the Empire.
    Which also allows a further conclusion: Given the rather bad utility of the DS as a military vehicle (destruction of planets, while effective, can be done far easier with a couple of Star Destroyers), and the fact that it is an ostentatious vehicle which, while expensive, does not draw essential resources from the actual military, i am forced to conclude that the Emperor was planning to use it as his personal pleasure Yacht.

    • Old Slewfoot May 12, 2012 at 3:28 pm #

      A personal pleasure yacht, yes I think you are on the right track. The problem with the above analyses is that they all assume the question “why did the Emperor build a death star?” actually has a rational economic/political answer. One might as well ask “why does the male peacock have such large tail feathers, when such feathers obviously impede flight?” or “why do middle-aged businessmen buy expensive European sports cars, when a subcompact would meet their transportation needs so much better?”
      Address these questions as evolutionary conundrums, however, and more plausible answers reveal themselves with ease. Over the generations female peacocks have sexually selected the male peacock with the large tail feathers as a proxy for adaptive fitness. (Presumably, male peacocks with small ragged feathers are weaker competitors in the eyes of a female peacock). Similarly, female monkeys may have a sexual preference male monkeys who engage in conspicuous consumption. While such consumption may not be entirely logical as matter of efficient resource usage, it is possible that a BMW may very well lend a middle aged business monkey some reproductive advantage over the less wealthy primates. Likewise, we may assume that in the evolutionary context the more outlandish the mean of destruction available, the more likely it is that a Sith Lord would meet favor in the eyes of the Sith ladies. I mean really, do you expect the Emperor to go cruising for Sith chicks in a Star Destroyer? You might as well expect him to drive a Ford Pinto.
      Also we must consider what insights that may be gained from the field of psychology. Perhaps the Emperor was compensating for some perceived under-endowment. Go back and view the destruction of the planet Alderaan scene. A hum begins deep in the bowels of the Death Star, the pressure builds, suddenly release, a white shaft ejects from the Death Star striking the round ovum … urr, I mean planet, destroying it in a sudden explosion (and incidentally destroying the rival Organas). All pretty orgasmic isn’t it? There a darker forces indeed in the psyches of men young padawans.

  32. GEBOEMD - imperial adviser May 9, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

    Who has ever said that DS was built of steel?

  33. brc May 9, 2012 at 11:03 pm #

    Small error. While Imperial troops might get around on oversized lizards, they do so in the past, not the future. The Star Wars saga is a historical account, not a glimpse into the future.

    Repeat after me:
    ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’

  34. Correction May 9, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

    Key error: you’re assuming this is the future.

    “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

  35. Mladen May 10, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    “Don’t put all eggs in one basket” is self-evident. Instead of one Death Star you can have whole fleet of battleships carrying swarms of fighters. Each could pass through any planetary defence and turn desired town / base into burned spot on the ground. If need be, carpet-nuke whole planet and make it uninhabitable. Exploding planets is not energy – efficient.

    • George May 11, 2012 at 11:25 pm #

      The Empire also made a poor choice of fighter technology – choosing swarms of low maneuverability one-size-does-every mission Sith-derived TIE machines instead of the X- and Y- wing derivatives of earlier Republic models. John Boyd showed why this was a bad decision in the 1970s – we brought four fighters into operation – the big, less maneuverable, but all-the-bells-and-whistles F-15 and F-14 backed by the establishment on the one hand, and the sleeker, cheaper, more maneuverable F-16 and F-18 inspired by the Fighter Mafia and Boyd’s Energy-Manuuvarability Theory. The F-14 is retired, the F-15 airframes are falling apart, and improvements in engine design and the miniaturization of electronics have left the F-16 and F-18 still among the best in the world – and more capable than either of the other two ever were.

      Unfortunately, the Military seems to be repeating the F-111 fiasco, trying to build a fighter that can do everything again but does nothing well and costs too much. What else can explain cutting production of the “we have it now and it works” F-22 for the troubled and well over-budget F-35?

  36. Lobot May 11, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

    I’m not so sure that the cited alternatives for planet destruction existed. When confronted with the evidence that Alderaan was toast, Han Solo commented that the entire Imperial Starfleet couldn’t accomplish that; “it would take a thousand ships with more firepower than [he’d] ever – – ” at which point he was interrupted by more pressing attentions, namely the Death Star itself. There is also no non-EU evidence that Star Destroyers were capable of effective orbital bombardment of planetary surfaces; TIE bombers were sent to smoke out the Millennium Falcon from its “cave,” and a more conventional (and assuredly more cool-looking) ground assault was used to overcome the Rebellion on Hoth. In fact, General Veers even offered that the Rebels’ shield was “strong enough to deflect any bombardment.” Which gives rise to the question of how the “ragtag” Rebels acquired access to this kind of high-technology equipment and materiel, but I digress.

    So perhaps there were times when, hang it, destroying the whole darn planet was just the more efficient thing to do. In any case, once Palpatine’s deputy underlord for extraplanetary affairs gave that conviction-infused speech about yellowcake, it was all over. And Alderaan’s sacrifice provided the Emperor with a false sense of security, too – – I’m sure everyone noticed Luke and Vader blow through that MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner in Palpy’s throne room during their climactic battle.

    I hasted to add that one thing I always wondered about was why there was no Imperial House to go along with the Imperial Senate. Most likely, the GFFA versions of Boehner and Eric Cantor soured everyone on bicameral legislatures.

  37. ChrisW May 12, 2012 at 11:38 pm #

    At the very least, could the exhaust port be moved further into the trench so that it’s not so easy to hit. Granted the Rebel fighters took a lot of casualties during the attack, but only because they chose such a poor method of assault. They sent their ships, pilots and droids into a killzone for several minutes before even reaching the target, sheer suicide, but they at least made it to the Death Star’s surface with few losses. A skilled pilot would have known to drop down from a 90-degree angle relative to the DS directly at the exhaust port, making a much easier target, especially for a computer. I understand a Correlian piece of junk was sighted doing exactly that during the attack. The pilot was given a medal and soon promoted to General, proof of the Rebellion’s lack of strategic thinking. We can’t count on the enemy being that incompetant all the time.

    I would also like to submit that the DS have proper cybersecurity. Some may scoff at Lord Vader’s religion, but it should be noted that the droid containing the blueprints was brought to the Death Star by none other than Lord Vader’s former religious teacher, who then plugged that very R2 unit into the central computer. Coincidence? I think not. Anyway, had correct measures been in place, the stolen plans could have been erased then and there. Instead the R2 unit was able to penetrate into the deepest prison levels and isolate the tractor beam generators. From any USB port, it could even control the very trash removal systems required to keep the battle station hygienic and functional.

  38. Ben May 14, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    I think a potential explanation for using dewbacks over speeders is that sand would most likely clog the intakes/machinery of speeders. Maybe the speeders aren’t built to operate under the conditions on Tatooine. They can be retrofitted, but it’s just not a high priority for the Empire at this point because, let’s face it, a planet full of moisture farmers and gangsters isn’t exactly a prize. Let the Stormtroopers use the local beasts of burden until the Empire gets around to fixing up some speeders and shipping them out there.

  39. Will May 15, 2012 at 1:40 am #

    The Death Star article was both funny and insightful, but like most interpretations of ‘power politics’ that have occurred since the mid-1960’s, it contains a few fundamental flaws. The Death Star is interpreted as an instrument of ‘domestic’ or internal politics. It is an over-the-top weapons system of last resort; threatening compliance or doom to those who defy the Empire.
    In the setting of Star Wars it maybe has a place, as a metaphor for our times, sadly flawed. The Empire in Star Wars is viewed as a force for Evil. It is the corruption of the Old Republic, turned to the exploitative ends of the Sith. The Empire, however, is vast. It’s worlds are legion. Many prosper under its power. The Rebellion is not truly a rebellion against the force of the Empire, but rather against the corruption of its values by the Dark Side and its manipulation. A weapon such as the Death Star in the hands of an Evil ruler is the final answer to planets or systems that join the rebellion.
    The author argues that such drastic measures taken against rebels for petty offenses is unjustifiable, and will only foment further rebellion. What he fails to realize is that the Empire is VAST. Most of it is not at ‘the tip of the spear’. Most of the Empire lives under the greedy and watchful eye of the Emperor in PEACE. Most not because they must, but simply because that’s the way it is. Rulers come and go, governments come and go, and life goes on, sometimes harder sometimes easier. For most, Coruscant is light years away and they are as likely to see or hear from the Emperor or the Imperial Senate as they are to meet Yoda for tea and crumpets.
    There is one vital fact about rebels, and rebellions. They are fomented in secrecy, as a conspiracy. They come about because one can simply not monitor everything and everyone all the time. Not even with the Force at one’s disposal. Rebels will hide, they will gather they will plan, and they will wait for their vital opportune moment to reveal themselves and strike.
    All of this pre-supposes two key elements. They must be alive, and there must be a place to hide for them to plan and organize. The very nature of its secrecy makes a rebellion a slow and meticulous process. Ponderous in a way that legitimately constituted force is not. As it grows, the elements of secrecy become increasingly difficult. For the Rebels, there is a measure of assumed and acceptable risk involved in their action. They operate in covert cells, they uses code and encryption, they practice espionage and counter espionage. They do this in the expectation that eventually someone will be caught and forced to reveal what they know, and the less the better of that.
    All of this the Emperor already knows. He also knows that it is not profitable nor likely to be effective to hunt down the members of a rebellion organization; root and branch. No, the Emperor knows a better and cleaner way. A rebel must be alive, and he must have a place to hide.
    The Death Star system eliminates both problems. The foolish author of the article is a capitalist at heart, so he only thinks to himself. “Wow, look at the waste! I could have profited from that destroyed planet. Wow, if I had only won their hearts and minds I could have turned this place around back to my side.
    Imbecile. The Emperor does not care one whit for the profit of a rebel world, regardless of its wealth. He cares about power, and the uninterrupted practice of that power. The threat to his rule from internal rebellion is vastly more disturbing to him than the lack of revenue from a single world that has been annihilated by Death Star. The mistake the author makes is to assume that Death Star is a weapon system designed to kill planets. It is not. It is a weapons system designed to unequivocally kill between 10 and 100 people, or even less perhaps. But to do so infallibly. and to do so callously. and to do so in a manner that gives pause to anyone who is truly good and humanitarian, that they would never bring down such a fate on their friends and neighbors?
    If you kill one martyr, you inspire 100 to take his place, goes the conventional wisdom. I argue that if you kill everyone all at once, you inspire no one and nothing, because none remain to plan retribution. Death Star therefore is a fire and forget weapon. A Sith Lord does not concern himself with the moral implications of the deed, only of the results

  40. Barbyr May 15, 2012 at 7:40 am #

    I wonder if the monkeys that voted for the masthead picture know that’s not a monkey?

  41. Joe J May 15, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

    Cool article but I have a different take on two points. First the Alderan blowing up rallying people to the Rebels cause because it wasn’t a Rebel base. Says who? Those who would know Alderan wasn’t a base are gone, so the Empire can say anything they want. WMD were found, we saw them then and blew them up too. History is written by the winners.
    The second is that economically the Emperor was looking at the benifits and growth of a different currency: the dark side of the force. Which is powered by strong emotions, mainly ear and hatred. To really boost those you need a symbol/target for the fear and hatred, the DS. The real problem for the Emperor is how do I increase fear and hatred in the Empire while not causing a revoluution that works.

  42. Jason Neff May 23, 2012 at 7:27 pm #

    I love this thread.

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  45. Sir Fox December 4, 2012 at 12:10 pm #

    While I agree with many points made in this article, I don’t share the final conclusion.

    Two major points are made in regard to why the Death Star in an imperial no-go:

    1. It triggers rebellions and 2. it’s vulnerable to attack.

    Both of these points are not necessarily true. A DS would only trigger rebellions if used in the way it was done at Alderaan. What should be changed is the imperial strategy, if the DS would be used wisely (i.e. in the way pointed out, posing a credible threat for uncooperative systems, but really only in this case) it could be a powerful tool for any emperor.

    The vulnerability could be removed. Sure, nothing is invulnerable, but the DS2 was a major step forward – better shields (non-penetrable for small ships), no weird ventilation holes etc. It could only be destroyed in its early construction stage and its definitely not the DS’s ‘fault’ if the fleet and ground troops are not able to defend it.

    The praxis of sucking in random ships could be changed, ships could be scanned for life forms and boarding teams been sent out to check the ship before pulling it in.

    Overall, only a couple of minor issues to attend to in order to make the DS a formidable tool 😉

  46. Transar Rio December 10, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

    Praxis of sucking in random ships???? u gotta be kiddin…

  47. Jon January 2, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

    Great article and comments section, but I’m surprised no one has brought up the constructivist take on why the DS was built. After all, the galaxy was constructed by Lucas and contains his ideas all the way down.

    Understanding why the DS was built is found in the realm of ideas (primarily the light side/dark side cleavage) rather than a strictly utility-maximizing framework defined in terms of economic costs. While Luke is messianic, the emperor is evil. The emperor has acted quite rationally through his early rise to power, but later in his reign his actions demonstrate that his rationality is clearly bounded. He is ideologically motivated by a philosophy of the dark side and makes decisions that appear to economically minded observers to be quite bizarre.

    I was convinced by some who argued that Alderaan was probably a lot less innocent in the civil war than Leia stated. However, can you imagine if your orders from the commander in chief were to destroy a planet? This type of bureaucracy reminds me of Arendt’s discussion of the genocide. While I don’t know this for sure, it seems likely that Lucas was thinking about Hitler and his minions when dreaming up this conflict. In other words, the proper metaphor for the creation of the DS is the bureaucrats in Nazi Germany, not the bureaucrats fighting the Cold War through armament build-up and cost-benefit analysis.