Star Wars Mega Weapons Make Awful Bureaucratic Sense
'Episode VII' continues a wasteful trend
Warning! Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers below.
If you’ve seen the posters for the new Star Wars movie — and frankly, how could you not have? — you may have noticed the large, Death Star-ish object lurking in the background. It’s called (spoiler alert!) Starkiller Base and if you saw Episodes IV and VI, it should come as no big surprise that this mega weapon gets blown up in the film’s climactic scene. Seriously, revealing that the mega weapon gets destroyed is as much of a spoiler as revealing that Han Solo … makes a snarky comment or two. It’s an essential part of the character, not a shock to anyone.
I’ve previously commented on the Star Wars saga’s hyper-realistic portrayal of how defense technology is developed. Specifically, I pointed out that the most realistic thing in the first six episodes was that the Death Star construction was behind schedule. It is simply not possible for a major project like that to be delivered on time, even in a galaxy far, far away. I’m happy to report that Star Wars Episode VII continues to demonstrate a nearly pathological commitment to realistically depicting the defense acquisition business. Clearly, director J.J. Abrams spent more than a little time sitting in a classroom at the Defense Acquisition University, poor fellow.
What stood out in Episode VII as particularly realistic is not just the fact that the Death Star Starkiller Base is unable to contribute much to the fight before it is spectacularly reduced to a smoldering cloud of space debris, although that is of course the most likely outcome. No, the most realistic thing in this latest film is the fact that the bad guys built another mega weapon.
Sure, the previous attempts did not work out very well, but in a bureaucratic acquisition environment, the first two failures are no reason to cancel plans for a third version. In the unassailable logic of large enterprises, the losses of Death Stars #1 and #2 only serve to justify making #3 larger, because clearly the problem with the earlier designs is that they weren’t big enough. If our moon-sized space stations don’t work, surely the next step is to build one the size of a planet.
Here’s my analysis: the evil First Order is a tightly structured, top-down, command-and-control based organization. Its bureaucracy is dedicated to hierarchy and predictability, and it has a cultural preference for massive “silver bullet”-style projects that aim to deliver an Ultimate Weapon in a single step. This type of organization does not tolerate or acknowledge failure, which means it does not learn from its failures, which means it will continue to repeat its failures. Building a bigger Death Star is literally the only thing such an organization is capable of. Keeping the weapon’s weak point secret is the one thing such an organization can never do. So I have a pretty good idea how Episode IX is going to end.
Hint — it will involve a massive space station the size of a small star, probably named the SuperNova, and we can all guess how well that will work.
Meanwhile, the successful Rebel/Resistance heroes continue to do what they are good at — employ small, nimble fighters to exploit systematic weaknesses that are revealed through information gathered from human intelligence sources (a.k.a. Finn, the former Stormtrooper).
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — the Department of Defense should build droids, not Death Stars. It should build A-10s, not F-35s. That’s a lesson the Empire should have learned at the end of Episode IV and the First Order should have learned at the end of Episode VI. It’s a lesson the Pentagon should have learned from its experience with the F-22 (and the Sgt. York and the Seawolf submarine and the Comanche helicopter and the — well, you get the picture).
The only way to break the cycle is by rejecting the dark side and following a more enlightened path, refusing to follow the Evil Empire’s example of building Ultimate Weapons which aim to instill fear and domination. Perhaps we could focus on building lightsabers instead. After all, they are a more elegant weapon, for a more civilized age.
Lt. Col. Dan Ward, U.S. Air Force (retired), served in the Air Force for more than two decades before launching Dan Ward Consulting LLC. He is the author of The Simplicity Cycle: A Field Guide To Making Things Better Without Making Them Worse and F.I.R.E.: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained, and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation. He holds three engineering degrees, was awarded the Bronze Star, and is a Cybersecurity Fellow at the New America Foundation and a Senior Associate Fellow at the British Institute for Statecraft.