This is a write out of a proof I did a few years back that involved several white boards and hours of fan questioning induced by a day of completely having nothing better to do. I had wanted to know a simple fact: how many Star Destroyers are in the Empire? But in doing so, I learned that there is a great disparity between the number at the Empire’s height and after it’s fall, which doesn’t sit with how big the Rebellion is usually portrayed as. This is somewhat expected: science fiction authors often fall prey to problems of scale and don’t properly scale up their numbers. Star Wars is no different and suffers greatly on this from time to time. This is a geeky proof, and for those of you on Facebook, you can see one of the white boards and a handful of explanatory comments. This post is a more formal account explaining the math and logic that go to one point: the size of the Rebellion in Star Wars is too small. Or, rather, there are parts that we don’t know about yet, and for everything written in novels and comics and the films themselves, the Rebellion era, the heart of the Star Wars universe, still has plenty of room to explore.
The strength of the Empire, it’s military might, is often measured in its ubiquitous symbol – the Star Destroyer. Unfortunately, there is a large gap in the number of Star Destroyers between the height of the Empire and it’s weakest point. This gap is not in the numbers per se, but in that the losses suffered by the Empire – the successes of the Rebel Alliance – are not fully explained, and the examples of battles portrayed in the Expanded Universe are on small scales compared to the scales needed to reduce the Empire’s forces. This makes this area an area worth exploiting; while much appears to be written on the rebellion, there is a hidden history in what is not written – the gap. It’s by no means a retcon , it doesn’t need to be set right, it is simply not stated. The disparity in numbers (and the fact that little is written on it) was recognized by Pablo Hidalgo in conversation. In his words, “I knew it was bad… but that bad?” This is a short proof on just how big the disparity, the gap, the hidden history actually is.
First, why use Star Destroyers? There are two main reasons for using the number of Star Destroyers as a marker of the strength of the Empire besides symbolism: first, the numbers are readily available (and often named) in contrast to other vessels in conflicts, second we can estimate the number of other vessels based upon the Star Destroyers because we have references to fleet composition. For example, in the Imperial Sourcebook, we find that a standard sector group contains 24 Star Destroyers. We also have an estimation that for every Star Destroyer there were approximately 100 other vessels, from your Nebulon B’s to your Lambda shuttles. This gives us a general sense of the strength of the navy by using Star Destroyers as a backbone to measure by.
In the novel Specter of the Past, Pelleaon laments the tools at his disposal:
A thousand systems left, out of an Empire that had once spanned a million. Two hundred Star Destroyers remaining from a fleet that had once included over twenty-five thousand of them. (p. 6)
This musing is widely accepted as hard canon, primarily because of the authorship. Timothy Zahn, who kicked off the E.U. and the revitalization of Star Wars through novels, has both an authority as a great researcher, the standing of being a core and honored writer, and is also (in many opinions) one author who routinely sticks to the scale of the Star Wars universe and is constant in his own numbers (which is rare in science fiction). These numbers were used before, but Zahn put them in the same place at the same time, and so the quote is often repeated within the fandom.
What I’ve encountered is that it is the larger of the two numbers that disorients people. I think this is because the scale of the battles we see is usually quite small. Even in the E.U. materials, here Pellaeon has only 200 destroyers, Admiral Giel who assembled the so-called Secret Armada had “dozens,” and many battles include only single digits. But, this doesn’t congeal with remarks to the vastness of the Empire. Or, so it seems. Both the small numbers seen and the large numbers hinted at can both be in balance if taken into consideration.
For example, take Lando’s statement at the Battle of Endor that there “must be half the fleet” stationed over the forest moon. In this scene, at least 30 Imperial-Class Star Destroyers can be counted in the frame on screen, plus two named from other classes, and stated but unnamed and unseen Interdictors. Lando, however, is not a military man by history, and the term “fleet” is vague when there are sector fleets, oversector groups that are referred to as fleets, personal “fleets,” armadas, battle groups, systems forces, superiority fleets, assault fleets, bombard fleets, and indeed, Wookiepedia has a category page for individually named “Imperial Fleets.” So what does Lando mean?
Lando is likely refering to a regional or an oversector fleet. Several of the ships in the battle are from known other sources besides the Moddell sector, which is the sector Endor is in: the Avenger was a communications ship in Vader’s Death Squadron, the Chimaera was participating in weapons testing above Carida, the Eleemosynary was the personal command ship for Grand Admiral Teshik, the Thunderflare was from the Elrood sector fleet, and the Visage was an exploratory cartography ship from the Outer Rim.
The Moddell sector itself is part of the Inner Zuma region, which consists of three sectors (or subsectors): Moddell, Spar, and Ablajeck. Three sectors with 24 Star Destroyers each would yeild 72 Star destroyers. Half of 72 is 36, and we have at least 34 present. Lando would easily be seeing close to half the fleet of an oversector group. Lando’s observation is therefore accurate and can be scaled up. After the Ruusan reformation, the galaxy was reorganized into 1,024 regional sectors (Clone Wars Incredible Cross Sections). This multiplied by the 24 per sector yields 24,576 Star Destroyers, which is close to our 25,000 marker.
(It is however possible that this is somewhat self fulfilling as the Cross Sections came out after Specter of the Past and could be derived partially based on it, though the numbers are cross referenced in other such sources and is redundant at times but inarguably canon.)
There are, of course, a couple questions that could be raised about this number. Does 25,000 include ships on reserve, or is it entirely active duty? Does it include ones that have been mothballed? Is it all encompassing? For instance, we know (from the Sourcebooks) that there was a 10% reserve kept in the Core. Does this include them? Or are they in addition? The truth is that we don’t know, but the number tends to be taken either as ships that are at disposal or in totality, depending on the interpretation. Our sector fleet math and a total of around 24,526 Star Destroyers in active formations across the galaxy. So, if the 25,000 number includes ships that are mothballed, the number is comparatively small next to the number that are fully operational and reporting for duty. For example, the number of dreadnaughts in the lost Katana fleet was only 200, not on the order of thousands that could substantially reduce naval size.
Another question that arises is this: Does this 25,000 include all classes of Star Destroyers, or just Imperial-Class? Well, that’s debated plenty on the boards on theforce.net and are readily readable; some believe it is Imperial only while some take it to be more encompassing. There are fair enough reasons for either, but saying that they are Imperial-class only would raise the question as to whether the other classes provide an additional number to Star Destroyers that we might have to factor in here, just as whether 24 Star Destroyers per sector is also Imperial-class or of any class. For the sake of simplicity, we should put this question aside for the moment. While it is a factor, it’s not in the purview of the current matter at hand – we still have a number of Star Destroyers to work with, regardless of their class.
This number also does not account for production rates from Kuat Drive Yards, her subsidies, and the yards that produce the other vessels besides Star Destroyers. We must set aside several things. First, we have to make some leaps as to when precisely Kuat started full production and how long full production lasted. Even with attacks on the shipyards, KDY was not “shut down” entirely at any point and could still be producing ships throughout the Rebellion era, theoretically replenishing the number of Star Destroyers lost. That’s a number that has an unknown quantity and provides an uphill battle for our Rebels. As you will see, we will want to give them a “best case” scenario, so for the sake of the argument, we must let go of continuous production rates until/unless more is written on it.
Now back to the gap: how do we go from 25,000 Star Destroyers to only 200? Consider how long the Rebels have to accomplish this task. The height of the Empire we can generally take to be just before open civil war when they would suffer losses. This would be, in common reckoning, 2BBY at the Treaty of Corellia and the Declaration of Civil War later that year. Pellaeon is making his lament in 19 ABY, but this is not the low point of the Empire. That falls under the time of Grand Admiral Thrawn, whose fleet in 9 ABY, which was the largest amassing of any of the Remnant factions and was deemed unquestionable in authority and size, had a whopping 14 Star Destroyers : 6 Imperial-class Star Destroyers in his personal armada, three others, two Victory-Class, and three Interdictor-Class Star Destroyers.
By that, Pellaeon should feel damn lucky to have 200 at his disposal!
This means that the Rebels would have to bring over 25,000 down to likely less than 100 let alone 200. Unfortunately we don’t know how many over 25,000 there were, so we can be generous and consider 25,000 as a static number and bring it down to 200. The Rebels have 11 years to accomplish this which would yield a rate of 2,254.545 Star Destroyers destroyed a year, or, with 368 days in a Galactic Standard Year, a rate of 6.126 a day.
There’s an insanity to that number. Given what we see of the Rebels’ military might, it’s nigh impossible. Or, at minimum, it’s impossible to take on that number of Star Destroyers in a direct fight, and even with sabotage, it would be impossible to turn or infiltrate Star Destroyers at that rate. So, let’s be generous to our Rebel friends (or scum, if you’re of that persuasion). Let’s extend the timeframe to Pellaeon’s lament in 19 ABY. That gives 21 years to accomplish this feat. This in turn 1,180.952 per year or a rate of 3.209 a day.
Although nearly reduced in half, this is an incredible number and hard to bear without cataclysmic help to dramatically reduce the number of Star Destroyers. The concept of punctuated equilibria, in which change happens not at a constant rate but at slow rates punctuated by massive change, is a much more likely scenario.
One such factor of massive change comes out of the warlord era: former admirals, moffs, and governors left the Empire with the fleets under their command and branched out on their own, fighting each other in the process. If each is able to bring “dozens” as Giel did, mutual annihilation could account for hundreds of Star Destroyers. We also know that Daala had thirteen executed, so this is a minimum warlord number. If each of those had been able to accumulate 100 (being generous for the rebels!) we could account for 1,000 there alone. We could also possibly run it up to a full 10% of the count, or around 2,500 Star Destroyers. This, by the way, still leaves a rate of 5.502 (worst case) or 2.886 (best case) Star Destroyers destroyed per day.
There must be equally cataclysmic events to help bring this number down. Consider the resources and ingenuity that it would take to even bring down a single Star Destroyer a day, or 368 a year. Consider the force that would have to be amassed to meet those numbers when the fleet was considered ragtag until the advent of Admiral Ackbar’s command and when most of the fleet itself was at the Battle of Endor. The fleet at Endor was sizable and a good match for the Imperial forces there, but this should give you the sense of scale as to what the Rebellion can muster at its best. This, by extension, would require 12 Battles of Endor a year to take out Star Destroyers at a rate of 1 per day, a fraction of the necessary amount.
This is stretching the numbers to, at least in my opinion, the most we can stretch them. The Rebellion simply cannot handle these numbers on their own. We do know the Rebellion is stretched far and wide though, even if not strong in one single place, and the objection could be raised that they could effect the numbers through subterfuge and sabotage, or small and precise strikes akin to what Rogue Squadron regularly pulls. This line of reasoning is still begging: if every sector in the galaxy had Rebel cell, each cell would have to be responsible for about two Star Destroyers a year in our 11 year scenario. While the numbers sound easier when broken up and doled out, it’s really not any better than trying to meet the Empire in head-on battles; it assumes that each sector would have a cell, and each cell would be competent, coordinated, and have the resources to take on multiple attacks on Star Destroyers each year, regardless of the actions they may take on the ground to secure what is probably more pressing and immediate action. Rogue Squadron is a crack unit for a reason – they aren’t what the Rebels can produce from every cell.
What this comes down to is that the Rebellion is quite simply too small and too underpowered as portrayed to take down the expansive Empire. We would need to increase what the Rebellion can do through all and any means to back the once mighty Empire into a corner. While we can certainly increase numbers on the ends of subterfuge, sabotage, and slow trickling from defections, the theory of punctuated equilibria would allow us to have much greater effects through climactic battles via defection en masse (treason) capturing ships to be used directly against the Empire instead of destruction, and an increase in activity in the warlord era.
Take WWII for a comparison: while the French Resistance had created a slow bleed that hampered Nazi Germany, the Resistance is not what turn the tide of the war. Turning the war required U.S. entry on one end and Nazi over-stretchment into Russia on the other, both of which turned December of 1941 as a major turning point in the war. While Russia provided a morale victory to show German weakness, Allies needed the backing of American support to bring effective arms to bear throughout the remainder of the War. We should be looking at similar actions within the GFFA. While we have the destruction of the Death Stars as clear morale victories, the arms to back them up are not shown to the degree that they should.
For a possible solution, consider Lando’s statement again. The Imperial fleet amassed over Endor is not the whole of the Imperial Navy. Why does the amassed Rebel fleet at Sullust, most of which then go to Endor, have to be the entirety of the Alliance’s forces either? That was the amount the Empire was willing to commit to the battle, why cannot that be the same for the Alliance as well? This is what they could amass for this battle, so it is entirely possible that there is more to the Rebellion than what meets the eye on screen. The Rebels were also able to capture several of the Star Destroyers at Endor as well. If they were able to capture just a fraction of the Star Destroyers they fought, they would have a force worth bringing against the Empire. It leads to a wash-rinse-repeat cycle, but (assuming they could crew the damn things) it would eventually raise a naval force that could wreck havoc.
In the current moment, however, we can openly speculate and create our own stories as to how the Rebellion met these seemingly impossible goals. No one avenue will magic it to work, or work enough to become reasonable, but many avenues can work towards helping the success of the Rebellion in reducing the Imperial Navy. It’s an area that is unknown and as such is ripe for theories, fan fiction, role playing games, and authorship. It can be exploited, and in ways that can be harmonious to multiple authors or sources because multiple avenues can be used; for instance one plot line revolving on a climactic battle using hard won vessels can be in harmony with a crack team’s suicide mission to blow the drives out on an entire fleet. It isn’t so much that destroying Star Destroyers at a rate of 3-6 a day is impossible so much as we don’t have a proper accounting of how it was done, just a few here and there that are drops in the bucket. There’s plenty of room for more.