The second Death Star orbits the forest moon of Endor in a promotional image from the Star Wars Battlefront II game.

The second Death Star orbits the forest moon of Endor in a promotional image from the Star Wars Battlefront II game. LucasArts

Hybrid Star Wars: Lessons from The Battle of Endor

In an excerpt from an upcoming anthology of Star Wars-themed essays, a former NATO supreme commander revisits a forest moon in a galaxy far, far away.

When Return of the Jedi opens, the Alliance is still licking its wounds from the beatings they took from the Empire on Hoth and in Cloud City in the Empire Strikes Back. Politically, the Alliance’s goal is to wrest control of the galaxy back from the Empire; therefore, their military strategy is to avoid defeat while looking for an opportunity to deal a surprise blow to their much stronger enemy.

This makes hybrid warfare a natural choice for the Rebels. Given their military objectives, hybrid tactics offer four main benefits: ambiguity, surprise, tempo, and cost-efficiency. Economics alone are a strong argument for the Rebels to go hybrid; they cannot build a Death Star of their own nor fight an Imperial fleet head-to-head. Staying small, hidden, and distributed is the Rebels’ best hope to stay viable and, all the while, to attempt to seize the initiative by surprise and tempo.

These two features—surprise and tempo—are the keys to the Alliance victory at Endor. When their intelligence network hits paydirt, the Rebels commit to a knockout blow against a supposedly inoperable Death Star. Plans go awry, but the Rebels’ intelligence operations and combat actions in space and on the forest moon of Endor offer rich lessons for U.S. and allied strategists who will likely face Rebel-like hybrid forces in future conflicts.

Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace

Like many hybrid battles, the Battle of Endor begins with intelligence and counterintelligence the efforts by both sides. Although they are not filmed, these operations are critical in setting up the battle, and their consequences are shown directly on-screen.

The Alliance decides to seek battle in the first place on the basis of intelligence about the Death Star’s whereabouts and disposition. The first famous line of the battle is Chancellor Mon Mothma’s, when she tells the Rebel leadership that “many Bothans died to bring us this information.”

The Bothans are a race known for their galactic spy networks, and it is through those networks that the Alliance receives the information that convinces them to cast the die with an all-out attack on the unfinished second Death Star.

Intelligence warfare ultimately boils down to judgment calls, and sometimes very high-stakes ones—as in gambling the Rebel fleet on a knockout blow against the Death Star. The Alliance leadership trusts their Bothan networks and their products enough to order the attack, but the attack force soon learns that the information gleaned by the Bothans is really counterintelligence fed to them by the Emperor. The second famous line of the battle is Admiral Ackbar’s exclamation upon realizing the Death Star’s shield is still up, meaning the Empire is expecting the attack: “It’s a trap!”

Intelligence and counterintelligence alone do not suffice to make the Battle of Endor unique or hybrid, but they point to the shadowy elements that are frequently part of hybrid warfare, especially when used by a much smaller and weaker force whose very existence might hang on decisions about when and where to seek or avoid battle. Without the (unfilmed) intelligence battle, the space and land battles of Endor would not have happened in the first place.

Hybrid Battle in Space

The space battle around Endor, which ends in the destruction of the second Death Star, has some striking parallels with real-world scenarios, both historical and contemporary.

The first two layers of command look thoroughly conventional, with the decision to attack taken by political leadership (Mon Mothma) and operational planning delegated to military leadership (Admiral Ackbar). One layer down, though, things start to look less regular. At the head of the Rebel attack, as Gold Leader, is self-proclaimed “galactic entrepreneur” General Lando Calrissian, flying his old freighter, the Millennium Falcon. Although Lando is wearing rank and uniform, he is much more like a hastily commissioned privateer than a conventional military leader. These expediencies make a lot of sense for the Rebels, and they certainly make for great cinema. Who doesn’t want to stand up and cheer for a team of scrappy underdogs who are able to take down a much larger and stronger opponent? It is tempting to see parallels to the Battle of Midway, where U.S. pilots dealt a massive strategic defeat to the Imperial Japanese Navy by sinking all four of its large carriers. There is something heroic in watching a handful of pilots destroy an enormous enemy target against long odds.

Even if that is the analogy the filmmakers want us to draw, it is not fully paralleled by the Rebels at Endor. The U.S. pilots at Midway were all naval aviators—no hybrid hotshots like General Lando Calrissian, who appeared at the last moment to lead the attack. A much closer analogy would be what the Chinese appear to be doing in the South China Sea, where fishing vessels are crewed with un-uniformed members of the maritime militia and the coast guard may be coordinating or supporting the militia’s actions (with even higher levels possibly involved in the planning process as well). Suffice it to say, we might cheer for the on-screen General Calrissian, but hybrid warriors like him are one of the chief concerns for real-world naval officers today, who have to consider whether, for example, fishing ships are simple merchants or maritime militias.

Hybrid Warfare on Land

To enable the star fleet to accomplish its objective, the Rebels first have to insert a team onto the surface of the forest moon of Endor to disable the shield protecting the Death Star from attack in space. This attack kicks off in typical hybrid manner, with Luke (taking a turn as Commander Skywalker) piloting Han (General Solo), Leia, and a team of Pathfinders (Alliance special operations forces) to the moon’s surface in a captured Imperial transport.

That team is also heading into a trap, since the Emperor has deployed “an entire legion of [his] best troops” to meet them. As ever, the Rebels’ plan does not survive contact. The team is allowed to land, but they are promptly discovered by Imperial scouts. And in a truly unexpected twist, Princess Leia is brought into the Ewoks’ village. Han, Luke, and the droids of course cannot abide a missing princess, so they send the Pathfinders on to the shield generator and go off in search of Leia—only to fall into the Ewoks’ clutches themselves. With a little assist from the Force, our heroes win the Ewoks’ hearts and minds, and the Ewoks’ insurgency tips the balance of the battle against the Emperor’s best troops and enables the Rebels to disable the shield, thereby allowing the ultimate attack on the Death Star to proceed and win.

Even if the ground battle is more insurgency than hybrid warfare, it is nevertheless notable for a few reasons. First, the opening gambit of a special operations insertion by means of a captured enemy shuttle is a classic false-flag operation—and a real no-no for conventional militaries on Earth. Clandestinely inserting a single special operations team is not out of the realm of possibility, but it is easy to see how these tactics can scale. Those who have read Ghost Fleet will recall that novel opening with an invasion borne by commercial roll-on–roll-off ships, and what could be more ordinary than that? Second, the Rebels’ teaming with the Ewoks demonstrates the kind of diplomatic-military-informational blending that Schadlow describes as typical of hybrid warfare. Think of the way in which multiple countries’ special operations forces have partnered with local factions in Syria to advance various agendas in that complex environment.

Finally, the Alliance’s actions in the Battle of Endor may provide a glimpse of what hybrid warfare might look like in the near- to medium-term future here on Earth. To date, the world has taken notice of hybrid land warfare as practiced by Russia’s “little green men” and maritime hybrid warfare as practiced by Chinese maritime militias (sometimes called “little blue men”). Like Ghost Fleet, the Battle of Endor provides a useful example of how hybrid war can simultaneously blend domains as well as tactics—imagine a country (or non–state actor) employing hybrid tactics simultaneously on land and sea. 

Excerpt from Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict, edited by Max Brooks, John Amble, ML Cavanaugh, and Jaym Gates. Used by permission of the University of Nebraska Press and its imprint Potomac Books. © 2018 by Max Brooks, John Amble, ML Cavanaugh, and Jaym Gates.