A look at the roles and significance of espionage in some of the greatest battles in science fiction history. (Or future history depending which way you look at it.)
The Battle of Yavin took place a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The events leading up to this epic confrontation illustrate the significant impact of intelligence in determining the outcome of space based military conflicts.
The poorly equipped Alliance to Restore the Republic (aka Rebel Alliance) was an insurgent campaign attempting to overthrow the autocratic ruling Galactic Empire. The rebellion effort included numerous star systems over multiple galactic sectors. The two opposing forces executed intelligence functions at strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Much better proficiency was demonstrated and greater success achieved employing intelligence at tactical levels.
Prior to the Yavin campaign the Rebel Alliance “Striking from a hidden base” won its first major military battle against the Empire. During that battle rebel spies managed to steal the death star plans. (Opening Credits, Star Wars: A New Hope). These two data points: Striking from a Hidden Base, and during the battle rebel spies stole the death star plans, provide keen insight into Rebel Alliance and Galactic Empire’s relative intelligence and Operations Security (OPSEC) capabilities.
The Rebel Alliance struck from a hidden base. This fact means that the Empire did not have required intelligence to identify the location of those Rebel military forces. This lack of military intelligence can be attributed to poor collection/analysis on the part of the Empire, good OPSEC or strategic deception on the part of the Rebel Alliance, or some combination of these factors. Whichever the case, it does not appear that the Empire’s intelligence effort was capable enough to penetrate Rebel denial and deception operations to determine enemy unit location, size, plans or intentions.
Spies stole the Death Star technical plans during the Rebel Alliance attack. The initial credits and several references during the course of the film “Star Wars A New Hope” credit the theft to spies, not soldiers. The fact that spies acted under cover of an attack suggests that they knew what they were looking for or at least where to find important information within the Empires computer system. They also knew how to get access to that system to retrieve the plans. This fact implies that spies were in place prior to the attack in position(s) with sufficient cover and access to obtain the Death Star data. The Rebel Alliance therefore, had the Living Being Intelligence (LIVBINT – Note this can not be Human Intelligence because no humans are involved) capability to penetrate the Galactic Empire. In contrast, the Empire did not have the security or counter intelligence capabilities in place to detect or otherwise thwart the Rebel LIVBINT collection effort.
Darth Vader leads a Star Destroyer in an attack against the CR90 corvette Tantive IV. This ship is carrying Princess Leia Organa of the Royal House of Alderaan. Darth Vader demands to know where as the plans for the Empire’s Death Star while choking the ship’s captain, Captain Antilles. He states that the Tantive IV intercepted a transmission which containing the Death Star plans. Moments later, Vader also states “several rebel transmissions were beamed aboard this ship from rebel spies…”. The evidence suggests that the Galactic Empire has the Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) capability to know that several transmissions were transmitted and intercepted by a specific ship. Further, the Empire knows the content of these transmissions. This appears to be a fairly robust SIGINT capability.
While still on the Tantive IV, an officer informs Lord Vader that the plans are not in the ship’s main computer. Assuming the Empire’s personnel were reasonably competent, this knowledge implies the Empire has the forensic intelligence capability to search the ship’s main computer system for files that could be hidden or erased. Vader then directs the commander to “tear this ship apart until you find those plans and bring the passengers to me. I want them alive”. The Empire will continue the search by ‘tearing the ship apart’, meaning to extensively search the ship. The fact that Vader demands to the see crew members implies that they will be interrogated for intelligence information. Further evidence to support this contention comes moments later when Vader instructs an officer to send a distress signal and then to inform the Imperial Senate that all aboard were killed. Keeping rebel forces alive while reporting then dead implies they are being kept alive for a reason.
Also on board the ship Vader also states “I have traced the rebel spies to her (meaning Princess Leia) and now she is my only link to their secret base.” The location of the secret Rebel base emerges as a new – and more important — Intelligence Objective in addition to the Death Star plans. The Empire’s intelligence collection apparatus is pretty limited if this is the only source of that information. Is there no tracking of food, weapons suppliers, fuel, etc.? Are there no LIVBINT penetrations of the Rebel Forces, supporting governments, or their supply chain?
Conversely, is the Rebellion’s intelligence apparatus and Operations Security (OPSEC) so good that they operate with relative impunity? It would appear so. The ability to maintain a hidden base as well as the theft of the Death Star plans would appear to indicate strong intelligence and OPSEC capabilities. Yet, there are still some gaps in the Rebels strategic intelligence as they are unaware that the Empire posses a significant SIGINT capability able to intercept transmissions to Princess Leia’s ship.
Other indications of the Galactic Empire’s intelligence capabilities (and limitations) are seen on the planet of Tatoonie. First, Obi Wan Kenobi and Luke (son of Darth Vader) live on this planet and are never detected by the Empire. They are two primary threats to the Empire and still they are not detected. Both have been there for several years so obviously, the Empire lacks a pervasive intelligence collection capability. Didn’t anyone in the local stormtrooper detachment ever debrief the local merchants, Jawas or interrogate the Sand People for tactical intelligence to provide situational awareness? Obi Wan seems to know Mos Eisley’s reputation “wretched hive of scum and villainy” as well as what bars to go to for the best trader pilots. This knowledge indicates he is not a stranger to the area so it’s hard to imagine he would not, at some point, be known to people in the area.
The Mos Eisley Space Port is on Tatoonie. There, Stormtroopers are searching for two droids indicating the Empire is conducting a systematic search to recover the stolen Death Star plans. A local spy discovers the droids and tracks them, Obi Wan and Luke from the bar area. The spy (he, she, it?) reports that information via a portable communications device. Moments later Stormtroopers arrive on the scene and the spy directs them to docking bay 94 and Hans Solo’s ship. The fact that a spy is in place in Mos Eisley and relays tactical information to immediate response forces indicates the Empire has some ‘on the ground’ LIVBINT collection capabilities. This is particularly interesting and would tend to indicate the Empire’s uneven performance levels of intelligence capabilities in remote areas.
The rescue of Princess Leia on board the Death Star provides additional insight into the Empire’s intelligence apparatus. The droid R2D2 is immediately able to plug in and access the Death Star’s computer system. There appear to be no security protocols such as user identification and authentication. R2D2 accesses information reports and controls some of the ship’s functions such as the garbage mashers. There also appears to be very little ‘need to know’ doctrine incorporated into this military capability. In only one case — the detention level – is R2D2 denied information as it is restricted.
The final applications of intelligence capabilities of the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance are seen in the actual battle of Yavin. The Rebel forces have exploited the Death Star plans to determine a course of action.
The Empire identifies the Rebel base on Yavin IV, a moon of the planet Yavin. This is accomplished by installing a tracking device on Hans Solo’s ship, the Millennium Falcon. This is evidence that the Empire has some intelligence tagging, tracking, and locating capability. Princess Leia is aware of this fact and yet goes to the Rebel secret base anyway. Given the rebel’s normally good OPSEC this appears to be a poor course of action.
After arriving in the Yavin system, the Empire forces calculate the exact moment that the Death Star will clear the planet and be within firing range of the moon. Similarly, the Rebels know the exact same information even as their fighters and bombers are just being launched. They must, therefore, have some technical collection capabilities within the planetary system to provide space situational awareness.
As the two military forces engage both sides report the strength of the opposing forces. In addition, multiple references are made to the locations of enemy forces. The Rebel command base notifies its forces that it has identified new signals entering into the area and that Tie Fighters are inbound. This action supports the contention that the Rebellion maintains a capable tactical SIGINT intercept capability. In addition, during the course of the battle operating forces (or Command it is unclear) report the numbers of gun turrets on the Death Star surface (20) and in the trench (10).
The Galactic Empire also provides tactical intelligence to its operating forces. During the engagement, they note the number and type of attacking forces as well as their relative locations. It is, in fact this information that compels Darth Vader to command two pilots to accompany him to attack a group of rebel fighters. Lastly, an officer speaks to Governor and Death Star commander Grand Moff Takin noting they have analyzed the Rebel’s attack strategy and that there is a threat. This analysis implies the Empire has collected, collated, and analyzed multi-source information in an on-going battle and has assessed it against the ship’s vulnerabilities. This is outstanding intelligence work given the combat circumstances. It suggests a professional, well trained, and disciplined work force.
The Galactic Empire had several failures in intelligence at the strategic level. Effectiveness of LIVBINT appears inconsistent across different operating environments. In contrast, the Rebel Alliance shows greater proficiency in strategic intelligence. Both sides appear to have equal capabilities in intelligence collection and exploitation in tactical applications. Traveling to Yavin IV while knowingly being tracked degraded Rebel OPSEC and could have led to the destruction of the Rebel Alliance.
Source: Star Wars: A New Hope