Why Building The Death Star Is A Bad Investment

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 $US852 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 andJamelle 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 defence 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 favoured 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 favoured 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 Rebelsshould have done. When I was a Congressional staffer working on defence 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 US 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!

This article, by Gregory Koger of the University of Miami, originally appeared on The Monkey Cage. It has been republished with full permission.

WATCH MORE: Science & Health News


    It always amazes me how movies like Star Wars can create such wonderful theories and ideas such as a above. It shows that the movie holds more than just moving pictures :-)

      Great read! The author does a great job of simplifying complex economic and politocal theory against a 'fun' background - very well written.

    So do we build an empire or a rebublic ?

      If we build either, theres two scenarios if its a Labor Republic or a Liberal Empire.

      Labor Republic: We'd have the most expensive versions of everything, we'd have the biggest deathstar and the most expensive guns. We'd have the best communications, defence and anything else they can put money on. The Greens would secretly run the show anyway, hiding their love for Jawas and Wookies. Things would be overbudget and we'd slowly have a growing debt, but at least stuff thats a good idea would get built - even if it is expensive.

      Liberal Empire: We'd be weathly but the deathstar would be half built because they'd need to have a Cost-Benefit Analysis every time they need to add a gun or shield generator. A Liberal empire would only attack an enemy if one of our allies says its okay, there would be droids everywhere instead of Empire troops - because they've replaced the entire public service sector - But at least schools and hospitals would be top notch incase something happens.

      IMO both ways we're fucked.

        funny how you said Labor as Rebels and Liberal as Empire. Either way is very acceptable because in the end....we are all f#$%ed.

          I did this pic long ago, on a PC far far away...


            I hope that's still funny in 5 years time...

              @Bern - ...many Gizmodians died to bring us this information...

        Love the sentiment but a few fact corrections. Education is among the first things to be cut from any Liberal government so I think you mean there will lots of over-funded private schools! Also, Labour has just cut defence spending. Finally, we have virtually no debt despite the mining industry not paying much tax, so that's out as well. Sorry! :D


    Arguments for a cost/benefit analysis of the DSBN (Death Star Builder Nexus) tend to ignore that this is an infrastructure building exercise - the new death bandwidth made available to the Empire will bring them into line with other galaxies in the Far Far Away region, and allow the Empire to further build a hi-death-tech economy to take us into the Long Long Ago millennium.. There are also associated windfalls for the resources sector, for the military, for R&D, and employment rates should be positively affected by the surge in demand for qualified space tradesmen.

    "Mobile" alternatives like stormtroopers can be very effective, and will always have a place in the market - it seems like stormtroopers are EVERYWHERE these days! - but they are no match for a fixed-planet solution. It's a problem of limited force-projection footprint. As more rebels require more stormtroopers in an area, response times slow and the stormtrooper network's performance suffers. Plus, stormtrooper capacity ultimately relies on Star Destroyer backbone, so capital ships will need upgrading to cope with demand soon anyway. The more reliable and future-proof solution is the DSBN's FTTP (Firing Through The Planet) plan. Our surviving children will thank us for it.

      The problem with a centralized hub such as the death star, is monopoly. Its a walled garden of security. It's a trap!

        You only rolled a 4, you missed the trap, and loose $40 trillion Empire Dollars in tax revenue.


      I see what you did there

        He also managed to reduce latency and increase download quotas while keeping the costs to the end user the same. And empowered remote communities with decent internet.

    The problem I see is that why would the Emperor build a weopon that could destroy him and what ever planet He is on that is not in his control.As seen in ROTJ Vader cant be trusted and its stupid to trust any Sith as the Emperor knows as he himself killed his master years ago.
    In real life the president of the USA is the only one capable of luanching nukes and has the "football" with him 24/7.

    This sort of stuff is fun but it is more or less sidelines the Force from the discussion. Everything the Emperor does is to create more fear/hatred/anger/suffering because it makes the Dark Side, and therefore himself, stronger. The fact that it may or may not have any other value or advantage is largely irrelevant. The Rebels only won out because they had some light side Force users of their own. That's the minor problem I've always kind of had with Star Wars, evil for evils sake (kicking puppies for the sake of it) rather than intelligent evil.

    When anything that happens in the star wars stories that doesn't make sense, a wizard did it.

    The fact that Star Wars dispenses utterly with the precepts of gravity, thermodynamics and well physics is probably a better place to critic the story then from the lofty heights of political/ galaxy management. Granted they may have discovered anti-gravity but I just don't see any technology overcoming say momentum and such but yes yes a wizard did it....

    In examining your argument on how destroying a planet would be a significant financial loss I would dare say you didn't count how many senators are in the galaxy. I seem to remember a very large space containing tens of thousands of senators in the prequels. Making a dent in the treasury would require the destruction of a very very large amount of planets. Hell working in bureaucracy myself I wouldn't be surprised if they lose systems in their financial reporting systems.

    More to the point I don't see the Emperor being one to care for a bit of coin. He is an individual who loves to just fuck up peoples shit and the DS is his instrument to just destroy shit.

    Secondly the Emperor can foresee (some of) the future and most likely saw the rebellion was going to happen, and happen before the creation of the DS. Thus using cause and effect the DS did absolutely nothing to motivate star systems to join the alliance.

    I would also point out, although the DS has a substantial cost it would not be a stretch to imagine an entire fleet of DS's (they'd get cheap to make and support with scale). Such a fleet would be of enormous use. The Emperor could just destroy half the galaxy and not give a fuck. After such destruct i can't
    imagine anyone being in a position to stop him. Entire spiral arms would just give it up and bend over.

    Lastly the description for the Rebel Alliance, a'la the Rebellion is in my view bad nomenclature. It implies the rebellion would retain the same form of government once it succeeded in its aim. It should have been called the Rebel Revolution (not as classy as the Rebel Alliance sure) but at least proper in its description.

    On your point about the DS being vulnerable to a decoy bomb ship. I would imagine that an advanced civilization who can travel faster then light, who have anti-gravity, and extremely small but dense power systems, would have access to at least neutron level scanning. A large bomb would stick out like a sore thumb with such a system. Indeed the bomb that would cause the biggest problem for the DS is a hyperspace driven bomb. Imagine as Han Solo told Luke about the risks of a bad hyperspace calculation that you could easily end up in the middle of a star. Well the same logic could apply in that instead of a star you could end up in the DS and well even the kinetic energy of a bit of iron moving at sub-light speeds say 20% of light speed, coming out of hyperspace in their interior of the death star would be enough. Imagine an anti-matter warhead or such exploding in the DS.

    Thus the only way to protect the DS would be to have a portion of it in hyperspace.

    In fact I would dare say that the DS and all of the technology in the Star War universe is utterly illogical. As Ian Banks series has said galaxy scale wars would be fought by forcing suns to go super nova or causing black holes to form in your enemies hometown.

    HiSHe does a great series of how Star Wars should have ended. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdukWtJwlPU

    You're missing the actual reasons to build a Death Star.
    1st Death Star - Eliminate the few people who remain who have real power. At the start of the movie the senate is disbanded and everyone else with real power is sitting in a board room on the Death Star. The Emperor is cleaning house and getting rid of anyone who stands a chance of knocking him off the top. For the cost of a Death Star and a little embarassment he's eliminated the competition and secured his place on the throne.
    The Rebellion is also massively strengthened by it's destruction drawing out everyone who would consider standing against the Empire, but that turns out to be a good thing.
    2nd Death Star - Boosting the Rebellion makes sense with a second Death Star. As we see on Hoth the Rebels aren't actually a threat. In the long term the idea of rebellion is dangerous but even with all the new members they're not much of a military force. Near the end of Jedi they've got everyone in the universe who is willing to pick up a gun against the Empire in one spot, and they're shooting them down like fish in a barrel. This results in A) breaking the spirit of the galaxy and B) providing the perfect tool to turn Luke Skywalker and replace the broken and aging Darth Vadar.

    Remember, The Emperor can see the future through the Force. The only thing he didn't forsee was Obi-wan and Yoda becoming one with the Force and giving Luke the strength to reject the Dark Side and redeem Darth Vadar.

    [Side note: I know none of this is canon or intentional, I just like the idea that things like the one shot kill on the first Death Star are actually part of the Emperor's master plan. Also it's pretty funny just running sci-fi through conspiracy theory goggles. =P]

    So long story short the movie was totally unrealistic and that baddies like to do bad things even though it is counterproductive to do so. Got it.

    Wow - cool article!

    Never thought of Star Wars in that context before.

    Thank you for your advice and insight.
    Now back to my plans for world domination... MWAHAHAHAHA!!

    Ah but the aim of the Dark side is to sow carnage and discontent, so by that logic the deathstar is perfect, the Emperor was evil not because he wanted absolute power, but because he wanted absolute anarchy, by definition those of the dark side are essentially insane.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now