Friday, September 10, 2010

The Battle Of Hoth Unlimited, Part One

This article started out as a comparison of how different scifi properties portray tactical combat. To spice things up, I decided to pattern this article after a lively forum board debate I read through years ago, by placing said troops into an actual battle scenario from science fiction and see how they would do. For this, I’ve chosen the Battle of Hoth, one of the most famous ground engagements in on-screen science fiction, from The Empire Strikes Back.

The militaries from various sources will be replacing the rebels defending the base, and we’ll see how each will handle the Imperial ground assault. Remember this is my opinion only, and is purely for fun.


The Empire has discovered a major Rebel base on Hoth, a world gripped in a severe ice age and completely covered over in glaciers and snow. The Imperial Fleet arrives in orbit, and the Rebels activate a large shield over the base that prevents orbital bombardment or direct landing of troops. So the Imperials send in a mechanized division outside the field radius to take out the field generator through an old-fashioned ground assault. Their primary objective is to capture and/or destroy the base’s main generators powering the shield, at the center of Rebel-defended territory.

The Rebels attempt to evacuate base, piling everyone they can into ships to run the Imperial blockade in high orbit. While the base is being evacuated, a number of stalwart rebels fight a holding action against the oncoming Imperial troops to give their fellows time to escape.

Because of the overhead shield, neither side can employ any type of high-altitude attack craft or weapon. Like in the movie, the defenders have to hold out as long as they can.

This battle was actually much larger than what was portrayed on screen. The film narrowly followed only the parts of it Luke and the other principles were involved in, but the battle actually involved thousands of troops and the siege taking place on various fronts simultaneously.


Rebel Decisive Win: All the transports get away safely, and the Imperials never take the base.

Rebel Marginal Win: All of the transports get away safely, but the Imperials take the base (this was the result in the movie.)

Imperial Marginal Win: The Imperials take the base quickly enough that a good percentage of the transports never make it away.

Imperial Decisive Win: Imperials take the base with hardly any resistance and intercept most of the transports before they leave planet.


Basically, as we switch out the Rebels for various other sci-fi troops, these soldiers will be given any equipment and weapons from their source material that approximate the role of equipment the rebels had. For example, the rebels defending the base had 9 speeders, so the new troops will also have 9 low-altitude attack craft their forces would typically employ, or the closest equivalent they have in their source material. They will also be employed in roughly the same numbers the rebels were.

Also, like the rebels, the new troops will also be well versed in winter warfare tactics and can take advantage of the environment just as well.


For this scenario, we are jettisoning what’s called Plot-Induced Stupidity (PIS.) A term that’s become popular with fans of various stripes online, PIS is when characters act outrightly idiotic against common logic, or when events in the story take a badly contrived turn, in order to move the plot along. Some rather famous examples include elite Imperial Stormtroopers in Return of the Jedi being routed by stone-age teddy bears, or some convenient glitch in Star Trek that prevents the crew from using their transporter at a critical moment.

So for this article, PIS is dispensed with across the board for attackers and defenders both. All equipment will work the way it is supposed to, and all troopers involved on both sides will act competently and use smart tactics wherever appropriate.


First, let’s take a look at the attacking force.

The Imperials are at about Tech Level 18, meaning they’re a fairly typical space-opera civilization technologically. They do not always employ equipment that takes full advantage of their society’s technical sophistication (why employ clumsy walker units when they have extremely versatile anti-grav technology?), but what they lack in sophistication they usually make up for in ruthlessness and sheer numbers. The Imperials’ favored military tactic usually involves head-on confrontation with overwhelming force. Subtleties and scheming is usually left to the Sith overlords and their pet generals.

In this scenario, they are employing (at least according to the Wikipedia article on the Battle for Hoth) 9 AT-AT walkers, various smaller walker units (AT-ST units,) and a division of Stormtroopers specifically trained and outfitted for winter conditions. Total Imperial ground troop strength is around 12,000 personnel. Other types of combat walkers are mentioned in EU sources, but they’ll be left off here. We don’t want to confuse casual readers too much, so we’re just going to stick mostly to the types of units seen onscreen in the movie. The walker units advance ahead of the main bodies of foot soldiers, in order to use their superior armor and weapons to smash through the gathered Rebel defenses. Of course, the AT-ATs are carrying a fair number of troops as well.

The Stormtroopers have full-body armor designed to be impact resistant and thermally insulated. The helmets have a full radio suite and a heads-up display with several limited sensor capabilities, such as infrared. The armor, however, does limit movement somewhat, and the helmets severely limit real world vision. This means that if the HUD goes down, the trooper will only have a narrow field of vision unless he removes his helmet.

Their primary weapons are “blasters,” which seem to be low-velocity plasma weapons; basically the weapons superheat a compressed volume of gas into a plasma state then release it as a magnetically-focused bolt. Despite doing potentially impressive heat damage, the Imperial versions seem to travel at low speeds (equivalent to a baseball fastball pitch) and have limited penetration capabilities. On the plus side, though, they are very long-enduring (we never see a Stormtrooper who has to stop to reload), have good effective ranges, and are very rugged.

The Imperial armies do seem to have a troop quality issue that goes beyond the keystone-kop-like PIS we see sometimes. Many don’t seem well motivated or well trained, at least compared to many modern real-world militaries. The Imperials, at least in the movies, depend less on elite, skilled soldiers and much more on raw numbers. The troopers that were involved on Hoth seemed better than most seen throughout the series, but general troop quality is still something that must be taken into consideration.

The quality of the commanding officers (excluding Vader and a few others) seems to be exceptionally dismal. They’re usually portrayed as barely competent and haughty, basically over-promoted bureaucrats more interested in sucking up to their superiors than in actually getting their jobs done right.

And there’s no getting around the most glaring problem with the Imperial forces in this scenario: the AT-AT walkers. They are one of the most impractically designed ground military vehicles ever put on screen. They’re basically slow moving, top-heavy, walking targets. Though they do look very neat (which is probably all the film makers were primarily concerned about) in most ‘realistic’ engagements they’d be more a liability than an asset.

The good is that they’re very heavily armored; Luke even states they’re blaster-proof. The bad--the very bad--is that this chassis is balanced high atop of four very tall, very vulnerable legs. If the vehicle falls, it can’t right itself, and it also seems like heavily uneven terrain could seriously stymie it. Still, the AT-ATs also carry some impressive firepower in the form of forward-mounted heavy blasters. In fact, if the AT-ATs can somehow make it to the defensive perimeter, their heavy firepower is usually assured to bring down any defenses there.

The AT-STs are much better suited for this kind of fight. Though they are also a bit top-heavy for their size, they make up for it by being speedy and maneuverable. Though they seemed underused in the movie, in truth they would be highly effective in hit and run tactics and in infantry-support roles. In a more realistic scenario, they, not the AT-ATs, would prove to be the key weapon system that would allow the Imperials to capture the base.

In summary, the Imperials represent a formidable invasion force, though they do have some weaknesses foes may be able to take advantage of.


In the movie, the base is defended by about 2000 rebel infantry (making them outnumbered by about six to one). Besides the aforementioned nine attack speeders, they also had various hard point defense turrets at strategic locations and minor vehicles and mounts (tauntauns) to move troops and supplies around. The various new defenders will be given their source-material tactical equivalents of these.

In the movie, the rebels suffered devastating losses; well over a thousand defenders were killed and just as many captured or MIA. We’ll see who can do better, and who can do worse. As per OV tradition, we’ll take the defending forces from lowest tech and work our way up you the highest tech troops.


Source: The Aliens movies

Tech Level: 0

The xenomorphs have no technology per se, so its basically just them naked against the invaders, about two thousand strong, positioned in clusters throughout the base, with a Queen and two dozen eggs/facehuggers for every 200 drones or so.

At first, out in the open, the Imperials do very well. With their far superior numbers and firepower, they have no trouble picking off any groups of drones sent out to attack them. The Imperials will have little trouble reaching the base proper or getting to the power generators.

But, as anyone who’s ever seen the Aliens movies can guess, once they actually begin moving into the base itself is when the horror show really begins.

The aliens are very good at stealth, hiding in relatively small spaces, and executing hit-and run ambush tactics. Plus they do not show up on infrared scans. The stormtroopers will be seriously stymied at first, but will likely adjust their tactics once they discover what they’re up against. They do have the advantage of numbers, plus their armor provides them with at least some protection from the xenomorphs’ violent physical attacks and acid blood. Sweeping through the base slowly but cautiously in large groups, they’re likely to take horrific losses, but will eventually make their way through to the field generator.

RESULTS: Imperial Decisive Victory. The Imperials will eventually capture the base, but in the process will lose at least several hundred troops, much more than against the original Rebels. The increased amount of time the Imperials spend capturing the base itself is made up for in a far more speedier traversing of ground from their drop points, allowing them to blow the generators much earlier than in the movie and intercept many rebel transports.


Source: Starcraft

Tech Level: 0

Purely biological, the Zerg have no technology per se.

As we made a point of jettisoning PIS, we’ll also do the same in this case with GIS—Game Induced Stupidity. Some odd, and even non-sensical, abstractions were necessary in the Starcraft game in order to make the product playable and fun. Soldiers with rifles shooting down battleship-sized starships, producing entire armies with blue crystals and green gas, hatching tank-sized critters in under five minutes, and so on. The games’ narrative, visuals, and cut scenes will be used for a more ‘realistic’ version of the Zerg we’ll use here.

Because of the overhead shield, the Zerg will likely not bother with many air units, excepting Overlords. Instead, the Cerebrate in charge of defense will produce huge amounts of Zerlings and Hydralisks, along with nine Ultralisks to equal the Rebels’ snowspeeders. Point defenses around and within the base will be Sunken Colonies or burrowed Defilers.

Like the Imperials, the Zerg’s favorite tactic is a frontal assault with overwhelming numbers. And that’s exactly what they’ll do; organize three direct assaults on the three AT-AT groups to take down what they see as the most obvious threat right away. Each assault group would likely consist of one hundred to several hundred zerglings and hydralisks to assist three ultralisks.

The problem for the Imperials here is that individual Zerg are much tougher physically than any rebel or even xenomorph. As seen in cut scenes in the game, even the zerglings, the least of the Zerg, can withstand full autofire from Terran gauss guns for a short time. The blasters the troopers are armed with do not have the rate of fire nor the penetration capability of guass guns, and the hydralisks and ultralisks in the attack force are considerably tougher than the zerglings. Though concentrated fire will eventually bring the critters down, it will take a substantial amount.

Seeing several hundred of these monstrous creatures stampeding directly at them, shrugging off most weapons fire, is sure to rattle even the most seasoned soldier. But even with their superior size and toughness, the ultralisks will likely fall fairly quickly, as they would draw the most fire immediately.

But even with the behemoths out of the picture, the AT-AT walkers will likely be doomed, as they learn first hand the meaning of the term “zerg rush.” Zerglings and hydralisks swarm the vehicles dozens strongs, ripping apart their metal legs and tearing them down. Then the survivors turn their fury on the troops and smaller combat walkers, with very messy results for the Imperials. The troopers would eventually prevail from their superior numbers, but would be badly battered and demoralized from these initial assaults.

But once they reach the base perimeter, new horrors await them, in the form of sunken colonies and Defilers heaping Plague attacks on them, plus whatever ground forces the Zerg may have held in reserve. Here, unfortunately, is where the Imperial assault breaks like a wave against a dam. Already badly battered by the initial assaults, the troopers’ thin morale disintegrates as fifty-foot tendril-tongues erupt from under the snow to impale and crush them without warning, they’re continually gassed and horribly weakened by the Defilers, and the troopers who get too close to the battlements are ripped to shreds from Zerglings or hit with bolts of acid from Hydralisks.

RESULT: Rebel Decisive Victory. The Imperials retreat with horrible losses, perhaps as much as 40-50% of their ground forces. The Zerg suffer a similar percentage loss, but have no morale problems and are already spawning replacements. The Imperial commanders in orbit, no matter their threats, will not be able to get the troops to brave that meat-grinding horror of the Zerg defenses again. The base is never taken, and all rebel ships make it off planet intact.


Tech Level: 10

The US military is not only highly-trained and disciplined, it is also the most technologically advanced military in the world. This makes US soldiers the best suited of any real-world combatants, past or present, for having a chance of taking on the higher-tech forces of the Empire.

The US military maintains very high troop quality, in sharp contrast to the Imperials. In the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has a solid core of highly experienced combat veterans, and as a purely volunteer force, the soldiers are in general well motivated to begin with. Even though the Imperial division assigned to the ground assault is very competent by stormtrooper standards, the US soldiers will still be several notches above them in overall quality.

(I’m not an expert in modern military weapons, so forgive me if some assignations of equipment below might be off)

Point defenses will primarily be M-2 50 caliber machine guns or similar, with MK 19 40 mm machine guns (a type of armor-piercing autogrenade launcher) placed in areas where they can expect to be hit with heavy armor units. Both types of guns are mobile, and can be moved around as needed to different hard points. Low-altitude attack craft in place of speeders will be MH-60L Blackhawk attack helicopters.

Realistically, the US troops would also do what they could to heavily mine the most likely approaches the Imperials would take. However, since the Rebels in the movie did not use the tactic (most likely due to lack of prep time), it will be disallowed for the US troops as well.

The primary infantry weapon of the US armed forces is the M-16A2, with some units being equipped with M-4 carbines. Most squads would also be issued at least one M-249 SAW. These weapons do have some advantages over the Imperials’ blasters. First and foremost, they can deliver much greater rates of fire, and can deliver a much more potent kinetic energy punch to their targets.

However, Stormtrooper armor seems very good at absorbing kinetic impact, and given their tech level, will probably hold up to at least a few hits by modern day bullets. In fact, the situation will probably be similar to what US troops encountering J’afa in the original Stargate movie and in the earlier seasons of Stargate: SG-1; it will probably take concentrated autofire on any one target to bring them down.

The same will probably not be true on the other side. Even though the US armor is very effective against kinetic impact and penetration, they are not graded to withstand intense heat. The imperials’ blasters deliver most of their damage as heat, probably at least over a thousand degrees Fahrenheit, concentrated in a focused super-heated stream. Most likely most dead-on shots will penetrate the US soldiers’ armor; those that don’t may have the plasma “splash” against the target like a wave, causing severe secondary burns.

When the imperial assault is first spotted, Blackhawk helicopter sorties are organized to try and take out the AT-AT groups. The helicopters are as fast and nearly as maneuverable as the speeders shown in the movie, and have much longer-ranged weapons. However, the AT-AT’s heavy armor prevents their missiles or their rotary guns from penetrating the main chasis. So they will quickly adopt an alternate strategy: attacking the legs.

As noted earlier, an AT-AT’s big vulnerability is that most of its mass is balanced on four very tall legs. Take out even one of those legs, and the entire vehicle is neutralized. Also, the guns most likely to take out the Blackhawks, the turbo cannons on the AT-AT’s ‘heads’, have a fairly restrictive firing arc, meaning smart helicopter pilots will quickly learn to swing around and come at the walkers from the rear.

The legs are also heavily armored and heavy-duty, and withstood up to repeated blaster fire in the movie. However, missiles are not blasters, and deliver their damage mostly through kinetic impact and explosive concussion. While the walkers may be nigh-invulnerable to the blasters (perhaps by using a thermal superconducting mesh in the armor, which re-radiated away the heat?), kinetic impacts, if strong enough, could just hammer away at the joints until they buckle.

Even so, anything other than a direct hit by an anti-armor missile from the Blackhawks will likely be inadequate, and even then, it will likely take more than one shot.

Modern missiles are very good at homing in on specific individual targets. However, pinpoint-targeting different areas of a target vehicle is something much harder to engineer with modern technology. So hitting the moving, relatively thin legs of the AT-AT’s are going to be difficult. I estimate at best the Blackhawks could take down 1-2 AT-ATs before they themselves become imperiled by organized ground fire.

At the perimeter, the fighting is very fierce, but the US troops are simply too low-tech compared to the Imperials and too out-numbered to prevail. Especially devastating to the US troops are the AT-STs; their speed, maneuverability, and relatively heavy firepower wreak havoc with the US defenses. The surviving Blackhawks pick off what they can, but it likely won’t be enough. When the AT-AT’s with their heavy blasters come within range of the defensive lines, the fight is pretty much over.

RESULT: Marginal Victory for the Imperials. The US forces manage to inflict much heavier troop casualties among the Imperial infantry than the Rebels, thanks to superior rates of fire, but would be much less effective at taking out the enemy armor units, which most of their weapons can’t seriously affect. The only time the Imperial advance is significantly slowed is when the main body of troops reach the defensive perimeter, and all too soon that is breached when the Imperial armor is brought up. The Imperials take down the field generator with numerous rebel ships still on the ground, and capture the base.


Source: Stargate SG-1, Stargate: Atlantis

Tech Level: 13-15

Stargate Command itself employs only a few hundred actual combat troops. For this scenario we’ll assume they use normal US troops, as above, to fill out their ranks to the 2000 or so soldiers needed to take the Rebels’ place.

Stargate Command, technically under the auspices of the USAF but more practically its own branch of the US military, has a number of advantages over the ‘normal’ US troops used in the last scenario. Not only do they have captured and adapted alien technology, but they have become highly experienced specialists in fighting battles against foes with superior technology.

Weapons used by the main troops will be as outlined above for the normal US troops. However, it was established that the SGC developed and employed on a regular basis specialized equipment designed to neutralize advantages of the much higher-tech J’afa warriors. They have advanced ammunition that can readily penetrate high-tech armor, and have inserts in their own body armor designed to withstand the plasma blasts of the J’afa staff weapons. Since the Imperials and the Gua’uld J’afa have approximately the same Tech level (18), we can assume that these innovations will be as equally effective against the Imperial snowtroopers. They distribute what they’ll have along these lines to as many of the normal troops as they can, so let’s assume for simplicity’s sake that about half the soldiers have these enhancements.

What this means is that unlike the normal US troops, their weapons can take down individual Imperial troopers with a single shot. So, soldier-to-soldier, they would actually have an advantage, in that the SG teams’ weapons have much greater rates of fire, and would be bolstered here and there by Zat guns and some other captured alien tech. There is also an even greater discrepancy in overall troop quality; the SG teams are the very cream of the crop of the US military, so they would have even better overall training, morale, and motivation than normal US troops.

However, these advantages may not be able to overcome their big disadvantage: lack of advanced armor units. In defending against alien threats in the various series, the SGC had a two pronged approach: space-going battlewagons that could engage in strategic battles in space, and ground troops that could engage in insurgent and guerilla tactics via the Stargates. While both approaches in the end proved very effective, it left a gap in development of their high-tech arsenal: armored fighting vehicles and aircraft.

Basically, the SGC has no high-tech equivalent of the snowspeeders (fighters like the X-303s are designed as high-speed, high-altitude/space attack aircraft, and would be poorly employed here) and will have to rely on what the normal US military used in the last scenario. Thus, they likely won’t have any better success in stopping the AT-AT advance, and will likely only take out a handful of them.

RESULT: Marginal Imperial Victory. Greater troop-to-troop casualties will only slow the Imperials down slightly, given their usual ruthlessness toward their own men. The Imperials will take a greater number of casualties, maybe twice that the normal US military by itself was able to inflict, but in the end the defenses fold as soon as the Imperial walkers smash through the defensive line. The imperials capture a number of rebel ships still on the ground.

Go HERE for part two: Avatar, Traveller, Star Trek, and more.


Anonymous said...

Dude! Thoughtful and intriguing.

Aristide said...

Nice article! It's an interesting idea to compare different forces from diverse universes by putting them in the same situation. It's a kind of thought experiment that can be useful for a writer to come up with fresh ideas.

Slightly off topic, you also made me think about the tech oddities of movie and TV science fiction. In my opinion, George Lucas vastly underestimated the technology level of the galactic civilization he created. After tens of millennia of development, one can hardly believe the Star Wars galaxy would still be as (relatively) primitive as the movies show.

On the flip side, take Star Trek. Here we have Earth just 300-400 years from now and its alien neighbours. All of them employ technologies *far* above what would be reasonable. You see teleporters, matter replication, perfect virtual reality and much more used on an everyday basis. And let's not even talk about the Enterprise moving a moon about, reigniting a dead star in minutes or creating a pocket universe or two.

I'm certain the best spaceship of the real-world 24th century won't come even close to the capabilities of the Enterprise-D, just like the Space Shuttle in 2001 was nothing comparable to the Discovery of "A Space Odissey".

Of course, it's science fiction, but I think the "sense of scale" is an important part of the realism of a show or movie. Especially because of the influence these media have on the public's opinions on space exploration and science in general.

Paul Lucas said...

Thanks Anonymous.


Thanks, I kind of started this article almost two years ago, it was that goofy 'what the hell' thing i just kind of worked on when I couldn't think of anything else to do.

Tech sophistication in a culture depends on actually a lot of different factors. Looking back in history, we see some societies that remained static for many centuries with little change. The Chinese, for example.

Then we have periods that see very rapid change in only a short span of time. The Rennaissance, or even more recently the 20th century. In 1900, the main form of travel was horse and buggy. 69 years later, men were walking on the Moon.

The point is, we really don't know how future technology is going to play out or progress. We can make educated guesses up to a point, which I kind of do on the main OV site, but we really can't rule anything out about the future.

I think Star Wars and Star Trek represent two different extreme views of the rate of tech progress. One, where society reaches a certain level and then just plateaus out (actually a very common theme in scifi) and the other, where society continues with the rate of advancement seen in the 20th century even after 200 years.

The reality is probably going to be somewhere in the middle. Like with tech trends in history, it will mostly be long periods with only a relative slow rate of advancement, punctuated by occasional renaissance periods of rapid change.

And you're right, they are just stories, and actually Lucas and Roddenberry (and his successors) tailored their universe to fit their stories and fictional style, not the other way around.

starwarsfan said...

awesome man