Grand Admiral Thrawn and the Operational Level of Conflict in Star Wars

By Steve Wills

The “Star Wars” franchise continues to build and expand into its 46th year of impact on American and global culture, science fiction and, in some cases, scientific fact. The “wars” side of the story, however, has not always been as accurate as perhaps possible. Hero and villain commanders alike, including General Obi wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, and others are more tactical warriors fighting with lightsabers, lasers, and individual strike fighter spacecraft. Tactical planning for space combat such as the briefing scene for the attack on the first Death Star in Episode IV, A New Hope (the original movie), has a World War II movie fleet of pilots in a ready room, and the space fighter combat that follows of a similar vintage. The great star fleets of Star Destroyers, Rebellion ships, Republic and Separatist ships, and the latest series of films with First Order and New republic warships, is mostly backdrop for character dialogue and decision rather than decisive military planning and action.

The “admirals” of these formations (Ackbar, Holdo, and Piett) are mostly tactical fighters, although the unfortunate Admiral Ozzel from The Empire Strikes Back receives the ultimate punishment from Darth Vader for a low-level poor operational decision (dropping out of light speed too early and alerting the Rebels to a system-wide Imperial attack). Grand Moff Tarkin is the originator of the so-called “Tarkin Doctrine” that advocates a counter-insurgency plan based on terror and retribution using the first Death Star and the Imperial fleet, but that seems more the province of a Secretary of Defense’s National Defense Strategy rather than distinct military operation.

One Star Wars leader, however, stands out as an operational-level war planner and strategist. Grand Admiral Thrawn, the blue-skin humanoid leader of Imperial forces in the wake of the death of Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, and thousands of Imperial soldiers and naval personnel in the battle of the Endor moon, seems the one Star Wars character with War College training and mastery of all levels of war. Created by author Timothy Zahn as a composite of historical military leaders, Thrawn is a multi-dimensional character closer to the modern senior military leader than the rest of the one-dimensional, cartoon-like heroes and villains of the Star Wars saga. Zahn described Thrawn as a quite different kind of villain, stating in 2017 that

“Most of the Imperial leaders we see in the movies rule through a combination of fear and manipulation. I wanted to create something different: a commander who could lead through loyalty. The result was Thrawn, a tactical genius whose troops follow him willingly, and who will fight for him whether or not he’s watching over their shoulders.”

A Star Wars Character with a Career Record

Timothy Zahn’s books on the blue-skinned, red-eyed humanoid admiral detail his discovery by an imperial patrol, and his career as essentially an Imperial surface warfare officer, and then a Joint Force commander. Thrawn attends the premier Imperial Naval Academy, and commands increasingly larger and more capable warships across his career up to Star Destroyer size. Along the way, he confronts bigotry, as the Empire is described as somewhat racist and biased in favor of humans over the aliens that make up a large part of the Galactic realm.

Thrawn is an admirable junior officer who speaks the truth to his superiors. He takes risks but involves his subordinates as a team to get results. He successfully fights pirates as a senior Lieutenant and is promoted to the position of executive officer of a light cruiser (a medium-sized imperial warship.) Thrawn performs well in tactical combat. His ship is damaged in a sophisticated drone attack, but he analyzes the attack pattern and destroys the drones. He is again promoted and given command of the cruiser. After more success in fighting rebels and pirates, he is promoted to command a larger Star Destroyer, and after more success, the equivalent of a carrier strike group command (built around a Star Destroyer and its escorts) and later a Fleet Command with multiple capital ships. While his career progression is considered rapid in the books, it is definable and in line with what one would expect for a senior naval leader.

Tactical Prowess

Thrawn is a tactical expert, proficient in the tactical tools of both the Galactic Empire and the Rebellion. He combines these tactical skills in the maneuvering and combat of starships with operational intelligence on his opponents that includes everything from the ship types and weapons to cultural strengths and weaknesses. Legendary naval tactics expert Captain Wayne Hughes said, “To know tactics, know technology.” Thrawn knows the technological capabilities of his force and combines these with cultural knowledge, what the Naval War College calls “intangible” factors, to achieve tactical overmatch like Air Force tactics expert Colonel John Boyd’s Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA) loop process.

While Boyd’s scheme was purely based on technologically driven air combat, Thrawn’ s use of intangible knowledge further expands his use of the OODA loop to get even further ahead of his opponents. For example, in an engagement with New Republic forces after returning to take command of the post-Battle of Endor imperial remnant, Thrawn conducts an unorthodox maneuver of his flagship against attacking New Republic ships that his fleet captain predicts will be easily understood and countered. What the Captain does not understand is that Thrawn has made a study of the planetary home world of the Republic commander and knows that that species fears radical change to the point where they are unable to effectively react in a timely matter. Thrawn’ s tactical maneuver confounds the Republic ships and allows him to gain advantage in the decision cycle which results in their defeat. Had Thrawn maneuvered as if he were facing an imperial opponent with the same knowledge base, and mirror-imaged his opponent, he might not have been successful. The combination of Hughes tactical knowledge, Boyd OODA Loop framework, and avoidance of assuming that opponents would act as he would empower Thrawn as a superb tactical operator.

Operational and Strategic Commander

U.S. Naval War College Graphic Showing a Military Center of Gravity.

At the end of the first Thrawn book, one sees the newly minted Flag Officer Thrawn conduct a system-wide campaign against the nascent forces of the rebellion with the Imperial equivalent of a U.S. Navy carrier strike group. Thrawn quickly identifies the “military center of gravity” of the operation as a group of planetary defense weapons protected by an impenetrable shield. He gathers intelligence on the defenses to determine that the weapons are fully effective. Thrawn first employs deception and maneuver, using his Star Destroyer’s escorts as a decoy to distract his opponent and gain knowledge of his opponents’ weapons and weaknesses, while his flagship remains out of range of planetary weapons. Then Thrawn uses what War College curriculum would call “enabling fires” onto the rebel planet’s oceans, with resulting tidal waves that cause electrical casualties to his opponent’s weapon systems and shields. With their force protection measures neutralized, the rebel garrison is forced to surrender or face direct fire from Thrawn’ s battle group. This is just the beginning of a sector-wide operation by Thrawn to eliminate the rebel threat in the sector and restore safe passage for imperial trade. The Imperial Admiral also employs intangibles aspects of center of gravity analysis through decisive leadership of his own forces and estimating his opponent’s culminating point being the destruction of the energy shield by the tidal waves.

Thrawn finally comes into his own as a strategic commander with his return from the so-called “unknown regions” in the wake of the Imperial collapse following the defeat at the Battle of Endor and the deaths of Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, Admiral Piett, and many other senior imperial leaders in the disastrous engagement. Thrawn re-organized the Imperial remnant as a striking force, sought disruptive technologies that would limit Jedi communication powers, and identified the center of gravity of New Republic forces as a strategic shipyard and warships it produced still waiting to be delivered. The Republic victory at this engagement (Battle of Sluis Van) only comes from a lack of Imperial jamming that the Republic exploits to turn imperial uncrewed platforms against the ships they were trying to capture. Mass takeover of combat platforms through essentially hacking them is a common science fiction element, appearing more recently in the opening episode of the Battlestar Galactic reboot of the 2000s. While Thrawn’ s planning displayed sound operational art, the knowledge of technology and networks is essential for both attack and defense. The U.S. military’s own desire to manage mass uncrewed system operations could benefit from a review of science fiction.

Thrawn Lessons Learned

Grand Admiral Thrawn eventually goes down to defeat, stabbed in the back by his own bodyguard, a sad fate for such a talented strategist, operational planner, and tactician. He remains, however, the most believable, senior military commander in the Star Wars universe and a cut above other officers such as the hapless Admiral Ozzel, Darth Vader’s subordinate Admiral Piett, and the rebel/New Republic commanders like Admirals Ackbar and Holdo who act primarily as tactical commanders. The character of Thrawn offers some useful examples of exceptional operational planning and tactical execution for military planners and wargamers to follow. One can hope that the forthcoming TV appearance of the blue-skinned imperial commander will be as inspiring as the literary versions of his persona.

Popular culture does not always offer significant military lessons, but the Grand Admiral Thrawn character possesses tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war skills worth emulation by the U.S. armed forces. Thrawn’ s command of technology enables his tactical success. His meticulous planning and execution of complex operations echo Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke’s statement that there is genius in diligence. Finally, Thrawn’ s ability to see multiple operations in progress through to conclusion reflects his skill in grand strategy. Thrawn does not raise his voice, use expletives, or “force choke” his subordinates, but mentors them and freely shares his own thoughts and wisdom. Thrawn seeks to understand his opponents’ goals and methodology through their art and culture, and often uses this understanding to gain operational and tactical advantage.

Yes, Thrawn is a villain, and his objectives are often cruel, but that said, his fictional campaigns are worthy of study. As further proof of this applicability, see Strategy Strikes Back, a collection of essays that examines real warfare through a Star Wars lens. While focused on tactics, the book by the same name from legendary fleet tactics expert Captain Wayne Hughes is another useful tool through which to understand what Thrawn attempts to do in the books. Hughes suggests that operational doctrine is the “glue of tactics,” and Thrawn’s own doctrine emerges across the book series as one that uses a mix of technology, maneuver, and application of fires from unlikely locations to achieve tactical and campaign-level success in the books. The Thrawn Trilogy series itself details the admiral’s full career, and readers can explore in depth Thrawn’s operational planning skills across multiple campaigns. In a world where many may not know the great strategists of history, Thrawn may be a good start in getting more young people interested in strategy, operations, and tactical thinking.

Dr. Steven Wills currently serves as a Navalist for the Center for Maritime Strategy at the Navy League of the United States. He is an expert in U.S. Navy strategy and policy and U.S. Navy surface warfare programs and platforms. After retiring from the Navy in 2010, he completed a master’s and a Ph.D. in History with a concentration on Military History at Ohio University, graduating in 2017. He is the author of Strategy Shelved: The Collapse of Cold War Naval Strategic Planning, published by Naval Institute Press in July 2021 and, with former Navy Secretary John Lehman, Where are the Carriers? U.S. National Strategy and the Choices Ahead, published by Foreign Policy Research Institute in August 2021. Wills also holds a master’s in National Security Studies from the U.S. Naval War College and a bachelor’s in History from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Featured Image: Grand Admiral Thrawn as he Appears in the New Disney “Ahsoka” series played by actor Lars Mikkelsen (credit: Disney+).

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