I was never really all that bothered by the AT-ATs that made their debut in The Empire Strikes Back. This was due in no small part to their coolness factor. On the big screen these ponderous juggernauts could not have been more exciting to behold. Despite their tenuous gait they epitomized the might of the Galactic Empire. Trudging through snow, picking off Snowspeeders and Rebel soldiers alike, and generally wreaking havoc on the icebound Hoth base, the seemingly indestructible AT-AT was the ground assault version of the Star Destroyer. So why should these technological terrors find their way, if one slow step at a time, into the latest Jedi Justifications? Because, simply put, a friend of mine was bothered by another form of vehicular combat showcased in Revenge of the Sith.
The specific vehicle in question is known as the A6 Juggernaut or “Turbo Tank”. For this fellow Star Wars fan the inclusion in that universe of a wheeled vehicle was unworkable. The nagging question was why would a culture with the technology for hovercrafts like the ATT and Landspeeder need any form of conveyance requiring something as relatively primitive as the wheel? The tripedal AT-AP and individual-sized AT-RT walkers utilized on Kashyyyk and the massive AT-TE from the battle of Geonosis, all of them relying on two or more mechanical legs and precursors to the AT-AT, did not seem at all troublesome to him despite being far less efficient than the wheeled ordinance. As a result I have been inspired to seek justification for two modes of transport that might seem out of place to the overly analytical in the context of a universe where anti-gravity technology appears to be the universal standard.
With the inspiration for this justification being the Juggernaut employed by the Republic in defense of the Wookies I will address the issue of wheels in a galaxy of repulorlifts. At first pass wheels can seem wildly out of place, even decades before the events in the original Star Wars Trilogy. Why would anyone deploy a mobile weapon that did not avail itself of the pinnacle of available technology? The answer is rather simple, though only implicit in what is conveyed on screen. With Episode I the structure of the Republic, a cooperative of dozens of sovereign worlds, is expressed through glimpses at the inner workings of the Senate. Furthermore, the Jedi Order is established as the principle peace keeping and law enforcement organization within said government. While the Jedi play a role in maintaining peace, they are not a standing army. In fact it is suggested that on a whole there is no such force at the disposal of the Republic.
Prior to the advent of a grossly misappropriated legion of Clone Troopers the Republic would have had to call on the martial resources of member planets to field any appreciable combat force against threats internal and external. When Darth Sideous’ shrewdly selective Separatist Movement arose, its member systems were major players in business and industry and posed a challenge to an under-supplied Republic. As a result, any and all available weaponry was brought to bear, regardless of its vintage or source. While some worlds could offer hovering vehicles, others might only have wheeled or treaded, tank-like ordinance. And, of course, there were ambulatory weapons platforms that moved about on mechanical legs of varied numbers.
The Need For Speed
In the case of the so-called Turbo Tanks utilized on Kashyyyk, rapid deployment of Republic forces was of the upmost importance. The Wookies were fighting a losing battle pitting bowcasters and blasters against an implacable droid army. The massive, and many, wheels of the A6 Juggernaught would have made it an ideal choice to convey Clone troops to the battlefield from whatever landing site may have been available to transport ships. The broad footprint of the vehicle’s wheels also made it ideal for any terrain. Kicking up clouds of sand on the beachhead would have been a tremendous detriment to the brave Wookie forces were hovercraft type vehicles involved.
Furthermore, with timing quite literally being everything, the snail’s pace of larger armored transports which have lift technology would have turned the mission from one of reinforcement to one of avenging a massacre. The Droid Army’s slow-moving ATTs illustrate the trade off between the ability to hover above the ground and move quickly over space. In the end it becomes a terribly inefficient system. While Landspeeders and Speeder Bikes can race from Point A to Point B with alarming speed, this rapidity of movement is relative to their size and weight. Magnifying the mass of Luke Skywalker’s speeder exponentially to match that bulk of an ATT results in a tremendous loss of efficiency in forward movement. Given a choice, good old fashioned wheels are the order of the day, hence their unlikely appearance in one of the final battles of the Clone Wars.
No Need For Speed
But what of the plodding AT-ATs deployed against the Rebel base at Hoth? How does this techno tortoise beat the hare that is the Juggernaut when a well established Galactic Empire goes into battle against its enemies? Can speed be a justification in one instance and lethargy in another? When it comes to Star Wars, yes it can! And the Death Star makes it all possible.
So how does “the ultimate power in the universe” serve to explain away one of the most inefficient war machines ever to do service in battle? It really comes down to a single line from Darth Vader that has a much deeper meaning that underscores one of the tenents of Imperial philosophy. Cautioning Admiral Motti not to be, “too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed”, Vader capture the essence of how Emperor Palpatine rules – through terror. After inexplicably selling the entire Senate on the concept that the Jedi were in rebellion despite all evidence to the contrary, the Emperor ruled with an iron first with a doctrine of force and fear. The Death Stars played into this quite well, as do the AT-ATs.
Essentially the AT-AT is the ultimate terror weapon. Impervious to blaster fire it sends a chilling message to anyone against whom it is deployed – “We don’t have to be in a rush to destroy you!” A combination of ridiculous scale, relaxed pace, and powerful laser weaponry, the AT-AT is an ideal morale destroyer. Alone or in groups, these ponderous colossi ply their slow way toward enemy emplacements with a determination that conveys the intractable nature of the ruling Empire. Beyond the fear-invoking presence of these terror machines, their massive size affords them the ability to wreak further havoc once they have reached their destination. What structures may remain after their laser cannon have rained down long distance destruction would be as nothing under the crushing feet of the AT-AT.
The question naturally arises in regard to the torturously slow approach of General Veers’ landing party as to why a linear ground assault was launched in the first place. Certainly Vader’s fleet was well equipped with fleets of TIE Fighters and other such air/space craft. That these fighters can traverse the atmospheric barrier of planets effectively would be illustrated later in The Empire Strikes Back when two of them are shown in pursuit of the Millennium Falcon below Cloud City. Why not simply send a flight of fighters to swoop down on the Rebel base and make short work of their shield generator? Because it simply can’t be done.
Precedent for the shield generator the Rebels employed would not come until premiere of The Phantom Menace. Since Senator Amidala’s death could easily have acted as a catalyst for a budding rebellion, it is not a tremendous leap to suggest that Naboo was a contributing system to its efforts. What better place than the birthplace of the hated Emperor for the Rebel Alliance to find support if not its origins. As such, the shield generation technologies of the Gungans would have been an ideal resource for the Alliance. In fact the multi-pod generator unit they utilized at their Hoth System base is not dissimilar to the Fambaa mounted unites employed by Boss Nass’ army.
In Episode I, despite having an aerial assault capability, the Trade Federation fielded a frontal ground assault that, with minimal effort, pushed through the protective barrier of the Gungan shields. What this suggests is that such a shield can deflect laser blasts and even repel attacks from aircraft, but is easily pierced at its base, the weakest point. With that in mind, the Imperial forces chose to stroll into direct combat with the Rebels rather than waste time and resources with a pointless attack from above. Certainly the AT-ATs and their companion AT-STs could breach the base of the shield and convey their compliment of Snowtroopers right to the front door of the Rebel compound unscathed. The presence of the trenches surrounding the vicinity of their shield generator illustrates that the Rebels anticipated a ground force, they were just surprised by the way in which it arrived. There is a strong suggestion in this that the AT-AT had not seen practical combat use prior to this operation.
With trademark faith in their technological and martial superiority, the Imperial forces strode comfortably into the Rebels’ territory with impunity. Armored as they are, the crews and soldiers within the AT-ATs had nothing to fear from the insignificant force pitted against them on the snowy expanse. They lumbered forward like so many painfully obvious Trojan Horses without a care in the world. That is until one of their number succumbed to an alternative plan of attack suggested by the ever resourceful Luke Skywalker.
Whether by his own intuition or his strong connection to the Force, Luke defied conventional wisdom and attacked the Empire at its weakest point, it’s own hubris. Thinking the AT-AT’s invulnerable, Imperial engineers failed to account for the power of a simple approach to fouling the weapon while focusing on the more obvious larger threats of laser cannon. Much like the Death Star, the AT-AT is designed to fend off large scale threats and is unmindful of the potential of simple physics. Tangling the legs of these meandering dreadnaughts is a major determent when stubborn pilots realize only too late that their vehicle is no longer in their control and find the frigid plains of Hoth racing up at them through the windshield shortly before impact and ultimate destruction.
Another unexpected variable was a lone soldier assaulting the gigantic machine from below. Easy access to vital components via maintenance hatches and portals is ideal when servicing the armored titans, but it does lend a tactical vulnerability to the weapon when a thermal detonator is lobbed into the engine platform from below. Vital components and pivotal connections are instantly damaged and creating a destructive chain reaction that explodes the cockpit from within. Such an approach to disabling or even destroying the AT-AT would never have been considered as these devices were intended to inspire enemy troops to beat a path in a direction counter to that of its own travel.
Walking It Off
While the AT-AT may have been a touch out of place in a galaxy full of hovering surface craft and more spacefacing vessels than you can shake a stick at, ultimately such a machine makes no less sense than maintaining beasts of burden like Taun Tauns. As a weapon of the Empire the AT-AT need not be so much practical as a manifestation of the might of the Emperor. The most laggard weapon of the Imperial arsenal is also the most awe-inspiring. As it makes its sluggish way across the battlefield the enemies initial surprise at facing such a machine quickly turns to thoughts of self-preservation as it proves itself to be impervious to harm and relentless in its approach. Those not spiritually crushed by its obvious power stand the chance of finding themselves physically so under its titanic foot pods. Replacing the efficiency of the wheel or the technological advancement of the hover lift with a quartet of slow moving legs is perfectly reasonable when creating a conveyance that is more about raw power than it is about practicality.
Wheels, legs, and other seemingly primitive forms of locomotion have their place in the Star Wars universe despite a cornucopia of examples of technological superiority to what we enjoy in the real world. The wheel is no more obsolete in a galaxy that sports Landspeeders than the sail in our own era of combustion and nuclear engines for seafaring vessels. Someone somewhere will have cause to utilize yesterday’s technology in spite of far superior choices at their disposal. So I encourage the embracing of the A6 Juggernaught as a viable and sensible aspect of the Saga. After all, the genesis of this military vehicle dates back to preproduction of The Empire Strikes Back, giving it a kinship to the AT-AT itself!