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A comment on an answer I posted points out that there was at least suspicion that the fighters in the Battle of Yavin were a threat:

Moradmin Bast: "We've analyzed their attack, sir, and there is a danger. Should I have your ship standing by?"

Grand Moff Tarkin: "Evacuate? In our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances!"

This was in response to the part of my answer citing the fighters' vulnerability to tractor beams:

The second issue is the tractor beam. Small craft such as x-wings would likely have been easy targets for the tractor beam. They were ignored when they seemed to be providing general cover fire, and once they were inside the trench they would likely have been untargetable by the tractor beam. However, if it became clear that they were the real point of the attack, and were focused on a weakness within the Death Star, it would have taken very little effort to use the tractor beam to simply smash the Y-wing and X-wing craft against the surface of the Death Star.

I mentioned this because, to my understanding, military-grade tractor beams seem to have been extremely effective against small fighters.

Even Luke Skywalker, 9 years after the battle of Yavin and a full Jedi, had difficulty escaping when Grand Admiral Thrawn's flagship Chimera locked their tractor beam onto his X-Wing.

The first Death Star had 768 tractor beam generators, and was capable of easily capturing even the Millenium Falcon.

Why didn't the Imperials simply start grabbing fighters with the tractor beam and fling them into each other, crash them onto the surface of the Death Star, or even just hold them motionless so the turbo-lasers and TIE-fighters could destroy them?

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A smaller target is not necessarily easier to hit. –  Darth Satan Jun 24 at 15:52
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So the question is more a case of "how did the EU retcon this?" –  Darth Satan Jun 24 at 16:16
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@JimmyShelter Isn't that the heart of any Star Wars question? :P Although the Milennium Falcon was also captured with ease during the film... they didn't even have any warning until they were already captured. Granted, they weren't engaged in evasive actions, but tractor beams don't seem to need the precision targeting of turbo-lasers, and deflector shields are useless against them. –  Beofett Jun 24 at 16:19
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It might be like trying to use the hook of a tow truck as a weapon during a car chase. Possible, not practical. –  Oldcat Jun 24 at 17:03
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Speaking strictly G-Canon, I'm not entirely convinced that the tractor beams would have made a huge difference. I would imagine that they would have to lock on, which may prove to be difficult on the small fighters which the Death Star was not designed to fight against. The only reason the Falcon was captured so easily during the film was because the heroes were pretending it had been abandoned after having essentially being ambushed. –  phantom42 Jun 24 at 19:56

3 Answers 3

up vote 17 down vote accepted

For the second battle, it seems clear that the Imperial Fleet's focus was not on smaller fighters, but rather on the Rebel Fleet, which was much more easily handled by the use of Super Star Destroyers and the Death Star's main cannon, which took up considerable power.

For the first battle...it seems pretty obvious why they didn't use the tractor beam. It was disabled when they rescued Princess Leia. You might argue that they would have repaired it in the intermitten time, but considering they were preparing for full battle, and to destroy Yavin IV, resources were likely allocated towards preparing the planet-destroying laser. They may have also not bothered because they figured their turret defenses would be able to stop any assault - but did not factor in the small size of the ships that were attacking, and thus didn't prepare for the possibility of such an assault.

In short, they hadn't yet brought the tractor beams back up from when they saved Princess Leia, and hadn't considered countermeasures to a small-fighter assault, which is ultimately why the attack worked at all.

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@Beofett I considered that. But if you think about it, this is actually the case. We only see one small ship anywhere near the Death Star when the Falcon reaches former-Alderaan, and it was probably just surveying the planet's destruction. The ones that get sent out after the Falcon are all destroyed. So after the Falcon got free, there really weren't any more ships docking between that time and the time they reached Yavin IV, which we can assume they went to directly in order to wipe them out as soon as possible. –  Zibbobz Jun 24 at 17:46
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@Beofett It's likely that tractor beam acts as an auto-pilot of sorts. You don't need it for a safe landing, it's just easier to do so with its assistance. Inbound ships would simply have been told to land manually because of a malfunction with the tractor beams. –  Chahk Jun 24 at 17:47
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The Death Star is immense. All the interior we've seen on the first Death Star is likely less than 0.001% of its whole interior. It should have a lot of such hangars, and a lot of tractor beams. Disabling one of them and saying problem solved is a severe case of Planetville syndrome. People tend to forget just how freaking huge the Death star is. The size of a moon, and having many layers/stories its usable surface area can be compared to our Earth or at least a continent. And our continents have a lot of empty space, fields, forests, deserts, etc. –  vsz Jun 24 at 18:44
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@vsz If I recall correctly, Obi-Wan actually had to disable five separate reactor cores, and the one we saw was just one of those reactors, and they were all dedicated to running the tractor beams for the station. Sizeable output for those 5 reactor cores, but that's certainly more than just disabling one tractor beam. –  Zibbobz Jun 24 at 18:48
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@Zibbobz from the script "The tractor beam is coupled to the main reactor in seven locations. A power loss at one of the terminals will allow the ship to leave." –  phantom42 Jun 24 at 20:01

I think Tarkin's response in your quote may be the biggest clue why they didn't... He didn't see them as a threat.

The Death Star was huge. So much bigger than the fighters that you can't even use a comparison of a gnat to a human.

The battle station was so big, so powerful, and so well defended that in Tarkin's mind there was no possible way that a couple fighters could be more than a minor annoyance, and once the planet was gone then he could clean them up at will.

Also, we don't know how much of the stations power was needed to charge up the big laser, and what would have been left over for minor things like tractor beams.

I don't know if tractor beams can throw things around. The way I understand it is that they just pull things in. If they tried to maneuver the beam it would have just stopped pointing at the fighters then the pull would have gone away. They could still have used the beams to hold the fighters still long enough to shoot them, but...

And lastly, he might not have though of it as a battle strategy. I mean, that's some real out of the box thinking. Thrawn did something similar, but he was a military genius, and it still didn't go exactly right.

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As shown in multiple EU sources, a tractor beam locking on to a small craft can easily be countered by having another small craft fly at a right-angle between the source of the beam and the captured craft. It is also possible to use a missile or debris field to break up the tractor beam. I would offer sources, but there are far too many to choose from.

We see this technique, known as the Covert Shroud Manoeuvre, was used early as Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, where Luke Skywalker uses a proton torpedo to escape the tractor beam of Grand Admiral Thrawn's flagship, Chimaera. He changes his speed so radically that he temporarily escapes the beam, which is depicted as not being uncommon; a tractor operator would normally just latch on again. On this occasion, however, the tractor operator locked on to the torpedo instead, which both enabled Luke's escape and had the added bonus of damaging the Chimaera when the torpedo exploded in a docking bay.

The CSM was used by Han Solo on multiple occasions, and he seems to be the undisputed master of the technique. Luke may have even learnt of the manoeuvre from Han; the narration in Heir to the Empire states that Luke has "heard of this working at least once before," but it never states from who. Luke was onboard the Hand of Judgement's modified Suwantek freighter when Han and Chewbacca used a destroyed TIE Fighter as a shroud during the events of Allegiance, so that may be the incident he is thinking of.

Han Solo also used the CSM during the events of The Paradise Snare, escaping an Imperial Corvette orbiting Ylesia. This incident showed both that the manoeuvre was known amongst the galaxy's smugglers - it was a fellow spice-runner who assisted Han in executing the manoeuvre by flying between Solo's ship and the Corvette - and that the Empire had encountered it before the Battle of Yavin.

With a large number of small fighter craft to combat, using the tractor beam in combat would have been counter-productive. There was always the chance of accidentally latching on to your own craft, the enemy could easily use the CSM to escape any beams that were established, and using the tractor beams in such a situation would only serve to highlight them for any enemy wishing to take a pot-shot at an important piece of equipment.

I know of only two incidents off the top of my head of a tractor beam being used in combat for any purpose other than pulling an individual ship - or a few small ships - into a docking bay, or holding them for destruction. The first was during The Thrawn Trilogy, when Grand Admiral Thrawn had a damaged vessel, with no guns capable of hitting the Chimaera, used as a kind of living shield against any enemies attacking an area where the flagship's shields had failed. The second was when Errant Venture was held in place by multiple tractor beams during its raid on Yaga Minor in Vision of the Future; even then, it was a single ship inside the base while the main battle took place outside. Thrawn, and therefore his part-clone Grodin Tierce, had a bit of a thing for tractor beams that was not shared by most Imperial officers, which might explain why the former tactic was not a common one. It would certainly have helped Admiral Piet and the Executor survive the Battle of Endor.

In addition to this, the Death Star itself may have needed to use its tractor beams to protect itself from the debris of the planets it destroyed, though this is merely supposition on my part. Destroying a planet is going to create a lot of debris; in A New Hope, it created a new asteroid filed in the Alderaan system, which the Millenium Falcon proceeded to fly into. Some of this debris could potentially damage the Death Star. That's a good reason not to risk the tractor emplacements in combat. And, of course, once the Rebels were past a certain point, they may well have been too close to the station itself for tractor beams to reach them, much like flying too close for the heavy turbo-lasers to hit.

I should point out that as of the events of Spectre of the Past, the CSM is no longer effective against Imperial Star Destroyers, as Lieutenant Mithel works out a method for countering it between the events of The Last Command and this book. Mithel was hand-picked for the purpose by Grand Admiral Thrawn, after Luke Skywalker used the technique to again escape the Chimaera in The Last Command.

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