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From the script:

Alarms sound throughout the hidden Rebel base.  In the control room, a 
controller urgently gestures for General Rieekan to check a computer 
scan.

            CONTROLLER
    General, there's a fleet of Star 
    Destroyers coming out of hyperspace 
    in sector four.

            RIEEKAN
    Reroute all power to the energy 
    shield.  We've got to hold them till 
    all transports are away.  Prepare 
    for ground assault.

Rieekan exits hurriedly.


[...]


            VADER
    What is it, General?

            VEERS
    My lord, the fleet has moves out 
    of light-speed.  Com-Scan has 
    detected an energy field protecting 
    an area around the sixth planet of 
    the Hoth system.  The field is 
    strong enough to deflect any 
    bombardment.

            VADER
        (angrily)
    The Rebels are alerted to our 
    presence.  Admiral Ozzel came out 
    of light-speed too close to the 
    system.

            VEERS
    He felt surprise was wiser...

            VADER
    He is as clumsy as he is stupid.
    General, prepare your troops for a 
    surface attack.

            VEERS
    Yes, my lord.

Why exactly was this a bad idea, and what was Vader's preferred strategy? The Rebels can apparently raise their shield instantly, so it seems like they would do that anyway, surprised or no. In fact, since being surprised gives them less time to prepare, it seems like this is a good strategy on the Empire's part.

Is the issue that the Imperial forces didn't have enough time to prepare, and it would have been better to come in farther out and spread out, as this answer says? If so, why wouldn't forming up while already in the system also give the Rebels warning, and give them even more time to escape? All I can really think of is that they would have somehow known the range of the Rebel sensors, dropped out of hyperspace just past them, formed up, then quickly flown into range, but that seems hard to infer from the exchange between Vader and Veers.

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2  
It really depends on the level of sensors the rebels had, An entire fleet of star destroyers is a large item to detect. Earlier in the movie they had only detected that probe when it was landing. If the empire arrived outside of sensor range they could have sent a small strike force down to hoth with Vader and had a surprise ground invasion, or at least been able to sabotage the power generators so the fleet could move in for bombardment. –  Himarm Aug 19 at 16:14
14  
Pure speculation, but what if the coming-out-of-hyperspace event is more easily detected than the cruising-at-normal-speeds? That ships are normally detectable at range X but that a ship leaving/entering hyperspace is detectable at range X*Y (where Y > 1). It's reasonable to assume that the transition to/from hyperspace requires more energy or has unusual emissions (e.g. "sonic boom"). Therefore, too close == clumsy and stupid. –  gowenfawr Aug 19 at 16:24
30  
Vadar finds your lack of faith in his tactical judgement disturbing... –  dmckee Aug 19 at 17:12
4  
@dmckee Joking though you may be, I think that's actually the answer here - Vader's furious that the Rebels are prepared, even though this Is the best they could have done. His rage is completely unjustified, and a product of frustration after having spent years of fruitless effort to track down the rebels. –  Zibbobz Aug 19 at 17:21
12  
@dmckee: ghhhhrck ghahhack –  Milo Price Aug 19 at 17:22

4 Answers 4

up vote 51 down vote accepted

Darth Vader's strategy was to exit hyperspace on the perimeter of the Hoth system and drift into Hoth orbit undetected. From the Wookiepedia article on The Battle of Hoth:

Vader and many of his top officers had planned a sneak attack, jumping out of hyperspace at some distance from the planet and taking advantage of the fact that the meteor activity made it difficult for the Rebels to spot approaching ships. They would then initiate limited long-range orbital bombardment to destroy the base, along with any spacecraft and defenses. Major General Maximilian Veers would then mount a sweeping ground assault to capture any survivors.

Admiral Ozzel foiled this plan by jumping in to close - from the Wookiepedia article on Hyperspace:

An interesting phenomenon associated with hyperspace travel was Cronau radiation. This was a short, but powerful burst of radiation which was generated when a ship entered and left hyperspace. It could be detected by properly aligned sensors from a few light-seconds away, often well outside normal sensor radius. This was how the Rebel base on Hoth was able to prepare for the oncoming attack when Admiral Ozzel mistakenly took the Executor and its battle fleet out of hyperspace too close to the system, rather than approaching stealthily from outside the system.

Conceivably, a single missile disguised as a meteor could have taken out the Rebel base's power or shield generator before the shield could be raised (witness how the Imperial probe droid approached Hoth undetected).

Now whether "Cronau radiation" was canon when The Empire Strikes Back was written, I don't know. I think the main idea in the film was that Rebel sensors could detect big blips in Hoth orbit, like a massed fleet of big ships appearing out of nowhere at great speed, but cannot detect a smaller vessel like the Imperial probe droid.

It's also implied that maintaining the planetary shield around the Rebel base is both costly in energy consumption and could compromise the secrecy of the base by emitting a big radiation signature. Hence the Rebels don't simply keep the shield up permanently.

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27  
Rebel General Rieekan said it himself - "With all the meteor activity in this system, it's going to be difficult to spot approaching ships." –  Jim Green Aug 19 at 18:13
3  
@JimGreen - that should be an answer, not a comment –  DVK Aug 19 at 19:32
5  
The irony is that Ozzel's botched strategy may have actually been the correct choice after all. I don't think Vader knew the Rebels were already in the process of evacuating the base after identifying the probe droid. How much time elapsed in ESB between the Imperial fleet popping out of hyperspace and the last Rebel ship leaving Hoth? 15 minutes? The Rebels moved fast. If Ozzel had followed Vader's plan to the letter, by the time the Imperial fleet entered orbit around Hoth (presuming it would have taken many hours or days at the minimum) the Rebels would have been long gone. –  RobertF Aug 20 at 15:19

Simply put, it's to make a surprise attack.

If we look at the events, we can see earlier that the empire had no problem landing a probe droid nearby the rebel base. Had the empire been able to jump in outside of rebel sensors, they could have easily launched a strike force right on top of the rebels. Even worse, the empire could potentially have weapons that could cover that great distance (though this is theory as it is never demonstrated).

Instead, the fleet jumps in and this immediately triggers the rebel sensors. The rebels put up a large shield capable of handling extreme bombardment, and prevents the empire from landing any troops near the rebel base. Now the empire is forced to land troops much further away to attack the rebel base with their version of tanks.

Now remember why the empire is attacking hoth. They aren't simply trying to scare the rebels away, but rather they want to stomp out any rebellion they can. Had they gotten the element of surprise, they could have potentially captured or killed everyone on the Hoth planet. That includes all of the ships that escaped, any important figure heads, as well as the people directly responsible for the destruction of the Death Star.

Instead they are detected, and treated to delay after delay. By the time they manage to get control of the base, anyone important has already left. Now that's quite the change in outcome, isn't it?

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I guess what I'm confused about is that Veers says that Ozzel was going for surprise. I think it's plausible that Vader was hoping for a smaller strike force that the Rebels wouldn't know about until they were at the base (his comment about preparing for a ground invasion seems like a response to the current turn of events) but if both plans were about surprise, the line seems confusingly written to me. –  Milo Price Aug 19 at 17:26
1  
the fact is that he failed the surprise attack before he exited hyperspace to close, yet 2 far at the same time. If they would have exited hyperspace right on top of the planet they could have immediatly started bombardment, instead they came out at the edge of the system, (which was in sensor range) instead out x places back from the system where they would not have been detected. Basicly the surprise, wasn't close enough. –  Himarm Aug 19 at 17:47
    
Do we know if Mon Mothma was on Hoth at the time of the battle? Or was she at an undisclosed location on another planet? Or had her character not even been invented until the RotJ script was written? –  RobertF Aug 19 at 18:26
1  
It's possible they had no idea that the rebels had shields capable of withstanding orbital bombardment, hence their decision to come out of hyperspace close enough to launch one, but not acting fast enough to strike before the rebel shields came up. –  Zibbobz Aug 19 at 18:29
    
@RobertF I don't think she'd been invented, but iirc she was off-planet in the (now-Legends) EU. There was a comic in Visionaries where her son wrote her a letter from Hoth that was later deemed canon. –  Milo Price Aug 19 at 20:24

A key question may be whether energy weapons (or missiles) could be directed accurately at the rebel base from outside the range at which ships can be detected. If they could be, this offers a potential explanation for Vader's strategy, or at least one aspect of it.

Imagine that I am able to hyperspace into the system outside of ship detection range, and also have energy weapons (or fast missiles) that I can aim at the rebel base. By launching a fast-moving salvo of projectiles at the rebel base, it could be that I could hit vital targets on the surface of the planet before the enemy had time to spot or react to the incoming ordnance, especially with the asteroids in the system making detection even harder. (Perhaps the energy shield takes a non-trivial time to fire up.) The ideal target would of course be the shield generator itself: an early hit on that would have rendered the rebels helpless in the face of the surprise attack.

Veers makes immediate mention of bombardment not being possible, which suggests that it might have been the key plan, although it's also possible that he is simply mentioning this to explain the tactics that are and are not still on the table.

One other possible factor: it might have been that Vader's abilities with the force could have allowed for accurate sensing of ground targets in a way that most military planners would have assumed impossible. Therefore it could have been that Ozzel didn't even consider accurate long-range bombardment a viable option when Vader's abilities in fact would have made it a realistic possibility.

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I will guess that it's because the jump happens within sensor range (or too close to the outer limit) and thus the rebels detected 1) the hyperspace disturbance of an entire fleet coming out of it and 2) the same fleet (and considering it's made of about a dozen Star Destroyers and the "Executor", it's not going to pass as meteors in no way).

Even without this, there is also the possibility that the moment they came out of hyperspace the Rebels would have a ship in orbit which could have given out the alarm and start shooting (and surely would have been destroyed, yet it's an annoyance better off not having).

And lastly, it's Vader's orders that were violated by a gung-ho captain. Wouldn't have mattered if it was the position of the fleet's exit vector from hyperspace or the temperature of his tea-if Vader tells you to do something and is specific on his instructions, you better damn do them just as he told them or start making peace with whatever you believe in.

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