At the height of its power, the Galactic Empire operated over 25,000 Imperial class Star Destroyers. Only 27 of them participated in the Battle of Endor.

Why were so few at the battle?

Scene where rebel fleet pulls back from Death Star 2 to see 27 Imperial Star Destroyers trapping them at Endor. Side note: the link for the Battle of Endor says there were 27 ISD's there, but I count 32 within this image from the movie.

enter image description here

Were the other 24,973 of them deployed around the galaxy? In maintenance shops getting new parts?

Was the Emperor overconfident in his navy? Or overconfident in Death Star 2?

The destroyers were there only to prevent the rebels from escaping, and it might be easier to do that with 50 or a 100 ships instead of a mere 27.

Bottom line: it would be a better trap if the Empire had brought in more firepower.

what-if #13, "Laser Pointer," by Randall Munroe

I prefer answers from canon sources instead of speculative answers.

Edit to Add: Thanks to Nat for tracking down the source of the number of Imperial Star Destroyers. The number comes from the June 1993 edition of the book, "Star Wars Imperial Sourcebook" by Greg Gorden. The number is also mentioned in the game, Star Wars Uprising.

  • 53
    When the police set up a big sting operation in New York City, why don't they bring every squad car in the city to the bust? No matter how important this one operation might be, there's still a whole city out there that needs to be taken care of. You call in what you think will be sufficient. – Steve-O Jun 20 '17 at 2:10
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    Presumably all those other destroyers are already doing important stuff. The Empire is not only vast, but complicated, and controlled entirely by force/fear, so it's critical to have a strong military presence throughout the entire Empire. There are about 50 million populated worlds in the Empire, and only 25,000 destroyers? It's amazing we ever see 2 in one place. Pulling 27 away from their posts must have been a logistical nightmare. – talrnu Jun 20 '17 at 6:06
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    @talrnu You're entirely right. Though just to make this clear - there's 25k Imperial Star Destroyers, but millions of other capital ships (including many other classes of Star Destroyers). ISDs aren't the biggest, nor the most plentiful, nor the most powerful - they're just a great platform for force projection and inspire fear by their very presence (that's something that would likely diminish if they were more plentiful, regardless of the logistical issues). And let's not forget that the fleet included the flagship Executor and the Death Star. The Alliance would be utterly curb-stomped. – Luaan Jun 20 '17 at 6:57
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    The "Endor project" is supposedly secret. The Rebels are supposed to congratulate themselves of even having discovered it -- and are supposed to be confident enough to engage. If you move one squadron of Star Destroyers - for example Vader's Death Squadron to a certain location, that is fairly common, but if you move 50, 100, 1000 Star Destroyers to a single location, there will be leaks for sure... The Rebels wouldn't have needed the famed Bothan spy network to find out about Endor, everybody and their mother would have known about it... – BMWurm Jun 20 '17 at 12:46
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Null Sep 18 '17 at 13:33

11 Answers 11

up vote 124 down vote accepted

From the script (with my emphasis):

MON MOTHMA: The data brought to us by the Bothan spies pinpoints the exact location of the Emperor's new battle station. We also know that the weapon systems of this Death Star are not yet operational. With the Imperial Fleet spread throughout the galaxy in a vain effort to engage us, it is relatively unprotected.

So yes, the rest of the fleet was indeed deployed elsewhere around the galaxy.

However:

LUKE: Your overconfidence is your weakness.

And:

EMPEROR: From here you will witness the final destruction of the Alliance, and the end of your insignificant Rebellion.

And:

VADER: What of the reports of the Rebel fleet massing near Sullust?

EMPEROR: It is of no concern. Soon the Rebellion will be crushed and young Skywalker will be one of us! Your work here is finished, my friend. Go out to the command ship and await my orders.

And:

EMPEROR: It was I who allowed the Alliance to know the location of the shield generator. It is quite safe from your pitiful little band. An entire legion of my best troops awaits them.

So yes, the Emperor was indeed also overconfident.

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    I think RichS's point is a valid one - more firepower would have made a better trap - even having several more Star Destroyers hiding out in the galaxy that could jump into the battle in case things went wrong would have been wise - the Emperor was indeed massively over confident - possibly uncharacteristically short sighted for the guy who managed to single handily topple both the Jedi and the Republic? – Jimmery Jun 20 '17 at 10:05
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    @Jimmery the empire have an issue with firepower? I feel like Emperor falling down the shaft was irrelevant to the number of star destroyers in the battle. – DonyorM Jun 20 '17 at 11:28
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    @Jimmery I think DonyorM's point is that the number of Star Destroyers deployed didn't actually seem to be inadequate; we don't see the Rebel fleet winning by outgunning the imperial defenses. The Emperor's overconfidence was that he never expected the shield generator to actually be destroyed, and it looked like if he'd been right then the rebel fleet would have indeed been ground up waiting for their "one chance" at the second Death Star that never came. – Ben Jun 21 '17 at 1:54
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    @Jimmery I think the Emperor was overconfident about the ability of specific actors within the Rebellion, not the Rebellion itself. Because for all intents and purposes, the Rebel fleet should have lost to 27 Star Destroyers easily. What the Emperor didn't foresee was some upstart Princess born during the Empire, a mercenary, and a bunch of teddy bears being able to get lucky beyond belief and destroy his shield generator. The Jedi and the Republic were slow, predictable, and stuck to certain traditions and dogma 1/2 – SGR Jun 21 '17 at 10:39
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    @Jimmery which made them easy to outsmart. He knew that if he pressed certain buttons he would always get certain responses. The Rebellion and it's members were unpredictable and fast moving. His best bet against them is simply superior firepower, which ultimately didn't pay off. – SGR Jun 21 '17 at 10:41

The galaxy far far away is incredibly huge

According to various sources, the GFFA is more than 100.000 light years in diameter (Milky Way sized). This means it consists something in between 100 billion to 1 trillion stars. That makes one Star Destroyer for every 4 million stars (if we chose the lower estimate).

Even if we just reduce this to the amount of worlds represented in the Galactic Senate, we can estimate the number of senators from the size of the senate chamber. This easily amounts to tens of thousands of representatives. This makes it likely that even if we reduce the amount of systems the Empire has to patrol down to 100'000 (considering that several factions are spread over multiple systems) it would still only leave 1 SD per 4 worlds.

In fact, it would be highly likely that Star Destroyers would form some sort of quick response force stationed in critical systems that could react quickly to local threats (not only the Rebellion but also piracy and other factions) in adjacent systems. Thus the vastness of the galaxy - even if reduced to the member worlds of the empire - would require a huge amount of ships stationed at various locations throughout the galaxy to protect the Empire's key assets.

It is also the reason why a guerilla style Rebellion could even work in the first place. Playing hide and seek among millions of stars requires an incredible amount of logistics on the Empire's part.

The target has to be tempting enough to engage

The leaked false info about the inoperative Death Star 2 would only trigger a rebel attack if they see a chance of winning.

If the Empire would amass Star Destroyers around Endor, it would definitely be noticed. Not only would that expose other imperial key installations to possible rebel strikes, it would also raise questions where those Star Destroyers have gone.

If it would have smelled like a trap, the rebellion would maybe not be desperate enough to engage the Death Star quickly but search for an alternative way to destroy it.

The fleet was large enough for its purpose

The idea was that the Star Destroyers should hold the Rebel fleet in place which they were perfectly capable of. It is even expressed in Episode VI when Admiral Ackbar and Lando Calrissian have the discussion about engaging the Star Destroyers.

Lando Calrissian: Yes, I said closer. Move as close as you can and engage those Star Destroyers at point blank range.

Admiral Ackbar: At that close range we won't last long against those Star Destroyers.

Lando Calrissian: We'll last longer than we will against that Death Star, and we might just take a few of them with us.

So the commanding officer of the Rebel fleet was basically thinking it was suicide to engage the Star Destroyers that were present at Endor. It was just down to them being so desparate that they even went for engaging the fleet.

Even if the rebels manage to take out a few ships, in the end the emperor wouldn't care about a few lost Star Destroyers if he could turn Luke to the dark side. To him everything is just a means to his goal.

It's a trap!

If the emperor had 25,000 star destroyers around Endor, then upon the rebel fleet's arrival, they would have to immediately turn around, or not show up at all, because resistance is futile. It needed to seem possible for the rebels to win, otherwise they wouldn't show up.

Gravity

I couldn't find a number for the mass of a star destroyer, so I estimated that a Star Destroyer has a mass 20x that of an aircraft carrier (~4x as long, ~5x as wide). Then multiplying that by 25,000, I got something around 3.7x10^13 kg. Not a lot compared to Earth, or Endor (5.972 × 10^24 kg and ~3.2 x 10^23 kg~ (mass of mercury, similar size)), but enough to have serious implications for other star destroyers, especially if they are nearby.

Risk

What if the Rebels have some doomsday device? What if the Death Star 2.0 explodes and kills everyone? What if that system's sun releases a solar flare that makes the Death Star laser look like a toy? Putting all of your ships in one place at one time is always a bad idea. Defeat at that stage would be the end of the empire. So never go all in when you have so much to lose.

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    Yes, it was a trap, but the 27 star destroyers were hiding until after the battle began. If they were obvious before the battle began, the rebels would have fled 2 seconds after dropping out of hyperspace. So the trap aspect of it was only apparent later. The destroyers were there only to prevent the rebels from escaping, and it might be easier to do that with 50 or a 100 ships instead of a mere 27. Bottom line: it would be a better trap if the Empire had brought in more firepower. Even though I disagree with that part of your answer, I voted for the "Risk" part of your answer. – RichS Jun 20 '17 at 2:22
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    You just argued that the entire fleet is equivalent in mass to one ten-billionth of Endor. I don't think that bolsters your point. – ThePopMachine Jun 20 '17 at 4:00
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    @RichS - Ok, let's assume they pull 100 from other missions in the nearby area - maybe the rebels decide they can't seriously consider attacking your half-built deathstar, but instead they make a play on your (now relatively defenceless) training barracks, or weapons manufacturing planet, or raid your supply outposts and so on. and that's also assuming each officer on board those 100 destroyers is trustworthy, and doesn't leak the Empire's 'Trap' plan to the rebels. Maybe those 27 were filled with known, hand-picked, unwavering loyalists? – Robotnik Jun 20 '17 at 4:20
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    @RichS - Fair point, the Emperor doesn't trust anyone with the finer points of his plan. That's not a big shock - the less they know the better. But the rest stands - pulling more destroyers in raises the chances they'll be found early, and leaves other things of vital importance defensively vulnerable. – Robotnik Jun 20 '17 at 5:39
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    The mass of the DS2 is closer to 10^15. The acceleration at the surface of that would be around 10^-5 - or the same acceleration as 0-60mph in 29 days. The gravitational effects here are minuscule. – Tim Jun 20 '17 at 9:12

According to canon sources Coruscant, the capital of the Empire, had 12 star destroyers assigned to guard it. Even large sector fleets only had 10 star destroyers and Death Squadron, which was tasked with taking on the entire rebellion, had 6 star destroyers and the Executor. It would also stand to reason that Outer Rim sectors, where Endor was located, would have smaller sector fleets as the bulk of the Star Destroyers would be tied up in the Core sectors where shipyards, troop training sectors, major manufacturing, etc. operated. 27 Star Destroyers represents, at a minimum, 3 full sector fleets (probably 5 in the Outer Rim). If the Empire didn't want to leave those sectors totally unguarded, it means that the Imperial Navy was pulling in one or two ships from each sectors fleet. Now you are involving resources from upwards of ten sectors, probably closer to 20 sectors. Even massing that many ships together (and keeping it secret) was a monumental undertaking.

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    Which canon sources are those? – Gallifreyan Jun 20 '17 at 8:31
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    yes, as soon as you quote your sources, you'll get my +1. It's a good answer, I'm just not sure if it is accurate. – BlackThorn Jun 20 '17 at 14:51
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    Quotes Get Votes! Provide exact quotes from canon sources and I will also give you a vote. – RichS Jun 20 '17 at 15:35
  • The best answer by far here! – Fattie Jun 21 '17 at 12:31

    Explanation has to come out-of-universe, realistically there is no chance Rebel rag-tag fleet (they had something like 8 MC cruisers and rest were frigates and corvettes) would endure against even 27 SD plus Death Star. Not to mention 501st Legion routed by Ewoks and other similar nonsense . Yet, somehow, "good guys" have to win, so Palpatine lures Rebels into the trap only to create this trap so inefficiently it actually backfires. Palpatine's primary motivation is to capture and turn Luke to Dark Side. In order to do that, he for some reason wants to destroy Rebel fleet with Death Star, in full view of Luke. Probably to show him hopelessness of the fight. Imperial Fleet is ordered to stand down and just block escape - again for some reason Palpatine thinks that if they (Imperial fleet) destroy Rebels it would not look so cool .

    Palpatine takes to many risks and makes too many amateurish mistakes for sane military commander. It could be argued he is not totally sane, but again he did create and rule Empire for 20 years, so from storytelling perspective this is inexcusable . Again, Lucas had to provide closure, and also he was never too bothered with numbers and actual "realism" of his invented universe. Too be completely honest, in those days (before Internet), casual fans would not bother either.

     So instead of counting every SD and every Rebel ship, I think we should interpret this battle as something like : Rebellion has grown, and by the time of Endor they had strong fleet, but still Empire was stronger in sheer number of ships. Rebellion would have some technological advantages (fighters primarily) and better training. Empire considered their personal as discardable (nature of Dark side) . Ranks of Imperial Fleet were filled with yes-man, who didn't know how to think independently.

  • The Emperor doesn't care about a couple of ISDs; he cares about Luke. Everything is insignificant next to the power of the Force and all that - quite a fair statement considering that's what both brought him to power and ultimately killed him. This is clearly shown in the scenes with Luke and Palpatine - he's taunting him, prompting him to delve into the Dark Side (and hopefully, being trapped there). He needs to see his friends suffering, fighting insurmountable odds, not being a cloud of debris - that'd be missing Palpatine's actual goal. "You can save them" doesn't work when they're dead. – Luaan Jun 26 '17 at 8:41

As you reightly mentioned the star destroyers were there to keep the rebels in the firing range of the fully operational death star.

Even with the rebels being played there (and their secret service) they still had a fully operational (yepp that sounds like a pun compared to the ds) secret service. Thus any LARGE number of star destroyers that suddenly disappear would very probably raise a few concerns among the rebels if it is a TOO GOOD opportunity and thus nothing else but a trap.

Thus the emperor needed to use only a small number of star destroyers. Small enough to raise no suspicion and large enough to keep the rebels in range. For that he used star destroyers and vaders super star destroyer.

As we have seen the rebel fleet consisted of a good number of ships, BUT not that many capital ships. And a star destroyer vs. a few corvettes or a nebulon B frigate .... is a fight going for the star destroyer (not to mention a super star destroyer!). Thus that fleet SHOULD have been enough to do both jobs. Keep the rebels in check and possibly even destroy them while raising no suspicion.

What he did not take into account was what his death and the destruction of the death star would cause in terms of disorder among the star destroyers AND that the rebels would take out (at least the super star destroyer) star destroyers by crashing into their bridges and destroying their overly exposed shield generators.

So all in all the empire had all the aces but still got beat.

THe only thing that is really strange there is one little detail. With how many Ties the star destroyers and the super star destroyer fielded.....the rebel fighters should have been overrun with no chance to counteract. Even with a better quality the numbers would have been enormously stacked against them.....alone 26 star destroyers (72 tie fighters / ship) would field 1,8k Tie Fighters !!!!! While the rebels had nowhere near that number of fighters.

I would count that part as continuity error as I can't fathom any reason why not at least 900 fighters were crushing the rebel fighters. But else it is clear that the risk of the rebels getting wind of the trap if more star destroyers disappeared from the screen was seen as too high (especailly as the rebels had also spies within imperial ranks....thus only the most trusted star destroyer crews were used).

  • In several space combat scenes in RotJ we do see two or more TIEs pairing up with every Rebel fighter (& the Millennium Falcon) in dogfights, which is what you'd expect to see if the Rebels were outnumbered. However it looks like the Rebel pilot's superior flying skills more than evened the odds. – RobertF Jun 20 '17 at 15:40
  • "...destroying their overly exposed shield generators." Are we certain those big globes on the ISD bridge superstructures are shield generators? They look like radar domes to me. – RobertF Jun 20 '17 at 15:41
  • @RobertF Yepp it is stated time and again in non canon (and I think in still canon even after disney canon) sources that those are shield generators. As for 2:1 That is just the point. They had so many star destroyers and thus ties that it should have been more like 5 or 10 to 1 instead of 2 to 1. And that if they held back half of their tie force for point blank defense of the star destroyers. Which is why I count that part as a small script/continuity error. – Thomas Jun 20 '17 at 18:30
  • It's stated in non-canon, but they're not described in canon AFAIK. But more importantly - they aren't exposed. They're behind a shield. They couldn't be destroyed before the shield collapsed, which is exactly what happened in that scene. Star destroyers don't have a single shield bubble enveloping the ship that holds or fails all at once; they have overlapping barriers from multiple shield generators covering different parts of the ship. This is very explicit in RotJ novelisation - they lost the bridge shield, and the A-wing hit before they could reallocate other shields. – Luaan Jun 26 '17 at 8:48
  • As for why there's so few TIE fighters, well... diminishing returns. Why would they launch more fighters when they already have enough to comfortably cover every single rebel fighter? They'd just interfere with each other. Instead, they have a steady supply of reinforcements for any fighters they lose, and keep attrition and friendly fire low. The only reason the fighters are useful in the first place is that it's hard to focus fire on the fighters. They don't have the fire power to do anything to a ship like the ISD until its shields fail. – Luaan Jun 26 '17 at 8:52

TL;DR: Space is freaking huge and dangerous, the Imperial forces were too spread out to consolidate for a massive fleet action.

The now non-canon Thrawn trilogy said that Grand Admiral Thrawn had around half the fleet taming the unknown regions. With novels like Ahdoka suggesting they send at least 1 task group to deal with dissident planets (1-4 Star Destroyers with ~3 cruisers + additional screens per SD [suggested by new Thrawn book]) and as you have "more 50 million inhibited systems" in the empire (canon Star Wars map) I would be shocked if the Empire only had 25,000 star destroyers running around, especially given that pre-alliance rebel cells have been able to take down star destroyers (the Lords of the Sith and the new Thrawn novels).

Rebels suggests that they're more than willing to simply use light cruisers for oppression but let's assume the worst possible logistical nightmare. (50 million * 4 * 2 (systems * task group * the expansion fleet) = 400 million star destroyers. Now yes, not every system is revolting and not all of the systems in revolts and they probably don't need a full task force for each system in revolt, but the potential demand for the Imperial Navy would be staggering.

That's not even mentioning the old canon that the Emperor was far more concerned with the Yuuzhan Vong invasion than a few rebels (outbound flight tells us that he knew pre-Clone Wars)

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    Can you provide any quotes from these sources you talk about? – Edlothiad Jun 20 '17 at 20:47

It's implied in Episode 6 that the rebel Alliance actually never destroyed an imperial fleet in a frontal battle.

The Empire is aware than a rebel fleet is gathering near Sullust. So we can assume they know the relative size of the rebel fleet. We can see the Emperor and Vader discussing it.

Moreover the rebels were only able to win because the imperial fleet lost her leadership (Emperor + Vader + Admiral), and it got massive moral hits.

They are several models of capital ships owned by the Alliance that were not present at Endor. Some examples are : Mon Calamari fregate, Bulwark cruiser, Dauntless Cruiser, Liberator Cruiser, assault frigate models I ans II.

These ships are mentionned in the game Star Wars Rebellion covering the Civil War, so I guess it is still in the actual universe.

In the extended Universe there is mentions of corsairs helping the Alliance. (Don't remember the name but some were rogue imperials officer with a Nebulon frigate).

I don't know if the events concerning Thrawn before the battle of Endor are still canon. If they are, we have evidence that at least one coup d'état was thwarted. And that the Empire is conducting some exploration using imperial destroyers.

In canon events, Tarkin was a potential threat to the emperor. So it may be assumed that the Emperor did not wish that any particular Admiral got a huge fleet under his direct command. The imperial fleet was mostly assigned to sectors in order to protect them or keep them under imperial rule. Sending these ships to Endor may have been noticed by the Rebellion or may have created security breaches.

Vader's fleet is powerful and has been deployed in the galaxy in order to fight rebel forces as you can see in episode 5. In the extended Universe, Vader track and destroy many small rebel outposts accross the galaxy. So Vader's fleet whereabouts are probably diffcult to monitor by the Alliance.

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    This is a very longwinded answer with not much evidence, could you edit your answer to make it more coherent and better sourced? – Edlothiad Jun 20 '17 at 12:08
  • It was fine until there were only 26 SDs. – Mazura Jun 20 '17 at 14:38

As I remember hyper drive travel seems to take just a few hours or days to get anywhere in the known galaxy.

So a good plan was to have someone spying on the rebel fleet massing near Sullust and send a message as soon as the rebels jumped into hyperspace. Then the Emperor could send messages to all the star destroyers within range to jump into hyperspace and head for the Endor system.

So the rebels would emerge at Endor and find the shield up. And an imperial fleet could emerge from behind Endor (how did the Emperor know on which side of Endor's moon the rebels would emerge from hyperspace?) and engage the rebels with superior force.

And then, as the rebels were trapped and couldn't escape, fleet after fleet of star destroyers would emerge from hyperspace and join the attack on the rebels, making their situation ever more hopeless.

That seems like a good plan to me.

It seems to me that the best plot for Lucas to explain the rebel victory would be to have Admiral Piet's fleet seize the rebel cruisers and frigates with tractor beams that would stop them from jumping into hyperspace. The capital ships would blast each other with long range blasters while the fighters fought each other at short range. The energy supplies for the rebel cruiser's force shields would be getting lower and lower. When the shields loose power and fail all the rebel capital ships will instantly be vaporized by the steady blasts from the star destroyers. But the star destroyers shields are holding steady with plenty of power to spare.

Then the Death star starts blasting rebel capital ships making their situation even more hopeless.

And all this time the two fleets of capital ships rotate slowly around each other due to their different velocities when they were locked together by the tractor beams.

Then the shield generator on Endor's moon explodes! And the super star destroyer crashes into the Death Star! A squadron of fighters heads into the Death Star as the imperial fleet is stunned. By now the star destroyers are between the rebel capital ships and the Death Star.

The Millennium Falcon and rebel fighters shoot out of the Death Star and past the imperial fleet. Then the flames of the explosion shoot out and destroy the imperial star destroyers and release their tractor beams. The rebel fleet jumps into hyperspace just in time to escape destruction in the fireball!

So this version explains why the Emperor didn't call for any more star destroyers since since it already seemed inevitable for the star destroyers to wipe out the rebel fleet and it also seemed inevitable for the Death Star to wipe out the rebel fleet.

Of course this version of events makes it even more likely that the rebel team on the surface and the Ewoks are exterminated in the Endor Holocaust. It would take some more thought to come up with a way to avoid that.

It would be a waste of resources moving 25,000 ships around like a galactic picnic. Also if we learned anything from the art of war, resource management is vital to one's survival. For that many ships to appear out of nowhere would mean that they would have been waiting there to begin with, given the vast distances and stretch of space I can't imagine moving a fleet that big to launch an all out galactic war. I think that's where the Death Star comes in, in Lucas terms it's quite possibly the next best thing to one shot entire worlds. Even then the Empire lacked the material resources to keep using it, we're not even considering the energy requirement of such a weapon. Though according to Neil Degrasse Tyson, if the Death Star were real it could probably take entire planetary bodies and not just a single planet.

The more ships you bring the harder it is to keep them secret. Just as Empire noticed rebels gathering, rebels might notice empire gathering. It is possible for rebel fleet to flee battles by hyperspace as millennium falcon did multiple times.

Idea was to have enough to win but still leave enemy with hope that they could destroy the death star if only shield generators were down, so stick around long enough to be destroyed and help luke to the dark side as he watches.

Also while the Emperors plans were to destroy the rebels, he was really being manipulated by Jar Jar to destroy both sides. Anakin was born from a "virgin"... we know how that works, In-vitro fertilization. Anakin had force readings off the scale... genetic manipulation. Jar Jar is the guy who is always around and who wins battles "by dumb luck" in ways that look very much like a force expert even better than yoda pretending to be an idiot. Jar Jar wasn't a Jedi or Sith but an agent of chaos, looking to destroy both the republic and then the empire. So just like he fooled the jedi with talk of one to bring balance to the force, he also used his mind tricks to fool the Sith into thinking they were destined to win, while making them make fatal mistakes that would lose. Palpatine was convinced by fake prophesy visions that he needed this plan with limited number of star destroyers to turn Luke and defeat the rebel alliance. He only started to get hint that his dreams were a fraud when Luke didn't turn.

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    Parts of this post, especially the parts about Jar Jar, seem like fan theory. – Bellatrix Mar 9 at 0:41

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