In A New Hope, the Rebels assault the Death Star with X-Wing fighters launched from a moon around the planet Yavin. However, the Death Star only sends out a few squadrons of of TIE Fighters to counter them. It did send out Darth Vader himself, along with a few elite pilots, but given that the Death Star is a massive space station, shouldn't it be able to send out TIE's by the hundreds (if not the thousands) and completely wipe out the opposition before any of them got a chance to line up a shot on that exhaust vent?

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    Don't give George Lucas ideas. He already added extra TIE fighters to Empire Strikes Back.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 9:26
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    @EikePierstorff - " OFFICER We've analyzed their attack, sir, and there is a danger. Should I have your ship standing by?"
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 11:10
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    Vader sent himself out. No one but the Emperor sends Vader anywhere.
    – BBlake
    Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 13:32
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    Even despite imperial arrogance, you would have to be a really, really bad military leader to not scramble more TIE fighters to defend the most important and expensive military asset in the galaxy, whether the threat seems significant or not. Then again the Pentagon wasn't prepared to repel civilian aircraft on 911, so I guess its technically possible a leader could be that dumb. In reality one would expect at least something on the order of hundreds or thousands of tie fighters to be scrambled in the first few minutes with more joining as the crews were ready. Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 16:03
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    @Richard, space is pretty darn big. Thousands of TIE-fighters around a moon-sized space station is really no issue. Even if friendly fire or collissions were an issue, that would still be acceptable considering the protection of "most important and expensive military asset in the galaxy" (as Mark Rogers put it) and after all the Empire is not exactly known for being too considerate of their soldiers lifes!
    – Ghanima
    Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 17:14

5 Answers 5


Having re-read the script, it seems that Tarkin and Vader didn't view the attack (by the fighters) as much more than an annoyance until it was far too late.

Resistance (by the Rebels, who're about to get their base destroyed) was always to be expected but since the Death Star's armour was considered impregnable to fighters and since the Imperials were expecting their turbo-lasers to deal with whatever resistance they encountered, they didn't send out any fighters until it became apparent that their lasers simply weren't getting the job done;

ASTRO-OFFICER : We count thirty Rebel ships, Lord Vader. But they're so small they're evading our turbo-lasers!

VADER : We'll have to destroy them ship to ship. Get the crews to their fighters.

The TIE-fighters were primarily tasked with stopping this small number of rebel fighters from inflicting surface damage to the station and to that end they only seem to have sent out a modest number of ships. By the time they'd spotted that there was a bigger problem, it was simply late to get more TIE-fighters into the fray. Less than three minutes elapsed between the Chief Officer telling Tarkin about the possibility of a successful attack and the point that the Death Star blew up.

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

TARKIN : Evacuate? In our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances!

VOICE : Rebel base, three minutes and closing.

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    Finally, recall that Vader wasn't sent out; he launched on his own orders. Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 14:26
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    @Blazemonger - Obi-wan was very clear that Anakin/Vader was an accomplished pilot.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 19:41

First off, a correction: the X-Wings were launched from Yavin's fourth moon's surface.

The main reason for this off the top of my head is that the X-Wings were only in two places- there a few in the trenches going for the exhaust port, and others covering them outside the trench. There was limited room to have lots of TIE fighters, so instead they sent a small number of elite pilots. They sent as many as were appropriate- any more and they would have gotten in each others' way. We see that they sent more than enough as it was as they managed to whittle down the number of attackers relatively quickly. The problem was that the rebels only needed one good shot from a single fighter.

As for the question of whether they had enough warning to destroy them before they got in range, I'm not sure there was. Looking at the script (available on IMDB) it doesn't show us whether they knew about the attack before the rebels started their attack run. What's certain is that the TIE fighters were only detected when they they'd already started their attack.

Another potential reason is that they may have believed it was only the first stage of an attack- they didn't think there was a threat, so they may have held back their forces believing there would be an attack from a capital ship.

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    While it might be true that limited room in the trenches is prohibitive for a larger number of TIE's, still more squadrons outside the trench are easily conceivable and would prevent (or at least hinder) more X-Wings to enter the trench and make the run for the exhaust port. (And I guess by "What's certain is that the TIE fighters were only detected ..." you mean X-Wing?)
    – Ghanima
    Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 9:04
  • No, we don't know when the X-Wings were detected, only when the TIEs were. Perhaps another possibility is that they wanted to limit friendly fire/accidental collisions by not having too many craft out there at once. They didn't believe they were much of a threat at the time, remember. Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 16:27
  • The imperial did not believe they were a threat only in the beginning, later on they analyzed the attack pattern and concluded correctly that there is a threat, thus suggesting Tarkin (?) to escape from the station. Not seeing the X-Wing attack as an threat however leads to the conclusion that the answer as to why they did not scramble more TIE's is simply: arrogance.
    – Ghanima
    Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 17:04
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    Not to be pedantic, but the rebel base was on a moon of Yavin. Yavin was a gas giant. Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 18:42
  • @psubsee2003 Yavin's fourth moon, to be precise. Interestingly, although we don't know a lot about the interiors of gas giants, it's likely that most actually do have a liquid "surface" due to the extreme pressures encountered at lower depths, and possibly even solid-phase matter as well.
    – bcrist
    Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 3:57

Another answer lies with the extended universe. The book "Star Wars Death Star" covered the time between creation of the Death Star up till its destruction.

Disclaimer: It's been a year or so since I read the book, that's why I have not included any kind of quote but was more or less paraphrasing.

At some point in the book the station is attacked by a rebel fleet in Separatist ships, this is before the station is operational, less so than the 2nd death star in RotJ. Without question, orders are sent out to launch fighters to stop them, the rebels are easily destroyed, they don't even get in range of the turbo lasers.

Later on, during the events of the movie, the question arises whether they should send out fighters or not. One of the higher ups says no, we need to give the turbo laser operators some fun/practice and it wasn't fair that the fighters get all the fun. Then when they realize that the turbo lasers are crap against fighters it's too late.

  • After re-viewing the scene it's still unbelievable that the turbolaser-turrets in the trench could miss any X-Wing there. But then again maybe the force was with them...
    – Ghanima
    Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 19:54
  • @Ghanima - actually rebel ships like the X-Wing have deflector shields, so the turbo laser blasts are deflected around the ships (as long as the shields hold out). You can hear them in the dialog switching deflectors to "double-front" when facing the turbo lasers, and rebalancing them when the tie fighters come upon them from behind. Commented May 10, 2016 at 0:48

The odds of getting a successful hit into the Thermal Exhaust Port were incredibly low. The first attempt failed, resulting in only damage to the surface of the exhaust port. This was attempted by an accomplished pilot with sophisticated targeting equipment. If it wasn't for the fact that Luke used The Force to help aim, it would have been very likely that the mission would have resulted in failure.

According to the Wookieepedia:

The port was only two meters wide, approximately the size of a womp rat, and lay at the end of a large trench in the hull of the battle station, and was ray shielded against energy weapons such as laser cannons.

Grand Moff Tarkin, who was the commander of The Death Star greatly underestimated the effectiveness of the attack from the rebellion, specifically from Luke. The Death Star was only seconds away from destroying Yavin, and the Rebel Base on it. He didn't think the threat warranted scrambling every single tie fighter to battle a handful of fighters. Especially, because the threat was so close to being neutralized. They most likely didn't even have enough time to respond. Vader, and other elite tie fighters were already working on destroying the rest of the rebel fighters, and would have succeeded if it wasn't for Han coming and saving the day in The Millennium Falcon.

As a sidebar: the game Star Wars: X-Wing for the PC had the Death Star mission, and it was one of the toughest missions in the game. If you missed the port, then you had to keep flying around the entire Death Star until you could get a direct hit. It took quite a long time to orbit it since it was humongous. It wasn't uncommon to take 3 or 4 passes before getting a lucky hit.

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    I don't get having to go all the way around. Pull out and re-align on the trench from the other direction.
    – Joshua
    Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 20:30
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    @Joshua you had to stay in the trench once you entered it. You would be blasted into a million pieces if you poked your head out of it at all by the turbo lasers. Plus, I believe that if you left the trench, you would fail the mission instantly. Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 12:38
  • Actually, no -- pulling out of the trench wasn't an autofail, but without the massive speed boost from being in the trench you have no way of getting to the exhaust port before the timer runs out. Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 21:27
  • @JasonHutchinson The fighters that pulled up after attacking the exhaust port didn't even seem to come under fire from any turbo lasers.
    – Dronz
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 8:00

The possible scenario I see is this. The Death Star only sees a Rebel fleet as a threat, not fighters. This requires turbo-lasers, fighters would just get in the way (see my note about AA gunnery below). If the Rebels do use fighters, the Empire expects the slower, more heavily armed Y-Wings, but the Rebels have recently added the more nimble X-Wing which the Empire is not prepared for.

Since the Death Star was on the attack, a wise commander would have a heavy fighter screen already launched. But the Empire, thinking conventionally, was quite arrogant about their new station and the Rebel's ability to defeat it exemplified by Motti "any attack made by the Rebels against this station would be a useless gesture, no matter what technical data they've obtained" and Tarkin "Evacuate? In out moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances!" Surprise is expressed that the Rebels would even attempt to attack the station using starfighters. "We count thirty Rebel ships, Lord Vader. But they're so small they're evading our turbo-lasers!"

Even after the attack has begun, Tarkin does not recognize the danger and makes no move to change tactics. For much of the attack they have only their ineffective turbo-lasers to defend themselves. Well after the Rebel attack has begun it's Vader who gives the order to launch fighters, too late to get more than a handful of nearby fighters in the air.

Lucas was drawing from WWII. Here's a quick breakdown of how WWII air defenses would be laid out.

Combat Air Patrol [CAP] is a small number of fighters flying at all times. They search for enemies and can quickly respond to threats. It's a small number to allow craft to be rotated, refueled, maintained, pilots rested, and to have fighters available to escort a strike.

Fighters launched after enemy detection. This takes time. The pilots must be roused, briefed, suited up, and gotten to their craft. Armaments must be made ready. The fighters must be fueled (you don't leave fueled craft lying around, even in space, they are a fire hazard in case of damage). And then they have to wait in line according to the launch capacity. The Death Star is huge, and even if it can launch thousands of fighters at once they still have to fly to combat.

Anti-aircraft gunnery was wildly inaccurate and was mostly about throwing the largest amount of metal into the sky possible. Everything from .50 cal machine guns to 20mm and 40mm auto-cannons to 16 inch battleship guns would fire. It is shown in the Star Wars universe that gunnery is still done largely by eyeball. Defending pilots would avoid getting too close to their own AA guns in combat for fear of being shot down by their own people. This is why the guns stop in the trench run, they don't want to hit their own TIE fighters. Sending in fighters would mean stopping the turbo-laser fire.

  • But the imperials seem to have no CAP (at least none is shown in ANH) - which is probably just another sign of arrogance in the sense of "any attack ... useless gesture". For something the size of a Death Star and given the fact that they have thousands of TIE's available it is unbelievable to not have patrols in the sky at least in a number of the attacking X-Wings (it's just 30 of them!). And one could also argue that one actually does keep a few wings ready for immediate launch (that is armed and fueled) when making the jump into an unknown system.
    – Ghanima
    Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 21:49
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    Maybe so, but if in the air they should have intercepted the X-Wings way before closing in on the Death Star. And for the turrets: I still cannot see how the AA turrets inside the trench could miss an approaching X-Wing...
    – Ghanima
    Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 22:12
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    @Ghanima I have no explanation beyond incompetence why the Rebels were allowed to reach the surface at all. As for the trench run, maybe all the gunners are Assholes?
    – Schwern
    Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 22:15
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    @Ghanima It's a contest of maneuver between the turrets and the fighters. Those were bulky turret guns, and the fighters were able to wobble around in the trench. I assume the turrets also weren't allowed to fire at some angle to the sides, or else they'd hit the sides behind the fighters.
    – Dronz
    Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 22:47
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    @Dronz While a craft coming straight at you provides a minimal cross-section, its transverse velocity (the wobble) is nearly zero so it's easy to track compared to a craft zipping by at a 90 degree angle. However you make an interesting point, fire anywhere but straight down the trench and you're going to hit the sides. Maybe the Imperial gunners were too worried about property damage to aim effectively (I suggest this half seriously).
    – Schwern
    Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 22:55

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