For generations, millions of Star Wars fans have thought they were watching a good ol’ fashioned space opera. In fact, they’ve received a decades-long primer in geopolitics, warfare, and the tenets of leadership. This is on display again in the latest and final movie of the nine-film franchise, The Rise of Skywalker.
At the outset of the film, things are so bleak for the Resistance that the only thing that can save them is realistic leadership, good force protection, and—let’s be honest—some kind of a miracle. Based on past abysmal performances, one could say that exercising realistic leadership and force protection would be miracles in and of themselves. The final struggle will answer whether the Resistance—and the Rebel Alliance before it—reliance on human ingenuity, flexibility, and adaptive chaotic leadership will triumph over the rigid order and discipline of the Empire and the First Order.
Spoilers to follow, of course.
By the beginning of The Rise of Skywalker, the Resistance basically comprises the Millennium Falcon, a few pilots, maintenance personnel, and staff officers.
At this point, no amount of good generalship or strategy is going to outweigh the First Order advantage in technology and mass of combat power. To her credit, general Leia Organa of the Resistance does the only thing she can after the flight from the First Order that concludes The Last Jedi: fight the information war and preserve her force. At the beginning of The Rise of Skywalker, all Resistance assets are focused on intelligence gathering. Much like Continental general George Washington after the loss of New York City in the American Revolution, Leia’s only hope is to find one enemy weakness to exploit while keeping her tiny force safe from First Order onslaughts.
Fortunately for the Resistance, dictatorships tend to breed petty leaders who don’t take kindly to marginalization. Where Leia prioritizes cohesiveness, First Order leadership sews division.
After assuming the role of Supreme Leader of the First Order following the death of Snoke, Kylo Ren immediately consolidates power. We learn early in The Rise of Skywalker that one of his first acts is to push aside general Hux, who had been the military leader of the First Order and was responsible for the movement gaining much of its technological prowess. Not only does Ren demote Hux, he raises general Pryde—an Imperial holdover—to prominence. Mismanaging his directly reporting leadership, Kylo Ren fosters a grudge in Hux that runs deeper than the general’s hatred of the Resistance.
Meanwhile, Ren’s obsession with getting Rey to unite with him against both the First Order and the Resistance keeps him from fulfilling his military role as Supreme Leader, a position increasingly taken over by general Pryde, with Hux fuming in the background. With a divided, unfocused, and undermined command structure, the First Order begins the final chapter of the series at a potential disadvantage.
To add to the frustrations of First Order military leaders, Kylo Ren commits them to an uneasy alliance with the religious maniac Palpatine, the Sith Lord who emerges from decades of hiding with an enormous fleet of star destroyers. Each one of this new class of warships has planet-killing capabilities. Although not excited to be further enmeshed with religious warlords—Snoke and Kylo Ren being troublesome enough—the officers of the First Order reluctantly accept the alliance with Palpatine, if only for the massive power that he provides. This new coalition takes the name of the Final Order, and begins a campaign of terror to intimidate and coerce the systems of the galaxy to submit. However, the alliance pushes general Hux over the edge from recalcitrant subordinate to downright traitor. In hatred of the Sith—and especially Kylo Ren—Hux begins feeding information to the Resistance.
Palpatine may have given the First Order additional strength, but the resulting strife between the theocracy and the military produces the intelligence the Resistance needs to gain some battlefield parity. Both Kylo Ren and Pryde fail spot this developing insider threat, being distracted by the search for Rey and the logistics of organizing the fleet of the Final Order.
For their part, the Resistance needs allies if they’re to succeed at all, but they find help only in small doses. Poe reunites with an old friend, Zorii Bliss, who gets him the means to board Kylo Ren’s star destroyer. Finn and Poe discover a militant group of ex-stormtroopers who live in the Endor system and are willing to assist—which will become a crucial asset in the coming fight. To add to their usefulness, they are mounted on horse-like beasts. The arrival of former Rebel Alliance general Lando Calrissian provides a much-needed morale boost. These minor alliances still can’t offset the massive advantage held by the Final Order, but at least they’re not actively harmful.
With intelligence gathered from Hux and Rey, the Resistance realizes that they have one shot at taking down the combined Final Order fleet. By destroying a single signal node, they can render the Final Order’s ships unable to maneuver and vulnerable to attack. The Resistance settles on a three-pronged effort: Poe Dameron will lead a starfighter assault to give cover to the second prong, a ground attack force led by Finn with the objective of destroying the Final Order signal node. Lastly, Calrissian and Chewbacca in the Millennium Falcon will venture on a galaxy-wide campaign of public engagement to try to build enough of a follow-on force to capitalize on the success of Task Force Finn.
This plan calls for increased synchronization across all components of the assault force—easy to accomplish given the small size of the element. The starfighters use their maneuverability to fly between the capital ships of the Final Order and keep their guns silent for fear of committing fratricide. This limits the initial combat between starfighters alone, enabling Poe’s fighters to provide air cover for the transports of Task Force Finn.
General Pryde quickly identifies the Resistance plan, shuts down the signal node, and transfers the source of the signal to his own star destroyer. Due to good communication between Poe and Finn, the transports reroute to the star destroyer and land on its exterior. Pryde, aboard the targeted star destroyer, orders the destruction of this force by targeting their speeders. However, Finn counters with low-tech engagement, sending in his mounted element of ex-stormtroopers in a cavalry charge that rapidly maneuvers to the decisive point. Finn and Jannah—the ex-stormtrooper in charge of the mounted detachment—use explosives to destroy the Final Order signal.
Although this first phase of the operation is successful, Resistance fighters can’t keep an air canopy over the ground force. They’re simply outnumbered by the swarming fighters, sent in as the last order of general Pryde before his bridge explodes. Poe, as Resistance Commander, is resolved to fight to the last. As they all know, this is their last chance. Their own flexible command structure allows them to adapt to changing circumstances.
In a Dunkirk-like moment, the Falcon returns with a fleet of private military frigates and starfighters. Stuck in stasis, unable to maneuver, and with the loss of all of their senior leadership, the Final Order cannot strike back at the coalition fleet. Completely dependent on having someone at the top to give orders, the mighty military force cannot survive after decapitation.
Despite Palpatine’s theocratic intervention—eventually disrupted by Rey and Kylo Ren, now Ben Solo—the Final Order ultimately falls victim to its own size, its rigid command structure, and its inability to maneuver outside their own assembly area.
A Doomed Empire
From the Empire to the First Order to the Final Order, the ideology of control and order has strengthened with every iteration. While it helped all of them become first-class military powers, it gradually decreased the leadership potential found in the organizations. In comparison, the Rebel Alliance and Resistance bred leaders who accepted risk, were daring, formed ingenious plans, and who could react quickly to changing situations. This came at the cost of loose organization, chaotic command climates, and a decentralized military industrial complex.