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Say What You Want, the Galactic Empire Had Its Defense Procurement Down

By Taylor Marvin

Note: I’m not super familiar with the Star Wars universe. If I mess anything up don’t hesitate to call me an idiot.

Kevin Drum ponders the Death Star, and concludes it’s a cost-effective investment:

“I figure that the price tag on the latest and greatest Ford-class supercarrier is about 100x the cost of the raw steel that goes into it. If the Death Star is similar, its final cost would be about 1.3 million times the world’s GDP.

But there’s more. Star Wars may have taken place “a long time ago,” but the technology of the Star Wars universe is well in our future. How far into our future? Well, Star Trek is about 300 years in our future, and the technology of Star Wars is obviously well beyond that. Let’s call it 500 years. What will the world’s GDP be in the year 2500? Answer: assuming a modest 2% real growth rate, it will be about 20,000 times higher than today. So we can figure that the average world in the Star Wars universe is about 20,000x richer than present-day Earth, which means the Death Star would cost about 65x the average world’s GDP.

However, the original Death Star took a couple of decades to build. So its annual budget is something on the order of 3x the average world’s GDP.

But how big is the Republic/Empire? There’s probably a canonical figure somewhere, but I don’t know where. So I’ll just pull a number out of my ass based on the apparent size of the Old Senate, and figure a bare minimum of 10,000 planets. That means the Death Star requires .03% of the GDP of each planet in the Republic/Empire annually. By comparison, this is the equivalent of about $5 billion per year in the current-day United States.

In other words, not only is the Death Star affordable, it’s not even a big deal. Palpatine could embezzle that kind of money without so much as waving his midichlorian-infused little pinkie. If it weren’t for the unfortunate breakdown in anti-Bothan security and the shoddy workmanship on the thermal exhaust ports, it would have been a pretty good investment, too. In other words, yes: totally worth it.”

E.D. Kain disagrees:

“In order to keep the whole intergalactic society functioning, they had to make sure they could collect revenue – after all, the decline of the Roman Empire was as much its inability to keep collecting revenue from its colonies as anything. Stretch that out over a couple million worlds and a few thousand trillion people, and the expense of governance and infrastructure quickly outweighs any Death Star budget.

Governments shouldn’t put all their resources or tax dollars into big defense systems. Not only would the Death Star almost certainly go over budget, it would also only represent a small sliver of the total Imperial defense budget. Don’t forget all those Star Destroyers and the huge cost of mobilizing troops and keeping up maintenance on all those attack droids.

The Galactic Empire made lots of mistakes. Its hyper-focus on defense spending was one of them.”

I’m going to have to side with Kevin Drum on this one — I don’t see the Death Star as anything close to prohibitively expensive. We know the Galactic Empire was a society heavily dependent on robotic labor. Given that the Death Star’s size, its builders wouldn’t have manufactured it per se. Instead, you’d just find a small, iron dense moon (there are several in our solar system that could work), and land robotic factories on it. The robots would covert a small portion of the moon’s mass into construction infrastructure, and “carve” your technological station out of the moon — all the necessary raw materials are there. This process would take decades, but given the Empire’s highly advanced robotic technology it wouldn’t be very expensive. The project’s only concrete expenses would be the initial robotic infrastructure and design expenses, both of which the Empire’s technological advances would substantially reduce.

I’m more curious about why you’d build a Death Star in the first place — unless the planet-destroying laser is nearly all of the station’s mass, why would you build it so big? We know the first Death Star had “a crew of 265,675, as well as 52,276 gunners, 607,360 troops, 30,984 stormtroopers, 42,782 ship support staff, and 180,216 pilots and support crew.” Wouldn’t it make more sense to limit the Death Star to the minimum mass required for the superweapon, and use an accompanying fleet as troop transports? After all, today’s navy doesn’t use supercarriers for every role: air defense, troop transport, surface warfare and anti-submarine defense are all performed by specialized ships.

The best rational for the Death Star’s truly massive scale would be to make it invulnerable. Neglecting the stations’ weaknesses in the films (Imperial defense contractors: “hey, do you think this two-meter wide hole that leads straight to our insanely unstable reactor will be a problem?”), it’s hard to image how to significantly damage an object with a mass of 1.08 x 1015 tonnes. Speculative science fiction weapons aside, what could blow a meaningful hole in something so big? Even an antimatter warhead would have to be prohibitively large to damage the thing. Throw a few kilometers thick ice shield over it, and you have a weapon that’s pretty close to indestructible. Once the Empire made the political decision that destroying planets was in its long-term interest, the Death Star was a sound investment.

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