So, I wrote this up with the idea of making a YouTube video about it, but. . . well, here:
Holdo Maneuver Explained
Okay, so, I know I’m a little late to the party on this, but I wanted to address the common complaint about this scene from The Last Jedi. It comes in a lot of forms and variations, but basically boils down to “if this is possible, we should have seen it before, and it breaks how warfare works in Star Wars.” I disagree, and I’d like to explain exactly the various reasons why.
A note on terminology. I’ll be referencing both “Legends” and “Canon” as I talk about this. For the uninitiated, Star Wars has a long, proud history of “Expanded Universe” materials. Books, comics, video and card and tabletop role-playing games. . . basically, any medium you can think of, Star Wars expanded into it. When Disney bought LucasFilm and went forward with a sequel trilogy of movies, the decision was made to take that Expanded Universe material and dub it “Legends,” essentially an alternate universe of Star Wars canon, which the new Canon can draw from, modify, or ignore as new Canon works see fit. This means that there are literally thousands of years of Star Wars history that may or may not still apply. This is what TvTropes calls “Schrodinger’s Canon,” and you can check that out for more information if you like. Try not to get lost. Anyway, I’ll be referencing both Legends and the new Canon as we go forward, and I’ll try to make it clear what’s what, hopefully you can follow me. Ready? Here we go!
So, first, the reason why we haven’t seen a hyperspace ram before is. . . because you can’t actually ram something in hyperspace. Star Wars FTL travel is via hyperspace, which is explicitly an alternate dimension where you can travel faster than the speed of light, which you cannot do in normal, or “realspace.” So, you can’t actually ram an object in realspace while you are in hyperspace. Now, according to Legends, objects in realspace cast “mass shadows” in hyperspace, which you can hit, and hitting a mass shadow in hyperspace is just like hitting the object itself in realspace. . . at a zillion times the speed of light and on another plane of existence. You get smashed into subatomic particles and radiation, and the object in realspace doesn’t even realize you were there. Now, there is at least one Legends source I’ve heard of that claims hitting an object I hyperspace does affect the object in realspace, annihilating it, but I can’t find that particular source and nowhere else in Legends that I am familiar with has this been treated as true.
Except. . . Holdo does exactly that, ram an object in realspace while in hyperspace. Well, I don’t actually think so. You’ve seen it plenty of times, when ships enter or exit hyperspace in Star Wars. What Timothy Zahn calls in his Star Wars novels a “flicker of pseudomotion,” a ship transitioning between realspace and hyperspace or vice versa. It lasts just a second before the ship is gone. I would contend that, during that flicker of pseudomotion, owing to a quirk of Star Wars physics, a ship entering or exiting hyperspace is treated as a relativistic object in realspace, moving at a substantial percentage of the speed of light. As this excellent Because Science video shows, relativistic objects can pack near-infinite amounts of kinetic energy, making them extremely destructive. So, the Holdo Maneuver can be very, very effective, but only within that second while the vessel is straddling hyperspace and realspace. It requires very precise timing to pull off, and you need to be very close to the target, which negates the main advantage of relativistic or faster-than-light ramming attempts. . . by the time you see them coming, it’s too late to do anything about it. You’d have to be close enough that the enemy could potentially shoot you down before you engage your hyperdrive. And as we see in The Last Jedi, the Supremacy could detect that the Raddus was about to enter hyperspace, but blew it off as a distraction. . . until they saw the Raddus had turned to point at them. By the time Hux gave the order to “fire on that cruiser,” it was too late to stop Holdo. Against a more prepared (or more competent?) commander, this window may not have been as large, or existed at all. (Side note. . . I don’t think this was the first ever time a near-hyperspace collision had ever happened in Star Wars, in part because its such a big galaxy with such a long history lots of things must have happened before and will probably happen again, but because Hux loses all his **** as soon as he figures out what Holod’s up to.)
So, you only have a limited window to hit your target while transitioning between realspace and hyperspace, and this requires you to be fairly close to your enemy and engage your hyperdrive at just the right moment to hit them with relativistic power. Already, its limitation as a tactic is becoming apparent, but there’s another drawback: accuracy.
Holdo is pretty clearly aiming for dead-center on the Supremacy. But she hits it. . . here. Fully halfway between the centerline and the tip of the starboard wing. The Supremacy is 60 kilometers wide (the largest ship ever in Star Wars Canon that isn’t a Death Star), which means that if she was aiming for dead-center, she missed her target by a full 15 kilometers. The next biggest ship in Star Wars Canon, Darth Vader’s Super Star Destroyer Executor, is only 19 kilometers long. If Holdo had been trying to ram that dead-center from the side, that 15km margin of error is the difference between hitting it and missing completely. And again, that’s the largest Star Wars ship known to exist outside of the Supremacy and the Death Stars. So assuming this 15km margin of error is normal, this tactic is basically completely useless against anything that isn’t ridiculously big. Granted, that does make scenes like this (Rebel fleet in Return of the Jedi jumping to hyperspace in tight formation) seem incredibly reckless, but maybe their navicomputers are linked in such a way so that if hyperdrives are off by about 15km per jump, the whole fleet is off by the same 15km. Slave circuits are a thing in Legends, just saying.
That’s two strikes now against this being a viable, common tactic. . . proximity and accuracy. But there’s also damage to consider.
Look at what the ram actually does to the Supremacy. That’s not superweapon levels of damage. The ship itself is still functional, all the major characters on board survive, and enough minor characters and redshirts survive that the First Order can launch a full-scale ground assault on the base on Crait not long after. It’s bit nebulous exactly how long it takes for the ground assault to get going, but I don’t think it was much over half an hour, if that long. Sure, the Supremacy’s support fleet gets destroyed by the relativistic shrapnel, but the Supremacy itself is largely intact, and may even be repairable (expanded material goes back and forth on this, as far as I’m aware). And the Raddus is three kilometers long, bigger than anything the Rebellion had available in the Original Trilogy. Twice as long as an Imperial Star Destroyer. Using something closer to OT-size ships, the damage would be much less, especially to something far more massive than the Supremacy, like a Death Star.
Now, this amazing Because Science video shows that, were the Raddus traveling at something like 99.99% the speed of light, it would have annihilated the Supremacy and its support fleet in a massive nuclear fission explosion. But that’s not what we see happen in the film, so it’s likely the Raddus wasn’t “travelling” that fast, maybe more like seventy or sixty percent the speed of light. I don’t know, somebody way, way smarter than me would have to crunch the numbers. I love science, but I don’t speak its language. Anyway, there’s probably a point during that “flicker of pseudomotion” where hit those really high relativistic speeds, but precisely timing, within the span of that one second, where that point will be and where you need to be to hit your target with that force, is beyond the abilities of everything except, I’d venture, specially programmed flight computers and droids. Because it’s just not a problem most computers and droids would be expected to address. So, damage and precision, two more strikes.
Finally, we come to the main problem I foresee with this: gravity wells. Remember when I talked about mass shadows in hyperspace, and how hitting one would be devastating? Well, because of that, hyperdrives in Legends have safeties that cause them to cut out if the ship is within a gravity well, precisely to try and prevent ships from hitting mass shadows in hyperspace. In a gravity well in realspace? Can’t flip on your hyperdrive, you might crash right into what’s causing the gravity well. In hyperspace and hit a gravity well? The hyperdrive cuts out, dropping you into realspace, hopefully before you crash into the thing that made the gravity well (either in hyperspace or realspace). These safeties aren’t perfect. In the Thrawn Trilogy, Talon Karrde tells a story involving a ship he once served on having a near-miss with a mass shadow that killed several of the crew, blew out the main hyperdrive, and severely damaged the ship, forcing them to limp home on the backup hyperdrive. But they do tend to save you from the worst. . . potentially.
“Now wait a **** minute!” I hear you cry. “That may work in Legends, but obviously not in the new Canon, since Han made a landing approach at lightspeed and Rogue One shows a ship jumping to hyperspace while within Jedha’s gravity well!” Well, I think I can explain both of those.
For Rogue One. . . I’d long maintained that the hyperdrive safeties would be built-in and hardwired, so they couldn’t be bypassed without deactivating the hyperdrive itself. This is because I’ve run many Star Wars role-playing games, and my players are exactly the kind of psychotic morons who’d turn those safeties off and then have the nerve to act surprised when one bad astrogation roll results in the whole campaign being smashed into a cloud of quarks. “Rocks fall, everyone dies” Star Wars style. However, in the new Canon, this may not be the case. The safeties might well be able to be bypassed or turned off, allowing Cassian’s U-Wing to hyperspace while within Jedha’s gravity well. Why would he do this? Well, as shown in the film, being able to jump to hyperspace when you really shouldn’t be able to can be very helpful, letting you escape from otherwise-certain doom. Now, I’m talking more “hot Imperial pursuit” than “planet-destroying superlaser,” but same difference. Also, there are Interdictor cruisers. In Legends, a very popular Imperial ship that projected gravity wells to stop ships from escaping into hyperspace or yank them out if they were on a known course. They’ve been ported to the new Canon by appearing in an episode of Rebels, but they also exist from a more important source:
“We’re not going to attack?” “The Emperor has something special planned for them. We’re only to keep them from escaping.”
In Return of the Jedi, when the Rebellion assaults the second Death Star, the Imperial Starfleet emerges from behind the moon of Endor to catch them in a pincer, preventing their escape and leaving them to be picked off by the unexpectedly-operational Death Star. The only way this is possible is if the Imperials have some means to prevent the Rebel fleet from just jumping back into hyperspace. Yes, Admiral Ackbar starts to order a retreat and Lando talks him out of it, but the Empire couldn’t just sit back and hope the Rebels would be nice enough to decide to stick around once it became clear that—
“IT’S A TRAP!”
Yeah, that. The Empire must have had some means to keep the Rebel Fleet from escape at Endor, and Interdictor Cruisers, or something like them, is that explanation. So, Cassian might have disabled his hyperdrive safeties not only to make unexpected escapes, but so he could thumb his nose at some of the Empire’s most expensive toys. And, let’s be honest. Doesn’t this guy seem just unhinged enough to cut away his safety net because he thinks it’s slowing him down? Sorry, Cassian, I love you bro, but. . . that’s a really dumb move. Please don’t shoot me.
As for Starkiller Base. . . Han seems to take the dangers of hyperspace travel much more seriously than Cassian. Too seriously, as this excellent Because Science video points out. (But, it doesn’t talk about planets, moons, asteroids, black holes, etc., just stars. . . ah, whatever. The Star Wars galaxy is apparently more full of mass shadows than anything we know of in our observable universe, just like their asteroid fields are nothing like asteroid fields we’re familiar with. Just roll with it.) Anyway, it seems highly unlikely Han would disable his hyperdrive safeties, so how does he make his landing approach at lightspeed? Well, the planet Starkiller Base was on was gutted for that gigantic superweapon. Gravity is a function of mass, and the planet’s mass had been substantially reduced, resulting in a smaller gravity well. I posit that Han’s maneuver was probably only possible on Starkiller Base, since the reduced planet mass meant there was enough space between the shield and the gravity well for limited hyperspace travel. He came out well below that, but. . . that flicker of pseudomotion goes both ways.
So, what does this have to do with near-hyperspace rams and Death Stars? Well, the Death Stars are massive, and I mean that technically. They’re huge hunks of metal and have a lot of mass, and thus they would have their own gravity wells. Probably not one full Earth gee, but noticeable, and quite likely enough to trip the safeties on hyperdrives near them. By the very nature of their gigantic design, they may be proof against this attack. Even if they aren’t, in the Battle of Yavin all the Rebellion had left after Scariff was a few snubfighters to throw against the Death Star. Given the limited amount of damage the Raddus was able to do to the Supremacy, and the probably inaccuracy of near-hyperspace ramming in general, those tiny ships wouldn’t have done sufficient damage accurately enough to cripple or destroy the Death Star. And in the Battle of Endor, where the Rebellion had larger ships available, there are the Interdictors to consider. In addition to preventing the Rebels from escaping along their incoming hyperspace lane, they may have been close enough to keep the Rebel ships from entering hyperspace at all. Even if not, the damage and inaccuracy problems remain. And a near-hyperspace ram on the second Death Star really only would have been an option while the Death Star’s shield was up. . . once the shield was down, they could go with the original plan of flying inside and attacking the main reactor directly. Remember what Han said about Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens: “Their shields have a fractional refresh rate, stops anything slower than lightspeed.” If the second Death Star’s shield didn’t have that fractional refresh rate, it would have blocked even lightspeed ramming attempts, and I’d go so far as to say even if it did have a refresh rate, it would still block near-lightspeed ramming attempts (since you’re still slower than light, even if not by much).
So. . . the Holdo Maneuver. Extremely tricky to pull off, unlikely to succeed in a wide variety of situations, and probably not going to pack the bang to make it worth it if you do manage it. Pretty good reasons why it’s not a standard tactic, huh?
Look, I know I’m assuming a lot of facts not in evidence. This is not necessarily how everything works in the new Canon. I might be wrong about most or all of these assumptions. And I’ll be the first to admit that the filmmakers probably weren’t thinking any of this through with this level of detail and just said “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if?” But these facts stand: near-hyperspace ramming is possible in Star Wars, it happened in The Last Jedi. It wasn’t used in any other Star Wars media before, so there have to be reasons why not. I just went looking for some, and found a bunch. Personally, I love it when filmmakers leave some things for the audience to figure out, it engages us and lets us feel more connected to this universe. Being thought-provoking doesn’t have to mean only making you think about philosophy and the nature of good and evil and big, fundamental moral questions. . . it can also be about just making you think about how this universe works, about what rules are in place to allow the cool things we see on screen to occur in this fictional world.
So, have I changed your mind about the Holdo Maneuver? If so, feel free to tell me how. If not, and you still have a beef with it that goes beyond “it’s stupid and the movie still sucks,” bring it up in the comments. Maybe I’ll do another video to address those. Maybe you’ll convince me that it really is stupid.
Thanks for watching, thank you for your time and attention.