The US military’s long, weird ‘Star Wars’ fascination

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Marines and their children dressed as their favorite characters during “Star Wars” Day at the Harriotte B. Smith Library aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., on May 4, 2013. (Charles Clark/Courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps)
Marines and their children dressed as their favorite characters during “Star Wars” Day at the Harriotte B. Smith Library aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., on May 4, 2013. (Charles Clark/Courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps)

The US military’s long, weird ‘Star Wars’ fascination

by: Dan Lamothe | .
The Washington Post | .
published: December 03, 2014

The first movie trailer for the heavily anticipated “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” premiered online Friday, bringing with it immediate buzz about a new kind of lightsaber, a potential deserter stormtrooper and a revamped Millennium Falcon spaceship.

“Star Wars” has captivated millions of viewers over the last few decades with its good-versus-evil themes, colorful alien characters (Jabba the Hutt, anyone? Anyone?) and futuristic technology. But it isn’t just science fiction fans who gravitate to the franchise. There’s a long history of scholars, media outlets, defense contractors and active-duty troops connecting the U.S. military with the franchise.

Consider the following:

Hand prosthetics

Super-villain Darth Vader famously severed Luke Skywalker’s hand in a lightsaber battle, moments before revealing to Skywalker that he was actually his father (cue heavy mask breathing). The Jedi pupil’s injuries prompted a nickname for a robotic arm that was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for use by amputees this year. The DEKA Arm System was developed in part with funding from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with wounded veterans in mind.

The system is “affectionately” dubbed “Luke,” its maker, DEKA Research and Development Corp., of Manchester, N.H., says on its website. Here’s a video of it in action.

Acquisition lessons from the ‘Dark Side’

Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Ward wrote an article in the Defense Department’s acquisition journal in 2011 that created a fair amount of buzz by saying the military should take lessons that Darth Vader missed in his own galaxy and apply them at home. His basic point: In building enormously complex weapons like the Death Star, the Galactic Empire left itself vulnerable.

“From a design perspective, a system as enormously complex as a Death Star is more than any program manager or senior architect can handle, no matter how high their midi-chlorian count is,” Ward wrote. “There is bound to be an overlooked exhaust vent or two that leads directly to the reactor core. That is just the sort of vulnerability an asymmetric opponent can exploit. In my professional engineering judgment, a flaw of this type was inevitable.”

By contrast, Ward notes, vacuum-cleaner lookalike droid R2-D2 makes numerous vital contributions, and cost a small fraction of what the Death Star did.

“Whether it’s repairing the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive, destroying a pair of Super Battle Droids, conveying a secret message to old Ben Kenobi or delivering Luke’s light saber at the critical moment on Jabba’s Sail Barge, he’s always got a trick up his proverbial sleeve,” Ward wrote.

Laser cannons for military craft

Lockheed Martin announced that the Aero-optic Beam Control turret it is developing for the DARPA with the help of the Air Force Research Laboratory has completed initial flight testing on Sept. 15, 2014. The prototype turret was tested on the University of Notre Dame’s Airborne Aero Optical Laboratory Transonic Aircraft in Michigan.  Lockheed Martin and DARPA turned heads in September by announcing progress on a gun turret for airplanes that would fire laser beams at enemy targets. Flight tests over the next year will test the weapon in increasingly complicated operations, Lockheed officials said.

The news sparked a flurry of Star Wars-themed headlines. “DARPA testing planes with a ‘Star Wars’-style laser cannon,” reported the tech website CNET. “DARPA Tests Out Planes Mounted With Laser Turret,” said Ubergizmo, wondering if “we could be looking at some sort of Star Wars future?”

Similarly, the Navy recently deployed a laser gun on the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf, giving the service the ability to take out drone boats or aircraft and other small targets.

“Some of the Navy’s futuristic weapons sound like something out of ‘Star Wars,’ with lasers designed to shoot down aerial drones and electric guns that fire projectiles at hypersonic speeds,” The Associated Press reported in February, noting the project’s development.

Jedis and stormtroopers on U.S. bases

Look no further than the photographs the U.S. military releases to see the affinity for “Star Wars” in the active ranks. For example, here is a photo taken last year at a Star Wars Day at Camp Lejeune, N.C.:

That is clearly a Jedi in training.

New York Air National Guard Staff Sgt. James Bavarro, an aircraft armament system specialist with the 106th Rescue Wing, in his Star Wars Clone Trooper armor during a portrait session on July 26, 2014.  In another example this year, the New York Air National Guard released a feature story about an airman who was involved in the 501st Legion, a Star Wars re-enactors group. Staff Sgt. James Bavaro got the urge to wear an Imperial Clone Trooper outfit just before deploying to Afghanistan for the first time, he said.

“My roommate threw me a going away party before I deployed,” Bavaro said. “A couple of guys from the 501st showed up in costume. After that, I knew I wanted to be a member. So my buddy Eric gave me a suit so I could get in.”

He is pictured at right.

The Pentagon has its own Yoda

For at least a few more weeks, the Pentagon’s own Yoda is serving.

Andrew W. Marshall founded the Pentagon’s internal think in 1973, and has stuck around for more than four decades since, earning him the nickname Yoda.

Andrew W. Marshall, 93, is expected to retire as the head of the Office of Net Assessment, in January, according to a Defense News report. He founded the Pentagon’s internal think in 1973, and has stuck around for more than four decades since, earning him the nickname Yoda.

The future of the think tank was considered in question last year, as defense officials assessed how to cut the Defense Department budget. It survived, but Marshall has still decided it is time to step down, Defense News reported.

The original Star Wars program

Of course, there is also the Defense Department’s “Star Wars” program, which President Ronald Reagan proposed in a speech on March 23, 1983, to counter growing Soviet military power.

The Strategic Defense Initiative was designed to intercept enemy nuclear missiles, rather than having the United States rely solely on the threat of massive retaliation to deter a nuclear attack. Funding for it was reduced at the end of the Cold War, and it was eventually reorganized to focus on ballistic missile defense.

The Star Wars nickname for Reagan’s plan was not all positive. Critics — including some in the Pentagon — called it that to make it clear they thought his vision was unaffordable and too futuristic to ever work.