When one thinks of the best pilots of the Star Wars universe one would be hard pressed to leave off the top pilots of the Rebel Alliance and Rogue Squadron. As the best squadron in the Alliance military, made up primarily of multi ace pilots--whose leader literally ran out of room on his fighter to mark his kills--the sheer stats and numbers alone put those pilots into the conversation of best ever. But how did they get those kills? And why were so many able to get such high kill counts? While it is easy to just pin their kill counts on skill that is by no means the only thing contributing to those high numbers.
So first off let’s start with a real world example. Without question the largest conflict in modern history was the Second World War, a war in which air combat played a vital role in determining the outcome, and in which nearly every major and minor player had a capable air force of some kind. However if you look up who the top aces of the war are, you will find that you have to scroll past over 120 names until you get to a pilot who wasn’t German; indeed, the Germans are a majority of the names on the list. So then the German’s had the best pilots, right? Well not exactly, as you will also notice that nearly half (58 of the 120+) that make up that top portion of pilots actually survived the war. And as anyone who has read the X-Wing comics and novels knows, a lot of the pilots in those series also don’t survive.
So when it comes to the Rebel Alliance you have a case of pilots with high kill counts but also high death rates, extremely similar to the case you have for Germany in the Second World War. In fact the same factors that caused this trend in Germany are also at play for the Alliance. Though for the remainder I won’t be mentioning how these factors directly applied to the second World War just to keep this as a Star Wars piece and not a history piece, but these factors are coming from somewhere and can be explained by examples in our own world.
The first of these factors is the fighters the Rebels used in comparison to what the Empire used. In general the Starfighters that the Rebel Alliance used in combat were better armed, better shielded and overall better suited to keep the pilot alive if their craft suffered damage or was destroyed. In contrast the Empire’s craft were lacking in all these categories as they believed quantity was better than quality, and that while an individual Rebel Starfighter can easily beat an individual Imperial Starfighter, a group of Imperial Starfighters are more cost effective than a group of Rebel Starfighters. This of course makes sense as the Alliance was a smaller military that had limited manpower to spare, while the Empire had a massive workforce to pull from. Like I mentioned in my previous articles, they can afford to be a bit more wasteful with their pilots since they are easy to replace.
This of course bleeds into the next factor, which is the composition of battles once they occur. Because of the emphasis on quality for the Rebellion and the quantity emphasis of the Empire when these two forces clashed, the Rebels were almost always outnumbered in their engagements. Now this has an interesting and a slightly counter-intuitive effect on these engagements. One would expect that when 2 armies fight one another the one that has more combatants would have the advantage, and that is almost always true. However in situations involving fighters this is not exactly the case. Of course the side with more fighters is still at an advantage to win the engagement, but on an individual level the pilots who are on the side that has fewer fighters actually have a better chance of getting a kill than the pilots on the side with more fighters.
Due to the nature of dogfights like this the craft used usually travel at extremely fast speeds to make themselves harder to hit but at the same time are constantly turning and maneuvering to get into an advantageous firing position. Because of this it is common for these fights to break out into “furballs” or a large cluster of combatants in a small area. In such an engagement it is common for several craft to, by sheer happenstance, fly right in the path of where you can shoot at them -- and here being on the side with fewer craft gives you an advantage. If you are on the side with fewer craft it is more likely that any Starfighter that flies by is an enemy, meaning that the enemy will often present themselves in a prime position to be shot down far more often than your friendly craft will do the same for the enemy. Also, as mentioned previously, the Imperial Starfighters are a lot easier to shoot down than Rebel fighters so these 2 factors often lead to easy kills for the rebels. Now in this situation pilots who are outnumbered also have a higher chance that an enemy is able to maneuver into a position to take them down, so while they have an advantage to get kills they are also at greater risk of getting killed. But again the Rebel craft can usually survive a few hits where the Imperial craft can’t so the increased risk doesn’t have nearly as much impact as the increased reward.
In fact on a larger scale like a raid on a planet or an attack on a large force of Imperial ships, it is entirely possible for an Imperial pilot to be stationed in a spot that puts them far away from the combat and by the time they get to where the attack is the engagement is already over. Even if they are able to get to the combat it is entirely possible that they could go the whole battle without even seeing an enemy fighter. The Rebels on the other hand in this same situation would see pretty much nothing but enemy fighters. With these fighters literally swarming them the effects I mentioned earlier would be 10 fold, with targets presenting themselves to the Rebel fighters on a near constant basis while at the same time Imperial fighters maneuvering on their tails again almost constantly. Again the Rebels would both be able to easily rack up kills but at the same time be constantly at risk of being shot down themselves. Though the Imperial fighters who are able to be involved in the combat would have to be much more conscious of friendly fire, colliding with friendly craft, and even finding an identifying enemy fighters, all of this helping the Rebel pilots survive longer and rack up those kills.
So far all that has been mentioned is just accounting for how in one battle the Rebel pilots are at an advantage to both get kills and be killed. In fact, each battle is really extremely dangerous for both sides, but a pilot can’t get any kills if they rarely see a battle. As such the pilot who sees more combat is the one who has the advantage in both metrics we are looking at. Rebel pilots are constantly in the action, sure they do occasionally fly Combat Air Patrol (CAP) for their own bases and ships, but the bulk of their flying is done in combat missions. Due to the nature of being a resistance group fighting in guerilla warfare these missions usually involve striking at Imperial ships, convoys, planets etc. for raiding, intel, rescue, or to take out key targets. These missions have an almost 100% chance that Rebel Pilots will encounter Imperial pilots and as mentioned earlier, they would nearly always be outnumbered in these fights which increases kill and death rates of the pilots.
Imperial pilots however would usually fly CAP missions. The Empire has millions of systems to defend and the Rebels cannot hit all of them, meaning that unless the Rebels target that specific target the odds of the average Imperial pilot to even see an enemy Starfighter is very low. Additionally, the majority of Imperial pilots by the time of the Galactic Civil War were conscripts or volunteers who would typically serve for a period of time before leaving the service as they aged out or their service time expired. With a few notable exceptions the TIE pilots were rarely career pilots and just trying to survive until they could be rotated out of service. The Empire could afford to do this as they had a large workforce to pull from to replace the pilots they lost to both casualties and people leaving the service. The Rebels on the other hand didn’t have this luxury, as their pilots and workforce was considerably smaller. This meant that each pilot was too valuable to let walk away. Most of their pilots were also more invested in the cause and would have continued to serve regardless. This meant that their pilots served for a considerably longer time (assuming they survived of course) than their Imperial counterpart, meaning more opportunities to fight and more kills.
Before you all come after me in the comments, yes skill still applies and I am not saying that it is a non-factor in explaining the high kill counts of Rebel Alliance pilots. What I am saying that the inflated numbers that some pilots were able to amass in their careers cannot simply be chocked to skill alone, and that there are major factors that are also helping them to increase their kill counts. Again there are real world examples of these factors that, if you, the readers, would be interested, I could follow up on, so let me know if you’d like to see that. Otherwise thanks for reading, and until next time...