I’m sure there’s going to be lots of people who disagree with me on this. Sure, TIE fighters look cool, I get that. And this isn’t about politics — I’m not an Empire-voter, but they did at least provide a good system of academies, for example. This is about the TIE fighter being a stupid design, even in the fictitious reality of the Star Wars universe.
Now, I get the fundamental concept for the TIE fighter, and it’s a good one: a simple, agile, fast, short-range fighter that can be produced cheaply and quickly in large quantities. For an organization like the Empire, fleets of fighters like these are a great idea. But the design of the TIE fighters, as we’ve known them for almost 40 years, makes no sense at all, even within the rules set by the technology and physics of the movies. Here, I’ll explain.
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The biggest issue with the TIE fighters is that there’s just no room in them for anything they’d need to actually work. There’s plenty of other issues with the design as well, but we’ll start there. Star Wars deals with all sorts of fictional technology, of course — hyperdrives, laser-like ‘blaster’ things, light sabers, anti-gravity tech, blue milk, ubiquitous and surprisingly poor-quality holographic projectors —but these technologies do tend to follow certain visual and conceptual rules.
Let’s look at spaceships, for example. Ships that are demonstrated to be fast tend to be lean and smaller, with proportionally very large engines. Take a look at the first ship ever seen in a Star Wars movie, the Tantive IV.
The Tantive IV was a blockade runner ship (and was the original design for the Millenium Falcon) and as such needed to be very fast. It needed to look fast to the audience as well, so the designers cleverly took a classic muscle car approach to the design: compact body, huge engine. The Tantive IV looks like a a rubber mallet with a massive cluster of eleven engines at the end of the handle. Lots of engine on a proportionally smaller body, but one that could still plausibly contain whatever made-up fuel these things use.
The Millenium Falcon is the same way; everything is more integrated in the Falcon, but there’s still a massive band of engines at the rear that take up the entire width of the ship. It’s clearly a craft built around a big-ass engine.
The engineering design isn’t super-carefully explained in Star Wars, but the aesthetic design — heavy on pipes and tanks and exposed fasteners and ductwork certainly suggest engineering over magic. These are machines, and they need lots of complicated parts to work.
The spacecraft design is pretty consistent in making things look ‘plausible’ in the universe of the movies: Star Destroyers are massive, with huge storage tanks and colossal engines, X-Wings have multiple, substantial engines, wings that could maybe act as aerodynamic surfaces, and a decent amount of interior volume to hold equipment and consumables, and so on.
All except the eyeball sandwich that is the TIE fighter.
Even if we assume that the TIE fighter is short-range, relies on a pilot’s spacesuit for life support, and has minimal equipment inside, the little ball that makes up the TIE fighter’s body is way, way too small to be anything other than a short-use travel pod thing, handy for scooting around between Star Destroyers so Storm Troopers in committed relationships can meet for dinner even if they’re stationed on different ships. That’s about all they’re good for.
Here, look at this cutaway diagram:
As you can see, most of that interior volume in the main sphere is used for the pilot. There’s a manhole-cover-sized “fuel tank” listed there, which is also confusing, since TIE stands for ‘Twin Ion Engine’ and if their ion engines are anything at all like ours (and I think we can assume they are, since nearly all of the words spoken in that language that sounds like English (Galactic Basic Standard, I’m told) then ion engines shouldn’t really be using ‘fuel’ at all — ion engines are basically electrical.
Still, they do use a propellant of sorts, so maybe that’s what’s in the tank. But the bigger issue is that ion engines are notoriously low-thrust. Ion engines that we make have a thrust roughly equivalent to the force of a sheet of paper — but they can keep thrusting almost indefinitely. So, the cumulative force does build up, which makes them great for gradual, long-term, eventually high speed travel, with minimal changes in direction or velocity. In short, the exact opposite of what a TIE fighter needs to do.
So, we can assume that the Star Wars universe has a totally different technology that they call ‘ion engines’ that somehow produce plenty of thrust. That’s fine. But the way these engines look and are scaled still is out of line with everything else in the Star Wars universe. They have the same bluish glow as almost all the engines in the movies, yet they’re somehow like 1/10th the size of any of them, and yet manage to accelerate as well or better than the massive cylindrical engines of the X-wing?
Maybe they just have much more advanced technology for these fighters? That seems unlikely for a few reasons. First, these are supposed to be cheap, mass-produced fighters — almost expendable. Would you really want to put your most energy-dense, exotic power sources and engines in something like that?
And, if it is using some kind of impossibly tiny (remember, it has to cram in the very bottom of the sphere along with the weapons system and other hardware) and powerful energy source, how is it not cooking or irradiating the pilot?
The TIE design even includes two huge heat radiators/solar panels, which implies that there is a lot of heat to remove from the systems that drive everything. These were sometimes just called solar panels, but that seems to make even less sense considering the power needs and unpredictable locations of TIE fighters.
Every other ship seems to have been made at least somewhat plausible (again, in the reality of the movies, I know we’re not going to be building any Star Destroyers) except these innumerable, illogical TIE fighters.
Plus, they’ve showed these things traveling inside atmospheres of planets, which makes even less sense. As they are, they could possibly make sense as a decent design for a simple orbital satellite: big solar panels/heat radiators, small engines suited only to making slight orbital adjustments, and that’s it.
I had to look for some diagrams to show me where, exactly, a TIE fighter had its maneuvering jets, since they’re not obvious at all. And, from what these diagrams show, they’re in a terrible place, and would not be able to let TIE fighters perform all the acrobatic motions we’ve seen them make, fictional universe or not. Ideally, you want your small maneuvering thrusters (also called reaction control systems, or RCS) as far away from the center of mass as possible, so they have a greater torque advantage, and can move the ship about its various axes faster, with less energy used. The TIE seems to have them right near the center of the ship, which is just about the worst place to have them.
And, I know this is all a fake universe and explosions don’t make sounds in space and all that, but Star Wars seems to be defined by basic physics at least a little bit. These RCS thrusters just don’t make sense where they are.
As space dogfighters, they strain credulity, and once you plop them in an atmosphere, they get absurd. Even if we assume they’re made of some highly heat-tolerant alloy (sure, why not?) the way they’re shaped — with, basically, a pair of vertical sails on each side — suggest that without massive amounts of thrust to just shove the damn thing through the air, they’d spin and pinwheel around like a seed pod in any atmosphere, making their pilots puke lavishly in their shiny black helmets.
I’ve done a lot of complaining so far, so, really, I should probably either shut up or come up with a solution. Luckily, I’m slightly worse at shutting up than I am at coming up with ideas, so here’s what I think a really Star Wars-universe plausible TIE fighter should look like:
I’ll walk you through what I did. First, I agree with you: it’s way uglier than the actual TIE fighters. I know. But that’s okay. See, the Empire would not give two bantha shits about how this thing looked, just how fast and how many they could crank out.
I’m keeping the basic spherical base module, since a sphere is a good design to enclose volume no matter what, and I always liked that big octagonal window. I’m moving the big radiator panels horizontally, which would let them at least act a little like wings if these ever end up inside an atmosphere — they’re certainly better than the big vertical walls of the original one for that.
I’ve made the engines much bigger, fitting much closer to the scale of similar-performing vehicles in the SW universe, and mounted them behind the main sphere and some more generously-sized consumables tanks (for propellant or radiator-panel coolant or slushies or whatever). I’ve also added a set of RCS thruster cubes, with thrusters on all five exposed faces, at the end of large, possibly extendible booms. This would maximize the torque each thuster could act upon the ship and make a TIE really, really maneuverable.
The main body is just open framework, and everything is just bolted in and exposed — perfect for cheap production and easy, cheap maintenance.
I’m providing rights to this sketch free of charge to JJ Abrams and his team, just in case they want to do the right thing and replace all their TIE fighters with ones that look like these for the new movie.
I’m sure if they had to push the release date back a month or two, nobody would mind at all, right? Of course not.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.