Redesigning the Star Wars TIE Fighter

Source: Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977

The TIE fighter is one of the worst spacecraft in the Star Wars universe, but thankfully, we have several ways to improve upon this bizarre design.

When it comes to sci-fi movie and TV show spaceships, aesthetics is usually the overriding factor for spaceship design. Of course, you don’t need to have a fancy appearance to get around. Without atmosphere or gravity, even a brick will travel if you attach thrusters to it. But some franchises take their imagination to the extreme with ships that make absolutely no sense.

One of the most egregious offenders is the iconic TIE fighter from Star Wars. It is considered by many to be one of the worst spacecraft in the Star Wars universe, and for good reason. For starters, it looks like an eyeball sandwich. Or, more forgivingly, like a bowtie. Go beyond its silly appearance, though, and you’ll discover that the TIE fighter is simply terrible. That said, we’re going to break down this poorly designed ship and build it stronger than ever before.

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Breaking Down the TIE Fighter

Designer Colin Cantwell created the most iconic ships for Star Wars, including the X-Wing, TIE fighter, and Death Star. In a 2016 Reddit AMA, the artist admitted that his designs were “80 percent looks, 10 percent aerodynamics, 10 percent whimsy.” He also said that the idea for the TIE fighter spontaneously sprang from his mind.

TIE Fighter pursuing X-Wing. Source: Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977
TIE Fighter pursuing X-Wing. Source: Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977

Created to entertain, the ship clearly wasn’t designed to withstand scientific scrutiny. But even as a fearsome fighter craft, the TIE fighter has its flaws. The most obvious is the large hexagonal wings that block the pilot’s peripheral vision. Granted, these wings collect solar energy to power the twin ion engines while radiating heat from the ship, but that doesn’t make up for their terrible placement.

TIE fighter cutaway design. Source: Wookieepedia
TIE fighter cutaway design. Source: Wookieepedia

When flying a fighter craft, pilots need complete situational awareness to avoid colliding with each other and objects while at the same time spotting enemies. That’s an especially important fact when you consider how the Empire uses swarm tactics to overwhelm the opposition. So, unless they have specialized helmets and sensors that allow for an extended 360-degree view, TIE fighter pilots are at a severe disadvantage compared to their Alliance counterparts in X-Wings.

What makes matters worse is that those solar collectors aren’t enough to keep the TIE fighter powered. According to the design description, the fighter has a high-pressure fuel tank located just under the gun (a catastrophe just waiting to happen). In fact, the TIE fighter can only be in flight for a few hours before it must return to a carrier ship like a Star Destroyer to refuel. Plus, these solar collectors would be near useless if there aren’t any stars close enough to power them.

Additionally, even though the TIE fighter’s cockpit is tiny, there’s no life support system. Everything, including oxygen and temperature control, is regulated inside the pilot’s self-contained flight suit. That’s useful as a backup measure, but it’s a terrible idea as the pilot’s first and only means of staying alive while fighting in outer space. Pilots could die in their own spacecraft if the suit is ruptured or otherwise fails, even if they never take a single hit. This design flaw is underscored by the fact that the TIE fighter has no shields or secondary weapons. 

TIE fighter pilot in self-contained suit. Source: Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977
TIE fighter pilot in self-contained suit. Source: Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977

With all things considered, the TIE fighter fails to measure up against the X-Wing in almost every way. Although the X-Wing is more expensive and probably wouldn’t perform well with swarm strategies, its benefits far outweigh the costs. The list of advantages include shields, a hyperdrive, and additional thrusters for extra speed. TIE fighters may have high maneuverability, but any fighter fleet that can’t keep up with its enemy is doomed.

Although models such as the TIE Advanced X1 includes some upgrades, they don’t represent the Empire’s main forces. During the galactic war, only Darth Vader himself piloted the first prototype. Moreover, the TIE/x1’s wings still block peripheral vision and it doesn’t have shields.

Redesigning the TIE Fighter

Numerous fans have reimagined the TIE fighter to become sleeker and more practical, including an Audi designer named Jason Battersby who drew some concept art as a hobby. Judging from the drawings, his sleek design gives the wings a “>” shape that can be shifted backward or forward, which would allow pilots better peripheral vision. But we think the TIE fighter could do with some more radical changes.

TIE-X concept art. Source: Jason Battersby
TIE-X concept art. Source: Jason Battersby

First, we propose re-evaluating the usefulness of ion engines altogether if the ships are slower and still require fuel. X-Wings may have rendered the technology obsolete, and there’s no point in chasing after modern fighters using older craft.

If keeping ion engines prove worthwhile, then they’ll need an entirely different wing configuration, preferably one that lets them pivot and shift to optimize solar light collection. They could come out flatly from the sides like a traditional aircraft, or they could go around the orb as an arc like a kind of fin. Alternatively, the ship could take on a triangular shape like mini Star Destroyers, with the cockpit at its point. In space, the actual shape doesn’t matter as much as the pilot’s unobstructed 360-degree view around them.

To that end, the viewing window should be placed on top and double as an entry hatch instead of using the submarine hatch it currently relies upon. There are advantages to having a large front viewing window, similar to a helicopter, but it’s more important for pilots to easily see behind them and get in and out of the craft so that they can quickly respond to situations.

At the same time, the ball shape should be abandoned to extend the ship’s rear for more equipment as the TIE x1 does. These include shields, a hyperdrive, better engines, larger fuel tanks, secondary weapons, and onboard life support systems. While we’re at it, there should be a seat for a dedicated gunner who can operate a turret while the pilot focuses on maneuvering the ship. If there’s room, a plug for droid-assisted navigation and targeting wouldn’t hurt either.

50-degree view from inside a TIE fighter. Source: Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977
50-degree view from inside a TIE fighter. Source: Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977

Ultimately, the ship may end up looking like X and A-Wing fighters except with a domed top. But when it comes to war, superior design, technology, and strategy win out. It might be cheaper to build thousands of little TIE fighters than it is to retrofit landing bays for new designs, but what good are those savings if your forces can be wiped out by a smaller fleet? It would be far more practical in the long run to maintain a smaller fleet of powerful fighter ships with highly trained pilots behind them.

After all, it’s not like the Empire can’t afford to upgrade its fighter fleet. We’re talking about the same government that built two Death Stars and multiple Star Destroyers, each costing far more than the GDP of most planets in the galaxy.

Attack of the Drones

Thankfully, there is a way for the Empire to have the best of both worlds; a highly advanced fleet that’s cheap to produce and maintain. The Empire could easily install droids to pilot their fighter craft. That way, the ship could dispense with all the considerations a human pilot would require, including life support, cockpit space, etc. By removing the human element, you could build tremendous fleets of TIE fighter swarms that are completely disposable.

R2-D2 affixed to an X-Wing. Source: Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977
R2-D2 affixed to an X-Wing. Source: Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977

However, given the droid army’s performance on Naboo in The Phantom Menace, it seems as though fully autonomous droid armies leave a lot to be desired. So, maybe there is value in having trained human pilots. Therefore, the ideal setup would be to have drone pilots operate TIE fighters remotely from the safety of Star Destroyers, similar to the drone programs nations like the United States currently use. Those human piloted drones could be supplemented with droids. If the Empire used those kinds of tactics, resistance might be futile.


Credits: The Military Science of Star Wars by George Beahm

Contributing Editor

Steven is a pop culture junkie who regularly binges on sci-fi TV shows, movies, books, and video games before completely overthinking them.