It has been suggested that stormtrooper armor is a profound advantage for the everpresent soldiers of the Empire, despite the apparent ease of their dispatch. Claims for the armor include the idea that it renders the wearer virtually impervious to projectile weapons, and according to StarDestroyer.Net's Mike Wong:
"it affords the wearer complete protection from a wide variety of threats, such as extreme temperature variations, the vacuum of space (albeit only briefly), radiogenic fallout, nerve gases, and biological agents." (italics mine)
Further, it's claimed that the helmets contain sensors and advanced communications, augmenting the trooper's perceptions and the capabilities of the squad as a whole. Let us consider these various claims.
The basic idea here is that the helmet contains a scanning suite (a la Geordi's visor, which carried broad spectrum EM information to his brain, in ST:TNG). This would allow the wearer a complete grasp of his surroundings well beyond what can be seen in the visual spectrum, presumably communicated by some advanced display screen, direct retinal projection, or what-have-you. One might also expect it to offer the Empire extremely good battle management techniques by allowing realtime communication of visual and audio tactical and intelligence data up and down the chain of command, or to comrades.
Unfortunately, there are far too many contrary pieces of evidence, even just from a quick perusal of ANH.
Orders and intel appear to be verbally-reported affairs:
- The trooper who found a piece of R2 or 3PO on Tatooine held up the item into the field of view of his commander. "Look sir, droids!"
- The lead trooper headed for Docking Bay 94 verbally instructed his men to load their weapons, and upon arrival verbal orders to stop the ship and to fire on Han were given. Han's attention seemed to be drawn by the comments, suggesting that these were indeed orders spoken right out loud and not via radio . . . though it is also possible he saw the movement of the white-armored troopers out of his peripheral vision.
- "TK-421, why aren't you at your post?" That not only shows verbal communication from above, but also demonstrates that there is no central monitoring of trooper activity (as if via transmission of helmet cameras, a la "Aliens" or "Predator II").
- "Give me regular reports, please," says one trooper to the two left behind in the area of the tractor beam power tap controls.
- We hear verbally-communicated reports of where the Death Star security forces think the escaping Rebels may be, and that they believe them to have split up.
- "Close the blast doors!" and "Open the blast doors!" Again, no monitoring of what any trooper might be seeing, such as a video feed of the Rebels who hopped through the closing doors.
In short, there doesn't seem to be any particularly impressive battle management technique afforded by the helmets or armor. Like a police officer with a walkie-talkie, all we get are line-of-sight visual communications, and audio via direct conversation or radio transmissions. We get a good description of how the latter operates in the ANH novelization's first chapter, regarding the trooper who found Leia:
"Within the armor his head turned slightly, directing his voice to the tiny condenser microphone. "Here she is," he called to those behind him. "Set for stun forcó"
He never finished the sentence, just as he would never receive the hoped-for commendation. Once his attention turned from the girl to his communicator her shivering vanished with startling speed. The energy pistol she had held out of sight behind her came up and around as she burst from her hiding place."
There's no evidence of scanning technology in the helmet:
- As the stormtroopers search Leia's ship, they don't notice her until she's standing in an exposed position right in front of them, and the leader looks right at her. And, as seen in the quote above, he doesn't detect her pistol until she brings it out from behind her.
- As Vader boards Leia's cruiser, a stormtrooper is seen appearing to check for signs of life on a fallen comrade, holding his head and seeming to check for a pulse.
- While searching for the droids, stormtroopers manually checked whether doors were locked, and did not detect the droids standing right behind such a door.
- Stormtroopers walked around the captured Falcon looking for anyone aboard, unable to detect Han and company beneath a floor panel, or any trace of them having been within the cockpit or corridors minutes beforehand. A separate scanning crew with a large pallet of bulky equipment was called in to scan the vessel.
- Of course, there's Luke's comment about being unable to see a thing in the helmet, though he was able to walk around and navigate. To be fair, it probably wasn't designed for non-clones, but it would seem to indicate a lack of any advanced sensor display techniques. He simply found it hard to see.
- Kenobi distracts the two troopers at the tractor beam power tap with a mind trick of a sound, but even after this is complete they don't notice him running past:
Note the angles, either of the right-hand trooper's head or of the direction he would be looking in order to face the left trooper. It's clear that Kenobi's movement should've been quite visible out of his peripheral vision, and even moreso since Kenobi's exit route is as well-lit as the portal behind the troopers . . . his dark cloak would've served only as a source of contrast. Nonetheless, neither Kenobi, nor his movement, nor his lifesigns were picked up by the troopers.
- Lest we forget one of the more famous stormtrooper moments:
On the other hand, we can attempt to locate some more hopeful data:
1. Vader's helmet in Episode III seems to have some sort of Terminator-esque augmented reality system. Two small screens over the interior of the eyepieces cover his eyes, apparently replacing what he sees with a red-hued grayscale representation. The novelization describes the display as "optical sensors [that] integrate light and shadow into a hideous simulacrum of the world".
The helmet is apparently capable of producing 3-D data given its dual displays, and there appears to be text overlay suggesting that further information about the environment is provided (though, to be fair, this could merely be an indicator of the life-support conditions within the suit). We might presume that the unit has some sort of night-vision augmentation.
Vader's control of the device was apparently limited. In RoTS we see the helmet representation turn on and for a moment it is transparent, but Vader seemingly can't make this happen at will given his apparent inability to see Luke "with my own eyes" in RoTJ. Also, there are three connection points on the inside of the screens that produce a halo around them, vaguely similar to what happens when you press your finger against an LCD monitor. Unless these are merely a 'start-up artifact' that will disappear shortly after the helmet is engaged, then apparently Vader always has floating glows just above and below the center of his field of vision.
In any case, there is no evidence for such a display system being in use on stormtrooper helmets. Indeed, the colorful decorations on clonetrooper armor from the end of the Clone Wars would seem to argue against any grayscale displays in that era, at least. Further, it seems unlikely that the red and blue Imperial Navy rank insignia would feature such coloration if in fact the stormtroopers couldn't see it, though I suppose there could be plausible reasons why they wouldn't need to. And finally, the idea that stormtroopers would be unable to discern different bolt colorings would seem to be not just odd, but actually dangerous.
2. During the firefight in cellblock AA-23, stormtrooper accuracy did not seem terribly affected by the intervening smoke as it appeared. Of course, since they were consistently missing, this proves nothing either way.
3. The only known advantage of the helmets comes in the transparent material used in the eye-coverings. Besides the expectation that these would be hard to break and would thus make for good 'safety glasses' to protect the eyes, we learn in Chapter 18 of the Episode III novelization that the material as seen in clonetrooper helmets is polarized to help minimize glare, much like many modern sunglasses (1,2). Presumably this carried over into later stormtrooper helmets.
In short, there is no evidence for augmented sensory capability on the part of stormtroopers that would be more effective than wearing polarized sunglasses, and both visual evidence and direct statements suggest that, if anything, stormtroopers will have lessened perceptual capabilities . . . especially when it comes to low-hanging objects. Even if they had a "hideous simulacrum" system similar to the one in Vader's helmet, then they are limited to a simple grayscale display that deletes color information and evidently does not tie in to any other system . . . i.e. no gun feedback to help with aim, no command and control based on seeing what the trooper sees, et cetera.
In a word: useless.
In Return of the Jedi, we get to see prime examples of the utility of stormtrooper armor. We already knew it didn't allow the wearer to withstand the concussion and shrapnel of an exploding Death Star wall panel, but this film demonstrates many more weaknesses. Blunt impacts, such as those produced by hefty rocks, clubs, and collisions, all serve to neutralize stormtroopers, with the armor seeming to provide no protection.
Disturbingly, however, it seems that the metal armor can also be pierced by primitive arrows, in staggering contrast to the claim of complete protection against projectile weapons.
Some claim that the arrow seen above must have hit higher than it appears, through the softer black bodysuit material below the helmet but above the 'backpack'. Others have gone so far as to try to draw in the arrow above the black semi-circle!
Others claim that the backpack itself, though made of rigid material, is not genuine stormtrooper armor. Or, in the alternate version, that the above fellow is merely a scout trooper, and therefore could not be expected to have on real trooper armor.
Both of those similar ideas are based on the assumption that stormtrooper armor would be superior. As you can see below, there is no reason for such an assumption:
Note that the Ewoks did not strike the shoulder armor. Note that neither troop fell directly onto that shoulder. What cracked it? Rolling? The Ewok sticks?
Whatever it was, it should be apparent that stormtrooper armor provides very little protection against kinetic impact.
"Other" covers everything else. There are, of course, numerous examples of blaster shots penetrating the armor. Here, we'll examine the notion of "complete protection" against temperature, vacuum, and threats from nuclear, biological, or chemical (N/B/C) agents. Despite the wide array of claimed protections, the presentation of the counterevidence requires few words:
The above shots are of Luke wearing stormtrooper armor, and then preparing to remove his helmet. In both, you can clearly see his neck and jaw. Direct exposure of the skin and exposure to unfiltered air hardly constitutes "complete protection" against temperature or N/B/C threats, and there's certainly nothing to stop a vacuum's effects.
Some might suggest that Luke either didn't know how to use the stormtrooper suit (neglecting to activate some autoseal) or didn't put all of the suit on (leaving off, in this case, some sort of sealing headgear) However, if either of those were the case, then why is it that professional stormtroopers show the same exposed skin as faux stormtroopers?
One clear example of this is from The Empire Strikes Back, as originally reported by several StarWars.com forum posters. In TESB, two stormtroopers return Han from his torture session. When dropping his agonized body on the floor, however, there is what one might call a "wardrobe malfunction".
Han's arms catch the bottom rear of the helmets as he falls. The left trooper turns his head and then body to follow through with the motion, almost losing his balance in the process. However, the trooper on the right is not quite so lucky with his helmet, which twists out of place and almost comes off. Hence the amusing "curious puppy" look he wears in that last image.
As the right-hand side trooper turns away, his neck, jaw, ear, and quite a bit of his cheek become visible. The shots below show closer, contrast-enhanced views of the turn-away sequence from the Cinemax HD version, with the skin most readily visible on the early shots before the trooper walks into shadow and we lose our armor-reflected light:
Another incident occurs in RoTJ. A stormtrooper, part of what the Emperor describes as a "legion of my best troops", gets hit by an Ewok bola weapon. As he falls backward we get an excellent view up the helmet:
Clearly, then, even the best stormtroopers go into battle without N/B/C protection. Further, we get confirmation that scout troopers are similarly-protected. The scout below is yelling to his comrade . . . note the scout's chin, more easily visible since, unlike stormtrooper helmets, there's less chin coverage:
As a result of all of this, it is clear that, whether you're Luke Skywalker or TK-421, you're exposed to the open air.
Despite being described as metal, stormtrooper armor is easily pierced by direct hits from even primitive projectiles, and can be cracked with similar ease, much like the thin die-cast metal used in small toy cars. This is not to say that the armor would be completely useless. For example, foes with a knife would have to have extraordinarily careful aim, and glancing impacts . . . from shrapnel, projectiles, and perhaps even blaster bolts . . . might end up deflected as opposed to producing flesh wounds. Nonetheless, the armor provides little to no protection against blaster shots and seems to do little to alleviate blunt-force or projectile impacts. The trooper could be readily gassed, immolated, irradiated, or suffocated via vacuum. The various segments serve to limit range of motion, and, barring some sort of advanced thermal properties in the black bodysuit, the suits are almost certainly hot and uncomfortable even at a comfortable room temperature.
The helmet does little to prevent the trooper within from being knocked out in case of impact, and, besides a simple radio and the use of polarized lenses, the helmet only serves to limit the trooper's range of vision.
In short, there is little purpose to stormtrooper armor, save perhaps for the utility belt. Though in principle body armor is a very sound concept, the Imperial practice leaves much to be desired.
Original pre-DVD Objections and Rebuttals
DVD version Objections: Ewok Arrow One, Arrow Two (coming soon)
An old quick-and-dirty update which appears to demonstrate that Stormtroopers aren't bulletproof.