In Star Wars, iconic fighters like the X-Wing, Y-Wing and A-Wing often steal most of the on-screen glory, but it’s important to remember that no fighter can operate independently. Fighter squadrons need support bases where they can refuel, rearm and get repaired. And sometimes, those fighters just need a safe place to hide. Giant ships are expensive and vulnerable, and can only be in one place at a time. Thus the need for the humble frigate.
The Nebulon-B frigate is one of the most recognizable ships in Star Wars and it played an essential role in the Rebel Alliance. Acting as escort to fighter and cruiser alike, it turned combat into an art form in many battles against Imperial forces.
Welcome Aboard the Nebulon-B Frigate
Perhaps best-known as the “medical frigate” where Luke Skywalker recovered from his epic duel against Darth Vader, and which Wedge Antilles raced to defend at Endor, the heavily armed Nebulon-B is one of the most unique designs in all of Star Wars.
Rating the design
These frigates are easily recognized by their long central spars separating the massive engine pods and hyperdrive astern from the axehead-shaped main hull forward. They might look fragile, but don’t let appearances fool you. Any overconfident Imperial pilot attacking this escort ship will soon find himself floating home.
Deep space all the way
The Nebulon-B is one of the few times Star Wars really embraced the concept of life in the vacuum, abandoning the atmospheric designs that make way too many appearances in this galaxy far, far away. There are no wings or landing gear on this ship, its delicate structure a sure sign that it was never intended to spend time near the surface.
No doubt a Nebulon might occasionally foray down to the surface to bring wounded aboard or provide close escort to ground troops, but it would never sully its hull by actually touching dirt.
An Imperial Frigate Commandeered
Originally designed as an Imperial warship, the Nebulon-B class was designed and constructed at the Kuat Drive Yards in the years following the end of the Clone Wars. Designed as support ships to the new Imperial Navy they were large enough to operate independently and flexible enough to adapt to a variety of roles.
But as star destroyers became the mainstay of the Imperial Navy and other light cruiser designs more along the lines of the old Arquitens were produced, the Nebulon-B class found itself relegated to more distant and less important sectors of space. This opened the door for Rebel cells to capture these ships and use them as early command ships for building a fleet.
A Versatile Rebel Cruiser
The Nebulon-B frigate proved essential to the early rebel forces. Designed from the start for flexibility, the Nebulon could swap out different components and easily shift to a new specialization. It was a model of efficiency and served as a versatile Rebel asset in many roles:
Equipped with twelve turbo lasers, twelve laser cannons and a pair of missile launchers, the Nebulon-B frigate packed a punch far greater than its size might suggest. Capable of dispatching smaller Imperial ships and even holding the line against star destroyers, this vessel triumphed in many a fleet battle.
Perhaps its most famous role, the Nebulon-B was widely used as a medical frigate. With the Alliance often on the run and lacking permanent bases, the Rebel fleet depended on mobile medical facilities to service the many casualties incurred in battle. These frigates were equipped with extensive hospital facilities, medical droids and bacta tanks. The main medical facility aboard a Nebulon-B held seven hundred patients and boasted a very high recovery rate. (Rumor has it they provided really good cookies, too.)
Luke Skywalker himself received his new mechanical hand aboard a Nebulon-B frigate after his first confrontation with Darth Vader. (And probably enjoyed some cookies.)
Space superiority frigate
In addition to its own formidable weapons, the Nebulon-B frigate carried a squadron of starfighters to control the battlespace and protect the main rebel ships from the swarms of TIE fighters accompanying any Imperial attack. Although heavily outnumbered, rebel pilots were usually superior in skill to their Imperial counterparts, and a well-placed squadron of fighters launched from a Nebulon-B could turn the tide of battle.
The Rebels were always on the run, and safe harbors were few and far between. The Nebulon-B frigate was an excellent ship to send on scouting missions to search for new bases, with its strong armaments and long range. The scout version was often augmented with additional sensors to help it explore new systems and remotely assess whether a potential site might serve as a new Rebel base.
How many fighters can a Nebulon-B hold?
This is a common question, and for all the information out there in the fan community, it’s actually pretty hard to answer precisely. A Nebulon-B frigate was designed to carry a squadron of fighters, but Star Wars has always been pretty vague on exactly how many ships this means. Based on the call sign check-in before the Battle of Yavin, the X-Wing squadron (or group) Luke Skywalker flew in had twelve fighters. This sounds like a decent number, so let’s go with that. Unless you can show me an authoritative website that says otherwise, I’ll declare it here:
The Nebulon-B frigate carried twelve starfighters.
If that doesn’t sound like much, rest assured that this versatile Rebel ship also had room for light freighters like the Millennium Falcon and several shuttles.
The Nebulon-B Frigate at the Movies
The Nebulon-B makes several appearances in the Star Wars movies, first featured in the closing scene of The Empire Strikes Back in its role as medical frigate. Sweeping shots of the ship slow down the drama and help a stunned audience realize that their heroes are safe. The frigate serves as more than just backdrop, though, taking the role of a safe space – a sign that even the worst moments in life pass and there’s always hope.
The frigate makes its next appearance in Return of the Jedi, with several ships in this class joining the Battle of Endor. Amidst the chaos we hear Wedge give his famous update, “They’re headed for the medical frigate!” Some of the ships are clearly in the escort frigate version, though, laying down beatings on star destroyers and TIE fighters alike.
Going back in Star Wars time to Rogue One, at least three Nebulon-B escort frigates join the fight at Scarif, although one of them is blown apart by the star destroyer commanded by Darth Vader himself.
The Nebulon-B Frigate on TV
Star Wars: Rebels has multiple Nebulon-B appearances as the fledgling Rebel Alliance begins to gather a fleet. The model we see most often is the escort frigate, and as a class the Nebulons are the strongest arm of the new navy. We first see them at Dantooine and they form the main line of defense against Admiral Thrawn at the Battle of Atollon.
Even LEGO Star Wars loves the Nebulon-B
Being such a well-known and cool-looking design, it’s really no surprise that LEGO got into the action with a special, commemorative model. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, as behind the scenes the fan base has lovingly depicted the Nebulon-B in art, stories and games. It’s a sure sign of popularity when a creation gets life beyond its original medium.
The Importance of the Frigate
As a Navy officer myself, I have a soft spot in my heart for the humble frigate. Never as flashy as a fighter or as impressive as a battleship, these escort vessels are nevertheless the backbone of any naval action. Their work may often be behind the scenes from the main drama but even Luke Skywalker himself appreciated the chance to land safely in far-off sectors and get the help he needed. I take it as a sign of solid naval planning that both the Rebel and Imperial fleets had frigates and I look forward to many future adventures for these plucky craft, be they escort, scout, carrier or hospital.