Star Wars FleetsThe Evolution of the Fleets:
The evidence is very interesting as to the sequence of fleet development. The Republic began as an unmilitarized entity with a very large number of civilian ships. During the Clone Wars, it swiftly militarized to the point of having perhaps thousands of ships to defeat the Separatists; clones' superiority in combat over battle droids insured the Republic had an edge in skill if not tonnage. Initially, only 1,200,000 clones were set to grow.
If the militarized Republic spread 1,200,000 clones out with 6000 clones per attack cruiser, then they would only be able to crew 200 ships. It is no surprise, therefore, that regular humans are seen crewing ships in ROTS, with clonetroopers used for shock troops and fighter pilots. This would allow the Republic to spread its clones out substantially among up to several thousand ships.
Empire was formed out of the militarized Republic, and continued expanding against disorganized opposition. At this point With no trouble conquering planets, the Empire phased out the old attack cruisers, which could land on a planetary surface, and phased in the Imperial Star Destroyer, which apparently could not, but probably represented a more efficient method of dealing with Rebel ships. Imperial industry concentrated on completing the Death Star project.
The destruction of the Death Star marked a failure of a new Imperial doctrine of absolute terror, as well as failure of the Imperial fleet. Attempting to perfect a new and greater Death Star went well beyond the existing infrastructure developed to build the first Death Star, and consumed a greater portion of the Imperial budget. Wanting to preserve space superiority, the Imperial Navy also put out the Executor class of Super Star Destroyer, presumed capable of defeating any vessel fielded by the Rebels; the combination of the two projects very likely stretched the shipbuilding budget, not to mention stripping existing facilities of equipment, materials, and personnel. Older hulls may have been scrapped early in order to make the surplus material available, explaining the lack of older Imperial ships in the original trilogy; they may have also been scrapped to keep them out of Rebel hands, or destroyed after being seized by Rebels.
The Rebel fleet was developed haphazardly. It appears its initial mission was simply to avoid the Imperial fleet, and many civilian craft were pressed into service; during the later phases of the civil war, the Rebellion began to concentrate on achieving selected military victories against the Empire, using dedicated warships, such as the Mon Calamari cruiser.
In no element other than the deployment of fighters could the various fleets be differentiated as clearly. The Separatists concentrated exclusively on producing enormous swarms of drones to defend their ships against snubfighters. The Republic concentrated on sending heavier fighters out to directly attack Separatist capital ships.
The Empire developed the light manned fighter to its furthest extreme with the TIE fighter, whose solar panels marked a concentration on efficient defense - and whose lack of hyperdrives marked the degree of independence the Empire was willing to allow. The Rebellion deployed a variety of fighters of widely varying shapes and sizes - generally heavy, and universally hyper-capable.
If we assume a practical service life of 5 years during constant warfare and a fleet of 5,000, we get a typical production rate of 1,000 ISDs per year. If we note that - as the Rebels didn't win any significant battles before ANH - Imperial hull lifespan should be 10-20 years and use our general 5-50,000 estimate, this gives an overall production rate of 250-5,000 ISDs per year.
If smaller hulls last no more than ten years or so and there are nearly a million of such, Imperial shipyards could be turning out as many as 100,000 total hulls per year; however, the capabilities of these smaller hulls are poorly established. Not only are they not present in the movies, but mid-size ship classes in use by the Rebels and others are dramatically smaller than Star Destroyers. The main strength of the fleet clearly lies in the Imperial Star Destroyer, and the main military investment of the Empire clearly the Death Stars.
If the original trilogy's conflicts are typical of the civil war between Empire and Rebellion, the Rebellion had probably a tenth the overall conventional warship tonnage of the Empire - at most. It would be wisest to suggest no more than a thousand cruisers, with ten times as many small ships being entirely reasonable.
The Separatist fleet's greatest deployment seems to have been the Naboo blockade. Fighting a losing war the entire time, we may nevertheless suggest the entire faction had several thousand capital vessels at its height. Thanks to the use of bulky but relatively weak battleships, the Separatist fleet probably had a greater displacement and less firepower than the entire Imperial fleet at its greatest height.
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25 years prior to the conclusion of the series, construction had already begun on the Death Star project after years of planning and development of a site to build it. The Imperial fleet then consisted primarily of Republic attack cruisers, aka Venator Star Destroyers, which operate primarily heavy trifighters alongside gunships and legions of clonetroopers with their ground equipment.
20 years later, a Death Star was completed, and an oblique suggestion from Solo that the Imperial fleet couldn't amass a thousand ships together. The Imperial fleet now primarily consists of Imperial Star Destroyers, which operate light TIE fighters, along with shuttles and legions of stormtroopers with their ground equipment.
The first Death Star had between 10,000-100,000 times the suface area of an ISD, and carries on the one hand the firepower of "half the Imperial Fleet" and on the other hand "more firepower than ever existed." If we take the one figure to represent its conventional strength as a battlestation (less dense in emplacements than an Imperial Star Destroyer) and the other to represent its potency as a unique weapon, we could suggest the Imperial Fleet has 5,000-50,000 ISDs worth of ships. Solo's comment suggests the Imperial Navy may have fewer than 1,000 ISDs; the sparse coverage of the Imperial Fleet very strongly suggests that the Imperial Navy has less than a million warships total. However, the thousand ships should be taken with a grain of salt; after all, the Republic and Separatists appear to have fielded close to those numbers at its peak.
5 years later, a larger Death Star - "twice the size" of the old one in its incomplete state - is considered roughly halfway complete. This would suggest that the Death Star portion of the budget has increased by a factor of up to eight since the destruction of the first Death Star. The subsequent appearance of the Executor also means that the Empire has begun investing in super-heavy ships of a scale not seen since the departure of the Trade Federation battleship.