You can’t have good Star Wars without a good space battle. But while Star Trek’s interstellar melees take liberally from the slow, tactical tension of high-seas naval battles, Star Wars’ combat is heavily inspired by the aerial dogfights of World Wars I and II.
Enter the Starfighter: A fast, nimble, sleek spacecraft that bobs and weaves through the atmosphere and vacuum with the kind of grace we tend to associate with terrestrial fighter planes. Since the Battle of Yavin at the climax of A New Hope, starfighters have been at the heart of the franchise — and the X-Wing, with its distinctive S-foils and “X” silhouette, leaped into the imaginations of generations of Star Wars fans.
That’s not the only Rebel ship the franchise has exposed us to, though; the Rebel Alliance (and the New Republic not long after) became host to a whole squadron of “Wing”-type starfighters, each with their unique mission roles, attributes, and history in the franchise. So lock your S-foils in attack position, and let’s run down the fleet!
Of course, we have to start with the most iconic ship in the Star Wars canon: The Incom T-65 X-Wing, first spotted in the Battle of Yavin as the primary assault craft for the Rebel Alliance in their last-ditch attempt to destroy the Death Star.
If the Battle of Yavin was inspired by World War II’s Battle of Britain, the X-Wing is the British Spitfire: it’s fast, maneuverable, and surprisingly powerful (with its four laser cannons and proton torpedo launchers).
Since then, the X-Wing has been a mainstay in the series — in The Empire Strikes Back, the X-Wing served as Luke Skywalker’s personal craft, which he used to swan off to Dagobah from the ice planet Hoth. Then, they had a central role in the Battle of Endor, Wedge Antilles accompanying the Millennium Falcon into the Death Star II’s superstructure and dealing the final blow.
It’s the perfect balanced starfighter: It can handle TIE Fighter dogfights as easily as it can bombing runs on a Star Destroyer. And with its long, sleek fuselage and articulated wings, it’s one of the best-looking fighters in the galaxy.
The X-Wing wasn’t the only starfighter introduced in the first Star Wars film; there’s also the Y-Wing, Gold Squadron’s ship of choice and the first folks who tried (and failed) to bomb the first Death Star.
While some notes and diagrams from Return of the Jedi’s special effects crew indicate they’re as fast and maneuverable as X-Wings, they’re more applicable as heavy bombers. Beyond that, they showed up in the Battle of Endor in Jedi, obviously, but they also have a long pre-Rebellion history: earlier, more armored variants of the Y-Wing were omnipresent throughout the Clone Wars and popped up many times in Star Wars: Rebels.
As for real-life equivalents, Lucas sketched the original Y-Wing to resemble a Grumman TBF torpedo bomber, with its belly-mounted gun to fend off pursuing enemy fighters. That would obviously morph (care of Ralph McQuarrie’s iconic concept art) into the top-mounted ion cannon you see in the final product.
Where Y-Wings go for firepower, the A-Wing goes for speed — an arrow-shaped interceptor meant to go toe-to-toe with the TIE Interceptor in the Galactic Empire’s continual search for space superiority. It was fast (with its twin “Event Horizon” sunlight engines) and maneuverable, with vectored cannons on each side meant to swivel most directions for greater firing arcs during combat.
It made its first appearance in Return of the Jedi, but it would become a staple of the Rebel fleet as far back as Star Wars Rebels, and even showed up in The Last Jedi as a fighter screen meant to protect Resistance bombers in that film’s opening salvo against the First Order Destroyers pursuing them.
(Special mention should go to the A-Wing pilot arguably most responsible for turning the tide during the Battle of Endor: Arvel Crynyd, whose suicide-run tailspin into the Executor’s bridge took out the Super Star Destroyer more efficiently than a fleet’s worth of turbolasers.)
In addition to the A-Wing, Return of the Jedi also introduced us to the B-Wing, a highly advanced bomber most notable for its rotating spaceframe, which spun around a central command pod. It’s a cool look, to be sure — expanding from a horizontal flying-wing shape to a more T-shaped vertical ship when fully battle ready — making it one of the most intriguing Star Wars ship designs.
Apart from Jedi, its most notable appearance is probably Star Wars Rebels, which dedicated an entire episode in season two (“Wings of the Master”) to Hera Syndulla testing its pilot model on the planet Shantipole. (It’s here we find out why the B-Wing doesn’t look like a B; it’s an abbreviation of “Blade-Wing”).
While there are plenty of “Wing” ships not in official canon (more on that later), Rogue One introduced us to a new type of ship: The U-Wing, the hero ship of Jyn Erso and her merry band of Rebels as they worked to steal the Death Star plans from Scarif. The U-Wing is bigger than a starfighter but smaller than a corvette or freighter like the Millennium Falcon. Instead, its role is that of a gunship and support craft, heavily armed and armored (and sporting S-foils that would sweep its large wings backward during combat) but lacking the dogfighting capabilities of an X-Wing.
However, it proved vital during atmospheric combat, serving nicely as an air support craft (with its side-mounted laser turrets) and troop transport, dropping off Rebel platoons at vital areas. Its major other appearance is in Star Wars Squadrons, where it backed up Vanguard Squadron during Operation Starhawk.
The Rest of the Starfighter Alphabet
While those are the major starfighters you’d expect in most canon Star Wars works, Legends and other expanded-universe material have attempted to fill out the other letters in interesting ways.
The E-Wing multi-role starfighter was notable during the Thrawn Trilogy as a prospective replacement for the X-Wing. But its design leaves a bit to be desired, including that huge third laser cannon that hangs over the cockpit like a Sword of Damocles.
Looking like two Y-Wings melted together in the microwave, the dual-hulled H-Wing is mostly available in certain roleplaying games (like the Age of Rebellion RPG book and the X-Wing miniatures game.) But, just, look at this thing. How do you even fly it? Is it like a driver’s ed car, where the passenger also has his own little brake?
A New Republic craft, this beast of a bomber (likely inspired by the B-29 Superfortress) sported heaps of firepower, including a quad turbolaser turret, and multiple crew members to run it. Though you’ll mostly see it in expanded universe offerings, including the aforementioned X-Wing miniatures game.
The V-Wings actually showed up in the prequels as a missing-link step between Republic Starfighters and TIE fighters, appearing in Revenge of the Sith. But with its articulated TIE-like wing fins and its A-Wing-ish fuselage, it feels appropriate as a transitional fighter between the two eras.
This bizarre-looking fighter is only here because J.J. Abrams wanted ships from every letter of the alphabet in Rise of Skywalker, so here we are with this weird lil guy.
Looking maybe the least like a Star Wars ship of any in this list, the T-Wing was a ship from X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter that looks a bit more like a Colonial Viper from Battlestar Galactica than a proper Rebel craft.