What Would Rob Do? - The Kobayashi Maru

It’s been a while since I’ve done a ‘What Would Rob Do?’ entry. Previous entries have included What Would Rob Do? aboard the starship Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s Alien and What Would Rob Do? at Outpost 31 in John Carpenter’s The Thing. If you want to check these out you can find my solutions below:

What Would Rob Do? Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’
What Would Rob Do? John Carpenter’s 'The Thing'.

This time I thought I would match my wits to the infamous no-win scenario The Kobayashi Maru, depicted in Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Beware: Spoilers.

The Kobayashi Maru scenario was an infamous no-win scenario that was part of the curriculum for command-track cadets at Starfleet Academy in the 23rd century. It was primarily used to assess a cadet's discipline, character and command capabilities when facing a seemingly impossible situation.re is no one answer to the problem.

In 2285, on the simulated bridge, the cadet was placed in command of the USS Enterprise on patrol near the Klingon Neutral Zone. A Neutral Zone is either the equivalent of a modern day Demilitarized Zone (e.g. between North and South Korea) or similar to existing Neutral Zones in the Middle East (the Saudi-Iraqi Neutral Zone and the Saudi-Kuwaiti Neutral Zone, both established in the 1920s and disbanded by the 1990s). Either example results in the same: bordering nations / civilisations and their militaries are forbidden from entering or maintaining a presence in the identified area (like establishing a base or vessel patrols).

In the simulation the Enterprise would receive a distress signal from the Kobayashi Maru, a civilian freighter (a neutronic fuel carrier) that had been disabled in the zone after having struck a gravitic mine. If the cadet chose to enter the neutral zone in violation of treaties, the starship would be confronted by Klingon battle cruisers. The test was considered a no-win scenario because it was impossible for the cadet to simultaneously save the Kobayashi Maru, fight the Klingons and escape from the neutral zone with the starship intact. A cadet's choice of how to handle the rescue operation gave insight into his or her command decision-making. Check out a cadet’s failure to beat the no-win scenario below in a clip from Nicholas Meyer’s ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’.

As you can imagine, this is a difficult one. The simulation is programmed to result in defeat regardless of the strategies employed, so beating the simulation is not really possible without cheating. If the situation was actual rather than simulated - and employed strategies had at least a chance of success – then I’d be tempted to employ a less direct approach than the one depicted in the clip. What would Rob Do?

For a start, I’d take my lead from the Klingon Battle Cruiser commanders rather than the Star Fleet officers. For the Klingons to attack so swiftly and detect the Enterprise’s approach (without the Enterprise detecting them) the Klingons were probably already within the Neutral Zone, closing in on the Kobayashi Maru. It was clever of the Klingons to have breached the zone without detection, to have negotiated the area while avoiding gravitic mines themselves and pillage a helpless freighter without even having to discharge their weapons. All they have to do is wait until the life support systems on the Kobayashi Maru fail and then salvage the vessel and/or its cargo.

I think that the key to this is to remain fair to the scenario (i.e. rely only on notions that would have occurred to those involved in the situation and setting). The scenario‘s no-win nature largely comes from the ridiculous inflexibility of Star Fleet regulations and directives, rather than actual futility. More able commanders would be able to subvert these regulations without directly breaking them. Horatio Nelson’s strategies – while not contravening the traditions of the British Royal Navy – were considered new and unusual at the time. Their employment by his contemporaries in both British and foreign navies was largely a result of Nelson’s very public success. In the clip above, the cadet’s actions are textbook and predictable: as is the contrary advice given by other Star Fleet officers on the bridge. I can almost imagine the Klingon flotilla commander sat in his / her chair with a Star Fleet manual open on their lap. Star Fleet might as well have unquestioning robots crew their vessels. This is what I would do.

1. Upon receiving the transmission, establish a course to breach the Neutral Zone and intercept the Kobayashi Maru.

2. Go to Battle Stations. This would include raising shields as a precaution and already having torpedoes and phasers primed. I would also scramble armed parties to the transporters in readiness for a boarding action. If not a real disaster, The Kobayashi Maru could prove to be an excellent trap set by pirates or wreckers to isolate larger vessels in the Neutral Zone. As part of such an early decision to go to Battle Stations, I would order long range scans before I even entered the Neutral Zone. I would be actively looking for enemy vessels and would likely detect them long before the Enterprise does in the simulation. I must assume that there is a good chance that I am going to be attacked: the Neutral Zone borders the Klingon Empire – an aggressive species (e.g. ‘they don’t take prisoners’); the gravitic mines are a clear sign to keep out; my vessel is taking what might, not unreasonably, be interpreted as a hostile and invasive action.

3. Take out some insurance. I would send fake and repeated communications to Star Fleet battle cruisers nearby, instructing them to close and support the Enterprise’s rescue of the Kobayashi Maru in the Neutral Zone. I would assume that the Klingon navy would have fairly detailed knowledge of Star Fleet vessels, so I would use powerful vessels as examples. This would likely make any Klingon vessels in the area think twice before interfering with the rescue mission (they would be outgunned) and it would likely dissuade any of the potential pirates / wreckers identified above, if the Kobayashi Maru actually turned out to be a trap. I could, of course, explain such a strategy away to my crew and superiors by citing Star Fleet regulations that even feature later in the film: "If transmissions are being monitored during battle, no uncoded messages are to be transmitted on an open channel." I could claim it was a coded message and that entering the Neutral Zone was likely to result in battle. This strategy alone could mean a successful evacuation of the Kobayashi Maru’s crew. Three out of three!

4. Let’s assume the Klingons aren’t fooled. My long range scans would detect the three Klingon cruisers on their approach. They are arming their weapons, so I assume they are going to destroy the Enterprise for breaching the Neutral Zone and breaking the Treaty. Why should I - a Star Fleet officer, in command of a battle cruiser – be any less outraged at the Klingons’ similar transgression. You can be sure that I am going to fire on the approaching flotilla first. Let’s assume that I am at least as battle ready as the Klingons. I destroy / incapacitate one Klingon cruiser, while sustaining some damage from the other two. My raised and ready shields save me from outright destruction / incapacitation.

5. The crew of the Kobayashi Maru were always going to die. They were the victims of a horrific, deep space accident (from wandering into the Neutral Zone, to hitting a mine, to being discovered by not one but three merciless Klingon vessels). A rescue is to be attempted by any reasonable Star Fleet officer but success is not to be expected. This is similar to the way a doctor will still try their best to save a critical patient, even when they objectively know that there is little chance of survival. After so long – even the doctor gives up and calls time on the patient. With the Klingon cruisers engaging the Enterprise and the vessel outgunned, I would stage a mock withdrawal. This is what the Klingon commander would hope for and expect. Both vessels would pursue. I would simply ensure that the enemy cruisers’ most direct route to the Enterprise would run close to the Kobayashi Maru (i.e. put the freighter between me and the enemy). I would then beam a photon torpedo - or ten - aboard the Kobayashi Maru, on a countdown to detonation. While the Enterprise makes good its escape, the torpedoes would detonate, blowing up the Kobayashi Maru. The freighter is detailed as a neutronic fuel carrier. The resulting explosion of ship and fuel cargo would likely destroy the Klingon cruisers passing close by or at very least incapacitate them / delay their pursuit.

6. I would then take the Enterprise out of the Neutral Zone and grab a bottle of Romulan Ale. I need this for two reasons. The first is that I’m celebrating: I confronted and destroyed three Klingon battle cruisers with my single vessel and I’m about to be promoted by Star Fleet command. The second reason is because I’m about to take up a drinking habit and become an alcoholic. It is the only way I can live with the death of the four hundred or so crew and passengers aboard the ill-fated Kobayashi Maru. I also need to drink to cope with the looks of reproach and disgust I’ll receive from my own crew aboard the Enterprise. That’s okay, though, because my promotion includes a transfer to one of the more powerful vessels I alluded to in my ruse earlier.

Verdict: The Kobayashi Maru is a no-win scenario for three reasons. It is unreasonable to expect a commander to save the crew of the Kobayashi Maru, defeat the Klingon battle cruisers and escape with their own vessel intact. I’ll go for two out of three then – which is a better result than the zero out of three achieved by cadets taking the test without cheating and the three out of three achieved by a cheating James T. Kirk That said, I’m ready to have my ass handed to me by an observant fan of the franchise!

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