Starfighters are resource intensive vehicles, and can seldom operate without a nearby base or larger combat starship. They are one or two-man assault craft normally designed for faster, greater speed than capital ships. They can be used as part of a strike force with combat ships, or under certain circumstances, they are used for stand-alone assaults. As the nature of space warfare has changed, starfighters have become indispensable.
During its peak, the Empire relied upon superior numbers for combat performance. While their TIE fighters were fast and maneuverable, they had very little armor and thus a fighter's (and pilot's) life expectancy in combat were exceedingly short. The Empire's dogma also called for TIE fighters to perform only on short patrols, escort, or defense actions; as a result, little of the starfighters were equipped with hyperdrives. Now that the Empire is forced to face the New Republic on equal ground, the lack of hyperdrives and shielding is a glaring weakness in combat strategies that the Empire has been struggling to rectify.