The future has gripped and captivated audiences for hundreds of years. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne painted pictures of dystopic futures with fabulous craft. That imagination remains strong, and a recent joint exercise has made the news for the same reasons. Human soldiers watched unmanned tanks clear an area of landmines and bridge a gap over obstacles in an exercise with remote-controlled tanks. It’s the first time robots have been used for this purpose, but it hasn’t stopped this and other speculation from overriding what should be traditional concerns.
Future warfare seems to be a growing cottage industry with the more fanciful claims often getting more publicity. Reagan’s missile defense in the 80s seemed so far fetched it was named after a science fiction film. Dr. Alexander Kott of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory for example wrote a long paper detailing the Internet of Battle Things. War on the Rocks recently featured a long piece on the subject.
Military planners are already planning sixth generation aircraft, even as the fifth generation fighter, the F-35, has yet to prove its battlefield performance is worth all of its flaws and errors. Both the Marines and the Navy are employing laser weapons to counter drone technology. Even comedian Dave Berry pointed out the obsession with future technology by joking that early 19th century American leaders contracted to develop the X-97 laser controlled “Thunderfire” musket that remained in the testing phase until 1957, at which point it blew up (p.82).
All of this technology is nice on its own. After all, our competitors are fielding new and dangerous systems such as hypersonic missiles, their own advanced fighters, and portable cyber and electronic warfare units—we need the tools to effectively counter them. But numerous examples from history and incisive cautionary tales from fiction, including the recent Zombie fantasy World War Z, should provide caution in the over-reliance on technology.
Historian Richard Overy pointed out that the Allies won using old technology, while Germany lost using new technology. Tanks, airplanes, trenches, and machine guns were used during World War I. The Allies simply had slightly more advanced versions of weapons they already fought with, and they won the war.
The Germans invented ballistic missiles, jets, rockets, and helicopters. But they were too expensive to produce in mass numbers, and the tactics and doctrine to properly implement them were not sufficiently developed. So, the Germans lost the war with advanced technology and the Allies won the war with better implemented older technology. This irony was explored in Arthur C. Clarke’s short story called “Superiority.”
Science fiction is extremely entertaining but can also be used for trenchant social commentary. In addition to Clarke’s commentary, H. G. Wells envisioned a scary future inhabited by two races changed by the industrial revolution. One was so soft and effeminate that it could hardly be bothered to reproduce, and the others lived with ferocity and hunchbacks underground while they tended the machines. In another book, he pictured scary Martians invading. And in World War Z, the zombie apocalypse occurs in the near future and almost destroys humanity.
After the Great Panic that started the apocalypse, the US military decisively engaged the growing zombie horde at the Battle of Yonkers. American infantry, with smart weapons networked with advanced generation fighters, awaited the zombie horde coming from New York City. But their smart technology didn’t kill as many zombies as they would have thought. The infantry rifleman did not have enough ammunition distributed and the proper formation, let alone the discipline to maintain it to contend with the overwhelming numbers—they were defeated.
The government retreated and consolidated its position in the Rocky Mountains. After reforming, they re-engaged the zombies starting at Hope, New Mexico. This time, the US had mothballed its expensive technology that was less effective in fighting low-tech zombies. They armed their soldiers with a basic rifle that would never jam, put them in a simple line or square and then distributed ammunition and water. The firing line that often turned into a square formation recalled the Greek Phalanx, Roman Legion, and British firing line. It also recalled my time in the Marine Corps where every Marine was a rifleman.
The British at Rorke’s Drift defeated a much larger and experienced Zulu army, despite being mostly cooks and medics, because each one of them was a rifleman. The answer according to Max Brooks and World War Z is a return to the foundational concepts of Western Civilization: Intensely trained and disciplined infantry.
New technology should complement what the foundation of discipline found in the so-called Western Way of War . The Zulus were the most fearsome warriors of their day. They had just defeated a large British army at Isandlwana because the British did not distribute enough ammunition to their soldiers. Once the Zulu’s closed the gap, they were deadly and held the advantage with their short thrusting spears.
But at Rorke’s Drift, the support personnel and wounded that weren’t at Isandlwana established a defensive perimeter, distributed the ammo, and reminded them of their duty as British citizens and riflemen to defend the makeshift fort.
Despite what we read in the Iliad and Odyssey, the Greek soldiers weren’t heroes. They were farmers who put on their armor and picked up their shields—they fought for their freedom by holding their place in line. The Greek formation only worked if each man in the line held their place and charged in unison with their brothers in arms. People who broke ranks to gain glory or more kills put the whole formation and battle in danger. That is why the fictional battle of Hope, New Mexico was so different from that of Yonkers—new technology isn’t necessarily the answer.
With a Navy that shows increasingly poor seamanship in steering their ships and generals that have difficulty with basic rifle techniques, the training and influence of the infantry (sea and air) men are being neglected in favor of the next new and big technology. This will cost America in the next war.
Of course, it won’t be zombies, but whatever enemy the US faces will likely require far more than fancy robots, lasers, and dazzling fighters. They need a competent and trained cadre of personnel. As General Bob Scales said, the US needs, among other items, a “Band of Brothers” mentality, “those who, over a period of years, have worked collectively to achieve physical fitness, emotional maturity, technical competence, confidence in their leaders, and an intuitive sense of the battlefield.”
We can’t fall victim like the Nazis or fictional generals in World War Z—we should never have an unfounded worship of technology over proper training of soldiers and judicious use of new tools.