The military is developing new technologies that the U.S. can use moving into the 21st century. Some of these updates are welcome news in response to aging technology and new developments. Others contain hidden dangers and should inspire a great deal of caution.
The current backbone of the military is the M1 Abrams Tank and M2 Bradley fighting vehicle. But these were designed back in the 80s, making them 40 years old. They have variants and upgrades that have helped American soldiers fight increasingly electronic wars, but these are vehicles designed to fight the Soviets in Europe, not for insurgencies or high-tech wars.
The army is developing new models for tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled guns and even robotic tanks. Many of these models are coming from the same companies, BAE Systems and General Dynamics, which respectively make the Bradley fighting vehicle and Abrams Tank. This defuses one of the biggest possible dangers in that the U.S. tries to complete something that is so futuristic that it becomes expensive, doesn’t adequately meet the challenges it is faced with, and takes too long to develop. As Dave Berry joked, this is like the congress in 1790 funding the X-97 thunder-fire musket that finally entered its testing phase in 1957 and promptly exploded.
Just the recent history of defense technology is littered with failed systems that over-promised and under-delivered while wasting millions of dollars. And the F-35 remains the poster child of something so complex and expensive that it might never deliver on the promises made. But the companies that provide current vehicles should have a better idea of what can reasonably be delivered. The new vehicles should have better active protection systems to stop anti-tank missiles, tactical networks, and even drones as an integral part of the vehicle’s systems. These could better operate against low-tech insurgents, but also have the capabilities against the upgraded systems of Chinese and Russian competitors.
Other developments are much more promising. With upgrades to Russian helicopters and an increasing reliance on missiles, the U.S. is developing mobile short-range defenses (MSHORAD); they are even developing lasers that can shoot as long as they have power, and save money on ammunition. These are much needed upgrades that can help the American military and its new vehicles attack and defend in environments that combine low-tech adversaries like ISIS and hi-tech items like drones and helicopters. These new systems should be included in every conversation about potential Chinese technology and the dangers they might pose.
The final danger is that of technology worship. Future warfare seems to be a growing cottage industry with the more fanciful claims often getting more publicity. 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.
Science fiction is extremely entertaining but can also be used for trenchant social commentary. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
Of course, it won’t be zombies, but whatever enemy the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”
America is on its way to developing new combat systems and land vehicles that should take America through much of the next century. There are dangers that include an overreliance on technology, and a burdensome and expensive process that takes so long that the weapon system never really helps. But Americans should be aware of the positive developments like adding mobile missile defense systems and the upgraded backbone of American forces such as tanks and personnel carriers with technology to deal with new threats like drones.