How the AK-47 changed the world.
The Kalashnikov's accessibility to street gangs, bumpkins, and tribal malcontents has reshaped guerilla movements, urban combat, and insurgencies—the sort of conflicts that have dominated warfare during the past several decades. The Pentagon categorizes them all under the rubric of "asymmetric warfare," or battle between lopsided armies. It's a term that became trendy in military circles after America's massively funded forces were harried by ragtag bands of young men in Iraq and Afghanistan often armed with little more than rusting Kalashnikovs. But it covers a widespread phenomenon: The resilience of the FARC under assault by Colombian helicopters, of Chechen militants faced with Russia tanks, and of Kurdish insurgents confronting Turkish warplanes can all be chalked up largely to abundant stores of Kalashnikovs.
The Kalashnikov's spread didn't occur in a vacuum. While rifles were being stockpiled in Soviet warehouses and then shipped to Warsaw Pact armies, the Pentagon, focused primarily on the nuclear arms race and the prospect of a tank battle against a Soviet incursion into Germany "misjudge[d] the meaning and significance of the AK-47's arrival." The result, Chivers concludes, was the loss of "one of the most important but least-chronicled arms races of the Cold War." (By comparison, there are fewer than 10 million M-16s in circulation today.) But innovation in the arms industry guarantees that at some point the Kalashnikov's already outdated technology will at last render it obsolete, unable to pierce the newest body armor. The Gun documents how the Kalashnikov influenced warfare over the past 50 years, but what about the 50 years to come? What might be today's game-changer? And will it be anything like the Kalashnikov, or a radical departure?
Some analysts believe that the rapidly increasing use of Predator drones in the years since 9/11 represents a substantive evolution in war-fighting. A Wilson Quarterly article last year quoted an unnamed Air Force lieutenant general projecting that "given the growth trends, it is not unreasonable to postulate future conflicts involving tens of thousands" of them. Since November 2002, when a missile fired from a Predator killed a Yemeni terrorist accused of masterminding the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, targeting him as he drove across the Yemeni countryside, drones have become an integral component of America's arsenal against al-Qaida. Last month alone there were at least 22 drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas, the most ever in a single month. More than 40 other countries are now working to develop technologies for their own unmanned aerial vehicles.
Without a doubt, the combination of precision and relatively low risk makes Predators and their kin appealing weapons for well-financed national armed forces. Drones certainly make war easier for the United States. But it's difficult to imagine them ever becoming an "everyman" sort of weapon or one that alters cultures and societies. In Africa, the AK-47 has undermined long-standing power dynamics; a child is only a child—innocent, naive, harmless—until he or she is pointing a Kalashnikov in your face. Similarly, protesters are simply disgruntled folks until they have their hands on cheap weapons.
If there's one contemporary weapon that blends the battlefield advantages and subversive power of the Kalashnikov, it just might be the suicide bomb. A "martial leveler"? Check. Inexpensive, effective, and democratic in its ease of use? Check. A weapon that's changing commonly accepted "rules" of war? Check, check. The comparison isn't perfect, of course, but that only confirms Chivers' very point about the Kalashnikov's uniqueness. It's quite possible that when they're gone, there won't be "the next" Kalashnikov. There may, in fact, never be another gun like it—one so resistant to obsolescence, so reliable in the field, and so revolutionary in its impact.
Nicholas Schmidle is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of To Live or to Perish Forever. He is a 2010 International Reporting Project fellow in Russia.