Cool, high-tech weapons don't win wars, people do.

Military analysis.
May 19 2010 11:48 AM

Wonder Weapons Don't Win Wars

Cool high-tech devices have changed the face of modern warfare but not its nature.

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Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proclaimed the campaign a vindication of the "revolution in military affairs" and "transformation."

But he spoke too quickly. First, as we have since learned all too well, the Taliban were not vanquished. And as we departed for Iraq, they gradually returned. It's not that we won the battle but didn't win the war; it's that we didn't finish the war.

Second, and more to the point, the wonder weapons did not win the battles, much less the war, all by themselves. After the first few JDAM strikes, the Taliban learned how to take shelter and apply camouflage so the drones' cameras couldn't see them. Some of the fiercest firefights came in the spring of 2002, months after Rumsfeld had declared victory and moved on.

The JDAMs, in retrospect, played the same role that artillery strikes and combat air support had always played—true, with much greater accuracy and speed. But it was still ground troops—human beings wearing boots on the ground—that had to go in and close the battle.

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What has happened, in fact, is not so much a revolution in warfare as a revolution in the U.S. Air Force. Far from fulfilling the dream of wars waged far above the crude skirmish of terrestrial battle, the age of the drones has brought back the days when the chief mission of the Air Force was to support troops on the ground.

Nor are these weapons in any sense "autonomous robots," as Allenby puts it. In fact, the Air Force has gone back to calling them "remotely piloted vehicles" because they've discovered that these systems require far more personnel than they'd anticipated.

There's no pilot in the plane, but that's the only unmanned piece of the loop. Right now, 108 Predators, Reapers, and Global Hawks—the RPVs that do most of the work—are flying 42 combat air patrols (known as CAPs) around the clock. (By the end of next year, they'll do 50; by the end of 2013, they'll do 65.) Three RPVs are required for each CAP: one to loiter over the area of combat, one to fly toward the area, and one to fly back to a maintenance depot.

Back at the ground-control station at Creech, Nev., each CAP requires 43 military personnel rotating in three shifts. They include seven pilots, seven system operators, and five mission coordinators. Their work is backed by an intelligence unit at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., consisting of (again, for each CAP) 66 people, including 34 video crewmembers and 18 intelligence analysts. (These numbers come from Air Force public affairs.)

The day may come when a machine analyzes the video images, distinguishes friend from foe, decides when to shoot, and pulls the trigger. But that day is not here by any stretch of the imagination. And trends in U.S. Army and Marine doctrine are pushing that day farther into the future.

Counterinsurgency campaigns, such as those in Afghanistan (and, since 2007, in Iraq), are essentially about ground troops who don't just fight insurgents but get to know the local leaders, cultivate intelligence sources, find out people's needs, then (at least in theory) help to provide services through joint civilian-military teams.