Wonder Weapons Don't Win Wars
Cool high-tech devices have changed the face of modern warfare but not its nature.
Let me raise a skeptical eyebrow.
True, unmanned aerial vehicles—some call them "drones"—are increasingly roaming the skies over Afghanistan and Pakistan, armed with high-res cameras and extremely accurate missiles, guided, aimed, and fired by "joystick pilots" watching screens and pushing buttons from "ground control stations" back at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.
Last year, for the first time, the U.S. Air Force trained more personnel to man these remote-control joysticks than to pilot combat aircraft from inside the cockpits.
The Army has its swarms of mini-cams, too, attached to the tip of projectiles, peeking around corners or inside buildings to see whether enemy combatants are lurking. They also have R2D2s sniffing out, and disarming, roadside bombs.
But these devices have changed only the face of modern warfare, not its nature. They're tactical tools, not strategic transformers. They are firmly under human control. And to the extent that the U.S. military continues to focus more on counterinsurgency than on traditional modes of combat, this will remain the case emphatically.
A little historical background. The concept for these high-tech weapons was hatched in the mid-1970s, when the Army and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency were scanning the drawing boards for new technologies that might help NATO stave off a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. A defense guru named Albert Wohlstetter, working on contract for DARPA, found two promising possibilities: a pair of "remotely piloted vehicles"—at the time, primitive model airplanes powered by modified lawn mower engines, able to loiter for two hours while carrying a 28-pound payload—and a bunch of new sensors, based on lasers, millimeter waves, or the signals from the (then-fledgling) global positioning satellite system that could guide a missile to within a few feet of its target.
Wohlstetter came up with the idea of fusing the two projects together. In a (since-declassified) report written in 1975, he proposed putting a camera inside the belly of the RPV; it would scan the ground along the flight path and transmit the images back to a base, where an officer would steer the vehicle toward the target by remote control. The RPV could also carry a bomb—fired by the same remote officer—that would be guided to the target by the new sensors.
This idea became the Army's Assault Breaker program and, over the next quarter-century, the basis for several Army, Navy, and Air Force systems, including the drones flying over Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere today.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of an Air Force drone pilot by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.