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.

An Air Force drone pilot. Click image to expand.
An Air Force drone pilot

Is the age of robotic warfare upon us? Are cyborg insects with lethal stingers about to raid the globe's battlefields? Elsewhere in Slate, P.W. Singer and Brad Allenby argue that it is and they are.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist, is the author of The Wizards of Armageddon, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, and, most recently, 1959: The Year Everything Changed. He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com 

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.

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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.

Cool.

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.