Warfare, like many aspects of human activity, has evolved in response to society’s moral and technological advancements. How many wars were fought without the protections of the Geneva Conventions? Civil War battles were typified by opposing lines of soldiers firing into each other’s ranks until one side withdrew. No general would fight that way today. Compare Union Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea with Gen. David H. Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine employed in Iraq and Afghanistan where “the people are the prize.”
Military doctrine or “how we fight” as it evolves in the future will be influenced by two major forces: the desire to minimize casualties and an ever increasing reliance on technology.
Despite an all-volunteer military and the narrowing slice of American society making up that military, the public at large shows an increasing antipathy toward enduring the dead and injured resulting from armed conflict. This was not always so. In 1862 at the battle of Antietam, thousands of Americans died in one day, yet the Civil War lasted three more years. On June 7, 1969, Life magazine published the photographs of each of the 242 Americans killed in Vietnam the previous week. The Vietnam War went on six more years, taking a toll of 58,000 Americans. Imagine the public’s reaction today if we were losing 1,000 men and women per month in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, Army officers are now evaluated on “force protection,” and it has become a critical part of military planning and operations.
Nowhere is the American affinity for technology in warfare more decisively demonstrated than in Operation Desert Storm of the first Gulf War. Gens. Colin L. Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. were able to take down Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in a matter of hours thanks to their critical weapons initially conceived and developed during the Carter administration a decade earlier. The cruise missile, the Abrams main battle tank and the Apache helicopter demonstrated conclusively that technology in well-trained hands and integrating all branches of the military can achieve impressive results.
If we combine these two elements, casualty reduction and technology, how should we organize, train and equip the force that will defend the homeland and our interests in the future? The answer has to be Predator-like remotely controlled and robotics weapons. Imagine the land and sea equivalent of the Predator system that permits the destruction of al Qaeda leaders in North Waziristan and is piloted by an Air Force major in Arizona who has dinner with the wife and children every night; lots of technology and no U.S. casualties.
The Army is not far behind. The Stryker vehicle is the workhorse of the Army. Armored and agile, it moves an 11-man squad quickly around the battlefield. With 10 variants and 25 million combat miles it is a proven system. Indeed, Col. Marc Ferraro, commander of the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the Pennsylvania National Guard, recently returned from a nine-month combat tour in Iraq and calls the Stryker his “vehicle of choice. I was outside the wire every day I was in Iraq, but I would only leave in a Stryker.”
The Stryker could be remotely controlled, freeing up the crew for combat. It could be on call for resupply, evacuation of casualties or extraction of the squad. Outfitted with an array of sensors and video capability linked to a satellite, it could provide unlimited ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) without anyone inside, thus freeing up the squad for a higher and better use. Or it could be used as a decoy to tempt those who detonate roadside bombs.
Also under development is an unmanned ground autonomous mobility vehicle that could have myriad uses, all of which would eliminate causalities and free up soldiers for those tasks best performed by humans. Beyond the remotely controlled vehicle is the autonomous vehicle that operates on a combination of Global Positioning System, FLIR (forward looking infrared) ground surveillance radars and sensors of varying types. Such a platform could find its own route to a predetermined point, conduct a mission such as surveying a road junction with real-time uplinked video feeds and then return; lots of technology and no casualties.
No longer would it be necessary to risk a Special Forces team on such a mission. Ideally, every Army and Marine Corps ground vehicle of the future will be a hybrid: operated conventionally by a driver, operated remotely from a secure location (think of video race-car games) or autonomously. The system would be plug and play, like inserting an iPod in its docking station. All modes would then be available with the flick of a switch, say, if the driver is incapacitated.
From a maritime perspective, the potential is also limitless. The Navy has wisely developed an unmanned autonomous antisubmarine craft ideally suited to that mission - and it doesn’t complain, get sick or go AWOL and has no dependents. Applications for this combination of technologies is limited only by the imagination of the combat developer. A Predator-like maritime platform disguised as a log could find its way up a river or observe, record and transmit the sound signature of every vessel entering or leaving an enemy port without risking a precious Navy SEAL platoon. Remotely controlled autonomous platforms have great potential within special operations because they can relieve these highly trained and overburdened warriors from routine missions in order to concentrate on those requiring uniquely human capabilities.
The American way of war in the future will employ the maximum use of technology while safeguarding our personnel to the greatest extent possible. The Buck Rogers Death Ray From Above will soon be a reality.
• Retired Maj. Gen. Tim Haake is a Washington lawyer who served on active and reserve duty in special operations for 36 years.