Taking a slight break this week from current events after reading this weeks’ Economist article Who’s Afraid of America?. It was interesting reading since the article which is written from an accountant point of view, which is somewhat foreign to me. How else do you describe something where the main point appears to be that technology is what wins wars, not people. To which I would respond, innovations mean absolutely nothing without trained and motivated personnel to use them.
The technological trap is easy to understand, especially when the person analyzing potential for conflict is comfortable with numbers. Unfortunately for the number crunchers the history is replete with examples of technologically inferior force defeating a technologically superior one. One only has to look at the German victories in 1939 and 1941 against opponents who have not only outnumbered them but also had better equipment. The German armored force had no equivalent of Soviet T-34 or KV-1 tanks and yet they routed the Soviet armored formations equipped with them. From the recent US history the example of South Vietnam should stand out. No amount of advanced US weaponry could make the South Vietnamese fight for the South Vietnamese regime.
The same holds true today. The reason the US power is per-eminent is not because of its technological prowess, though that helps, but rather because of the people who operate that equipment. Prior to invasion of Iraq in 2003, a simple number cruncher would assume during such invasion the US Air Force would lose a number of aircraft to the hundreds if Iraqi fighter jets. The actual result however showed an Iraqi Air Force that was afraid to fly. Why? Because of the human element. The Iraqis were scared and no matter the technology available to them through their fighter jets they did not want to put themselves in combat against the vastly better trained US forces. Only robots could be programmed to takeoff and fight in that kind of situation.
Ironically the article from the Economist argues specifically for that. As if a robot could ever be equal to a human. An artificial intelligence might be, but that point is moot, as I argued before why would a thinking AI fight for us? Which leaves us with robots. Arguing for a stealthy robot is a true numbers game. One paper it looks fantastic. Take out the pilot and program a stealthy airplane to go fly a mission.
Let’s say for the sake of the argument that this actually happens and the stealthy robot takes off on a mission. Stealth by its nature allows the robot to deny the enemy the first step of the OODA loop, observe. If it works that’s great. But what happens if the enemy is able to detect and engage the future stealth aircraft as the Bosnians did the F-117 stealth fighter in 1999. Now it comes down to the rest of the loop. As I previously argued, if a robot is forced into combat against human opponent, it will lose. Ingenuity and creativity, is why conflict will forever remain a human endeavor. There is simply no series of programs that can operate be as ingenious as a human being, unless you count AI as mentioned previously.
Even if we assume that at some time in the future the Chinese or similar near-peer adversary is able to develop a similar level of technological parity, US training and motivation is what will win the day. In a hypothetical engagement between 100 evenly matched US and Chinese fighters the score is not going to be 50-50, but rather 100-0. Just because the number on the paper look evenly matched does not make it so in real life.
The true military crisis facing the US military is the ability to grow and retain well trained, motivated, critical thinking personnel. Without them, no amount of stealth can overcome such deficiencies. The US should replace aging equipment, but it should do so with the human element in mind. The much maligned F-35, once the kinks are worked out, could one day ensure the continued US dominance in the world. Guaranteeing the 100-0 score in any future hypothetical conflict and it will do so specifically because of the human in the cockpit. We can only hope the Chinese will put all of their eggs into robotic basket. While technology does have a role in a conflict, its job is to allow the human to complete the OODA loop faster than the adversary. On its own, no technology however advanced could out think a human in the dynamic and chaotic environment of war.