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Drones and the Changing Battlescape

Drones and the Changing Battlescape

One of the lesser-known facts of America’s first Civil War was the dramatic impact of the minie ball munition. Rifled muskets could send 50-caliber musket balls a little farther then a smooth-bored musket, but the effective range was still around 100 yards. The advent of the bullet-shaped minie ball, however, more than quadrupled the effective range.

This slight alteration in the shape of projectiles changed the face of warfare.

The 18th century had been dominated by Napoleonic tactics, which were themselves built upon a tradition of warfare wherein the primary mode of ranged-combat was archery. The majority of the bloodshed happened in close-quarters, where troops hacked at each other with swords and spears, and where the power of the charge was often the force-multiplying factor that decided battles. Much of the Civil War was fought with this cultural history of warfare in mind.

Only General Jackson seemed to immediately understand the strategic significance of the minie ball, and its favoring of defensive fortifications. Whereas a classical charge might suffer one, maybe two volleys of effective fire before meeting the opposing line, a defensive position now had the speed and distance to hit a charging line of infantry with four, five, maybe six volleys of effective fire.

For those wondering why Gettysburg was such a blood-bath, this is why: outmoded Napoleonic theories of attack met with modernized defensive positions.

The minie ball changed warfare completely.

And I think we might come to see something similar with economically-scaleable drones.

Sun Tzu famously said that “all warfare is based on deception,” and throughout all of history, the chief implement of military victory was not weaponry, but information. Related to the minie ball, it is said that Jackson actually intentionally weakened his fortifications, at least in appearance, in order to draw attacks from enemies who might otherwise have been more tepid. In the book of Judges, Gideon defeats the Midianites by arming his forces with two torches each, as well as pots and pans, so as to appear much larger at night than they actually were. Information and misinformation are the classical tools of military success, so much so that they have come to define warfare itself in what is — even in official communication — being called “fifth generation warfare,” which we may think of as the psychological tug-of-war waged over the legitimacy behind the use of physical force.

(When cops use physical force to stop people filming them, we can think of this as a 3rd-generation war response to a 5th-generation war attack).

Information has always been key to effective war-fighting, and drones are extraordinarily effective tools for gathering reliable, real-time information. And in a world where a decent rifle will cost you between $400 and $3,000 (let alone the other logistics relating to a soldier: ammunition, armor, food, water, communication, et cetera), drones can be had for as little as $70.

How could drones not change the face of combat?

In their handbook on 4th Generation Warfare, William Lind and Gregory Thiele make the argument that “Light Infantry” will gradually replace “Heavy Infantry.” Heavy infantry can be thought of as purpose-trained and equipped infantry that require substantive logistical support to maintain in the field (e.g., 0311 Marine Infantry battalion), whereas light infantry are lightly-equipped, multipurpose soldiers that are more flexible and independent, both in terms of logistical support and in position in the Chain of Command (e.g., WWII paratroopers, Green Berets). Both kinds of infantry require intelligence to operate effectively, but given the more cohesive, top-down direction of heavy infantry, and the greater logistical support they are likely to benefit from, heavy infantry can generally rely upon satellite information and more bureaucratic sources of intelligence, which tend to be more expensive and entrenched in existing infrastructure. But light infantry — operating either without existing infrastructure, or sufficiently outside of its reach — will have to rely upon cheaper, simpler, means. Traditionally, this is accomplished via human intelligence, but quality human intelligence takes a lot of time to develop, and is often geographically static.

Drones provide a cheap and immediately accessible source of real-time visual information that seems perfectly suited to light infantry operations, which Lind and Thiele believe will be more prevalent over the next several decades.

One amusing side-effect we might see of this transformation is the return of the most derided of all firearm platforms in the American gun-culture: the shotgun.

Shotguns with bird-length barrels might suddenly have a place again in platoon-sized groups of light-infantry. Armed with either specialty anti-drone rounds or regular bird-shot, the much-maligned 12-gauge would have a unique and important role in downing enemy drones. It is significantly cheaper and more versatile in a combat setting than most electronic or radio-based drone-downing technology.

Who knows what the future will hold for certain: we are in uncharted territory with the advent of the internet, and 5th-Generation War is being floated not merely as an intermediary between peace and outright combat, but perhaps as a replacement for the combat itself. This assumption, however, would hang upon the stability of the public’s moral assumptions about the differences between war and peace. As the advent of 5th Generation Warfare and its signs become public knowledge, I think that this assumption may prove less reliable than it currently feels, and the line (in public perception) between a propaganda campaign and setting fire to a local building may fade away entirely. In such a world, 4th-generation tactics and real light infantry in the physical world — and not merely in the metaphorical sense of cyberspace — may indeed prove invaluable after all. With it, drone surveillance will likely change the way conflict is approached and engaged in all variety of ways.

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