The machine gun – in the form of the hand-cranked, wheeled Gatling gun – was invented in 1861 but barely used in the American Civil War. An improved version of the concept – the self-powered Maxim gun – demonstrated its devastating effect in battle against African warriors in the 1890s. But the generals of the day didn't see machine guns as serious weapons of modern warfare until they started slaughtering troops wholesale on the Western Front in World War I.
Custer could have had, but didn't want, Gatling guns at Little Big Horn
That same form of stereotyping – seeing unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) and other unmanned systems as useful only for counterinsurgency (COIN) operations – may hinder their wider deployment in the future, says Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“It's a common mistake we see in history: judging a technology only by its early capability,” Singer, head of the Washington think tank's 21st Century Defense Initiative, told an unmanned systems industry gathering recently. He was part of a panel discussion at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's annual review of U.S. government plans for unmanned air, ground and maritime system programs. The discussion topic tackled what barriers existed for deploying robot systems.
Singer and other speakers noted the expected Pentagon budget downturn that is likely to squeeze out funding for drones and robots while politically popular manned programs continue. But the Brookings scholar also raised the specter of keeping unmanned systems in the COIN pigeonhole.
Within the Air Force, where top strategy thinkers have come to a begrudging acceptance of unmanned aircraft, Singer says. “They're having a hard time visualizing UAS outside the context of counterinsurgency – and a fairly open airspace – and beyond the capabilities of” remotely operated aircraft like the Predator. “It's getting difficult [for them] to see that next step,” said Singer, whose most recent book is “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.”
Like the early machine guns and tanks “the overall promise of the new technology is usually judged by, and thus limited by, the original context in which it was used,” said Singer. Machine guns were seen as O.K. for small colonial wars with indigenous peoples but not as a game changer in wars “between 'civilized powers,'” he said. That was until machine guns cut down tens of thousands of British soldiers at the Somme in 1916.
Likewise, between the world wars most U.S. military planners were still unimpressed by tanks – which debuted on theWestern Front in 1916. As late as August 1939 the official U.S. Army magazine had two articles that “extolled the Polish horse cavalry and said 'this is a model for us because we face a similar strategic situation and we have a similar resource,'” Singer said.
A month later Hitler's army, led by fast-moving tanks, invaded and eventually crushed Poland.
But just like the machine gun and tank which also faced tough budgetary environments in their infancies, Singer says he doesn't think “these combined issues are going to prevent the future of this technology, but they may delay our effective adaptation to it.”
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