Sunday, March 7, 2010

Is Military SF an Imposter?

Vintage SF Battleship
This shot at military SF from another blog has already caused quite a discussion at SFConsim-l. Thanks to commenter VonMalcolm for passing along this link!

Brief pause for those who haven't already read it.

One response that some commenters on the original post made, and it is a fair one, is that the author is technically correct, but misses the point. War fiction, in fact, is not about war. It is about soldiers. The first Western war story wasn't about the Trojan War, but an argument of fellow soldiers over incidental spoils that boiled over, with consequences on the battlefield.

Amateurs may study tactics while professionals study logistics, but storytellers never waste precious story time on the supply chain. Well, except for the occasional convoy story, or the frigate genre, or any story featuring a battle fought over a bridge or pass or other strategic point of communication. In fact the supply chain figures quite a bit in war fiction - usually because the other side is trying to interfere with it.

I think the author's intended point is not that war stories, in space or elsewhere, should be treatises on Clausewitz, but that they should be informed by Clausewitz - that the wars being fought should make sense as conflicts, not just provide a handy excuse for characters to blow up lots of stuff including each other. In fact it is logistics and similar background factors, including ultimate war objectives and grand strategy, that drive when, where, and how the people at the front of the spear end up fighting each other.

Case in point, Starship Troopers. (I already made this comment on SFConsim-l, but I reserve the right to plagiarize myself.) The disconnect in Starship Troopers is between the nature of the war and its tactical conduct.

Heinlein is barely short of explicit that it is a racial war of extermination. Close paraphrase, "Both races are smart, tough, and want the same real estate." Characters tell us without saying it that the civilian colonists on Faraway were wiped out. Heinlein delicately does not go into what will happen to the Bugs if the humans win.

But the first part of the war we see, the raid on the Skinnies, makes no sense in that sort of war, because the Skinnies make no sense in that sort of war.

The Skinnies are apparently a slippery midrank power playing both sides, and subject to political influence through punitive raids. They also provide an intelligence channel into what is making the Bugs feel the pain. All of which makes perfect sense in an ordinary great power war - but in a genocidal war of implacably hostile aliens?

The Human-Bug War should have been a pure contest for control of space, followed by the winner wiping out the loser. And no third power had motive to do anything but stay out of the way, and hope to pick up some pieces afterward - or at least stay off the winner's menu. But that would not yield a tactically interesting war story, so Heinlein told a foreground story that belongs in a very different sort of war.

Point in contrast, the War of the Ring. It too is implacable, and it has its slippery player, Saruman, so slippery he ends up falling. But he is integral to the story, and so is the military strategy of the eventual winners, an 'indirect approach' straight out of Liddell Hart. The warriors may be fighting for their homes and families in Rohan or Gondor, but from strategic perspective they are all expendable and it is all a feint, to draw off the Eye of Sauron from the one thing it should be watching for.

So really this is all about fantastic fiction 101: If you invent a background, it should fit the story you are telling. If the story involves battles, they should fit into a coherent war. Even Heinlein didn't quite get away with breaking that rule.

Related post: Back in early days I took a look at logistics.


Crotchety Old Fan said...

Interesting and the original post on the car-crash geeks website that I won't name had a lot of fail (like entirely failing to remember how Schwartzkopf used helicopters to pre-stage supplies IN ADVANCE of his left hand swing) but:

I beg to differ with your analysis of the Skinnies in ST.

Far off stage we have to take into consideration that we're dealing with an interstellar war and, while we see none of it, it is not too highly speculative to imagine that the Terran forces need secure bases around other stars. It is also not beyond the bounds of speculation to posit that humans are at the end of a long supply chain 'out there' - one that the Skinnies could fairly easily interfere with.
I've only read the novel about thirty some odd times, but it's been a while. I seem to recall the fact that one reason to convince the skinnies to stay out of the way is to clear the backfield; strategically it seems that humans are not in a position to fight two wars at the time of the story, yet another (good) reason to eliminate the skinny threat; parallels with WWII as well, where the allies engaged in 'regular' war with germany/italy, but in genocidal war with Japan.

Thucydides said...

I have a few nits to pick with the critic.

1. He is right that many SF novels do not deal with operational or strategic issues (although Falkenberg's Legion does a good job, and Major Mandella knows there are some very complex background activities going on in Forever War as STFCOM tracks the Tauran's jumps backwards through space and time to identify the Tauran homeworld), but I suspect a huge reason is many ex military SF writers never operated at that level. Col (ret) Ralph Peter's "The War in 2020" is the only exception I can think of off hand.

Going a bit deeper into that, novels about the strategic or operational levels of war would not have much "action" for the reader to enjoy; having the novel's POV being the General watching the action unfold on the "Blue Force Tracker" would be rather painful. Even in Falkenberg's Legion we see most of the action on the ground as junior officers carry out Col Falkenberg's orders.

2. The critic is very critical of what he sees as the "unsupported light troops" trope of military SF on the ground. Sorry, but the small number of troops in powered battle armour have the support of Infantry battalions and brigades of the 20th century; they don't need tank support because they are freaking tanks (and artillery, and attack helicopters, and engineers etc.) Ferrying vast numbers of support and logistical troops across space would be very impractical anyway.

On a larger scale, there are several references to higher levels of support sprinkled through military SF; Heinlein tells us explicitly the MI can deliver calibrated levels of force, and the Space Navy of Starship Troopers is explicitly said to have planet busting weapons. An incident in the Forever War has a ship's Captain contemplating ramming an enemy portal planet at a high fraction of lightspeed, and we can infer ships weapons can be accelerated to those sorts of speeds as well (although at that point you could dump the ships recycling overboard and still have a dramatic impact...)

3. Although he suggests that writers of military SF do not write of futuristic technology's evolutionary effects on warfare, the powered armour trope does just that. There are other books which look at really SF concepts (The War in 2020 is a good introduction to the next generation of war), but really SFnal concepts are hard to quantify and involve lots of artistic license. Do post humans suffer post traumatic stress injuries? How does "fire ant" warfare work anyway? Will volunteer troops continue to fight on if their weapons and systems were disabled by cyber attack, and if so, how? How would the ability to manipulate things at the quantum level change warfare? Would combat AI's fit into a "Band of Brothers", would they create their own or would they be the ultimate solo fighters?

The one thing I do agree with is the fact that military SF is not about warfare, it's about humans (or maybe post humans), and good military SF is about good characters.

Gridley said...

To elaborate slightly on Crotchety Old Fan, the Skinnies are explicitly introduced as allies of the Bugs, who are convinced by political and military action (including the Roughneck's raid in the 1st chapter) to switch sides. This is an economical use of military force; it is much cheaper to launch a few raids than to exterminate an entire species. The Skinnies intervention in the war may not have been "logical"; but would someone care to explain how, LOGICALLY, the Archduke Ferdinand getting shot resulted in WWI? Wars are often fought for illogical reasons, and in illogical was. Similarly, the decision by the Terrans to subvert the Skinnies instead of exterminating them might or might not be logical... but it is certainly believable with ample historical precedents.

For that matter, IIRC late in the book Rico explains that one purpose of the 'raid' on Planet P is to determine if the war needs to be a genocidal one, or if a peace treaty might be theoretically possible - this was one of the reasons behind the capture of royalty. Logical? Not? Politicians give the orders, and soldiers don't always know why, or agree with the reason even as they carry them out.

Neon Sequitur said...

Thucydides makes a good point here which I'd like to elaborate on:

"Going a bit deeper into that, novels about the strategic or operational levels of war would not have much "action" for the reader to enjoy;"

The focus of Weber's Honor Harrington novels has shifted in this direction, from battlefield engagements to higher-level strategy (and politics), which has left many of its readers unsatisfied.

Jean-Remy said...

The original post seems to talk about ground warfare, while leaving aside space warfare completely, even shifting to the side the space component of the books that even talk about ground warfare. That's in my opinion a great flaw, especially when he talks about "unsupported small units".

First of all the analogy of airborne offensives in WWII doesn't really work, not because there are no airdrops, but because airdrops are your *only* option.

Secondly, to initiate a ground offensive at all, you will need to be in complete control or orbital space. Not doing so would be the same as trying to launch the Normandy invasion with the Bismarck and Tirpitz hanging out by the coast. You thought the fighting on Omaha Beach was tough? try it with 16 inch shells falling on you.

Thirdly, my second point is your support. Since we're quoting battlefield philosophers (I put Clausewitz in that category) Sun Tzu says that all warfare is information. Satellite tracking of enemy movements, while said enemy does not, presents an indisputable advantage. If we're planet-hopping, I would trust the technology is a little more advanced than ours, and that ground units can very well be adequately supported. Artillery? You brought with you guns that can hit a target several thousand kilometers away. Supplies? Everything is dropped from orbit. Fuel and ammo dumps can stay in orbit, as can HQ. Generals are not poring over maps in a tent in earshot of artillery shells, they are looking over real-time imagery screens in the cool air-conditioned CIC of the orbiting Laserstars.

A great deal of armed forces are deployed in war to protect the artillery, the supply lines, the fuel dumps and the headquarters. The number of units engaged in direct hostilities on any given front at any given time is only a fraction of the total number of troops available on the theater. The rest are on guard duty or on rotation, on break in the rear lines.

As Rick pointed out, the professional thinks about logistics. If you have the capability to land a sufficient force to establish a "beachhead" (planethead? groundhead?) you have the ability to supply it. If you can attack a planet, therefore, your units are never unsupported, and the supply chain can't even be cut off, unless the enemy manages to send another force to knock your ships out of orbit and you have a (second) space battle. If you lose the space battle, forget about the planet no matter how many troops you got on it anyway.

Cityside said...

"If you have the capability to land a sufficient force to establish a "beachhead" (planethead? groundhead?) you have the ability to supply it."

Japanese experience on Guadalcanal to the contrary.

Granted, the analogy doesn't translate all that well to space, where destroyers can't deliver troops under cover of night. But it's fascinating how the author uses a extended WWII analogy (airborne warfare, limitations of) to argue how military SF writers ought to give up on the WWII analogies.

But, then, he's also the sort who goes looking for Clausewitz in SF novels.

Citizen Joe said...

I he saying that there shouldn't be ground troops? You can't hold territory without boots on the ground. Yes, you can blow stuff up like nobody's business, but if you want to keep that stuff, you'll need people there protecting/taking it. Now if he's saying that getting boots on the ground is unfeasible, then he's right... for now. That basically makes interplanetary/interstellar conquest impossible. But there are certain concessions that need to be made in order for an interplanetary story to be told. Primarily how you get there. Now if you can accept WHY we go to the location and HOW we got there, it really isn't much more of a stretch to posit troopers on the ground, if for nothing else than internal security.

Jean-Remy said...

"But, then, he's also the sort who goes looking for Clausewitz in SF novels."

And I use Sun Tzu. While the specifics of tactical deployment and weapon usage change, the grand design of strategy has changed little in several thousand years and will change little in the future. Neither Sun nor Clausewitz are irrelevant now, nor will they be in the near or even far future.

"Japanese experience on Guadalcanal to the contrary."

I'm not sure I understand your point. Yes the fighting was harsh when the US attacked, and the Japanese were able to bunker down and fight for every square inch, but they ultimately lost only once the US had obtained coastal and aerial superiority. The fighting on the island was only decided one coastal control fell to one side exclusively.

"I he saying that there shouldn't be ground troops?"

No, hew is disagreeing with the portrayal of planetary invasions that look more like Market garden than Overlord. That is, Military SF focuses on small, elite unit warfare rather than massive invasion forces (modern example: attacks by Navy Seals in Panama during Just Cause over the large-scale invasion of Iraq in Desert Storm)

I agree the... I hate beachhead, because you wouldn't land on a beach... would look more like Omaha Beach one week after Overlord than the last bridge of Operation Market-Garden. However there will be plenty of opportunity for small-scale light unit raids because of the "aerial drop" nature of a planetary invasion from space, and that even the initial landing would not include things like fuel tanks and excess ammo dumps and generals because these can be left in orbit.

Citizen Joe said...

Remember that if you drop something into a gravity well, it is difficult to fish it back out. You drop fifty thousand troops with full gear onto the surface of a planet, they aren't getting off until a launch facility is built. So you drop in small squads to flush the targets out into the open where they get zapped by orbital lasers. Most gear would be abandoned while the personnel get extracted. The Overlord example would require that all the landing crafts blew up after dropping off their passengers.

Jean-Remy said...

Overlord was just as one-way as dropping troops from orbit. Most of the little landing crafts were beached beyond the abilities of their small engines to pull out, not to mention try and turn around and wade back to the mothership with the Germans shooting down their tailpipes.

Any massive landing of that sort is basically a one way trip, gravity well or not, simply because the logistics of it require to build a tremendous amount of momentum one way. The Evacuation of Dunkerque proves that trying to get out of dodge under gunfire is inimical to your health, and that was without the Germans shooting at them from behind the Atlantic Wall.

The landings at Suvla Bay (Gallipoli, WWI) and Anzio (Italy, WWII) show what happens when you *don't* conserve the momentum and keep driving forward. The wrong decisions got Stopford and Lucas sent to bed without dinner.

Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter!

A couple of you have given pretty robust defenses of Starship Troopers, and it is very far from being the worst offender. I imagine the original author picked on it because it is pretty much the ur-text of military SF.

But thinking about the raid on the Skinnies, why not a selective bombardment from orbit? You could hardly toss that 30 second bomb into a room, but that wasn't the mission. Johnny Rico shoots off a couple of tactical nukes. That should have been doable from orbit.

In a way this is a quibble. As a wise commenter observed in one old thread, spaceships always travel at the speed of plot. Heinlein wanted small unit tactics, so that is what he gives us.

My grump is that we the readers shouldn't have to work out why this stuff is happening. It should be implicit in the story, and it isn't quite there.

Meta, that the real issue with Starship Troopers, IMHO, is that it a hinge book in Heinlein's career - the book where cranky, didactic Late Heinlein makes his first major appearance. The story rises above it, but it sinks his later stuff, at least for me.

(I do have affection for Glory Road - 14 was really the Golden Age of SF for discovering that book.)

"But it's fascinating how the author uses a extended WWII analogy (airborne warfare, limitations of) to argue how military SF writers ought to give up on the WWII analogies."


10 points for that one.

There is, IMHO, a pretty unmistakable tendency in military SF to rip off WW II, or earlier wars that have features in common with WW II, such as the Napoleonic Wars.

And I have to admit that this is also understandable, because WW II is still The Big One, a general coalition war of the great powers, all out and all in. Imperial brushfire wars just can't compare.

Jean-Remy said...

WWII is the last Great Symmetrical War, it defined the modern military with the tank and the carrier, and it was a war of Good v Evil.

Wars after that have been none of these things. Wars before that didn't blow up nearly as much stuff.

"There are only 3 good wars in History, the War of Independence, World War II and Star Wars." - Bart Simpson (well I can't only quote Sun Tzu right?)

Anonymous said...

While airdrops are the only option, they could take on a number of different forms. If SSTO spaceplanes are being used, they could drop paratroopers or supplies in atmosphere without landing. If VTOL capable, they could be used in 'air assault' missions like modern helicopters, or, by sacrificing fuel for payload, in one-way missions like military gliders in WW2. Larger versions designed to land armoured vehicles could be designed as water-landing 'flying boats', leading to Normandy/Pacific style amphibious assaults.


ElAntonius said...

It's curious that the author of the article seems to be making two points: that no sci-fi author gets the science right, and that no sci-fi author really talks about the military.

The reason sci-fi authors write about small unit tactics is the same reason they write about space allows for macho displays of warfare prowess on the part of the heros.

In a way, more so than any other eye-rolling piece of sci-fi handwaving, I've always found planetary invasions to be the most offensive.

It's a lot like space fighters, but you can even stretch and squint and make those happen within some bounds of feasibility if you so wanted.

I think Rick coined "why would you put people on the tip of the spear?". That argument applies to planetary invasions, as well.

It's possible against a small outpost, granted, but even a small outpost has to know that if the invasion fails, that orbiting death machine will just slag the place. "If we can't have it, then neither will you". I'm not sure slagging the planet is even optional...we already concluded that planets have a massive defensive advantage, so about the only option would be to nuke it from orbit, that's the only way to be sure (that you eliminated most of those pesky ASAT sites).

So why would you fight back, as a planet? Either you can completely destroy the attacking fleet in orbit, or they have achieved orbital superiority and you might as well surrender, or you'll glow blue for a few thousand years.

The only thing I can think of to prevent such a situation is to put something the attacker doesn't want to slag on the planet...valuable artifacts, earth-like habitability, etc.

But then...what? I suppose the attacking fleet could use lower power impactors, such as tungsten rods from orbit, or lasers...but that will either be totally ineffective or cow the population into submission anyway.

I mean, let's say some martian invasion force arrives, somehow destroys our ASAT capabilities such that we can't hit them in orbit, and then land a force somewhere in the Midwest where scrappy young teenagers are liable to call themselves Wolverines.

Then what? At most they own a beachhead in the Midwest. The Wolverines are going to be inconvenient, to be sure, and their resupply lines will be tenuous at best...they're limited to what's on the ship, and everything else will have to be shipped from Mars at considerable time delays.

Not to mention that a suitcase nuke could really inconvenience their beachhead.

Thucydides said...

The mechanized warfare trope is easy for both the author and the reader to understand, given the extensive historical background we are embedded in. Anyone who watches "Band or Brothers", "A Bridge too Far" or "Blackhawk Down" will easily comprehend the military action in "Starship Troopers" or "Forever War".

It would be far harder for a military SF author to write a readable novel based on the military philosophy of the Samurai or the Bronze age Mycenaeans, readers would have a difficult time understanding the underlying motivations of the characters. This also explains why military SF can mine certain periods of history; the actions of the Spartans at Thermopylae or the march of the 10,000 are based on understandable concepts of western warfare (shock action; preservation of the force), so having 300 troops in powered armour holding the asteroid or marching your force across Mars to safety are exciting and understandable stories for the majority of the readers. Space warfare in the age of fighting sail also makes sense in these terms, while space warfare in galleys is not such a popular trope.

(As an aside, the period could provide a wonderful setting; the Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta made masterful use of trade, diplomacy, a chain of fortified island ports and a small force of fighting galleys to extend a commercial empire across the Adriatic in the teeth of the much more powerful Byzantine and later Ottoman empires. Substitute a chain of fortified asteroids and a small fleet of fighting spaceships and a powerful Jovian Empire and we have a starting point).

Jean-Remy said...

I don't think planetary invasions are entirely unlikely.

The most likely scenario would look like this: Terraformed Mars (or exta-solar colony if FTL) rebels against Earth. Mars population: 1-2 million. Earth Population 12 billion. Obviously Mars can't invade Earth, by Earth can invade Mars. Earth public opinion wouldn't accept an orbital bombardment to destroy the three larger cities. Once the Martian orbital defense force is dealt with you can land a ground force and conquer them. Probability of small-unit involvement: high

However the classic vision of planetary invasion is one of homeworld v homeworld, population in the billions, dozens of megapoli, hundreds of major cities, thousands of large cities, relatively even population spread over the entire surface. Even at a fantastic technological advantage for the invader (invader has FTL obviously and all that it implies, invadee has one rickety scientific space station) the actual ground invasion will be a nightmare, necessitating tens of millions of ground troops in multiple landing sites. If the invadee is willing to nuke its own surface at landing points, you're in trouble. Preferred landing sites would be in suburban neighborhoods or close to major cities/capitals to make the invadee think again about nuking its own soil. If you are serious about invading, just threatening it from orbit won't accomplish much. You need boots on the ground to control territory, not just guns in the air.

Needless to say scenario 2 is very unlikely, but not impossible if you have to political will to mobilize absolutely overwhelming firepower.

Jnani said...

I have to admit I've been thinking about orbital invasions for a long time, and there seems to be two possible scenario's for them to occur. 1) We invade, or are invaded by, a non-human alien force that is frightening enough to get us to work together as one planet, one species, or: 2) We invade, or are invaded by, humans from a planet we colonized.

The first situation is interesting, if somewhat contrived, but the military implications for a successful invasion & occupation are staggering. First step, gain complete orbital superiority, which unless you have FTL probably means blasting the defensive fleet from incredible distance and hoping each of your shots don't miss their intended ship and slag the planet in the process. Second step, neutralize all ground-to-orbit defenses. Because of the success of American and Chinese anti-satellite missiles, I am in the camp that this would be extremely difficult. It's relatively very cheap to make a kill vehicle that can reach orbit, and very expensive to make a starship bristling with troops that can withstand the blast.

Then, stage 3 is the most difficult. If you have achieved orbital supremacy without slagging the planet accidentally, and knocked out the millions of potential launch vehicles that could sink your flotilla, you need to land your troops and then occupy the territory without being overcome by the following insurrection. Modern counter-insurgency warfare means that you need about 1 soldier for every 100 civilians (correct me if my numbers are wrong). Which translates to that if you wanted to occupy earth, you would need a space military of 60,000,000 occupying soldiers (again, correct me if my math is wrong). It would be the Operation Enduring Freedom on the entire surface of planet earth.

Or, you could slag the whole planet up front.

The second possibility is more interesting: we invade or are invaded by a planet that we colonized. Now, the traditional sci-fi trope is that planet Earth, together as a team, invades planet Mars, one unified body. Now, in actuality, that would be like saying the revolutionary war was about country Europe invading country Americas.

The point is, there is no possibility that the planet we colonize (in the sense of colonies that are not like Antarctica) is going to have just one cohesive government. And I am 99.99% certain that Earth will also never be under one Unified Earth Banner.

Rather, it will be more like America invades the country of Olympus Mons, and Olympus Mons is allied with the contry of New France, a protectorate of Old France, which would mean warfare would likely be going on on the ground of Earth as well as on the ground of Mars. And if America also has allied nations on Mars, which they most likely would, they wouldn't need an Orbital Invasion at all. Rather, local Mars forces would engage local Mars forces with reinforcements from Earth, if the Earth forces could get there unmolested by other Earth Forces.

Sorry to ramble, just some thoughts.


Jean-Remy said...

If rambling was a crime I think we'd all be arrested and imprisoned for life, including Rick, and it's HIS site.

As a multiple recidivist I think I'd get multiple life sentences. No parole.

Ramble on friend, ramble on.

Also: very good points. One quick question, actually, the 1-to-100 ratio for counter-insurgency I assume is once you *have* control of the situation, but that the initial invasion would require more? At least you need to take into account your own casualties so that 60 million would be a low-ball number I think.

If you can carry 60 million people across star systems in a single attack, there would have to be a VERY compelling reason to take that planet, and the only one I could see would be an extreme rarity in life-bearing planets. Ironically a war involving 60 million invaders would be massive enough you run the chance of slagging the very rarity of that world... That does make the invasion of a 6-billion-people world something the next best thing to impossible.

ElAntonius said...

And that's my thing. It's nuclear-MAD taken to the nth degree.

As I said, I could see an outpost world with a relatively low population...

One deciding factor is if we start talking about interplanetary empires. Let's move our troublesome rebels out a bit, towards...say...a Jovian moon.

Assuming they are allied with say...the Chinese...and a US battle fleet shows up and threatens to slag em? With Chinese reinforcements years away?

I could see a case for "meet the new colonial overlords, same as the old colonial overlords". Colonies start looking a lot like feudal serf societies...their boss changes occasionally but it doesn't entirely affect their life until something inconvenient happens and they get razed.

In other words, any sufficiently small colony such that it could be invaded is probably so tenuously attached to its parent power that loyalty wouldn't run deeper than self preservation.

Any larger colony is probably simply untenable for invasion...we have to be talking vast space-opera scales to even invade a 1million person planet that digs in. So either they are so apathetic that they let the power change hands, or invasion si effectively thwarted.

In that light, I view total planetary invasion being more the domain of espionage. Play some subterfuge, undermine the host government, and then when your "liberation fleet" shows up, the popular sentiment on the planet swings your way.

None of this applies when we talk about balkanized situations, where major powers carve out borders on worlds. In such a situation I could see orbital combat being a facet, and orbital shock troops might be a good special forces tool.

zmil said...

"Modern counter-insurgency warfare means that you need about 1 soldier for every 100 civilians (correct me if my numbers are wrong)."

I think your numbers are at least ballpark reasonable, but it's good to remember that modern insurgency warfare is not necessarily the only game in town. If you are willing to be sufficiently brutal, that ratio can probably be a lot higher. And if it's a war of extermination, that makes it really simple- assuming, that is, that you can kill the natives faster than they can reproduce. Famine and disease would probably be the best bet.

Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter!

I join Thucydides in being a fan of The Most Serene Republic, merely stealing from a slightly earlier period when the Venetians and Genoese were assembling rival trade empires of fortified ports.

An important quibble about invasion and occupation: There is no direct relationship in the forces needed, because the missions and opposition are so different.

I do not want to wade into Iraq - so to speak - but clearly the occupation proved tougher than the initial onslaught, and in particular called for more boots.

Generally, boots are all about control. We have found out in the waters off Somalia that our shipkilling weapons are not suited to inspection; for that you need boarding parties.

But I think a couple of commenters pinned it down. We don't want skirmishes in the back of beyond, we want Normandy. (As Philip Augustus said to King John). And what we really want is for the hero's personal derring do to win the war, and no piss ant little war either.

Heinlein did deliver on that score: The Arachnids are bigger and meaner than Texas reds, and Texas reds are no piss ants.

But the toughest magic trick is delivering thud and blunder for the penny seats while still impressing the jaded crowd in the critics' box.

From literary perspective hard SF, and all SF, is largely the art of faking it.

Anonymous said...

Why fight any land-war on a colony world? Unless it's very (Very) old, any colony world is likely to have a population measured in millions. Just land your 'invasion' on an uninhabited continent and start mining/farming/exploiting tourists/whatever.

The problem with writing logistics-SF is that you really have to define your society. What are their manufacturing capabilities? What resources do they command? How do they distribute those resources?

The Nazis came to power because they offered the German middle class the best deal. A considerable amount of German manufacturing capability went into churning out cheap goods for the German consumers. Even late into the war the Nazis directed steel, fuel, copper, and other strategic materials to consumer goods rather than war production. This sounds like a massive mistake on their part, but they needed to keep the support of the German people. So what sort of deal does your SF-society have between government and people, and how does that change their priorities?

A logistics-based story is a lot of work, if it's going to be plausible. No wonder most authors focus on the boom-pow part of the story.


ElAntonius said...

Well, one reason I can see for not just landing in an unoccupied spot is that if the colony is involved in an active war against you, those pesky ASATs are going to really ruin your efforts at trying to establish a colony.

That being said, that is one potential route: Power A owns continent A, Power B establishes colony on continent B. When hostilities break out, the war may resemble a more conventional land war, but in a heavy space faring society I can see orbit 'drops' of supplies and occasionally manpower being a huge part of it.

If we decide that access to orbit is cheap enough to make the above worth it (over, say, just using aircraft), I imagine the very first thing that would be contested would be orbit.

Once a power has decisively won the orbital war (and that includes getting to the point of being unmolested by ASATs, which may well take a while), they have effectively won a massive logistics advantage.

Their supply lines are now almost unstoppable...they can launch supplies/men into space in relatively safety from deep in their territory, and land them at forward positions near the front within hours if so desired.

(Of course, if you can do that, why not just land a few very large bombs in your enemy's capital...)

Such a scenario might even lend itself to space fighters! :)

Citizen Joe said...

So what would a realistic invasion be like? What part would be exciting to write about? Can the exciting story be told with the realistic portion as a backdrop? How can you explain the realism without boring the readers?

I've had ideas about a novel (or maybe just a short story) in which the first half of the chapters appear to be short stories where the main character gets snuffed at the end. These stories can be high action (needed at the beginning to draw people in) plus some background technical stuff to get the reader familiar with the background. About half way through, the narrative switches to first person where you realize that the main character is an investigator reviewing the accounts of victims. The story moves on to some sort of climactic resolution, all the while drawing references and clues from the initial accounts (to reward the clever and patient reader). That same model could be used for officer briefings, or detectives, even a historical account for some sort of political thriller.

Thucydides said...

The world building would tend to define what the conditions of the war would be (and thus what sort of military tropes you would write about). Obviously if you intend to write a polemic, then you use that as your starting conditions and adjust the written universe to match. Unless you are Robert A Heinlein, I would not suggest that as a starting point.

Some standard tropes which have been explored in military SF include alien invasion (up to and including the Solar system being devastated by enemy magitech); war between peer opponents, "Imperial Earth" dominating restive colonies and colonies fighting among each other (with Earth being a bemused onlooker or being a behind the scenes manipulator).

Of these, probably the most fertile ground for the writer might be colonies fighting each other. Colonies could be in conflict over markets, access to resources, a "hydraulic empire's" elites need to distract the population from internal problems, a failing colony launches desperation attacks against one with a functioning ecosystem or (most likely) war is sparked by a "clash of civilizations" due to incompatible views on things like law, human rights, the role of the State and so on.

Each type of conflict would require different military strategies, and the troops would be motivated differently as well; fighting over who will snag the lucrative cis-lunar ice market might involve privateers or commando raids on enemy mass drivers, while attempting to seize a working ecosystem for your population (or more probably the elites, their supporters and household troops) would imply a high degree of fanaticism but also some restraint (you don't want to vapourize the only working ecosystem) until it becomes clear that one side or the other will lose.

As an aside I also note that few writers really consider the full impact of modern weaponry. Modern targeting systems have made operating in the open foolish and drives opponents into insurgency operations. Tactical systems are reaching the range of strategic systems of the last century (and some strategic systems are retooled for the tactical battle), and it won't be too long before tactical actions can be supported from half a world away (hypersonic missiles launched from a ship in the Pacific hitting a target in Africa, for example). Ground combat will be a really lethal game of hide and seek, with actions being divided between engagements at hand to hand range (when troops find each other) to neat eliminations if one side can detect the other and bring a long range support weapon into play without revealing themselves. Think of street gangs with their cell phones on speed dial to a guided missile cruiser.

Jean-Remy said...

Hrm That last post is starting to make me think small unit warfare during planetary invasion is not so foolish after all. The defender can absolutely not field a massive tank spearhead out in the open with the Eye-in-the-Sky laserstar because it would be obliterated, forcing the defender (who lost orbital control) to go insurgent/asymetrical, and not in the jungles where he could be flushed out with a comprehensive Napalm carpet-bombing campaign but within its own cities, that you can't nuke (public opinion--if you CAN nuke, there is probably no point in a planetary invasion in the first place: slag the bastards). Neither side can use active radar (anti-radiation missiles) or even large vehicle with powerful heat sources (tanks helicopters)

So now we're in a Stalingrad situation, inside ruined supercities fighting for each city block with low technologies, say LandWarrior suits at best, or stretch it to low-emission powered armor with maybe stealth aircraft support (especially for the attackers.) But this can be very very very ugly.

Jnani said...

Well, according to noted military historian Bevin Alexander in the book "How Wars Are Won", small unit tactics are indeed the way of the future. He makes the argument that tactical nuclear weapons combined with total surveillance and pinpoint accuracy renders large formations of troops redundant and harmful.

While I disagree with him that small unit tactics are the tactics we should embrace wholeheartedly today (we still need sufficiently large numbers of troops to protect the artillery and aircraft on the ground that will deliver those precise munitions), I do believe that with the advent of power armor and longer range artillery small group warfare will be the way to go.

One does need to consider the supply side of that equation though. In newsreels we see the lines of Abrams tanks rolling through the desert - what we don't see are the five fuel trucks for each tank that are necessary to keep it rolling (and yes, those travel with the tank everywhere). So with a fully power armored troop of 8 soldiers (a proper tactical team), how would you deal with powering, feeding, and arming them for a covert mission 2 weeks in the desert, or more? I don't have the answer, and I don't think the military does yet either, but it's going to be more manpower than just the eight men in power armor suits.

Anonymous said...

Each unit gets a microwave receiver that charges via beamed microwave laser. The receiver is hooked up to power packs that can be slipped into power armored suits.

Seriously though, without a radical innovation in power storage, power armor suits will have durations measured in hours instead of days or weeks. This makes power armor more for shock purposes, like SWAT or urban combat, but not long-duration field combat.

That being said, here's a somewhat ridiculous, but very rocketpunk idea: RTG powered armor. Wiki seems to suggest that you can get around 3 Watts/kg of generator.

A little math:

4000 Calories (a hard day's human work) = 4,000,000 calories = 16,744,000 Joules

1 Day = 60 seconds * 60 minutes * 24 hours = 86400 Seconds

193.7 Joules/second (Watts)

3 Watts/kg = 64.5 kg

This is a ludicrous amount to be hauling around for a very approximate doubling of human performance, but it might not be as bad as it seems.

For one, 4000 Calories is the intake of a hard days work, assuming 25% efficiency of the human body (pretty rough guess), we have an output power of around 1000 Calories. This cuts our mass requirement to around 16 kilograms.
However, we need some hardware to accumulate the slow leak of energy from the RTG into short bursts of high power. I have no idea how much this would mass.

Regardless, an RTG might be a feasible power source for light-duty, long-duration power armor.

If short-term storage can be made light enough, a more practical application of RTGs might be as separate units that could be detached from powered armor troopers. They could hold racks of charging short-term power packs, that would charge over time. The trooper or squad could scatter their RTGs over their operating area, probably buried to limit the heat signature, and dig them up to swap out packs as usage required. Units could pass information to each other about the locations of their RTGs so they could share if the need arose.

This doesn't solve solid ammunition, spare parts, or food, but the RTGs could potentially charge laser power packs to allow a unit some supply-chain free weapon resupply.

Michael, patiently waiting for the ramble police

Jean-Remy said...

There's going to be a lot of Pu238 smeared around you battlefield (I assume you're using Pu238 since that's what is used by the SNAP-27 on the Apollo missions, and they produced 3.65W/kg)


total mass: 20 Kg.
Pu238 mass 3.8 Kg.
Electrical power generation: 73 W.

Carrying 3.8 Kg of Pu238 around a battlefield, which I would bet is rather inimical to preserving the integrity of the RTG unit... what I mean is you're going to be blowing them RTGs up good. If every individual soldier carries 3.8 Kg of Pu238, then each dead soldier releases 3.8 Kg of highly radioactive material in the air. Kill a thousand soldiers and you have 3 TONNES of highly radioactive material in the air. If the point of the invasion is to not slag the planet to useless slag, you probably could write off the entire invasion if hundreds of thousands to millions of troops get axed. Oh and of course is an exploding shell randomly hits one of your RTG caches, well...

Anonymous said...

Keeping up the topic creep: I've never been sure if powered armor is really the way to go for ground forces. Sure, it looks cool, but it also has lots of moving parts that are hard to armor. Why not just put your ground troops in up-armored rovers, maybe with some sort of modular treads you can switch depending on the terrain you're going to be fighting on.

And when you're fighting room to room in the colony cities/caverns, powered armor will probably be too unwieldy anyway. If an environment is human-habitable (and hence worth fighting for on the ground), a breathing mask, thermal suit and flak jacket are probably all you'll really need.

Of course, that might all be the easy part. The hard part starts after your troops have marched into the capital, pacified the colony... and a few weeks later their patrols start getting hammered by roadside bombs.

Jean-Remy said...

The advantage of "powered armor" over a rover is that you have to climb out of the rover to start clearing a building. It also becomes unwieldy around sharp corners, which in most cities (especially in the rectangular grids of US cities) becomes an issue. Driving your rover through an intersection is asking for it to be flanked. Then disembarking from that rover to start clearing out buildings will leave both the trooper and the rover vulnerable. Whether it is a beached landing craft, a Huey or and APC, the most vulnerable time for vehicle and trooper is the moment at which you stop the vehicle (canceling the speed is armor doctrine of a troop carrier) open the door (compromising its armor) and disgorging troops (canceling out the individual trooper's advantage to be small, low profile, and able to find natural cover in the environment. The main benefit of powered armor in the first place is to remove that vulnerable disembarking from the transport issue in the first place by allowing the trooper speeds and protection levels unavailable to the unarmored trooper.

I think the main problem is that sci-fi views powered armor as allowing the trooper to carry a BFG. In fact the ideal weapon in an urban environment is a short-barreled carbine. I believe the main advantage of powered-armor is *not* an increase in firepower per trooper, but an increase in survivability not just because you deck him in thicker armor, but because you can allow him to be delivered to the combat area without risking that singular point of weakness that is debarkation upon delivery.

Anonymous said...

To be clear, the above RTG scenario wasn't intended to be very serious. The kind of people that are okay with burying one of the most poisonous substances known to animal life to be forgotten after the war is probably the same kind of people who nuke from orbit.

However, I think power beamed from an orbiting spaceship to a man-portable charging station would make long-duration power armor a possibility.

On to the "practicality" of power armor. I agree that the main point of it is the armor itself. In addition to all the above listed advantages, it gives you more time for target identification, which is critical in a counter-insurgency style operation.


Cityside said...

"We don't want skirmishes in the back of beyond, we want Normandy."

A stand-up fight, not another bug-hunt?

You're right, though, any SF writing is essentially the art of faking it. And as you've observed, the year 2110 will probably resemble the most "realistic" hard SF as much as the present resembles Jules Verne.

But if you want to write a thesis on what future war will be like, write a thesis, by all means. I may not want to read it any more than I want to read Clausewitz, though (I've skimmed it. Perhaps it was more compelling in the original German?).

Good Science Fiction, like any good fiction, is about the human condition. Although, as a far as genres go, its a particularly handy one for pushing man to the extreme (To Build a Fire? Try it without O2, buddy...) examining the nagging neuroses of our own advanced technological civilization (what if androids really do dream about electric sheep?). Or providing cover as you comment on current events (Boldly taking the cold war where no man has gone before...)

I mean, I suppose some people read Patrick O'Brian strictly to get their jack tar jollies off, but what makes them work as stories is the fact that he's managed to make Aubrey and Maturin feel like real, live people you actually come to know and care about over the course of the series (granted, a plausible coherent background and lots of period detail help add flesh to both men's bones).

Plausible and coherent are trickier to come up with as far as the future is concerned, so you fall back on the old tropes because, like gravity, they keep the reader/viewer grounded.

Speaking of old tropes. Ceres drew the Venetian card when I was casting the "Age of Sail" inspired Voidstriker campaign setting I've been tinkering with in my spare time (Rather than go Napoleonic, btw, I opted to start the clock around the War of the Spanish Succession...) They were the solar system's middlemen. Or, they were, until some knucklehead discovered FTL, broadened everyone's horizons, fucked up their business model (in Voidstriker, FTL drives can be used for popping about insystem)and left them a hollow shell, propped up/taken advantage of by more powerful states.

Cityside said...

"the main advantage of powered-armor"

From the writer/filmmaker's standpoint is that it's fuckin' cool.

File everything else under angels and heads of pins.

Jean-Remy said...

"From the writer/filmmaker's standpoint is that it's fuckin' cool.

File everything else under angels and heads of pins."

I'm not sure powered armor is entirely fantasy. Already the LandWarrior project proves the intent to want to go in that direction, making the individual trooper more capable, not simply by improving the firepower and survivability, but meshing him into a comprehensive data network, providing not only precise data back to the big boys in the tents with the map, but giving the individual trooper a far clearer image of the battlefield. That is something generally captured well in sci-fi that uses powered-armor.

Not to mention that powered-armor is a currently valid research and development branch under study at DARPA. Granted there are a lot of pie-in-the-sky projects in the DARPA drawers, a lot of which seem to be taken straight out of SF literature (lasers, railguns, orbit-to-ground bunker-busters... etc...) and it is possible some of those are dead-ends. It is also possible they are not.

Jean-Remy said...

Ah found it

In 2000, DARPA requested design proposals for a powered military exoskeleton. Of the 14 designs submitted, DARPA chose the one submitted by Sarcos. The Sarcos design involves a suit powered by a single engine, including a tank holding 24 hours of fuel, that sits near the wearer's buttocks.

The suit gives the wearer increased strength and endurance through servo motors powered by the engine. The finished suit is named the XOS Exoskeleton and weighs 150 pounds (68 kg).

Popular Science reported that the XOS gives wearers the ability to lift 200 pounds (91 kg) "repeatedly with minimal strain". DARPA specifications call for the suit to allow lifting of up to 400 pounds (180 kg), but it is not known whether the XOS meets that criterion.

The army will use initial production models of the XOS for logistics and supply tasks such as repetitive lifting of heavy objects. Future models will have various combat customizations for firing heavy weapons or transporting wounded soldiers.

ElAntonius said...

Again, mass troop invasions and space fighters. If you can justify one, you practically get the other for free, because the scientific reasons for not doing either are pretty much the same (Why would I put a soldier on the tip of the spear when I've got a massive death machine that can do a better job from a million km away?)

Even the plausible scenarios for ground troops and space fighters are the same: where you need graduated applications of force in complex political situations and fighting breaks out forcing you to use the weapons you have in hand.

RE: powered armor...I'm not sure the powered part is really a problem. If we're accepting a universe with space warfare we would have to have solved a lot of the hard power problems just to get our spacecraft there.

The real problem with powered armor is sci-fi weaponry. It's kind of like the progression from sword to gun.

Powered armor might offer great protection against even a high powered modern day rifle. But...what of railguns? Lasers? The chief problem with powered armor is that armor that can protect against sci-fi superweapons is binary. Either it will stop the attack completely, or the guy wearing it will look like an the only time the armor itself comes of interest is when someone without sci-fi weapons has to fight someone in powered armor.

I contend that the real role of powered armor won't be to increase the level of protection all that much, but rather it will be the source of PUTTING those sci-fi superweapons in the hands of soldiers. I do think the real appeal has always been putting the BFG in the soldier's hands.

Or the jetpack.

Thucydides said...

Near future infantry weapons will probably go to two radically different models (both which are in concept/advanced prototype stages now).

The first and more developed line of approach is "smart munitions". This involves small semi automatic or automatic grenade launchers firing programmable rounds with characteristics set by the shooter and the ballistic computer in the sight unit (often they are programmed as they are flying down the barrel of the weapon). Timed airbursts are the first application, but other applications can be easily foreseen (identify a hard target and program the round for armour penetration, or selective dispersal of smoke or riot gas, or explode to direct the shrapnel in a specific pattern). Many armies are working along these lines.

The other line is to increase the firepower of an individual soldier by a huge factor to overwhelm opponents in a firefight. Weapons like "metalstorm", the AA-12 automatic shotgun and ultra lightweight machine guns like the ARES Shrike are different approaches to that problem. Of course intermediate solutions exist as well; an AA-12 can fire miniature grenades at 5 rounds/second and several "metalstorm" prototypes are also designed around firing 40mm grenades at high cyclic rates.

The powered battle armour isn't really a solution to armouring the soldier (although I'm sure they appreciate the thought) but rather solving logistical problems of carrying large quantities of supplies with you for extended operations (91 Kg of food, water and extra ammunition goes a long way). More developed systems will be able to tap the on board energy to run sensors like thermal imagers or ground penetrating radar which would be larger or more sensitive than "man portable" sets. The final evolution will be to have the on board power to run laser weapons or railguns, coupled with the widely dispersed sensors carried by the other soldiers and a high degree of network access the soldier will have a virtually 3D view of the battlefield and ability to engage a wide variety of targets. A railgun armed soldier might snipe an enemy IED team or shoot at an enemy satellite in low orbit.

This leads to interesting issues of command and control; if a soldier can "see" most things in real time and has the power to engage all kinds of targets, having traditional hierarchies of command becomes very cumbersome (by the time Pte. Mandella is cleared to fire at the target that appeared, it might have moved out of sight or range.) On the other hand, having every soldier become his own general might have unforeseen consequences as well (Sgt Rico just signed a peace treaty with who!).

For the closest approximation to how SF combat might play out, look at the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan; the American troops on the ground were essentially sensor platforms for aircraft and missiles, while the Northern Alliance provided the "boots on the ground". Command and control was very devolved (essentially the SOF operators had a set of parameters rather than detailed orders) so the model of the staff sitting in orbit and supporting operations on the ground with a battlestar or laserstar weapons platform is a valid one.

fizz said...

About infantry on future fields of battle, observing some of current tendencies, it's likely that each soldier will be quite similar to a small one-person carrier group.
Robotics is becoming more and more important as time goes on, and even excluding strong AI (and so keeping the need of having an human in the decision loop), it's likely that this tendency will continue.
So, I guess a future soldier will be likely at the center of a swarm of robots, like a robo-muleor two to carry supplies, a swarm of robo-flies to take care of perimeter surveillance, a couple of drone-gunners, maybe some smart bird-size robots for grenade delivery and so on, and his task will be mainly to supply the coordination and decision-making abilities.
Also, i think that if there're no very strong *universal* cultural bias against it, augmentations (biological, cybernetic or whatever) will take an increasingly important role: already many armies make extensive use of varyous kind of drugs to improve soldier performances, and I'm quite sure that any readily available boost would be rapidly adopted.

Jean-Remy said...

I've never really believed in the "boosts" whether they be cybernetic or biological.

Genetics: The problem here is that most genetic alterations won't show for the first, and maybe not for a couple of generations while the dominant/recessive gene issues get sorted out. Injecting new DNA strands into an existing complex life-form won't do much, because DNA is a codebook for construction, not a computer program that alters function on the fly. Not only that but the altered DNA strand won't spread out until the affected cells undergo mitosis, and it would take a long time for the different DNA strand to affect even a reasonable percentage of the body, especially in the case of a full-grown human. Now you could take a human fertilized egg before its first division and alter it (if you are really really REALLY sure of what you are doing) but then you'd have to be sure that this future baby would become a soldier. I'm not sure vat-grown soldiers are a possibility, unless you find the free-will gene... *cough*

Cybernetics: although we've made great advances there, the biggest obstacle yet is that no matter how complex and flexible the new limbs/prosthetics are, it still takes years of therapy to get the person to learn how to use the new limb. Essentially that person has to completely relearn how to use his limb, and learning new skills is a LOT more arduous at 20 then it was at 2. Even if the new arm is capable of the same of greater force/dexterity, training the person to make full use of such would waste many years without any certainty the result would be better than with the arm he learned since being an infant... in fact fetuses move in the womb, so the learning process of limb usage starts before birth, as the brain forms. I don't think you can ever learn a new complex skill to this extent if you start late.

Powered armor would work much better than either of these because they would work with your naturally learned full range of movement and dexterity rather than try to replace it.

Am I derailing the conversation again? I seem to do that a lot. Just goes to show you can't trust the French.

Anonymous said...

It is incredibly difficult to do super-cool super-soldier stuff with genetic modification. You can, however, get 1st generation effects with retroviral gene therapy, but the same problem remains of learning how to use the modification. As such, I think genetic and cybernetic modifications will be microscale modifications. Metabolizing poisons, breathing with lower oxygen content, improved radiation resistance; these things are all controlled by sub-cellular proteins, and don't require you to grow new eyes or giant muscles.

Cybernetic modifications shine in the brain-machine interface. There are currently clinical trials for implanted electrodes used to control artificial limbs. If we can set up a reliable way for the brain to issue electronic commands to a computer, a whole world of options is opened up. Control your HUD information, select ammunition, communicate between squad members, monitor sensor data, or allocate suit power, all with your brain.

Any macroscale job that you need done can probably get done easier by a robot or power armor suit (conveniently controlled by your brain interface unit).


M. D. Van Norman said...

“Just land your ‘invasion’ on an uninhabited continent and start mining/farming/exploiting tourists/whatever.”

I think this is one of the more plausible scenarios. What would a “realistic” alien invasion look like?

The aliens show up and ignore us but start dismantling our asteroids and siphoning our fusion fuels. How do we respond? Or the aliens show up and don’t ignore us but instead expect our budding spacefaring civilization to do the above for them. How do we respond?

Geoffrey S H said...

The scrambl for Africa might provide a good model for an invasion setting- or the economics of it at least.

Aliens set up trade missions, cooperate with some nations, subdue others, and after afew centuries found they have control of the planet.
Then the process of retaining that control and consolidating it begins, and eventualy de-colonialism takes place...

zmil said...

"But...what of railguns? Lasers? The chief problem with powered armor is that armor that can protect against sci-fi superweapons is binary. Either it will stop the attack completely, or the guy wearing it will look like an omelet..."

How so? Seems quite plausible for armor to be weaker in the extremities, and regardless of how fast a bullet is going, if it hits you in the leg death is not a given, for example.

zmil said...

"Genetics: The problem here is that most genetic alterations won't show for the first, and maybe not for a couple of generations..."

As Michael points out, retroviral vectors can be expressed effectively immediately. There are also other possible vectors for 1st generation effects, viral and non-viral.

You also don't have to wait for the cell to multiply if you target lots and lots of cells, or grow the modified cells in culture and inject them into the tissue wholesale.

There are, of course, many things that are pretty much set in stone during initial development, at least as far as we understand now, but there are many other traits that could plausibly be changed in adults. Michael points out some possibilities. Another could be increased muscle mass in targeted areas, targeting specific muscle cell types, or even modified myosin and other muscle proteins. Yay superstrength and superendurance! Other possibilities: enhanced immune response, photosynthesis, metabolic enhancements (say, eating cellulose). This is why I really should not be allowed anywhere near a genetics lab...(Foolish grad schools don't know what they've let themselves in for, accepting me as a student. Mwuahahahaha!)

The other enormous problem is that we really have no idea how to do any of this stuff- it's plausible, but we don't know enough to say whether it's possible, or whether side effects will cancel out the advantages, or what have you. Basic SF speculation caveats, in other words.

Oh, and ethics and stuff, or something, I think. Fortunately us evil scientists don't have to deal with that crap.

Anonymous said...

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Thucydides said...

Fighting will probably be between near peer competitors, since aliens with millions of years of development and the ability to travel across interstellar distances will either not notice us or exterminate humanity the way we exterminate ants.

The first sign of an interstellar alien invasion is when a gas giant planet vanishes or the sun goes out, which makes for a very short story...

Jean-Remy said...

A lot of sci-fi wants us to believe that since they are alien their motives are inscrutable, and I don't believe that either. Sapience is before all a survival trait. Therefore sapience will evolve naturally around the fundamental need for survival (procreation-food-defense) and since this pyramid is fundamental then there is a basis for understanding. Yes it does require some form of parallel evolution, but unless you believe in spontaneous generation life will evolve from complex amino-acids capable of self-replication, through to single-cell life, then ever more complex forms of multi-cellular life that will adapt to its environment. Evolution might not universally lead to the same endpoint, but it is at least in all likelihood procedurally universal: it starts simple and gets more complex. At a basic level, life is arguably one of the only anti-entropic processes out there.

My second point is, would we forget what sapience looks like simply because our technology allows us to manipulate space and time to traverse interstellar distances? I'd rather doubt that. Our understanding of quantum mechanics and general relativity do NOT invalidate Newtonian physics, they add to it. We don't forget our past discoveries simply because of new ones. Science is an additive process, not a substitutive process. You are equating technological advancement with some kind of "evolution" of a species to be so far in "trans-sapience" that they would not recognize sapience. It would be as if they knew how to make wormholes but forgot how to calculate the acceleration of an apple falling from a tree.

If we encounter another sapient species, and it happens to be technologically superior to our own, either we are lucky and they are humanists and will allow us to prosper (either through non-interference or carefully regulated contact) or they are not and fear the potential of a sapient species to one day threaten them, and so they will wipe us out. In either case they will know *exactly* what they are doing. Unless you crush ants because you worry they might develop thermonuclear weapons...

I think that for a species to ever reach the point of interstellar travel, they would have to grow some humanity. If we hadn't, we'd have self-obliterated when we discovered how to break the atom. We might still self-obliterate before interstellar travel is feasible. But if interstellar travel is feasible at all, it will require the kinds of energy budgets that can easily slag planets. Either a lifeform is enlightened enough to wield such energy and not self-obliterate, or it isn't and does. If a species is sufficiently humanistic not to wipe itself out, they're at least advanced philosophically to the point of understanding sapience as a scientific, and therefore duplicable phenomenon.

Since we are still alive, either there are beings millions of years more technologically advanced and they know we're here and are leaving us alone, or interstellar travel is impossible, or, somehow, no one is yet so advanced to gallop easily through the Galaxy and we might meet another race on a somewhat equal footing.

Or a relativity bomb has been launched and will reach us in a few years.

Isn't this fun?

ElAntonius said...


Well, even a hit to the leg is going to do a TON of damage if it penetrates the armor. A laser is particularly inconvenient here, because if a laser is not capable of cutting through armor effectively then it won't really be an effective weapon anyway.

But lets talk about something like a railgun. That pesky hypersonic round impacts you and turns you into a fine mist, unprotected. Even if you somehow survive, you will NEVER fight again, so from a wartime perspective you might as well be.

But lets say we have some superarmor that can stop the round...all the hypersonic goodness is going to still put a lot of force on you. Since the classic image of power armor is such that it has no crumple zones or whipple shields, all that inconvenient force is going to just scramble the occupant, even if the armor is perfectly intact.

Don't get me wrong, powered armor may be greatly beneficial against small arms fire, but we have anti-tank weaponry NOW that would really do a number on even the thickest practical powered armor. After all, at some point you've really just put the soldier in an awkward looking tank.

Or, to flip things around...what is powered armor made of? How thick is it? I doubt it will be thicker than the skin of a comparable armored vehicle in the same setting.

That isn't to say that powered armor won't exist. I think it will...but really, its main role will be to enable a single soldier to haul gear and weapons that previously took a team, as well as basically isolating the soldier from a potentially hostile environment.

Armor in the real world has always been effectively can't kill a tank with a pistol, no matter how many rounds you pump at it, but a rocket launcher might do the trick. And tanks are rather infamous for killing their crew when compromised...powered armor would be no different.

Jean-Remy said...

Leg wounds being non-lethal is pure Hollywood. There's the femoral artery that runs through there. Nick it and you're as dead as a round to the head. Even if you don't hit the artery you can easily bleed to death, and that's not even taking shock and trauma into the equation.

There's really no such thing as a "good" bullet wound.

Cityside said...

"I'm not sure powered armor is entirely fantasy. Already the LandWarrior project proves..."

I wasn't arguing about the viability/plausibility of power armor, merely pointing out that those questions are essentially moot as far as the writer's concerned. If you want power armor, you can have it. Include some technojargon background, or leave it to the fanboys to figure out how it works. It's up to you.

I wonder, if power armor does become real, will it become one of those tired historical models writers must give up?

Anonymous said...

"Leg wounds being non-lethal is pure Hollywood. There's the femoral artery that runs through there. Nick it and you're as dead as a round to the head. Even if you don't hit the artery you can easily bleed to death, and that's not even taking shock and trauma into the equation."

Another great reason for Power Armor! Onboard wound treatment could be more of a life extender than the armor itself.

I can't offer more than that, I'm not a doctor or medic, and have no idea how to treat an actual bullet wound (apply pressure?).


Rick said...

One of the most surprising ground combat developments, in terms of what I would ever have expected as a kid, is the return of 'unpowered' human armor to the battlefield, where it hadn't been seen since about the mid 17th century. (Maybe lance cavalry retained a cuirass later than that, but perhaps more as full dress than field gear.)

Heinlein assumed that any useful armor would weigh half a ton and had to be powered, but it seems to me that 'power' and 'armor' are distinct concepts, with armor being much more important. It would be nice for soldiers to be able to lift a car, but stopping bullets matters more.

That said, if you are caught out in the open by an enemy with heavy weapons, it is probably time to make your peace with God / the Universe / whatever.

In anything like symmetrical warfare this seems like a huge advantage to the defense, which can fight from concealment.

Like Jean I am generally skeptical of human enhancement. Apart from not having a clue how to actually do it, the ethical issues aren't just ethical. Vat grown super soldiers have the same problem as robo soldiers - are you REALLY sure you can control them?

Our minds and bodies interact in complex ways. What if they turn out to be like the big kid who has no wish to fight because he has nothing to prove?

And humans are nature's pentathletes, all-rounders. Someone once made the wonderful point that very few large animals can walk 20 miles, run 2 miles, swim a river, and climb a tree. I suspect that breeding/growing specialized humans would end up making the societies that did it less flexible, to their eventual cost.

zmil said...


Okay, I see what you’re saying. If the heaviest armor conceivable can’t protect you from damage, there’s not much point to it, of course. This has happened in the past, like Rick mentions below in regards to armored cavalry- longbows and harquebus’s made armor mostly useless. I’ve thought about that possibility a lot- that in the race between firepower and tank armor, firepower could plausibly gain a large advantage again, leading to a situation similar to that in the time between the demise of the armored knight and rise of the tank, only with thin skinned vehicles instead of light cavalry as the primary mobile force. This possibility is even more likely with body armor. I think it’s quite likely that firepower development will outpace materials science and power plant miniaturization, preventing powered armor from ever being very useful for protection.

Anyway, you’re saying that this is irrelevant when you get to seriously powerful hypersonic rifles and such, because the force will smash you even without penetration. You may be right. On the other hand, have you thought about how much KE a hypersonic projectile actually has? A 10 g bullet at 5000 m/s has 125,000 J. That’s a lot. A 2000 lb car going 35 mph has approximately the same kinetic energy (Also about equal to the energy contained in a teaspoon of mayo, for a less impressive comparison.). Plenty enough to turn a man into a pile of tissues and liquids. But is it possible to build a suit that would leave a man hit by that car unharmed? Seems plausible to me. Of course, this is a vast oversimplification ignoring momentum and impulse and such, so maybe it’s bs. But simply going by energy, I don’t see that the scrambling scenario is necessarily correct.

Also, protection is not just against bullets. Shrapnel, blast, and burns are significant dangers, and less challenging than hypervelocity projectiles or lasers. Being relatively impervious to mortar barrage would be a big win for infantry.

A confusion I’ve often seen when discussing powered armor is to mistake it for a replacement for tanks. It won’t protect you from antitank weapons, and it’s not supposed to. Anything armored infantry can do like a tank, tanks can do better- they can move faster, carry bigger weapons and thicker armor. The purpose of power armor is to enhance survivability and, as you point out, help the grunts carry more junk.

Jean-Remy said...

"Vat grown super soldiers have the same problem as robo soldiers - are you REALLY sure you can control them?"

That's pretty much what I was suggesting when I was wondering where the "free will" gene was located. That free will thing would be an annoying little concern when making vat-soldiers.

"Here go go not-so-human freak. I gave you life, now go fight a battle for me."
"I am a conscientious objector."
"Wait, what."

"And humans are nature's pentathletes, all-rounders. Someone once made the wonderful point that very few large animals can walk 20 miles, run 2 miles, swim a river, and climb a tree."

Also a good point. Back before the radio I seem to remember the French Army testing its lines of communications. They tried to send a written note from point A to B in very difficult terrain, at least a day apart at walking speed.

The contestants: Man on Foot, Man on Horseback, Man on Bicycle, Dog, Pigeon.

The bicycle was out quickly as it cannot go through rough terrain. The horse not only balked at rough terrain but it could not sustain a high speed, and was high maintenance. The dogs and pigeons either got lost, captured, or stymied by weather or other obstacles.

Man on Foot won. He was flexible, could be pushed (think of Marathon and the soldier who died of exhaustion getting the message) can shrug off weather, is smart enough not to get lost, understands the importance of what he is doing, can judge the situation and hide.

This is a very delicate balance, and who knows what affecting one aspect might do to the others?

zmil said...

"Leg wounds being non-lethal is pure Hollywood. There's the femoral artery that runs through there. Nick it and you're as dead as a round to the head. Even if you don't hit the artery you can easily bleed to death, and that's not even taking shock and trauma into the equation.

There's really no such thing as a "good" bullet wound."

Well no, but it's a question of probability. Sure, cut the artery and you're screwed, unless you can pinch it off real quick. But the probability of hitting something vital in the torso is significantly higher.

zmil said...

"Like Jean I am generally skeptical of human enhancement. Apart from not having a clue how to actually do it, the ethical issues aren't just ethical. Vat grown super soldiers have the same problem as robo soldiers - are you REALLY sure you can control them?

Our minds and bodies interact in complex ways. What if they turn out to be like the big kid who has no wish to fight because he has nothing to prove?"

In John Ringo's Council Wars series he has something like that. The "elves" are a race of genetically engineered super soldiers, designed to be utterly calm in combat. Only they're so calm they don't fight. Definitely a problem with vat grown soldiers and the like. That's why I lean more towards modification of adults, rather than Clone Wars stuff.

"And humans are nature's pentathletes, all-rounders. Someone once made the wonderful point that very few large animals can walk 20 miles, run 2 miles, swim a river, and climb a tree."

Huh. Interesting. Most large animals can walk 20 miles, run 2 miles, and swim a river, so it seems to simplify to "Most large animals can't climb trees." Of those that can, seems like cats, a few canids, and smaller bears would meet the other criterion. Don't know about primates other than us.

ElAntonius said...


While a shot to the leg is surely less likely to kill you than a shot to the face...we're talking about MASSIVE damage here.

A railgun hit to your left leg isn't a neat little's the lower left quarter of your body exploding. Then there's the hydrostatic shock, but IANAMD so I'll shut up about it.

A laser strong enough to penetrate armor will probably flash vaporize a good chunk of whatever it hits. Again, lower quarter of body = boom.

Or, as I keep putting it...the armor may be relatively intact...but the human inside? Paella.

Jean-Remy said...

Mmmmh Paella. A friend of my father's made the best Paella ev--ooh shiny.

Sorry what were we talking about?

Oh yeah.

What does IANAMD mean?

zmil said...

I interpreted it as I Am Not A Medical Doctor.

zmil said...

"A railgun hit to your left leg isn't a neat little's the lower left quarter of your body exploding."

Kinda depends on where the hit is, I would think (unless by lower left quarter of your body you just mean the left leg), but yes, no more leg, and if it's high up there will be damage to the abdomen. Penetration by a hypervelocity projectile is a Bad Thing. Point taken. And as you point out, one hypervelocity hit means you're out of the war regardless of whether you live or not, which is the most important thing as far as the enemy is concerned.

zmil said...

"Or a relativity bomb has been launched and will reach us in a few years."

Or everybody's hiding because they don't want a relativity bomb launched at them.

ElAntonius said...

Yeah, IANAMD is I Am Not A Medical Doctor. :)

Zachary: Oops, I think I might have missed one of your earlier responses, so I'll lump both your posts in here.

RE: Role of armor. Yeah, a powered armor suit would probably be pretty effective against small arms fire. However, the classic image of the space marine fight is that both sides are using powered armor, and if we accept that powered armor exists to allow more gear to be carried, I honestly believe your average space marine will carry 'anti-armor' weaponry.

In the event that our plucky heroes have to face an armored enemy with nothing but a 9mm? Yeah, no dice. They're in trouble.

I'm not saying that the armor part of powered armor is useless. I suspect a majority of wartime injuries are due to incidental damage than direct enemy fire. It'd be an interesting statistic to see anyway.

But from a fictional perspective, in symmetrical combat the armor itself ceases to be a factor. A war where armies can't hurt each other isn't really good military sci-fi, so we simply assume anti-armor weapons on both sides.

As for the severity of injury...I think even a grazing hit from a hypervelocity projectile would hurt...a lot. Even a shot to the foot is likely to sever something, and my understanding is that the hydrostatic shock would probably kill you. It's the same principle that makes warheads on spaceborne kinetics irrelevant, really. If you hit, massive overkill.

Of course, at one point I was playing around with a story concept where heavily armored troops with conventional weapons were facing lightly armored defenders with railgun sniper rifles.

I kinda stopped thinking about it when I realized the railgun was simply too devastating in the defensive...the defenders had all the time in the world to set up fortified and concealed sniper nests and the hypervelocity nature of the railgun simply obviated the attacker's armor advantage.

That being said, let's not forget that powered armor does more than protect. Heavy weapons carry, enhanced mobility (depending on design), incidental damage protection (no worrying about breaking a leg vaulting a fence, for example), first aid or even full blown trauma care automation, and most importantly...

an army of walking tanks with 200lb hypervelocity weapons is freaking intimidating. The best kind of war is the one you win without firing a shot.

Cityside said...

Rather than "replace tanks," power armor seems like it would be more useful for keeping casualties down in asymmetrical - and infantry intensive - warfare. It's perhaps no coincidence that the step-up in research has coincided with experience in Iraq/Afghanistan.

Cuirassiers - breastplate clad heavy cavalry - enjoyed a long European resurgence in the 19th century. In fact, the French cavalry rode to the frontiers in 1914 still wearing theirs:

Jean-Remy said...

The main factor in considering armor on the battlefield is related to the ratio of effectiveness of the soldier (ratio kills/death) to hindrance of the armor.

Basically powered armor would allow you to carry more armor while keeping the encumbrance to an acceptable level of combat efficiency. If a standard-issue infantry weapon can go through more armor than the powered armor can carry, and the exoskeleton reduces agility, then there's no powered armor and a kill shot is a kill shot. If it takes a heavy antitank weapon to do the same job, then powered armor is valid.

"Rather than "replace tanks," power armor seems like it would be more useful for keeping casualties down in asymmetrical - and infantry intensive - warfare. It's perhaps no coincidence that the step-up in research has coincided with experience in Iraq/Afghanistan."

In a war where the aggressor hold uncontested orbital control, and has the ability to smash any tank spearhead out in the open, then war will per force be asymmetrical and therefore small units in powered-armor will have sway in urban areas.

In fact I have a feeling warfare might be headed this way now. Modern weaponry will ruin the day of anyone caught out in the open. Robots and drones are beginning to show their worth, satellite observation reveals troop movement. The only type of warfare that is remotely effective is urban guerrilla, where those advantages disappear because of the complexity of the battlefield.

Rick said...

I think the argument over wounds is a bit of a quibble. Short of nuclear hand grenades, there will always be some million dollar wounds that get you sent home unmaimed once it quits hurting.

But mostly wounds are horrible, and getting more that way, at least in developed country militaries, because we are saving troops that would have died.

Damn, I almost made an analogy to getting hit by a car, but Zachary beat me to it. It seems the direction we are going in battle is basically throwing cars at each other, weapons so powerful that even impervious armor won't save you.

Basically you have guys armed with antitank rockets. They can only carry a couple, but accurate enough to be worth a dozen bandoliers of traditional ammo.

But even combat between peer powers will probably be assymetrical. (Did someone already point that out? Too many comments to re-read!) What we are approaching is tactical/conventional MAD, where there is just no payoff to a head on bash.

Jean-Remy said...

So basically the discussion started over some guy complaining that all we see in SF is asymmetrical warfare and that he wants to see conventional large unit explosionfests on open battlegrounds (just like WWII!) But in the end it seems we have reached the consensus that future warfare can ONLY be waged asymmetrically because warfare on vast open ground with modern equipment is suicide.

Therefore the very same small-unit tactics he decries are in fact the only viable tactics in the future?

I don't know if anyone from here posts on the other boards on which the discussions have taken place, but does our conclusion (the original poster is wrong) seem to be the consensus?

Michael said...

With all this emphasis on "scramble" capable weapons and asymmetric warfare, I wonder if the primary advantage of powered armor (or any sort of armor) will be camouflage. Maybe power armor of the future has some padding for incidental shrapnel protection, but the primary defense is a shell that has active stealth properties. Radar absorbent materials, chamelionic surfaces that change what they display based on nearby features. I'll admit I'm not sure how the IR defense would work, but it seems necessary, as power armor probably puts out a lot of heat and would light up under thermal imaging.

Thucydides said...

Like I said earlier, the "power" in powered armour is for logistical purposes (carry huge loads of food, water and ammunition), to run sensor systems, high bandwidth communications networks and maybe power electromagnetic weapons like railguns. Soldier protection is important, but (being cold blooded here) incidental to the more practical uses listed above.

Granted, some of the 90+ kilos of supplies carried should be protection from chemical weapons, fire resistance and protection against small arms fire (that large enemy "home guard" force is negated) and general purpose protection against blast and crushing injuries (to save you from near misses), but trained soldiers will know and understand the limitations of their equipment, and most soldiers have a fatalistic view anyway ("that won't happen to me, the other guy will get it"). After all, tankers still advance into a hail of rockets, guided missiles and large calibre cannon fire (IDF tanker commanders even do this with their hatches open so they can see better), and soldiers from every era could still find reasons to advance into the teeth of the enemy more compelling than the fear of being killed or wounded in battle.

Jean-Remy said...

"Soldier protection is important, but (being cold blooded here) incidental to the more practical uses listed above."

I am going to strongly disagree with that, and not at all for any reason of humanism or the "value of life". Soldiers are an investment. They cost money to train. Historically, the more expensive the soldier, and the better trained, generally the better the armor. Farmers snagged of their lands and given a lance do not get armor. A mounted Knight, who spends his entire life training for battle, who is equipped with most expensive weapons of the age (the horse not the sword) had the heaviest armor. Back under the Roman Republic and Empire, city militias had little armor, better trained auxilia had mail armor, and the highly trained, extremely organized shock troopers with a lifetime of service were issued lorica segmentata.

You protect your best soldiers because it takes time, and therefore money, to train efficient troops. Modern armies understand that, and forced military service is fast getting phased out (France ceased compulsory military service in 1996) because it's not worthwhile to have a bunch of untrained people getting into the way of the professionals anymore.

So I would say that armor is very much intended to protect the soldier. It's an expensive of non-reproducible equipment. The rest of the gear can just be stamped out on an assembly line.

Rick said...

The discussions on the original thread VonMalcolm tipped me off to, and on SFConsim-l, made a lot of critical points about the article. Particularly with respect to Starship Troopers.

But I don't think anyone else pointed out the contradiction Jean did - that he grumps about imitating WW II, but then dumps on the small unit alternative.

On armor, I agree with Jean that 'high performance' soldiers - the kind you want for high tech forces - are expensive, and also take longer than most of their hardware to manufacture from raw recruits.

But in a future of asymmetrical warfare even among peer powers, you will also see another kind of soldier, whom I will call militia.

Not (usually) the honorable historical sense of militia, but in the contemporary sense of cheap privatized muscle.

Whether recruited from marginal populations or just marginal individuals, militia are relatively cheap, and you can keep your fingerprints off them. (Blackwater/Xe* guys, at least the ones we hear most about, are not militia but expensive, high end mercs.)

Militia are no match in combat for high performance troops, but they can tie high performance troops down, and if they have any local political cover they are extremely difficult to deal with.

* Am I the only person who thinks 'Xe' is a very strange name for them to pick? It looks pseudo Chinese, and practically an invitation to conspiratorial speculation.

Jean-Remy said...

"Am I the only person who thinks 'Xe' is a very strange name for them to pick? It looks pseudo Chinese, and practically an invitation to conspiratorial speculation."

Because BLACKWATER didn't?

The guy who is assigned to choose the names

a/ watches the WRONG movies and
b/ thinks no one watches those movies.

Cityside said...

The discussion of "militia" and Blackwater mercs got me thinking. A lot of the private security operations in Iraq, a fair number of the trigger-pullers were locals, trained and led by the high $ contractors. Typical special ops scenario, with the special ops guys stiffening the locals. But would it be possible to pull off a freelance job? A couple specialists parachute into some suitably backwater world with several crates of the latest Martini-Henri Plasma Rifles and proceed to make themselves "Kings of Kaffiristan?"

And, when it comes to "Kings," a few highly trained, heavily armored specialists supported by hordes of hastily trained/armed levies sounds surprisingly feudal, no?

Rick said...

Because BLACKWATER didn't?

As they say in France, touché.

You're right, so far they are batting one thousand in coming up with names that sound like the bad guys in a Bond film.

I've talked about 'neofeudalism' in quite another sense, multiple layers of semi-sovereignty, but in some circumstances it could segue all too nicely into the scenario of a few high tech warriors and a lot of expendable rabble.

And in a way this goes back to the original point of imitating WW II, or at least 18th-20th century wars generally. We picture elite troops, fancy equipment, and at least the accoutrements of familiar established militaries, which may not be the way future powers make war even if they retain them to avoid some kinds of wars.

ElAntonius said...

While I agree with Jean Remy that soldier protection is more than incidental, I think the thought was more along the lines of "armor is incidental".

Until high powered, accurate ranged weapons became available, armor was the way to go to protect your troops. Then armor started becoming a liability, because it offered almost no increased protection from the rifle. Gradually it became plates over vital organs, then it was phased out entirely in favor of mobile warfare doctrines.

Powered Armor exists in the same's not that it's a bad investment to protect your troops, but rather that the Armor part is incidental...small arms fire is made obsolete, sure, but in symmetrical combat your going to need to rely on concealment, surprise, and overwhelming firepower to bring your troops home safely.

Also, I think most military doctrine today fully intends to keep even heavily armored elements out of harm's way...even tanks are taught to use terrain features as cover, popping out only long enough to take a shot. Modern military doctrine states that the best way to not get hurt is to not get shot in the first place...and armor really goes against that.

So yes, we'll armor our troops because there is a benefit, but only until the point where it doesn't interfere with the "don't get shot" part. Futuristic powered armor isn't going to be lumbering, plodding armor. Its primary role will always be to increase the mobility and offensive capability of the soldier...because that's going to be what prevents them from being made into chili by that incoming Volkswagen.

Cityside said...

"established militaries, which may not be the way future powers make war even if they retain them to avoid some kinds of wars."

Why wait?

Rick said...

ElAntonius - Ah, okay, I see the argument, that given the weapons that high performance soldiers will use against each other, any armor we put on them can only protect against the equivalent of ricochets, not allow them to stand up to a peer opponent's fire.

Contrast to a medieval knight's armor, which was intended to absorb a direct hit from an enemy knight's lance.

Cityside - Needless to say we haven't waited, as witness Vietnam and Afghanistan. With the latter demonstrating one tricky thing about militia: Because you don't fully 'own' them you can't reliably demobilize them.

Jean-Remy said...

Two responses:

Armor: Even today an Interceptor Suit can't protect against a direct medium-ranged hit from a modern rifle. As best they dull the impact of low-velocity projectiles like pistols and SMGs, and can mitigate damage from older rifles at longer ranges. However armor today is already not meant to stop the impact of a direct hit by standard infantry weapons, but the do protect against ricochets, shrapnel, sub and low-sonic bullets, chips of flying concrete etc. As long as you *can* wear armor without hindrance, you would, because some protection is rarely worse than none.

Militia: Recent history has proven how BAD trying this stuff actually is, not that it stopped us. The US armed and financed the very same Mujaheddin that became the Taliban and Al-Qaeda which turned on us. Now we are hoping history won't repeat itself as we are using the Northern Militia against the remnants of the Taliban. I hate to point out the large numbers of South American and African dictators that were put in place by the CIA in exactly that manner, but Noriega is one. I'd also look closely at the situation in Iraq whose apparent stability is dependent on us supporting certain militias. "Only" about 4-5 electoral candidates were assassinated before the elections this time--progress

Oh yes parachuting somewhere with advanced weaponry to set ourselves up as Kings has been done before. Repeatedly. It has also turned around to bite the Kings in the ass. Repeatedly. Poor Santayana, Cassandra didn't have it any better, huh? Oh and that theme has been explored in fiction. By none other than the Great Rudyard Kipling: The Man Who Would Be King


It didn't turn out very well for him either.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I'm back in town and at my I'll try to say something coherant.

1. Starship Troopers: The POV from a grunt (even in an elite unit) is always going to be limited and heavily slanted toward his take on the war. Sometimes he is wrong or you disagree with his opinions/interpratations.

2. Power Armor: My understanding is that it is to make the soldier more capable and more leathal; being more surviable in combat is just the icing on the cake.

3. Asymetrical warfare in space: Depends...on who's fighting, where they're fighting, and why they're fighting. So, all of us are both right and wrong about this subject, depending on the circumstances.

4. Invading planets: Whether to slag a planet or conqure it; three reasons why you would go to all the time, expense, and bloodshed to secure it;
A) "These heathens must be converted to the One True Path!"
B) "We will recreate the Empire Of Man...One world at a time!"
C) "These poor, benighted fools need to be brought the beinfits of Human Maturity and coverted to a pure clone population...whether they want to or not!"
D) "What do you mean the People's Free State of Cydonia is massing troops to 'liberate' the Pan European Confederated Aries Colonies? Isn't OUR colony between the two of them? Call up the Marines and try to get some Allied troops from some near-by colonies to stiffen our defenses there...what are you waiting for, Christmas? Get going!"

5. Interplanetary/interstellar logistics: Big ships with little crews and long "legs", protected by the most powerful warships. Lots of them. With massive orbital drop capabilities and hugely powerful command and control. Most of your 'fleet' will be logistics/troop carrier types.

6. Militias: Good; irregular forces fighting the evil invaders of your homeworld; Bad; any of them fighting the 'liberating' forces...

If the story is compeling, the charicters sympathetic, and the setting is interesting, then it won't matter what your POV is...a grunt's first person or a third person account of how the generals lead their troops to victory.


Rick said...

War in general is a bad idea, so why should the use of proxies be any different? People keep coming up with clever strategies for easy victory, and these work just often enough to keep the illusion alive.

As an aside, though, the whole Afghanistan mujahedeen / al Qaeda thing is an extraordinary blowback that should entertain historians in centuries to come.

As I once mentioned on this blog, when I first started writing my novel, the 16th century-esque background of fighting 'Monites' in the Middle Sea was remote from contemporary issues, and could be treated on its own terms.

Now I have to look over my shoulder, because anything I say can be taken as veiled commentary on current affairs.

Welcome back, Ferrell! Militia indeed can be freedom fighters, terrorists, or just expendable rabble, depending on which sides you and they are on, and other details.

JP said...

This is going to sound strange, but... I think Frank Herbert did it best when it comes to speculative militaries in big-name SF--with Dune.

First of all the military fits the society perfectly. Not just space-feudalism = space-samurai/knights/elite-soldier/whatever, but rather that the pressures of the Guild, atomics, the shield/lasgun problem and the fragile political system all combine to make a weird sort of overall strategic sense that's lacking in other novels. It isn't a one-to-one rote analogy so much as a studied combination of rote analogies, balanced to survive a few minutes thinking. If that makes sense.

The excuses to get down and dirty knife combat and Fremen supremacy are a little overwrought, maybe, but:

It's certainly nothing out of WWII; the Guild does away with the orbit problem and the overwhelming force problem; atomics stigma and interested aristocratic control of force does away with the glassing problem; it maintains (roughly) symmetrical warfare on a recognizably human scale and thereby remains largely compelling; motives economic and otherwise are clear; and the balance of power is such that small moves rule the day, with the Baron's actions being an exception that nearly bankrupts him.

This last provides for a large-scale, evocative yet personal invasion sequence, though, and so it's good for the plot. To top it off, we're led to love Paul the aristocratic revolutionary and elite fighting machine superman, only to be convinced that he was the galaxy-wrecking horror we were convinced the author wouldn't let him become.

All this in the space of three books or so. It's neat!

Rick said...

No, it doesn't sound strange at all. I never made it past the first sequel (Dune Messiah?), but I liked Dune, and the warfare is one of its strengths.

As you say, it is cohesive - the politics and the warfare go together in a grand strategic whole. It is a world where it makes sense to have Mentat ninjas working for you.

Now that I think of it, Dune influenced me in a couple of ways, especially the idea of a military system that differs from ours in more than just uniform detailing.

And, in fact, that conflict itself could be different, to the point where our whole image of 'war' is misleading. (Herbert was ahead of his time; that is my biggest objection to 'war on terror.')

I may have to end up making a blog post out of this.

Jean-Remy said...

"War on Concept" /cringe.

Rick said...

Well, yes, that too.

VonMalcolm said...

I’ve been missing in action for awhile after having my brain fried by wormholes: Another great post with great comments, though I could have cut to the chase if I had only read Jean Remy’s comment: ‘So basically the discussion started over some guy complaining that all we see in SF is asymmetrical warfare and that he wants to see conventional large unit explosionfests on open battlegrounds (just like WWII!) But in the end it seems we have reached the consensus that future warfare can ONLY be waged asymmetrically because warfare on vast open ground with modern equipment is suicide.’ -Except if I skipped ahead I would have missed all of the great info and one liners (especially the Blackwater blasts: How about this for a new name ‘We really are the Good Guys, HONEST {even though we’re not} Inc.’).

A couple of questions: Could a local populace, say one on Mars, after being conquered, run an Al Qaeda-like guerilla campaign on their world and/or back on Earth -via sympathizing operatives? How effective would the campaign be and what would be done to stop it.

-And (perhaps for a future post) where does psychological warfare come in to play in the not too distant future: when Hitler was done the Nazis were done, my guess is when Bin Laden is done Al Qaeda will live on in some form (and be quite dangerous). The power of an ideology seems to pale in comparison to the power of a religion. -Yet are these motivations or any other (political, economic or otherwise) strong enough to counter an ultra-modern army. I guess soft targets will always be soft, and as long as the enemy can blend in with the local populace. . .

Also, with the military front becoming more and more powerful in contrast to the domestic front and with perhaps with more power being controlled by fewer hands does that not lead to an exponentially increasing probability that the wrong hands could wield that power to design -the- world(s) that they see fit? Are we ready for Hitler 2039?

Anonymous said...

I believe that the question should be "does it matter what form of warfare we wage, if both sides decide to follow the same model?" it only becomes 'Assymetrical' when one side uses one model of warfare and the other uses another. If the Coloninal Militia of New Europe and the invading forces of Outer Amazonia both use small special forces' teams, commando raids, and blitzkrig-style isolated attacks..then this war isn't 'assymetrical'. Using semiautonomus combat robots against 'conventional' battle formations and tactics is also a form of 'assymetical' warfare...H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" featured assymetical warfare as the human forces fought against the Martians' Tripods... The U.S./Iraq War wasn't assymetrical but the U.S./ Afganistan war is.

I hope this gives you something to think about...


Tony said...

The thing about asymmetry is that all warfare is fundamentally asymmetrical. The whole point is to bring to the battlefield some capability the enemy can't counter, even if all it is numbers or a better tactical doctrine. What we think of as "asymetrical" warfare is in reality just extreme asymmetry of means. Likewise, what we think of as "symmetrical" or "conventional" warfare is simply warfare with marginal asymmetry of means, limited by conventions, both written and unwritten.

For example, WWII in the Pacific started out with roughly symmetric combat between the US and the Japanese. As the Japanese began to lose ground in the resource battle -- due in part to the doctrinal asymmetry of US submarines focusing on Japanese commerce, while the Japanese subs focused on naval targets -- the Japanese moved towards more and more extreme doctrinal asymmetries, eventually accepting systematic suicide attacks. The US responded with the equally asymmetric (in terms of no Japanese ability to counter in kind) strategic bombing of city centers, ending with nuclear weapons. Some of the stuff we think of as "asymmetric" in modern guerilla warfare is actually pretty mild, compared to that.

Rick said...

What is symmetrical is our myths of warfare - chariot warrior v chariot warrior, frigate captain v frigate captain, where (ideally) the only assymetry is the skill of the warriors. Because our mythology is largely about warfare as Xtreme sport.

Though, something to think about, the myth of the hunt should be even older than the myth of warfare, and the hunt is inherently assymetrical.

Tony said...


"What is symmetrical is our myths of warfare - chariot warrior v chariot warrior, frigate captain v frigate captain, where (ideally) the only assymetry is the skill of the warriors. Because our mythology is largely about warfare as Xtreme sport."

Notably, those are myths. But even in the myths, asymmetry rears its ugly head. Achilles wasn't slain by Hector in manly face-to-face combat, but by Paris's cowardly (but effective) arrow.

Spugpow said...

I find it difficult to believe that combat robots won't replace troops--armored or otherwise--by the time we're invading planets.

Spugpow said...

Whoops--combat drones I mean. They could still be remote-controlled.

Anonymous said...

It seems as if the paradigm that you are seeking to invoke re-supposes that a tactical bilateral methodology might be omni-present in all species when it is most probable that aliens are non symmetrical. Vision your precept on an unbalanced physical structure and you will that vertipods and jello-beings would have alternate version dynamics in a tactical recourse neo-procedurual combat alliance