Huddled in a ditch

Why did I post a pic of me gunning today.

Easy. It has a direct bearing on today’s discussion- drones. John Birmingham’s recent post on his website got me thinking about the damn things.

I have some degree of outdated experience with battlefield drones; nothing makes you feel more naked, vulnerable, then knowing that a Predator or something is loitering overhead. Loitering and waiting on the excuse to drop ordnance on some jerk’s head. Why, you ask, would I feel vulnerable towards friendly drones? The flying, whispering death that made my long vigils behind a machine-gun superfluous?

The picture above is one such occasion; even in broad daylight with clear fields of fire there was always someone on watch. Always. Even with Preds, Apaches, bombers, fighters, etc. flying overwatch. You could never let your guard down at any time, no matter what.

I was hideously aware of the capabilities of our air cover, whether human or not. When aviation assets hit a “target,” well, the results are dramatic. Disgusting. Think about it. 25mm rounds meant for armor hitting some poor bastard with an AK. The list goes on, increasing in destructive power. I always thought about friendly fire, or some horrible mistake. Or of me, putting myself in the enemies’ shoes. Creeping up in the pitch dark, only to be dismembered by something I could not see before I came into range with my shoddy and poorly maintained arms.

So, with almost zero surprise I paid some degree of attention to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where the Azerbaijani forces decimated the well-armed and equipped Armenian forces with ingenious and clever deployment of drones.

I’m pretty sure in these pages I’ve discussed the future usage and deployment of drones, and I definitely talked about it in my first trilogy, the Valley series. Of course, in my original trilogy I talked about drone employment as science fiction hundreds of years into the future, but obviously drones changing the battlefield is happening right now and in the recent past.

Our decision makers need to get on top of this. Immediately, or western forces risk being badly outclassed by future opponents in an asymmetrical battlefield where the enemy could care less about vested interests, political rewards, or an entrenched “manned combatant” mafia. By the “manned combatant” mafia, I mean all the old soldiers who think that war as they knew it in their youths will continue into the future. Particularly vulnerable to disruption are our expensive, manned aerial combat assets, although armor and infantry forces are vulnerable as well.

In my books I have made the case for upgraded or armored infantry, but I am hardly an innovator in this regard. Heinlein wrote of this in 1959 in Starship Troopers, so did Haldeman (albeit on the other side of the ideological paradigm) in 1974 with the classic The Forever War.

I’d make the argument that none of us are wrong, at least in regard to the utility of modern infantry in powered, mechanized suits backed by a companion AI. The powered fighting suit will be the only defense against the killer robots and drones of the near-future battlefield. Nagorno-Karabakh is a warning, a very stark warning, for conventional forces.

And then we can talk about aerial drones. So far we haven’t seen killer drones truly sent up against manned combat aircraft (on a large scale), but the day is coming. We are getting strong hints now. Pilots blinded by unknown actors using lasers, mid-air incidents with drones around airports, and perhaps even the rise of documented UFO incidents with US Military aircraft. Who says that these might not be weapons tests by an adversary?


A combat drone costs a lot less than an F-35, for sure and certain. Do any of us think the Chinese, the Iranians, or other potential adversaries are stupid? I certainly do not. My own uncle paid the price when a million Chinese soldiers surprised the living hell out of Western forces during the Korean War; who knows what evil surprises future enemies will have for expensive and top-heavy Western forces?

They are studying us. Noting weaknesses and failure points. Listening to old generals when they set policy, the tone, for our defense.

This is what I would do if I wanted to dismantle the Western defenses on the cheap.

Use drones, AI, and invest in the best damn missile swarms that money could possibly buy.

How would you like to be in a USN carrier task force with several thousand hypersonic “vampires” inbound?

I wouldn’t want to be there, for the same reason I always hated tanks. It’s not because I despise tanks or tankers. On the contrary. It’s because I recognized early in my career that everyone wants to kill the tanks as soon as they are spotted! Sorry, I’d rather take my chances huddled in a ditch with a battle rifle than be inside an enormous tuna fish can, and some happy a-hole has an equally enormous can opener with a name like “Javelin” or “Hellfire.”

No thanks.

So, I believe the age of armor is nearly as obsolete as the expensive fighter-bomber, for similar reasons.

Bang for the buck, guys. A robot, a drone, and a missile cost far less than soldiers, crew members. And it isn’t just the unit cost. Let’s break down the true cost of a soldier, at least in the West.

A vignette. Do you know that the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs just finished paying the last of the pensions from the US Civil War (1861-1865)? In 2020!

This means that the compounded costs of say, the Afghan War, will not be completely written off until possibly 2175, assuming current lifespans stay intact.

Soldiers, human beings, are expensive as hell. Munitions are not. Think of the logistics, as well. A missile doesn’t eat. A drone doesn’t complain. AI doesn’t fall asleep or have nightmares. These. These are the perfect killers of the future.

It is way past time for our politicians and leaders to figure this out and get their collective sh*t together. But after witnessing the spectacles of the past year (on both sides of the aisle), I have little faith.

Our Joes and Josephines of the next war will be huddled in a ditch just like I was ten years ago, but this time, instead of being creeped out by friendly drones, they will be terrified of hostile ones.

I wish I could give every Senator and general the gift of feeling naked and vulnerable beneath the cruel stars. However, I am not a magician or a particularly gifted or influential speaker.

I leave you with this- nothing is worse than being fired upon and you have no idea where it is coming from, you cannot act to identify a target or respond in any way, and the fire arrives with overwhelming, inhuman precision to demoralizing lethal effect. This is the nightmare scenario we are asking our soldiers, sailors, and airmen to fight and operate in. This is not a pipe dream, or doom speak.

This will happen to our people.

As they huddle in a ditch, soar in the heavens, or float upon the waves. The inhuman, uncaring death will come without a single whisper of warning. We need to act, to plan, now.

Ask the Armenians.

Postscript: This write-up wasn’t an hour old when I saw this:

A headline from the Wall Street Journal, today, 07NOV21.

Strap explosives to an Amazon drone, launch. Cheap, deadly, and the device(s) nearly overcame multi millions of dollars of conventional security in one of the most heavily guarded places on Earth.

Think about it.

Postscript 2:

Upon later review of this article, in April of 2022, it seems prescient. Witness the fight in the Ukraine. In the article above I list the Javelin by name, and it has indeed been used against massed armored forces to excellent, devastating effect. A job as a tanker on the modern battlefield? No thanks!

Western military doctrine needs a serious review. Now.

4 thoughts on “Huddled in a ditch

  1. I have to agree – drones are the way forward, more bang for fewer bucks for starters. Here in aust our govt wants to blow billions on nuclear subs (and start international trade/diplomacy issues as well), and have also signed up for F22 aircraft for similar big bucks….doubtless emerging and current tech could do it better for way less. Of note, I know the ADF is using more drones for recce jobs, right down to little ones for Inf to do things like scout the other side of a hill and the like. We haven’t gone down the armed drone route as yet. Outside the defence field, we also use drones in Surf Lifesaving for things like shark spotting, watching for swimmers in distress, and even dropping floatation devices to folks who need them!


    • Mostly agree with what you have to say, with the exception of submarines. I believe submarines are critical to a nation’s defense if deployed properly. There is an important caveat to what I am saying, however. What good is a sub that gets delivered TWENTY years from now at astronomical cost? The French diesels would have been a good stop-gap, with the prospect of the US boats in the future. Not sure why the sub problem didn’t get handled in in this manner.


      • Getting political here….but it basically boils down to sheer incompetence from our incumbent politicians! Incidentally, the French boats started like as nuclear powered, then our govt. wanted them redesigned for diesel/electric…


      • Well, without doing a deep dive into the politics of the thing, one of my cherished wishes is for our political leader’s children to fight with what they have been given. Not us poor sods. But things don’t work that way.


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