There is always a temptation to think that a new technology will be able to replace men—or, more broadly, the human factor—in war. The progressive march of technology, from the crossbow to the H-bomb as the title of Bernard and Fawn Brodie’s book put it, often seems to point to a diminishing importance of men.[1] The exponential increase in modern firepower makes armies vulnerable, while the lethality in the hands of a few may indicate that super empowered individuals or pauper countries can be strategic actors of consequential importance.[2]

Similarly, the rapid development, and recent introduction on the battlefield, of unmanned drones, including some allegedly incorporating AI, is raising questions about the necessity of human presence in particular roles and more generally on the battlefield.

It is entirely plausible that some weapons platforms will gradually lose their effectiveness and be replaced by more advanced, and different, ones. The galley gave way to the sturdier galleon; the crossbow was replaced by the arquebus; the cavalry charge could not survive the thrust of armored forces. Similarly, in the near future, the manned airplane may prove to be an overly expensive platform, whose tasks of delivering firepower or achieving air superiority may be achieved more efficiently and at lower risk by unmanned drones. The F35 is expected to be in service for about 30 years, but its usefulness may be zero as a plethora of drones is constantly updated and developed.

The evolutionary change in weapons platforms, however, should not lead us to expect future wars to be “unmanned.” To do so would misunderstand the nature of war and would result in a military force that may be lethal but politically irrelevant.

Three reasons why manpower will remain crucial are worth considering.

First, as Marshal Pétain allegedly said, the “guns win the fight, and then the infantry occupies the ground.”[3] Or, more pithily, “artillery conquers, infantry occupies.” Unmanned platforms can deliver firepower at precise locations, even aided by AI to target specific individuals or assets in a changing environment. But targeting is not the same as winning; destroying is not the same as exercising political control. The latter requires the ability to control people and occupy land, and for that manpower is essential. As Mao wrote, “The theory that ‘weapons decide everything’… constitutes a mechanical approach to the question of war and a subjective and one-sided view… Weapons are an important factor in war but not the decisive factor; it is people, not things, that are decisive.”[4] An army of none, even if supplied with abundant AI-run weapons, can’t win.

The second reason why manpower will continue to be central is that it is difficult to conceive of a computational ability of autonomous drones that could match the prudential judgment of well-trained and experienced frontline soldiers. The anecdotal evidence from the ongoing war in Ukraine points to a rapid rise of first-person view (FPV) drones, with an operator behind them, indicating that the available AI is incapable of matching human decision-making. Even assuming an exponential improvement in AI capabilities, it is unlikely that man’s situational awareness and moral judgement will be replaced. To believe that AI can replace the judgment of soldiers is akin to believing in online teaching replacing in-person discussions.[5]

Finally, the third reason why manpower will remain critical is that wars remain clashes of nations or political groups. Victory is decided not merely by lethality but also by national will. It is interesting, perhaps even puzzling, that as technology advances into the unmanned era frontline nations are at the same time considering a return to some form of conscription. Mass trumps computer-driven precision. And societal involvement in the defense of a nation (or, in case of aggressive intent, such as in the case of Russia, in the pursuit of an invasion of a neighbor) cannot be substituted with unmanned technology.

Technology tweaks lethality, the amount, and the precision of firepower, but in the end can never remove the need for men.

[1] Bernard Brodie and Fawn M. Brodie, From Crossbow to H‑Bomb: The Evolution of the Weapons and Tactics of Warfare (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973).

[2] Jakub Grygiel, Return of the Barbarians (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[3] Charles Baussan, “Marshal Petain,” Studies, Vol. VII (1918), p. 586.

[4] Mao Zedong, “On Portracted War,” in Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1965), Vol. 2, pp. 143-44.

[5] Jakub Grygiel, “The MOOC Fraud,” The American Interest (December 2013).

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